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Not Brentford

Fatal barge accident at Kew Bridge, 1899

Dawn Trafford sent a newspaper account that describes the deaths of Emma Holford and her niece in summer 1899.

Dawn adds: Emma was the wife of George Holford and she bought George out of the army. He served in India, he went on to marry my great gran Eliza Buckler, also from a barge family from Chilvers Coton, near Nuneaton.

This first account reports the inquest findings; Dawn mentioned there were other news reports available from the British Newspaper Archive (also accessible through Findmypast), and a second report follows which has more detail. At the end are some notes and links.

Richmond Herald 8 Jul 1899

THE FATAL BARGE ACCIDENT - The dead bodies of Mrs Emma Holford, aged 35 and Caroline Johnson, aged 10, both living at Brentford, who were drowned in a barge accident at Kew Bridge last week, were recovered off Brentford early this week, and the inquest was held at Brentford on Tuesday, before Dr Gordon Hogg.

The deceased woman and girl were accidentally knocked off a barge on the morning of the 29th ult. As the barge was going up river the steersman found that the Thames Conservancy dredger was lying off the steamboat pier, and he shouted to his mate Holford, the husband of one of the deceased, to let the anchor go. He did, but it would not bite and the barge swang round and collided with the bridge, with the result that the two females who were on board were knocked overboard through the tiller swinging round.

Buck made a plucky attempt at rescue, but failed. Several watermen deposed to the spot being very dangerous. and considered it necessary to have a boat in attendance at all times to assist navigation and prevent loss of life. At other bridges a boat was kept for this purpose.

A verdict of "Accidental death" was returned, and the jury asked the coroner to write to the Thames Conservancy and the bridge contractor to provide life saving apparatus and a boat, with constant attendance. The lighterman, Buck, was complimented by the coroner and jury for his plucky conduct.


Middlesex & Surrey Express 8 July 1899

The bodies of the victims of the sad fatality at Kew Bridge, Emma Holford (35), and Caroline Johnson (10), were recovered on Sunday and Monday respectively. The woman's body was picked up near Brentford Dock by George Pearce on Sunday afternoon and the girl's body was recovered near Kew Bridge by Thomas Wapshott at 4.30 on Monday morning. The woman's face was almost unrecognisable.

The Inquest
Dr Gordon Hogg held an inquiry into the circumstances on Tuesday afteroon at the Fire Station, Brentford. Mr Stanley Rushton, of Messrs Ruston, Clarke, and Rushton, watched the proceedings on behalf of Mr Easton Gibb, the contractor for the rebuilding of Kew Bridge. Mr G C Collier was foreman of the jury, which also included Mr J Clements, and Mr R Bamber, Canal Boat Missionary.

The first witness called was George Holford, the husband of Emma Holford, and uncle of Caroline Johnson, who said he identified the bodies at the mortuary. He was captain of the barge Alfred. On Thursday last he was on board the barge and the woman and girl were on board too.

They started from the Pool at two o'clock in the morning and came to Kew Bridge about ten minutes to six. There was only one arch open for traffic, the others being blocked for navigation purposes. He was at the head of the barge, the lighterman Walter Buck, was steering, and witness had charge of the oars. When they got near the pier they thought they were going right for the centre arch. The barge swung round across the bridge and struck the pier about midships, and threw him on the abutment as he was going to put a fender. He called out to his wife and niece, who were in the cabin, when he dropped the anchor and shouted "Sculler" as he thought the boat might sink through the sides being stove in. He saw them come up the stairs. He did not see the rudder strike them, and next saw them after they were in the water.


Walter Buck, of Top Locks, said he was a lighterman, and was steering the barge. The barge caught the eddy of the dredger which drew her stern round. He could see they would not get clear into the centre arch, and he told the captain to drop the anchor. The barge was taken up through the arch before the anchor could catch. She struck broadside on to the abutment, the tiller swung round from the port side and knocked the woman and the girl, who was holding Mrs Holford's hand, into the water. Witness dropped into the water and swam towards Mrs Holford. He succeeded in getting hold of her by the shoulder, and swam to the piles, and put one arm round the pile, but the force of the tide swept the woman out of his hand.

The Coroner: I think we ought to compliment Mr Buck for jumping overboard at such a dangerous spot without thinking of himself at all.

Mr Clements remarked that on Monday he rowed round the piles in a small boat to see if there were any life lines on the piles. To his great surprise there were none; nor a boat in attendance.

William Robbins, a licensed waterman and lighterman, said it required care to get through the (words missing) thought it was an absolute necessity for some one to be at the temporary bridge with a boat for the purpose of saving life. It was the only place on the Thames that he knew of that there was not a man in attendance.


The Coroner: There seems no question that the deceased met their death by drowning. The only question is as to whether anybody was to blame. It is for you to decide if you think a rider should be added to your verdict. I suppose I may take it you will say they were accidentally drowned.

Mr Collier: yes.

After consultation with his colleagues, Mr Collier said it was the unanimous opinion of the jury that some pressure should be placed upon the contractor for the bridge and the Thames Conservancy to call upon them to provide some means of saving life.

After some consideration the Coroner said he would write to the Thames Conservancy and the contractor in the following terms:-
"The jury are of the opinion that the Thames Conservancy and the contractor had failed in their duty in not providing life-saving appliances and a boat night and day at the works at Kew Bridge for the purposes of navigation and in case of casualties that might occur."


Notes and links

'They started from the Pool at two o'clock in the morning': I think 'the Pool' is the Pool of London. The Victorian Ordnance Survey map shows Upper Pool to the east of Tower Bridge, with London Docks on the north side, and Lower Pool further east between Shadwell and Limehouse, near the West India Docks. The distance between Kew Bridge and Tower Bridge is around 13.5 miles, to Lower Pool another 1.5 miles.

The accident happened where the third Kew Bridge was being built. The second bridge had opened in 1789 and was to be replaced with a new, three-arch bridge that remains in operation today. The new bridge was commissioned jointly by the Middlesex and Surrey county councils at a cost of £250,000. Wikipedia notes:
A temporary wooden bridge was put in place upstream of the second bridge before demolition during October to December 1899.

Emma and Caroline were buried at St Lawrence's churchyard, Brentford: EMMA HOLFORD died 29 June 1899 aged 35 years. Also CAROLINE JOHNSON, niece of the above, 29 June 1899 aged 10 years. "Both accidentally drowned at Kew Bridge."

Walter Buck, lighterman of Top Locks, is probably part of the Buck family, researched by a number of descendants, read more.

Mr J Clements and Mr G C Collier were both councillors: Janet McNamara has researched the lives of James Clements and George Charles Collier.

The site has some images of Kew Bridge, search using the home page.

Published February 2023