Saturday, 19 July 2008

How to remember a tragic event?

On May 2 1845 there was a major disaster in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, when a suspension bridge, crowded with onlookers viewing a circus clown in a washing tub towed along the river by four geese, collapsed. Apparently 100 people or more lost their lives, three-quarters of them children and teens.

An inquest found that the bridge collapsed under the combined stresses of excessive and uneven loading and poor quality ironwork that weathered prematurely.

What exists in Great Yarmouth to commemorate this tragedy? The Suspension Bridge Tavern is nearby the site, and there's an unusual old gravestone of a child victim in St Nicholas cemetery that depicts the bridge collapsing and children pouring into the water.

According to a Yarmouth Mercury report the gravestone is badly weathered and conservationists are blocking its rescue. It's ironic that weathering that contributed to the deaths is now causing a physical memorial to be lost too. Could not a replica of the original be created and installed in the graveyard, and the original conserved inside the church, a museum or even the pub?

Or should we bother? Details of this small piece of local history can be retrieved through contemporary newspaper reports, now becoming more available online thanks to digitization. It was a significant enough event that, even though the local press coverage is not yet digitized, there are many reports in the Gale online 19th Century British Library Newspapers collection. Include are the names of at least 80 fatalities and graphic accounts of the event and subsequent inquest.

A note for genealogists; although the event occurred in May 1845 the deaths don't appear in the GRO index until the first quarter of the following year.

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