The Tragedy at Hartlake Bridge

On the evening of Thursday 20th October 1853, thirty hop pickers lost their lives when the wagon in which they were travelling back to their accommodation in Capel from a day working in the hop fields of Golden Green, fell through the sides of Hartlake Bridge and tumbled into the fast-flowing flood waters of the River Medway below. The shocking tragedy was reported across the entire nation with many papers using the headline, 'Fearful Accident on the River Medway'. As we look at the event now, it can be seen as a completely avoidable 'accident' and current legislation would most likely find the Directors of the company responsible for the upkeep of the bridge complicit in the offence of 'corporate manslaughter'.

Below are two extracts from London-based newspapers; one - The Globe - reporting soon after the accident and the other - The Morning Post - relaying the details of the subsequent coroner's inquest.

The Globe - Saturday 22 October 1853


A frightful accident occurred on Thursday evening at Hartlake-bridge, on the river Medway, near Tunbridge, which it is supposed that nearly 40 persons have perished. The accounts of the accident are at present somewhat imperfect, but it appears that, in consequence of the river Medway having overflowed its banks, the hop-pickers in the employ of Mr. Cox, a large hop grower living at Golden-green, in the parish of Hadlow, near Tunbridge, after having finished their day's work, were being conveyed through the flood in a waggon, drawn by three horses, when, on arriving at Hartlake Bridge, they became alarmed at the rush of water, and uttered loud cries. The party consisted of men, women, and children. The noise made by them alarmed the horses, and it seems that the animals consequently ran away, and came in contact with the side of the bridge, which, being in a dilapidated state, broke down. The consequence was that the waggon was precipitated into the river, and all the persons in it were drowned. 

Up to yesterday the bodies of two women only had been recovered, but according to the best information that could be obtained upon the spot, no less than 37 persons are missing. In consequence of the vast body of water which is now flowing down the river, and the locks being open, the probability is that the bodies may be washed considerable distance from the bridge. Numbers of persons are engaged in endeavouring to find them. The names of the two women whose bodies have been recovered are not known. The coroner opened an inquest upon them to-day, at the Bell Inn, Golden Green, in the parish of Hadlow.

Morning Post - Monday 24 October 1853


 A melancholy accident occurred on Thursday at Hartlake-bridge, Golden-green, in the parish of Hadlow, near Tunbridge, Kent, which was attended by a fearful loss of life. It appears, from inquiries made by our reporter on the spot, that soon after six o'clock in the evening a number of hop-pickers in the employ of W. Cox, Esq., having left off work, were about to proceed to their respective homes in Tudeley parish, but in consequence of the continuous rains the river Medway had overflowed its banks to a very considerable extent, which rendered it a matter of very great difficulty, if not of danger, to cross the bridge on foot, and Mr. Cox kindly placed a waggon and two horses at their disposal. The waggoner had conveyed one party home, and had got in another load, which completely filled the waggon — one man ; was compelled to sit on the shafts in the front of the waggon, and another, by permission of the waggoner, had mounted the wheel-horse. The waggoner, a very careful and sober man, was mounted on the fore horse. The party consisted of upwards of 40 — men, women, and children. They had reached the crown of the bridge, a wooden one, in safety, and were just descending when the hind horse appears to have stumbled over one of the pieces of iron nailed across the bridge to assist the horse in travelling; the horse slipped and could not recover itself and the waggon swerved round. The waggoner and the man who rode the wheel horse, tried all they could to bring the horses round on the other side of the bridge, but were unable to do so. The hind wheel of the waggon sinking down into the earth close to the woodwork, forced out the woodwork placed as a railing to the bridge; the waggon fell over against the railing, breaking it completely through, nearly the whole of the unfortunate persons being thrown into the water. Three men had jumped off before the wheel began to sink. 

The scene that followed was terrible beyond description. The current ran very strong, and no sooner were the poor creatures in the water than they were carried away by the torrent; altogether (including the waggoner and the man who rode the wheel horse) there were only 11 persons saved. The woodwork of the bridge is 42 feet in length by nine feet three inches in width; it is of very old construction, and the country people, and those continually in the habit of crossing it, have repeatedly complained of its decayed and rotten condition. They had, however, made no complaints to the Medway Navigation Company, to whom the bridge belongs. Directly the alarm was given a number of men hastened to the place to render what assistance they could, and the river was dragged. Parties were also employed continuously in dragging, up to Saturday night, but with little effect, as the current was exceedingly strong; and, the sluices down the river being all open, no doubt many of the bodies were carried to a considerable distance. Up to Friday night two bodies only had been picked up. They were those of Charlotte Leatherland, a married woman, aged 55, and Norah Donovan, widow, aged 31. On Saturday five other bodies were landed; they were those of Comfort Leatherland, 24, daughter of the above; James Mauser, married, 18; Kitty Roach, single, 22; Sentina Hearn, a child, four years, and Loomey Hearn, mother of the above, 28. The last was brought in during the sitting of the inquest. 

On reference to Mr. Cox's book t was found that, in addition to the above-named persons, the following are supposed to have been drowned — viz., Samuel Leatherland (husband of Charlotte), Selina Leatherland and Alice Leatherland (daughters), Mrs. Brushington, Margaret Mahoney, Mary Brushington, Sarah Taylor, Mrs. Howard, Jeremiah Murphy, Catherine Donovan, Mary Queen, a child named Knight, Bridget King, Martha King, a man and woman, names unknown, Thomas Taylor and his child, William Elsley and his wife, Ellen Duvene, and a man, woman, and their two children, names unknown. 

On Saturday an inquest was held at the Bell Inn, Golden-green, Hadlow, before Mr. J. N. Dudlow. Mr. Gorham (solicitor), clerk to the Medway Navigation Company, and Mr. Hallows, one of the company's managers were present. The evidence of several witnesses was, in effect, as above. All the witnesses spoke of the careful driving of the waggoner, and of his perfect sobriety at the time of the catastrophe. Other witnesses spoke of the un-safe condition of the bridge, but admitted that they had given no notice either to the company's officers or to the parochial authorities. At the conclusion of the evidence, the coroner said that, as there were gentlemen present who were connected with the company, perhaps they would like to address a few words to the jury before the room was cleared. Mr. Gorham wished to observe, on behalf of the company, that no complaint whatever had been made respecting the bridge since he had been their clerk— some six or seven years. Had any complaint been made, it would have been entered on the minutes, and would have received immediate attention. Mr. Hallows also assured the jury that since he had been the company's manager no complaint had been made with regard to the bridge. The Coroner then briefly addressed the jury. He said the evidence of the witnesses went clearly to show that the deplorable accident had not occurred either through culpable carelessness or neglect. It was also apparent that, although many complaints had been made of the insecurity of the bridge, yet none of those complaints had been made to the Medway Navigation Company or to the parish officers; they had merely been made by persons talking to each other. No doubt, now the accident had occurred, they could all see what had been wanted. The wood- work, where it had been broken through, appeared now to be in a rotten and unsafe condition; but, before the accident, everything about the bridge would appear, to the eye of the superficial observer, to be perfectly safe. One of the witnesses had been particularly asked whether he had previously considered the bridge to be in a dangerous condition, and his answer was, "Certainly not;" he had not so considered it. There was no doubt that the wood-work was rotten; and, when they considered that it had a weight of no less than two tons resting against it, there could be no wonder that it gave way. The result had shown that the bridge had been in an unsafe condition, and had wanted attending to. Perhaps the earth inside of the fence had been washed away by the continuous floods. If, however, that had been so, it had not been observed, and no blame could be attached to the company, as they had not been made acquainted with the matter. A Juror wished to know whether the bridges were periodically inspected ? Mr. Hallows said yes. He had himself recently seen Hartlake-bridge, and observing the fence leaning over at the top, as deposed to by one of the witnesses, he had given directions to have it repaired. 

The room was then cleared— the jury remaining in deliberation for some time. On their re-admission, the coroner said the jury had returned the following verdict :—" That the deceased persons were accidentally drowned, and it is the opinion of the jury that the accident arose entirely from the defective state of the road and the wooden bridge, and their imperfect mode of construction, which ought to have been before remedied; they, therefore, recommend that the bridge be forthwith replaced by one of substantial construction, built either of brick or stone." The proceedings then terminated. 

We have not yet heard of the recovery of any more bodies. The whole of the unfortunate persons were strangers hence the difficulty of ascertaining the number lost. A fatal accident occurred at the same spot in April, 1826 to a Mr. and Mrs. Gower. Mr. Gower was returning from chapel, having in his cart, besides his wife, his female servant. When on the bridge the horse shied, started back against the railing, and went over into the bed of the river. Only the servant girl was saved, and that with the greatest difficulty.

Above: The London Illustrated news of 29th October 1853 produced a drawing of Hartlake Bridge after the accident showing the broken down fencing
Above: The London Illustrated news of 29th October 1853 produced a drawing of Hartlake Bridge after the accident showing the broken down fencing