Total Pageviews

Wednesday 25 August 2021

Nearly one of far too many, and a hero.

On the 23rd July 1888, in Aston, Birmingham, an elderly married woman walked down Catherine Street with her arms full of peas and red currants, looking like she was about some household chores. Catherine Street ran down from Aston Cross Road/Lichfield Road towards the canal. 
These are the moorings at Aston Cross Business Park where we moored one night. Catherine Street used to come down towards the canal from behind the camera. The fake lock is just for show.

Photo from
Catherine Street in 1969 before much was demolished. The business park starts about half way down now.

It was nine forty in the evening and as she reached the bottom of the road she bore rights and crossed the Gunnery Field towards Rocky Lane Bridge which crossed over the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. The Gunnery Field was named after the gun Factory that fronted Lichfield Road just by Catherine Street. It was opened by William Tranter and was named the ‘Tranter Gun and Pistol Factory’. The Factory was very up to date being one of the first privately owned gun manufacturers to install steam driven machinery. Tranter had many patents for mainly pistols but the company made many different small arms under licence too. The site covered 4 acres and by 1887 there was a still a field, or wasteland between the factory and the canal.

This was the warehouse cum showroom that fronted on to Lichfield Road (at the top of Catherine Street), built in 1887.

The inside of the fsactory showing the steam driven machinery. In the foreground are pieces of timber to be used as rifle butts.

A little way astern of her were a group of lads larking about, also heading down Catherine Street towards the canal. As they watched the elderly lady threw down the fruit and vegetables and drew off her apron, and as she ran towards the canal shouted ‘I will, I will’. She flung her apron into the water and jumped after it. The astonished ladies ran to the spot. One of their number Samuel Tuckey jumped straight in after her. The water was deep, well over his head, and the woman had already sunk below the surface twice so it was difficult to locate her. Samuel saw her hair floating and managed to grab hold of it and pull it to the side, and with help they had her on the bank. There she lay unconscious for 10 mins. before coming round. She then begged Samuel to let her drown herself, but by then a crowd had assembled including a policeman.

These details were published in the report of the court proceedings for the attempt to commit suicide. Unbelievably suicide was illegal until 1961, so attempted suicides were taken court. The Magistrates were E.H. Stringer and Dr. Griffiths. The lady in question was Ellen Brittain who lived at 3 Court, 10 House on Catherine Street. Ellen’s husband gave evidence at the trial to the fact that his wife was a confirmed alcoholic. He further stated that he gave her 35s a week but the children did not have clothes on their back, and she pawned everything in the house! He said that she had given her 35s the last Saturday and by the time she got home she only had 4s 6d left. Superintendent Walker told the Court the defendant was barely clothed in the cells and her husband said she had no clothes at home other than those she stood up in. The prisoner was then asked to speak and she told the Court she was not a drunk and that she had been driven to attempt suicide by the actions of her husband and went on to bring many charges against him regarding domestic troubles. She was remanded to Winson Green whilst reports were assembled.

Winson Green Prison

Samuel Tuckey gave evidence about the rescue and when asked why none of the other lads helped by jumping in the canal he stated that they were reluctant to spoil their Sunday Best clothes. As it was his best trousers were spoiled as he couldn’t rid them of the smell! Samuel Tuckey had been born in Aston, in 1872, and was the son of an iron plate worker. His mother was Agnes, nee Mailing. They lived with Agnes’ family at 95, Upper Trinity Street near Bordesley Junction. The father of the house was a pearl button cutter, as was the eldest lad. The second eldest boy was a bedstead fitter, and Samuel’s mother Agnes was a bedstead painter. At the time of the rescue Samuel was sixteen.

Victoria Road Police Station, Aston Manor, which I believe had been the court building previously.

At the second hearing a week later, the original evidence was gone over, but nothing new came out other than Ellen Brittain thanked Samuel for saving her, and she admitted to been a drunk. The Magistrates discharged Ellen on the promise that she would not attempt to take her life again, and would behave better in the future. Different times indeed. The Magistrates were Yates and A. Hill and Samuel must have impressed them as A. Hill said to the court that there was no fund available to enable them to reward Samuel for his actions but that the Magistrates themselves rewarded him with half a sovereign for his efforts that was passed to him via the clerk to the course Mr. E Rowlands. In the newspaper report Samuel was said to express his thanks in a brief but suitable way. It seems that the Magistrates went further to reward Samuel Tuckey as they applied to the Royal Humane Society for him to be rewarded.
The Royal Humane Society was started by two doctors who were worried about the number of people who were drowning and could have been revived. Dr. William Hayes promoted artificial respiration techniques and the use of tobacco smoke enemas to revive people. He paid the public to bring him bodies to him that had not been in the water over long. He was joined by Dr. Thomas Cogan had grown interested in the same subject whilst in Amsterdam where as society had been set up in 1763. In 1774 they invited fifteen of their friends to a coffee house in St. Paul’s church yard and the ‘Humane Society for the Recovery of the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned’. In 1783 King George III became the patron of the Society and in 1787 it’s name was changed to The Royal Humane Society. The top award is the Stanhope medal that is awarded annually for the most gallant rescue, first awarded in 1873. The Silver Medal was the first awarded when the society was first started. It is awarded to those that put their own life at risk to same others, by putting themselves in personal danger, a long and arduous, or returning to the scene repeatedly. The Bronze Medal was first awarded in 1837 for the rescue of others at their own personal risk. Also awarded are Testimonials on Vellum for a rescue performed by putting themselves in considerable danger. There is also a Testimonial on Parchment presented for an act whereby the receiver rescues by putting themselves in danger. These two awards are now issued on card.

The current form of the Testimonial on Parchment.

In October 1888, before a sitting of the Aston Police Court A. Hill, the presiding Magistrate presented Samuel Tuckey with a Testimonial on Parchment from the Royal Humane Society for his rescue of Ellen Brittain from the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. In his speech Mr. Hill said he hoped that this award would act as an incentive to others to follow this noble example under similar circumstances. He went on to say he had no doubt that he would cherish this testimonial to his bravery and would be able to hand it down to his children, and children’s children. The report goes on to say that Samuel went on to thank them in his self effacing way and withdrew!
The next time census in 1891 we find Samuel has enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and on census day he was with his regiment at the Tower of London as the guard. He had joined up in 1890. In 1899 his regiment were shipped out to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. We know he was there as he was awarded the South Africa 1901 service medal. He could have served in Johannesburg, Diamond Hill, Belfast, Cape Colony and the Orange Free State. I am unable to follow him after this with any certainty.

British Troops during the Second Boer War. (not necessarily the Royal Warwickshire Regiment).

This is the story of just one potential drowning but the newspapers were full of many cases of drownings and rescues and suicides that travelling up and down the canals must have inevitably turned up many bodies. I'm so glad it isn't like that today!