The winter of 1894-95 was a very severe one in the UK. It started in late December when the wind veered to the northwest, bringing cold and snow. In February the wind came from an easterly direction, making it even colder; temperatures of -20°C were frequently recorded.(1) The Morning Post of 6 February ran a report on the severe winter weather and said about the day before: “In the Metropolis the day was comparatively fine and bright, but the wind was piercingly cold, the thermometer ranging from 24deg. to 30deg.” According to the paper, it was a fine dry day for skating with sunshine between 11 am and 2 pm. They had not yet invented the term ‘wind chill’ in those days, but, although it was only freezing a few degrees, it must have felt a lot colder because of the wind.
The Illustrated Police News ran an article in its paper on 16 February, 1895 entitled ‘The Frost and its Victims’. The illustration accompanying the article covered almost the whole of the front page and showed all the disasters that could befall humankind because of the cold: families were “on the very verge of starvation”; working men were “frozen out”; a kitchen boiler exploded because the pipe had been choked; a man was found frozen to his kitchen sink; people died of exposure or were drowned by falling through the ice. The two men shown in the left-hand bottom of the illustration were bank clerks who drowned. Nobody saw the accident happen, but it was thought that Galway, whose skates were found on the bank of the lake, tried to save Cowan because the branch of a tree was found near the two bodies. Not all incidents ended unhappily, however, “a boy, aged five years, fell of the north bank of the river Nene, and, before the skaters on the flooded meadows could go to his assistance, a shepherd’s dog jumped in and pulled him out.”
We know that news(paper) reports were and are not always accurate and that they frequently copy each other, thereby perpetuating the historical distortion and the following story is a case in point. In Postman’s Park we see a plaque to honour Edward Blake who had been skating at the Welsh Harp (Brent Reservoir) and who died in an attempt to recue two unknown girls. The first newspaper reports of the incident appeared the next day.
According to the Morning Post and several other papers that covered the story in almost the same wording, two girls ventured onto the ice between the eastern side of Edgware Road and the Midland Railway viaduct. These days, that section of water is a fairly narrow canalised section of the river Brent, but in 1895 it still consisted of a considerable area of water. The ice broke and the girls fell in the icy water. They were rescued by Blake’s brother, but Edward lost his life. The Daily News of 11 February tells us that the hero’s full name was Charles Edward Clack, that he lived on Tennyson Road, Kilburn, that he drowned while trying to save “a young lady” and that he was to be buried in Old Willesden Cemetery on the 11th. His wife was heavily pregnant and the Willesden Conservative Association decided to raise a subscription to help her. So far, so good, a slight mistake by the typesetter in his name and confusion over the number of girls rescued, but essentially the same story. However, why would the Royal Humane Society award a bronze medal to one Sidney Coke who “At great personal risk, rescued Lily Jones from drowning at the Welsh Harp, Hendon, on the 5th February 1895”?(2) Are we talking about the same incident? And if so, why was Blake’s brother called Coke, and what happened to the second girl, if there ever was one?
So lets turn to The Observer of 10 February where the coroner’s inquest into the death of our hero is described as part of an article on “The Phenomenal Frost”. The coroner, Dr. Danford Thomas, held an inquiry on the 9th at the District Council Office, Hendon to establish the circumstances of the death of Edward Charles Clark, a plumber of Tennyson Road who was drowned while trying to save Lizzie Jones who had been sliding on the ice between Edgware Road and the viaduct. The coroner heard that a young man (Blake/Clark) got through the railings round the lake and walked towards Lizzie on the ice, but it broke under him and he disappeared. He came up just once, but witnesses did not see him again. Another man, Sidney Coke, an umbrella maker of 339 Oxford Street, took off his coat and jumped from the road bridge onto the ice which broke. He seized hold of the child and swam towards the shore. In the mean time, a ladder had been obtained which was passed to him “just in time as he was paralysed with the cold and was about to sink”. The stretch of water where Lizzie had been sliding was not open to the public and whoever went on the water between the bridge and the viaduct was trespassing. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death and recommended that posters should be set up to warn the public of the dangerous ice in that particular spot. So, Edward Blake has first turned into Charles Edward Clack and now into Edward Charles Clark. The two unknown girls turn into one with a name and the brother may have been there and saw his brother drown, but he did not rescue the girl as that was the work of Sidney Coke who certainly deserved his medal. The Deceased Online website does give a burial at Willesden Old Cemetery for one Edward C. Clark on 11 Feb. 1895, so it is fairly certain, short of getting his official death certificate, that Edward Charles Clark was his real name. The plaque in Postman’s Park unfortunately still mentions two girls, the brother and even the wrong name. Of course the plaque is still deserved, but it would have been nice to see the correct information on it.
(1) Wikipedia article on the 1894-95 winter.
(2) Royal Humane Society bronze medals citations taken from the Annual Report for 1895, compiled by Peter Helmore (Case 27576) Source: http://www.lsars.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/bronz95s.htm