The wall with the tiles in Postman’s Park abounds with names of people who drowned in trying to save the life of someone else and the following story is of yet another life cut short by a watery death. In this case, very short, as Herbert Maconoghu (variously spelled in the newspaper reports as Maconoghey, Maconoghie or Maconoghue) was only 13 years old when he died trying to save the life of his school friends.
Young Herbert’s parents lived in India and he and his younger brother Frank, like so many of their colonial contemporaries, were sent to school in England. According to the 1881 census, Elizabeth Palmer was the “Lady Principal” of a private school at Neilgherry House on Landsdowne Road, Wimbledon, and she had in her care some twenty boys and girls aged between 5 and 12. Only two of the children were born in England, the rest were all born in India or Ceylon. Herbert and his brother Frank were born in Banda (Uttar Pradesh). Neilgherry House, by the way, was named after the Neilgherry (now usually spelled Nilgiri) hills, part of the Western Ghats mountain chain where the fertile soil prompted the British to start plantations of, for instance, Cinchona from which Peruvian bark could be extracted, a medicine against malaria. The mountain range, also referred to as the Blue Mountains, became a favourite summer retreat of the British because of its gentle climate.
Some of the boys from India could go to family in the summer holidays, but for the seven or eight who could not, the school arranged a few weeks on the North Devon seaside with a governess, Ellen Hardie. Herbert and his schoolmates stayed at Croyde Bay lodging house, belonging to Captain Thomas Heddon. Although the boys had often been to bath where they went in the water that fatal Monday – off Black Rock – there was, on that particular day, according to Heddon, “an exceedingly heavy ground sea running, at a quarter past ten, when the lads went out to bathe, the tide was running out very swiftly”. Charles Binney (10 years old) and Havelock McGeorge (12 years old) were swept out to sea “towards Baggy Point and into a dangerous piece of water known as Glover’s pool”. Maconoghu and another lad, Edward Cornford, went after them to try and save them. Cornford lost sight of the boys and barely managed to get back on shore and was still too ill to attend the inquest a week later, but Maconoghu was swept out to sea with the other two boys.
On the Sunday after the tragedy, Heddon was walking along the beach when he saw the body of McGeorge lying near the high water mark. He arranged for the body to be brought to the mortuary at Georgeham. Later that Sunday, one Thomas Staddon saw the body of Maconoghu lying in a deep gully and with the help of a friend, also brought this body to the mortuary. At the time of the inquest, on Tuesday 5 September, the body of Charles Binney had not yet been recovered, but the drowning of McGeorge and Maconoghu was found “accidental”. They were both buried in Georgeham cemetery. Although too late for these unfortunate boys, the accident “caused a great sensation in the neighbourhood, and a general feeling … that some warning should be given visitors against bathing on the beach at certain times, when it is known to be dangerous”. At the inquest, it was reported that “some public-spirited gentlemen” fixed “a notice board on the sands with the object of preventing similar disasters”.
The spot were the Maconoghu plaque hangs originally held a plaque commemorating the death of four workman at the East Ham Sewage Works in 1895. That plaque had incorrectly stated the tragedy as having taken place in 1885 and at the West Ham Sewage Works. This incorrect tile was removed and a new plaque was made by Doulton. It was not put back in its original place, but on another row as it looked better with the other Doulton tiles, rather than as the odd one out amongst the De Morgan tiles. This left a gap in the original De Morgan row, but as De Morgan’s pottery no longer existed, nothing was done about it for some years, until Fred Passenger was located at the Bushey Heath pottery. He had worked at the De Morgan pottery and was able to make one in the same style as the early De Morgan tiles. Maconogue’s tile was put up in April 1931 and was the last one to go up on the Postman’s Park wall.(1)
– The report of the inquest on which most of the above is based can be found in The North Devon Journal of 7 September 1882.
(1) John Price, Postman’s Park: G.F. Watts’s Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice (2008), pp. 33-34.