On the evening of 25 August, 1883, Ernest Bradley Benning and three of his friends, Henry Brooks, Frederick Palmer and Miss Simmonds, came down the Thames in a rowing boat, returning from Kew. Near Pimlico pier they collided with the paddle steamer Wedding Ring, belonging to the London Steamboat Co. This company had been established in 1834 as The Woolwich Steam Packet Company to provide a service between the City and Woolwich. In 1876, after several mergers, they became the London Steamboat Co. which ran a regular paddle steamer service on the Thames.
The inquest into the accident was held on Tuesday 11 September in St. Martin’s Vestry Hall, where it emerged that Palmer was the only one who could swim. William Large, an engineer, was out on the river with his family and a young boy, John Corking, and when he saw what happened, he rowed over to help. When he got to the scene, he saw Benning holding onto an oar with one hand and onto Miss Simmonds with the other. Large got hold of Miss Simmonds and told her to hang onto the boat, but, according to another witness, at that moment Benning disppeared under water. Large managed to reach Brooks who was also told to hang on. Palmer had in the mean time been saved by a fishing boat, but they could no longer find Benning. When Large found that a further search was useless, he, with the help of Corking, pulled Brooks and Simmonds out of the water into his boat. Mr. Moss (the paper does not tell us who he is) gave his opinion that “the accident was due to the occupants of the small boat losing their presence of mind on seeing the steamer approach, and pulling the wrong steering-line”. Alfred George Pendrill, the captain of the steamer, and William French, first mate, both alleged that the accident could be attributed to “occupants of the boat, who caused it to capsize by standing up”. Benning’s body was found under Waterloo pier on Friday 7 September. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death and pronounced their admiration for Large and Corking in saving the lives of Brooks and Simmonds.
According to one paper, Benning lived at 52 Blurton Street, Lower Clapton, but the 1881 census tells us something else. Charles Benning, 52 years old, a “classical printers reader”, lived at 14 Blurton Road, Hackney in 1881, with his wife Harriet (50), and their children Charles Barlas (25, shipping clerk), Frederick William (22, bookbinder), Ernest Bradley (19, apprentice printer), Margaret Ethel (17, bookbinder), and Albert (13, scholar). Also living at that address were Alice Marion (25, Charles jr.’s wife) and two grandchildren, Alice Marion Edith (5) and Charles Frederick Barlas (4). Our hero Ernest Bradley Benning had been baptised on 17 February 1862 as the son of Charles and Harriet in St. John’s, Islington. His father was at that time described as printer and living on Albert Road. The record does not give us Ernest’s date of birth, but if he was born just before he was baptised, he would have been only 21 at the time of the accident, but it was not unusual for parents to wait quite a while before having their children baptised, so he may indeed have been 22 years old as the newspaper alleged.
The plaque in Benning’s honour in Postman’s Park tells us that he was a compositor, which is a step up from the apprentice printer he was in the 1881 census and one of the newspapers that ran a report on the case alleged that he worked for ‘Messr. Spottiswoode’. That could be the firm of Eyre and Spottiswoode, the Queen’s Printers, set up by George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode, or Spottiswoode and Company under the leadership of William’s younger brother George Andrew. The two firms together formed the Spottiswoode Institute to provide education and amusement for their employees, such as a library, a choral society and – ironically – a rowing club.(1)
This story has been put together from the reports on the accident and subsequent inquest in The Pall Mall Gazette of 8 September, 1883, and in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper of 16 September 1883, supplemented by some genealogical and historical research.
(1) Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism: In Great Britain and Ireland, ed. L. Brake and M. Demoor (2009), p. 596.
You may also like to read the post on Ernest Bradley Benning’s grandfather, the law bookseller William Benning of 43 Fleet Street.