Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

An Allegorical Mass Drowning at Gainsborough

By Keith Fisher

The winter of 1783-84 was extremely severe over most of Britain and mainland Europe. It is believed to have been caused, or at least exacerbated, by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano. In June of 1783 the Laki volcano, in the south of the island, started to eject vast quantities of dust and sulphur dioxide. This produced ‘acid rain’ and a global noxious haze. The volcano was active, on and off, for eight months until the next February. While the summer was unbearably hot, the eruption, and its subsequent pollution, is calculated to have lowered the global temperature by 1.3 degrees centigrade, which may have precipitated the harsh winter. Locally, the frost set in on Christmas Eve and lasted for two months. This had a major impact on the navigable rivers and canals which all froze. The boatmen were in dire straits as was reported in the papers, even from as far away as Saunders’s News Letter in Ireland, ‘The poor boatmen on the river Trent have been obliged, during the present hard frost, to draw wagon loads of coals from Oakthorpe to Castle Donnington, in Leicestershire, (near twelve miles) in order to obtain a subsistence’. The ‘boatmen’ referred to may have been the bow-haulers who manhandled the boats on the navigable rivers.

They were caught in a ‘perfect storm’ as the river Trent hauling path was due to fully open later that year. This towpath, from Gainsborough to Wilden Ferry, near Shardlow, was designed to replace them with the more cost effective horses. The river Trent itself was impassable down to Gainsborough, which was an inland port, the town furthest up the river that sea-going vessels could reach, and where the final effects of the tide are felt. Even so, on the 24th of January the Nottingham Journal recorded that only one boat had managed to travel upstream to Gainsborough, but none had sailed, ‘the river again fast with ice’. On February 14th the Nottingham Journal also reported that: ‘a Number of Boatmen, belonging to the Coasting Vessels, at Gainsbro’, paraded this Town with a Model of a Man of War and Flags Flying; - they received from the inhabitants a very liberal Contribution.’

There were, naturally, all over the country, numerous cases of people falling through the ice. Consequently, the following account, which appeared in the Kentish Gazette of Saturday the 31st of January, did not seem implausible.

‘A letter from Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, dated Jan. 24, Says: A few days since the following melancholy accident happened on the river Trent, the river being froze over, a great number of people assembled on it, when a dispute happening between two men, upon some slight difference, they went blows, which drew the people to one spot, and the ice giving way, upwards of ninety fell into the water, and notwithstanding every method was taken for their preservation, only four out of the number were saved. The untimely fate of so many, you may suppose has cast a gloom upon the inhabitants of this place, there being scarcely a family who has not some of their kindred to lament.’

This ‘melancholy’ accident was picked up and repeated by many other newspapers including the: Hampshire Chronicle, 2 Feb. - Northampton Mercury, 2 Feb. - Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette, 3 Feb. - Manchester Mercury, 5 Feb. - Hereford Journal, 5 Feb. - Hibernian Journal or Chronicle of Liberty, 6 Feb. - Chelmsford Chronicle, 6 Feb. - Saunders’s News Letter [Ireland], 7 Feb. and Dublin Evening Post, 7 Feb. 1784.

Tellingly this story did not appear in any of the local papers of the time, there is no mention in the Stamford Mercury or the Leicester & Nottingham Journal. The Journal did include an odd letter in its 7th of February edition. ‘A Correspondent from Derby must excuse our inserting his letter, till more fully assured of the Truth of the Facts, than from Anonymous information.’ Did this letter, perhaps, refer to this event?

On Wednesday the 4th of February, four days after breaking the story, the Kentish Gazette published the following letter:

‘Reading in yours and other papers, a melancholy account, dated from Gainsborough, of ninety persons being lately drowned in the river Trent, by the ice breaking while they were crowding the spot where two men were fighting upon slight difference, I cannot but consider it as a political allegory, meaning by two men who went to blows on such dangerous ground, Messrs Pitt and Fox, and by the great numbers of people who assembled to see them, not only the crowds that fill the House, gallery and lobby, to hear and hear of their disputations, but all your readers, and indeed all the nation, who peruse with such avidity their debates, negligent, both within doors and without, of all other business, and inattentive to the ice which is cracking under them, and will infallibly soon give way. - What latent meaning may be conveyed by the four persons that escaped, who they may be, I pretend not to interpret.

Yours, DAVUS’

Davus is the name of a Machiavellian slave in the play Andria by the Roman author Terence.

Finally, a week later, the Kentish Gazette quashed the story entirely:

‘It is with the upmost pleasure we inform the public at large, from the best authority, that there is not the least truth whatever in the extract of a letter from Gainsborough, which asserted that 90 persons were drowned in the river Trent by the breaking of ice.’

Using exactly the same words, most papers retracted the story during the next week. The Leicester & Nottingham Journal, who had not printed the original claim, did not even bother trying to sugar the pill, stating bluntly, ‘There is not the least truth whatever in the Extract of a Letter from Gainsborough, ’

On the 11th of February the Caledonian Mercury congratulated itself upon its perspicacity. ‘We feel ourselves happy in being able now to assure the public, that there is not the least truth in the Extract of a letter from Gainsborough .... The above letter, which by some means found its way into most of the newspapers, but always appeared to us of so alarming a nature, and was attended with such suspicious circumstances, that it never obtained room in the Caledonian Mercury.’

So what are we to make of all this? Assuming the ‘Davus’ interpretation is correct, and it is difficult to think of another explanation, apart from a clumsy, easily disproved, prank, it begs the question as to why? Without going into the details, the political infighting between William Pitt [17591806] and Charles James Fox [1749-1806] was paralyzing the workings of parliament over that winter. It was not until the general election in April that Pitt consolidated his power. It is easy to understand this frustration with the political class, but is using the fabricated story of dozens of deaths a valid way to express one’s opinions? Perhaps it is the fact that the location is so specific which makes this feel so tasteless, although a nameless town on an anonymous northern river would not have had the same impact.

It may, or may not, be suspicious that the story, the explanation and the repudiation all happened within 11 days in one Kent newspaper. If it was intended to provoke discussion in the press, of the political shenanigans of the time, it failed. The letter by ‘Davus’ was not reprinted in any other paper.