Plea to remember victims of Great Yarmouth’s forgotten riverside tragedy

PUBLISHED: 12:16 18 September 2012

Julie Staff is campaigning for a memorial to comemorate the people who died in the Yarmouth Suspension Bridge disater in the 19thC. Julie Staff with Alan Gilbert.

Julie Staff is campaigning for a memorial to comemorate the people who died in the Yarmouth Suspension Bridge disater in the 19thC. Julie Staff with Alan Gilbert.


It was a pilgrimage paid to a riverside that could not have looked more benign on a sunny September day.

Alan Gilbert, a semi-retired oil worker based in Norway, and his distant cousin, Carole Moran, of Pettaugh, in Suffolk, met in Great Yarmouth on Saturday to visit the scene of a monumental tragedy that has become almost a forgotten page in the town’s history.

Save for an inconspicuous blue plaque on the wall of the nearby White Swan, nothing marks the spot of a disaster.

In a poignant moment lost on the stream of drivers in North Quay, the pair stood by the River Bure and reflected on the terrifying and abrupt end to the life of their 12-year-old relative, Sarah Gilbert.

On May 2, 1845, she was among 79 people, 59 of whom were children, who perished when a suspension bridge collapsed – plunging them into the river.

The noise of its metal chains snapping would have been lost under the excited cheers of 400 people who were on the bridge to watch a clown pulled down river by geese as a promotional stunt for a circus.

A tragic denouement was that many families could not afford a proper burial and their children were buried in anonymous mass graves of up to 30.

Mr Gilbert and his cousin, who were only brought together by the independent research of their family tree, were guided on their pilgrimage by Julie Staff, a local grandmother who is campaigning for a fitting memorial to the victims of one of the blackest tragedies in Yarmouth’s history.

Mrs Staff, 54, of Euston Court, said her husband, Shaun, had recounted the hazy outline of the story to her 35 years ago after pointing out the grave of one of the victims, nine-year-old George Beloe, in St Nicholas churchyard.

She said: “I thought the association of children and the clown was sad but did not look into it any further at the time.

“It was only after the decision to demolish the seafront jetty, losing another part of our history, that my interest really took off.”

Mrs Gilbert, who runs a deckchair business on Yarmouth beach, said the only comprehensive information she could find was in a book in the library by local historian Bob Symonds.

She began fund-raising for a fitting memorial – “a 5ft granite book with all the names and the story explained” – in February and has so far raised £1,400 towards her £4,000 target.

During the summer she has been telling the story to deckchair hirers and asking them for a £1 donation.

She said: “The story really connects with people. One couple I spoke to had lost their son in a drowning accident on the Thames.”

Mr Gilbert, 58, who lived near Lowestoft before moving to Norway, said that when he started researching his family history two years ago he had been shocked to discover the daughter of his great-great grandfather had drowned.

He said: “I only found out the circumstances later when I was reading a history book about Yarmouth and it suddenly dawned on me that the date of the bridge disaster was the same as that on the death certificate of Sarah Gilbert.”

Mr Gilbert described Mrs Staff’s campaign as “fantastic” and said putting up a memorial was a “really nice idea”.

“It is almost as though the town was too ashamed to think about the disaster to put up a memorial,” he said.

Mrs Staff has been put in touch with another descendant, Debbie Staffieri, from Gorleston, whose relatives, John and William Tennent, 10 and 11, perished and hopes to make contact with further members of victims’ families.


  • I was under the impression that this was pretty much common knowledge to anyone who knew a bit about GY. I don't expect the lack of a memorial is because anyone was particularly ashamed but more to do with the poverty of many involved, the attitude of GY councillors over the years and the fact that the area around the bridge has been pulled about rather a lot in the intervening years. There could well have been a memorial but it might have gone when St Andrews church built in 1860 to serve North Quay was demolished.Then of course there was the 1970s whole sale destruction of the Fullers Hill area finishing off what WW2 hadn't managed to destroy. If anyone is interested in local history, Dr Rumble's revised history of GY ( to be found online) is well worth a read . There is more history and were more quite interesting people associated with GY than the philistines in the Town Hall bother about and more power to Julie Staff and other local historians who would like to draw a bit of attention to the past.

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    Daisy Roots

    Tuesday, September 18, 2012

  • Yes Daisy you are correct about the poverty issue,That is why so many people where present on May 2nd 1845 because it was free, flyers had been given out to promote the event, and many of the children that died were from the rows just around the bridge area,So for the poorer class this would have been amazing,The Bridge owner Robert Cory was in London on the day the bridge fell trying to get a new bridge, as it had been extended to try and cope with all the extra the new railway had brought to the town,The reason for a memorial is to finally give repect to the women and children who lost their lives as none was ever shown, and also to tell the story of what happened that day, its place in history has been lost, I have read Dr Rumbles revised History which is a great read, and also Bob Symonds book I found to be very helpful as he has covered it in great detail, But it is only available to be read in the library, and my argument is if anyone came to GreatYarmouth town there is nothing to say this disaster ever happened,The small bronze plague was stolen a number of years ago, and there is a blue plaque 15ft high on the Swan public house, a couple of lines to say 80 people died mostly children, but it doesnt say what happened or anything about the tradedy, This memorial will be something that will tell its own story and explain just what happened on that terrible day, Friday May 2nd 1845 at 5oclock , when everyone stood in the rain waiting in excitment to watch a clown in a wash tub come up the river, Then people will want to look into the story further and will go to the library to find out more, and read the good books that have covered the story in the past,But till then there is nothing to make them ask about this any further, the story has for many years been told on the back of somenbody eles private head stone, George Beloe aged 9 who died on the Bridge that day, without this stone I really believe this story would have never been told, and I wouldnt have spent the last 7 months searching, old news papers, burial records, museums, librarys, graveyards anything to do with the Suspenion Bridge disaster, there is so little, and what there is isnt used to tell the story, I have been trying to get an oil Painting done by C.J.Winter sorted, it was donated to the Time and Tide museum from archant, Winter was an eye witness, the detail put in this painting makes me want to cry when I look at it, because it is so intense, that you can imagine in the way he has painted it what his eyes witnessed, But it is been used as an extra to explain how a room would have looked in the rows many years ago, nothing to say what the paintings is about or any story about the Bridge, I challenged them and they said it has to stay that way, Im hoping to change that, That painting should have its own pride of place, Its hard because I am so passionate about this to the point that I have probably become a pain in the rear to most people,But I cant rest till this is done and in place, The Beloe stone is now unreadable in St Nicholas Church yard, But some how this has become much more than a memorial, with descendants getting in touch and people helping to find so much more out about the story, The sadest part to me was what the Rev read over them before they buried them, That it was the wickedness of Great Yarmouth people because their children couldnt read or write they were being punished, just no repect, I know the Priory school was eventually founded because of the disaster,but they deserved more respect than that,anyone wishing to get in touch with me can email me on, or if you think you are a descendant I would love to hear from you, sorry about any spelling errors but its 4am.

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    Wednesday, September 19, 2012

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