Plea to remember victims of Great Yarmouth’s forgotten riverside tragedy
12:16 18 September 2012
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.