Photo gallery: Great Yarmouth suspension bridge disaster memorial unveiled
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2013
In brilliant autumn sunshine a dark cloud that had been hanging over the town for 168 years was finally blown away.
A gathering of more than 100 people on Great Yarmouth's North Quay paid a fitting tribute at last to the victims of the most painful tragedy in the town's history.
Parents and grandparents instinctively clutched their young ones as the the story was sombrely recounted of how crowds had packed on to a suspension bridge over the River Bure on May 2, 1845 to watch a clown being pulled along by four geese in an advertising stunt.
In the terror and confusion of the ensuing bridge collapse 79 people were swallowed up by the merciless current, nearly 60 of them young children.
Sadly, memories of the disaster later became as obscured as the graves of its young victims, a cruel reality that last year struck the heart of Yarmouth grandmother Julie Staff when she realised a blue plaque on the nearby White Swan pub was the only reminder.
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Following a relentless 18 month fundraising campaign, raising £5,000 in £1 donations, she was at last ready on Saturday for the unveiling of a black granite memorial crafted by stonemasons at Abbey Memorials in South Burlingham; five feet long and 40 inches high, it lists the names of everyone who lost their lives.
After a rousing display by the TS Warrior cadets and a haunting chorus of Amazing Grace by the Mary Hardy-Green singers that reached out to the lost souls, Mrs Staff, 55, told the gathering: 'Today is all about the final part of the journey I have been on, involving lots of different people giving me support along the way.'
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Descendants of victims, including EDP assistant editor Mark Hindle, had come to reflect at the spot where the tragedy unfolded and Mrs Staff said many more people all around the world were thinking about the ceremony as it took place.
She said: 'It has been a journey to bring a story that has been lost back into the history of Great Yarmouth, and it has been done by the people of Great Yarmouth who have donated their pound coins. No matter who you are, the story can touch your life and I have told the story to whoever will listen.'
The Rev James Stewart said: 'We are gathered here on the site of a terrible tragedy that happened so many years ago and yet we can almost still feel it in the air.
'In days when there was no television or video games, the sight of a clown on the river was quite a spectacle then and a draw for all those children who came to this place.
'Nelson the clown brought joy to children who were living in poverty and drew them into an imaginary life.'
Mr Stewart said while the tragedy had undoubtedly 'struck the hearts of everyone in the town', the vicar of that time, the Rev Henry Mackenzie, had attributed the disaster to a lack of morality and education in the people of Great Yarmouth.
He said the 168 years since the disaster had been a time of healing and those sentiments should now be forgotten.
'Where previously there was darkness and sorrow, this memorial will bring us all a sense of hope, light and joy,' he said.
The memorial was formally unveiled by local historian Valerie Howkins allowing dazzling sunshine to beam down on the names.
She paid tribute to Mrs Staff for 'perpetuating the memory of all those who died in this terrible tragedy.'