Death in dark waters:

the drowning of the Lelant ferryman and his two passengers

Maxwell Adams

It is an exciting and tragic story of death in dark, fast waters. The Lelant ferryman drowned along with two passengers when the ferryboat sank in the River Hayle.

We have a very good idea of what happened because the local newspapers, and especially the Cornishman, published many details from November 1880 to January 1881. What they tell us is this, almost certainly the true account of the drowning of the Lelant ferryman.

The accident happened on the night of 22 November 1880 around ten o'clock at night. The three people who drowned were Edwin Whatty, the ferryman; and James Lilly and William George, his passengers.

On the morning of 1 December 1880 the body of William George was found among the seaweed at Godrevy beach. The subsequent inquest on him, like The Bridge of San Luis Rey, explains to us how these three men came to the fatal place of Lelant ferry at this time.

An anchor was lost in St Ives Bay and three men and a boy went looking for it. They were Martin Mathews, James Lilly, William George, and his fourteen year old son Samuel George. It was Phillack feast day, a holiday, and they fetched up at St Ives and at half past twelve at Worsley's Hotel. Here they drank between them four pints of shenacrum and ate a plate of sandwiches. That's probably shenagrum, a drink of rum, sugar, and lemon, with hot beer. Advised not to go back to Hayle by boat because of stormy weather, they left St Ives on the 3.45 pm train to go home. Martin Mathews said that they were all "perfectly sober." They got off at Lelant and made their way, not to the ferry, but to the Ship Inn in Church Road, Lelant. Another four pints of shenacrum were had between them and at six o'clock in the evening Mathews and the lad, Samuel George, left and lived.

The landlady of the Ship, Susan Hurrell, said that after Mathews and Samuel George left, Lilly had another glass of shenacrum. George went into the kitchen and had tea with Mr Hurrell, the landlord, whom he knew; and was sick. Their departure from the Ship was delayed by Lilly asking for a drink of whisky and the ferryman Whatty, who apparently had now come to the inn for them, having threepennyworth of rum. Remember, it was a November night, dark, stormy, late, and probably cold. Drink warms.

The landlady said that when they left the Ship George and Lilly were sober. A coastguard on his way home said that he saw George fall over and the other two pick him up. This was by St Uny's church on the path to the ferry, about five hundred metres from the Ship. He said George "was certainly the worse for liquor" but the other two seemed sober. This was "about ten o'clock" at night. Mrs Hurrell said they left the inn at twenty to nine. She repeated this time when challenged. We have no sure way of knowing whether George was drunk or sober when they left the Ship and no way of reconciling the two times given.

That was the last anyone saw of the three men alive. What happened on the ferryboat was unwitnessed and unknown. We are told by the Cornishman of 25 November 1880 that at the likely time of their dark, night crossing there was a southeasterly gale and a half-ebb tide fast going out of the River Hayle. A stormy night and fast, agitated waters: these do not strike me as circumstances in which the ferryman would normally venture the river and Whatty and Lilly were experienced boatmen.

The alarm was raised the next morning and the river searched. Nothing was found except "part of the ferryboat" on the sands at Hayle. No one could have doubted the men were dead.

Then on 1 December George's body was found at Godrevy. On 23 December, a month after the accident, Whatty's body was found at Perranporth. I do not know whether this finding of him was a relief for his family or the worst of Christmas gifts. His face was unrecognisable and he was identified by his possessions, including a silver watch marked EW and a bill from Whatty to R Roscorla, marked paid. I do not know whether Lilly's body was ever found.

At the time of his death Edwin Whatty was about forty seven. The censuses describe him as a labourer and tailor. He had presumably taken over as ferryman from his father-in-law Thomas Gall in the 1870s. His death certificate, dated 25 December 1880, records his death as "accidentally drowned by the sinking of his ferryboat." Lilly was captain of the steam tug North Star of Hayle and his wife was expecting their fourth child soon. George was about forty one and a shipwright and a second foreman in Harvey's shipbuilding yard at Hayle. The three drowned men left three widows and sixteen children. Funds were raised for the families, more than 100, and arrangements made to administer the money. I think this shows that, whatever the circumstances of the accident, local people had practical concern for the families. Edwin Whatty's son-in-law, Charles Neilsson, a Norwegian who lived in Lelant, was appointed as ferryman by Praed and keeper of the harbour lights at Lelant by Harveys, a practical kindness by the respective owners, to help the family. The census of 1881 shows him helped by Edwin's sixteen year old son, Thomas Whatty, who became the ferryman until his natural death in 1910.

The story of the accident that I have told here is based on the nineteenth-century contemporary accounts in the local newspapers. It differs substantially from some of the twentieth-century accounts which give a different year or imprecise date, say that only one body was recovered, and, above all, give the drowned ferryman's forename as Thomas: a trinity not consonant with the contemporary accounts of the accident.


Shenacrum: JAGO FW (1882) The ancient language and dialect of Cornwall [copy at Cornish Studies Library, Redruth]: defines shenagrum as a drink of rum, sugar, and lemon, with hot beer. This is probably what the papers called shenacrum.

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