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  • 1834: “Melancholy and Affecting Accident: Eleven Persons Drowned”
  • Allison Fieldberg (bio)

On 26 December 1833, eleven members of the Stillingfleet church choir were drowned in the River Ouse during a carolling expedition in their North Yorkshire parish. A week later, the Hull Packet, alongside other print publications including the Yorkshire Gazette and the York Courant, picked up the story, entitling its account of the mass drowning “Melancholy and Affecting Accident.” Such a title would have been familiar to the paper’s readership, for the headline “melancholy accident” proliferates throughout the nineteenth-century press to describe a range of mishaps, accidents, and catastrophes both large and small. In this instance, however, the Hull Packet lingers over the details of this mass drowning, seemingly unable to determine just what sort of tone it should adopt. While it declares the accident a “lamentable … awful catastrophe,” potently “illustrative” of the fragility of human life, the account concludes with quotidian details such as the inquest jury’s final judgment of “a deodand of 1 [shilling] for the boat” (“Melancholy”). And while it stresses the parish clergyman’s “indefatigable” efforts to assuage his parishioners’ grief, it also spends a great deal of column space detailing the Stillingfleet parish’s earnest (and, ultimately, unsatisfactory) attempts to determine the party responsible for the accident. Overall, the account’s uneven tone raises questions not only about what sort of details one should include in an account of such a tragedy but also about whether religion, law, or something else has the capacity to comfort the survivors of such a catastrophe, as well as the readers of newspaper accounts of the disaster. The article considers, obliquely yet provocatively, whether this accident should be deemed “melancholy” in the first place, hinting at the tensions that exist between secular and religious theories of accident, mortality, and culpability. [End Page 13] Ultimately, it provides no satisfactory answers, conveying Victorian ambivalence about the notions of risk and accident.

The details of the event are straightforward enough: on the afternoon of 26 December 1833, the church choir members of Stillingfleet, North Yorkshire, left their “happy homes” for the purpose of visiting farmers within their parish (“Melancholy”). Late in the day, while they were travelling by boat between destinations, their vessel was swamped, an event described by the newspaper as “one of those mysterious visitations of Providence, which occur to warn, or to alarm us” (“Melancholy”). Eleven of the fourteen members of the choir were drowned, their bodies so deeply submerged that it took a team of men dragging the river a day and a half to recover the bodies, two of which remained lost. The newspaper account is detailed (in that it names the victims, their ages, and the number of children who survived them) and hyperbolic (particularly when it describes how the accident “plunged” the entire village of Stillingfleet into “deepest affliction”).

The article’s tone, especially in its opening passages, is not unlike that of many early-to-mid-century newspaper articles that detail accidental deaths, for its text lingers not only on the deep sadness of the event (its melancholic, lamentable, mournful, grief-filled, and awful qualities) but also on its potential to teach readers a lesson. In this, it is “illustrative,” and one need go no further than the opening paragraphs in order to understand just what the instruction might be: “in the midst of life we are in death.” Presumably, the loss of life on such a grand scale is comprehensible only within the context of what the event can teach us about the “unhappy” or chance-driven quality of our lives (made even more perilous by our decision to undertake voyages in overloaded vessels travelling across fast-moving, wintry rivers) (“Melancholy”). In its simplest analysis, what is melancholy about this event, then, is not merely the catastrophic loss of life but its ability to remind us, dishearteningly, of the easy slippage from life into death.

In fact, multitudinous newspaper accounts of accidental death in Victorian England include in their titles the terms melancholic or melancholy. The earliest usages of these terms in headings of news reports about accidental deaths can be dated to the early seventeenth century, and...


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