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Remembering the Ironbridge ferry disaster that killed 28 workers

By Rob Smith | Ironbridge | News | Published:

Tomorrow the residents of the Ironbridge Gorge will gather to remember 28 people who lost their lives in a little-known disaster on the River Severn.

On October 23, 220 years ago, a ferry boat carrying 43 Coalport China Factory workers started out to cross the River Severn between Jackfield and Coalport in the dark and thick fog.

They were tired and looking forward to getting home, having worked an extra shift and only having left the factory at 9pm.

They walked along the canal to a boat provided by Richard Reynolds, which was supposed to take them over the Severn to the south bank to get to their homes in Jackfield and Broseley.

The china works at Caughley and Broseley had been amalgamated not long before and a new works in Coalport created, necessitating boats to carry the workforce across the river.

Disaster struck when the boat was halfway across the river, as it suddenly capsized.

Of the terrified workers, many of whom couldn't swim, 28 died. Many were women and children, several of them under 13 years old.

There were many factors contributing to the death toll – shock of immersion, darkness, the fog, the fast flowing river, and few people living nearby to offer assistance.

Permanent memorial

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Few of the workers would have been able to swim and their heavy winter work clothes would have waterlogged quickly, dragging them down into the water.

Many of the drowned were related. Three of the passengers were never found, while one body was later found near Gloucester.

Ironbridge resident Bob Herrick said the tragedy isn't known about widely, and he wants a permanent memorial for those who drowned.

“The 1799 Coalport ferry disaster has become a largely forgotten piece of history that deserves to be retold as it greatly affected so many local people and their families," said Bob, who has been researching the disaster for several years.

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“I would like to see a permanent memorial to those who perished on that dark, cold night."

Bob has sought Telford & Wrekin Council's help to retell the story, and together they have organised a commemorative event tomorrow night, at 6pm outside The Boat Inn, Jackfield.

28 fire cans, one for each victim, will be lit across the Coalport and Jackfield memorial bridge, while members of Jackfield Brass Band will play hymns and Bob will tell the story of the tragedy.

“This must have been a truly shocking and heartbreaking incident for the communities of Jackfield and Broseley. Seven of the dead were under 13 years old,” said Councillor Carolyn Healy, cabinet member with responsibility for the World Heritage site.

"Thanks to Bob’s research we know who the 28 were and can ensure their story is told for another generation."

It is hoped that the event on Wednesday will be the start to build a project to fund a memorial plaque for the victims of the disaster.

Rob Smith

By Rob Smith
Reporter

Senior reporter for the Shropshire Star based at Ketley in Telford.

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