52 Ancestors: Tragedy

It’s been a while since I’ve done a 52 Ancestors post. Not because I haven’t wanted to, just because I’ve had a lot going on of late. But I have time, and this one seemed to match up with some newspaper articles that I’d come across recently in my ever-expanding hunt for Holborow stories.

And the story has nothing whatsoever to do with the Earl’s Romance in the cover photo (the Earl in question there being George Hay, 14th Earl of Kinnoull who is pictured with his [first] wife, Enid Margaret Hamlyn Hamilton-Fellowes – George himself would die aged just 35 of pancreatic cancer) and everything to do with the Heroic Life Sacrifice.

The story features a GP and public vaccinator, a Welsh international rugby player, some school girls and a great many bystanders on an August day in 1923 in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare.

The main figure in this story is Dr Albert Edward Ratcliffe Holborow (known primarily as Edward). He had been born in Bristol in 1886, the son of Alfred John and Eliza Gertrude (nee Rodway) Holborow. Alfred was a commercial traveller, selling oilcake (presumably this would’ve been as animal feed to farmers across Gloucestershire). Edward’s middle name of Ratcliffe had been his paternal grandmother’s maiden name, and he shared the middle name with one of his elder sisters, Emma (Edward was one of 10 children.)

Edward had received his initial medical training at University College Bristol, which catered for young men who had entered a family business and needed a greater understanding of scientific topics. It served as the basis for the current University of Bristol. He then continued his education at University College London and received his Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in 1909 and in 1917 received his Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh. He became for a time, House Surgeon at Cardiff Infirmary and a surgery specialist at Fovant Military Hospital on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. He moved to South Africa where he worked at the Somerset Hospital in Cape Town for a number of years, followed by residence at Pretoria Hospital. It was here in South Africa that he married Marian Crutchley on 4 January 1913 in East London, Eastern Cape Province.

Image courtesy of National Archives South Africa, via FamilySearch.org

Marian and Edward would have two children. The eldest, Elizabeth Mary, was born around 1915 in South Africa. The youngest, Eric John was born in March 1918 back in England. One reason for the move back to England was undoubtedly WWI. Edward signed up – unsurprisingly – with the Royal Army Medical Corps, initially as a Lieutenant and then making Captain. It was undoubtedly part of this service that saw him serving at the military hospital on Salisbury Plain, especially as Eric was born in the nearby town of Amesbury.

After the war – at which he fought at Gallipoli – he and his family settled in Weston-super-Mare where he was a surgeon and physician, and also became the town’s public vaccinator and it was here in Weston that the tragedy unfolded.

But to the day in question: 18 August 1923, a Saturday. A group of girls from St Joseph’s Training School in Bristol were on a trip to Weston-super-Mare. St Joseph’s had originally been a convent for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, and from 1851 the sisters helped women who had been “brought from a life on the street” and provided for “the reformation of penitents, and preservation of girls of 16 and upwards from vice or danger”. This then adapted into becoming a reformatory school for Roman Catholics (Bristol already had a Protestant reformatory school). It was in the 1920s that it was renamed St Joseph’s Training School, and it wasn’t until 1943 that the school was closed. The site is now a hotel and a public park.

However, on this day the three girls had taken to sea bathing, but had unfortunately become victims of the tumultuous seas and the high tide. (Weston Bay – known at the time as Glentworthy Bay – has the second biggest tidal reach in the world, after the famous Bay of Fundy in Eastern Canada.) Henry William Harris, a local decorator and life-saving instructor heard shouting and saw a man entering the sea, heading toward a trio of girls in difficulty. This man was Gwyn Nicholls, a famed Welsh international rugby union player who was on holiday in the town at the time. By the time Nicholls reached the scene, another of the group of girls had saved two of her classmates, but another rescuer – Edward – was in severe trouble. Nicholls was unable to assist him, however by this time Harris had gathered a life belt, stripped, and entered the water. He reached Edward and managed to get him into the lifebelt and towed back to shore.

Gwyn Nicholls

A third witness – a local electrician named Arthur Leslie Hoskins – also joined the rescue and managed to bring the 3rd girl back to shore. Nicholls also barely made it back to shore.

Back on the beach, other doctors had been roused to help the stricken group, and the girl Hoskins had rescued reacted well to “artificial respiration”. Edward, however, did not. Despite “the application of ether” and 45 minutes of CPR, he did not regain consciousness. The coroner would later commend him for his noble sacrifice – and also stated that the girls had acted “very unwisely in bathing in such a dangerous tide”.

Nellie Moore (left) and Kathleen Butler (right) two of the imperilled bathers.

A few days following the events, the Axbridge Board of Guardians met for their half-yearly meeting. Mention was made by the Chairman and vice-Chairman of Edward’s sacrifice, thanking him for his service to the town of Weston-super-Mare, stating that it was “done very quietly, done very efficiently and he was very kind in his treatment of the poor”. They had also received a statement of condolence from the then Secretary of State (William Bridgeman, later 1st Viscount Bridgeman), including a request that they convey to his widow “his appreciation of her husband’s gallant conduct.”

Edward was buried in Weston on Wednesday 22 August, as reported in the Western Daily Press the following day. The service itself was marked for its “extreme simplicity” (there were no hymns sung) and there was “an imposing manifestation of public grief” as “many hundreds of sympathisers were unable to gain admission to the church of Emmanuel” and later “the cortege … passed through large crowds of bareheaded mourners, while there was a general drawing of window blinds at private residences”. Clearly the town had taken Edward – and his heroism – to heart.

His daughter appears a few times on passenger lists between South Africa and England, stating she was a teacher. I don’t know if she married, nor where she died. His widow, Marian, left the area and later moved to Worthing, where she appears in the 1939 Register. However, she died in Bournemouth and is buried with her husband, as can be seen above. Eric followed his father’s career and went into medicine. He also joined the RAMC during WWII. He became a respected rheumatologist, and immunologist, and was known for his pioneering research on autoimmunity.

So here’s to you, Edward, and your unthinking heroism and sacrifice to save others in distress.


British Newspaper Archives

British Medical Journal Archives


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