THE day started off cool — but the weather soon warmed to match the anticipation of a new boat being launched from the canal cut at Masbrough.
Flags were tied up around the area — west of Forge Island, near what is now the railway station — and a sense of celebration filled the air.
What followed has been described as Rotherham’s darkest day.
The new Billy-Boy sea-going vessel — to be called the John and William — had been constructed by GW Chambers at Masbrough for Messrs Cadman, of Sheffield.
The cut was so narrow that the boat would have to be launched sideways, but that method was not unusual or troublesome.
Huge crowds gathered ahead of the launch — 3pm on Monday, July 5, 1841 — and about 100 flocked on board, mostly boys.
There was a tradition to fill a new boat with people — usually young boys — who would add to the spectacle and enjoy riding down into the water.
Reporting on Masbrough, weekly national paper The Era said on July 11, 1841: “The vessel had no sooner touched the water than she suddenly rolled over, and immersed the whole in the stream.
“Every assistance was promptly afforded by the numerous persons assembled to witness the launch, and some were rescued. Every exertion was made to bring the boat to its proper position.
“During this time the scene was the most pitiable, women uttering wild cries for lost husbands, brothers, and sisters anxiously inquiring about relations they had missed but for a moment, and parents soliciting for the safety of their children — it was one indescribable scene of confusion and woe, increased as each body was drawn from the fatal stream.
“The occurrence had cast a gloom over the whole inhabitants of Rotherham, and in every street appears signs of mourning and affliction.
“The awful calamity is the general topic of conversation throughout that town and Sheffield. Indeed, nothing can equal the sensation it has caused among all classes, and the vessel, which is considerably damaged, has been visited by a great number of people.”
Sixty-four people — including 50 boys — were killed.
The problem had been that after the supports were removed for launch, one end of the vessel moved less freely than the other.
The boys on board rushed to the leeward side in order to see the splash that would be made by the boat, causing it to roll over.
John Hague told the Advertiser in 1890 how he had been flung from the deck to safety by his panicked nurse, Ann Newsome, moments before the incident. She also jumped aground herself.
“The memory of that scene makes me shudder,” said Mr Hague. “On the banks of the fatal canal was a frantic, screaming, horrified crowd.
“On the bottom of the overturned vessel, fathers and boatmen were slashing furiously with axes to break into the prison where their loved boys were bound.
“All the air was filled with the bitter cries of despairing agony, wailed up from broken-hearted parents as they realised rescue was hopeless.
“Rotherham never had a sadder day then when through her hushed streets these poor boys were borne on litters to homes they only a few hours before had left in all the joy of anticipated pleasure.”
William Creswick, also recalling the incident for this paper several decades on, said: “The vessel floated on the top of the water, the air holding her up, and men dived underneath. They were bringing them out in strings.
“I pulled six out by the hair of the head myself, and there is only one living today out of the lot.”
Press at the time reported how several surgeons were soon on the scene of the disaster, trying to save lives.
Meanwhile, attempts were made to right the vessel — including strapping ropes and chains to horses. Each time the boat moved slightly, more bodies came to the surface. The process took hours.
The next day came the inquests, heard by coroner Thomas Badger.
The Era reported: “The visitation was, in some cases, painfully heart-rending, particularly where the spectator had to look upon the dead bodies of a father and two sons, or two little brothers lying in one bed.
“The children generally wore such smiling, placid countenances, that it was with difficulty the beholder could persuade himself but that they were only asleep.
“Boat-builder Henry Newsome gave a detailed account of the preparations for launch. He said the stocks on which the sloop descended extended into the water at 3.5ft. It was not usual to extend them further into the water, or to grease the stocks more than had been. Every man was sober, and acting in unison.
“Richard Callis gave the command to let go. When the vessel got to the balk ends, she made a stop — from what cause, he knew not.
“With her keel partly on the stocks and partly off, there was a general rush on deck to the bulwarks on the leeboard side, which produced a powerful leverage, and caused the vessel to capsize with her keel upwards.”
Several other accounts were heard before the jury of 15 men returned a verdict of accidental death. The boat owners were ordered to pay a “deodand” of one shilling. This was a forfeit to God after an animal or object caused a death, and was usually given to charity.
The Wednesday saw more than 40 burials in the parish churchyard. Rev Thomas Blackley offered to inter all of the bodies, relinquishing the usual fees.
There was a constant funeral procession through Rotherham between 9am and 6pm. At 4pm, there were 12 coffins in church at the same time.
An Era article said: “The church and churchyard were crowded with spectators, who evinced by their broken sentences the deep impression which so mournful an event had made upon them.
“During the greater part of the day, the bells, which were muffled, were tolling the approach of the departed to their last resting place, and the solemn sound gave still greater effect to the mournful proceedings.”
A subscription was raised — bringing in £200 within days.
And a lasting legacy of the Masbrough Boat Disaster was a ruling by the town council that shipyards should ensure “the entire exclusion of all unnecessary persons, but especially children, from their vessels at the time of launch”.
The Doncaster Gazette at the time described the catastrophe as one so appalling as to bring the whole of Rotherham into “universal gloom”.
The paper’s report added: “It is indeed an event which will be long sorrowfully remembered, and one of those warnings which sometimes occur so forcibly as to remind us of the slight barrier which exists between this world and the next.”