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The Derwentwater disaster, August 12, 1898.

 Five young women, Helena Clegg; Frances Crossley; Nancy Pickles; Mary Alice Reed and Mary Jane Smith, all aged 20 or 21, Sunday school teachers from Nelson, Lancashire, all drowned in the worst boating tragedy in the Lakes in modern times, but today it is almost completely forgotten.

They were on a holiday organised by the Co-operative Holidays Association and were staying at The Towers in Portinscale. All five worked at the Lomeshaye Mill in Nelson and, on Sundays, they taught the children at the Wesleyan Church in Carr Road. They would have travelled by train and arrived in Portinscale on Saturday, August 6, at the beginning of the Wakes week holiday. On the Sunday they would have climbed a small fell with other members of their party and later they would have attended an open-air service.

On other days, they possibly made an excursion to Skiddaw and they might well have attended a lecture in the grounds of Crosthwaite Church by Hardwick Drummond Rawnsley, later known as Cannon Rawnsley one of the founders of the National Trust.

The holiday was to conclude with a boating trip across the queen of the lakes and a walk to see what marvels the valley of Borrowdale had to offer. The boat was built for five passengers but carrying eight as the ladies were joined by 3 young male colleagues. It left Nichol End to cross Derwentwater to Isthmus Bay.  Things went badly wrong as the boat headed towards the middle of the lake.

At the inquest, Mr John James, one of the three men who survived, described what happened: “We kept the boat headed straight on to the wind. Miss Clegg was steering under the directions of Mr Lane and myself. A few minutes after, while everything seemed to be going well, I heard a shout from one of the ladies in the boat.

"They cried, ‘Hey, stop!’ I looked and saw a luncheon satchel floating away from the rear of the boat, and one of the ladies held out an arm towards it. I believed that the satchel had dropped out, there was no water in the stern of the boat to wash it out and only a little coming over the bow. I stopped rowing and was just about to back-water to get it when someone cried, ‘The boat is filling.’ The water was very bad just at that time.” he three men survived and were picked up by another boat. The five women, all non-swimmers, weighed down by their heavy clothes made heavier by the water, stood little chance and they drowned.

Their bodies were recovered later in the day by men in boats using grappling hooks to search the lake bed. Their hats and umbrellas floating on the surface would have indicated the best places to search.

The following day the five coffins were placed in a London and North Western van and transported back to Nelson. All five were buried at the same funeral which attracted thousands of mourners. The funeral cortege was more than half-a-mile long and contained five horse-drawn hearses, and 30 carriages to transport 300 relatives and close friends. Their 19ft high grave dominates the skyline at the cemetery on Walton Lane, Nelson A commemorative booklet was later published showing photos of the girls and the scene of the tragedy. It also named the many hundreds who contributed towards the monument in their memory.


There was no monument or even a plaque erected in Keswick to record the event which is still the worst drowning tragedy in the county’s history


Further reading

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