Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 15, 1867 --- The Regent's Park Tragedy

An appalling tragedy occurs in Regent's Park when the ice on the Ornamental Pond, near Sussex Terrace, suddenly breaks, spilling hundreds of skaters into the deep, chilly waters.  It will be several days before all the bodies can be recovered; the final death toll will exceed 40. 

Eyewitnesses report that the ice fairly exploded, the rapidly spreading crack "shooting with sharp reports in every conceivable direction." With understatement, one account noted: "The consternation and alarm of the skaters on the ice may well be imagined." The fortunate are close enough to shore or able to hold on to one of the larger pieces of ice.  The unlucky vanish quickly.

The British Medical Journal suspects that death came quickly as the faces of those retrieved from the depths are "placid ... expressing neither horror nor convulsive struggling."" The bodies are taken to a nearby workhouse which will serve as a morgue. The dead are mostly common London folk out to enjoy a bright winter's day: a publican's son, a costermonger, even a butler from nearby Hanover Terrace. A huge crowd gathers as searchers drag the water with hooks looking for the dead. The Illustrated London News comments that the onlookers were largely "roughs ... the air seems to carry to this class the scent of blood." A large black dog maintained a hopeless vigil for his lost master for days, refusing food, his "piteous cries" were heard through the night. 

There will be an inquest but the basic cause is obvious to all: too many people on too thin ice. The pond had been closed to skaters the day previous and in the morning papers of the 15th, there are several warnings about the ice, calling it "very unsafe."  However, the park workers are simply unable to control the crowds, most of whom probably never saw a newspaper.  The Illustrated concluded: "The true offender is the public ... who have no self-restraint. and who, if they have common sense, invariably allow it to be silenced by their love of amusement or excitement." Adds The Daily News: "If only we could give up just enough of our native bounce to enable us to perceive that recklessness is not courage or prudence cowardice."
[Sketch from the Penny Illustrated Paper]

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