“On Saturday morning, an accident which has unfortunately terminated fatally, occurred to a man named Dobson,” starts a news article from the 1850s. “The deceased sat upon the stone while it was being raised, to prevent it shaking the scaffolding”.
I read this out loud to an audience as part of a talk on the construction site he was working on. The audience laughed. It does seem ludicrous now. You place a labourer on a two-tonne stone 50 feet from the ground to stop it shaking. He was acting as an anchor, a stabiliser. Health and safety has only become more robust over the past few years because employers and owners are being made legally responsible. And any failings in that, would result in fines or imprisonment. To us, in our country today, life is not cheap and we take health and safety seriously. We also take it for granted.
Reading on, “… one of the poles suddenly broke, and the ponderous mass of stone fell to the earth. The deceased was thrown upon the ground with considerable violence, and when raised was found to be quite insensible. He was removed to the Fox and Hounds public house, Seething Wells, Kingston, where he lingered until yesterday morning, when death put an end to his sufferings.”
The journalist has gathered the events, the facts and written it in his own language. There is no on the spot reporting, interviewing witnesses, the doctor, or landlord of the pub to where he was taken. There is no formula of the “who, what, when, where, why”. The journalist did not go into Dobson’s life, the background “human interest” story, his age, where he lived, or the family he left behind. No character descriptions or tributes from his family, friends or colleagues. No statements from the employers, whose “thoughts and wishes go to the family”.
Instead, the writing is poetic. The journalist has used very descriptive language to report the tragedy. He would have needed to. There was no visual imagery to show the readers the scene, the equipment, the two-ton stone, the body being taken to the nearby pub. Photography was not developed and illustrations were expensive. Reporting needed a visual language to build up a picture in the mind’s eye. The article focuses on the moment of the accident and the death. We are transported to that moment through the poetic language.
Who was Dobson? Labourers and workers were itinerant. They travelled around the country in gangs, working on large construction projects. But Dobson, may have been local. In the 1851 census, there is a William Dobson who lived in Hampton with his widowed mother and older sister.
In the census, William was 24 making him 27 in ’54, when the accident happened. In the 1861 census he is not there at that address, although his mother and sister were. If he were this man, then his mother, Ann, had lost her husband and son. She was a charwoman and her daughter, Emma, was a washerwoman. They were poor, and the loss of William would have had a financial impact.
No doubt his mother and sister suffered loss, grievance and remembered him with all the love that a mother and sister would have. His extended family, friends and neighbours, remembered him, but as the generations went by, his decedents would have less of a connection with him and at some point, he was forgotten. But here William pops up and is re-remembered by us who never knew him, looking him up in the census, at where he lived on maps and touched by the poetic piece of his death; a small newspaper clipping, stumbled on by a random online search.
With thanks and apologies to the folks of the Seething Wells project of 2011. http://seethingwellswater.org/Seething_Wells_-_Surbitons_Hidden_Heritage.html