The Spencer Family and a Tragedy at Stillingfleet, Yorkshire

A contact from a fellow family researcher alerted me to an interesting grave in St Helen’s churchyard, Stillingfleet, which lists the names of 11 people who were drowned in the tidal River Ouse on 26 December 1833.  He kindly agreed that I could use the following photos of the grave:

Four of the people listed were called Spencer. I knew that I had Spencer ancestors on the Sarginson side of my family tree, but I had not completed my research on them. My four times great grandfather was John Spencer (1776-1843) and his father was Edward Spencer (1748-1811). What I discovered was that the four Spencers named on the gravestone were related to me:

  • Henry Spencer (1790-1833), my fifth great uncle and two of his daughters Sarah (1817-1833) and Elizabeth (1819-1833), my first cousins five times removed.
  • Christopher Spencer (1798-1833,) my fifth great uncle.

The following chart shows how the family members were related to each other:

Spencer family descendant chart
Descendant chart for the Spencer family

A transcription of the parish burial records for the four family members is shown below. It was annotated to indicate that Henry, Elizabeth and Sarah were a “father and two daughters”.

Stillingfleet Parish Records -extract of family burials

The Tragedy

In order to find out more about what happened to the people who died, the two main York newspapers of the time, Yorkshire Gazette and York Herald, were consulted for further details. The Yorkshire Gazette (28 December 1833, page 3) provided a lengthy report of the incident. Fourteen people from the Stillingfleet church choir had set out in the early afternoon of 26 December 1833 to sing Christmas hymns at various places within the parish. This had involved travelling on the River Ouse in a small boat owned by a local fisherman called John Turner.

About 4pm, as dusk was setting in, the party were on the river, having left Acaster Selby, heading downstream on the ebbing tide towards Stillingfleet landing. Two members of the party, John Fisher and George Eccles were rowing the boat, when they came across a coal barge called Perseverance, coming up the river towards them. It had its sails up with a rope to a horse on the Acaster side river bank. It is not clear why John Turner recommended the men row the boat between the barge and the river bank, but the consequences for the choir were devastating. They were unable to row it over the rope, despite it being loosened by Stephen Green who was leading the horse; and, although an attempt was made to lift the rope over the boat, the boat capsized. Of the 14 people who had set off that afternoon, only three survived: John Fisher, George Eccles and Richard Toes. Despite an extensive search of the river the following day only nine of the eleven missing choir members bodies were found; they were:

  • Five men: William Bristow (55, parish clerk), Christopher Spencer (36), Henry Spencer (44), John Turner (55) and Thomas Webster (44)
  • Four young women: Elizabeth Buckle (15, daughter of the inn keeper), Elizabeth Spencer (14, daughter of Henry Spencer), Clarissa Sturdy (15, daughter of the schoolmaster) and Jane Turner (16, daughter of John Turner).

The bodies of two young women were not found: Sarah Eccles (16, daughter of George Eccles) and Sarah Spencer (16, daughter of Henry Spencer).

The Yorkshire Gazette reported that, on the day after the tragedy that:

A little after two o’clock, Bessy Spencer, one of the daughters of Henry Spencer, was found. The family was sorely afflicted. The disconsolate widow, who has a child at the breast, is left with eight children and is herself in a delicate state of health, having recently been a patient in the County Hospital.”

The following map shows the approximate location of the accident together with the location of Acaster Selby and Stillingfleet landing:

OS Yorkshire 204 map dated 1849

The Inquest

An inquest into the tragedy was held on 27 December 1833 at the White Swan Inn, Stillingfleet where the landlord was Mr Sturdy, Clarissa’s father. The coroner was John Wood Esquire and a jury was elected from the local community. It was extensively reported in the York Herald (4 January 1834, page 3); the viewing of the nine deceased individuals was described as follows:

The bodies of the men presented a fine, robust appearance, – and those of the young women betoken that death spares neither youth, nor beauty.

A number of witnesses were called by the Coroner, including John Fisher, George Eccles, William Rogerson (captain of the Perseverance) and Stephen Green from Cawood who was leading the horse. While it seems clear that John Turner, the owner of the rowing boat, had recommended that it pass between the coal barge and the river bank on the Acaster side of the river, it isn’t clear why he suggested this course of action. He was one of the five men killed; his proposal had been agreed by the others because they thought that, as a regular user of the river, he was more knowledgeable than they were. If they had stayed on the Stillingfleet side of the river then the accident would have been avoided.

The crew on board the Perseverance were unable to use their own boat to help those in the water as it had come loose and drifted free when they had run their barge to the river bank where it became stuck in the mud. They did rescue two of the men, John Fisher and Richard Toes, who were clinging onto the rope between the barge and the horse.

After hearing all the evidence, the coroner declared that the incident was “clearly an accident” and the jury:

Without hesitation returned, a verdict in each case, of ACCIDENTALLY DROWNED, with a deodand of 1s[hilling] on the boat. “

Note: a deodand is a legal term for the instrument which caused a person’s death. (Hey, 2008) In this case the boat was deemed at fault for the accident.

The Funeral

A report of the funeral appeared in the Yorkshire Gazette (4 January 1834, page 3). A large single grave for the nine bodies had been dug by 30 members of the village; P B Thompson Esquire, a local landowner, paid all the funeral expenses. The funeral was attended by a large number of people as quoted in the newspaper:

The number of mourners could not be less than 120, and the emotions they displayed were heartrending in the extreme.”

The Reverend Bree from Haxby officiated, with the Stillingfleet minister, Reverend D F Markham, giving a sermon. Choristers from the nearby Escrick church also assisted with the funeral. Reverend Markham was acknowledged as having visited the bereaved families to offer support and assistance.

Coffins for the nine parishioners had been made by the workmen at Escrick Hall, paid for by P B Thompson Esquire and were described thus:

The coffins were made of black wood, – those of the men being neatly ornamented with gilt wire, – and those of the females, with white ornaments.”

The coffins were taken into the church in three groups of three for the service, with the final group comprising Henry Spencer, Elizabeth Spencer and Christopher Spencer. After the service the coffins were taken to the churchyard and laid side by side in the grave. Concern for the bereaved families was mentioned in the newspaper and that they were likely to need financial help.

Spencer Family

The consequences of the tragedy for the two Spencer families were significant; they were left without breadwinners. Christopher had a wife and four children and Henry a wife and eight children. 

Christopher’s wife, Jane Watson (born 1804) remarried in 1840. In the 1841 census she was in Stillingfleet with her husband, two further children and three of her children from her marriage to Christopher: Elizabeth (1827-1915), Charles (1832-1905) and Christopher (1834-1879). Christopher who was born after his father died was baptised on 31 August 1834 with his mother Jane described as a widow. Charles and Christopher, and their sibling, Sarah (1823-1899), and Edward (1829-1893), all went on to have families.

It seems likely that Henry’s family didn’t fair so well after the accident. His wife, Frances Harrison (1789-1834), died a year after her husband Henry. The fortunes of their eight surviving children varied somewhat as follows:

  • Hannah (1811-1894) married and moved to Cawood where she died.
  • George (1813-1882) married and moved near Doncaster where his death was registered.
  • John (1815-1836) died aged 21 and is buried in Stillingfleet.
  • Frances (1822-1878) married and emigrated to Canada in 1851 with her family.
  • Mary (born 1826) was probably a servant in York in 1851. She may have been a pupil at the Grey Coats School for Girls in York.
  • Anne (1828-1846) died aged 18 and is buried in Stillingfleet.
  • Jane (1830-1873) married and moved to York where she died.
  • Henry (1833-1926) married, became a farmer, and died in Thorganby.

I am interested in knowing more about all the people mentioned in this blog post. Do contact me if you have any further information which you are willing to share.

Note: the map used in this blog has been reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under the following creative commons licence and sourced from the NLS maps site


Baptisms, marriages and burials. : accessed March 2021.

Census records. : accessed March 2021.

Hey, David. Ed (2008) The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Newspapers. Collection: British Newspaper Collection. : accessed March 2021.

OS Maps. : March 2021.

Stillingfleet. : accessed March 2021.

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