Home > 250th Anniversary Stories > Coachman risks life to save well digger

Coachman risks life to save well digger

Year 1814, Thomas Knox and Leeson Prince

Read by Ade Williams – Friend, Royal Humane Society

Please share...
Share on InstagramShare on LinkedIn
Play Video
June 24, 1814

On Friday the 24th of June, 1814, the following case of resuscitation from the effect of smoke occurred at the house of the Rev. Thomas Knox, at Tunbridge, in Kent. A well-digger, employed in deepening an old well, in order to correct the noxious gas, with which he thought the well might be impregnated, without the knowledge of any of the family, threw down a quantity of ignited straw, and before the smoke had evaporated, imprudently descended into it.

Scarcely ten minutes had elapsed, when it was discovered, by his not answering some inquiries addressed to him, that he was speechless. The alarm was instantly given by some workmen who were at the top of the well, none of whom, however, though in the habit of making wells, thought proper to go down to his assistance. Immediately upon hearing of what had happened, Thomas Harris, coachman to the Rev. Thomas Knox, regardless of his own safety, and in his zeal to save a fellow creature, omitting the precaution of being himself secured to the rope, went down to the well-digger’s relief. It was some length of time before he could discover the object of his humane exertions, owing to the impossibility of keeping a candle alight in the condensed cloud of smoke. He at length found him lying on his face, perfectly motionless. By an extraordinary exertion of strength, and with the assistance of a halter which had been thrown down for the purpose, he succeeded in fastening him to the bucket, when, after the lapse of about five minutes, by the help of Mr. Knox’s other servants, both the men were drawn up. When at the top of the well, and before the well- digger could be released from the bucket, Thomas Harris sunk apparently lifeless from the effects of the smoke. Mr. Knox had, in the meantime, brought the surgeon, Mr. Leeson Prince under whose skillful direction, and by the persevering and zealous efforts of the servants and workmen about the premises, the two men after the lapse of more than an hour, were happily restored to life.

The men were both taken into an open yard, and exposed to a very fresh breeze, which was fortunately blowing. This, together with the application of warm flannels, continued rubbing the whole body gently by the hand, stimuli to the larynx and stomach, such as Madeira and Brandy, eventually restored both the patients. Hatton, the well-digger, when released from the bucket, appeared like a corpse, the eyes fixed, the features of the face sunk, the lower jaw fallen, and the extremities perfectly cold. His pulse became just perceptible after he had been released from the well about five minutes.

To the above particulars, we the undersigned, who were present when Hatton and Thomas Hatton were drawn up, bear testimony, and also to the zeal and humanity displayed by the latter, whose first enquiry, upon his restoration was, “How is poor Hatton.”

Thomas Knox, Leeson Prince, William Thompson, Minister, William Shepherd.

By the assistance of the two latter gentlemen, who were at Mr. Knox’s at the time, the Coachman was saved from falling down the well.


Mr. Prince, upon being requested to detail the means restored to in the above case, transmitted the following:

Tunbridge, July 31, 1814.


I will endeavor to reply to your letter in the correctest manner my memory will allow me.

About five weeks ago, Hatton, a well-digger, about 40 years of age, was employed to deepen a well at the Rev.T.Knox’s. He threw down some ignited straw, with a view, as he said, of driving the damp out of the well (although he had been down the day before and found no inconvenience); and soon after descended. The well, as might be expected was full of smoke: he almost immediately ceased to reply to the questions put to him from those above. It was about eight minutes, from the report of the by-standers, from the time he descended into the well to the time he was brought up again. In five minutes more, that is ten from his descending into the well, I saw him laying on the floor of a large room, adjoining the passage where the well was, like a corpse; the workmen had all left him, I suppose as considering his case hopeless, or to attend the coachman, who was at that moment in strong convulsions, the eyes fixed, the jaw fallen, the features of the face sunk, and so altered, that though I perfectly knew the man, I could not recognize him; it was doubtful whether he breathed or not. The pulse at the wrist was just to be felt, beating very feebly and slowly. I immediately raised his head and shoulders and put a table- spoonful of wine in his mouth; in half a minute he made an effort to cough, rejected the wine mixed with a frothy fluid, and endeavored to inspire. The windows of the room being high, and not so much air near the door as I wished for, I had him now taken into the yard, where the cool north wind blew fresh, had placed him facing it, with the head and shoulders raised and supported, stimulated his nostrils with Sp. cornu servi, repeated the wine, some of which went into the stomach: he coughed and brought up frothy matter as before; his arms, legs and chest, were gently rubbed with dry flannels. In ten minutes he was breathing better, and his pulse was not so feeble. His wet clothes were now taken off, and a dry flannel waistcoat and drawers put on, and a blanket wrapt around him; the rubbing, wine, and hartshorn continued. It was about half an hour when he first drew a deeper inspiration, tried to open his eyes, and first attempted to articulate upon being spoken to. After this he seemed worse, made no reply to any questions, was slightly convulsed all over, and it was more than a quarter of an hour before he seemed reviving again. He then begged to be well rubbed, said he was better, but that his head ached. It was about an hour after the accident before he was perfectly sensible; and nearly an hour and a half before he could walk with the help of an assistant on each side, when he was taken to an airy bed-chamber, and soon fell asleep. I saw him four hours after: he had slept nearly all the time, said he was in no pain, felt rather weak; his skin was hot, pulse weak, and about 90. Bleeding did not seem to be required. I had attended him formerly, and knew that he was not of a plethoric habit. I merely gave him a saline with a gentle opiate; in the evening, 10 hours after the accident, he walked home half a mile, and after two days went to his usual work. Thomas Harris was not quite five minutes in the well, was strongly convulsed upon being taken out, vomited, and seemed greatly relieved by it. This man, who is about 30 years of age, is very corpulent, and though he recovered his senses in a few minutes, suffered much more pain all over him than Hatton, who was as long again in the well. The treatment was the same with both: the coachman’s pulse being very feeble, I did not take any blood from him at the time, and the next day it was not necessary. I found him at his work: he was in no pain, and except being rather weak, was perfectly recovered. The coachman at the risqué of his own life has certainly been the means of saving the life of Hatton.

Having two patients to attend to at the same moment, my remarks are not so many or so satisfactory, perhaps, as they otherwise would have been; you have it to the best of my recollection. I have the honour to be Sir,

Yours very obediently,
Leeson Prince

Please share...
Share on InstagramShare on LinkedIn

More about the Royal Humane Society