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William Whitehead saves baker and son following dramatic incident with horse and cart

Year 1843

Read by Jonathan Pugh – Ambassador, Royal Humane Society

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August 25, 1843

On the 25th of August 1843, Mr. William Whitehead, with some companions, proceeded down the river Trent to the village of Stoke, in a pleasure boat. In less than half an hour they were startled by a piercing cry of distress, and, on looking towards the quarter whence it proceeded, observed a horse and cart rolling and tossing about in the water, with a man and a boy in it, in a very agitated state, and in danger every moment of being washed away by the excessive strength of the current. Mr. Whitehead, who was the only one who could swim, plunged into the river, and swimming with unusual vigour, crossed it, caught hold of the horse’s head (it rapidly approaching towards the centre of the stream, struggling fearfully, and elevating its nostrils above the surface of the water) with his left hand, and swam with his right hand towards the bank whence they had started.

From the manner in which the animal seemed to make its way when thus led, they would all have safely escaped to the shore, had not an unforeseen obstruction arisen. At various places in the Trent long walls or wears are raised as far in the river as possible to make it navigable at low-water m a r k : one of these lay a few yards before them, and upon reaching it, and discovering what it was, Mr. Whitehead mounted upon this, and, lifting up the animal’s head, enabled him to place his fore-feet firmly on this embankment; then, taking the boy from his more dangerous position on the cart, where he hung half-drowned, he placed him beside himself on the wear.

The current was excessively rapid, the cart was every moment dragging more heavily at the heels of the horse, and, although he struggled hard to retain his foot hold, and seemed to display the greatest sagacity in his manoeuvres to counteract the effect of the overwhelming torrent, still it proved too much for him, and he rolled over again into the stream.

The poor boy, when he saw the cart roll over, seemed overwhelmed with agony, and repeatedly cried aloud, ” See, see! my father! oh, save him! save him!”

For a short time, the old man managed to retain his hold of the cart, and, as it rolled over, he still contrived to climb to the top; but the stream quickly taking them more into the depth of the river, he was washed off. The anxious bystanders raised a fearful scream as he sank, apparently for ever; and he must inevitably have been lost, had not Mr. Whitehead dashed into the deep to his assistance. A few rapid strokes brought him above the old man, and, diving for a moment, he brought him again to the surface; and having placed his left hand under the right arm of the drowning man, he struck out for the side of the river, when he again gained a footing upon the wear. For &moment the old man retained his foothold; but being much exhausted by his previous struggles, the stream again washed him away. Mr. Whitehead again, in a fit of desperate courage, plunged after him, but this time had nearly paid too dearly for his temerity; for, seizing hold of the struggling man incautiously, he was grasped round the neck with death-like agony, and they both sank to the bottom of the river. Fortunately, however, Mr. Whitehead never lost his presence of mind. At this moment a small boat from the ferry reached the spot; Mr. Whitehead made towards it, and was taken aboard by his two friends, in a state of much exhaustion: at the same instant the drowning man was rescued by the ferry- man and his assistants, in another boat. Having secured one of the struggling parties, the boat proceeded up the river to rescue the poor boy from the dangerous position he had occupied all the while in the middle of the stream, where he continually cried out that he was every minute becoming weaker, and that the stream was taking him off his legs. The individuals who had been thus almost miraculously saved were Mr. Hugh Watson, baker, of Carlton, and his son.

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