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Berkshire Family Historian
December 2002

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A Winter’s Tale
Jayne (Redgrave) Thorne

A few years ago members of the Berkshire Family History Society carefully recorded all the details from graves at Reading’s London Road Cemetery (situated at Cemetery Junction). The details were produced as a set of microfiche. Jayne (Redgrave) Thorne found some of her husband’s Reading based ancestors and was saddened by this inscription:

In affectionate and loving memory of
Ellen (Nelly) Hopkins
Who was drowned whilst skating on the River Kennet
Saturday January 3, 1891
Aged 15 years

Ellen Hopkins was the youngest sister of my husband’s great grandmother, Kate Eva Hopkins, and Ellen’s name had appeared on our family tree for some time. It seemed very sad that she had not lived until adulthood and I decided to try and find out more about the incident.

At Reading Local Studies Library I consulted the microfilms of the local newspapers for January 1891, looking for information on both the skating accident and the weather conditions at that time. The newspapers were fascinating and gave me a great insight into life that winter.

The winter weather had been particularly severe but by the weekend of January 3rd and 4th, a partial thaw had set in. Newspapers carried reports of the River Thames in London being covered in ice floes, ‘a moving mass of white crests’, The London fog was particularly bad on Friday 2nd January and it lingered on into Saturday 3rd January. Light rain also fell and this froze immediately, leaving the roads and footpaths in a treacherous condition.

Throughout England the weather was atrocious, causing unemployment for farm workers who were unable to work. Livestock froze to death and soup kitchens had to be set up to feed the farm workers and their families.

There were many accidents involving children who had been tobogganing or skating and the Reading Mercury of Saturday 10th January 1891 carried a report of the tragic accident which had claimed the life of Ellen Hopkins, The accident took place near Blakes Bridge on the River Kennet, close to the Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory. That afternoon, Ellen had been skating with four of her friends, Arthur Piercy of Tilehurst, aged 15, Alfred Wyles of Kings Road, Reading aged 14, Sydney Wyles aged eight, and a fourth boy with the surname Heath.
The ice gave way when Ellen was skating with Arthur Piercy and one of the other children, while they held on to a scarf. All three of the children fell through the ice. When their two companions tried to help them, they also fell into the freezing water. Arthur Piercy managed to clamber out of the water and the other three boys were rescued by people pushing ladders out along the ice. A worker from the nearby biscuit factory desperately tried to save Ellen by holding out a pole across the water. Ellen managed to grab the pole twice but eventually became too weak to hold on and she disappeared under the water.

When the body of Ellen Hopkins was recovered later that day, she was taken to St Giles Coffee House in Southampton Street, Reading, and it was here that the inquest took place. The Coroner heard evidence from Arthur Piercy and the factory worker, Benjamin Hambling, who tried to save Ellen. Ellen’s father, George Hopkins, a blacksmith from Merchant’s Place, also gave evidence, detailing how his daughter had left at 2pm to go skating with her friends. He had been informed of the accident and had arrived at Blakes Bridge at 5pm just as his daughter’s body was being recovered from the river.

The place where the five children had chosen to skate was particularly dangerous because there were many steam and hot water pipes coming from the Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory and this made the ice very unstable. The jury considered the evidence and returned the verdict that Ellen Hopkins had ‘accidentally drowned in the Kennet’. The Coroner promised to write to the Mayor about the possibility of posting notices at the site.

Although Ellen Hopkins died in such a tragic accident, I am glad that I was able to find out exactly what happened to her, mainly as a result of the Berkshire Family History Society recording the details from all those graves in the London Road Cemetery. I often spare Ellen and her family a thought when passing near to the former site of the Huntley & Palmers’ factory in Reading and the River Kennet

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created 10th December 2002