Channelling my Great Great Grandfather

Newsletter #13

Channelling my Great Great Grandfather

If you read the story I shared with you all at Christmas, then you might remember that it ended with Bert and his mate (the railway porter and the left-luggage clerk) standing on the foreshore of the River Thames.

“Bert dropped down onto the shingle by the end of London Bridge. You took your life in your hands up on the wharf, what with the stevedores, and the cranes and the trucks, and the boxes and crates and sacks coming off the barges. But down on the little patch of mud and stones and old bricks next to the water it was quiet. Low tide, with a bit of a cold breeze, and the smog just lifting. Icicles hanging off the bridge over his head.”

I don’t remember exactly how I came to place these two characters at that particular spot, or even why I decided to make them employees of the South-Eastern Railway, but there must have been something going on in the back of my mind.

It was only when discussing this Chapter with my Uncle that I realised I was regurgitating details of a family tragedy. The story of my great great grandfather’s death is quite traumatic, so it’s hard to imagine that I wasn’t thinking of it as I wrote Bert’s story, but I swear that any thoughts I might have had were all buried away deep in my subconscious.

Because this is what happened back in October 1887, thirty-three years before my story, but in precisely the same spot on the river…

Mysterious Death in the Thames

On Wednesday Mr Carter, coroner for East Surrey, held an inquest at the Red Lion, Union Street, Southwark, respecting the death of Stephen Edmund Burr, aged twenty-seven years, a parcels clerk in the employ of the South-Eastern Railway Company, and lately residing in Peter Street, Dover. 

Thomas Kingford, in charge of the steamboat pier on the Surrey side of the Thames at London Bridge, stated that on Saturday afternoon last, between one and two o’clock, his attention was attracted to an object which was washed onto the foreshore by the swell of a passing steamtug. Securing it, he found it to be the dead body of a man, fully dressed. 

Police-Constable Winchcombe, M Division, had the body removed to the mortuary, where the clothing was searched, but nothing that could elucidate the cause of death was found. The clothing was not disarranged in any way, but was closely buttoned up, and the deceased’s left hand was in his jacket pocket. There were no marks of violence on the body.

Anne Eliza Burr identified the body as that of her husband, whom she last saw alive on Thursday evening. He was then in the railway office at Dover, and she took him his supper as he was on night duty. He appeared in his usual spirits, and she expected him home on Friday morning, but he did not return. He had never threatened or attempted to commit self-destruction. She could not in any way account for his being found in the Thames.

Charles Rastin, chief parcels clerk at Dover Railway Station, stated that the deceased arrived at Cannon Street by the 5-30 train from Dover on Friday morning. He had no business in London, and witness had no idea how he got into the water. His accounts had been gone through, and everything was correct.

The jury returned a verdict of found drowned.

By the way, The Red Lion pub, where they held the inquest, is still there, though it is now Mc & Sons, purveyors of Guinness, live Irish music and Thai food.

I suppose I should add that the story, as passed down through the family, was that he was drunk and fell off Charing Cross Pier while attempting to relieve himself into the river. But, in Stephen’s defence, I should also point out that the family story features the wrong pier, and that other press reports from the inquest report him to have been “a steady and sober man”.

The Thames foreshore, half a mile or so upstream from where Stephen’s body was found. The building beyond the bridge is Cannon Street Station where the train from Dover would have taken him.

However it happened, the truth never came out. Nobody ever found out what he was doing seventy miles from home, nor what caused him to end up in the river with his left hand still in his jacket pocket. 

Annie was left a widow at the age of twenty, with one young baby and another on the way. 

That baby was born five months after Stephen’s mysterious death. She was my great grandmother. Though I most certainly met her (she died when I was six), I’m afraid I have no memory of her at all.

I’ve known a version of this story all my life – or, at least, the slightly mangled version told by my family. It wasn’t until I took a serious interest in genealogy that I discovered the press coverage, and some of the real facts of the case.

But I never thought to work out exactly where it happened. In my mind, I think I imagined the body had floated further down stream, towards Greenwich. It wasn’t until that conversation with my Uncle, after I’d published my Christmas story, that I looked it up on a map.

I’m not sure what the point of this long story has been. I would have said that this little nugget of family history has no bearing on my work-in-progress – it has nothing to do with my protagonist, Chloe Jackson, or any of her ancestors.

So why, then, did I make Bert a railway porter, working for the South-Eastern? And how did he and his mate end up standing in the mud on the exact spot where Stephen’s body was pulled from the water?

The next time somebody asks me “Where do you get your ideas from?”…   I still won’t have an answer.

As always, if you’ve enjoyed this Newsletter, and if you have like-minded, book-reading, story-loving friends who might enjoy it too, please do pass it on to them. They sound like just the kind of person I’d love to share this journey with. 

Let’s sign them up at

All the best