Accidents: Seven Melancholy Ones in the Georgian Era

During the Georgian era, there were many “melancholy” accidents reported in the papers. The first accident occurred in 1799 on 6 February at Morley Park, near Heage. A servant working for a Mr. Wildsmith was drawing water from a well with a bucket. According to the Derby Mercury, all was going well until suddenly “the windlass slipt out of his hand, and catching hold of the rope to prevent the bucket from being broken, he was precipitated into the well, sixteen yards in depth.”[1]

seven "melancholy" accidents of the Georgian Era

Differential windlass. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

That wasn’t the only death that involved water in the Georgian Era. Another accident occurred on a Saturday morning in July of 1775. Two 24-year-old twin brothers named Sommerton went to bathe at a saltern that belonged to a Mr. Moxham at Lymington. The twins were said to be of good character and looked and behaved so much alike even their friends could barely tell them apart. However, one of the boys could not swim, and according to the Hampshire Chronicle:

“[I]t is thought that he [the boy who could not swim] got into a hole, and the other going to assist him, fell in, and they were both drowned.”[2]

The bodies of the Sommerton boys were found the following morning by a boy who worked at the saltern. He went to set the pans and noticed their clothing lying nearby. As it was early in the morning, he suspected something was wrong and thought perhaps an accident had occurred. He was right.

Another of the accidents that happened during the Georgian Era took place in 1751. A confectioner to the Prince of Wales named Mr. Dubuy was at a tavern one Friday evening in September. He was with an eminent chemist who was also his friend and neighbor. Suddenly Dubuy began complaining about a violent pain in his side, “which he frequently labour’d under.”[3] The chemist immediately advised him to go to bed and prescribed a “Dose of Physick” be taken and told Dubuy that he would send it to him. Dubuy did as the chemist suggested and the following morning he was “seemingly quite recovered, and at his [friend’s] door.”[4] The chemist was glad to see he was doing so well and advised Dubuy to take a second dose, which the chemist’s servant went to prepare.

“[Unfortunately,] by some unhappy Means a Phial, containing a Liquid of a poisonous Nature, was sent instead; which on the Patient’s swallowing, he was immediately taken speechless, and in two Hours after [he] died in great Agony, to the inexpressible Grief of all who knew him.”[5]

Pastel portrait of future George III as Prince of Wales by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1754.

Interestingly, when an autopsy was later performed no poison was discovered in Dubuy’s system. What was found was “much bruising,” which evidently had “proceeded from a Fall, and was the Occasion of his Death.”[6]

Accidents related to hunting often occurred in the Georgian Era and that was exactly what happened in 1797. This “melancholy” accident involved a Reverend named Davy who had formed a hunting party with the Vicar of Pitchley in Northamptonshire and two other acquaintances. The hunters went to Old and their hunting was proving successful, when, according to Norfolk Chronicle:

“About one o’clock, … Davy having taken up a wounded bird, gave it into the hands of his companions, who, in order to kill it, struck the head of the bird several times against the breach of his gun, whilst holding it in a horizontal direction, when unfortunately the piece went off and the whole of the contents were lodged in the body of … Davy, who was standing within less than two yards of the muzzle.”[7]

Immediate assistance was rendered to Davy and he was rushed to a house at Old. Unfortunately, he languished in agony until about eleven o’clock that evening and then expired, leaving behind a widow and six children.

There were many other accidents in 1797 with another one happening early on a Saturday morning when Cook’s stagecoach was traveling from London to Salisbury. It happened when the coach was within a half mile outside of Overton, a town close to Steventon where Jane Austen lived. A coachman spotted something in the road by the light of his lamps at about half past three in the morning. He stopped and upon descending his coach realized it was the body of a man, “the driver of Ruffel’s waggon, [who had fallen] under the wheels [of his own wagon], as one side of his head was crushed to pieces, and presented a most shocking spectacle.”[8] Later, when Cook’s stage reached Overton, the coachman found the driverless wagon sitting at the door of inn, and in the back of the wagon it held a soundly sleeping boy, who knew nothing of the accident or of the driver’s death.

Accidents sometimes happened at executions. That was the case with the sixth “melancholy” accident. It happened at the execution of two “Malefactors” in 1777, the same year that the French socialite Madame Récamier was born. The condemned were William Dodd, an Anglican clergyman convicted of forgery, and Joseph Harris, a highway robber. Their sentence was to be carried out on 27 June, and supposedly, their executions were so high profile no less than 500,000 spectators came to watch the spectacle. Spectators were lined up between Newgate and Tyburn, with a reputed 40,000 waiting at Tyburn. Some in the crowd were surrounding the scaffolding to get a closer look, when, unfortunately, for some unknown reason, a portion of the scaffolding fell. It killed a woman on the spot, another woman broke her arm, “and a great Number of Persons were very much bruised.”[9]

Dodd’s Execution at Tyburn. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although all accidents are “melancholy” the last and seventh accident is perhaps the melancholiest. It involved Ann or Anne Burnett who was the daughter of a wealthy farmer of Little Canfield, Essex. She was engaged and planned to be married at Dunmow church in October of 1776. A few days before the wedding, Burnett’s fiancée had gone shooting. He stopped to see his beloved on his way home, and “presenting his fowling piece to her breast, which by some accident went off, … [he] killed her on the spot.”[10]

Accidents - Dunmow

A view of Dunmow, church in the background, with a representation of a ceremony and procession on 20 June 1751. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.


  • [1] —, in Derby Mercury, 14 February 1799, p. 4.
  • [2] “Monday’s Post,” in Hampshire Chronicle, 31 July 1775, p. 3.
  • [3] —, in Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 30 Sep 1751, p. 2.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] “Tuesday and Wednesday’s Posts,” in Norfolk Chronicle, 23 September 1797, p. 4.
  • [8] “London, September 28,” in Oxford Journal, 30 September 1797, p. 2.
  • [9] “Postscript,” in Northampton Mercury, 30 June 1777, p. 3.
  • [10] —, in Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal, 29 September 1797, p. 4.

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