In the mid 19th and early 20th centuries For many generations of Hop Pickers, from all walks of life the Heart of Kent, the garden of England, had been for two months every year another source of income. Hop Picking season was here many family’s from London mainly women and children would descend apon Kent countryside. With the coming of the railway through Tonbridge in 1842 this made travelling to Kent very easy and special trains were provided for pickers. On arrival farmers with carts would meet many Family’s and provide travel and accommodation on their land. Accommodation could be as simple tent or old wooden Huts, Many other travelling family’s Gypsies who were use to the hard labour and conditions would also return to farms for the hopping season.
This is the story of the Hartlake Bridge Disaster October 20th 1853 when
30 Hop-pickers lost their lives,
The below is extracts from London illustrated news London times 1853.
Imagine the annual migration of Londoners, travellers mainly women and children, to the hop fields of Kent for the September hop picking season. Whole families worked for up to 4 weeks, staying in wooden huts provided by local farmers. Mr Cox was a farmer whose hop gardens grew both sides of the river Medway near the Hartlake Bridge at Golden Green, a little village on the outskirts of Tonbridge. Mr Cox generally a well-respected farmer who many pickers returned to each year supplied accommodation for his pickers on the Caple, Tudely side of the River Medway. On Thursday October 20th 1853 just as day meets night between 18:00 – 19:00 the hop pickers had been picking all day on the Golden Green side of the river, so the pickers would have to cross the Hartlake bridge on there journey home.
It was reported that there had been heavy rain downpours over the last few days, and the riverbanks were swollen and the surrounding areas were flooded. That evening it was still heavily raining and Mr Cox sent a wagon out to the picker to provide some shelter on the journey back. Because of the number of pickers this was made in two journeys the first journey was made although a struggle through the flooded waters it was without incident. When the wagon returned for the second journey 30- 40 people climbed aboard to make the ill fated journey. The approaches to the Hartlake bridge were flooded by 2to 3 feet this meant that the wagoner a Mr John Waghorn could not walk the horses over the bridge. The wagons was pulled by two horses one in front of each other John Waghorn mounted the lead horse to steady and guide it across the bridge, as the wagon was full a lone picker rode the shaft horse. When the wagon reached the crown of the bridge the horses swerved towards the near side of the bridge and the large wheels touched the low board skirting on the bridge. The boarding was very old and rotten and gave way, Mr Waghorn tried desperately to correct the wagon and drive to safety, but it was too late.
More of the boarding gave way and the wagon horses and 40 pickers were overturned into freezing waters of the swollen river. The horse broke free and tried to escape clambering over women and children who where also being pulled under by the raging current and wagon debris. For a few moments the scene must have been so horrific with people shouting screaming as people were being swept below the water. Some pickers managed to climb to safety and tried to help the many cries for help, from there loved ones that they were with only seconds ago. The first silence after the frightful struggle must have been really awful, of the eleven that survived out of such a large party each apart from the waggoner, had lost Father, Mother, child, brother or sister in this truly horrid tragedy. The cry for help was so load that it was herd by Mr Eldon the landlord of the Bell Inn Golden green gathering helpers they hurried but were unable to reach the poor pickers due to the flooding. Mr Cox soon received news about the accident and a party of his labourers soon arrived at the scene but flooding made it very difficult and dangerous to move around.
There was no organised rescue and no attempt was made to recover any bodies, An eyewitness report stated that groups of the bereaved friends and relatives were standing about in mute despair some with lanterns and long hop poles probing the waters for the bodies of those who were lost. A little fairheaded shoeless girl who had lost her mother, father and infant brother. Another man threw pieces of wood to direct the men with poles to the spot where he last caught glimpse of his drowning wife.
The extent of the flood made the search for the bodies of the victims very difficult and by Saturday 22 October, two days after only six had been recovered from their watery graves. In fact there appears to have been no real effort to recover the bodies, no boats had been obtained and neither had any plan for dragging the river area been put into operation. The only help available were friends and relatives with long poles.
The six poor unfortunate hop-pickers whose bodies had so far been recovered were taken on Saturday 22 October 1853, to the Bell Inn at Golden Green were the inquest was to be held. . The Inquest was presided over by Mr J N Dudlow, the Coroner from West Malling, and a jury of 13 local men under Foreman Thomas Kibble Esq. were sworn-in to consider a verdict. The Medway Navigation Company, who were responsible for Hartlake Bridge were represented by Mr Gorham, Solicitor, and Mr Hallowes, one of the managers of the Company.
After hearing evidence from the survivor's the Coroner summed-up the evidence as follows- "It was shown in evidence that although many persons had complained of the insecure state of the bridge, yet they had kept their complaints to themselves, and had not communicated with the company, or any of its officers; but no doubt that now, when a most appalling accident had occurred, there were many complaints, and they could all see what was actually wanted. One of the witnesses was particularly asked whether he had considered the bridge to be in a dangerous state, said, that he had not so considered it. Now the fence was broken they could easily see how rotten it had become, but previously there can be little doubt but that to a superficial eye the bridge would appear to be in a perfectly safe condition. It must be considered that there was a weight exceeding two tons resting against the fence, and it was from the pressure of so great a weight that the fence gave way. Now that the fence was down it was easy to perceive that it was not safe. Evidently, the result had shown that the bridge was not safe, or in a proper state; it had wanted attending to before".The jury returned the following verdict - "That the deceased were accidentally drowned, and in the opinion of the jury the accident arose entirely from the defective state of the road and the wooden bridge, and their dangerous construction, which ought to have been before remedied, and they recommended that the bridge be forthwith replaced by a substantial construction either of brick or stone". The Inquest was then formally closed.
To assist with the recovery of the remaining bodies the Medway Company ordered that the water should be dammed up above the bridge and the lock gates left open for some distance. This enabled more bodies to be recovered these were taken to the Bell Inn at Golden Green until their funeral .
On Monday the 24th October arrangements were made for the funeral of the deceased. Mr Cox provided a wagon in which the bodies were placed each covered in white cloth and attended by men from his farm. They started at 10:30 followed by relatives and friends and a large body of the country people to Hadlow churchyard just over as mile from the Bell Inn. A large square grave had been dug in the corner of the churchyard for the bodies to be laid to rest.
The cost of the funeral had to be borne by the parish of Hadlow, The Medway Company refusing to make any contribution to the costs. The same bridge also claimed the lives of two others about twenty years previous a Mr and Mrs Gower from Pembury. They both drowned when their wagon went over the side this was before the bridge had guide rails to stop the wheels going over the edge.
The stone bridge that replaced the former bridge had very high sides and was very narrow; this was demolished in 2004 and replaced with a wider bridge. A plaque is placed above and below the bridge to remind us of the poor families that lost their lives.
The Monument still lies in the corner of Hadlow churchyard with the details of the Hop-pickers who died on that sad day. The name of one poor little Girl still remains unknown, she was only 2 her mother sister and farther also died and nobody who knew her name survived.
The Memorial stone is shaped like An oast kiln for drying hops.
Below is a list of the 30 Hop Pickers who died on that day some local Gypsy families and some from Ireland.
Samuel Leatherland 59 Sarah Tayor 55 Catherine Donehue 42 Charlotte Leatherland 56 Thomas Taylor 38 Elien Collins 40 Comfort Leatherland 24 Thomas Taylor 4 Norah Donovan 31 Selina Leatherland 22 William Elsley 22 Catherine Clare 28 Alice Leatherland 18 Selinda Elsley 25 Catherine Preswell 24 Lunia Herne 26 Selina Maria Knight 6 Mary Quinn 22 John Herne 28 Margaret Mahoney 18 Catherine Roach 21 Centine Herne 4 Jeremiah Murphy 50 Margaret King 20 ? Herne 2 Ann Howard 49 Bridget Flinn 20 James Manser 18 Richard Read 30 Ellen Devine 19
For many years after hop-pickers would drop a wreath made from hops vines and wild berries over the bridge as a sign of respect .