16 June 2020

Buried alive in a well

From the Essex Standard - Saturday, 6th May 1899:


Rescued After Eight Hours' Entombment

Great excitement was caused at Brightlingsea early on Monday morning when it became known that Mr. Samuel Wilson Webb born in Colchester in 1861 and died there in 1945, aged 83. In the 1901 Census, he is living at 31 John Street, Brightlingsea, with his wife and family and working as a "carpenter and joiner", a master carpenter, had been accidentally buried at the bottom of a well. The well is 25ft 6in 7.77m deep and is situated in East End Garden, the enclosure being hired by Mr. Herbert Francis born in Ardleigh in 1865, in the 1901 Census he is living with his wife and son at 5 School Yard, Brightlingsea, with his occupation described as "market gardener". In the 1911 Census he is at the same address and a "nurseryman", a market gardener. 

It appears that last summer the well failed, in consequence of which Mr Francis decided to increase its depth by three feet, and Mr Webb was engaged to do the work. At a quarter past six on Monday morning Mr. Webb, with two assistants (Donald Dinwoodie in the 1901 Census, Dinwoodie is living at 54 Mill Street, Brightlingsea, with his wife and family. His occupation is "excavating contractor" and Harry Copsey in the 1901 Census, Copsey is living at 101 High Street, Brightlingsea, with his wife and family working as a "bricklayer"),to continue the work which they had commenced a week earlier, and a hand-derrick had been placed over the well, which Mr. Webb descended by means of ladder which was resting on the bottom. Chains were fastened at the bottom of the well and secured at the top as a precaution against anything like a collapse, and everything being considered safe Webb descended once more.

He called to one of his assistants for two or three tiles, and immediately there was a terrific crash. The assistants, who were terrified, looked down the well, and found that the walls h«d fallen in about fifteen feet from the surface, and that Webb was completely buried beneath about five tons of bricks, mortar, and other débris. 

"Are you all right?" they shouted, and were delighted at hearing the faint reply, "Yes; get help and work like Englishmen. " 

In a very few minutes a party of five professional well-sinkers, who are engaged on the new Waterworks at Brightlingsea, were on the spot, and at once set to work to rescue the buried man, and were assisted by a large band of willing workers. It being unsafe to operate at the top of the well, the men began digging a large pit a few feet away, with the object of tapping the well-side when they had reached a sufficient depth, and then removing the débris through the hole. 

At the same time the sides of the well itself were shored and when the exact whereabouts of Webb had been ascertained, a three-inch water-pipe was sunk, thereby insuring a constant supply of air. Those who listened down the pipe could hear Webb singing the well-known hymn "Rock of Ages," and also praying, and to a man named Wrinch, whose voice he recognised he called out "If I don't come out alive, tell my wife l am trusting in Jesus."

The wall of the well was penetrated about mid-day, when Charles Burns I have not been able to identify Charles Burns; he appears not to have been a Brightlingsea resident, who superintended the gang of workers, burrowed his way into the well, aad was in imminent peril of instant death. 

About an hour later Webb's head was freed from the débris, and his left arm was liberated, but his right arm was still weighed down by the solid mass. The men spared no exertions in their work, and soon afterwards the entombed man's bead and shoulders were sufficiently cleared to give him some refreshment. Brandy was administered to him by the means of a tube, it being feared be might collapse, for it was stated that he was subject to fits. 

As the work proceeded it could be seen that he was shivering with cold, and that he had become very nearly exhausted. Soon after two o'clock it was decided to put ropes under the man's armpits and haul him out, and in order to do this the workmen borrowed into the well, bound Webb's body with matting and sacks, and placed the ropes under his arms. The rope was gradually tightened, and amid intense excitement Webb was dragged to the surface after eight hours' burial. 

His face was very pale, one eye was cut, his clothes were torn and a boot had been wrenched off one foot, and altogether he presented a pitiable sight. He was immediately placed on a stretcher, which had been fetched in readiness, and conveyed to the residence of Mr Francis, where Dr. Ling born in Suffolk in 1855 and died in March, Cambridgeshire, on 9th August 1916. According to the Medical Directory of 1900, Dr Charles Arthur Squire Ling qualified as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1877, he was District Medical Officer and Public Vaccinator to Tendring Union, Admiralty Surgeon and Agent, Medical Inspector of Seamen, and Medical Officer of Health for the Port of Colchester, who had been present during the whole of the operations, followed and administered stimulants. He afterwards made a careful examination, which showed that no bones were broken, and that though the sufferer was in a state of collapse and had lost all sensation in his lower extremities, he was not otherwise seriously injured. Webb was then conveyed home and Dr. Ling was confident that be would thoroughly recover.

Good service was rendered by Police Constable Peacock and a constable throughout the whole of the operations, in preventing encroachment on the part of the public who assembled in great numbers, and the greatest possible praise is due to all those who assisted so heroically, in what was unquestionably a wonderful rescue, more especially to Burns, who not only superintended the operation but undertook the most difficult and dangerous part of the work.


Considerable excitement and sensation was caused on Monday morning. when it became known that Samuel Wilson Webb, a carpenter and builder, of John Street, had been buried alive owing to the collapse of a well in which he was working The first intimation which the general public had that something extraordinary had taken place was about 7.30 a.m. when Webb's brother, who is also a builder, was seen driving to and fro through the town, each time at a gallop, and it was not long before the news had spread from one end of the place to the other, and had even reached the fleet of boats, which were engaged at brood dredging in the Colne. 

The accident occurred in a garden near East Green which is occupied by Mr. Herbert Francis, market gardener. In the garden was an old well about 21 feet 6.4m deep, and during the dry weather of last summer the supply of water failed, causing Mr. Francis considerable inconvenience. With a view to prevent a similar occurrence during the next summer it was decided to deepen the well about four feet 1.2m, and the work bad been undertaken by Mr. Webb. The work was commenced on Tuesday of last week, but owing to various circumstances it was on the same day abandoned for a time. 

On Monday morning about half-past six, Webb, and two of his workmen, named Donald Dimwoodie [sic] and Henry Copsey went to renew operations. A hand-derrick had been rigged up over the well, and a couple of chains carried from top to bottom, to hold up the existing brick-work. These, together with a ladder placed in the well, had been left in position from the previous Tuesday, and as soon as the men arrived on Monday morning Webb descended, to inspect the chains and ascertain if they were all right. He soon reascended being satisfied by the inspection, but for additional safety he considered it wise to place a third chain up and down the well. 

This was speedily accomplished, and Webb again descended, and shortly afterwards called out to his men to hand him two or three tiles. He then placed one foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, for the purpose of climbing up to reach the tiles as they were handed to him, and immediately, without the slightest warning, the well bulged in the middle and Webb was buried in the débris, with several tons' weight around and above him.

The awfulness of the situation of the buried man, and the absolute necessity for immediate help being secured, were at once fully recognised by those upon the surface. Their first desire, however, was naturally to ascertain whether the entombed man was alive, or whether he had been crushed to death by the falling débris. Before the cloud of dust raised by the crash had been cleared away, they looked in at the top of the well, and shouted an enquiry, and, to their relief and joy a response came from the entombed man, bidding them to get help and


an injunction considered by those who know Webb best, as being characteristic of the man. The top of the ladder projected somewhat above the well, and it was undoubtedly owing to the position of the ladder that Webb was saved from instantaneous death. The ensued a brief pause, which to the buried man must have seemed like ages, while help was being obtained. Before many minutes had elapsed, however, there were several willing workers on the spot, and those thus early on the scene could hear a voice proceeding from the depths of the earth, and when they listened more closely they recognised the strains of the well-known hymn: 
"Rock of Ages, cleft for me, 
Let me hide myself in Thee."
Subsequently they could hear the unfortunate fellow pleading in earnest prayer to God, and when he was cognisant of the fact that the work of attempting to rescue him had been commenced he called out to a man named Wringe in the 1901 Census, James Wringe is living at East Green with his wife and family.working as "head horseman on farm." This is probably the farm now known as East End Green Farm, who lives nearby, and who was one of the first on the spot, and requested him if he did not come out alive to inform his wife that he was "trusting in Jesus." Meanwhile, additional help had been obtained, and was arriving every minute. A load of tools was secured, and the help of a party of professional well-borers, who were engaged in sinking a new well for the public water supply of the town, was obtained. The direction of the rescue operations was at once assumed by Charlie Burns, the foreman of the party, and were vigorously proceeded with in a scientific manner, which, though at first criticised by the onlookers for being too slow, were eventually recognised as being the safest and surest. Webb was able to apprise his rescuers of his exact position, so they were able to concentrate their efforts at exactly the right spot. It was evidently impracticable to operate from the top of the well, or to touch the sides lest a second collapse should occur, and thus succeed in that which the first had failed to accomplish. Scores of willing workers were engaged in excavating a large pit a few feet distant from the well, on the side which Webb had indicated his rescue could be most easily effected, the intention being when a sufficient depth had been reached to tunnel through to the well, and by the hole thus made to remove the débris. While this work was going on, other competent hands were busily engaged in shoring up the top part of the walls of the well, which had remained standing, in order that they might not give way as a result of the operations which were going on outside, and which it was naturally supposed must tend to render the frail structure even more unstable. Efforts were also made directed to securing a supply of air to the buried man, and for this purpose several lengths of water piping were passed through the débris alongside the ladder. At intervals words of encouragement were spoken to Webb by his two brothers and others, and it was evident from the replies given that the poor fellow had not lost any of his well-known stock of courage, for although not possessed of a super-abundance of physical strength, being subject to fits, it is generally recognised that he possesses an iron nerve, which has on more than one occasion stood him in good stead. While the work was going on one individual expressed a doubt as to whether he could possibly be got out alive, and it was reassuring to hear from a bystander his personal conviction that there was not the slightest doubt about it, as 


or that would have taken place years ago, as he had in the past gone through what would have killed half-a-dozen men".

Notwithstanding his own danger and the fact that he was placed in such an awful position, Webb's thoughts were evidently not solely concentrated upon himself, for in addition to the message or his wife mentioned above, he subsequently enquired if his wife knew of</span> or watched the operations, and how she was. Hundreds of men and women had during the morning assembled, and either assisted in or watched the operations, and it is most satisfactory to note that in no way was the work retarded by the assembled crowd. Among the early arrivals were the Rev. A. Pertwee (Vicar) and Rev. A. J. Johnson (Wesleyan Minister), who at once took a spade and helped in the work of excavation until he was relieved by others who were perhaps more accustomed to such work, and Dr. Ling remained on the spot until the work of rescue was completed. Nearly all the master builders in the town were also present, and rendered valuable help, as well as the timber and tools for the rescue work, and special mention ought to be made in this connection of Messrs. J. O. Fookes, E. Blyth, W. James, W. J. Nicholls, W. Nicholls, and A. Langley. But the brunt of the most perilous and difficult work was carried out by Charlie Burns, and he must have experienced a sense of relief when the work was finished almost as great as that felt by Webb himself. He recognised all through the peril in which he was placing himself; he recognised that at any moment he himself might share the same fate as the man whom he was endeavouring to rescue, but he did not hesitate although, when all was finished, he admitted that nothing but the fact that a human life was in danger and that there was just a possibility of rescue, would have tempted him to enter into what he declared, was a veritable death-trap. About noon the wall of the well was penetrated from the outside pit, and the removal of the débris through the tunnel was commenced. But it was slow work as the débris had to be removed merely by handfuls, and drawn up in buckets, while as soon as the space of about a foot was cleared shores had to be placed to prevent another collapse. Soon after one o' clock a clearance had been made round the buried man's head, and some brandy was passed to him through a tube, which with characteristic pluck he at first declared he did not require. Another hour passed during which time the work had not been suspended even for a moment, for whenever one man desired a spell of rest from his arduous labours, there were always half-a-dozen ready to take his place. Burns stuck nobly to his work hour after hour, and it was not until almost exhausted and bathed in perspiration that he ascended to the surface for a breath of fresh air and some slight refreshment. In a few moments he was again engaged in his perilous work, his place having during the brief interval been taken by a fellow-workman named Patrick. It was becoming evident that the imprisoned man was getting very exhausted, and the anxiety of all was becoming more and more intense, as it was seen that another hour must elapse before the work could be completed. The question was freely put, could the poor fellow hold out so long, or would the noble band of rescuers only have the melancholy satisfaction of withdrawing his dead body? As the time passed on Sergeant Peacock and Police Constables Mann and Beasley, who had been present throughout, experienced a little more difficulty in keeping the crowd from the vicinity of the well. Ropes were passed down and an attempt made to move the ladder, but it was found impossible, the only response to the effort being a weird groan from the captive. Then it was decided to pass ropes under the man's armpits and a call was made for a sack, or something to place under the ropes. As soon as this was asked for, handkerchiefs of all sizes and colours were thrown to the workers, one man offered the loan of his shirt, but before he could divest himself of this article of apparel several sacks and pieces of carpet were brought forward. Then followed a painful pause, during which the silence which reigned became oppressive, those outside beiug able only to imagine what was being done in the depths of the earth. Then a signal was given from those below to those above, and a careful and steady pull was given on the ropes, which after a slight resistance gave evidence that success would soon be assured Another pause, almost as painful as the last while Webb, who had been drawn up on a level with the aperture, was being released from the ropes, and then at exactly three o'clock, borne on strong arms he was drawn through the tunnel into the open pit. Then everybody heaved a great sigh of satisfaction and relief as expressive as the loudest cheers could have been, for it was known that the man had been rescued alive after having been over 


 Needless to say he presented a sorry spectacle, bruised, cut. and bleeding, his clothes dirty and torn, and minus a boot. But his pluck had not forsaken him, and he attempted to stand, but realising that tins was impossible, he looked up to Dr. Ling and said "Have you a horse and cart here? I can't walk home." "That's all right," cheerfully replied the doctor, "we'll see about getting you home presently," and Webb was placed on the stretcher which had been got in readiness, and a stimulant was administered to him by Dr. Ling. He was conveyed into a cottage situate in the garden, where a bed bad been prepared hours before, and Dr. Ling followed and made a careful examination of him. It was found that no bones were broken, and that, beyond being in a state of collapse and an inevitable numbness in his legs and arms, he was not seriously injured. 


A public subscription is being raised in order to acknowledge in a substantial manner the heroic exertions of Charlie Burns and those who worked with him, and a small committee has been constituted to carry the matter out. The names of Dr. Ling and Rev. A. Pertwee are at the head of the list, each opposite, a subscription of half-a-sovereign.

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