On Sunday the 27th of December 1846 at about 6 o’clock five strapping young men left All Cannings on a walk to Stanton St Bernard, via the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath, a distance of about one and a half miles. The canal was frozen over, and the lads walked part of the way on the ice. They were fine young men, all about six feet tall.
The youngest, Stephen Sims, also known as Stephen Shipman, was the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Sims. He was born in Stanton St Bernard in 1828 and was 18 years old, despite the estimate of the Devizes journalist that he was a year or two younger than his friends. Two of the other lads, Francis Cowdry (probably Stephen Simms’ cousin), and Stephen Green, were also 18. William Page was 19, and Henry Withers was 21. All were unmarried.
At Stanton, the five lads visited a friend, Thomas Broomham, and here they set to drinking, downing about 12 pints between them. According to witnesses they were still sober when they started the journey home at about half past eight.
About a quarter of a mile from Stanton, they were all walking together on the frozen canal when suddenly the ice, which was weakened by being broken daily by passing barges, cracked and gave way.
Stephen Sims managed to save himself by grabbing hold of some old protruding ice. As Stephen’s friends all slipped below the surface an eerie silence fell over the scene. With difficulty, Stephen kept his head above the freezing water. He hung there precariously for a while, until with great effort he managed to haul one leg up onto the surface. Here he hung again, struggling to get any further purchase on the ice. Finally, with a mammoth effort, he got the other leg up onto the ice and from there managed to get to his knees and crawl towards the towpath. He was so cold and weak that he could not stand for quite some time.
As soon as he was able, he stumbled back to All Cannings. He arrived at about 10 o’clock and roused friends and family, who rushed back to the place Stephen had last seen his friends; but all that remained were their hats, floating forlornly on the water. It was too dark to do anything more that night. They made their way home to their beds, until they could return the following morning, but doubtless the rescue party had lost all hope for the drowned men. Finally the next day, the bodies were recovered from the canal. Henry Withers was found in an upright position, his hair frozen to the under surface of the ice.
An inquest was held on the following day, with Mr Whitmarsh presiding, and a verdict of accidental drowning was returned. An unnamed correspondent wrote:
What overwhelming sorrow to the families of these deceased youths this fearful visitation has occasioned, may too easily be conceived. Nor should the Voice of God, here admonishing the young both of the uncertainty of life, and of the value of each returning Sabbath be speedily forgotten.
The tragic events were later the subject of a religious tract, which doubtless reveals the identity of this mysterious correspondent. The author was Thomas Anthony Methuen, Rector of All Cannings and Garsdon, Chaplain to His Grace the Duke of Beaufort. The doom laden title of his tract was ‘The Voice of God in the Ears of Sabbath-Breakers’. The tract was published by J Nisbet, London, and was put on sale at the Devizes premises of Messrs Bull, Jones, and Randle (or Randell). It was advertised in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette on the 4th of February 1847, and a second edition was advertised on 25th February 1847. I have been unable to find a copy of the Rector’s book, although other writings by Methuen have survived. Methuen himself was later the subject of an autoobiography: ‘The autobiography of Thomas Anthony Methuen with a memoir by T.P. Methuen’, edited by Thomas Plumptre Methuen.
Stephen Simms, the only survivor of the accident, married Sophia Reeves in Dauntsey in August 1852. They moved to Patterdown, Corsham, where Stephen worked as a railway labourer. Here they had their only child, Harry, in 1859. By 1871 they had moved to 5 Ferry Lane, Widcombe, where Stephen worked as a carpenter. Stephen was widowed in 1891. He continued to live with his son, Harry’s family, until his death in 1902.
Sources used: Genealogical research, and the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette 31 December 1846 (BNA).