An ‘Untimely Death’ at Stanley Mill

Written by Louise Ryland-Epton

George Beer was seventeen and similar to many teens, before and since, not averse to taking risks. Like his father and brothers, George earned his living as an agricultural labourer. His current post was at Pound Farm, Stanley. The duties included ‘going with the milk cart’ and it was his habit (I assume after work) to ride the farm pony into the pond at Stanley Mill. The millpond wasn’t fenced off, nonetheless it was known to be dangerous as the bank ‘went down very abruptly to a considerable depth’. Livestock had drowned in it. But the pony was a docile creature and perhaps it was too good an opportunity for George to cool off or have fun in the water.

It was January 1890. The weather that month had been ‘exceedingly mild.’ Even so it seems strange that George would risk getting wet and cold to go into the pond but according to the miller’s wife, Emily Price, that is just what he did. Moments later, however, she heard him scream. Stopping first to tell her husband the boy was in distress she rushed out to see him ‘struggling some distance out.’ She ‘told her husband to shut down the mill’ before ‘she hurried off to the farm to inform them of the occurrence.’ The press report does not record a rescue attempt simply, ‘the current of the water was so strong that it was impossible to reach the deceased or throw a rope to him.’

George died. The coroner’s jury recorded a verdict of ‘accidentally drowned’ and it was recommended that the pond was fenced. The incident is tragic enough but the end of the report in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette finishes by observing it was the fifth ‘untimely death’ to strike George’s family. Whilst I cannot ascertain all these occurrences, I have discovered that when he was about seven and living in Derry Hill his ‘infant’ brother was accidentally shot dead by his ten-year old brother whilst he was babysitting. Misfortune it seems did indeed follow the family.

This reminds me that the places we live, however quiet now, have umpteen stories to tell. Maybe like George’s they stay intriguing and partial but they deserve to be remembering. Perhaps in an age obsessed by celebrity the lives of ordinary working people from our past are even more important.

Notes & Sources: The main press report I have used is from the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 23 January 1890. Some background has been pieced together from the Wiltshire Census for 1881 and 1891. This reveals some interesting details, for example, according to the press reporting George’s employer was Mr White at Stanley Farm but the census from 1891 shows him as a farmer residing at Pound Farm, Stanley. There is one other slight inaccuracy in the press report, ‘Emily Price’ was actually listed as ‘Emma Price’ in the census. Her husband was John Price was miller at Stanley Mill. They were in their early sixties. The tragic incident in George’s childhood also features in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette 26 May 1881. The Metoffice publish some interesting contemporary monthly weather reports online. I have quoted the report for January 1890 in the text.