PC Harold Ricketts ….. Bravery and a Twist in the Tale

Postman’s Park

Watercolour by John Crowther (1837-1902)

A short distance north of St Paul’s Cathedral is a small area of land which once formed part of the site of the former churchyard and burial ground of St Botolph’s Aldersgate church.

Following the Burial Acts of 1851 and onwards it was decided to convert this land into a public park which subsequently opened in 1880.  Being adjacent to the new headquarters of the GPO it became popular with the workers there who would use it on their breaks and, hence, it became known as “Postman’s Park”.


Memorial Wall

In 1900 though the park took on a different and important significance.  It became the location for George Frederic Watts’s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, a commemoration of ordinary people who died while saving the lives of others and who might otherwise be forgotten.

This took the form of a loggia and long wall housing ceramic memorial tablets.  Only four of the planned 120 memorial tablets were in place at the time of its opening, with a further nine tablets added by the time of Watt’s death in 1904.

His wife, Mary, took over the management of the project and oversaw the installation of further memorial tablets together with a small monument to Watts.  Following her death in 1938, and with both George and Mary Watts increasingly out of fashion, the memorial was abandoned half-finished, with only 52 of the intended 120 spaces filled.

One of those memorial tablets is the subject of this story – that of PC Harold Ricketts.

The memorial is simple:

“PC Harold Frank Ricketts, Metropolitan Police, Drowned at Teignmouth whilst trying to rescue a boy bathing and seen to be in difficulty. 11 Sept 1916”.

The story, however, is more complex and reflects the bravery of local fishermen as well.  There is an on-line summary of the story at the London Walking Tours site .

There is also a book “Heroes of Postman’s Park” by John Price. However, I have gone back to the original accounts posted in the local papers of the time – the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, the Western Times, the Western Morning News, the Western Gazette.

PC Harold Ricketts

Harold Ricketts was not from Teignmouth but had married a young Teignmouth woman, Kate Gilpin, in London only three weeks before his death.  They had returned to Teignmouth for their honeymoon.

Harold actually came from Wimborne, Dorset and was described as “well-known and esteemed in Wimborne by a large circle of friends” and was a member of Wimborne Football Club “rendering excellent service as right-back”.

Harold was the son of Police Superintendent Ambrose Ricketts who himself had died just over a year previously.  He had three brothers one of whom, Ambrose, was his twin, and three sisters the eldest of whom, Charlotte, who described as the head-mistress of Wimborne Minster Girls’ School.  He attended Wimborne Grammar School and then, with his twin brother, served an apprenticeship as a turner at the famous Eclipse Works.

However, that was not to be his career.  Both he and his twin brother decided to follow in their father’s footsteps and in 1913 they both joined the police force.  For some reason though they did not enrol in Wimborne but chose to join the London Metropolitan Police, the Met.  Maybe they didn’t want to be in the shadow of their father or maybe there were simply more vacancies in the Met where pay and conditions (e.g. police housing) were better.

Believed to be Kate Gilpin (from family tree)

At the time of his death Harold was living in Kensington and had been acting for several months as an assistant clerk at one of the divisional offices of the Met.  I am curious to know how he and his wife-to-be, Kate Gilpin, met.  There is no reference to Harold having been to Teignmouth before, nor to any family connections so was Kate living and working in London as well at the same time?

From the 1911 census records it appears that Kate was living in a solicitor’s house in Limpsfield, Surrey.  There is no occupation shown for her but perhaps we can assume that she was in service and that a move to London in a similar role would have been likely.  When they married she was shown as living in Warwick Gardens and had no occupation.  At the time of Harold’s death she gave her address as Irene House, Belgrave road, Shepherds Bush.

However it happened they met, married at St Barnabas Church, Kensington, and came down to Teignmouth for the fateful honeymoon.  Harold was only 23 at the time, whilst Kate was the older woman, aged 28.  They stayed with Kate’s mother, Elizabeth Gilpin who lived in Teign View Terrace.

The Boat Trip 

It was about six o’clock on the evening of Monday 11th September 1916 that the family decided to take a boat trip on the river.

There were six people in the boat on that evening – Kate and Harold, her mother, one of her sisters, Florence (Florrie) Westlake, and two children – Florrie’s four-year old daughter Beatrice and another six-year old girl Alice Hannaford (or Hooper?).  Florrie lived in Bishopsteignton and the family had decided that they would take her upriver by boat as as far as Shaldon bridge from where she would then walk home. Florrie was actually doing the rowing – “she was quite used to this work, having been rowing all her life”.  Her mother sat in the stern whilst Harold and Kate were on either side with the two children between them.

The boat had belonged to Kate’s father, William Henry Gilpin, who had been a Trinity pilot on the river.  He had died two years before so the ownership and licence for the boat had passed to her mother.  It was a ‘stiff-built’ boat 11ft long and 4½ft in beam, large enough to carry five persons.  These were both factors explored at the inquest (see later).

The Incident

Starting from Teign View beach they had rowed up past the second quay as far as the acetylene stores by Polly steps when they heard cries of “Help” and Kate Ricketts saw a young lad in difficulty in the water.  The place used to be a favourite bathing spot for youngsters but with the spring tide running high at the time the boy, Stanley Drew, had obviously got into trouble and was hanging on to a chain attached to the Custom House boat moored in the river.

Kate apparently called out to the boy asking him if he could get back to the shore.  He replied “No” so Florrie turned their boat and rowed back towards him.  When they reached him the boy let go of the chain, Harold got hold of him and managed to pull him half-way into the boat.  The boy though unexpectedly threw his arms around Harold’s neck and both of them fell back into the water.

The jerk made the boat heel over and half-fill with water causing everyone else to  fall into the river as well.  What had started as a well-intentioned rescue of a young lad had now turned into a major incident with seven people struggling in the fast-running tide.

The Rescue

Fortunately the screams of people in the water were heard and the capsizing had also been seen so help soon arrived from various directions.

The three people key to the rescue were:

  • John Fraser, a seaman on board the schooner Rhoda Mary which was lying at buoys.  He was in the ship’s boat heading for the schooner when he heard cries of “Come back, come back” and he “proceeded with all haste” to rescue two women and one of the children
  • Frank Loosemore who was going out mackerel fishing had seen the incident from the New Quay. He ran round to the Old Quay and brought in the third woman and a child.
  • Thomas Hitchcock, a young fisherman of Brunswick Street, Teignmouth.  He was at New Quay with Frank Loosemore and ran round to the scene with him.  He was the one who saved Stanley Drew, the original boy who had been in difficulty.

Rescue was too late for Harold Ricketts though.  He was unable to swim and, according to Kate, when he went over he struggled in the water, went down, re-surfaced but then disappeared.  A fisherman, William Henry Hitchcock, found his body later at about 10pm in six feet of water about 25 yards away.

Tom Hitchcock

When Thomas and Frank arrived on the scene it appeared that people were being rescued apart from the boy, Stanley Drew, who seemed to be drifting down river.  They saw the boy going down and Thomas immediately dived in to rescue him.  He brought him up and swam back to the quay with him.  A passing Belgian (an interesting detail in the story!) leant over with his walking stick for the boy to grab and be pulled up.  However, according to the evidence, the Belgian let him go and the boy went down again.  Thomas dived down for him again and eventually the boy was brought back to land.

Whilst this was going on Florrie, who was able to swim a little, was managing to keep her mother and the two children afloat until John Fraser arrived in his boat saving first the younger girl (Florrie’s daughter) then Florrie.  She and John Fraser between them were then able to pull her mother from the water. According to Florrie he arrived just in time because “her mother and the two children had been down twice.”  By this time Frank Loosemore had also arrived, having jumped from the quay and swum across to save the other little girl who he handed to John Fraser in the boat.  It was just in time to save the girl’s life.  The girl was given artificial respiration and recovered within about five minutes.

Before reaching the little girl Frank Loosemore had swum to Kate Ricketts who was hanging on to a chain.  In Frank’s words though she shouted to him “For God’s sake, save the child!”.  Kate could swim and managed to reach a life-buoy which was being held by a soldier over the side of the quay.  After Frank had rescued the little girl he returned for Kate Ricketts.  John Fraser had no oars in his boat so Frank had to tow it into position close to Kate.  He then swam behind her and pushed her legs up to get her into the boat.

Everyone was brought to shore where by this time Dr G H Johnson had arrived at the scene together with Sgt G A Bilton and Pte Fursdon of the St John’s Ambulance Association.  Stanley Drew apparently had suffered no ill-effects but the two younger children were taken to the hospital.  The adults were taken back to Elizabeth Gilpin’s house in Teign View Terrace.

The Inquest

An inquest on Harold Ricketts’ death was held quite quickly – only two days later. It was presided over by the County Coroner Mr Sidney Hacker with Mr G Pedrick as foreman of the jury.  They took statements from all the parties and those, as reported in the various local papers of the time, form the basis of the above story.  However, the inquest was concerned with more than just Harold’s death itself; it identified what may have been contributory factors in the chain of events that led to his death.

Polly Steps

Frank Loosemore was asked whether the place (I.e. Polly Steps) was dangerous for boys bathing and he confirmed that that was the case.  He said there was a strong current, especially at spring tides, and that “boys were swept off their legs before they knew where they were”.  One of the jurymen, Mr W Shapter, also referred to the danger of boys bathing at the place but, although several other jurymen agreed, no recommendation was made.

It turns out that there had been previous incidents of boys getting into difficulty off Polly Steps.  The Teignmouth Old Quay Company who had built the slip had applied in 1901 for powers to make bye-laws controlling the quay, including preventing bathing at the slipway at Polly Steps.

The Boat

The inquest explored the licence for the boat in which Harold Ricketts made that fateful trip.  The boat had been owned by Elizabeth Gilpin’s husband the Trinity pilot William Gilpin.  It appears though that on his death the licence to carry up to five people had lapsed and had not been renewed. A Mrs Back, one of Mrs Gilpin’s other daughters, had been instructed by the coroner to find the licence but had come back with the explanation that the licence had not been renewed because the boat had not been let out on hire since her father’s death and was for private use only.

As to the number of people in the boat William Hitchcock testified that the boat was big enough to carry five people ‘provided they sat still’.  Kate Ricketts testified that everyone did sit still even during the attempt to rescue Stanley Drew and denied that anyone had “jumped up”.  Florence Westlake explained that though there had been six in the boat they thought it was all right because “the two children were no more than one grown-up”.  The other curious fact that was brought to the attention of the jury was that the mother, Mrs Gilpin, who was sitting in the stern weighed 12 stone!

The Outcome

The jury returned a verdict of accidental death by drowning.

The coroner and the jury offered their sincerest condolences to Harold’s mother, who had only a year before lost her own husband, and to the other family members.  In turn they were thanked by Kate’s brother, Frank Gilpin, who was a naval seaman.

The jury commended those who took part in saving lives and the foreman was asked to bring their gallant conduct to the attention of the local agent of the Royal Humane Society.  One of the jurymen, Mr E Bennett, remarked that Frank Loosemore had saved other lives in the past – more of this to come in a separate story.  The coroner expressed to Frank Loosemore and Thomas Hitchcock the jury’s appreciation of their successful efforts.

The Aftermath

The funeral of Harold Ricketts took place in Teignmouth Cemetery on the afternoon of Thursday 14th September. The vicar of East Teignmouth, Rev J Veysey, officiated.  The mourners were listed as: his mother, Mrs F Ricketts; his eldest sister, Miss C Ricketts; three of his brothers – H, B and A Ricketts; Kate’s sisters – Mrs J Back, Mrs F Waldron, Mrs H Westlake and Miss E Gilpin; Kate’s brother, Mr Frank Gilpin; Mr & Mrs Greenslade (brother-in-law and sister-in-law) and a Mr C Pedrick (foreman of the jury?).  Policemen of the Teignmouth District, under Sergeant Partridge acted as bearers and amongst the floral tributes was a trophy from the officers and men of F Division of the Metropolitan Police.

It is unclear what happened to Kate afterwards.  From the records, it doesn’t appear that she had children or even remarried.  She may be buried in Melbury Abbas having died in 1953 in Shaftesbury.

Frank Loosemore and Thomas Hitchcock did receive the fitting recognition for their bravery as recommended by the inquest jury.  On Wednesday 26th January 1917, at the Teignmouth Petty Sessions Court held at the Customs House, Mr Hamilton Young asked the chairman, Mr M L Brown, to present the Royal Humane Society’s medal to Frank Loosemore and the Society’s vellum to Thomas Hitchcock.  The Chairman congratulated Frank and said “You are what I call an Englishman”.  He remarked to Thomas Hitchcock “You keep this up, it gives me great pleasure to present it to you.”

It was not until 1930 though that Harold Ricketts’ part in the event was recognised.  The Metropolitan Police had applied to the ‘Heroic Self-Service Memorial Committee’ for the addition of three new tablets on the memorial wall in Postman’s Park.  This was agreed and the unveiling ceremony took place on October 15th 1930.  The Bishop of London delivered an address on ‘courage’ and specifically mentioned the three police constables, each of whom had given his own life while attempting to save another:

“.… the excellent way in which they carried out their arduous duties and the courage and heroism subsequently displayed which so frequently passed by without any acknowledgment  ….. they did not commemorate enough or think enough of those who gave their lives in the service of their country in civil life”

Approximate location of unmarked grave

Strangely, Harold had been interred in an unmarked grave.  Over time, with the gradual deterioration of the cemetery, this became overgrown. Through the dedication of volunteers of the Friends of Teignmouth Cemetery it has been rediscovered and is being cleared to make it a more fitting memorial to a young man who died in the attempt to save the boy, Stanley Drew.


A Twist in the Tale

Nine years later on Saturday 14th February 1925 another inquest took place, this time in Newton Abbot.  A Great Western Railway pensioner, William Henry Davies, jumped from the bridge near Ball’s garage into the canal.  The incident was spotted by a young lad who raced to the scene and dived into the canal to rescue the man.  He brought the man back to shore and other passers-by gave artificial respiration but to no avail.  The coroner complimented the “conspicuous gallantry” of the 16 year old lad and he too received a vellum from the Royal Humane Society a month later.

The name of that lad was Stanley Drew.  It would be nice to think that he was the same Stanley Drew who was rescued himself as a young boy nine years earlier.  There is no proof of that though, but even so what a coincidence!

Some Biographical Notes

Whilst researching this story I put out a call on Facebook for any relatives of the three fishermen John Fraser, Frank Loosemore and Thomas Hitchcock.  This is the reply I received from Angela Healy:

First of all, it seems to be a tradition in the Hitchcock family not to use the given name. This makes tracing them through records very confusing. Some of my information has come from family, local people who knew them years ago and from my own memories.

The younger Hitchcock, Tom, was my great uncle and was officially William Thomas Hitchcock (1896-1974). He was a fisherman by trade.  At the time of the rescue, he was living in Brunswick Street.  His father, Thomas Gilly Hitchcock, was a member of the lifeboat crew, Bowman during the rescue of the Russian schooner Tehyva in 1907 and, at the time of his death in 1938, Cox. The name Gilly was my great-great-grandmother’s maiden name and was given to my great-grandfather as a middle name. I believe this was common practice. He was known only as Tom.

In March 1908, young Tom was summoned along with two other boys for stealing a book. The newspaper report states that “the offenders were dealt with under the First Offenders Act but the father of Hitchcock asked that his son should be birched.” The birching seems to have worked and young Tom later joined the lifeboat crew and worked as a lifeguard, rowing a boat along the front beach. I’m told that he saved many lives there because he knew the places where bathers were likely to get into trouble and was able to warn them of the danger. Tom married Edna Clements and had four children, three daughters and one son.  They lived in Hounslow (if I remember correctly) and later moved to Plymouth, where he died.

The older Hitchcock, William Henry, was generally known as Peter. He lived in Teign View Terrace, along from the young widow’s family. (“Teign View Terrace” has been renamed “Teign View Place” for some reason, just as “Salty” has become “The Salty” in recent years).  He was the brother of Thomas Gilly Hitchcock and young Tom’s uncle. I believe he lost a son through drowning but I don’t know when that happened nor the full details. I must do some more research.

And here is a reply from Sharon Williams in Canada:

I was back in the UK last month, (I live in Canada) and Angela and I visited the old cemetery looking for family graves, to no avail.  Thomas Hitchcock is our Great Grandfather, but his first wife Ellen, is Angela’s Great Grandmother, his second, Susan, is mine.  Ellen has her own grave, but Thomas and Susan are buried together. I found it very sad to see how neglected the cemetery has become over the years, my paternal Gran and I tended her parents grave regularly over the years and it was always so well kept.  I wish the FOTC all the best in the restoration.

Teignmouth Fishermen 1938 – William Henry Hitchcock (aka Peter) is shown on the left.  Thomas Hitchcock (Tom) is on the left of the main group.