Ellen (Nellie) HOPKINS (1876-1891)

Life story retold by Yota Dimitriadi

Ellen or Nellie as she was known by her friends, was the daughter of George Hopkins, a blacksmith at a forge in Merchant’s Place, Friar Street. She lived at Merchant’s Place. Nellie was described as “a girl of a very bright disposition and was greatly liked by all who knew her”, (Reading Observer, Saturday 10 January 1891).

She is known as the ice skater who unfortunately drowned whilst skating on the River Kennet on Saturday 3rd January 1891. Nellie was 15 years and three months when she died.

The incident was widely misreported locally initially and caused a bit of panic as rumours were spread that several children of varying ages drowned at the incident. Only Nellie died on that day. The national press also reported the drowning widely. “The scene was witnessed by a large number of people, and several ladies fainted”, wrote Henley Advertiser (Saturday 10 January 1891). As the weather had been particularly cold during the winter of 1891 the river had frozen which gave the opportunity for many people to go ice skating. However, there were a lot of fatalities from drowning across the country that winter as well.

Nellie left home just after 2pm to meet some friends to go skating. The group consisted of Nellie, the three children of Wyles, the photographer of 101 King’s Road: Alfred Wyles (aged 14), Edith Wyles, Sydney Wyles (aged 8), Arthur Piercy (aged 15), and a boy named Heath, (aged 10). Arthur lived with the Wyles family and Heath lived in Watlington Street.

The group went to skate on the River Kennet, at the back Reading Gaol, past Blake’s Bridge. That part of Holly Brook, situated between the Old and New Biscuit Factories, was known as the Private River. Unfortunately there were “a number of pipes discharging steam from the Biscuit Factory” (Berkshire Chronicle – Saturday 10 January 1891).

The young people were ice skating for three quarters of an hour and had decided not to skate any more but at Nellie’s request they had one more turn. Nellie had just picked up her handkerchief and was turning round when the ice broke without warning and she, Arthur Piercy, and Alfred Wyles, who were skating together, each having hold of a scarf, fell into the water as well. Sydney Wyles and Heath, who were just behind, went to help the others but missed their footing and they also fell into the water.

Arthur Piercy managed to get out himself. The shrieks and cries of the children attracted the men who were still at the factory. Edward Butler (11 Bembridge Place), Thos. Josey (29 Garnet Street), Frederick Cooper (a watchman at the factory), are mentioned among the men who went to help. Benjamin Hamblin, who was in the Biscuit Factory, at once went to help with a long pole, which he pushed towards the girl. Although she grasped it twice, she was unable to retain her hold, clung to the broken edges of the ice and in her struggles this gave way and she sank. The others were rescued with a ladder. Nellie’s body was recovered about fifteen minutes later and brought out onto the ice. The accident happened at about 4.35pm in the middle of the stream and the water was about five-six feet.

Dr Price saw the body of the girl and pronounced her dead. P.-Sergt. Wetherall took the body to the Mortuary, in Bridge Street, on the ambulance.

The inquest was held on the afternoon of Monday 5th January at the St Giles Coffee House, Southampton Street. The Borough Coroner was Mr W. Weedon and Mr George Maggs was chosen as foreman of the Jury. Nellie’s dad, when asked if anyone is to blame for the accident, said, “ Nobody is to blame apart from the authorities for not affixing cautions. I may add that I have been told that a man at the Factory had cautioned children not to go on to the ice in question” (Reading Observer, Saturday 10 January 1891).

There were reports about the exhaust pipes from Huntley & Palmer’s factory. “Looking from Blake’s Bridge on the spot where the accident occurred, it seemed particularly dark and dangerous place skate on, the Factory wall standing sheer out of the water, while from the wall a number of pipes emerge from which steam and water are discharged” (Reading Standard – Friday 09 January 1891).

“The immediate cause of the ice cranking was that just at the spot there is an exhaust pipe from the Factory works, and the steam which is constantly escaping from this had made the ice rotten and consequently unsafe. The people skating were not in ignorance of this as they were continually being warned to keep clear of this particular part…The factory men had been in the habit of tapping the windows to make the boys go away” (Reading Observer, Saturday 10 January 1891).

“The father of the deceased, while attaching blame to no one, expressed the opinion that some notice warning skaters, should have been placed upon the bridge. The jury also were of opinion that something should have been done, as on the previous Monday a little boy named Palmer was nearly drowned about twelve yards from the spot where the fatal accident occurred. It was stated by Hamblin that the watchman Messrs Huntley and Palmer’s had repeatedly warned persons from the spot, and as soon as his back was turned they went directly to the place…. The Coroner promised write to the Mayor and probably in the future something will done to prevent persons risking their lives there” (Berkshire Chronicle, Saturday 10 January 1891).

Nellie’s funeral took place on Thursday 8 January and was attended by several hundred people. The coffin was borne in a Victoria car and was literally covered with wreaths, tributes being sent among others by Mr W.I. Palmer, the teachers and scholars of Trinity Congregational Sunday School, 24 companions, etc.

Buried in Section 2, Row I, Number 17