We recently ran a local history writing competition and promised that we’d put the top three up on here for people to read. The winning entry was inspired by the true story of Miss E. Harrison, a Newark girl who gave her life to save a child in her care. Full of emotion and detail, this had us completely engrossed.
Barnby Gate Methodist Chapel looked beautiful. The golden light streamed through the stained windows and cast jewel-coloured shapes on to the coffin like someone had scattered boiled sweets across its surface. Elizabeth Smith sat on the hard wooden pew and held back the tears as she whispered a silent goodbye to her 16-year-old daughter Emily. She had a hard lump like a piece of inedible apple in her throat; it hurt. A number of times, she’d tried to swallow it, but to no avail, it was still there causing her discomfort. She knew that it acted like a cork in a bottle, protecting the contents from spoiling and that once it shifted, she would be ruined forever. The grief that she felt at the death of her eldest child and only daughter was a boiling, turbulent rage and each day when the children were sleeping and Albert had taken to his study, she locked herself in the wash house, stuffed her mouth with rags and screamed.
Elizabeth looked down at the five boys seated between her and Albert and wondered how they would ever cope without her. Their faces, normally stained with the juice of illicitly procured berries from Hawton Lane was today stained with tears, all except William who had a stern, hard expression impenetrable like a granite cliff. She listened as the vicar spoke about her daughter and felt a flash of resentment that he was doing the talking. Emily had been her daughter! Hers! Shouldn’t she be the one who did the eulogy? Wasn’t she the one that knew her the best? She swallowed again and looked at her remaining children and Albert. She remembered they had been so proud of her! Emily’s excitement when she’d received the letter: she was to be a Mother’s Help to a lady in Chester – and her own fear at losing her. As her leaving date drew near, Emily had grown quieter, disappearing for long walks around her beloved Newark, to the Trent to watch the swallows skimming the surface for drowsy insects, the herons and kingfishers stabbing the water for fish, she wandered across the fields towards the hills of the Sconce and for some reason, down Hawton Road by the Workhouse. The Workhouse had previously housed the town gaol and loomed over the town like a malevolent ogre; Elizabeth found it an oppressive and depressing building, but Emily had liked to draw it and spent many hours learning how to capture its shadows and secrets. Elizabeth knew she was trying to capture the essence of home; allowing it to sink into her memory and under her skin so that she would carry it with her when she left for Chester. But Chester and the opportunity had been the death of her and when Elizabeth had waved her off she never for a moment thought that the next time she saw her daughter, she would be dead.
‘Shh!’ she murmured to Timothy, her youngest. He was starting to get bored – they all were – they didn’t need a Chapel service to say goodbye to their sister, she knew that; they’d said their goodbyes when her body had arrived home. Two black horses with plumes like elaborate hats had drawn the carriage down Cherry Holt Lane and stopped outside their house. Doors had opened and folk crowded around to see the local heroine. Elizabeth raised her eyes and glanced about her at the full chapel; a lot of familiar faces and many she didn’t know had come to pay their respects to her girl; the whole of Newark took pride in what she’d done.
They had brought her into the house and placed her in the parlour, the coffin on the polished table; she’d thought how small it looked and yet how large Emily had always seemed. How could a coffin contain her? But it had and the disbelief had given way to rage and tears, at the injustice of her death, at the thought of the two young boys still alive when she was not. At the sacrifice she had made, the ultimate sacrifice.
The boys had collected armfuls of Emily’s favourite flowers: old woman’s bonnets, purple and white pansies and late lemon-coloured primroses to lay around her still body. They had filled the spaces between her hardened flesh and the wood of the coffin with scent until she resembled a woman in a Pre-Raphaelite painting, her small hands crossed on her chest and her long hair lying on her breast. She had never been still Elizabeth remembered. And now she was.
She tuned in again to the vicar’s voice. The service would soon be over, the voices around her seemed to get louder as the last line of the hymn came to an end. The shuffling sounds as the mourners took their seats and settled and then the dreaded silence as the coffin filed passed carried on Albert’s and his brothers shoulders. Her child being carried away from her. She heard a moan and realised with horror that she had made the sound! She swallowed hard; not long now she reminded herself and then, when everyone had gone back to their own homes, she would escape to the wash house away from all their watchful eyes, their reproachful glances. Someone cleared their throat, a polite cough and she realised with a jolt that they were waiting for her, for the family to follow the coffin. She willed her legs to move, to hold her upright and not let her collapse in a crumbled heap; gently touched William’s shoulder, a signal to him to move and propelled herself forwards into the light.
The carriage drew into the London Road Cemetery. A light rain had begun and a chill sat in the air. The dark hole in the ground stared at her like an unblinking eye, a mound of earth sat ready to cover Emily up and return her to the ground. The children were weeping now, the sound of their sobs and sniffles seemed loud out here and she knew Timothy would have a line of snot on the cuff of his Sunday jacket and Emily would not be here to wash it out. Right from being a little girl, she’s always helped out with the washing. Elizabeth thought wistfully of how her daughter might still be with her if she had stayed home and took in people’s linen instead of taking the Chester job, but it was no good thinking of what might have been. It was too late for that. The coffin was being lowered into the ground now. The rain coming down harder and the sky darkening. The vicar was talking faster as if even he had had enough of this day and wanted it to be over. Albert and then the boys stepped forward and threw a handful of earth onto the coffin. Elizabeth followed and released a single rose into the depths. Roses always had been Emily’s favourites, dog roses that lined the hedges surrounding Newark and the Trent. The Trent. A tumultuous river that had claimed many the life of a drunken husband walking home from the inn on a Friday night, Elizabeth had always worried the river would claim one of her children, but it wasn’t the Trent that had taken Emily from her, but the River Dee.
The letter had said that Emily had been walking with the two boys when one of them had fallen in, she’d gone in to save him, not a thought for herself. Ordinarily, she’d have survived Elizabeth was sure, she was a strong swimmer, but the city had had an inordinate amount of rainfall and the river had burst it’s banks. She shouldn’t have been out for a walk let alone walking near the river. She didn’t stand a chance, the flood water had been too fast and too high, her long skirts would have been as heavy as if she’d been wearing door curtains that pulled her into the watery depths. She’d managed to push the boy onto the bank thank goodness! To safety! And then, the letter had said, she’d been overcome by the icy torrent and drowned. Elizabeth had try to imagine the moment her daughter had given up, but she could not, how ever much she willed it to be true. She knew beyond all doubt that Emily would have fought and fought against the water’s icy grip before she disappeared from this life and it was a thought that brought her no comfort.
The vicar’s voice brought her back to the matter in hand: Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes. It was done. Her daughter was of the earth now, but neither she, the family nor the town would ever forget her sacrifice.
The image linked to this story is the drinking fountain erected to the memory of Miss Ethel Harrison, situated on London Road. She saved a child from drowning near Chester in December 1906.