Walter Digby was employed by East Ham District Council as a sewage worker. One of his daily jobs was to descend the sewer shaft in the pumping-station yard and clean the sewer screen. On Monday 1 July 1895, he climbed down the ladder as usual – but something went horribly wrong. He fell into the water and didn’t re-emerge.
Thus started a chain of events which would result in five deaths. First, Digby’s colleague Arthur Rutter, who had seen him fall, climbed down to rescue him. However, he too disappeared into the water. Meanwhile, another colleague went to fetch help; he brought back the engineer in charge of the works, Mr F Mills. Mills too descended to see what had happened; he too was overcome and sank into the water. Robert Durrant was next to attempt a rescue, but also went into the water. Finally, Frederick Jones followed; he was overcome but did not actually sink into the sewer water.
The police now arrived, under the command of Sergeant Brain. Pumps were switched on to reduce the water levels, and a bucket of burning coal was lowered into the sewer to test the air (uselessly, as it turned out). A local watchman, Herbert Worman, now volunteered to make a further rescue attempt and was lowered down with a rope around him. He attached another rope to Jones, who was lifted unconscious from the sewer.
Eventually, the other men’s bodies were removed; having been in the water three or four hours, all were dead. Meanwhile, the unconscious Jones was taken to hospital and artificial respiration attempted for two and a half hours. He remained unconscious but breathing, and was given brandy-and-ether injections every fifteen minutes. Finally he was given oxygen, but died in the early hours of the next morning.
These events and the enquiries which followed were fully reported in the local newspaper, The Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser. The inquest on the four men who died at the scene reached a verdict of accidental death after hearing evidence that the deceased had drowned. However, the cause of the calamity was still something of a mystery. It was only solved at the second inquest, for Jones, where evidence from Dr Haldane, a leading expert on poisonous gases from Oxford University, was read out. He concluded that the cause of the incident was ‘sulphuretted hydrogen’ (hydrogen sulphide) in the sewage water, which poisoned the air sufficiently to overcome the men. The presence of the gas wouldn’t have prevented the coal from continuing to burn. Once again, the verdict was accidental death. However, the jury had harsh words for the Council about the lack of safety precautions in place, which they described as “great negligence”. Meanwhile, a Relief Fund for the widows and orphans of the five deceased had collected over £776 by early August.
The mystery, the lack of health and safety precautions, and the generous public response are not mentioned on the Watts Memorial. However, the bare fact of the bravery shown by the four men who died attempting to rescue their colleagues is clearly expressed:
FREDERICK MILLS – A RUTTER – ROBERT DURRANT & F D JONES WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN BRAVELY STRIVING TO SAVE A COMRADE AT THE SEWAGE PUMPING WORKS – EAST HAM JULY 1ST: 1895.