By Julie Smith
George Shreeve was in my opinion, an unsung hero of Great Yarmouth. He was a beachman and Police Fireman who was credited with saving at least 11 lives. He died in a tragic accident which today would never had happened with all the health and safety rules in place. George is not related, however, I came across the story of his tragic death whilst undertaking other research and the more I read about him the more I wanted to find out about this very special man. This is his story.
George was born about 1840 in Caister to William Shreeve a fisherman and beachman and his wife Lydia. According to the 1861 census, George was also employed in the same trade as his father.
Beachmen in Great Yarmouth went back to the 1700s. Their first objective was to rescue the crew and passengers of any vessel in distress, however they would also make a profit out of the salvage of any wreck. Until the RNLI came about the beachmen were the only rescue organisation.
The RNLI began life in 1824 as “National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck”. In 1849 Prince Albert became a supporter and by 1854 the name had changed to the name we are all familiar with today the “Royal National Lifeboat Institution”.
In 1862 George married Elizabeth George –
The couple went on to have three children, Mary Ann born in 1863 in Caister, whilst George William in 1864 and Jane Eliza in 1868 were both born in Great Yarmouth.
Like his father, George William will also lose his life in tragic circumstances in 1903. I will cover his story at a later date.
It is possible that George may still have worked as a beachman as in December 1866 several newspapers reported the following –
On Wednesday evening, the claim for life rendered by Police Constable Shreeve for the crew of the Smack “Betsy” of this port, came on for hearing at the Police Court.
In October last, George rescued the nine smack men aboard the “Betsy” which had been driven ashore during a strong gale just beyond Britannica Pier, on the beach almost opposite the cemetery. Police Constable Shreeve who was on duty on the Caister Road at about 11.30, was attracted by hearing loud cries for assistance. The Officer at once hastened to the beach where he found a Smack in the surf and the crew shouting lustily for help, believing the vessel would go to pieces. Shreeve quickly divested himself of some of his outer clothing and by wading into the surf and directing the crew where to jump he was able to assist them ashore one by one until the entire crew was saved.
In some papers they say George rescued the crew single handed whilst others say there were two other rescuers. Since George was the only person to be bestowed with a medal I suspect the other two may not have been so involved.
The Committee stated that for this gallant service Police Constable George Shreeve was raised from a third class to a second class Constable.
Mr Preston said that under the Merchant Shipping Act, men engaged in saving life had a lien* of goods salved. The Board of Trade also frequently remunerated men for such services. He wished to know whether any goods had been obtained from the wreck of the “Betsy” and whether Shreeve’s gallant services had been brought under the notice of the Board of Trade.
Mr Aldred was understood to say that the Coroner had promised to bring the matter before the Board of Trade. He and the committee would be most happy to do all they could in forwarding such an application. They Mayor thought the committee ought to stretch a point in the matter, however, Mr Mainprice said that little was saved from the wreck. The report was adapted, and further measures were directed to be adopted with respect to obtaining a proper recognition for the splendid services rendered by Shreeve.
The Justices considered a very meritorious service had been rendered and awarded George the sum of £15 (About £1250 in today’s terms) and costs, regretting that the value of the boat did not enable them to give a higher sum.
* A right to keep possession of a property belonging to another person.
Following on from the rescue of Mrs Knight, George was awarded a Bronze Human Medal and the following report appeared in the Norfolk Chronicle on 12 November 1870.
Presentation of a Humane Medal to a Policeman –The Mayor read a letter which had been received from Mr Lambton Young, secretary to the Royal Humane Society, to this effect: – “Herewith I have the pleasure of transmitting to you, for presentation to George Shreeve, the Honorary Bronze medal of this Society which has been awarded to him by the committee for his courage and humanity in having saved Mrs Knights life from drowning at Yarmouth on the 2nd August last. Please cause this reward to be presented in a public a manner as possible”.
The above medal is similar to the one George would have been presented with from the Humane Society.
The Mayor said, addressing Constable Shreeve, said the medal would be presented to him on Thursday by the Chairman of the Watch Committee. Mr Palmer enquired how many lives Shreeve had been instrumental in saving. Shreeve replied nine. The Mayor was very proud indeed to have such a Policeman in the service of the Borough. Mr Palmer thought Shreeve ought to have had the highest medal of the society. (It will be remembered that on the night of the 2nd August, on arrival of the London steamer, Mrs Knights, an elderly woman, fell overboard and would have been drowned but for the ready aid of Shreeve, who at great risk, jumped into the river and succeeded in reaching the sinking woman and holding her above water until both were rescued by a boat. Shreeve is a strong swimmer, and he has frequently exhibited his prowess at shipwrecks.)
The following year there was a report in the paper as to the potential danger to passengers when arriving aboard the steamers in Yarmouth. The Steam Navigation Company had two boats – The Albion which was faster than The Concordis. The boats which leave London Bridge on Saturday would arrive at Yarmouth Wharf normally before dusk in the evening. In the summer the first boat (which actually is the second to leave and en route, by agreement overtakes the first boat!) has no problem with their passengers disembarking, however, when the second boat arrives about nine o’clock their passengers have to disembark after night has set in and the lighting on the wharf was poor almost non-existent. It is amazing that similar accidents like that of Mrs Knights, did not occur more often!
George was obviously a man who was prepared to help his fellow humans under any circumstances as just a couple of months after rescuing Mrs Knights from a watery grave, he was at it again!
On Saturday 26th November 1870 the Norfolk News reported that a man by the name of George Godby was charged with being drunk and incapable in the River Yare at about 3 o’clock on the previous Wednesday morning. Police Constables Shreeve and George were on duty at the foot of the bridge when they heard a splash in the water on the other side of the river. They ran across the bridge on the west side of the river and there saw the defendant up to his neck in the water, clinging to one of the piles. By lying down and taking hold of each other’s hands they managed to reach Godby and drag him out. Defendant offered to pay the Officers £1 (c.£80) for the services rendered in saving his life, and having been fined 5 shillings for being drunk, he was discharged.
Death of a Hero
On 3rd March 1871 George died following a terrible accident leaving a widow and 3 children. Various newspapers all over the UK printed reports of his demise and I have taken particulars from different papers to get as full a picture of the tragedy. All the papers reported that George Shreeve was one of the most respected member of the local police force.
George had been on river duty the night before from 9pm until 4am and had not long arrived at the Police Station when shortly before 2 o’clock, he and some colleagues were directed to move the fire escape from its position in the paved yard connected with the Police Station, to the road at the back of the Town Hall in preparation for it to be cleaned out and examined to ensure that it was in good working order.
The fire escape, which was about 50 feet long, along with a splendid fire engine, had been supplied about 3 years ago by Messrs Shand & Mason. At the expense of the Town. It was kept in the station yard, leaning against the back wall of the Superintendents residence, the wheels were kept “chocked”, keeping it steady in its ordinary position. It would seem that an order was given to one of the constables for the chocks to be removed with a view to wheeling the escape into the road. For whatever reason, George was unaware or had forgotten that this instruction had been given and without being seen by the constable who had removed one of the chocks, he proceeded to climb the ladder.
By the time he had reached the top the weight of his body acted as a lever on the lower part of the machine causing it to run backwards throwing him over the top of the ladder, to the flagstones some 50 feet below.
As he fell, George attempted to grab hold of the stone coping of one of the windows in order to break his fall, however, this only caused him to fall onto his head which was smashed and caused instantaneous death.
Assistance was rendered immediately by his fellow constables who were already in the yard and within minutes Messrs Stafford and Meadows arrived but their aid was unavailing and they confirmed that poor George was dead.
The two gentlemen called to the scene were more than likely Stephen Stafford who was a Surgeon living in Market Place and Daniel Meadows a General Practitioner living in 141 King Street.
This sudden fatal accident caused shock to those on the spot and a great deal of sadness on the loss of one of their own. George was very widely respected, not only for his uniform, good conduct and uprightness of character but for several deeds of daring in saving numerous lives from positions of extreme peril. He was described as a most gallant fellow although remarkable for courage and daring, was a most quiet inoffensive and civil man and was a great favourite with the force. Furthermore, he was an expert climber and admirable swimmer.
Shreeve joined the force about 1864 and prior to that he worked alongside his father as a fisherman and a member of the “Caister Company of Beachmen” in association with whom he was enabled to render signal service on several occasions to shipwrecked crews. The experience thus gained, coupled with the power as a swimmer, rendered him often heedless of danger. (We know that over a period of time George was instrumental in saving no fewer than 11 persons from a watery grave.)
He was a man of no ordinary merit, and his loss as one of the most valuable members of our Borough Police is a matter of general regret in the town.
The deceased Officer leaves a wife and three children, who it is feared are little prepared to meet the great affliction that was so suddenly befallen them. It is believed that a subscription will be started to afford some assistance to the bereaved widow and orphans, an appeal that is to be hoped, will meet with a generous response.
The Inquest on the body of the deceased was held on Saturday afternoon at the Columbia Tavern in Crown Road before the Coroner C H Chamberlain Esq and a respectable jury. During the enquiry, George’s father was present throughout.
First called to bear witness was Supt. Tewsley who deposed that George Shreeve was a member of the Fire Brigade and that part of his duty was to attend to the fire escape. He confirmed that after he had given the order for the removal of the machine, he heard PC Orbell ask the deceased to take a brush and clear the escape of dust. Supt, Tewsley then said that he retired to his room to have his dinner, but had scarcely sat down when he heard a noise and looking out of his window he saw the escape falling with the deceased on the extreme end of it, his arms outstretched trying to grasp at anything to save his fall but unable to grab hold of anything he fell to the pavement with a terrible force. Witness rushed downstairs and found George dead in a pool of blood on the flagstones, his skull completely broken in. He had no doubt that the deceased died instantly.
Supt Tewsley said that there was nothing faulty with the fire escape and the accident was entirely attributable to the deceased climbing up after the chocks that kept the machine fixed in place had been removed.
Police Detective Charles Harman having been called next, deposed to having been called out of the engine house to assist getting the fire escape out of the station yard and arriving in the yard he met with Shreeve. He unfastened the covering below and then went up to the top to throw off the oil cloth and came down again. They then put the gear together ready to get the escape into the street. Shreeve then took away one of the chocks from the wheels and witness hung the other on the hook by the side of the machine.
Witness was attending to some of the gear when the deceased called out “Hold hard, I will scrape some of the rust off” At that moment PC Dann came and said the men were being paid, upon which, witness left the yard and went into the station to receive his money. As he left the yard Shreeve was scraping the pin that fixed into the escape and was waiting for oil to put on it. Witness had hardly got into the yard when he heard an alarming noise and when turning back he saw the deceased lying on the pavement and having fell on the front part of his head he was quite dead.
Shreeve must have known that the chocks had been removed as he had taken one away himself. Harman said that George must have forgotten and had climbed the escape to brush the machine. Deceased was not generally a careless man, quite the reverse.
PC Dann said as he was going into the yard he saw Shreeve ascending the fire escape with a broom and shouted to him “Sweep it clean George” to which he received the reply “All Right”. Witness then went into the urinal and a moment later heard the machine sweep past. As he rushed into the yard he saw George lying dead on the ground, the yard gate open and the escape partly outside in the street.
The Coroner having referred to the evidence which showed clearly that the deceased met his death by accident, spoke of George in feeling terms stating that he had known and respected him for many years.
The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental Death” and gave up their fees to the distressed widow.
On 11 March the Yarmouth Independent reported George’s funeral which had taken place on Tuesday morning the 7th of March, just a few days after his tragic death.
“The funeral took place at the cemetery, in the presence of a large concourse of persons. Nearly the whole of the Police Force under Superintendent Tewsley attended the funeral, and marched in procession from the house of the deceased to the place of internment. The coffin was also borne by six members of the force. The burial service was performed by the Rev F.C. Clutterbuck and was very fine indeed”.
The Kindness of Strangers
Life must have been very difficult for George’s widow Elizabeth who was only 29 and had 3 fatherless children – Mary Ann 8, George 7 & 3 year old Jane to look after.
However, almost immediately the 19th century equivalent of crowd funding began. On the 8th of March the Norwich Mercury printed the following report –
On the Thursday following the funeral the Watch Committee met at the police court to consider the case of the widow and children of the late Constable Reeve.
A subscription list was handed round to which the mayor and other magistrates had been appended and several members of the committee also added their names for various amounts. It was stated that Elizabeth and her children would receive twelve months pay at £1 per week (c.£82) (subject to the confirmation of the council) and that Shreeve was insured in the Police Mutual Insurance Society from which about £23 (c.£1894) would be derived. A committee was formed so as to distribute whatever money was obtained for this most deserving case in judicious and specified instalments to the widow and her children.
The following month on 11th April the Bury & Norwich Post reported that subscriptions to the amount of nearly 100L (c.£8200) had been promised in aid of the poor widow and children of George Shreeve and amongst the donations Supt. Tewsley received was a cheque for 1L 2S (c.£82) from the members of the Ramsgate Fire Brigade in aid of the same laudable object.
Life after Death
Just a month after George’s death the census for 1871 was taken and Elizabeth along with her two younger children were living in Blake’s Buildings along with her widowed mother Mary. Elizabeth is listed as “Late Policeman’s Wife”. Her eldest daughter is living with George’s widowed father William and George’s sister Kerenhappach in Caister. William is still working as a beachman and fisherman.
By the time of the 1881 census Elizabeth who is now employed as a beatster (someone who mended fishing nets) was living in 14 Row 79 South Side with Mary Ann 18 who was also a beatster, 17 year old George who was a fisherman and Jane who was just 13 was listed as a general servant.
In 1888 George married Elizabeth Howlett and in 1889 their daughter Lily was baptised and according to the baptismal records he was working as a beachman, however, by the time of the 1891 census his employment is given as general labourer and the same in 1901, however, shortly after George would also die under tragic circumstances.
At some stage Jane married Edgar Bly and in 1891 they are living with their two children in Royal Terrace Gorleston along with the widowed Elizabeth and in 1901 Elizabeth is now living in Shardlow with her eldest daughter Mary Ann, who had married Thomas Meakin, and their 7 children.
At the time George Shreeve was a man who was spoken of everywhere in the highest terms of respect and it would seem that Elizabeth never remarried. I believe she may have died in 1904 in Shardlow but I have nothing to substantiate that.
On 11 March 2016 George Shreeve’s name was added to the Firefighters Memorial Book and his name is also listed on the National Police Officers Roll of Honour
On the 4th May 2019 on National Firefighters Memorial Day his name headed the list of Norfolk Firefighters to be remembered on the KLFM website.