DROWNED PULLING A CAT ACROSS A CANAL, ATTERCLIFFE, 1899
‘They all went to the bank together, Claytor bringing his cat’
On May 25, 1899, the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent reported an unusual fatal accident that occurred at Attercliffe the previous day:
MAN DROWNED AT ATTERCLIFFE
THE SEQUEL TO A FOOLISH PRACTICAL JOKE
Early yesterday morning, as the outcome of the common and foolish practical joke of ‘pulling a cat across water’, a man, named George Jones, was drowned in the canal at Attercliffe. Notwithstanding the number of drowning cases which have been caused by this absurd and dangerous prank, there are many who have never heard of the practice, and are simple enough to take the wager in which it originates. In most cases nowadays the prank is not played, or even attempted to be played on any man until he is well under the influence of drink, and it rarely happens that sober men perpetrate the so-called joke. In the present case the victim, who was 40 years of age, and who lodged with William Henry Jinks at 18, Elbury Street, Attercliffe, has not been working for some days, and since Friday night several of his pot-house companions have been chaffing him, and telling him that he could not pull a cat across the canal at Attercliffe. This chaffing was kept up, especially when it was seen that Jones did not know the trick, and would be a likely victim. The upshot was that, while Jones was in the Golden Ball Hotel, Attercliffe, towards 10 o’clock yesterday morning, along with several others, including a man named Thomas Gerrard, of 44, Old Hall Road, after considerable talking of pulling a cat over the water, a bet for half a gallon of beer was made between Jones and Gerrard that the former could not pull a cat across the canal close to the Great Central Station, Attercliffe. Jones, after making the bet, went to fetch his landlord, Jinks, to watch him perform the feat, while another of the men, John Claytor, went to fetch his cat, and Gerrard got a rope. The party then repaired to the chosen spot, where there soon congregated several onlookers besides those who intended to aid the cat. Jones was not quite so foolish as he at first appeared, for he took with him a pick shaft, which he evidently intended to aid him in keeping his footing. Gerrard was on the same side with him as well as Claytor, and when it was seen that Jones intended to use the pick, Gerrard and some of his companions demurred. Jones refused to have the noose on the rope fastened round his body, and an argument ensued, as a result of which Claytor refused to have anything further to do with the matter, and took his cat away. Gerrard then declared he had won the bet, and pressed Jones for payment. The latter refused to pay, and, in fact, had only a halfpenny on him. Gerrard threatened to duck Jones in the canal unless he paid. He seized Jones, apparently intending to carry out his threat. Both men struggled on the bank and eventually fell together into the water, Jones undermost. A rope was thrown to the struggling men, which Gerrard managed to catch, and by which he was drawn to the bank and helped out, but in the meantime Jones sank to the bottom and was drowned. One of the onlookers, Thomas Belk, of Darnall Road, plunged into the water to recover the body but failed to find it. About the same time a barge passed the spot, and one of the boatmen, whose name has not been ascertained, recovered the body by means of a boat hook, some ten yards away from where Jones entered the water. The body was afterwards removed to the mortuary, Plum Lane, to await a coroner’s inquest. Jones, who is supposed to have come from Shropshire, was a single man, who had been employed as a navvy by Mr Carr on some work at Fir Vale. Afterwards Gerrard went home and went to bed to wait for his clothes to dry.
After the occurrence, William Henry Jinks, puddler, of 18, Elbury Street, furnished some details of the affair. George Jones and Jinks lodged together at the address given above. Jones had not been working since Saturday. About nine o’clock he came home, and calling to Jinks, who was in bed, asked him to come downstairs. When Jinks reached the living room, Jones told him he was going to pull a cat across the canal, and invited him to assist in the ceremony. They went together to the Golden Ball Hotel, Attercliffe Road, when they found Gerrard, Claytor, and two or three others. Claytor had a cat. They all went to the bank together, Claytor bringing his cat. Jones, Gerrard, Claytor, and many others went up the steps at Attercliffe (G.C.R.) Station as though they were going to catch a train for Sheffield. When half way up the steps they got through the railings on to the canal side. Jones had a pick shaft with him, which he put through the rail fencing, so that he could hold fast to it while pulling the cat across. Those on the opposite bank shouted out that that would not be fair. Claytor then went away with his cat. The rope was not thrown across at that time. Gerrard and Jones got hold of each other, and fell into the water together. A rope was thrown to them, and Gerrard, getting hold of it, was pulled out, but Jones was drowned. When the two men fell into the water Jones was underneath. Both men were, it is said, under the influence of drink
John Claytor, of 50, Liverpool Street, supplied the following account of the occurrence. He explained that he was in the Golden Ball Hotel yesterday morning, about ten o’clock. There were three others present. Jones and Gerrard made a bet with each other for half a gallon of beer that Jones could not pull a cat across the canal. He (Claytor) then went home to fetch his cat, and Gerrard procured a rope. All four of them went to another house, where they had something to drink, and from there they went to the canal bank, on the opposite side to the railway station. Claytor went to the station side with his cat. The rope was thrown across, but he refused to have anything more to do with the affair, and went down the station steps again. At the bottom of the steps Jones met him and wanted him to return, saying he would pull both him and the cat across. He (Claytor) went away, however, and only heard later that Jones was drowned.
The canal near the former Attercliffe railway station. The railway line crosses the canal over the bridge in the background (photograph 2010)
Thomas Gerrard was arrested and was twice brought before the Stipendiary Magistrate, Mr E. M. E. Welby, on a charge of the manslaughter of George Jones. The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent reported the events of the second hearing on May 30:
THE ATTERCLIFFE CANAL TRAGEDY
Thomas Gerrard, iron worker, of 44, Old Hall Road, Attercliffe, again appeared before the Stipendiary Magistrate, this morning, the charge against him being one of manslaughter, arising out of the ‘practical joking’ affair at Attercliffe last week, through which a man named George Jones lost his life.
Since the case had last been before the Court the inquest on Jones had been held, and a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ returned. Chief Detective Inspector Moody informed the Stipendiary that it was not proposed to offer any evidence against Gerrard, and asked that he should be discharged. The Stipendiary assented, and Gerrard left the Court.
The decision not to pursue the charge of manslaughter against Gerrard was understandable, as it did appear to be a drunken prank that had gone wrong. What is not explained in any of the reports, however, is exactly what ‘pulling a cat across a canal’ entailed, and why it was perceived to be so difficult. One can picture the frightened furry creature with a rope around its neck, battling frantically for its life as a man, the worse for drink, attempted to drag it from one side to the other. At least in this instance, even though a poor man met his death, the helpless animal survived to see another day, perhaps with only eight lives left
The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent dated May 25th 1899 and May 30th 1899
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