Norfolk

Great Yarmouth suspension bridge disaster memorial planned

Painting of the Great Yarmouth suspension bridge disaster by CJW Winter 1845
Image caption Artist CJW Winter painted his eyewitness recollection of the suspension bridge disaster in 1845

It was supposed to be a celebration of the circus coming to town. Thousands had turned out to watch Nelson, a clown, journey along the River Bure in a tub pulled by four geese.

But, the party atmosphere quickly turned to one filled with screams of horror as Great Yarmouth's suspension bridge collapsed under the weight of spectators - plunging 79 people, mostly children, to a watery grave.

The tragedy, on 2 May 1845, is recorded on a blue plaque on the White Swan pub on North Quay Road, near to site of the former bridge.

It describes the event as the "largest recorded loss of life in one single incident in Great Yarmouth's history" - but for one local woman the tribute is not enough to mark the significant loss of life.

Julie Staff, 54, is hoping to raise £5,000 to create a memorial in the style of a granite book.

Image caption GYLHAS placed a blue plaque to the disaster on the White Swan pub in 2011

Planned to be around 5ft (1.5m) wide, it would tell the story of the disaster on one page, with the names of all the children who drowned on the other.

'Broke my heart'

She said: "Hundreds of people were on the bridge. As the clown came into view they all went to one side of it but the bridge didn't stand the weight and it collapsed. Four hundred people went into the river, 79 died, 59 were children.

"One minute everybody would be excited to see the clown, it would then have turned into a scene from hell. The blue plaque is good, but it's not telling the proper story of the clown and the whole disaster."

Mrs Staff, who has lived in Great Yarmouth for 35 years, was inspired to do more to mark the event after the recent demolition of Nelson's jetty focused her attention on the town's history.

"When I looked into the story it just took hold - the children side of it totally broke my heart," she said.

"To think of them all excited and then a couple of moments later they were all gone.

"I've got five children and eight grandchildren and I feel there's never been any respect paid to the children that died since the day of the disaster.

"Somehow it's been missed, never properly involved in the town's history."

Image caption Julie Staff released tribute balloons to mark the disaster's anniversary

As news of Mrs Staff's plans have spread she has been contacted by descendents of those involved in the bridge collapse - including people in Norway and Australia - offering their support for the project.

She explained the disaster was recorded on the back of a private headstone in St Nicholas' Church, but this was never intended as a formal memorial and has now faded with time.

Margaret Gooch, vice-chair of Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society (GYLHAS), said: "It was an awful event and anything that helps to raise the town's historical profile is always much welcomed."

To mark the 167th anniversary, Mrs Staff will release 79 balloons from Great Yarmouth market throughout the day, each carrying a tag with a name of a person who died.

She said: "I find it sad people don't know about this. It should have something to mark it and I won't rest until it's done."

Since launching her appeal last month, Mrs Staff has raised £700 and hopes to have the memorial in place by the end of the year.

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