Sunday, 31 May 2015

Postman's Park (13): death in a distillery well


Godfrey Maule Nicholson was the manager of Nicholson's Gin Distillery; not yet 30 at the time of his death, he may have been a member of the owning family. J & W Nicholson & Co had been founded in the 1730s, producing Lamplighter Gin; by the late nineteenth century, they were thriving - and developed an unusual sporting link. In 1864, their chairman (and keen cricketer) William Nicholson advanced money to the MCC to purchase Lord's Cricket Ground. In 1889 he would loan the money for the Lord's Pavilion. This generosity did not go unreciprocated: the MCC's colours were changed from sky-blue to red and yellow. It is believed by the family and the MCC - if not proven - that the choice of Nicholson's corporate colours was no coincidence.
 
In 1872, Nicholson's moved their distillery to Three Mills. It continued in operation there until 1941, when wartime grain shortages forced its closure, and was owned by the company until 1966; it is now the Three Mills Studios. (Nicholson's remain a London feature thanks to their pubs - many of which are former 'gin palaces'.) However, in 1901 it was the scene of a disastrous industrial accident. Nicholson, George Elliott and Robert Underhill all died on 12 July trying to rescue a colleague, Thomas Pickett, who had descended a well and become overcome by gas. First Nicholson went in after Pickett, but was also overcome. Then Elliott volunteered to go down, against the objections of onlookers, stating he was used to gas. Finally, when none of the men reappeared, Underhill descended. All four would be found dead when the fire brigade were able to retrieve them, hours later.

In addition to their tribute in the Watts Memorial, the three Stratford distillery workers who died trying to rescue their colleagues are also honoured near the scene of the tragedy. Their memorial on Three Mills Green (which replaced the mediaeval-style Victorian original) is of one arm clasping another, sculpted by Alec Peever in 2001. An inscription behind it states 'Of your charity pray for the souls of Thomas Pickett, Godfrey Maule Nicholson, Frederick Eliott and Robert Underhill, who lost their lives in a well beneath this spot on 12 July 1901. The first named while in the execution of his duty was overcome by foul air. The three latter successively descending in heroic efforts to save their comrades shared the same death.'
 
In the words of the Watts Memorial:

GODFREY MAULE NICHOLSON, MANAGER OF A STRATFORD DISTILLERY, GEORGE ELLIOTT AND ROBERT UNDERHILL, WORKMEN, SUCCESSIVELY WENT DOWN A WELL TO RESCUE COMRADES AND WERE POISONED BY GAS, JULY 12 1901.



3 comments:

HughB said...

I saw a lamplighter in London xx years ago on his bicycle: he cycled very slowly past the lamppost and reached up with the long pole he was carrying and gently nudged the gas tap so that the gas bloomed on, all without stopping - very impressive! I can't recall smelling a whiff of gin, though.

CarolineLD said...

I've never seen a lamplighter in action: that does sound impressive!

Anonymous said...

Godfrey Maule Nicholson was the son of William of J & W Nicholson's Gin.

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