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drowning deaths

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JaneyCanuck Report 17 May 2011 00:36

Just musing and wondering --

In a General Chat thread about narrowboats

the question of lock keepers and their families drowning in the 19th century came up. It wasn't an uncommon event.

The Ontario, Canada, death registrations that can be viewed on line at Ancestry show the full details that can be seen only on full certificates in the UK -- name, age, place, cause of death, family names, length of time at address -- in most cases, most of that info. There are several death records per page.

When looking at death records there, I have noticed what seems an inordinate number of drowning deaths in the early 1900s, many but not all children.

Did our ancestors, even those who worked around water or on vessels, not know how to swim??

We can see this phenomenon today in immigrant communities in Canada and probably the UK. Immigrants (and their kids) are less likely to know how to swim and so more at risk of drowning. This is an article from the Toronto Star in 2007; I remember it being talked about at the time:

"Immigrants are at higher risk for drowning when boating and swimming than people born in Canada, according to new research being released Thursday by the Lifesaving Society."

The survey says that 4% of the Canadian-born and 19% of new Canadians can't swim. People surveyed said that in India, for example, people don't have access to swimming pools, so they don't learn. A 14-yr-old boy from India drowned in his condo swimming pool in Toronto the year the survey was done.

When I was a kid, living in a new little house in a new working-class suburb of London, Ontario, we all took swimming lessons every summer. I remember as soon as school was out, there I was getting out of bed *even earlier* and bicyling to the playground a couple of miles away in the cold damp mornings for two weeks, to get my Junior Red Cross and so on. (I flunked Intermediate because I can't dive. Headfirst into anything, no thanks, not me.)

Then it was two weeks' vacation in a rented cottage on Lake Huron, in the water all day. I could survive a long time in the water now, as long as it wasn't the North Atlantic or something.

So -- can you swim? Can your kids / grandkids? Did you / they take lessons, or just learn by doing?

Did you have ancestors who drowned?


Huia Report 17 May 2011 01:27

Janey, when I was at Primary school we were taught to swim, the school had a pool specially built. Like you, I cant dive. Nobody every taught me. When I went to the public pools I wanted to try diving in off the side and I would be standing there trying to pluck up courage and just when I thought ok, now, somebody would swim just below me, so I wouldnt go. My sister could dive. I am not sure who, if anybody, taught her. Many of our schools have the pools to teach children to swim, but I think these days it must be a qualified instructor.

We also have the problem with immigrants being unable to swim, or not very water wise. Quite a few get drowned, or have to be rescued at our surfing beaches. Some go out in boats to fish, but dont have life jackets and cant swim. Others fish off rocks in one place which is notorious for big waves sweeping people into the sea. The warning signs get ignored, if they havent been destroyed by slimeballs.


Gwyn in Kent

Gwyn in Kent Report 17 May 2011 01:33

I was born and grew up within a mile of the sea, which is where most people did their swimming when I was a child. I don't know any of my childhood friends who went to the swimming pool as that meant travelling into the nearest town, about 7 miles away.
I had alot of ear trouble as a child and was warned against getting water in my ears, so was always rather fearful of the water and never learnt to swim.
My children all went for lessons as part of the school week. They were taken into the nearby town, where their class teachers taught them to swim in the town swimming pool.
My grandson went for swimming lessons outside of school hours.

My step great grandmother drowned in the River Arun in Sussex. She was found floating in the river, but as she had earlier partaken of a couple of drinks at a local hostelry, one cannot be sure of the circumstances. The newspaper report mentioned that her hat was missing, as if that had bearing on the case....?

Looking through local parish records in my nearby town here near the coast, one often sees burial entries such' buried a male person, unknown. found on the seashore.' ...or 'buried a sailor washed ashore off the ship .( whatever) aged about 24, name unknown '.



JaneyCanuck Report 17 May 2011 01:44

I do think a number of 19th century drowning deaths can be put down to too much of the tipple before setting off home!

Even today -- I remember a post here a while back about a young man walking home from the pub along a canal path and falling in and drowning.

With the canals such a transportation route, it made sense that footpaths followed them, I guess, with such unfortunate results.

That's the worst part, reading those records -- the name-unknown bodies.

I had ear trouble too. I'd be dead long since if it weren't for all those modern wonder drugs! All the way up to my 30s, at least an annual event. Then about 20 years ago a friend with a similar kid introduced me to peroxide. A small drop in the ear now and then, I have literally not had an ear infection since.

We have the benefit here of calmer waters -- the shores of the Great Lakes, for example, are much more swimmable than oceans. Big and blue and deep and nice waves, but no tides! I imagine that learning to swim in an ocean can be a little difficult. I know I've had a couple of near misses in Florida. That undertow ...

At least our immigrant communities have stiller waters to deal with -- but a condo swimming pool, that's so avoidable. Some of my urban core Vietnamese neighbours fish, I guess in the very large river nearby, or more likely the somewhat lesser one that intersects with it. I think they stay safely on the banks, or maybe fish off a bridge.

I only know of one ancestor in England with the practice of a regular sip at the local hostelry (I mean, not that the lot of them likely didn't!) -- my gr-grandmother Eliza Jane -- but she lived in Wellingborough and when we were there, it seemed a safe distance from any water bodies!


LesleyC Report 17 May 2011 02:29

Hi Janey

I, myself, am a very strong swimmer. My father taught me to swim from the age of 3. By the age of 5 I was in a Swimming Club and this lasted until I was 17.

I had always wondered why he had "pushed" us into this at that very young age and when I asked him he told me that his cousin had drowned in the Thames River when he was 12 in 1935. My father states that not one of the kids in the "family Clan" knew how to swim until after this happened.

I asked whether he fell in ... or was pushed................NO!!!!! He was stealing boat, which he thought would be a great idea!!!!

Education, Education, Education !!!!



SylviaInCanada Report 17 May 2011 05:35

We had weekly swimming lessons in primary school, alked to the Town Baths. I went for 2 years ............... but still can't swim!

We took our daughter to out of school swim lessons for several years. But I don't think she ever goes in the water now.

My mother was a good swimmer, used to go to the local Baths every week back in the 30s and 40s, but then stopped.

We live on the coast, but never go to the beach or into the ocean! Not even paddling



JaneyCanuck Report 17 May 2011 05:46

Some people don't deserve to live in homes by the sea. XP

The closest anybody in my family that I know of came to death by water, when I think about it, was when my mum's younger brother went swimming in the Thames in London ... Ontario ... and caught impetigo, a contagious skin disease. Well, that's the tale I recall, the idea being that the river was terribly polluted, but it doesn't make a lot of sense.

When I was living on the Ottawa River one summer me and some girlfriends went sunning ourselves on a big giant flat rock in an unpopulated area and went swimming in the river, and all caught something disgusting that had us spending the next couple of days in the bathroom. Apparently the gop that polluted that river (and it's a big wide river, the kind that's called a "fleuve" in French, not just a "rivière"), sludge from paper mills upstream, harboured the bugs that laid us low.

Ah, now I'm dreaming of my favourite beach in Cuba, swimming in the perfect calm turquoise bay ... and the Haitian history professor from Montreal I met in the arrivals line at the airport on the way in ...


Cath2010 Report 17 May 2011 06:46

Living on a small Island and growing up surrounded by the sea made learning to swim a priority when I was young. Summer was always spent on a beach, rockpooling and swimming and learning for ourselves about tides and currents. Diving off the end of piers was a favourite pastime. All of my children and grandchildren can swim as well, as soon as they could walk we'd be off to the beach to spend long summer days there. I suppose we were lucky, it was easy for us to learn being only a stones throw from the sea.


SueMaid Report 17 May 2011 08:39

My OH has an ancestor - his great grandfather - who drowned. His inquest reveals how. He was working on repairs on a ship and had come back from a break with his workmates. As he stepped from the jetty onto the ship he slipped and went into the water. His mates yelled out "Harry's in the water!!" and he was dragged out. It seems he banged his head on the way in. Had he been drinking? If he was it wasn't mentioned at the inquest. Strangely enough the ship was lost at sea a short time later.



Penny Report 17 May 2011 08:42

Paths along the side of canals are properly called tow paths- because that is what they were for- the horses towing the barges, or for the leggers to walkj along. Tow paths are dangerous places, canals, certainly between locks are deep.
I learned to swim, abeit not very well, We had lessons in schoool. My neph has lessons at should and lessons out of school and had to persist until he got his 100 meters certificate, and only then was he allowed to give up. Like me, he hates swimming.
I think one contributing factor to drowning is often the coldness of the water, which saps your strenght.
My Gran was a strong swimmer, not idea how or why she learned ( an inland farmers daughter) who saved the life of a lady who was drowning in the sea. No idea why Gran was at the sea that day either!


SpanishEyes Report 17 May 2011 09:10

OH dear,
I do not have any member of my family who died through drowning as far as I am aware. My mother and all her siblings were excellent swimmers, as are my sisters, their children and my children and grandchildfren...BUT I cannot swim. I have had 48 professional hours of trying to learn how to swim, I am really afarid of water, but have spent nost of my adult life living by the sea. I would be very depressed in Water was not around me but swimmin .....I do go in our pool but stay at the shallow end or if there is another adult in I use one of those long sponge type supports and wriggle around, If anyone takes that away from me or creeps up on my I panic instantly.

How I wish I could get over this fear, have had hypnosis, etc but all to no avail, so if you know what a nearl 65 yrs person can do to beat this , I am listening.

10.08 hrs Spain

Mick from the Bush

Mick from the Bush Report 17 May 2011 09:19

Swimming lessons were compulsory in my childhood at school.
Australia has also had many drowning tragedies involving immigrants mainly from asian or muslim countries.

xxxx mick


GypsyJoe Report 17 May 2011 09:44

Being Australian I can swim.

My great grandfather however accidently drowned in a causeway in the 1940's in Sydney. He was originally from Scotland.

Jean (Monmouth)

Jean (Monmouth) Report 17 May 2011 10:00

Learned to swim about 6yrs old. Lived by the sea and spent most of my childhod on the sands and no one ever worried where I was! Taught my son to swim too. OH is very thin and selfconscious and would never be seen in a bathing costume!


SueMaid Report 17 May 2011 10:00

That's true Mick - also common are drowning deaths of people from African nations.



Sharron Report 17 May 2011 10:49

I think it was and probably still is usual for fishermen to be unable to swim as a swift drowning is preferable to a prolonged death by exposure.

The parish registers at Selsey are full of unknown bodies being buried that have been found in the sea or on the shore. There are some funny old tides off Selsey.


Janet Report 17 May 2011 10:59

Just agreeing with Penny about the danger of the tow paths. We tend to forget that there wasn't lighting in those days for anyone taking a short cut, excuse the pun ( cut being an alternative word for canal). The other thing about the locks which terrified me as a child was that no matter how good a swimmer you were the sheer depth of a lock, certainly in the hilly regions of the north, there wasn't the chance for a swimmer to go anywhere it was like falling into a huge box about 10 or 15 feet before you hit the water.When the gates were closed there was no escape.If no-one was about to hear the cries no matter how good a swimmer you were there was no way to climb out.
My daughter lived on a narrow boat for several years and took me for lovely jaunts but I was always glad to get out of the locks. -jl


JaneyCanuck Report 17 May 2011 13:37

I'm awake now! Very interesting stories of both past and present.

Of course those are tow paths, aren't they? I think I'd just assumed they were ordinarily used as footpaths too, but I can see that's a bad idea.

I imagine a factor in our ancestors not swimming is that it's really kind of a leisure activity, and most of our ancestors didn't have much in the way of leisure time. The sea was for sustenance, not messing about. The same would be true for a lot of people in many countries still today, probably. Not to mention people who come from the vast inland areas of Africa, say.

Interesting to read about people having swimming lessons in school. Not here in Canada when I was a kid, although the lessons at public playgrounds in summer were cheap and readily available. There's also the Y, but that's a bit pricey here. I think part of the reason may be that you can't have a pool at every school, and for a good part of the school year that would mean transporting wet kids around in freezing temperatures!


wisechild Report 17 May 2011 13:39

When I did my Cert HE in Local History, my final assignment was on the work of the coroners´office.
I compared cases dealt with by the Coroner for the same quarter in 1871 & 1891. Lots of the causes of death in 1871 were due to drowning. These had reduced to almost nil by 1891 due in the main to the opening of public swimming baths which were relatively cheap & safe places to learn to swim.
Unfortunately they were succeeded by accidents on bicycles, which were becoming widely available.


MayBlossomEmpressofSpring Report 17 May 2011 13:42

My children, grandchildren and great grand-daughter are all good swimmers having had the benefit of being taught either during school or private lessons. OH was a very strong swimmer, often taking part in swimming galas, I,on the other hand am a poor swimmer, can't co-ordinate my breathing with my arms, think I must have beeb dunked as a witch in a past life as I'm not very fond of water.
As for drownings in the family, have discovered one of OH's ancestors drowned in a vat of ale............ ;-) ;-) ;-)