Posted by: Christine | June 8, 2012

Jeremiah the Sailor

Last night on Television there was a programme in the series Britain’s Lost Routes with Griff Rhys Jones. It was about the voyage of a sailing barge between Harwich and London. It re-enacted a voyage that would have been common in the nineteenth century – in this case delivering hay for the horses of London (and returning with their manure to spread on the fields). (It is repeated on Sunday, or can be seen on BBC iplayer details)

In my research into the Madder family I have come across someone who made just this type of voyage.

Jeremiah Madder was born in 1820 in Shotley, Suffolk – where the Rivers Orwell and Stour meet in Harwich Harbour. We can find details of his early life from his seaman’s ticket, which can be found on findmypast

Seaman’s Ticket for Jeremiah Madder (TNA ref. BT 113/99)

He was 5ft 5in tall and had brown hair, grey eyes and a fair complexion. He first went to sea as a boy of 14 and when this ticket was issued in 1845 he was a Mate, living in Harwich. He was unable to write.

This document also gives details of some of his voyages. In 1845 it shows two voyages between London and Grangemouth and details of another voyage the next year. By 1849 he was master of his own vessel and married Emma Rackham on 14th June in Hammersmith in London. They returned to Harwich.

Marriage Certificate of Jeremiah Madder and Emma Rackham 14 Jun 1849 at Hammersmith Parish Church

Within seven weeks he was dead.

He had returned from a voyage to London on Friday 27th July. He was quite well until about 4 o’clock on Monday morning, when Emma called a neighbour because he was suffering from bad cramps, by five he was getting worse and the surgeon was called. He died at about eleven o’clock on Tuesday night; the cause of death was Asiatic Cholera. An Inquest was held on Thursday 2nd August and an account can be found in the local paper.

Inquest into death of Jeremiah Madder – Ipswich Journal 4th August 1849

A lot was made of the nearby cesspool and drain, but it was decided that the probable cause of his death was the cargo of “London manure” he had brought from London (as mentioned in the programme, and probably containing not just horse manure!). However, in a later newspaper report it states:

“The Coroner expressed his apprehension, from what he had that day witnessed, that other deaths would shortly take place, and intimated his intention of writing to the owner of Assembly Yard, and pointed out to the foreman of the jury, who was one of the guardians of the parish, the course, if rendered necessary, to be pursued.”

After the inquest the coroner and several members of the jury visited Assembly Yard “… a place about 6 or 8 feet in width, the houses on each side being occupied. At the top of it was a privy filled to overflowing, the fluid draining down the yard, which was full of holes. At the bottom was a gully-hole several feet in depth, filled nearly to the top with filth of the most offensive description: the occupiers of the houses in the yard stated that the smell, at times, was very bad indeed; they then visited Custom-house alley, close by, in which a death from Asiatic cholera had recently taken place, and down the middle ran an open drain, which the inmates of the houses stated was occasionally very offensive”

The next day (Friday) a resident of Custom-house alley, John Garnham died and a two year old child, James Ward died in the same place. According to an inquest the following day, these were both cases of cholera. The coroner said “the matter had now assumed a very serious appearance, and that the parties really responsible for the safety of the town should be required to perform their duty”  There was confusion as to whether the board of guardians, the town council or the commissioners of paving were responsible.

Other parts of the town were visited “and such was the state in which many of them were found, that the coroner felt it his duty to wait upon the mayor and inform him of what he had witnessed.”  The ditches in the marshes (under the management of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests) were also in a bad state.

The newspaper (Chelmsford Chronicle, 10th August 1849) says that progress had been made and several of the open drains were now running with water. However an inquest had been held on Wednesday (8th) for two more victims: Charlotte Elizabeth Fleming, a mariner’s wife aged 40 living in a court off Kings Head Street and a seventy year old man in Eastgate street, who had used the privy in the same Kings Head Street court.

This was part of the Cholera epidemic of 1848/9. In the summer of 1849 over 33,000 people died of cholera in Britain in three months. Around 13,000 of those who died lived in London. At the time no one knew how it spread. John Snow suspected and was to able to prove his theory, that it was spread through the water supply, a few years later in 1855 .

So had Jeremiah brought the disease to Harwich with his barge load of London Manure or was it already there? If it wasn’t him it must have been someone similar – it was a regular route.

And what about poor Emma? In 1851 she was a twenty year old widow living with her parents in West Street, Harwich, so she must have been only eighteen when she married Jeremiah – had they run away to London to marry, only for her to be widowed within a few weeks?*

The programme gave a romantic glow to the work done on the Thames Sailing Barges, and I learnt a lot about how they operated. I hope this story shows some of the real background to the life.


*Emma married again, in 1853 to John Godfrey, another sailor, and had two daughters.


  1. […] see one for ages and then two come along together. I recently wrote about the nasty death of Jeremiah Madder of Harwich, now it is the turn of one of my own relatives. I came across him in the Poll Books and Electoral […]

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