The man who drowned in Oxford Street

IMG 7706 - The man who drowned in Oxford Street

This is the story of a man called Samuel Barnes, a young soldier temporarily employed as a labourer for an emergency in Central London during the summer of 1806.

The day was Thursday July 24th. Excessive rain had caused London’s inadequate sewer system to overflow in several places and the houses just off Oxford Street were affected very badly (These were Nos 32 and 33 South Molton Street which no longer exist). The crown of the sewer blew out and water found its way into a back yard at the rear of these properties, depositing tons of bricks.

In those days, as the picture below shows, London’s sewers were not a particularly grand job, they were built just below the surface and their constricted sizes meant they were prone to flooding surrounding property on a quite regular basis.

Section of the old Tyburn sewer seen in 1911 - possibly built by Holland & Rowles
Section of the old Tyburn sewer seen in 1911 – possibly built by Holland & Rowles

The job then for Samuel Barnes and 12 other labourers was to clear away the debris piled up in this yard off Oxford Street that had come from the sewer. The work was done for Holland and Rowles, contractors to the Commission of Sewers for Westminster.

The task in clearing the debris was clearly a dangerous one for water levels were still rising and Barnes’ foreman thought it wise to call the men off their work and retreat to safety.

On the orders of their foreman, the men downed tools and left. One labourer had been a little forgetful due to being somewhat drunk. He had left his overcoat in the yard.

Samuel Barnes, seeing the man’s condition, decided it was he who should volunteer to go back and get his mate’s coat. He went with another labourer and when they reached the yard it was obvious the coat was in a rather inaccessible place with the waters from the sewer raging beneath.

Barnes got a stick to reach out to the coat and retrive it whilst the other labourer apparently sought to hold him steady. As Barnes reached out for the coat, the ground beneath suddenly gave way and he was immediately swept into the sewer.

The approximate location where Samuel Barnes drowned trying to fetch an overcoat
The approximate location where Samuel Barnes drowned trying to fetch an overcoat

Given the extremely dangerous conditions, there was nothing anyone could do but wait. In time the water subsided. Barnes’ colleagues searched the tunnels from Oxford Street to Brewery Street – now the Victoria Palace theatre – and once the point at which the sewer became an open watercourse.

Despite many hours of searching the sewers, Samuel Barnes’ body could not be found.

Victoria Palace theatre - the site where the sewer's open channel to the Thames began
Victoria Palace theatre – the site where the sewer’s open channel to the Thames began

A week later, on the morning of Thursday 31 July 1806, Barnes’ body was finally discovered in the Thames at Millbank by two workmen from Elliot’s brewery.

Barnes’ distraught wife, already with two children and pregnant with a third, bravely led the funeral procession for her husband – which included a full regiment of his guards.

History does not tell us where this procession took place nor where Samuel Barnes was finally buried.

Davies Street was once where the entrance to Bond Street tube/West One is now
Davies Street was once where the entrance to Bond Street tube/West One is now

Originally Davies Street and Oxford Street intersected further west, hence Nos 32 and 33 South Molton Street were sited roughly where The Toy Store now stands.

The  tunnel into which Barnes fell was built in the 1720s but no longer exists. It once ran immediately beneath nos 32/33 South Molton Street. The old River Tyburn’s underground course has since been altered several times, it now runs at a deeper level and is known as the King’s Scholars Pond Sewer.

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