[Content warning: attempted suicide]
Sarah was a young barmaid who lived with her father at 48 Twinnell Road, St Phillips in Bristol. She is known as the woman who jumped from the bridge but was saved when her voluminous skirts acted as a parachute, helping her to land safely – but is this story true?
Sarah was engaged to a porter on the Great Western Railway. They had a turbulent relationship and argued constantly. A couple of days before the famous incident, a “few words” between the pair lead to her storming into his workplace and haranguing his foreman about what a rogue he was and how she had dozens of suitors, all of a higher standing than a mere porter.
As a result of her outburst, the porter wrote her a letter breaking off the engagement. When Sarah’s father learned of the letter, he punched the young man on the nose.
On Thursday 7th May 1885, neighbours noticed Sarah was “looking depressed in spirits”. She was seen in her street at 11.00am on Friday 8th May. Just after midday at 12.15pm, Sarah “rushed to end her life by the fearful leap from the Suspension Bridge.”
Thomas Stevens, Inspector for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, reported that Sarah had climbed over the railings and on to the parapet. Before anyone could reach her, she had thrown herself off. “The occurrence was witnessed by several people, including James Ball of 43 Egerton Road, Bishopston; James Lang Vesey of 14 Greenway Road, Redland; and Detective Sergeant Robertson of the Bristol Police Force, the latter of whom was near Cumberland Basin at the time.”
It was a breezy day and witnesses claimed that Sarah turned a complete somersault so was falling feet first – when a gust of air blew beneath her skirts and slowed the pace of her fall, blowing her away from the water and towards the muddy banks of the Avon River:
“A rather high wind was blowing and the woman’s dress offered a good deal of resistance to it, it not only materially checked the rapidity of her descent, but instead of falling vertically, she was carried to the Gloucestershire bank, where she fell on the mud almost in a sitting position. The mud yielded freely, and the woman, straightened out to full length, sank some distance into it.”
After she landed in the thick mud of low-tide (the river being just 21 feet 10 inches deep), two passers-by – John Williams of Ashton Gate and George Drew – rushed to her assistance, pulling her out and taking her to the refreshment rooms of the nearby railway station, where “brandy was sent for” and she was attended to by Doctor L. M. Griffiths of Gordon Road, Clifton who insisted that she be escorted to the Bristol Infirmary.
Remarkably, Sarah was conscious and able to state her name and address.
Detective Robertson requested a local cabman to take her to the hospital, but he refused because she was too dirty. Robertson argued with him and even offered payment, saying Sarah might die if she wasn’t treated urgently. The cabbie reportedly replied, “I don’t care.”
Robertson was not going to give up. Men were sent to Clifton Police Station for a stretcher and “she was conveyed on the stretcher by several constables to the institution, where, after being seen by the surgeons in the casualty room, she was placed in one of the wards. The infirmary reported late last night that she was in a weak condition, but that no bones were broken. She suffered severely from the effects of the shock consequent on such a fall.”
While Sarah was slowly recovering, the story of her misfortune quickly spread and lots of proposals of marriage and fame were offered – one wealthy suitor even bribed a hospital official to ensure that Sarah received his offer of a life of luxury as his wife.
Showmen were also interested in her: one offered her a contract of £400 plus a share of profits to tour; another approached her father with an offer of £1,000.
The cab driver was widely criticised and wrote to the papers to justify his refusal to help, saying: “it was only two weeks ago I spent my little all to get my cab done up, and I am only in the possession of one cab, which makes a scantly living. Having just lost two weeks work whilst my cab was under renovation to get my licence renewed, I could hardly be expected to take a fare which would have thrown me on my beam ends for the whole of the summer. Perhaps the public are not aware that cab drivers are not supposed to take any person that is dirty, or that, from loss of blood or from drink, would render their vehicle unfit for public use… Although it appears a little inhuman, it would have been more inhuman to deprive my large family of their bread, perhaps for months, through one act of kindness… I have advocated that a fund should be raised for the purpose of reinstating cabmen for taking fares such as accidents.”
Sarah survived all her injuries and went on to become Mrs Lane of Croydon Street, Easton. Living to be 85 years of age, she died on 31 March 1948, and was buried 6 April 1948 at Avon View Cemetery.