It was a tragedy that shocked not only a small village in Kent, but the whole country, when a man’s body was left in a well due to a quarrel over money. John nurden tells the story of a father of two’s fateful journey to work …
It was 6 a.m. on December 10, 1937 when Robert John Burgess, a 29-year-old father of two, set off in the dark and fell 200 feet into a hidden well barely three meters from his home in Bredgar, a small picturesque village between Sittingbourne and Maidstone.
His disappearance was only discovered when a colleague was sent to monitor him after he failed to show up. His wife Doris, 21, went to the backyard to retrace his tracks and, to her horror, found her husband’s cap next to the open hole.
If that shock wasn’t enough, what followed stunned a nation.
There has been an inappropriate row between the Home Office, Kent County Council and the Department of Health over who should pay to recover the body.
So the bureaucrats simply and mercilessly left it to rot in the water at the bottom of the well and covered by two tons of topsoil that had crashed into it.
It took a letter to The Times to fix the problem.
Eventually, an anonymous donor paid the Â£ 100 needed to build a rescue platform, but the body was only brought to the surface on February 2 of the following year, almost two months after the fall.
His heartbroken widow moved to Sheerness with her two young children aged three months and three years. Her husband’s body was eventually buried in an unmarked grave at Halfway Cemetery.
The disaster occurred at Chantry Cottages which at the time was divided into four separate houses. The two-storey building in flint and red brick dates from 1392, making it the oldest in the village.
It was turned into a college in 1397 by Robert de Bradegare and is now an impressive private house renamed Chantry House which sits next to the village pond. It is set back from The Street, the main road to the village, and is partially hidden behind a brick wall.
Interestingly, few in the village seemed to be aware of the house’s turbulent past. Even the woman from the village store said she had never heard of the drowning. But a helpful neighbor knew more and produced a copy of Bredgar – A History of a Kent Parish Written by Helen Allinson which includes a few lines about the tragedy.
The scandal was first brought to public attention in a letter to The Times on January 13, 1938. An enraged Robert JG Bennett wrote: âSir, over a month ago a young farm worker named Robert John Burgess, 29, lived in the village of Bredgar, near Sittingbourne, said goodbye to his wife and two children and left home to go to work.
âHe lived in a block of cottages known as Chantry Cottages and a few steps from his doorstep he disappeared into a well.
âApparently, caused by heavy rains, there had been subsidence in this well, leaving only a thin crust of earth on the surface.
âBurgess stepped on it, the crust gave way under his weight, and he fell into a 200-foot well that once served as a monastic college here.
“From this day to the present day, the body of the poor boy is still at the bottom of this disused well, which for several years has served as a sump.
“Consultations and correspondence are ongoing between the coroner, the police, the county council, the interior ministry and the health ministry, but no one will authorize the sanctioning of the expenses that will result from the in place of mechanisms to increase the body of the dead from his heinous tomb and give him a Christian burial.
“The young widow is still suffering from the shock of the tragic death of her husband and everyone in Bredgar is outraged at the inexplicable delay which constitutes a scandal in finding a way out of the difficulty.
“Is there no authority, government or county, that can put an end to this horrible state of affairs?”
As a result, work to recover the body began on January 26.
On February 4, The Times reported on the investigation that likely took place at the nearby Sun Inn.
He wrote: “A verdict of ‘accidental death’ was recorded by the coroner (Mr WJ Harris) during the inquest in Bredgar, near Sittingbourne, yesterday on the body of Robert John Burgess, 29, a Chantry Cottages farm worker, Bredgar, who fell into a 200-foot well in his backyard on December 10.
The body was found on Wednesday. Widow Ms. Doris Burgess told the coroner how, after a worker called home in the early morning hours of December 10 for her husband, she came out and saw her hat. husband lying next to the well.
âEvidence was given by a neighbor that he heard a rumbling the night before which must have been the well falling into it. The coroner said he was convinced that no other person had anything to do with the death of man. “
A report on the disaster had already been published by the Daily Herald. On December 30, 1937, he wrote: âThe body of Robert Burgess, who fell into a 200-foot Dene hole in front of his home in Bredgar, near Sittingbourne, on December 10, has still not been found and no investigation has been made. ‘was conducted. The people of Bredgar are outraged at the delay in this whole thing. “It’s horrible to think he’s still lying there,” one of them told me tonight.
“Burgess’s 21-year-old widow and her two young children are staying in Sheerness, eagerly awaiting what will be done next.
âSince the tragedy, three of the four cottages on Chantry Row, where Burgess lived, have been vacated. Police withdrew from recovery operations on December 13 when the coroner spoke to police.
âNow the case has been submitted to the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of the Interior. The issue is who should bear the costs of recovering the body. Experts estimate that it will amount to around Â£ 100.
“It’s all done. Recovering the body is expensive and dangerous work,” Captain ADS Barr, president of the Bredgar Parish Council, told me.
“The council’s relief fund for the widow and children has reached a substantial sum.”
It turned out to be Â£ 200.
A company of well engineers was finally given the onerous task of recovering the body.
According to reports at the time, large pieces of wood, encased in concrete, were placed around the mouth of the well to provide a base for the machinery to winch the body. Corrugated iron fences have been erected around the danger zone.
A source described Burgess as the “village conjurer” who performed at parties.
The current owners of Chantry House were not at home when we called, but past visitors say the well has been filled and its remains are hidden under the patio.
Incredibly, this is not the only well disaster to hit the village. According to the Whitstable Times and the Herne Bay Herald on Saturday, September 27, 1879, a Thomas Sage suffered a similar fate.
Under the headline ‘Sad Affair’ it announced: ‘On Friday afternoon the body of a man named Sage, about 40 years old, a mason, was recovered from a well in Bredgar, near Sittingbourne, he had thrown himself into while suffering from delirium tremens.
“The deceased had been missing for a few days and it was believed that he had jumped into the well, but the well was 300 feet deep and there was 40 feet of water in it, great difficulty was encountered in bringing someone down. ‘one in the well and the drag was resorted to for some time without success. “
The 1871 census shows that a Thomas Sage, born in the village, lived in Primrose Lane with his mother Ann (a laundress) and a cousin Edwin Cheasman (a laborer). Thomas’s trade was put as a mason.
Ten years earlier, the same three had lived at Plow and Harrow Beer House where her mother was described as “vitaillant and grocer”. Previously, in 1841 and 1851, Thomas lived with his mother, A Ellary, and grandparents at the pub where his grandfather owned.
Fortunately, reports of people going missing in the earth are rare, but Kent is riddled with secret caverns known as Dene holes caused by water carving huge chambers in the chalk beneath our feet.
Some are made by man because the chalk was mined to make bricks.
We recently brought to light the terrifying story of Jean Thompson, a 35-year-old mom who was swallowed by a hole in 1967.
She was walking her three-year-old son to see his grandmother when she dove 90 feet into a pit that appeared beneath her feet in Frindsbury near Strood.
As mother and son took a shortcut along a cobblestone alley, there was a threatening roar and the land opened. The son, who had run ahead, was safe and sound. But her mother was never seen again.
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