Novel based on real life Beccles surgeon

Surgeon William Henchman Crowfoot who saved the life of a soldier presumed dead after being washed u

Surgeon William Henchman Crowfoot who saved the life of a soldier presumed dead after being washed up on Kessingland beach. - Credit: Archant

When Beccles and Bungay Journal reader Christopher Elliott found interesting references to Beccles in a children’s book he asked if anyone could provide more information. Dr JANNA de VERE GREEN gives the answers.

The Royal Humane Society medallion presented to Mr William Henchman Crowfoot.

The Royal Humane Society medallion presented to Mr William Henchman Crowfoot. - Credit: Archant

Castors Away! was written by my aunt Hester Burton, the youngest daughter of Dr and Mrs H Wood-Hill.

She was the author of a number of very readable books for teenagers, some of which can still be obtained from Beccles Library.

The story of Sgt James Bubb and William Henchman Crowfoot is well known to the family and is factual.

It features in Hester’s book but has been adapted to suit her young readers (no flogging!).

I have recently researched original documents, including letters and affidavits relating to this event, and thought that a more historical account might interest readers.

A transport vessel carrying the 28th Regiment of Infantry (the Gloucestershires) was wrecked off Kessingland on the night of December 16, 1805.

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Mr William Henchman Crowfoot, a 25-year-old surgeon, was returning from Kessingland when he met a cart containing the body of a soldier who was presumed dead.

Sgt James Bubb had been in that state for 13 hours, much of it with the sea washing over him.

Mr Henchman examined him and found no pulse but a little warmth over the left side of his chest.

After taking him to the warmth of the King’s Head in Kessingland and three hours of massaging his chest Bubb began to breather more naturally.

When he got home Henchman wrote to the Royal Humane Society giving an account of the resuscitation.

Henchman received a flowery letter from Dr Hawes of the RHS wishing to present him with the Honorary Medallion of the Society.

The original medallion is on show at Beccles Museum.However, there is a darker side to the story.

Army records state that James Bubb was a butcher by trade before enlisting in 1798 and had been promoted to sergeant by the time of the incident.

During the shipwreck he had fallen to the deck at about 11pm in a senseless state, which his superior, Captain Duddingstone, attributed to intoxication.

James Bubb denied this saying his condition was due to the cold.

The soldiers who had been helped by local fishermen were taken to Lowestoft and later told to fetch Bubb “dead or alive” against the doctor’s orders.

At the end of March Henchman received a letter from Colonel Johnson at Woodbridge which gave the first indication that Bubb had been tried and punished.

There is no written record of what the captain said but by inference he denied abandoning Bubb either on the ship or on the beach and that Bubb’s life was never in danger.

Henchman replied saying that he was surprised and exceedingly hurt by the captain’s statement.

On April 20 Henchman received the first of four barely literate letters from Bubb saying “my helf is perfectley Restored which is entirely owing to God and your Medical Skill and assistance.

“I have been unfortunate enough to be Reduced from the Rank of Sergeant and to receive the Punishment of 500 Lashes By Manes of my Captain who swore it was not the effects of the Cold but that I was Drunk.”

Once can only imagine what effect this letter had on the mind of the doctor. At least his patient had survived for a second time.

James Bubb never rose again above the rank of private. He was discharged on May 10, 1816, aged 47, on medical grounds.

William Henchman Crowfoot never talked about his incident to his family. It may be that he found the whole affair too painful to mention.

Incidentally the remaineder of Hester’s book is fictional. It has Bubb subsequently at the Battle of Trafalgar, which predated the wreck.

Anyone interested in the history of the Crowfoot family should look out for a booklet which has been compiled by a group of students at the Sir John Leman High School over the past year and will shortly be in print.