Screams from the Gallery

Atcham Boot 1

Sometimes you don’t need a dark and stormy night in late October for a horror story. No ghosts, witches or vampires, just a pile of old leather boots in the stores of Shrewsbury’s town museum, and a little knowledge of their history.

Not a dark and stormy night, but a stormy afternoon. A Sunday afternoon in July, 1879. Atcham, a little village on the bank of the River Severn just to the east of Shrewsbury. It’s been opressive all day and now the rain and thunder have started and the sky is very dark. The weather has kept some parishoners away, but there’s a fair turnout for Evensong at St Eata’s Church. The Reverend Francis Barney Parkes is taking the service. Up in the gallery, the children’s choir are fidgetting and whispering, as usual, while the second lesson is read. And then….

Atcham Boot 2

On a separate page, I’ve transcribed the full story from the local newspaper, Eddowes Shrewsbury Journal, July 23rd 1879. (Copied from the reprint volume Salopian Shreds and Patches, volume 4, from a copy in Shropshire Archives.) It’s a very readable account. I suggest you go and read that now and then come back here and we’ll talk some more about it under the cut.

Atcham Boot 3

The picture with the article is not from the 1879 paper. I took the photo for it just last month. The church today no longer has an organ gallery. The four pictures I have made of the boots are based on reference photographs which I took at the museum. I wanted to bring out the sense of menace that still hangs around those tattered boots. Some are even more badly damaged than those you see here – there are quite a number of them in store.

Atcham Boot 4

This last boot is the most heartbreaking: a little girl’s Sunday best shoe with its patterned vamp, it looks almost undamaged at first, until you notice the split back seam and the tear below the eyelets. It is just 13cm long.

Did anything good come of this accident? It made the national and international press. Later, the tattered boots were used in an exhibition to promote the use of lightning conductors, then still a novelty. So I hope that some lives were saved as a result. A photographic card was made of the boots by an enterprising Shrewsbury photographer,  and they were also put on public display in the museum. Here’s the postcard, reproduced in the Strand Magazine, January 1897, as part of an article on lightning. The photo below is from a bound copy that I own, but the article can also be read online here. It’s well worth reading, as it contains several early photos of lightning and of its effects.

The boots were still on display in the museum when I first visited it as a child, in the Sixties, and they are one of the very few things that I remember from that visit. By the time I came to live in Shrewsbury myself, they were long gone into storage, and that seems a shame. Such stories are part of our local history and should not be forgotten. When I came acoss them, while cataloguing the stores as a volunteer, I vowed that I would tell their story on the blog. I understand that they will be put back on show at the new museum.

The story in the old Shrewsbury Journal leaves a lot of questions in my mind – there are opportunities for further research. What did happen to the injured children named in the article ? (The 1882 census might be revealing, as might parish records at Atcham.) Did they all live? Were they disabled for life? Did any of them marry, have families?  Meanwhile the boots remain. When I held them in my hands, I could still hear those screams of pain and terror.

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6 Responses to “Screams from the Gallery”

  1. Wow.
    I was thinking straight away of poor little Emma Cain, struck on the face..and wondered what sort of life she led after, assuming that her wounds didn’t get infected and she did live. I finished listening to “March” by Geraldine Brooks, (the 20thC book that was written as a companion to “Little Womem” that follows the husband’s life in before and during the American Civil War), and was horrified by the medical care then. At least by the late 19thC they had some very small idea of sepsis.
    Your photo that leads the blog entry is just brilliant. Coming from looking at the design for a “horror” themed Stumpwork casket, I actually thought it was a modern boot made to look scary, but it’s the sprung “sprigs” that form the “teeth’, of course.
    I guess it’s the curiosity and macabre in me that makes me be so interersted in such stories, and wonder about everything from “gee, they really did pay by the word then”, to how wonderfully the journalist wrote, to “I bet there was an obligation to talk up the role of the Minister and Church Wardens, given the social mores of the time”, to the much wider “how did this go on to affect the lives of the struck and the shocked?”. I’d be fascinated if you were able to follow up.
    And to think I thought you were doing an article on some 17th or 18thC court shoes! Boy, did I guess wrongly! Your access to a broadsection of items from your local museum is just wonderful.
    Thanks for a fascinating read.

  2. suetortoise Says:

    Yes, some of those same thoughts went through my mind. I also notice that Emma and Annie are listed as ‘children of the late Police Constable Cain’ – which suggests that their mother may have been recently widowed and was now also in fear of losing her two injured daughters.
    And a modern newspaper wouldn’t have covered the story without reams of interviews with the survivors, pictures of heaps of flowers and tearful families and a few comments from lightning experts as well. Somehow this has more impact with its quiet approach. You can also see the enquiring Victorian mind wanting to know how lightning works.
    I am not intending to do more research on this – unless I stumble across a connection somewhere, but there are certainly a lot of trails to follow.

  3. Marian Byrne Says:

    Thank you for revealing this story, Sue, and for your photographs. I am a volunteer at the Archives, and come across many fascinating stories from the past.

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