The Rigg Monument in the churchyard of St Lawrence, just outside Walmgate Bar, commemorates six children of the Rigg family who were drowned in a boating accident on the River Ouse in August 1830. The inscription on the monument gives the sad facts:
RAISED BY FRIENDSHIP IN MEMORY OF
FOUR SONS AND TWO DAUGHTERS
OF JOHN AND ANN RIGG, OF THIS CITY; VIZ.
ANN GUTHRIE RIGG, AGED 19 YEARS;
ELIZA RIGG, AGED 17;
THOMAS GORWOOD RIGG, AGED 18; JOHN RIGG, AGED 16;
JAMES SMITH RIGG, AGED 7; AND CHARLES RIGG, AGED 6
WHO WERE DROWNED BY THEIR BOAT BEING RUN DOWN
ON THE RIVER OUSE, NEAR YORK, AUGUST 19, 1830
John Rigg and Ann, née Gorwood, were married at St Lawrence church on 8 May 1810 and set up home at 22 Fishergate. It was in Fishergate that John worked at his father’s long-established nursery and seedsman’s firm, Thomas Rigg & Son. A child was born to John and Ann almost every year but, like so many early 19th-century families, they experienced loss of some of their children as infants or in their early years. Two boys and two girls aged between 4 years and 1 week all died in the same year, 1820, and two little girls died later in the decade at 3 months and 22 weeks. Nothing could have prepared them, however, for the family tragedy which followed on a summer’s day in 1830.
Boating trip tragedy
In all there were nine people in the pleasure boat, including seven of the eight living Rigg children. Also making the trip was their visitor, Grace Robinson, from Ayton near Scarborough, thought to be about 18 years old, and a Mr Seller, son of the landlord of the Falcon Inn in Micklegate. At about four o’clock on the afternoon of Thursday 19 August, they had rounded the bend in the river at Clifton Ings on their way to Poppleton. Close by the Acomb Landing, a keel approached them coming down the river under a large square sail. There were two men and a boy on board the vessel who called out to the pleasure boat to keep to one side but it failed to do so. A disaster was inevitable; the keel stove in the side of the boat and sent all but the two survivors to the bottom of the river.
In addition to the Rigg children named on the monument, Grace also drowned. Mr Seller managed to save himself by catching hold of one of the keel’s ropes and Jessie Rigg, aged 8, was flung out of the boat and rescued by the men on the keel. Of John and Ann’s 14 children, only Jessie and baby Clara, at home with her mother, were left alive. It took several hours to recover all the bodies, the final one being that of the youngest, Charles, who was six. They were all taken to a nearby barn, possibly one belonging to the Riggs who owned land beside the river at the point of the incident.
News of disaster spreads
The dreadful news was not immediately given to the family. Grandfather Thomas was 84 years old and in poor health and Ann was looking after him as well as the baby and was in a weakened state herself. It was not until the following morning when all the bodies had been recovered that the news was broken and the bodies brought home. Because of their grandfather’s illness, the two older Rigg boys, Thomas Gorwood and John, were already helping in the family business and had only returned from an eight-week journey two days before the accident which claimed their lives. They were due to leave the following morning on another business trip. The York Gazette and Herald, published on Saturday 21 August declared, ‘Never, we believe, has it been before the painful duty of a public journalist to narrate so affecting an event connected with this city as one which occurred on the afternoon of Thursday last. The family were the most united and happy of any we have ever heard of, and the stroke will consequently be felt with greater poignancy.’
The coffins were taken to the Rigg home on Saturday and the grave finished the same evening. It was dug to a depth of eight feet, the bottom laid with brick and divided by two brick partitions into three compartments, each for two coffins. Two large pieces of freestone were prepared to lay over the whole before the earth was thrown in.
News of the tragedy spread very quickly. Within York itself it was the subject of the Sunday addresses at many church and chapel services, including the sermon preached by the Dean of York at St Michael le Belfry. Local people came out in droves to show sympathy with the popular Rigg family. The funeral on the morning of Monday 23rd was due to start at 9 o’clock, but such was the crush of people around the Rigg home and filling the streets, estimated to be 14-15,000, that it was 10.30 before the procession could move off and 11 o’clock before it entered the church. The coffins were carried from the hearses by 20 of Mr Rigg’s workers and received in the chancel by the Revd W. Overton, who was to conduct the service. Fear was expressed that people might be injured as so many crowded into the churchyard and fought their way into the church but no major incident seems to have been reported. Police were on hand to form a cordon to allow Mr and Mrs Rigg a passage to and from the graveside where seats had also been provided for them.
It was not only in Yorkshire that the press told news of the accident to its shocked readers. The London Star and the Morning Advertiser published the news at the beginning of the following week in the capital and the Morning Chronicle a few days later. Provincial newspapers also carried the news. On 27 August, the Leicester Journal published a report from its correspondent in York, and the Monmouthshire Merlin carried the same news on the 28th. Such was the sympathy of the whole country that money was soon collected by public subscription to build a monument over the grave. On Saturday 22 January 1831, the York Herald was able to report that the monument had been finished the previous Saturday and on the 25th the Chester Courant also reported the completion, showing that the countrywide interest still continued. The Rigg monument became one of the great tourist attractions of early Victorian England.\
Contemporary description of the Rigg Monument:
The vault is covered by an entombment in form of a pediment, a squandril in front having a serpent in relief, coiled in a circle, as an emblem of eternity. Above this rises the basement of the ground-work of the monument, whereon stand two massy square stone pillars, elegantly carved in front with ivy leaves expressive of friendship. These are surmounted by a fine Grecian cornice, designed after a monument erected over some youths at Thysillus, and which stood there above 2000 years. Branches of palm and wreaths of laurel are introduced in the frieze. The interior work is wholly of marble, the ground of Italian dove. The tablet is of white marble, supported by water and ruffled leaves, and bears the following inscription, from the pen of J. Montgomery, Esq:
Mark the brief story of a Summer’s’ Day!
At noon, Youth, Health and Beauty launched away;
Ere Eve, Death wreck’d the bark and quenched their light;
Their Parents’ Home was desolate at night:
Each pass’d alone, that gulph no eye can see;
Friend, Kinsman, Stranger, doest thou ask me Where?
Seek God’s right hand, and hope to find them There.
The tablet is surmounted by a bold cornice which supports a massive urn, partially concealed by drapery, all wrought in white marble. The height of the Monument is ten feet, and it is eight and a half wide. The whole is very well executed, and both the design and the sculpture are creditable to the talents of Mr Plows, of this city, by whom it was erected.
The enormity of the tragedy moved several other well-known poets to write their thoughts in verse. Perhaps the best known was the London-based essayist and poet Charles Lamb:
Tears are for lighter griefs. Man weeps the doom
That seals a single victim to the tomb;
But when death riots – when, with whelming sway,
Destruction sweeps a family away;
When infancy and youth, a huddled mass,
All in an instant to oblivion pass,
And parents’ hopes are crushed; what lamentation
Can reach the depths of such a desolation?
Look forward, Feeble Ones! Look up and trust,
Regret was expressed that his poem had not been received early enough for it to be included on the monument.
The 1830s saw further Rigg family deaths. The father, John Rigg, aged 57 and his mother, the children’s grandmother, died in 1833. Thomas, the grandfather, who had been so ill at the time of the accident, finally died in 1835 aged 88. Ann, however, was made of stern stuff and after her tragic life and the death of her husband, she moved to Hull Road Cottage on Lawrence Street where she was described as “a proprietor of houses” and a woman of independent means. She died in 1853 at the age of 78. Both Jessie and Clara married and had families of their own.
Although people came from far and wide to see the tombstone, gradually interest faded as the years went by. The medieval church of St Lawrence itself was pulled down in 1881 leaving only the tower which still stands in the churchyard of its large Victorian successor. The new church was built in 1881-3 and the new tower with its broach spire in 1892-3. The Rigg monument became very neglected and overgrown.
In 2015 the York Civic Trust put forward a plan to restore the monument using local craftsmen and to raise the necessary funds by public subscription. Project manager Nick Beilby led a professional team who all gave their services free. Vegetation was cleared away and specialist craftsmen repaired the brickwork, stonework and railings. The sum of £15,000 was raised: a third from two developers, a third from members of the York Civic Trust and a third from wider public subscription. Work began in June 2016 and was completed in the spring of 2017.
Anon. and William Halgrove, The New Guide for Strangers and Residents in the City of York 1838 (York, 1838, published by William and John Hargrove, reprinted by the British Library, 2011)
1830 Directory of The Borough of Leeds, The City of York and the Clothing District of Yorkshire (York, 1830, published by Parson and White)
Both of the above are available as a digital download from Parish Chest, www.parishchest.com
Parish Registers of St Lawrence, Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York
York Gazette and Herald, 21 August 1830
Leicester Journal, 27 August 1830
© Dinah Tyszka