Samuel Thomas Osborne, The Channel Hero

by Catherine and Derek Round

Preface, by John Dixon

Samuel Thomas Osborne<sup>1</sup>
Samuel Thomas Osborne1

Historical research is often inspired by a chance discovery and enhanced by the sharing by enthusiasts of resources and information. The detailed research to flesh out the subject and to corroborate details takes a great deal of determination, time and expense. Sometimes it yields exciting dividends, while often the end result is frustration and disappointment.

However, this experience sometimes mirrors life. For a short time, Tewkesbury thought it had discovered its own hero on perhaps a national scale when it was discovered that Samuel Osborne had made an informal and unsupported crossing of the English Channel. It is therefore, invaluable to let the newspaper reporters of that time tell their own story in the language which they thought appropriate. They did have a problem in that it turned out that our Hero had but tenuous links with the town, which made the research exercise all the more difficult. It is also salutary to witness the fate of so-called 'nine-minute wonders', who are briefly feted by the press when it suits them but are then abandoned to a life of obscurity as interest turns elsewhere.

That would seem to be the fate of our 'Channel Hero' who, in the short term, had his fame exploited by local political interests to assist their fund-raising but who, in the long term, returned to his roots, to lose his young family to the natural causes which afflicted families a century ago. At least, his death did occasion a long obituary in the Tewkesbury Register but repeated research by the National Newspaper Library at Colindale failed to elicit any more interest in more prestigious publications.

Derek was fascinated by his discovery but, although frustrated by not being able to find out answers to all his questions, he has exhibited the perseverance to find out as much as possible about the erstwhile hero, and his wife, Catherine, has had the patience to write out several drafts. Dedication to the cause came when Derek and Catherine located our Hero's unmarked grave in London — and marked it with flowers and a card: To Samuel Thomas Osborne, our Channel Hero, from Tewkesbury.

Samuel Thomas Osborne

The story began when I borrowed the Bushley, Longdon, Queenhill & Holdfast Parochial Almanac Book, 1889, from Mr. Roger Butwell; this contained a short story concerning Mr. Sam Osborne, 'The Channel Hero', giving particulars of his "great sculling feat across Dover Straits" on Whit Monday 1888. That started me searching for more information about this local hero. The search started in a surprising way when I discovered that he had an uncle, W. H. Watts,[3] who lived in Tewkesbury. The 1881 Census told us that William Henry Watts was a Joiner Foreman, living at the Folly Gardens with Harriet. Of more importance was the lodger, Francis C. Martin, then an unmarried, 30-year-old Corn Merchant's Clerk.[4]

By the time of the 1891 Census, W. H. Watts was living at 5 Mount Pleasant[5] and he was buried in Tewkesbury Cemetery on 19 June 1923.[6] His obituary tells us that he worked in various parts before coming as foreman of Thomas Collins in 1864. He finally became local works manager, from which position he retired. Some of the chief mourners were Mr. and Mrs. F. C. Martin[7] the former lodger, Francis C. Martin who, by 1891, was living in Barton Road, married to Mary A. Martin, a 27-year-old, born in Holloway, London.[8]

At this stage of the story, I did not know if any of the Martins were related to Samuel Osborne, our Channel Hero. I asked myself, "Is F. C Martin the father of John O. Martin?" the Mayor in 1947.[9] I asked many local folk what the letter O stood for in John O. Martin but no-one knew, so I made a visit to the Town Hall. On one wall was a portrait of J. O. Martin, Mayor in 1947, and I asked the secretary, "What does the letter O stand for?" She told me "Osborn". On the other side of the wall is his son, Francis John Osborne Martin, Mayor in 1973. She was certain because she had been the private secretary to the late Francis John Osborne Martin, whose wife Betty still lives in Tewkesbury.[10]

Now at last we had a connection! Francis C. Martin had married the Channel Hero's sister, Mary A. Osborne. We looked unsuccessfully for Samuel T. Osborne on the database in the Library. It was at this time that Mr. John Dixon gave me a newspaper cutting of Samuel T. Osborne's obituary, given to him by Mrs. Betty Martin. The obituary tells us that Samuel T. Osborne, although not a native of Tewkesbury: "For many years made Tewkesbury his home, and during the time he lived in the Borough he made a host of friends." He had been, for a time, an employee at "the extensive building works of Mr. Collins".

We could not find Samuel T. Osborne anywhere in the 1881 Census and this was explained by his obituary since, in his younger days, he passed through a term of service in the Mercantile Marine and spent a number of years in the words of the newspaper - "full of adventure, in Texas and the wilder parts of the American Continent. He selected a seafaring life when a boy, and leaving home at 14 years of age, nothing was heard of him for such a long period that he was given up by his friends as lost. However, he returned in the full vigour of a splendid manhood with an extraordinary physical development which enabled him to endure any hardship, and carry through the various athletic tests, which were his delight." [11] He initially achieved local fame in 1886, when he rowed fifty miles in ten hours, from Tewkesbury to Gloucester and Sharpness Point and back to Gloucester. We shall allow the local newspapers to tell the story.

"AQUATICS: With the hope that it may stir up some of the latent interest in rowing matters, which unfortunately obtains so largely amongst the young men of Tewkesbury, we have pleasure in giving prominence to the following details of a noteworthy sculling tour on the Severn and Berkeley Canal, on Easter Monday 1886. Mr. Sam Osborne (nephew of Mr. Watts), having determined on trying the journey from Tewkesbury to Sharpness Point, engaged an outrigger of not very light construction. The time occupied ... was 10 hours, the distance sculled over in the interval nearly 50 miles, 33 miles of which were over dead canal water. This most creditable performance of Mr. Osborne, which has led to the accomplishment of an aquatic feat beyond what has therefore been our pleasure to record at the hands of a local amateur, will we hope encourage others to take up rowing practice generally, which there is no possibility of disputing is more sadly neglected in Tewkesbury than in any other town possessing equal facilities for practice in the Kingdom." [12]

His main claim to celebrity status, however, is his single-handed row across the English Channel on Whit Monday 1888. We were able to continue the story thanks to his obituary:

"It was on Whit Monday in 1888 that Mr. Osborne rowed across the English Channel from Dover to Wimereux (a village on the French coast, near Boulogne) in a rowing boat, 18 feet long, and four feet beam. This performance created a record which astonished the world, and which has never since been challenged. The press of the country gave every prominence to the accomplishment, and it will be of interest to our readers to peruse the following account of the journey, given by Mr. Osborne to a representative of the 'Register': 'Mr. Osborne informs us that he left Tewkesbury ... feeling sure he was equal to the task he had set himself. Sunday was a splendid day for the business, as far as the weather was concerned, but other considerations persuaded him not to go down to the sea in such a very little 'ship' as an eighteen feet boat, registered to carry only four, until the next morning. By 11 o'clock on Monday, however, he had hired a boat from an old man, named Bobbie Day, having previously purchased half a gallon of stout and a stock of biscuits, and was fairly on his way to France.

People on the shore took no particular notice of the little craft until it was clear that the oarsman was out more for business than pleasure, and that if France was his destination, he was going the shortest way. The sea was bumpy, and the wind was strong, but Mr. Osborne being a good sailor, and not at all strange to the road, stuck to his oars, and in a little time was well out in the Channel. Then he changed his clothes for rowing flannels, which he had put into the boat in a bundle, and pulled on with a steady stroke. Beyond the awful risk of the thing nothing occurred until somewhat late in the day.

The wind had increased, blowing him westward; the current was strong, and there seemed every probability that the boat would be upset; this was clear to two or three yachts that were on their way to Folkestone, and they signalled to Mr. Osborne to stop. One of them manned a boat and followed him for some distance, but he kept on rowing, and was soon beyond the call of the Folkestone yachts. Later he found he was drifting eastward, and a captain of a Folkestone fishing-smack came close to him and asked him to go on board, and told him it would shortly come up rougher.

This was at seven o'clock in the evening, and it was getting dark, but he declined the kind offer, saying he wanted to get across to the other side, and was not going to turn back. Darkness now crept on apace, and the wind and current were getting stronger, and but for the inconvenience of their use, a coat and muffler would have been acceptable, as the night was cuttingly cold. Mr. Osborne was very sparing in the use of his stout and biscuits, not knowing how long his journey might last.

Finding his boat still drifting eastward, he pulled hard for Cape Grisnez, but on getting within a short distance of the shore he was compelled to keep off on account of the rocks. After taking some refreshments when near the shore, guided by the lights of Boulogne, he rowed along the coast in that direction, and at midnight got out of his boat on to the beach by Wimereux, a village inhabited by fisher-folk, about 2½ miles from Boulogne.

There being no one about, Osborne pulled the boat's bow ashore, and sitting down in the boat he there remained, solacing himself with his pipe until about three a.m., when two fishermen came down to the shore; day was just breaking, but the light not as yet being sufficient to distinguish things very clearly, the fishermen, on discovering a man clothed in white, in such a position, seemed fairly scared, and inclined to beat a hasty retreat. But on making known to them as best he could by sign (not understanding French) his extraordinary voyage the news spread, and the inhabitants of the village were soon surrounding him and, as may be imagined, there was considerable excitement. An English lady and gentleman, staying in the place, invited Mr. Osborne to breakfast with them, after which the boat was put upon a cart and taken into Boulogne, where much interest in the matter was quickly manifested. But soon the French Customs Authorities grew troublesome, demanding not only a poll-tax, but also duty on the boat.

Our hero stood out against the imposition and expressed himself as ready, rather than submit to it, to go back the same way he had come, but from this course he was dissuaded by the host and hostess of the establishment where he had the good fortune to take up his quarters at Boulogne. This lady and gentleman, Mr. and Mrs. Marnock, are the proprietors of an English café and it proved that they knew all about Tewkesbury and its good folk, Mrs. Marnock being before marriage a Miss Attwood of Oxenton Farm. Mr. Osborne returned by a Folkestone steamer. In the interval his prolonged absence had made many people in Dover very anxious and this anxiety increased when it became known that two clever young oarsmen had been drowned there, and old Bobbie Day was in a very excited state about his boat, which he never expected to see again."[13]

"Two other trips across the Channel have been successfully accomplished, one by the brothers of the present Lord Aberdeen and the other by an Oxford crew. But these were done under very different circumstances. The Oxford crew especially were attended all the way across by a steamer, and on landing at Calais they were thoroughly exhausted and handsomely entertained. The cases are therefore in no sense parallel, and Mr. Osborne is entitled to what little honour attaches to having established such an extraordinary precedent in aquatic annals."[14]

"Mr. Osborne states that his only object in crossing the Channel was to prove that the voyage of the Oxford crew in an eight-oared galley was no great feat of endurance when it could be done by one person. Mr. Osborne is an athletic man, about 30 years of age, and resembles in a remarkable degree the late Captain Matthew Webb, when he swam across the Channel."[15]

"On Mr. Osborne's return to Tewkesbury he was entertained to a dinner at the Anchor Hotel. The chair was taken by the late Mr. Frederick Moore, and the Vice-chair by Alderman Baker. ...

Later, Mr. Osborne patented a life-saving navigable raft which he launched on the Thames and sailed to Tewkesbury. He also tested the capabilities of his invention by long voyages in the Bristol Channel."[16]

"The fact of our now famous young townsman, Mr. Samuel Osborne, considerately agreeing to appear on the Severn on his newly-invented life-saving raft, and upon which he is about to attempt the bold and perilous endeavour of attempting to cross the Irish sea, will alone draw great numbers to Tewkesbury who, since his great sculling exploit across the Straits of Dover, have been most anxious to see him." [17]

"Without doubt there were a very large number of people present within the enclosure who had gone thither full of hope and expectation of seeing our famous young townsman, Mr. Samuel Osborne - 'the Channel Hero' and general regret found expression when it became known that, almost directly after starting for Tewkesbury upon his life-raft in the morning, he had met with an accident of so very alarming a kind..."

The newspaper wrote a very long and detailed article about this adventure. Mr. Osborne intended that his raft

"be towed up the Severn behind the steamer, the 'Windsor Castle', which was bringing excursionists with her. Accordingly, a rope hawser was affixed to the raft and, everything seeming right, the journey began." Osborne decided to extend the towing hawser but "directly the rope was loose a coil of it flew up, caught the bowsprit and wound itself around his thigh. It was the work of a moment for the sudden jerk of the steamer to split the thick bowsprit in two pieces and hurl him headlong over the bow of the raft, where he hung with the upper part of his body in the water for a moment or so before being able to disengage himself from the rope. He then passed under the raft and came up at the other side of it. A life buoy was thrown to him, which he was luckily able to seize and got to the bank, an escape which seems little short of miraculous when it is known that Mr. Osborne cannot swim. The breaking of the bowsprit had completely disarranged the raft and that, and the fact of the alarming ducking and bruising he had sustained, compelled the steamer to come on its way without him. His boldness of spirit did not, however, even in this emergency forsake him ..." Refusing help, he did not reach Lower Lode until 7pm and the next day took the raft to the Quay Pit where "each day since, it has formed an object of attraction to a very large number of townsfolk ..."[18]

The Tewkesbury Register again published a long article concerning 'The Channel Hero 's Life-Saving Raft',[19] mentioning that it was moored at the Lower Hammocks.[20]

After these nautical exploits, we next met our Channel Hero at Tewkesbury Regatta on 9 August 1890: "The Regatta field was furnished by the appearance of Mr. Sam Osborne on an allotted space of ground near the upper refreshment marquee, surrounded with all the necessary paraphernalia for carrying on an extensive trade in the Aunt Sally and Coker-Nut line, in the interest of the funds of the Tewkesbury Working Man's Club. ...'The Channel Hero and local showman (Sam Osborne) solicits your patronage. Coker-Nut Shieing! Roll! Bowl! Or Pitch! The great American game of Beans! etc'. " It was reported that "there remains the  substantial donation of £4.3s.[21] in Mr.Osborne's hands." It ended: "So popular an appendage to the field of entertainment has the 'White-Boxed Showman' become, we may hope to see him again at the grand Primrose League Fete[22] at Moss Green on Thursday the 28th inst."[23]

The Channel Hero's obituary tells us he had been a very keen Conservative and that "he actively engaged himself in the cause of his party during the elections of 1886". However, despite lengthy research, we have not been able to prove that he had a vote. In the Election Polling list for 1886 for Tewkesbury Town there is only one Samuel Osborne, living in Lock Court, High Street.[24] The problem is that there were three Samuel Osbornes living in Tewkesbury in 1886. None of them are on the Census for 1881 or 1891 living in Lock Court. We looked through the parish records for any baptisms of the name of Osborne living in Lock Court from 1881 to 1889 and there were none.

I then found out about the rules of the Electoral Reform Act of 1884: if our Channel Hero was not paying rates, or £10 a year rent, he was not eligible to vote. So it is possible that he was lodging with his Uncle Watts. We know that he made his living as a carpenter — at least in 1888 for Mr. Thomas Collins of Tewkesbury.[25] Our Channel Hero was more likely lodging and canvassing alongside his uncle Watts and brother-in-law Martin.[26]

It seems that our Channel Hero then left Tewkesbury because, in the Census return for 1891, he was living at Painswick as a lodger and 'builder's foreman'.[27] He married soon after, his Marriage Certificate tells us, at Stroud Register Office on 20 July 1891[28] to Elizabeth Anna Charlton, aged 28, 'professional nurse'.[29]

After that we managed to find her Death Certificate which told us she died of T.B., aged 38 on 21 March 1899, at 228 East India Dock Road, Poplar in London. Their son died at the same time: his name was Samuel Thomas Osborne, aged 5 months. They are buried in a family grave in West Norwood Cemetery, Lambeth.[30] We searched for our Channel Hero on the newly released 1901 Census on-line and there are problems with his age and with his place of birth in London but it is likely that he was living as a widowed boarder in East London.[31] His occupation is similar to that of 1899: 'a coffee house keeper'.

The obituary in the Tewkesbury Register gives us the last word of our Channel Hero: he died on 19 July 1905, sitting in his chair; cause of death, heart disease. His Death Certificate tells us he died in his residence at 91 Angel Lane, Stratford, West Ham, aged 46; occupation, 'coffee house keeper.'[32] He is buried in the family grave. We know from Mrs. Betty Martin that two children, a boy and a girl, survived him.[33]

In November 2002 Catherine and I made a visit to West Norwood Cemetery to put flowers on the Channel Hero's grave. We spoke to the Administrator and he showed us roughly where the grave[34] was. I asked him why there is no gravestone for our Channel Hero and he told me that in the Second World War a stray German bomb landed on the spot where he was buried. Scattered around in the undergrowth there are pieces of gravestones and, although we searched for a while turning bits of gravestones over, we could not find a part of his gravestone but it is there somewhere and we left a copy of this report to mark the last resting place of Tewkesbury's now long-forgotten Channel Hero.

Acknowledgements

Roger Butwell, Tewkesbury Library, John Dixon, Alan Cresswell, Tony Wood, Betty Martin, Tewkesbury Borough Council, Tewkesbury Town Hall, West Ham Record Office, West Norwood Cemetery.

References

  1. Engraving from a photograph taken by Mr. Ernest A. Brown of Tewkesbury, which appeared in the Bushley, Longdon, Queenhill & Holdfast Parochial Almanac Book, 1889.
  2. We tried the Daily Mail and the Sportsman to no avail.
  3. Tewkesbury Register 26.5.1888. In addition, a visit to the County Record Office revealed that the Marriage Certificate shows that William Henry Watts and Harriet Watts (née Smith) were married at Cheltenham on 9 December 1865.
  4. 1881 Census, ref. C 81162: F.C.V. Martin was born at Eckington, Worcs.
  5. 1891 Census, ref. C 91105. This is now known as 14 Barton Road. The present owner, Mr. Hayward, has informed me that "W.H. Watts" is carved into a wooden fire surround. It is not to be confused with '5 Back of Mt. Pleasant'.
  6. Tewkesbury Borough Council Offices.
  7. Tewkesbury Register 23.6.1923. He was born at Cheltenham on 8 July 1836, left school at an early age and learnt the rudiments of his business in his father's workshops.
  8. 1891 Census, RG12/2049 336 IA.
  9. T.H.S. Bulletin No.10 (2001) p.35.
  10. Town Hall, Tewkesbury. We do not know why the family dropped the final 'e' from Osborne.
  11. Obituary, Tewkesbury Register 29.7.1905.
  12. Tewkesbury Register 1.5.1886.
  13. Obituary, Tewkesbury Register 29.7.1905.
  14. Gloucester Citizen, 28.5.1888.
  15. Gloucester Chronicle, 26.5.1888. Capt. Webb was the first to swim the Channel, on 24.8.1875.
  16. Obituary, Tewkesbury Register 2907.1905.
  17. Tewkesbury Register 4.8.1888. There is no record that Osborne, in fact, attempted this "bold and perilous" adventure.
  18. Tewkesbury Register 11.8.1888: "The committee would only have been too ready to have engaged a steam launch to go down river to his help but the wording of the telegram did not give the slightest hint that any help was needed."
  19. Tewkesbury Register 6.10.1888.
  20. You have to stand on the Quay Bridge with your back to the Abbey, on the left is Allied Mills and the old River Avon, further on is the lock, in between there is a plot of land which we call 'The Hangings'. Years ago the salmon fishermen used to hang their nets up to dry on tall poles, like you would hang washing out to dry. It came to be known as the 'Hammocks moorings'.
  21. £238 in modern values. (Editor)
  22. This was a Conservative Party organ inspired by the love of this plant of their former leader, Disraeli. (Editor)
  23. Tewkesbury Register 9.8.1890. There are more stories in Tewkesbury Register for 2 & 9.6.1888.
  24. Correspondence with Gloucestershire County Record Office.
  25. Tewkesbury Register 9.6.1888.
  26. A study of the database reveals that 1886 witnessed a hard-fought local election, involving Thomas Collins, with violent damage to property. (Editor)
  27. 1891 Census from the Local Studies Collection at Gloucester City Library: Flora Villa, Gloucester Street; his place of birth was Holloway, London, as with his sister Mrs. Martin. The 1881 Census entry for our Channel Hero's father, Charles John Osborne, tells us he was living at 18 Beckenham Road, Penge, Surrey. He was a widower, aged 54; birthplace Holloway, Middlesex; occupation, 'publican (out of business)'.
  28. St. Catherine's Index at the G.R.O. followed by application to Registrar's office in Southport: aged 32 years; occupation, builder's foreman; residence: Hill View, Gloucester Rd, Painswick.
  29. The bride's residence at time of marriage: Byfield House, Painswick, Glos.
  30. Gen. Register Office, Southport, Merseyside.
  31. In St Leonards Rd, 2 The Retreat, Limehouse.
  32. West Ham Register Office: their letter con- firms that in the 1891 and 1901 Census this address was a coffee house but that Osborne was not resident there.
  33. A Family Tree in Mrs. Martin's possession named E.M.C. Osborne and Grace Osborne, but we have not been able to find out any more about them.
  34. The administrator informed me that it was a 12-foot-deep grave of four levels, dug initially for his wife and son; added on 3.1.1900 was his probable sister-in-law, Sarah Jane Ferris; this was not a cheap grave.

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