William Jewell: the Free Tank hero

By Steve Poole

New Series, 2018, p. 16.

In May 1907, a reporter from the Bristol Evening News ventured into the industrial streets of St Phillips, made his way along Cheese Lane, past the Phoenix Glass Bottle Works, and knocked at the door of a small terraced house in Avon Lane at the back of Avon Street. This was home to Elizabeth Jewell, whose husband had died in 1889, leaving her to care for their seven children as best she could. The city’s newspapers didn’t often go looking for uplifting stories in working class districts like this, but the house was quickly becoming famous as the home of a local hero, and the Evening News was keen to be first with an interview.

The Avon Street area of the Floating Harbour in the late Nineteenth Century. The Free Tank can be seen running down to the water’s edge at the centre of the map to the right of the Glass Bottle Works.

The unlikely subject of the papers attention was Elizabeth’s oldest son, 19-year old William Edwin Jewell. The previous afternoon, William had spotted some local children playing beside the Feeder canal at the Free Tank, a short unfenced and cobbled slipway running directly down to the water. It was a dangerous spot for larking children, the paper pointed out, for the water was not only filthy but about 30 feet deep here. ‘I saw three lads and I thought to myself, “one of them is going to fall in”, he told the News. He wasn’t inclined to make too much of what happened next. ‘The next minute I saw one fall and by the time I reached the waters’ edge, he had come up for the third time. I went in and without much difficulty fetched him out’. This was six year old Arthur Saunders and he was lucky to be alive.

William Edwin Jewell. Image from the Penny Illustrated Paper 1903

But the paper’s interest in William Jewell was not confined to this single act of gallantry. Far from it – for this was the sixteenth time Jewell had saved children from drowning in the river and his fame had begun to spread. In the ‘little room’ the reporter was shown into by William and his mother, ‘a case of medals for life saving was to be seen upon one of the walls, whilst near it were certificates which have been awarded him on other occasions’. And the last five rescues, remarked his mother ruefully, had gone completely unnoticed.[i]

Jewell’s life-saving reputation was sealed in the city when after he notched up his seventh rescue in 1903 at the age of fifteen. Two young children had fallen in at the Free Tank and William dived in to pull them both to safety. This brought him medals from the Royal Humane Society and the Life-Saving Society of France as well as a nice letter from the King whose suggestion that William enlist in the Navy was vetoed by his mother. She wanted him to train as a carpenter instead, so a public subscription was established to help pay for an apprenticeship and £60 gathered in donations.[ii]

As the Evening News put it, Jewell’s life-saving record was ‘very remarkable’, but there is more to the story than this young man’s heroism. Jewell had spent all his life in the streets around the Free Tank, and like many others in the Avon Street community, passed it every day on his way to and from work. It had been regularly claiming the lives of bathing children – and a handful of adults too – for decades as the area was developed for working class housing and industrial employment. Despite the risks, children and young men used this stretch of the Floating Harbour both for washing in and for play often enough. And between 1879 and 1923 it claimed the lives of at least 23 of them. 

Calls from coroner’s juries for protective fencing to keep children out were voiced as early as 1886 but nothing was done. The Free Tank had been a bathing place for at least 60 years, it was pointed out by both jurors and policemen, but it could not be enclosed because it was public space. As a result, wrote one frustrated local resident in 1911, ‘it has been what I may term a regular death trap for small children’.[iii]

Gatherings of working class youths at the Free Tank were lamented for another reason too. Respectable boating parties making their way down the Feeder to rejoin the Avon at the harbour’s eastern end frequently found themselves the targets of class antagonism. Gangs of boys amusing themselves by throwing stones at passing boats were complained of in 1889, and four years later, ‘A Lover of Boating’ complained that as his party passed the Free Tank, ‘we were greeted with a volley of large stones, one of which hit me in the side…’ Certainly the Avon Street area was poor, a point well illustrated by the rescue of a 45 year old woman from the water in 1891 after she threw herself in at the Free Tank. Her husband, a man who scratched a living by mending and selling old umbrellas, was out of work and the family had no food. ‘Her children had asked her for bread and she had none to give them’, examining magistrates were told. ‘She felt it very hard…’ But the Free Tank was still unfenced in 1920.[iv]

William Edwin Jewell is not well remembered today and much of the district he knew, including the Free Tank, has all but disappeared beneath the thrusting steel and glass of the new Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone. No blue plaque marks his heroism and his medals and certificates have long vanished from public record. But his story perhaps prompts a few timely questions. Whose lives do we tend to commemorate in the modern city, and what kinds of historical experience do we mark and pass on to the next generation?  

[i] Western Daily Press 23 May 1907

[ii] West Somerset Free Press, 1 August 1903.

[iii] Western Daily Press, 3 July 1889, 4 July 1911, 20 October 1920.

[iv] Western Daily Press, 3 July 1889, 2 April 1891, 16 August 1893.

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