May 8, 1885 — Admired the world over, England’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, originally designed by the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, stands 101 metres (331ft) above the River Avon and spans a 400-metre wide gorge. It has been considered an engineering marvel ever since it was opened in 1864.
It has also been a magnet for people wanting to commit suicide. Official figures reveal, for example, that there were 206 suicides from the bridge between 1974 and 2007.
The chances of survival for anyone taking the plunge are negligible. But a spectacular failed death leap came on 8 May 1885 when 22-year-old Sarah Ann Henley decided to end it all by throwing herself off the bridge, which stands just outside the city of Bristol.
“The rash act”, according to the Bristol Magpie newspaper at the time, “was the result of a lovers’ quarrel. A young man, a porter on the Great Western Railway, decided to break off their engagement and wrote a letter to the young woman announcing his intention.
“This preyed on the girl’s mind, and she, in a state of despair, rushed to end her life by the fearful leap from the Suspension Bridge.”
But Sarah, a barmaid and a follower of fashion, was wearing a wide crinoline skirt, popular at the time. And according to the Magpie: “There being a breeze blowing on Friday the young woman’s clothes were inflated and her descent was thereby considerably checked and the wind also prevented her falling straight into the water, and she was carried into the soft mud on the side.”
In 2000, recalling the incident, the Bristol Evening Post added more colour to the story. Sarah’s sweetheart, the report said, had written breaking off their engagement after she had stormed into his workplace and harangued his foreman about what a rogue he was and how she had dozens of suitors, all of a higher standing than a mere porter.
This had been the last straw in a stormy relationship.
Thomas Stevens, resident inspector of the bridge, was watching visitors walking across in a brisk breeze, the Post said, when he saw Sarah climb over the railings and onto the parapet. Before anyone could reach her, she threw herself off.
“She was blown by the wind and then turned a complete somersault so that she was falling feet first to the water below. But the wind blew under her wide skirt and her clothes acted like a parachute, gently slowing down the rate of her fall.
“The tide below was receding and Sarah landed in thick, soft mud. Two men who had seen her fall rushed to her aid and dragged her out.”
The Magpie concluded back in 1885: “The young woman marvellously escaped instant death, and is, strange to say, still alive in the Infirmary, and may possibly recover. We believe that out of the 16 or 17 persons who have jumped off the bridge, only one, on being approached, exhibited any signs of life; death in every case having been apparently instantaneous.”
Sarah in fact lived to be 85. She married a new suitor in 1900 and died in 1948.
In recent times plaques were installed on the bridge giving the phone number of local Samaritans who, hopefully, could deter distressed people from trying to commit suicide. And in 1998 barriers were put up to make it more difficult for would-be jumpers.
But that came too late to help Nicolette Powell, the wife of “Bonnie and Clyde” blues singer Georgie Fame. She jumped to her death from the bridge in 1993.
Published: April 7, 2017
Isambard Kingdom Brunel