Happenstance: Two tales of Brownhills Canal Heroism

In one of those somewhat odd bouts of synchronicity that often befalls this blog, this week I have stories of two canal heroes that cropped up within days of each other yet are complete unconnected, except by location.

A number of folk drew this story to my attention on the ever-excellent Lichfield Live: Auctioneers Richard Winterton are selling this Tuesday (15th June 2021) a Humane Society award certificate presented to Pier Inn Publican John Lamb, who risked his life on canal ice in January 1891 saving the lives of two children who had gone out onto the ice, and it had given way underneath them.

The Pier Inn stood at the bottom of Pier Street, adjacent to the Pier Street Bridge, which exists in a modern form today. The pub was also known as the Fortune of War and was lost in the 1960s.

Image from Richard Winterton Auctioneers website: Click for a larger version.

Lichfield Live posted:

Certificate honouring pub landlord who saved lives of brothers in 1891 to be sold at auction in Lichfield

A testimonial to a heroic landlord who saved two brothers from the freezing waters of a canal features in an upcoming Lichfield auction.

The vellum certificate was awarded by the Royal Humane Society on 18th February 1891 to Brownhills publican John Lamb.

A month before he had braved the frozen Birmingham Canal to rescue local boys Cecil and Francis Price.

The Ogley Hay youngsters had ventured out onto the ice but it cracked open, leaving them at the mercy of freezing water eight feet deep.

Mr Lamb, publican of the adjacent Pier Hotel, ran to help and, although the surface also gave way under him, saved the boys from drowning.

His gallantry was recognised by the Royal Humane Society, whose patron was Queen Victoria.

The testimonial features in Richard Winterton Auctioneers’ upcoming sale on 15th June.

‘It may have happened 130 years ago but the story of John Lamb and his rescue of the Price brothers still strikes a chord and such an incident would surely hit the headlines today.

‘Plunging through the ice on a frozen canal must have been a nightmarish experience and one which they almost certainly would not have survived had it not been for Mr Lamb.

‘We don’t expect the certificate to necessarily sell for a huge amount of money, it’s simply a wonderful example of the wealth of local history which can turn up at auction.’

In his mid-30s at the time of the rescue, records show that John Lamb was still the landlord of the Pier Hotel in 1914.

Now long since demolished, the inn stood on the corner of Pier Street next to the Birmingham Canal and was originally called the Fortunes of War.

The full catalogue of items going under the hammer, including collectable military medals and a wooden propellor for a Tiger Moth or Chipmunk aeroplane, is available to view online.

Scanned from the book ‘Memories of Brownhills Past’ by Clarice Mayo and Geof Harrington.

Coincidentally to this, old pal of the blog Ian Bourne sent me this tale of similar canal heroics from 23 years later, where local man Arthur Fletcher jumped into the canal at Catshill Junction and saved the life of an 11 year old girl Lily May Harris; who had fallen in on Shrove Tuesday, 1914.

What was even more remarkable is that John was unable to swim.

This is a terrific story, and it’s good to see Arthur was recognised for his heroism. Thanks to Ian for passing it on.2

9 May 1914


A canal boatman – Arthur Fletcher of Wood House canal stop, Pelsall – is now the proud possessor of a Royal Humane certificate for gallantly saving life. A man of some 23 years and medium height, he modestly told an Observer representative on Monday evening how he rescued an eleven year old girl who had fallen into the canal near the junction bridge at Catshill, between Walsall Wood and Brownhills. ‘Me and my mate’, he said, ‘were working a boat on the canal at Brownhills on Pancake Day, and when I was leading the horse along the towing-path I noticed some little girls playing about by the junction bridge. I had gone with the horse about 150 yards further on when I heard the children screaming, and looking back saw a little girl bobbing up and down in the water. Then I ran to the bridge, jumped into the water, and managed to catch hold of the girl’s wrist and get her to the side. She seemed to be unconscious, but after I had worked her arms, she came round and was carried home’.

Catshill Junction hasn’t changed much,

Although Mr Fletcher was, to use his own words, ‘born and bred round the canal’ and has been working the barges ever since he left school (with the exception of three months spent in the Navy), he confessed that he could not swim. ‘Mind you’, he added, ‘I think I can do a dog paddle, but not properly swim’. The canal at the junction bridge he said was about 19 feet wide, and ‘where I jumped in I afterwards tested the depth with the tiller, and found it was about six foot’. Asked if he had any difficulty in rescuing the girl, Fletcher said she did not struggle, and added, ‘When I got into the water, I managed to grasp with one hand an iron casting in the brickwork of the bridge hole, and with the other hand I caught the girl’s wrist. If I hadn’t held on to that casting, I might never have got out myself, but I was able to pull the girl to the side and shouldered her up on to the towing-path’.

Fletcher comes from a family for many years engaged in canal work. Born at Clayhanger, his father was a steerer, while his brothers also earn their living working the barges. Before marrying and going to Pelsall, Fletcher lived with his parents at Daw End Lane, Rushall. He also told our representative that on separate occasions some years ago, two of his brothers fell into deep water of the canal, but he managed to pull them out with the aid of a boat hook without getting into the water himself.

The Royal Humane Certificate was publicly presented to Mr Fletcher at the Walsall Wood Institute on Monday evening by the Rev W W Boulton, vicar of Walsall Wood. Mr T Grindley (a member of the Brownhills Urban District Council), who has taken a great interest in securing for Fletcher the certificate, detailed the circumstances of the rescue, and explained that Fletcher ran a distance of 150 yards, and without divesting himself of any clothing, plunged straight into the water. The rescued girl, he said, is Lily May Harris (11), who lives with her parents at Lindon Road, Walsall Wood. When Fletcher brought her to the bank, he resorted to artificial respiration methods, and was assisted by a man named Isaac Heath.

‘When the facts of the rescue came to my knowledge’, added Mr Grindley, ‘I thought it my duty to do something in the matter. I explained the circumstances to the Vicar, who very kindly got into communication with the Society in London, and this certificate is the result’. (Applause). The Rev W W Boulton said Mr Fletcher had shown himself to be a truly brave man, and in that framed certificate he possessed something to be proud of for the rest of his life – a certificate which should encourage him if danger arose in the future. There were two kinds of bravery – physical and moral. They often found instances of physical bravery, but what about the moral – the daring to do right against all comers whatever the consequences might be. A soldier could be a bold brave fellow, knowing no fear when he faced the cannon’s mouth, yet morally he might shrink back in a cowardly way and be tempted to do the wrong thing simply because someone laughed at the right. Physical bravery was a very grand and noble thing, but they must never forget that moral bravery was something better still. After all it was no joke to get into one of our innocent looking canals. Mr Fletcher had actually risked his life in rescuing the girl, and they all admired him for his brave act. He did not say it boastfully, but he thought no person had greater admiration for true bravery than the average Englishman – (hear, hear) – and they desired to express appreciation of their friend’s pluck.

The vicar of Walsall Wood also took the opportunity to congratulate Mr Grindley on his election as a member of the Brownhills Council, adding that ‘perhaps in a short while we shall hear that Brownhills and Walsall Wood are to be provided with a good bath, where young fellows can learn to swim without getting into the muddy water of the canal’. The rev gentleman mentioned that in his younger days he greatly enjoyed swimming, and expressed the opinion that it would be well if all had some knowledge of the methods of artificial respiration. The framed certificate was then handed to Mr Fletcher amid applause, the recipient remarking, ‘I don’t think I should be doing my duty if I sat down without thanking Mr Grindley and the Rev Mr Boulton for their efforts on my behalf, and also thank the friends for coming here’, Mr Fletcher’s mother and wife were both present, and the former lady also expressed thanks. The Vicar remarked that they owed a debt of gratitude to Mr Grindley, adding, ‘He has carried out the real work, and I have simply had to write a few letters’. Mr Grindley returned thanks, and proposed a vote of thanks to the Vicar and Mr S Cotton, who occupied the chair. Inspector Needham (of Rushall), seconding, said Mr Fletcher was a credit to Rushall and the district, and they all felt proud of him because of his noble act. In addition to Inspector Needham, several other police officers were present, including Police-sergeant Lewis and Police-constables Barrett and Moore.

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2 Responses to Happenstance: Two tales of Brownhills Canal Heroism

  1. Pedro says:

    Hold on a bit, if Lichfield Live is anything like Birmingham Live, treat with caution.

    Lichfield Live reports that two brothers were saved, but this may not be the case ? It names the boys as Cecil and Francis Price.

    However the Lichfield Mercury of February 1891 names the boys as Moses Rice and David Price both aged 8 years old.

    The certificate says two boys named ?? Price (unclear), as the surname the two boys.

  2. Pingback: Clearance – everything must go! | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

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