In the late 19th century a maritime tragedy claimed the lives of three members of a prominent Preston family. Family historian Bill Grime reports
In May 1895, Robert Procter Woodhouse, the sextant at Preston Cemetery, and his wife Lettice Jane, who had not been in the best of health, went for a holiday to Ireland accompanied by their son Harry, daughter Norah Alice and niece Ellen Stephens.
On the May 6, the family set out on a boat trip from Portrush, near the Giants’ Causeway. After travelling a few hundred yards from shore, tragedy struck.
A freak wind suddenly overturned the boat, throwing all the passengers into the sea. The women were thrown clear but Mr Kelly, the boatman, was initially trapped under the boat, however, he managed to get on to the keel and threw oars to the ladies and was able to swim to shore and to raise the alarm.
One of the witnesses on shore was William Traill, who had seen the upturned boat from the Electric Railway.
He stripped off and swam out to the boat and reached Miss Woodhouse, who had an oar to help support her, but she begged him to save her mother.
Then he swam to Mr Woodhouse, who was supporting his wife in the water, and swam to shore with Mr Woodhouse and his wife, who had died.
He returned to the water and assisted Miss Woodhouse to shore. There was no sign of young Mr Woodhouse or Miss Stephens, whose bodies were recovered later.
On May 10 the funerals of Mrs Woodhouse, her son, Harry Arthur Woodhouse, and Ellen Stephens were held at St John’s Church Preston.
The three deceased were all well known figures in the town. Mrs Woodhouse, with her husband, was a prominent member of St John’s Church. Their son Harry was a very keen sportsman, especially football. Ellen Stephens assisted her mother in her millinery business in Queens Buildings in Fishergate.
There was a private family service and the coffins, laden with wreaths, were borne from the baptistery to the centre aisle of the church fronting the lectern.
About 11.25am the gates were opened and the people streamed into the church.
Rapidly the pews filled and in a few moments the sitting accommodation was taken up and crowds filled the baptistery and the vestibule.
In addition to the three hearses there were eight carriages containing the family mourners. Church Street outside St John’s Church was so packed with people that it was difficult to conduct the traffic.
The whole route of the procession was lined with people; the footpaths of Church Street were completely filled with people. Every house and shop in New Hall Lane had its blinds drawn. There were hundreds of people waiting at the cemetery gates and near to the Woodhouse family vault and the Stephens’ grave.
There were many floral tributes to all three of the deceased, including from ‘all at Victoria Street and Park Road Blackpool’, the family of John Grime, Mrs Woodhouse’s brother, who founded the Gazette newspaper in Blackpool.
There was a letter from Mr Traill who was one of the rescuers in Portrush. William Atcheson Traill, the rescuer, was born September 2, 1844, at Ballylough, Co Antrim, and was educated at private schools and graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in engineering in 1865 and a masters in 1873. In 1868 he joined the Geological Survey of Ireland, becoming an expert on water supply.
In 1881 he left the Geological Survey, and with his brother Anthony, he founded the Portrush, Bushmills, and Giant’s Causeway Railway and Tramway Company. This was the line on which he was travelling when he saw the upturned boat. It was the world’s first electrical railway, which was funded by capital raised from friends and investors including Sir Walter Siemens, and Lord Kelvin. He devised and patented a conduit system of burying the live rail in a pipe with electrical contact.
The expected goods trade never took off and the line remained as a summer tourist railway until its closure in 1949.
In February 1887 he ran in a by-election in North Antrim, as an Independent Unionist, coming in third.
He had married twice and had been widowed. On June 10, 1925, he married Nora Alice Woodhouse, his third wife, at Coleraine Registry Office, when he was 80 years old and she was 47, 30 years after he had rescued her.
Nora became a director of the Railway Company and took over the chairmanship when William’s health failed.
He died at his home on July 5, 1933 at Rockhaven, Portrush Road, Portstewart, County Londonderry aged 88.
In 1990, the Northern Bank (of Northern Ireland) issued a £5 note bearing a portrait of William Traill, with his railway and a carriage.
Nora continued to live at the family home in Port Stewart, with her older sister, Janet, who died in 1950, until her death in September 1958.
The family grave in Preston Cemetery records the deaths of all three people who died in the tragedy in 1895, and Robert, who died on Ascension Day 1922, as well as Nora Alice Traill.
Robert Woodhouse appointed two executors to his will, Helen Martlew, and Percy Woodhouse. Helen Martlew (nee Lodge) was Robert’s niece, whose mother, Mary, had died in 1889, and had lived with Robert until her marriage.