Sarah Ann Henley’s Unplanned Parachute Jump, 1885

Unlike the hundreds before and after, one woman survived jumping into the chasm of Avon Gorge from the bridge that spans it. Find out what quirk of fashion saved Ms Henley from her attempt to end her life.

The city of Bristol, UK, is a charming place in England’s West Country. It’s famous for a number of things; Massive Attack, Concorde, Banksy, Aardman Animations and… the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

This iconic structure was designed by the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and completed in 1864. It spans the craggy Avon Gorge and thousands of ships have passed under its grand arch, sailing along the river Avon over the decades since.

Unfortunately, it also acquired a reputation as a place to end one’s life, with around 400 despairing souls who’ve scaled the railings before plummeting to their deaths 75 m (245 ft) below.

And so, Sarah Ann Henley’s story comes to light: On a Summer’s day in 1885 this distraught young woman made her way up through Clifton’s streets of fine townhouses to make her way along to the middle of the bridge, sobbing as she went. She stopped and peered down, contemplating her next move with a deep gulp.

Earlier she had got a letter from the man she loved and was engaged to marry, a porter for the Great Western Railway. In it, he announced his intention to break off their engagement and, in the depths of despair she made the rash decision to end it all. She climbed over the railings and onto the parapet and, before onlookers could rush to intervene, she flung herself off.

Fate had a twist for her however. As was the style of the time she was wearing a crinoline skirt — a stiff petticoat designed to hold out a woman’s skirt. Witnesses claimed that a billowing effect created by an updraft of air beneath her skirt acted as a parachute of sorts to slow her fall, misdirecting her away from the water and instead onto the river’s muddy banks. Two passers-by rushed to her assistance and found her in a state of severe shock, but alive nonetheless.

They escorted her to the refreshment rooms of the nearby railway station and from there she was taken to hospital to recover. Sarah Ann put the incident behind her and went on to marry Edward Lane in 1900 and lived to the age of 85.

Ms Henley, the bridge she leapt from and the crinoline skirt which acted as her parachute (thevintagenews.com)
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The Policeman Whose Sense of Smell Once Saved Many Lives

The story of the hero policeman who sniffed out trouble to save the lives of his neighbours

When the nose knows you’d better take notice; that was certainly the case for Police Constable Nick Shaw in the wee hours of the 9th of January, 1987. It was because of this policeman’s sense of smell and quick thinking that the worst ever disaster to befall a locale of Gloucestershire, UK, was narrowly avoided.

It had just gone 3 am and along Wickwar village’s long, wide thoroughfare, with its fine houses which line it, all was still save the prowling of a cat or two among the shadows cast by the street lighting.

And it was almost silent, as one would expect… save for an unusual hissing noise.

Another noise chimed in; the low growl of an engine as a car was driven up the street then around to the rear of one of the homes.

Having finished a late night game of backgammon Nick Shaw arrived back home and could feel the weight of his eyelids. He was now more than ready to slip into his warm bed.

Once through the back door he began to remove his coat yet something made him pause, ears pricked.

Shaw could detect a queer, muffled popping noise which he described later as the sound of “neighbours falling out of bed.”

Then a more alarming sensation hit him; the strong, unmistakable whiff of gas filled his nostrils. This was most strange, especially as his house was all-electric. Now wide awake the policeman went to investigate.

Opening his front door the stench of gas and a sound of hissing emanating from the road surface confirmed his worst fears. A gas mains ran under the length of Wickwar’s broad, main roadway and it had ruptured.

Now, gas was filling the street and could explode at any moment. Shaw stayed cool but the enormity of the situation hit him. He knew he had to act bloody fast.

He first rang 999 (911 in America) then raced up his stairs to rouse his young wife out of bed. Throwing a blanket over her shoulders he briskly sent her down the street to safety. Shaw knew he was in a desperate race against time to get his neighbours out of their homes before half the street went up in flames.

So, dashing from door to door Shaw woke his neighbours and they responded awfully well, with the kind of good humoured ‘keep calm and carry on’ spirit which has always served the British in times of emergency. Almost 40 villagers, without even time to change out of their night-clothes, were evacuated into the social club.

At 5.52am, just 30 minutes after everyone nearby was evacuated, came a massive blast which shook the village and was heard three miles away. It blew a crater in the road and great tongues of fire spewed upwards to the height of the bedroom windows.

PC Shaw’s very own home took the full brunt of the explosion, destroying it and everything he and his wife owned. 13 surrounding homes were also wrecked. Yet there were no serious casualties and, for that, PC Nick Shaw was hailed a hero by his grateful community.

In the aftermath the fracturing of the cast iron gas pipe was blamed on too many heavy goods vehicles passing over it.

Shaw is still revered in Wickwar, even today. He retired from the Police Force in 2013.

Compilation of news reports on the incident (youtube.com)
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