Sarah Gerrish was born in Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland, in about 1807. Her father may have been serving or training at the British barracks in Clonmel, which had recently been extended in anticipation of an invasion by Napoleon. During the Napoleonic wars the barracks were largely occupied by militia units, such as the Armagh and North Cork militias, while the regular Regiments fought in the wars. I have not yet found out what brought her to Wiltshire, but it seems likely that it was her father’s home.
I believe that Sarah married Henry Gerrish, an agricultural labourer, in Melksham towards the end of 1848. It is possible that he was related to the Gerrishes at Gerrish and Co, the canal carrying company in Bradford on Avon. If this marriage is correct, her maiden name was Bailey or Baily. Neither Sarah nor Henry were able to write.
By 1851 Henry and Sarah were living in Semington Lane, a long lane between Melksham and the canal at Semington, an area where many members of the Gerrish family lived. In 1861 their address was 9 Semington Road. There is no evidence in the censuses of 1851 or 1861 that they had children.
By 1862 Sarah was working as a travelling cake seller for the Melksham confectioner and pastrycook Benjamin Shaul. She’d had no occupation in the 1861 census so this may have been one of many sporadic jobs she took to make ends meet.
Benjamin Shaul had opened his first shop in Church Street, Melksham, some time before 1851. He married Sarah Alice Matthews, the daughter of an Inn Keeper, in Warminster in 1850. In 1861 Benjamin and Sarah can be found living in Market Place, Melksham, with Benjamin working as a confectioner. Staying with them at the time of this census were their nephew Frederick Bendy, age 3, and their niece Alice Blake, age 2, who would die only two years later.
Soon after the census in 1861 Benjamin moved his shop to Bank Street, and this probably coincided with his diversification into making soda water, lemonade and gingerade. Collectors’ bottle labels provide the date 1861 for the launch of his “Soda Water and Lemonade Works”, and the advert below gives a Bank Street address in 1867. It is probable, then, that Benjamin Shaul was based in Bank Street, Melksham, at the time when Sarah Gerrish worked for him. Benjamin’s wife Sarah was to die in 1866. He remarried that same year and had five children of his own. One of these, Thomas, died in childhood.
At 6 o’clock in the evening on 17th November 1862, Sarah was probably making her way home, with the remains of her stock in a basket on her arm. She stopped off at the Kings Arms in Hilperton Marsh, near to the present day Hilperton Marina, and bought a pennyworth of beer. She was still perfectly sober when she left the inn.
The obvious route home from the Kings Arms would be along the towpath to Semington. In mid November it must have been quite dark, and the waning crescent moon was no help to her. It seems likely that she lost her footing and fell into the canal.
About three quarters of an hour after she was seen leaving the pub, two boys walking by the canal saw something floating in the water near Semington. They were afraid to touch it, and ran off to find Police Constable Chandler. The Constable was joined by the wheelwright, Mr Wilshire, and together they made their way to the canal. There they found a basket and a number of cakes and biscuits drifting in the canal. Eventually they found the lifeless body of Sarah Gerrish floating on the water.
An inquest was held two days later in the board room of the Melksham Union Workhouse in Semington, Coroner George Sylvester presiding. There was no evidence of foul play or suicide, and the jury returned a verdict of “found drowned”. Sarah was buried by Rev E J W Thomas, in Melksham parish, on November 21st. Her address in the burial register is given simply as Melksham, and her age 57.
Sources: Genealogical research, and an article in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 20th November 1862.
I first hired a narrowboat with two school friends in 1978, and I have loved canals ever since. I live in Royal Wootton Bassett, and I am a professional genealogist, building family trees, and conducting WW1 research. I am also an expert on the history of teasmades.