Mysterious death of showman in Sidmouth

Nostalgia recalls death of Professor Anderton and the largest funeral procession ever in Sidmouth

THE second part of Nostalgia’s look at the history of the Anderton & Rowland Fairground, brings us to Sidmouth and the tragedy that was to befall showman Albert Haslam, alias Professor Anderton.

Kevin Scrivens and Stephen Smith record the events in their book Illusion & Reality, published by The Fairground Heritage Trust, priced �20, which is a fascinating insight into the world of showground history.

“By August (1909) Professor Anderton and his family were back in the South West, territory that was now almost native soil to the Haslam and Devey families.

“In August, ground was booked in Sidmouth. The Urban Council decided to let the Ham ‘to Messrs. Anderton & Rowland, the well-known showmen’ from August 5 to 14. Some concerns were raised about the location of the ground, and the council agreed to let the field to the proprietors on the condition that they should fence off the field from the weir to the Alma Bridge.

“Owing to the arrival of the show at such a late hour, this work could not be done that night and it was therefore left to the next day to be done.”

The loads arrived in Sidmouth on the evening of Wednesday, August 4 and at around 7pm three engines and 14 wagons pulled into the field and the show took up its

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position ready to open the next day, finishing at around 9pm.

“Most of the vans were placed in fairly close proximity to the weir at the northern end of the field and amongst these was that of the proprietor, Albert Haslam, Professor Anderton.

“The delay in fencing off the field brought about a dreadful fatality.”

The Sidmouth Observer recorded the incident: ‘the first letting of the Ham meadow to showmen, about which there has been so much contention, has unfortunately been attended with a sensational and very regrettable occurrence…Mr Anderton, the genial showman, well-known throughout the West of England, had the misfortune to fall into the river near the weir.

‘No sound or any cry was heard, which may have been due to the noise of the weir, nor was he missed until the following morning when his body was found in the river.’

The death certificate, registered in the name of Albert Anderton, recorded he ‘accidentally drowned in River Sid, near Ham Weir, Sidmouth’.

Dr Edward Reginald Tweed, the district coroner, recorded a verdict of accidental drowning at an inquest held on Friday, August 6, at Sidmouth Victoria Cottage Hospital.

Kevin and Stephen write: “His family were in a state of distress at the catastrophe and the news quickly spread through the town where the incident occurred.”

Albert Anderton junior had shared a living wagon with his father since the death of his mother and the van was placed 20 yards from the river on ground sloping towards the water.

“He knew his father’s habits well, and at about half-past ten o’clock on Wednesday night, after he had finished his supper, he heard him come into the caravan, just as he was going to bed.

“As a rule, before going to bed, his father went outside the van to smoke his pipe. He heard his father leave the van about five minutes later, but soon young Albert was asleep.”

Albert senior’s daughter Elizabeth was in the adjoining van and had gone to her father’s van to sort it out. At 10.30pm Albert came in and was “quite sober and in his usual health and spirits.”

He then told her he was going out and she passed him on the way back to her van.

She was probably the last person to see Professor Anderton alive.

Anderton’s body was found by showman Thomas Rowland, whose family had travelled with the Haslams for about four years.

“When he got up about 6am he walked outside the vans towards the weir. He saw what looked like a coat in the water, but on getting close he discovered it was a body lying face down in the water.”

Thomas immediately thought it was his son Jack’s body, because of the colour of the coat.

The shouts of Thomas Rowland woke Albert at about 6.15am and when he saw his father’s bed was empty he told Thomas he believed it was he who had drowned.

“When Albert reached the water he found his father lying half in the water, half on dry land, doubled up, floating face downwards.

“Too distressed to do anything further, three or four men gave assistance and with the aid of a pole managed to drag the body ashore.”

Constable West was summoned by Ernest Bray of Riverside Terrace and he examined the body. There were no bruises or marks and all he found was an old bank pass book and various papers.

Albert identified his father, who was 58 and told the coroner’s jury that he did not suspect foul play and that his father was not depressed or in financial difficulties.

“Albert’s theory of his father’s demise was that he had lost his sense of direction in the dark, accidentally walked over the wall and got stunned and subsequently was drowned…

“The jury expressed the desire that the coroner should communicate with the local authority calling attention to the dangerous nature of the field, especially for children, owing to the absence of some sort of protection along the bank.”

The funeral took place at Sidmouth Cemetery and many messages of sympathy came from residents of Sidmouth as well as the showland community.

“With about 30 carriages…the funeral cort�ge was the largest funeral procession ever seen in Sidmouth.”