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Aston Park Tragedy 1863

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Thylacine

master brummie
Selina Powell née Hunt (1827-1863) tragically lost her life on the evening of 20 July 1863 at a fête in Aston Park. She fell from a "high wire" on which she was performing. Mrs Powell, whose stage names were "Madame Geneive" and "The Female Blondin", was born into a family of performers. Her father Joseph Hunt was well known in the Midlands as "Funny Joe", a clown with the Bennett and Patch travelling theatre, and later as one of the "Huntini Family". Selina's mother was a "slack wire vaulter", and Selina herself had been "on the wire" from a very early age. At the time of her death, Selina Powell's high wire act was financially supporting her husband Edward, their seven children, and her mother. Having turned 36 the previous month, she was at least seven months pregnant with her eighth child when she fell to her death. Her husband and manager was also born into a performing family, but had until recently been a coach painter.

Queen Victoria was not amused by the incident, especially as she had opened Aston Park "for the people" just five years previously (15 June 1858: see picture below). She wrote to the Mayor of Birmingham (Charles Sturge) to express her dismay "that one of her subjects — a female — should have been sacrificed to the gratification of the demoralising taste ... for exhibitions attended with the greatest danger to the performers". Mayor Sturge, who had the misfortune to be one of the patrons of the fête, had to write back to Her Majesty in suitably obsequious terms.

The incident has been mentioned briefly on the BHF before (search on "Blondin"), but in no great detail. Sadly, I have been unable to find a picture of Selina Powell (can anyone oblige?). She is often confused with an earlier "Female Blondin", Selina Young (born circa 1830; also known as "Madame Genevieve"), who crossed the Thames on a high wire on 19 August 1861 and was later crippled in a fall at Highbury Barn (Islington). Selina Powell assumed the "Blondin" name following Miss Young's forced retirement.

Contributions, corrections and comments are welcome. We should be able to tease out Mrs Powell's family history. I understand that she was born in Birmingham (or at least the Midlands).

Sources and further reading:

[1] Birmingham Daily Post (news reports 21 and 22 July; inquest reports 23 and 25 July).
[2] John Bull (Queen Victoria's and Mayor Sturge's letters 1 August).
[3] "Our Six-Hundred-Thousand" from The Rose, the Shamrock and the Thistle (1864 — a contemporary magazine article examining the ethical implications of the tragedy).

I have added a picture to post #1 of the opening of Aston Park by Queen Victoria on 15 June 1858 [source: Illustrated London News 26 June 1858].
 

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Thylacine

master brummie
Thanks for your contributions, gentlemen. The House of Lords debate shows the level of concern aroused by this tragic accident.

The press reports of the time all claimed that the rope on which Mrs Powell performed had previously broken and been spliced back together. The rope did indeed break (very near one end) while it was being set up, and this delayed the start of the performance. But it was established at the inquest that the rope had not been spliced. They just made do with the shortened rope.

Rope maker Henry White (foreman to Messrs John and Henry Wright of the Universe Works, Garrison Street) was called by the inquest as an expert witness. He testified that the reason for the breakage of the rope was the presence of dry rot in the centre, which could not have been detected without taking the rope apart. So no blame was attached to anyone for the use of the defective rope.

The fact that Edward Powell allowed his wife to undertake such a dangerous performance while in an advanced state of pregnancy was hardly mentioned at the inquest. Mr Powell claimed that he was not aware of how "far gone" she was, and that in any case it was common in the profession for women to perform in that condition. This issue was taken up with some vigour in the "Our Six-Hundred-Thousand" article.
 
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Thylacine

master brummie
At the inquest, Edward Powell gave his (very long) address as:

6 King Street, Union Street, Borough Road, St Georges, Southwark.

This may be a clue for anyone looking into the Powell family history.
 

johndavies

master brummie
An interesting glimpse back at a past sad incident, Thylacine. I shall look up what I can tomorrow, after a good night's sleep (today being my first full day back at work after suffering an extremely debilitating illness for three months).

john davies - I assume your comment is 'tongue in cheek', history is an academic subject which requires retelling correctly if the 'much information' is to be accurately reported.
I presume your sense of humour from your title, 'parish beadle' - the most well known of that ilk to me is Mr Bumble in Dickens' "Oliver Twist", who one account describes as "...the parish beadle and leader of the orphanage. He is officious, corrupt, a chronic mangler of the King's English, and a great source of comic relief."
(If incorrect I hope I do not offend - such is not my wish.)
If you had read my post correctly Lloyd you would have noted I used the phrase "on casual observation, the article did look academic" though clearly it is not. I further commented that I enjoy detail. My opinion, and you will recall comments were invited was that the article was extremely flowery and could have been more succinct without losing the essential facts.

I do indeed enjoy Dickens but alas have a dislike of Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist. My title Parish Beadle was chosen because one of my ancestors was in fact a Parish Beadle and for no other reason. I do not of course take offence at your comments as they were triggered by incorrect assumptions and interpretation of my post.
 
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Wendy

Guest
I knew about the tragedy at Aston but didn't realise that Selina was 7months pregnant which makes it even more of a tragedy. I can understan why Queen Victoria made such a comment as any mother would. Great piece Thyacine, thank you for reviving such an interesting although sad piece of local history
 

G G Jean

Brummy Wench.
I can remember my aunt talking about the murder of a young lady and I am sure this must have been her. Thanks Thylacine for jogging my memory. Jean.
 

Thylacine

master brummie
The Powell family was in precarious financial state. Their fee for the Aston Park performance was £15, of which they expected to clear £8 or £9 profit. Selina Powell was risking her life about half a dozen times a season. So a family of three adults and seven (soon to be eight) children was surviving on an annual income of less than £60.
 
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sylviasayers

master brummie
Jean, the reports above were of an accident on a tightrope not a murder. When we were kids we used to play a lot in Aston Park, but when we went to the toilets no-one would use the end cubicle because we were told a girl had been found murdered there, I don't know whether there was any truth in the story but we never used the end loo and never went in the toilets alone.
 
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