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The memorial plaque to G. Garnish.


On the face of it, you cannot help but feel sorrow for the death of G. Garnish.

After all, he had, according to newspaper reports, only recently been ordained a Clergyman, and, when he sacrificed his life to go to the aid of a fellow human being, he had his whole life before him.

His memorial plaque recalls the tragedy of his last heroic act as follows, "G. Garnish, A Young Clergyman, Who Lost His Life In Endeavouring To Rescue A Stranger From Drowning At Putney, January 7 1885."


In the days that followed the tragedy, newspapers across the country were quick to feature the news of his loss, and to outline the brief facts about the act of heroism that led to his untimely death.

The Aberdeen Evening Express reported it in its edition of the 8th of January 1885:-

"Yesterday afternoon a boating accident occurred on the Thames near Putney, by which two gentlemen lost their lives, and several other persons had narrow escapes.

The misadventure was occasioned by two boats coming into violent collision, which resulted in the smaller one of the two capsizing and its occupants being precipitated into the water.

There were five persons in the boat which was overturned, three of whom were excellent swimmers.

Of the remaining two, one could swim indifferently, and the other not at all.

One of the occupants of the other boat, seeing Mr E. Mackenzie of The Laburnams, Twickenham, struggling in the water, and apparently sinking, sprang overboard to his assistance.

The unfortunate victim of the accident, however, seized him by the neck in such a manner as to cause them both to sink before assistance could be rendered them from another source.

Every effort was made to save them by the persons in the boat which caused the catastrophe, but without avail.

The other victim of this mishap was a young curate, the Rev. G. Garnish, who had only recently been ordained."


Under the above headline The Pall Mall Gazette was equally fulsome in its reporting on the tragedy in its issue of the 8th of January 1885:-

"A boating accident occurred yesterday on the Thames at Putney, which unfortunately proved fatal to two gentlemen.

Two boats came into collision and the smaller one was upset, and its occupants, five in number, were precipitated into the water.

One of the number, Mr. E. Mackenzie, a resident of Twickenham, was unable to swim, and when he was sinking the Rev. G. Garnish jumped from the other boat and attempted to rescue him, but the drowning man seized him and dragged him beneath the surface, and both were drowned.

The others were rescued, but were terribly exhausted."


The newspapers that carried the story of the tragic demise of the Revered G. Garnish ranged from The St James's Gazette in London, to The Edinburgh Evening News; and, of course, the already quoted from Aberdeen Evening Express.

Judging by the similarities in almost all the reports, they had emanated from a single source, probably a press or news agency.

Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, you can't help but feel sorry for the family and friends of the Revered G. Garnish.

At least, you would feel sorry for them if he had had any.

The problem is, it appears that he never existed, and the story of his heroic act of self-sacrifice was made up - fake news circa 1885 no less.

Other than the initial reports of his drowning, he disappears from the pages of the Victorian newspapers as suddenly and as mysteriously as he appeared in them.

There are, unusually, no reports of an inquest into either his death, or the death of a Mr. E. Mackenzie of Twickenham. There's no record of a funeral or of a burial.

In fact, there is no record of there having been a Reverend G. Garnish, newly ordained, or otherwise, in 1885.

The newspapers, it seems, had been the victims of a hoax!

Perhaps it was out of embarrassment that they, almost all, failed to correct their reports of the drowning.


One newspaper that appears to have not been taken in by the bogus story was The Mid-Surrey Gazette, which, on 10th of January 1885, was able to gloat:-

"A sensational and circumstantial account has appeared in several of our contemporaries of a collision between two boats, on Wednesday, at Putney, one of which was capsized, five persons thrown into the river and two drowned.

Our contemporaries have been the victims of a hoax and no such incident occurred anywhere near Putney."


Sadly, we'll never know how the story came about and who was responsible for it.

It may have been an honest misunderstanding, or it may have been a sick joke that got picked up by an agency and, as a result, received far more coverage than its perpetrator had expected.

The fact that none of the newspapers appears to have corrected their initial reports on the tragedy, meant that, when Watts's researcher was combing the press clippings on which Watts subsequently based his short narratives to include on the memorial, she was blissfully unaware that the story - which after all had happened many years before - was simply not true.

Sadly, the newly ordained clergyman, The Reverend G. Garnish was, quite simply, the man who never was.