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The Memorial plaque to Godfrey Nicholson, George Elliott and Robert Underhill.


The memorial plaque to Godfrey Maule Nicholson (1872 - 1901), George Elliott (1866 - 1901) and Robert Underhill (1877 - 1901) commemorates a tragedy that took place in the East End of London, a little beyond where the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park now stands.

Their plaque reads, "Godfrey Maule Nicholson, Manager Of A Stratford Distillery, George Elliott And Robert Underhill, Workmen, Successively Went Down A Well To Rescue Comrades And Were Poisoned By Gas. July 12 1901."

A full account of the tragedy, appeared in The Sunderland Daily Echo on the 13th of July 1901:-


"A shocking occurrence happened at the Three Mills Distillery, West Ham, near Loudon. yesterday afternoon, which involved the loss of four lives, including that of Mr Godfrey M. Nicholson, the managing director of the distillery, who is the brother-in-law of Sir Edward Bradford, Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis.

On some land on the north-east side of the distillery there is a well into which drains the waste water of the surrounding ground, which is quite close to the backwater of the River Lea, running through the distillery.

This well had not been inspected far a long time. and yesterday afternoon it was decided to "dip" it to ascertain the depth of water.

Mr Godfrey Nicholson accompanied a party to the well, which is surrounded at the top by a wooden fence, the inlet to it being covered.

A ladder was let down, and a man named Pickett descended told put a rod to the bottom of the well.

He handed the rod to Mr Elliott, the foremen, who said that the water registered 11 feet deep.

Suddenly, Pickett fell to the bottom of the well, having been overcome, as it afterwards transpired, by foul air,

Mr Godfrey Nicholson, not understanding the cause of the man's disappearance, at once went down the ladder to his assistance, and he, too, as soon as he got down a little way, was also overcome, and fell.

Then Mr. Elliott, the foreman, went to the rescue of his master and the other man, and he in his turn was overcome and disappeared.

A similar fate happened to a man named Underhill, who followed.

A fifth man also descended the well a little way, but was got up quickly, and so escaped the fate of the others.

Meanwhile, an alarm had been raised and other workmen flocked to the spot, and Mr. Drake, the resident manager, had some difficulty in preventing other men going down the well.

Dr. Hilliard, of Devons Road, Bickley, was sent for, and in a very short time Inspector Aylett, of Bow, and Inspector Richardson, of West Ham, were on the scene with a staff of police officers and the Bow Fire Brigade.

As before mentioned, foul gas was found to be the cause of the disaster, and while the Bow fire engine, reinforced later by one from West Ham, pumped into the well, one of the firemen descended attired in one of the newly provided smoke helmets.

It was, however, a long time before the well was thoroughly purged.

The two engines were willingly worked, but little hope was held out that the fallen men could be rescued alive.

They were all dead when brought up, Dr Hilliard stating that each had been suffocated almost immediately he had got below the surface of the noxious gas.


The deceased men are Thomas Pickett, aged 26, of 20, Marcus Street, West Ham, labourer; Godfrey Maule Nicholson, aged 29, managing director; Frederick Elliott, 35, of 24, Imperial Street, Bromley, a tunman; and Robert Underhill, 24, of 14, Three Mills Lane, Stratford, a labourer.

The bodies, shortly after recovery, were removed to Mr Drake's house in the distillery, which was temporarily used as a mortuary.

Pickett and Elliott are married men, and Underhill was engaged to be married on the August Bank Holiday. His mother and his sweetheart saw the body yesterday afternoon, and the scene as the one led the other away was a most affecting one.

Mr Godfrey Nicholson was regarded with affection by all the distillery employees.

Sir Edward Bradford was at once telegraphed to, and in the afternoon visited the scene and inspected the well."

The Three Mills Distillery.

The Three Mills Distillery Today


The inquest into the deaths of the men took place on Saturday 13th July 1901.

The Diss Express carried the following report on the proceeding in its issue of the following Friday, 19th July 1901:-


"At Bromley-by-Bow, on Saturday, Mr. Attwater held an inquiry into the deaths of Mr. Godfrey Maule Nicholson, managing director; Frederick Elliott, 35, of Imperial-street, Bromley: Thomas Pickett, 26, of Marcus-street, West Ham; and Robert Underhill, 21, of Three-Mills-lane, Stratford, who were suffocated on the preceding day while inspecting a well at the Three Mills Distillery, Bromley-by-Bow.

Mr. Nicholson, first witness called, said that his brother was the managing director of the brewery, and brother-in-law of Sir Edward Bradford, Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

The well had not been used for two or three years, on account of the London County Council making a new sewer through the ground and causing the well to become dry.

There had never been anything to suggest the presence of noxious gas.

He attributed the occurrence to a collection of marsh gas, the result of noxious vapours collecting, the great heat of the past few days also contributing to the result.

Mr. C. Drake said that orders were given to "dip" the well, and men were detailed off for the work.

A few minutes after, witness received information of the sad occurrence, and, proceeding to the spot, he saw there was water in the well, and men's caps were floating on the surface.

An alarm was raised, ad it was with great difficulty that other men were restrained from rushing to the rescue of their companions.

Several other witnesses gave evidence corroborating.

Job Vanning, who descended the well with a rope, which he succeeded in placing round one of the bodies, said he detected no nasty smell, but was rendered unconscious.

He felt a sensation just as if he was going to sleep. He did not recollect being hauled to the top.

Evidence of the recovery of the bodies was given by Mr. Slavin, third officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

Dr. Francis J. Hilliard, of Devons-road, deposed that death was due to asphyxiation in each case from inhaling carbon oxide gas.

The jury returned a verdict of "Accidental death," the result of inhaling noxious gas, and expressed regret that the usual test was not applied before the work was begun."


The Jury's comment about the "usual test not being applied was as a result of a comment made by the Coroner at the inquest.

Walter Attwater, had questioned Charles Drake, as to why, as was the normal case in these circumstances, a lit candle had not been used first in order to test the air prior to any of the men descending into the well.

Drake observed that, with hindsight, such a course of action would have been sensible,

But, he also pointed out that, at the time, there had been no reason to suspect the presence of gas and there had, most certainly, ben no sign of it when the well was initially opened.

Indeed, in considering the chain of events that resulted in the tragedy, the following hypothesis was put forward at the inquest.

When the well had been sealed, several years before, rotting weeds had been left in its depths and, as they began to decompose, they had given off gas which had subsequently accumulated beneath the water.

When Thomas Pickett disturbed the water with the measuring stick the gas had escaped, rendering him unconscious and his subsequent fall into the water caused more gas to leak out, and this, in turn, asphyxiated Nicholson, Elliott and Underhill.


Beside the memorial in Postman's Park, their is another memorial to the tragedy in East London, close to the spot where it occurred.

Unveiled in 2001, to commemorate the centenary of a tragedy, the simple, though, moving memorial is titled Helping Hands, and was carved by Alec Peever.

The Helping Hands Memorial At Three Mills.

The Helping Hands Memorial


The hands are surrounded by fragments of stone from a previous memorial on the site.

One of the stones entreats:-

"Of your charity pray for the souls of Thomas Pickett, Godfrey Maule Nicholson, Frederick Elliott and Robert Underhill, who lost their lives in a well beneath this spot on 12 July 1901.

The first named while in the execution of his duty was overcome by foul air.

The three latter successively descending in heroic efforts to save their comrades shared the same death."