MAY Benjamin (1870 – 1892)


Situated in the Consecrated/West Section of Jesmond Old Cemetery

Benjamin May – Student of Medicine. Note the broken column, indicating a life cut short.


MAY Benjamin (1870 – 1892)

Benjamin May, a medical student at the Newcastle Infirmary, was only 22 years of age when he drowned in the River Tyne at Elswick on the 12th of November, 1892, bless him.

Benjamin is recorded in the 1871 Census as being aged 9 months and living with his parents, Thomas and Helen, in Northowram, Halifax. Thomas is recorded as being a ‘Officer of Inland Revenue’ and Helen as being a ‘Revenue Officers Wife’. In the 1881 Census, the family are living in Edinburgh at 32 Oxford Street in the parish of Edinburgh St. Cuthberts. By the time of the 1891 Census, Benjamin is now 20 years of age and the family have now moved to Newcastle and are living in 32 Normanton Terrace, Elswick. His father, Thomas, is now a ‘Supervisor of Inland Revenue and Benjamin is recorded as being a ‘Student of Medicine’.

The Newcastle Daily Chronicle, dated Tuesday, November 15, 1892, describes the sad drowning case at Elswick, in graphic detail, whereby Noel Florentine Rowston, (of St. Mary’s Place) a medical student stated that ‘he and the other young men who were in the boat, went for a row on Saturday afternoon, There were five of them, the deceased (Benjamin May), the witness, Mr. Wallace (John Wallace of Havelock Street), who was at stroke, Mr. Charlton (William Pallister Charlton of Longley Street) and Mr. Saunders (Arthur Gretton Saunders of Wentworth Place). They got the boat at the Elswick Amateur Boathouse. It was a four-oared skiff. They rowed up the Tyne and landed, and went to the Ord Arms, where they had some drink. They were all quite sober. They left about a quarter to five, and turned down the river again. Witness was coxswain. They had proceeded for about twenty minutes when he saw a light on the river. That was shortly before they got to Armstrong’s. It was a white light. It was on the north side of the river and was almost bow on. It seemed to rise up out of the darkness. Then he saw for the first time  that it was moving towards them and it was almost upon them. He saw it was a steam tug and they stopped rowing. At that point, they were clear of the paddles. They (in the boat) had no light. They shouted for the steamer to look out. They were quickly coming together. He could not say whether the steamer eased her speed, neither could he see any sign of their being noticed on board. They began to pull again, but by that time they had got on a level with the paddle and witness heard something strike the stern of the boat, just behind him. He pulled on the rudder but the rudder would not act. They took a few strokes when he felt the water rush under his seat, and they just had time to pull a few strokes when the water rushed to the bow, and the boat went under. The deceased had No. 2 oar from the bow. Witness kept his seat until the water reached his neck and then he swam for the nearest object, which was a chain attached to the steamer. He found three of his companions were on the chain but not the deceased. It was dark then. When he did not see the deceased, he shouted, “Are we all here?” Some one said, “May is missing.” Then he heard a faint splash in the river ahead of him, about ten yards from where they were. Witness looked in that direction and saw a faint ripple on the surface of the water. He then let go of the chain, and swam in that direction and, not seeing or hearing anything, he swam back to the chain. After they were struck, someone shouted from the tug, “Did they want any help?” and someone replied, “We’re sinking or drowning, throw us a rope” He did not remember what response they got but he did not see any rope or assistance rendered. No other boats were near them. He saw the boat after it had been taken from the water and found it split along the sides.

William Reay, the Captain of the tug, called Blaydon, gave evidence that absolved him of any blame, saying that ‘they (the Blaydon) were on the north side, which was their right place; all vessels going up or down the river had to keep port helm. Coming down, they were taken to the south side. This was the rule, light or dark. He did not know of any exception in favour of a racing craft. The first thing he saw was the side of the boat coming past the aft gangway. He had never seen it before. The small boat had no light and at the time of the incident were about 200 yards on the low side of Elswick Gangway and about 200 yards from the bank. He stopped his tug dead. He got his own boat out and, with the assistance of the firemen, rescued those that were on the chains.’

Benjamin’s body was discovered by two young men on the following day (Sunday), lying underneath a boat near the spot where the accident happened and was removed to the Infirmary.

The Coroner, Mr. Theodore Hoyle, commented on ‘the sad nature of the accident, reviewed the evidence, and expressed the opinion that there had been a want of foresight on the part of those who were in the small, light boat. He thought it was an unguarded thing for the young men to be coming down the river at that time of night and in the darkness. There was, he believed, no blame in any shape or form to be attached to those on board the tug. The Jury found that the deceased was accidently drowned.’

Benjamin was laid to rest in Jesmond Old Cemetery on Wednesday, November 16th, 1892.

The cortege left from the Royal Infirmary at noon, with large crowds gathering in Neville Street and the thoroughfares leading to the Infirmary. The cortege then proceeded by Grainger Street, Market Street, Northumberland Street and Jesmond Road. It must have made a great sight, as about 120 medical students from the University of Durham College of Medicine, dressed in their college gowns and caps, preceded the hearse, which itself was adorned with wreaths and bouquets of flowers sent from the rowing club, of which Benjamin was a member, relatives, friends and from the Matron and Nurses of the Infirmary.

In attendance as pallbearers were the four students – Rowston, Wallace, Charlton and Saunders -who were in the boat when Benjamin met his death. How traumatic must that have been for them? The Rev. L. Saunders, Vicar of St. Paul’s Church in Elswick, of which Benjamin was a member, alluded to this by saying, “his companions in the boat could not but feel solemnized by the sudden removal of their friend, so full of promise. It was too commonly reported that medical students were apt to lose their faith in Jesus Christ. He was sure he was right in saying that that was noy so. The heart was a better guide than the head. There was something which baffled the stethoscope and scalpel. Christianity carried them through life and taught them of death and after death. He begged them all to listen to the voice of God speaking so plainly on an occasion like that.”

The funeral arrangements were under the direction of Mr. Thomas Herdman, of Newcastle.

On Saturday, November 19, 1892, the Newcastle Daily Chronicle carried the following announcement from Mr. Thomas May, of 32, Normanton Terrace, Newcastle:

Sir, – As it would be quite impossible to send an acknowledgement to each one of the large number of public officials and students who attended the funeral of Mr. Benjamin May on Wednesday, will you be good enough to inset this letter to express the grateful feelings entertained by both his parents for the remarkable kindness and sympathy so manifested. Yours etc. 

On the same day, The Newcastle Weekly Chronicle describes Benjamin as a ‘well known and esteemed student at the Newcastle Infirmary’, with one of the Professors at the Infirmary writing that, ‘Mr. May distinguished himself greatly amongst his fellow students by his exceptional ability and power of work. They all admired and were proud of a man who was so brilliant in his studies, so thorough in all he did, so ready to help others, so perfectly honourable, and so kind and friendly. In addition to his necessary work he took up other subjects with great enthusiasm, and particularly excelled in the difficult department of microscopical investigation in disease. Mr. May was on the point of completing his medical education, and both teachers and students anticipated a successful future for him. He will be long remembered as one of the best students of his time, and amongst those who feel his loss will be the suffering poor, who appreciated his skill and deftness, and his unfailing good temper and sympathy.’

A fitting tribute to a fine young man.