The title of this piece may sound like that of a Victorian melodrama but it was one of many headlines in the Brighton newspapers concerning the death of Albert Edward Plank.  He was one of my Great-Uncles and died, on 9th February 1912, of coal gas poisoning at the age of 24.  This was less than 2 months after marrying Ellen Body.

John Plank was my Great-Grandfather.  He was born at Brighton in 1843 and married Mary Ann Clarke (a Londoner, born in Bermondsey about 1856) at Brighton in 1875.  To the best of my knowledge he was the FIRST Plank to be born in Sussex, his father being born near Guildford in Surrey.  In common with many working-class Victorian families they had a large family - there were 11 children of which 6 survived into adulthood.  Three of their sons worked on the railway at Brighton for the L.B.S.C.Ry (London, Brighton & South Coast Railway).  These were my Grandfather, George, Thomas Henry & Albert Edward.

Albert Edward Plank was a night shunter at the Brighton railway works and as such slept during the day.  If he had worked during the day his premature death probably wouldn’t have happened.   But then he may not have survived the Great War two years later (he was in the RNVR).  Anyway enough of this speculation.

There were many column inches concerning his death in at least four Brighton newspapers.  Part 1 of this article contains the details of the initial inquest and the funeral, as printed in the Brighton Gazette and the Brighton and Hove Times.  Part 2, in the next issue of Sussex Family Historian, will deal with the conclusion of the inquest that took place a week later.  As can be seen there is a wealth of information in these newspaper reports, including many names.  In fact if anyone is researching the Tester name at this time then they will find a Police Constable Tester playing a vital role in this tragedy.


Saturday, February 10, 1912


Mysterious Brighton Tragedy

About half past five on Thursday evening residents in the vicinity of No.76, Islingword-street were no little alarmed at a strong smell of gas.  P.C. Tester, when opposite the house noticed a strong smell of gas.  Shortly afterwards, Mrs Caroline Murphy, living at No. 77, complained to the constable of a similar smell in the basement of her house.  The constable knocked at the door of No. 76, and getting no answer he entered - the door being unfastened, in company with Mrs. Lillie Brett, of No. 7.  Upon going into the front room on the ground floor, used as a bedroom, they found Albert E. Plank, aged 24, lying on the bed undressed, while his wife, Ellen, aged 26, was lying on the bed fully dressed.  Both were unconscious, and the room smelt strongly of gas.  The windows of all the rooms were immediately opened and Mrs. Plank was carried into the back room, where Mrs. Brett used artificial respiration.  The constable carried the man into the passage, where artificial respiration was used. Percy Nicholl, of No. 7 was sent to the Level Police Station for assistance, and when P.C. White arrived he relieved Mrs. Brett.

Dr. Maguire came, and artificial respiration was continued, with the assistance of Sergeant Robson.  Mr. and Mrs. Plank were afterwards conveyed to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in the horse ambulance, accompanied by Dr. Maguire and the police officers.   Both were detained, and the man died some hours later, while his wife's condition shows an improvement.

An examination of the premises was afterwards made, but no leakage could be found.  The occupiers of Nos. 74 and 75 also complained of a strong smell of gas in the basements of their houses.  Directions were given for all windows to be left opened, and the Gas Company was communicated with.


The Inquest was held at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, by Mr J.E. Bush.

Mr. Somers Clarke and Mr. A. Stanley Cook held a watching brief for the Gas Company, and Superintendent Hale represented the police.

The initial witness was P.C. Tester, who first submitted a rough sketch of the street and house, showing the gas mains and the room in which deceased was found with his wife.  Commencing his evidence, witness said the previous afternoon, about 5.30, he was walking down Islingword-street.  When passing No. 76 he noticed a very strong smell of gas, and at the same time a Mrs. Murphy, living at No. 77, told him there was a strong smell of gas in her basement.  Witness went there and also noticed a smell of gas.  In consequence, he went to No. 76, knocked at the door, opened it and went in.  A Mrs. Brett, living at No. 7, on the opposite side of the road, also went into the house with him.  On going into the front room on the ground floor, he discovered a man and woman lying on the bed.  They had since been identified as the deceased and his wife, Ellen.  The man was in his night attire, but the woman was fully dressed.  Both were quite unconscious.  He noticed a distinct smell of gas in the room, it being much stronger than that he had experienced outside. With the assistance of Mrs. Brett, he took the woman in a back bedroom on the same floor.  They had opened all the windows and the front door.  He instructed Mrs Brett how to perform artificial respiration, and she commenced operations on the woman.  Witness himself brought the man into the passage, and immediately started artificial respiration on him.   He sent information to the Level Police Station, and a sergeant and a police constable came shortly afterwards, and gave them assistance in the use of artificial respiration.

The Doctor's Arrival

Dr. Maguire, police surgeon, was also sent for, and after he had seen both persons, he ordered their removal in the horse ambulance to the Royal Sussex County Hospital, the doctor accompanying them.  When they entered the institution, the man was still quite unconscious, but the woman was regaining consciousness, but not sufficiently for her to make any statement.  Later on, witness went back and thoroughly examined the premises.  In the room where the man and woman were found, the door and window were closed when he found them, but there was a clear passage of air up the chimney.  He examined all the gas fittings and found them thoroughly in order.  Witness gave instructions for the tap to be turned off at the meter, but still he could smell gas in the house, notwithstanding the windows being open.

Questioned by the Coroner, witness said he noticed the smell of gas first, and it was after that that Mrs. Murphy informed him of the presence of the smell of gas.

Mrs. Lily Brett, who went into the house with the constable, said she saw Mrs. Plank about ten minutes to two the previous afternoon standing in the doorway leading to the street.  She did not speak to her.  About 5.30 in the evening, witness was at her front door, and saw the last witness go to No 76. and knock.  Consequently, witness went across the road and called to Mrs. Plank.  Witness did not notice the smell of gas until she got to the front door of No. 76 nor had she heard any complaints from the neighbours of the smell of gas.

Service Pipe Asunder

Luke Paris, a street lamp inspector in the employ of the Corporation, said in consequence of information he received about 8.20 the previous evening, he went to Islingword-street, and while there witnessed the Gas Company's servants break up the road near where the main was, opposite No. 76.  They found the service pipe asunder.  It was about 6ft away from the pavement, and 8ft from the entrance to the house.

The Coroner:  What was the service pipe made of?

Witness:  Iron.

How was it fractured? -  It was simply broken asunder by some heavy weight.  It had divided near the thread.

How far was it from the surface? ...About 18 inches.

Did it appear to be an old pipe?  Had it come away through age?...No, sir; it was not so very bad?

Witness:  It was not in a bad condition.

Mr Bertram Cohen, second house surgeon, said both the man and woman were admitted just before seven o'clock the previous evening, and from their condition he came to the conclusion that they were suffering from the effects of coal gas poisoning.  The deceased man remained unconscious until his death, about 4.30 that morning.  The woman, however, was recovering.

In answer to the Coroner, witness said there was no question about death being due to coal gas poisoning.

The Coroner said that was all the evidence he could offer that day.  They must adjourn the inquiry for the woman and the Gas Company's workmen to attend.

The doctor, although not in a position to say when the woman would be sufficiently recovered to give evidence, thought perhaps she would be ready in a week's time.

The inquest was therefore adjourned until Monday, 19th February, at three o'clock, at the Royal Sussex County Hospital.



Wednesday, February 14, 1912


Gas Tragedy Victim Laid to Rest

The funeral of the young married man, Albert E. Plank, 70 Islingword street, Brighton, who met with an untimely end through the gas pipe breaking in the road and thus poisoning him while asleep in his home, took place yesterday.  He was a night shunter at the railway works, and for five years was a member of the No 2 Company R.N.V.R.   He was only married at Christmas.  The funeral was of a full Naval character.  The body had been conveyed to the house of deceased's parents, No 4, Nelson-row, and from here the cortege left on its journey to Brighton and Preston Cemetery.  It was headed by the band of the Royal Garrison Artillery, under Bandmaster Potter, who kindly lent their services, followed by a firing party of 26 of the R.N.V.R. in charge of C.P.O. I. Wilkinson.   The coffin, covered with a Union Jack, was upon a gun carriage drawn by men of the reserve under P.O. Woolley.  The officers present in full Naval dress were Lieutenant the Hon. E.H. Drummond, R.N., Surgeon Garner Howe, R.N.V.R., Surgeon E. Snell, R.N.V.R., and Sub-Lieutenant P.E. Cain, R.N.V.R., the latter being the officer in charge, and attending to the arrangements.  The bearers were Leading Signalmen W.H. Denyer, and F.E. Denyer, P.O. Bennett, A.H. Hopwood, A.R. Butland, and A.B. Cooper, while C.P.O. Hellamby was in charge of the mourners.   Among the railwaymen who took part in the procession were: - Messrs Absolom, Blunt, Bachelor, Coldman, Cross, Cosham, French, A. Guy, H. Guy, Horscroft, Martin(2), Munnery, Page, Sharp, Soaper, Souch, Todd, Tidey, Withers and Woollie.  The streets were lined with sympathisers, while there must have been over a thousand people following behind the cortege. The band played Chopin's funeral march and the Dead March by "Raul".  At the cemetery the Rev. F.J.G. Gardner officiated.   Around the grave, which was in the north-west corner of the cemetery, another great crowd had assembled.  The firing party fired three volleys, and the Last Post was sounded.  There were many floral tributes, among them being one from the widow, deceased's mother and sisters:  Mr and Mrs Plank and family;  Viscount Curzon, commanding the Reserve;   the officers of the No. 2 Company R.N.V.R.;  the P.O.s and men of No 2 Company;  the Staff and Headmasters, R.N.V.R.;  fellow workmen of the goods department at the Brighton Railway Station;  and the Working Men's Temperance Club, George-street.  Deceased's wife, who was rescued at the same time as her husband, is well on the road to recovery.

The above is a very formal account of the funeral. But that in the Brighton and Hove Times had a lot more feeling to it and was written in a very different style.  I make no apologies for also including it here:


Extract from Brighton and Hove Times

Friday, February 16 1912


Buried With Naval Honours

Many tokens of sympathy were witnessed at the funeral of Albert E Plank, the young man who met his death by gas poisoning at 76, Islingword-street, Brighton.  Although only 24 years of age, he had a service of five years in the No. 2 Company of the Sussex Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves, and it was a fitting thing that his comrades should escort the body of their comrade to his last resting place in the Brighton and Preston Cemetary.   The sadness of the tragedy is further enhanced by the fact that it was only at Christmas that the young couple entered upon married life full of promise.   All is now changed.  The breadwinner has answered the last roll-call, and his helpmate is now lying in the Royal Sussex County Hospital.  The deceased had been removed from the Hospital to his parents' residence in Nelson row, and from there the cortege started on its last sad journey.  Situated in such a populous district it was not surprising to find large gatherings of spectators assembled at all the street corners, and it was only the efficient police service under Sergeant Robson which kept a pathway clear for the cortege to pass along.  The sad circumstances surrounding the funeral brought tears to the eyes of many of the women who watched the procession move away from the deceased's parents' house, and many of the sterner sex also choked back a sob when reflecting upon the sudden cutting off of a man in the prime of life. .......

The funeral music was Chopin's Marche Funebre, and the Dead March in Saul.  As the procession moved along the streets so the spectators increased, and followed on with the cortege.  At the fountain in front of St. Peter's Church a little knot of railwaymen reverently acknowledged the passing of the coffin.  So great was the press of people that the tramcars had to be stopped.  The crowd journeyed to the cemetery, where the greatest respect was shown.  The coffin was reverently lifted from the gun carriage, and borne into the cemetery chapel, where the Rev. F.J.G. Gardiner officiated.  The grave was situated in the north-east corner of the cemetery, and around it was a tremendous crowd of people.  The silence was most impressive as the clergyman read the committal prayers.  Then came the sharp word of command to the firing party, and the click of the inserting of the cartridges.  The three volleys were fired over the grave, each being interspersed with the mournful note of the bugler's funeral dirge.  Then, in a silence which was intensely solemn, rang out the last farewell to a departed comrade the Last Post sounded by the bugler.  The scene was a remarkable one, and but few will ever forget the funeral of this unfortunate young man suddenly cut off at the commencement of a useful life.

Part 2