Early on the morning of Sunday 22nd March 1903, two police-constables in the big Scottish thread making town of Paisley were on duty in the vicinity of the River Cart when one called the others attention to a moving object at the foot of a blank wall which bounds the other side of the river at a point opposite to which the officers had stopped. Then they heard a faint cry, distinguishable only because of the still ness of the Sabbath morning. Hurrying around by the Abbey Bridge, fortunately but a little distance off, they could make out upon little patch of firm ground, and lying within a foot or two of the broad, swiftly-flowing river, a female figure, bare footed, bare-headed, drenched, clothing in tatters, and altogether pitiable.
When it runs through a populous centre a river has always its solid tale to tell – usually in small paragraphs in the newspapers headed “ suicide “ or it may be charitably “ Drowning Accident “ this particular “ case “ might have been considered entirely commonplace but it turned out to be far otherwise. The story as told by the woman when rescued by the policemen was all but incredible ; at the first telling it sounded absurd. But a thorough investigation for the purposes of a plain straight-forward narrative in these pages could find no flaw in the woman’s account of her terrible experiences, and revealed details of danger and horror such as one might expect to get only in some gruesome Zolaesque drama of underground Paris.
Mrs. Sarah Hart, to whom this adventure happened, Is Irish, as her maiden name of Rafferty denotes. Though but an inch or two over ive feet in height, she is strongly built, and her muscular arms and ruddy complexion denote the robust health of the outdoor worker. She wants, but one year of fifty, and has been a widow for several years.
On the Saturday night which stands out so vividly in her memory she walked from the town of Barrhead, a few miles off, to Paisley where she intended to spend the night. It was about half past eight o’clock , she believes, and a dark, wet night, when she reached the Saucel, one of the first tenement dwellings met with from that direction of approach. At the entry of No. 12, where she is, she says, “ well acquainted,” she turned in. As she went along she noticed several suspicious-looking men ; and on reaching the open back court, which is used as a washing green , she turned off to avoid them, making for the opposite side of the green, where she believed she could cross the stream known as the Espedair Burn – which flows past this spot , with stone embankments up on the level of the green, but devoid of fencing – and get to a towpath which would d take herby a near cut to her destination the town, a place known as Batterholm. It s almost amusing think of the woman shrinking from passing near the men she saw, when one considers the pluck she was soon to show she possessed.
About this time the country had been experiencing a prolonged spell of extremely wet weather. and in consequence the burn was in flood, its turbid waters rushing swiftly along on a level with the banks. In the uncertain light this proved poor Mrs. Hart’s undoing.
“ The water,” she said, “ was so high – up to the top of the wall – and the ground so wet and glistening that it looked to me just like the footpath. I stepped on – and immediately discovered my mistake. I was too late to get back, and was carried away like a straw. Almost before I knew what had happened I was underneath the bridge.”
This bridge is seen in the photograph reproduced below.
It is not really a bridge at all, but merely the slightly-etched stone facing of the culvert through which the Espedair Burn runs for the last part of its journey to th eRiver Cart, which in its turn flows into the River Clyde. This culvert, or sewer, goes below the main roadway which Mrs. Hart had just left, and then beneath some buildings. It extends for about a hundred and fifty yards, its course taking a slight bend about the middle, and the height of the tunnel varies from five to seven feet. The bed of the stream all along the culvert and for some distance in the open air is made of brick, but this does not prevent huge rats – including many of the water species – from swarming in hundreds in its cavernous depths, and making their burrows along the slimy sides.
As has already been stated, the stream was in flood and was at this time was within a foot of the roof of the entrance. As Mrs. Hart was whirled along helplessly by the fierce torrent she managed with the strength of despair, to couch at the arch and temporarily arrest her headlong progress.
The bottom of the culvert immediately beyond this point falls abruptly, making a kind of small waterfall several feet deep. Here in this wild tumble of waters , Mrs. Hart clung for a few minutes to the stone-work, shouting her loudest for help, which unfortunately, was not forthcoming. Again and again she attempted to pull herself over the ledge so close above her head, but the force of the current prevented her, and finally a rush of water tore her from her precarious hold and hurried her relentlessly down into the utter darkness of the noisome tunnel beyond.
Once inside the tunnel, the unfortunate woman struggled desperately to gain her feet and make her way back to the entrance. The water, however, was up to her chest, and rushing along at a terrific pace, so that her feet continually slipped from under her. It occurred to her that if she could get her boots off – they were of the elastic variety – she might be able to secure a better grip on the bottom. So, holding on to the slimy wall, she contrived, with much difficulty, to push off her boots.
It was all of no use, however – she keep slipping and sliding backwards , the flood eddying round her and forcing her relentlessly farther and farther away from the point which she had entered the vault, where she could see a tiny glimmer of light. Finding that, despite her most gallant efforts, she could get no nearer her goal, the poor woman desisted and crouched against the brickwork to think what she could do next. As she clung there the rising water swirled around her, and sometimes flung its cold splashes into her face. And all the time, to add to the poignancy of her stress, she could distinctly hear the big clock on the town-hall chiming the three quarter hours – bitter reminder of how close she was to friends and assistance if only her desperate plight were known.
Presently a new horror was added to her already sufficiently terrible position. Disturbed in there burrows by the rising water, countless myriads of huge rats now began to swarm around the poor buffeted woman. They bit at her hands and clothes and clung tenaciously to her garments, their loathsome bodies and beady eyes seeming to be all around her. “ at first “ said Mrs. Hart, “ I thought the movement I could feel was only the water rising over my face and head. Then I found out it was rats ! I commenced screaming with all my might, but no one heard me, and I had to keep on moving myself and knocking off the great brutes which climbed over me .”
And so the long hours of that awful night went slowly by. Just picture for yourself the position of this poor woman, maintaining her place against the wall only with the utmost difficulty, breast-high in a swirling torrent, in inky darkness, and continually attacked by swarms of loathsome rats, who bit viciously when she resisted their efforts to use her head nd shoulders as a safe retreat from the waters which flooded their usual homes. How Mrs. Hart escaped serious injury from these voracious creatures is all but inexplicable, and can only be attributed to the terror-stricken desperation of her efforts to keep them off, and the fact that the rats themselves were considerably handicapped by the force of the current. But that the ordeal must have been appalling beyond description is shown by the clothes she was wearing at the time, which were seen by the writer. The stout blue serge is a mass of small tears, while in parts the rats teeth have bitten through both cloth and lining.
For seven and a half hours the unfortunate woman endured all the horrors of this subterranean vault, the slow passage of time being brought home to her tortured brain by the monotonous chiming of the town hall clock. All this time she was in inky darkness, save for the faint glimmer from the end of the culvert, and during the whole period the water rose slowly but steadily, while the swarming rats returned again and again to the attack.
Mrs. Hart remembers hearing the clock strike the quarter to four. By this time the water had increased considerably in volume, and gradually washed from her position after position, until at last her lost her footing altogether and was swept away once more. This time the turbid stream carried her right down to the River Cart. Fortunately for the poor woman, the river was also in flood and up to the level of the culvert, so that the speed of the current moderated as she neared the main stream, and she was able to clutch hold of a piece of driftwood which stuck up out of the river . This piece of wood is seen in the photo below which shows the River Cart after the flood had subsided. At the time Mrs. Hart was swept into the stream this upright stick was al but covered. Having grasped the stick, Mrs. Hart succeeded in laying hold of some tufts of grass and so pulling herself on to the bank.
Woman-like in spite of the terrible experience she had just came through, she thought of her appearance “ if anyone, had seen me then ! “ she said “ All my hair-pins gone, my hair hanging about me, and my clothes in rags ; I must have been a fearsome sight. No wonder the Policemen asked me where I had come from ! “
A fearsome sight the poor woman certainly was. Though quite conscious, she had the appearance of a corpse, the skin of her hands, especially, being a deadly white. She lay for a couple of hours, probably on her new found haven ere assistance came in the shape of the two stalwart constables to whom she shouted.
Let Constable 21, of Paisley, narrate the manner of the story :- “ Early on Sunday morning of the 22nd March “ he said “ between six and seven o’clock I was on duty in the vicinity of the cart. My neighbour constable told me that he thought there was a woman in the river. We went around by the bridge. When we saw the woman it was difficult to ow we were to get to her. I went to a yard near, but could not get a ladder. In another yard we did get a ladder, but it was found to be short the distance if was needed for. So Igot off my belt, my cape, lamp, keys, etc., and got over the railing, leaving the ladder behind. I managed to swing myself down to a ledge on the wall, nd then dropped beside the poor creature. The difficulty was to get her back up. The ladder was too short, and broken at one end. However I stuck it firmly in the sand, and, to my surprise, Mrs. Hart was able to go up it with very little assistance. When she got to the top of the wall she did not hesitate, but faced the spiked railing, and climbed it without much trouble. She was then safely in the Infirmary grounds, and was able to accompany us to the police office, though I could still see she was in a very weak condition.”
Mrs. Hart was kept in the Police office till Monday morning, tended carefully by the chief constable and his subordinates, who gave her stimulants, food and dry clothing, and provided her with a warm room.
Happily, it fails to the lot of very few to brave such dangers and undergo such a mental strain as did this plucky little Irish woman. She has since doing her work again in the fields like any other hardy agricultural labourer. But such a shock could not be merely a passing one. About a month after the occurrence Mrs. Hart collapsed and had to undergo treatment in hospital. Her dependance for many years upon her own earnings by manual labour from day to day and the habitual exposure in all sorts of weather to which she had been subjected have no doubt made her remarkably strong in both mind and body, and these qualities must be looked at as accounting for her surviving an experience which to most people would have meant certain death, either by drowning , the effects of the long exposure, or the sheer terror at the accumulated horrors of that awful night in the subterranean stream.