Published: 06:00, 04 July 2021
| Updated: 07:20, 04 July 2021
It was a tragedy that shocked not just a tiny village in Kent but the entire country when the body of a man was left down a well due to a row over money. John Nurden retells the story of a father-of-two's fateful journey to work...
It was 6am on December 10 in 1937 when 29-year-old father-of-two Robert John Burgess set off in the dark and toppled 200ft down a hidden shaft barely three yards from his home in Bredgar, a tiny picturesque village between Sittingbourne and Maidstone.
His disappearance was only discovered when a colleague was sent to check up on him after he failed to turn up. His wife Doris, 21, went into the backyard to retrace his footsteps and to her horror found her husband's cap beside the open hole.
If that shock wasn't bad enough, what followed stunned a nation.
There was an unseemly wrangle between the Home Office, Kent County Council and the Ministry of Health over who should pay to recover the body.
So the bureaucrats simply and callously left it to rot in the water at the bottom of the well and covered by two tons of topsoil which had crashed in top of him.
It took a letter to The Times to sort out the mess.
Eventually, an anonymous donor paid the £100 needed to build a rescue rig but the body was not hauled to the surface until February 2 the following year, nearly two months after the fall.
His heartbroken widow moved to Sheerness with her two young children aged three months and three years. Her husband's body was finally buried in an unmarked grave at Halfway cemetery.
The disaster happened at Chantry Cottages which in those days was split into four separate homes. The two-storey building of flint and red bricks dates back to 1392 making it the oldest in the village.
It was turned into a college in 1397 by Robert de Bradegare and is now an impressive private home renamed Chantry House which sits beside the village pond. It is set back from The Street, the village's main road, and is partially hidden behind a brick wall.
Interestingly, few in the village seemed to be aware of the house's chequered past. Even the woman in the village shop said she had never heard of the drowning. But a helpful neighbour was more clued up and produced a copy of Bredgar - The History of a Kentish Parish written by Helen Allinson which includes a couple of lines about the tragedy.
The scandal first came to national notice in a letter to The Times on January 13, 1938. A furious Robert JG Bennett wrote: "Sir, More than a month ago a young farm labourer named Robert John Burgess, aged 29, living at the village of Bredgar, near Sittingbourne, bade his wife and two children goodbye and left home to go to his work.
"He lived in a block of cottages known as Chantry Cottages and when a few steps from his threshold he disappeared into a well.
"Apparently, caused by heavy rains, there had been a subsidence in this well, leaving only a thin crust of earth on the surface.
"Burgess stepped on this, the crust gave way beneath his weight, and he fell into a 200ft well that used to serve a monastic college here.
"From that day to the present time the body of the poor fellow is still at the bottom of this disused well, which for some years now has been utilized as a cesspool.
"Consultations and correspondence have since been going on between the coroner, the Police authorities, the county council, the Home Office and Ministry of Health but no one will authorise the sanction of the expenditure that will be entailed by the setting up of machinery to raise the dead man's body from its loathsome tomb and give it Christian burial.
"The young widow is still suffering from the shock of her husband's tragic death and everybody in Bredgar is indignant at the unaccountable delay which amounts to a scandal in finding some way out of the difficulty.
"Is there no authority, Government or county, which can put an end to this dreadful state of affairs?"
As a result, work began on recovering the body on January 26.
On February 4 The Times reported on the inquest which had probably been held at the nearby Sun Inn.
It wrote: "A verdict of 'accidental death' was recorded by the Coroner (Mr WJ Harris) at the inquest at Bredgar, near Sittingbourne, yesterday, on the body of Robert John Burgess, 29, a farm labourer of Chantry Cottages, Bredgar, who fell down a 200ft well in his backyard on December 10.
"The body was recovered on Wednesday. The widow Mrs Doris Burgess, told the coroner how, after a workman had called at the house in the early morning of December 10 for her husband, she went outside and saw her husband's cap lying beside the well.
"Evidence was given by a neighbour that he heard a rumbling sound the previous night which must have been the well falling in. The coroner said he was satisfied that no other person had anything to do with the man's death."
A report of the disaster had already been carried by the Daily Herald. On December 30, 1937, it wrote: "The body of Robert Burgess, who fell down a 200-foot dene hole outside his home at Bredgar, near Sittingbourne, on December 10, has still not been recovered and no inquest has been held. The people of Bredgar are indignant at the delay over the whole matter. 'It is horrible to think of him still lying there,' one told me to-night.
"Burgess' 21-year-old widow and her two young children are staying in Sheerness anxiously awaiting what will be done next.
"Since the tragedy, three of the four cottages in Chantry Row, where Burgess lived, have been vacated. Police gave up operations to recover the body on December 13 when the coroner conferred with the police.
"Now the matter has been placed before the Ministry of Health and the Home Office. The question at issue is who should bear the cost of recovering the body. Experts estimate that it will be about £100.
"Everything possible is being done. The recovery of the body is a costly and dangerous job," Captain ADS Barr, chairman of the Bredgar parish council, told me.
"The council's relief fund for the widow and children has reached a substantial sum."
That turned out to be £200.
A firm of well engineers was eventually given the grim job of recovering the body.
According to reports at the time, large baulks of timber, set in concrete, were placed around the mouth of the well to provide a foundation for the machinery to winch the body out. Corrugated iron fencing was erected around the danger area.
One source described Burgess as the "village conjuror" who performed at parties.
The current owners of Chantry House were not at home when we called but past visitors say the well has been filled and its remains hidden beneath the patio.
Incredibly, it is not the only well disaster to have hit the village. According to the Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald of Saturday, September 27, 1879, a Thomas Sage suffered a similar fate.
Under the headline "Sad Affair" it announced: "On Friday afternoon the body of a man named Sage, about 40 years of age, a bricklayer, was recovered from a well at Bredgar, near Sittingbourne, into which he had thrown himself while suffering from delirium tremens.
"The deceased had been missing some days and it was thought he had jumped into the well but the well being 300 feet deep and there being 40 feet of water in it great difficulty was experienced in getting anyone to go down the well and dragging was resorted to for some time without success."
The 1871 Census shows a Thomas Sage, who was born in the village, was living in Primrose Lane with his mother Ann (a washerwoman) and a cousin Edwin Cheasman (a labourer). Thomas's occupation was put as bricklayer.
Ten years earlier the same three were living at the Plough and Harrow Beer House where his mother was described as "victualler and grocer". Previously, in 1841 and 1851, Thomas was shown to be living with his mum, A Ellary, and his grandparents at the pub where his grandfather was landlord.
Thankfully, reports of people disappearing into the earth are rare but Kent is riddled with secret caverns known as dene holes caused by water carving out huge chambers in the chalk beneath our feet.
Some are man-made because chalk was mined to make bricks.
We recently highlighted the terrifying story of Jean Thompson, a 35-year-old mum who was swallowed by a hole in 1967.
She had been walking her three-year-old son to see his grandma when she plunged 90ft into a pit which appeared beneath her feet in Frindsbury near Strood.
As the mum and son took a short cut along a flag-stoned alleyway there was an ominous rumbling noise and the earth opened up. The son, who had been running on ahead, was safe. But his mother was never seen again.