THE BRINKSWAY INCIDENT
By David Rayner
(known in 1953 as David Welsh)
This account has been carefully edited so as not to give offence to anyone.
On a warm, sunny summer's Sunday morning in July, 1953, at around 9 a.m and when I was six and a quarter years old, I was standing on the corner of Birchfield Road and the main Stockport Road in Cheadle Heath, about one hundred yards from my home at 1, Eva Road. I was wearing grey, short trousers held up by braises, a blue and white chequered shirt and brown sandals. I wasn't wearing any socks because it was a warm day. I was standing with my half brother, Barrie, who was ten years older than me and therefore a teenager and who was supposed to be looking after me that day. He was with a group of his teenage friends and Barrie and they were all on bicycles and were about to go off somewhere.
I asked Barrie if I could go with them, but, not wanting to be saddled with me all day, he made a fateful decision that nearly led to me being killed. "No, you can't", he said and with that, leaving me standing by the roadside, they all rode off in the general direction of Stockport and had soon disappeared into the distance. Undaunted, I crossed over the tram lines on main road to the opposite pavement and toddled after them, hoping to catch them up (the tram lines were still in situ although the trams had ceased to run in 1951).
A few minutes later, I reached the Stockport Road railway bridge near to Cheadle Heath station, where I stopped and stared into the distance. There was no sign of Barrie and his mates. By now, it had become clear to me that I would never catch up with them and my thoughts soon turned to far more exciting pursuits. Climbing through a gap in the wooden fence that led up to the bridge, I began to wander down and then along the grassy embankment, walking alongside the railway, intent on going exploring.
THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH HAS BEEN HEAVILY EDITED TO AVOID GIVING OFFENCE TO SENSITIVE READERS: Further along the embankment, I met a slim, grey haired man aged probably in his mid-fifties and who was wearing a dark blue jacket and trousers and a white, open-necked shirt, who engaged me in conversation. He asked me my name and how old I was and where I lived and what I was doing so far away from home. When I told him about Barrie and his mates riding off and leaving me, he said he would help me to look for them and, if we couldn't find them, he would take me home. "Alright", I said and he said "Come on, then ... let's see if we can find them." Then, I quite willingly and happily went off with him. After a long walk, we eventually ended up at his house, where he lived alone (at least, there was no one else there) and there, behind closed and locked doors, he had his way with me.
When Barrie returned home at around 10 a.m. without me, mum and dad asked him where I was. "I don't know"; said Barrie. "Isn't he here?"
There began a search for me around the immediate neighbourhood, including my favourite haunts of the Boundary Bridge and the Birdhall Lane railway sidings and turntable. But there was no sign of me anywhere. I seemed to have simply disappeared. Barrie and his mates rode around the streets looking for me. By 12 noon, it was quite clear that I was nowhere to be found, so Barrie went to Harry Booth's newsagent's shop at 215, Stockport Road and asked him to telephone the police and report me missing, which he did. As Mr Booth was closing up shop for the day with it being a Sunday, he said he would have a drive around the area in his car to see if he could spot me. By 1pm, the police, together with worried neighbours and friends, were all out, scouring the neighbourhood, searching for me.
Some further hours went by and at around 3pm, the man let me go, safe in the knowledge that, because of the social conventions and taboos pertaining at the time, I daren't tell on him for fear of getting myself into serious trouble with my mummy and daddy for going off with him in the first place ...a complete reversal, in fact, of what things would be like today. In a strange area, confused; disorientated and unsure of my surroundings, I then wandered aimlessly around the locality trying to find my way back home.
At around this time, Bill Howard; his wife Elizabeth and their three young children, David, aged 9; Christine, aged 8 and Peter, aged 7, who all lived in Heaton Norris, had parked their black Austin saloon car in Highfield Street, at the side of the Springmount Mill and directly opposite the cottages 122 to 132, Brinksway. They had gone to see Bill's widowed mother-in-law, Winifred Burton, who lived with her daughter Hilda, at number 126. Winifred had, the day before, been discharged from hospital after having had one of her legs amputated. While they were all in 126, Jack Morris, who lived two doors away at 122, was in the back yard of the cottages, leaning over the wall that overlooked the River Mersey sixty feet below at the bottom of the cliffs.
It was at this time, at around 3:30 pm, that I finally wandered onto Brinksway. Now, just before the side of cottage 122, which was the end cottage facing Stockport, there was a big sandstone rock and in the middle of that rock was hewn a gateway with a door that supposedly was always kept locked. There was even a tangle of barbed wire above it to prevent people, especially children, from climbing over and getting onto the cliffs. For this was, perhaps, the most dangerous location in Stockport and many children had got onto the cliffs there and had fallen down into the river and had been swept away and drowned. The most recent case had been only around 18 months earlier.
Beyond this gate was a very steep set of steps, cut into the sandstone, that led down very steeply to the back of a dwelling called Rock Cottage, that was situated on the cliffs overhanging the River Mersey.
What happened next and why it happened has never been determined. Maybe I wanted to answer the call of nature and was looking for somewhere to hide, who knows?...but for some reason, I opened this gate in the wall as I walked along the pavement. Obviously, the gate wasn't locked as it should have been. I went through the opening and I must have slipped and immediately plunged screaming sixty feet down the rugged sandstone cliffs, into the river far below, bouncing off the outcrops of rock as I went down. My terrified screams and the subsequent splash when I hit the river was heard by Jack Morris, who immediately raised the alarm by running into cottage 126 and alerting Bill Howard. "There's a little lad gone into the river!", he said and he and Bill scrambled into action and went over the wall and onto the cliffs. As I was only about 3 foot 10 at the time and the river at the edge was around six feet deep, it's quite obvious that I must have gone under and then, fighting for my life, struggled to the surface, screaming and splashing about hysterically. By the time Bill and Jack were halfway down the cliffs, I had gone under and disappeared. Nearing the bottom of the cliffs, Jack dived into the river and found me under the surface and dragged me out unconscious. Then, he and Bill hauled my limp and lifeless body onto a ledge just above the river. Jack thought I was dead. "He's gone, Bill", said Jack, looking solemnly at my wet and lifeless form. "No, we must try", said Bill. He had been in the Navy during the war and knew First Aid and began to give me artificial respiration.
After what seemed to them an eternity, I began to cough and splutter into life and eject the filthy river water from my lungs. Then, one step at a time, they both hauled me back up the cliffs and Bill carried me into Jack's cottage at 122. There, I was stripped of my wet clothes and my body was rubbed dry with a towel and covered with a warm blanket and I was put to bed while my clothes were dried. I was in severe shock; shivering uncontrollably; heavily traumatised and in a semi-comatose state. To this day, because of traumatic amnesia brought on by severe shock, I retain no memory of either going through the gate; or the fall into the river or of the rescue that followed.
They had no idea who I was nor where I'd come from, but, instead of alerting the emergency services, they just left me as I was and hoped for the best. It was many hours later, at around 8:45 pm, before I was aware enough of my surroundings to tell them who I was and where I lived. According to Hilda, my first words when I came around were that I wanted a wee and I was carried out to the toilet in the back yard in order to relieve myself. Meanwhile, Barrie and his mates were cycling as far as Gatley and Heaton Mersey, trying to find me and, of course, having no idea what had happened to me or where I was.
It was around 9 pm that I became aware of sitting on a chair by a table in the cottage, with a blanket around me. There was an oil lamp glowing on the bare wooden table upon which was also a blue paper packet with brown sugar in it. I was cupping a hot mug of cocoa in my hands and sipping it as, on the other side of the table, watching me in complete silence and with a look of deep concern on their faces, stood two men (later identified as my rescuers) and an elderly woman (later identified as Mrs Eva Baxter from 124). I remember wondering who these people were and what was I doing there.
Because I was still in shock, the events following that are slightly confused, but I remember there being a knock on the door and the newsagent, Harry Booth, who had been out looking for me, came into the cottage. He said that he had been to Eva Road and told them the good news ... that I had been found and that I was alright and that they were all expecting me. As both Bill and Harry had the same type of saloon car, a black Austin, it is not known which, but one of them took me home in their car (I always thought it was Harry Booth, but Hilda says she thinks it may have been Bill). I do remember that as we left the cottage, we had to cross the practically traffic free main road to get to the car parked nose first up the side of Highfield Street. I also remember that I was barefoot, because my sandals had been lost in the river when I fell in. On the way home, we went past Birchfield Road and then turned left into Elm Road and then left again into Eva Road. When we reached Eva Road, there was a large group of people standing in the road and on the pavement outside our house. Obviously, I was expected and my mother was crying with relief as the car pulled up. The crowd clapped and cheered and I remember feeling very embarrassed that I was the cause of all this fuss as I went up the front path and then through the open front door and into the house. It was 9:50 pm...dusk...and I had been missing for over twelve hours.
Barrie finally returned home to find out that I was back and what had happened to me. My dad went up in the air with him for abandoning me and Barrie was never the same with me after that. Until his death in 2003, he forever after regarded me as a pain in the neck. His reasoning was that I had gotten him into a lot of trouble by trying to follow after him instead of going home. I never told mum and dad about the man or what had happened in his house I and kept quiet about it until many years after they had both passed away. Best to blame it all on the river, I thought, which, of course, was only half the story.
In 2001, Hilda Cottam, now in her late seventies and living in Adlington, Lancashire, was asked a question about all this that anyone would ask: Why did no one call an ambulance? These days, there would be paramedics all over the place. "it was unheard of back then", she said. "You just didn't. We had just been through the war and we were used to dealing with things on our own."
Nevertheless, for all they knew at the time I could have been severely injured internally and I could quite easily have died on them. So I was an extremely lucky little boy.
All the above has been the accepted, official version of events on the day of The Brinksway Incident. But the full story has yet to be told. There are some very suspicious elements to it that don't make sense. I won't detail them all here, but one of them, for instance, is the following:
The family legend from 1953 goes as follows: "David went through a gate into what he thought was a garden and fell in the river." Now, if I had opened the gate in the wall slowly, I would have seen what lay before me. A sheer drop into the river with the huge Ring cotton mill on the opposite bank, which at that time would have given that part of Brinksway the appearance of a huge gorge. Definitely nowhere to hide there while I answered the call of nature (if, indeed, I was looking for somewhere to hide for that reason). In fact, I would have realised that I could not proceed further, because I would have fallen. But ... and this is the big but ... what if I had gone through that gate in an almighty hurry ... what if I had run through it because I was being chased by something or someone and, thinking that the gate led to a garden where I could hide from them, I ran through it and immediately plunged down the cliffs, straight down into the River Mersey. If this is the correct scenario, then just what really did happen that day? I do have my own theories, but they are controversial to say the least and I'm not quite sure if they're right or not. One thing, however, is certain. If the whole story of that day was ever recounted, it may prove to be far, far stranger than any fiction.
In 1958, the year that Hilda left the cottages, a rock fall on the cliffs caused the by now derelict Rock Cottage to fall into the river, together with the sandstone steps that had once led to the back entrance to it. Following this, both the gates/ doors in the wall that once led to the rear and front entrances to Rock Cottage were bricked up and nothing remains of them today. The cottages 122 to 132 were demolished in 1975 and in 1985, a landslide there caused the entire cliff upon which they once stood to fall into the river. Today, the area where I fell into the river bears no resemblance to what it would have looked like in 1953 ... the cliffs, in fact, having been reclaimed by nature.
Bill Howard, now 89 years of age, is still alive and still living in Stockport. Although his wife Elizabeth and daughter Christine are now both passed on, his two sons, David and Peter, are still alive. Nothing has yet been discovered regarding the fate of Jack Morris, but he is believed to be dead by now. Hilda, on behalf of her family, has requested that no fuss be made regarding Bill's heroic action in the early 1950's. Bill, she says, doesn't regard himself as a hero. In his own words: "Someone needed help and I gave it."ANOTHER SURVIVOR
However, when Bill finally passes away and if I am still around, I would like to have both Bill Howard and Jack Morris posthumously honoured in some way for their heroic deed. I have a photograph of Bill as he looked in 1952, but of a photo of Jack Morris, there is, as yet, no sign.
Five months after my own ordeal, the following happened to
another young boy near to the same location:
"STOCKPORT EXPRESS, page 9, Thursday, December 10th, 1953.
POLICE RESCUE BOY FROM RIVER MERSEY
In the late afternoon darkness, an eleven-year-old Stockport boy, James Price, of 16, Lomas Street, Edgeley, was rescued from the River Mersey, in one of its most treacherous reaches behind Brinksway, by two Stockport policemen on Saturday.
Answering a "999" call, Chief Inspector T. Walker; Inspector B.F. Aubrook and Constable W.A. Wilson, rushed to the river, at a point near the Brinksway Dyeing Co. Ltd, where they heard the cries of the boy from the opposite bank.
There was only one way to reach him, and, quickly removing their clothing, Inspector Au brook and Constable Wilson entered the water. They were able to wade part of the way, but the river varies greatly in depth, and they were compelled to swim across, before James was located, clinging on underneath the very high rock face, where the river is six feet deep.
They managed to reach James and grab hold of him. After they had moved to a different part of the bank, the rescue became a combined operation, when the rescued and rescuers were brought from the water, back up the cliffs by rope, with the help of Stockport Fire Brigade.
James, who was taken to Stockport Infirmary, had been playing on the high bank, when he slipped on some loose rocks, and plunged down into the river."
Inspector Aubrook and Constable Wilson were later given awards for bravery for saving James' life. Presumably, Chief Inspector Walker stayed on the opposite bank, shining his torch to aid them in swimming across.QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
You say you went through the gate nearest to number 122. Could it be that you went through the gate further along Brinksway, the one that led down to the front of Rock Cottage. Perhaps you were attracted by the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel look of the cottage and the path down would have been longer and therefore not so steep.
No, if I had fallen on that side of Rock Cottage, my fall wouldn't have been seen so easily by Jack Morris. Also, I would have landed further up river where reaching me in time would have been even more difficult. If I had fallen off the ledge at the top of the path that led to the front of Rock Cottage, I would have landed almost in front of the Brinksway weir.
The current could have swept you along until you reached a point directly below 122 to 132.
I doubt that. The river was so deep and the current so strong by the weir, that I would have been dragged under and drowned long before it was ever noticed that I had fallen in. Eyewitnesses state that I landed at a point just below 122 and that's where I was seen being rescued by Bill Howard and Jack Morris.
Couldn't the man who abducted you have taken you to Brinksway after he had finished with you and then tried to get rid of you by dropping you down the cliffs into the river in an effort to ensure you could never tell on him?
Very unlikely for that period in history, He knew he was safe, because he knew I daren't tell on him due to the taboos surrounding such things at the time. That's why he let me go. Don't forget that this was not long after a time when unmarried mothers were confined in mental institutions for the "crime" of having a baby out of wedlock. It was a different world back then and the man would have known it.
You have often said that you always had a gut feeling that the answer to what happened at Brinksway lay in the cottage you came round in. Do you think that the man who abducted you had some connection with, or had something to do with, that cottage or its residents?
Yes. But such a suspicion could never be proved at this great distance in time from the event. 1953 is just too long ago now.