Philobiblon: "The Bridge of Sighs": Westminster suicides

Monday, November 28, 2005

"The Bridge of Sighs": Westminster suicides

I was questioning earlier today the claims that self-harm is a modern phenomenon, and a small piece of admittedly anecdotal evidence can be found in H.V. Morton's The Spell of London, first published in 1926. At this time there was a special river police station under Westminister Bridge. Morton, after reporting that nine out of ten suicide attempts on the Thames in London were made from this bridge, asks:

"How many Londoners know that day and night a police boat waits in the shadow of the bridge?
It is tied to its morrings by a loose knot. One pull and it is free. It is a curious boat. At the stern is a roller.
'Have you ever tried to pull anyone out of water into a small boat>' asked a policeman. 'If so, you'll understand why that roller is there.'"

Then Morton visits a nearby room for the reception of would-be suicides, including a hot bath and neat bundles of dry clothing, for men and women.
"Does a suicide repent and welcome rescue as soon as he touches the water?' I asked.
'Not often,' they replied.
'Mostly they fight and try to get back into the water,' said the patrol sergeant.
The three of us say in the Suicide Room, and the two policemen swapped memories of rescues. I wish I could tell some of the stories, but they were not quite -- You understand?" (pp. 42-43)

With such elaborate arrangements, you get the feeling there must have been an awful lot of suicides.

And of course the other "great" suicide spot of the era was what is now the Hornsey Lane Bridge over the start of the A1 in Archway. (I used to live just down the hill from it.) It was the higest public point in London for many years, so I've read, and it still has a Samaritans phone on it.


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