Radnor Street Cemetery contains the graves of more than 100 service men from both world wars. Men, who like Battle of Britain pilot Harold Morley Starr, performed incredible acts of bravery. Then there are others whose sacrifice has long been forgotten, such as James Shopland, a young civil engineer.
James was born in Purton in 1873, the eldest child of James Rew Shopland, also a civil engineer and his wife Laura.
By 1900 James had struck out on his own and moved to the Southampton area. On July 6 he was at the Southampton Sewage Works at Chapel, although it was pointed out at the inquest that he had nothing to do with the works but was assisting in the rescue.
Three labourers working in the press house at the Sewage Works had attempted to free a blockage in a lime vat, firstly by ramming a rod down from the top, the usual way of clearing it. However, when this didn’t work one of them went down into the ejector chamber and tried to free the pipe by undoing it. They tried to remove the cap but this wouldn’t move either so they proceeded to remove a flange from the bottom and then the upright pipe. This immediately set off a fast flow of sludge and released a smell that rendered the men semi conscious.
Passing workmen attempted to rescue the three men who were all lying unconscious in the sludge. James Shopland arrived on the scene as the call went out for volunteers. A witness at the inquest described how as Mr Shopland descended the ladder he saw him put his hand to his head.
At one point someone tried to stop any more men from descending into the subterranean chamber, saying at this rate there would soon be fifty dead at the bottom.
The next reference to James was made by Dr. O’Meara who described how he found the young civil engineer lying near the open shed door where some of the men were using means of artificial respiration to try to revive him. Dr. O’Meara examined James’s heart and declared that life was extinct. At a subsequent post mortem the cause of death was found to be due to congestion of the lungs, brought about by carbolic acid gas poisoning.
Two others died alongside James, overcome by sewer gas in the sludge pit. Walter Charles Mussell an 18 year old foreman of works and Henry Godding 47 a labourer. The jury agreed to a verdict of accidental death, commending the noble endeavour made by James Shopland and four others who had attempted to rescue the men.
James' body was brought home by train to Swindon for burial where a special room was reserved at the station for the reception of floral tributes.
The first part of the funeral service took place at St. Saviours, the little wooden church in Ashford Road built by railway workers. The cortege then proceeded to the cemetery at Radnor Street.
James has an impressive memorial, befitting his status, but there is no mention of how he came to meet his death or that he was, quite simply, a hero.
There are still some places left on the Friends of Radnor Street Cemetery guided walk this Saturday, March 3, meeting at the Clifton Street gates at 11 am.