The Goring tragedy that inspired Jerome K. Jerome
17 October 2023
A memorable and moving incident from Jerome K. Jerome's novel Three Men in a Boat was inspired by a real-life tragedy at Goring-on-Thames that was reported in newspapers nationwide.
Jerome's beloved 1889 comic novel Three Men in a Boat follows the misadventures of three young men taking a boating holiday up the Thames from London to Oxford. The tone is light and breezy for the most part, but takes an incongruously dark turn at Goring-on-Thames when the protagonists spot something floating in the water and discover to their horror that it is the body of a young woman. The men later learn something about the women's life and what led her to end it in the river at Goring.
The most tragic scene from Three Men in a Boat
In the novel, the woman had become pregnant outside of wedlock, been abandoned by her child's father and rejected by her unsympathetic family and friends. Finding herself penniless and alone, the woman drifts back to Goring-on-Thames, a place with happy associations from better days, before succumbing to despair and ending her life in the river.
These passages of the novel are particularly moving, showing both Jerome's skill as a writer, his obvious sympathy for the women's position and his anger at the callous, highbound Victorian society of the time.
The death of Alicia Douglas at Goring-on-Thames
In the 1989 Annotated and Introduced edition of Three Men in a Boat, the editors mention that Jerome was inspired to include this section of his story after reading a newspaper sorry about the death of Alicia S. Douglas, aged 30, who took her own life in the river at Goring-on-Thames in July 1887. News of Alicia's death first appeared in local newspapers before being picked up by newspapers nationwide, capturing the public imagination for a number of reasons.
The first is Alicia Douglas's connection to the Gaiety Theatre in London, who's shows developed a reputation for featuring a chorus of attractive young women who often caught the attention of wealthy male theatre goers. Later in the 1890s, 'Gaiety Girls' became something of a phenomenon, throwing off the sleazy reputation that earlier, more burlesque-esque variety shows had been saddled with. The Gaiety Girls were championed as a symbol of ideal Victorian womanhood, polite, well-dressed and accomplished. One, Mabel Russell, even went on to become a member of parliament.
With their reputations for great charm combined with respectability, there were numerous stories of wealthy and aristocratic gentlemen attempting to woo their favourite Gaiety Theatre stars. While the whole 'Gaiety Girls' phenomenon did not really blow up until the following decade, the idea that Alicia Douglas may have been part of the same crowd seems to have drawn a lot of interest.
The second element that made the account of Alicia Douglas's death unusual was that her diary was found along with her possessions in the river bank and the coroner made the highly unusual, and some would say unethical, decision to read extracts from it at the inquest. These extracts were then published in newspapers nationwide, and make for heartbreaking reading.
What really happened to Alicia Douglas?
On 11 July 1887, two women walking along the Thames near Hartslock Wood to the south of Goring-on-Thames noticed a hat and bag abandoned on the bank of the river. Fearing the worst, they reported it to a nearby ferryman, who rowed to the spot and found a woman's body floating in shallow water on the Goring side of the river.
The body was taken to the Miller of Mansfield inn at Goring-on-Thames, where the contents of the bag helped identify her as Alicia Douglas. She was described by the Reading Observer as 'a tall and good-looking young woman, connected to the Gaiety Theatre'.
A letter in the bag addressed to 'Mrs. Jowell, Stanley Villa, Goring' provided the clue to Alicia's presence in Goring-on-Thames. A few weeks previously Alicia had been living at the above address 'as man and wife' with a man identified as 'Mr. C.C. Jowell, St. George's Club, Hanover Square'. The pair had left for London on the 5th July, but Alicia had returned to Goring-on-Thames alone a few days later.
Alicia's diary contained what the Reading Observer describes as 'a pitiful story of sorrow and remorse'.
Alicia Douglas's final days in Goring-on-Thames
Much of what is known about about Alicia's movements in the days leading up to her death comes from the testimony of a local Goring woman named Jane Gillam.
Alicia had called at Gillam's cottage a few times between the 7th and 10th July, on one occasion asking for a bottle of ginger-beer, and on another for a glass of milk and some bread and butter. Alicia told Gillam that she was staying in Goring-on-Thames 'without her husband' and on one occasion asked if she might be able to stay in Gillam's house for a few nights, but appears not to have followed this up.
Alicia seems to have enjoyed some happy afternoons playing with Gillam's children by the river. The last time Gillam saw Alicia was on the evening of Saturday 9th, when Gillam went to the river to bring her children home. Here Alicia asked her to allow the children to stay out a while longer, but as it was 10pm, Gillam understandably wished her children to be home and left Alicia on the riverbank in the growing darkness.
Alicia Douglas's diary
What we learn next about Alicia's final days comes from the diary extracts read at the inquest and later published in the Reading Observer on Saturday 16th July 1887.
In her diary entry from the morning of Sunday 10th July, Alicia described herself as wet through and hungry after having spent two nights in 'Lock Heart' wood without food, a fate she said was preferable to returning to London 'where deep and unknown sorrow would be my fate'. She seems to have already resigned herself to death, writing 'It's so hard to die young, and I try to struggle against it. This unhappy death. I think if some kind friend was only here now I would listen to advice, but too late, I must die.'
In later diary entries she begs forgiveness of her family and describes herself as a sinner. She asks herself 'Was my love worthy of me? Not the last, but the first'. She quotes Tennyson:
It is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.
A letter found with her bag, dated two days earlier and addressed to 'Whoever finds this bag', states that that she would have ended her life already that day except that 'a young man from Oxford' had met her and spoken to her kindly. 'I am now glad I met him, for he unknowingly prolonged my stay on earth. I only wish I had met him before. Perhaps this would have never befallen me - to die so young as I am.'
Alicia's lover speaks
Mr Jowell, the man with whom Alicia had been staying at Goring-on-Thames 'as man and wife' was then called to speak at the inquest. His testimony draws a different depiction of their relationship than the picture of an abandoned lover that the jury might have been imagining from Alicia's diary extracts.
Jowell says he had only met Alicia around three weeks previously in London. She told him she used to be an actress, but an injury to her foot had ended her stage career and she had fallen on hard times, living in what Jowell describes as a 'somewhat wretched house in Soho'. Alicia had confided in him that she had previously for about four years been under the 'protection' of a gentleman who had then died in the 'Egyptian campaign' (presumably the Anglo-Egyptian war of 1882).
Mr Jowell's testimony states that 'He walked with her in the park. He was perfectly convinced that her mind had become unhinged'. He confirmed that they came to Goring-on-Thames together, but that while there she had received a letter from London saying she must return to London for an operation on her foot and that the idea of an operation 'seemed to weight upon her mind'. At this point Alicia apparently ended their relationship, telling Jowell she could not 'live any longer under his protection'.
She also said she was tired of her life and had nothing to live for.
Jowell stated that the pair returned to London where he left her at her rooms, but when he went to call on her there three days later, he learned from her landlady that she had 'gone to the country'.
This was the last Mr Jowell new of her before he heard of her demise, and he said that 'he could not say that he was greatly surprised at the news'. He was further questioned by the jury and confirmed that they 'lived together as man and wife', but that she had not asked him for money and that he was sure she had money of her own when he last saw her.
The coroner and jury give their verdicts
There was some discussion as to the mental state of Alicia Douglas in the time leading up to her death. The Coroner commented that it was up to the jury to decide whether Douglas was of unsound mind, but that 'a verdict of temporary insanity would be consistent with the evidence' as 'a woman who spent hours in a wood and acted as the deceased had done could not be sane'.
In spite of this, the jury seemingly did not feel able to return a verdict of suicide, and instead returned an open verdict of 'found drowned'.
How closely did Jerome K. Jerome follow the facts?
Jerome K. Jerome did not claim to have based all the events of Three Men in a Boat on fact, so it's perhaps not surprising that his story differs somewhat from the facts that appeared in the newspapers.
In Jerome's story, the woman's misery hinges on having become pregnant and being abandoned by the father of her child. This does not seem to be the case with Alicia Douglas, as there is no indication that she was pregnant.
There is a suggestion that Alicia Douglas's misery may have been as a result of being rejected by Mr Jowell, but this also doesn't seem to be the case. If Mr Jowell's account is to be believed, their's was a short-lived affair which Alicia ended rather than he, and her struggles with her mental health seem to have stemmed from much earlier.
When Alicia Douglas asked 'Was my love worthy of me? Not the last, but the first', she could have been referring back to her 'first' love who died in the Anglo-Egyptian war, being more worthy of her than her 'last', Mr Jowell, who she ultimately rejected.
Considering this, as well as her failed acting career and seeming reduced circumstances, Alicia Douglas' mental state appears to be the result of many years of hardship rather than a sudden disappointment in love.
That is not to say that Mr Jowell necessarily acted honourably. The repeated use of the phrase 'living together as man and wife' can suggestion only one thing. Given that he appears to have been aware of Alicia's delicate mental state before taking her to Goring-on-Thames, it's difficult not to feel that he was taking advantage of a very vulnerable woman.
One unexplained element of Alicia's sad story is why she chose to return to Goring-on-Thames. In Jerome's story, he speculates that Goring must have either been the scene of whatever tragedies led her to the women's end, or a place where 'there may have mingled also sunny memories of sweetest hours'. That fact that Alicia Douglas choose to spend so much of her final days playing on the river banks with Jane Gillam's children may suggest that she was attempting to recapture some fleeting memories of her own childhood, a more innocent time before the weight of the world rested so heavy on her.
We may never truly know what drew Alicia Douglas back to Goring-on-Thames. I'll close with a final quote from Three Men in a Boat:
"... when evening fell and the grey twilight spread its dusky robe upon the waters, she stretched out her arms to the silent river that had known her sorrow and joy. And the old river had taken her into its gentle arms, and had laid her weary head upon its bosom, and had hushed away the pain."
- Reading Mercury, Saturday 16th July 1887
- Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, annotated and introduced by Christopher Matthew and Benny Green (Pavilion Books Limited, 1982, ISBN: 9781851453573)