Sarah Ann Henley was just a regular, 22-year-old, working class girl from Bristol, England in 1885. She was working as a barmaid at the Rising Sun pub near her home, and was engaged to marry a young man who worked on the Great Western Railway. Her ordinary life would be changed forever when she acquired a dubious claim to fame after a spat with her fiancé.
Sarah’s engagement had not been the most pleasant of relationships. The couple quarreled often, and Sarah had a habit of yelling at her fiancé in public. When her fiancé decided he’d had enough of her, he called of their engagement.
Despite their tumultuous relationship, Sarah was distraught over the breakup. She decided she could no longer live without her fiancé and decided to throw herself off the nearby Clifton Suspension Bridge. On May 8, 1885, just past midnight, she did just that when she climbed over the bridge’s fencing and jumped off.
There were a few witnesses to the event, but Sarah jumped so quickly that none of the had a chance to stop her. They all watched in mingled horror and awe at what happened next.
Sarah, like most other women of her time, was wearing a crinoline underneath her dress. Crinolines were stiff petticoats that made dresses stand away from the wearer’s body. This garment saved Sarah that night. When she jumped, Sarah’s crinoline filled with air and acted like a parachute, causing her to fall slowly instead of plummeting into the water below. The wind also carried her away from the river so that she landed in the mud at the water’s edge. Had she landed in the water, she likely would have drowned due to her heavy clothing.
The men who had witnessed the jump rushed to Sarah’s aid. She had sunk into the mud and was in shock, but she was alive. It was determined that she needed to get to a hospital. Sarah’s luck almost ran out at this point when the only cabman that could be found refused to carry Sarah in his cab because she was covered in mud. Even when offered extra money to transport her, he stated he didn’t care if she died and drove quickly away.
The witnesses, including a policeman, carried Sarah to the hospital themselves on a stretcher. She had some minor internal injuries but was otherwise okay.
After her recovery, Sarah left hospital. She did eventually marry, but not the man who had driven her to attempt suicide. She went on to live a long life, dying in 1948 at the ripe old age of 85.