Almost 50 years ago, the seaside town of Cleethorpes experienced a tragedy that touched everyone who lived there. A devastatingly sad tale of three little girls on ponies, their riding instructor, a foggy night, and the cruel, unrelenting sea...

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One September evening in 1969, three excited little girls set off for their novice riding lesson along the beach in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. Although it was chilly and damp, Margaret Heaton, 8, Susan Fellowes, 7,  and Linda Darnell, 8, all  begged their instructor Mary Tasker, 41, not to cancel, as she was in two minds, thinking it was maybe not fit to take them out.

Cleethorpes seen from the salt marshes

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An experienced instructor, who knew the shore like the back of her hand, Mary eventually shrugged as if to say, ‘What can you do, when children are pleading?’  and the quartet set off on their fateful ride along the beach.

Within minutes, the fog fell and began to thicken, and soon visibility was reduced to just a few hundred yards. And all the time, the tide was coming in relentlessly.

When Susan’s father went to collect his daughter at 5.45pm, he didn’t worry at first because he trusted Mary’s experience. Instead he walked along the beach to see if he could spot the party on their way back, but some youths he met there said they’d seen no-one, so Mr Fellowes returned  to the riding school, thinking the children may have gone back by a different route because of the fog.

By 6pm, though, visibility was down to 100 yards, and the police were informed. Mary’s husband set off to search for the party, but with no luck. Soon, visibility was  down to just 50 yards. The fog was drifting in terribly with the wind driving it in from the sea.

Now the search escalated. Firemen set up searchlights, but the beams could barely penetrate the thickening fog. Not only that, but the tide was still rising, and the search had to be called off until later in the evening.

Once it restarted, the policemen had to grip a rope in order to stay together. And even as the fog lifted, the search was further hampered by driving rain, with everyone progressing in silence as they listened out for cries of children or the sound of horses.

The search continued through the night with more than 100 police, RAF, firemen and civilians scouring the six miles of coastline from Cleethorpes to Tetney, and with boats from the Cleethorpes Water Ski Club joining in to follow the tide out as it retreated.

Grimsby docks

© Chris Barker

The first sign of the tragedy still to unfold came at midnight. Candy, the pony that Margaret had been riding was found stumbling, injured and exhausted with cramp, at the entrance to Grimsby fish docks.

Just after 2am, only 100 yards from where the pony was rescued, a fireman found Margaret’s body and carried the lifeless little girl ashore.

With hopes for the rest fading, the searchers still continued, risking their lives to comb the dangerous gullies and marshes. Still nothing.

Between 7 and 8am the full horror of the tragedy became apparent. First, the bodies of Mary’s horse and one other were spotted, then Mary’s body was found near the sewer outfall.

A helicopter now joined the search and within 10 minutes, little Susan’s body was found, together with the body of another horse, and by 10am the body of the last horse was spotted.

More fog and the tide, now rising again, held up the search, but finally, late on the evening of 19 September, Linda’s body was found, just 50 yards south of Cleethorpes pier.

Cleethorpes pier with iron railings in the foreground.

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The subsequent inquest returned an open verdict,  with some later speculating that the party had either got lost and had been encircled by the incoming tide, or else that Mrs Tasker had come off her horse and the others had panicked – a reminder how dangerous the sea can be in its cruel unpredictability.

Whatever the reason for the tragedy, it was indelibly etched on the memories of all those present on the shoreline that September, with the local paper’s editorial eloquently expressing what everyone felt:

‘It will be a long time before the waves wash away the grief they’ve brought to Cleethorpes beach. Riders whose silhouettes add an extra flourish to many a sunset will never pound the sands without plucking at painful memories of a fearful foggy night and a desperate day.’