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Wickhamford Tragedies

A number of tragedies have stuck the inhabitants of Wickhamford over the years. A double death occurred in 1626 when Sir Samuel Sandys died in the late Summer and his son and heir Sir Edwin died within a few days. In more recent times, at Wickhamford Mill at the very end of 1916 Winfield John Smith, the miller, and his disabled son, Albert, died in the morning and evening of the same day from unrelated causes. In 1964, Edward Burns of Childswickham was killed when his car hit a telegraph pole in the village.

This article records four other events in more depth. In February 1917, William Cox was killed by a hit and run driver on Pitchers Hill the day after his son had died of septicaemia. In August 1925, William Skene Ross a gardener at Wickhamford Manor, accidentally drank some poison intended for pest control. In September 1938, Emily Field was killed after a car left the road on the notoriously bad bend that was by the Sandys Arms at that time. In August 1941, an R.A.F. bomber on a training flight came down in the parish after nearly hitting Corner Cottage.

1. A hit and run accident on Pitchers Hill

John Jacques junior lived in North Street, Broadway where he was recorded in the 1911 census as being a draper and clothier. His other interest was photography and he produced postcards with pictures of local families. He had been driving for about ten years and had a clean driving licence.

On a cold and misty Wednesday night of 21st February 1917, John Jacques set off for home at a little after 10.30, after an evening in Evesham. He was driving his four-seater Ford motor car and the weather conditions meant that he made slow progress, at only around 10 miles per hour on his trip home to Broadway. His wife, Annie, and one of his brothers accompanied him. Visibility was made worse because of war-time regulation about lights after dark. He had two electric head-lamps on this car, driven by a magneto, but the lights were shaded in accordance with the regulations. He also had two side oil lamps. He went over Longdon Hill, past the Sandys Arms and started up the rise of Pitchers Hill.

Suddenly, he saw what he thought was a bag of chaff, or something similar, that had fallen from a cart or dray, lying in the road some five or six yards ahead of him. He served to avoid it but his off-side wheels both bumped over the object. He pulled up a few yards further on, removed one of the oil side lamps and went back to investigate. When he got back he found that he had run over a man who had been lying in the road. He was in a pool of blood about a yard long and two feet wide and there was no sign of life at all.

John Jacques went to the first house he could find, that of market gardener William James Jones, and knocked on the door. Mr Jones came to the window and Mr Jacques called out “There’s a poor old man lying in the road, and I have run over him.” William Jones said he would come at once, and as he went away from the window to get dressed and said to himself “I know who it is.” When he saw the body he said “he lives next door to me.” It was William Cox and William Jones had seen him earlier that evening at the Sandys Arms at about 8.30 and he knew no other man would have been walking up the road by their houses. William Cox was 56 years of age and a big man, weighing about 15 stone and being 5ft 10in in height. He was lying with about 50 yards of his own front door (the present 93 Pitchers Hill).

William Cox had only just lost a son, 16-year-old Wilfred, to septicaemia following a puncture wound of a big toe by a rusty nail. He had died on the day before, Tuesday 20th February at Evesham Cottage Hospital. After work on Wednesday, William had walked to Badsey to obtain a Death Certificate for his son from the doctor and had stopped at the Sandys Arms on his way home. He had left the inn with a neighbour, Mr Halford, and they had parted company at 10.15, about 100 yards from William Cox’s home.

John Jacques left his brother with Mr Jones to guard the body with the aid of the light and drove off for Broadway to fetch Inspector Hall of the local police. He arrived at the Police Station at 11.20 and reported that he had run over a man on the Broadway side of the Sandys Arms. Inspector Hall went in John Jacques’s car back to Pitchers Hill getting there at 11.35. Dr C.T. Standring was called in and found that William Cox’s neck was dislocated. He thought that, because of the profuse amount of blood around the body that he had bled for some time before Mr Jacques ran over him.

At the Inquest it was concluded that William Cox had been hit and killed by another vehicle before John Jacques ran over his body. There were reports that another car had passed along the road at about 10.20 but Inspector Hall had failed to find anyone who saw it.

William Cox and his son, Wilfred, were both buried in Wickhamford Churchyard on Saturday the 24th February 1917.

Service book for the funeral of William Cox
Service book for the funeral of William Cox

More details of William Cox and his family are in the article “The Cox Family of Pitchers Hill” on this web-site.

2. An accidental poisoning at Wickhamford Manor

William Skene Ross was born in Aberdeenshire and married Annie Dowdeswell Gwilliam in Gloucester in 1890. At 1911 census they were living at The Whitesmiths Arms, Gloster Road, Cheltenham, where William was working as a ‘Beer House Manager’ and Annie was an assistant manager. By this time she had given birth to nine children, one of whom had died. These children were born in Lymington, Hampshire, Chester, Rocester, near Uttoxeter, Staffordshire and in Gloucestershire. During this time William was recorded in various censuses as steward and a gardener. It was in the latter role that, in 1925 and by now 60 years of age, George Lees-Milne at Wickhamford Manor employed him.

On Monday, 17th August 1925, he left his wife to go to work at 8.30 a.m. and was due home for his dinner at 1.00 p.m. That morning he may have been a little worried because some of Mr Lees-Milnes’ horses had been trampling the Manor gardens, but otherwise he was quite well. At a few minutes after 1 o’clock Annie Ross heard a neighbour, Mrs O’Brien shouting out ‘Mr Ross has taken poison.’ She ran out and met her husband, whose only words were ‘I thought it was lemonade.’ He never spoke again. Annie had been in the habit of making him lemonade in hot weather; as rule he sent for it from work, but on this day he had not done so. Within half an hour William Ross was dead.

Annie and William Ross in 1925
Annie and William Ross in 1925

An Inquest at the Parish Hall

On Tuesday afternoon, the District Coroner, Mr H. Basil Harrison, held an inquest at the Parish Hall, Wickhamford into the circumstances surrounding the death of William Skene Ross, gardener, of Manor Cottages, Wickhamford, and in the employ of Mr G.C. Lees-Milne, who had died on Monday afternoon as a result of accidentally drinking cyanide of potassium.

Annie Ross related the events (described above) as she had witnessed them. Patrick O’Brien, groom to Mr Lees-Milne, said he met William Ross at about 1.00 .pm. on Monday and when he asked him if he was going to dinner he replied that he was when he had fetched his glasses. After he heard his wife shout that William had taken poison he told Mr Ross’s daughter to fetch some salt and water. They tried to get William to drink this but he was unable to do so.

Dr Clark came about ten minutes later and Patrick O’Brien said had often seen William drinking lemonade out of a similar bottle to the one now produced. He had fetched two bottles so that the doctor would have no trouble finding out what the deceased had taken.

George Lees-Milne was called to give evidence and said that the deceased had been in his employ for nearly a year as a gardener. He saw him at about 9.00 a.m. on Monday, in the garden, when he went to console the deceased regarding the damage done by the horses trampling the garden. Mrs Lees-Milne had also had a chat with Mr Ross. He said that were both very fond of him.

William Ross had previously asked if Mr Lees-Milne would let him have some wasp poison. He had also asked for some cartridges as there were rabbits about. He had asked three times previously for poison and Mr Lees-Milne told him he would get what he required. He always mixed the poison himself so as to be sure no crystals were left about. He kept the bottles in his workshop until a few minutes before 1.00 p.m. and he then took them into the shed together with the cartridges that William had requested. It was probably five minutes to one when he left the shed.

William Ross had had instructions about the poison and Mr Lees-Milne thought he would be perfectly safe with it. It was the first time he had mixed poison for the William but he had done so previously for other gardeners. He thought that William expected the bottles of poison and must have gone to the shed at about 1.00 p.m. However, without his glasses he would have been unable to read any label on the bottle. There was the same quantity of poison in each bottle. When he mixed it he did not fill either bottle, but left plenty of space so that they could be easily shaken. Thinking he was drinking lemonade left by his wife William had taken only very small dose, as it could not be ascertained if any poison had gone. Mr Lees-Milne thought it was a pure mistake on the deceased’s part.

Dr Sidney Alfred Clark of, Evesham said he saw William Ross soon after 1.00 p.m. He was informed of what had happened and he washed out the man’s stomach and applied stimulants, but he died in a very few minutes by which time he was in a comatose condition. Dr Clark thought that a very minute dose of cyanide of potassium would be sufficient to cause death. He said that two and a half grains of cyanide had been known to kill. The symptoms were consistent with poisoning by cyanide of potassium and the deceased died about half an hour after he took poison.

The Coroner recalled Mr O’Brien who said the corks were still in the bottles when he fetched them for Dr Clark. The doctor pointed out that the small dose of the poison taken would not immediately prevent deceased replacing the cork.

Summing up, the Coroner said the verdict was ‘Accidental death caused by drinking cyanide of potassium in mistake for lemonade as there was no other reason why deceased should take it.’ The case was made a little difficult as the deceased was expecting to be given some poison for killing wasps. He extended his sympathy to Annie Ross and the other witnesses. Mr G.C. Lees-Milne also expressed his sympathy and said no one appreciated the deceased’s services more than he and his wife.

Postscript

James Lees-Milne, the author son of George, in his book ‘Another Self’ (1970) makes reference to this incident, but as a somewhat fantasised version, as this is called an autobiographical novel. He would have been about 17 years of age at the time of the actual incident.

In the book, he generally refers to the gardener as ‘Mr Bass’ (but on one occasion the real name of ‘Ross’ appears perhaps due to poor proof-reading ?) and tells of cows trampling the kitchen garden. According to James’s fictionalised version of events, one of the house servants mentioned casually at lunch that ‘Mr Bass’ had taken poison, ‘E mistook it for ‘is lemonade.’ He writes that his father went pale and rushed to the gardener’s bothy, followed my his mother. There they saw ‘Bass’, purple in the face and with vomit down his chin, expire in an upright chair. James wrote that his father was very upset and thought he was responsible as he had made up the poison in a Kia-ora bottle.

James writes that at the Inquest ‘Mrs Bass’ was said to have referred to the fact that James’s mother - “in her unwisdom, but intended kindness” - had sought to console her with a present of £300. He wrote that the bereaved widows’ words were so phrased that “they might well have led to serious consequences for misguided benefactor”. His mother was said to “be hurt by ‘Mrs Bass’s’ seeming ingratitude and hostility”. James wrote that his parents were lucky to get off with a caution not to be so careless another time, because, he suggests in his novel, the magistrate concerned and his father were old friends.

3. A fatal motor accident by the Sandys Arms

The Accident

On Monday, 19th September 1938, Pheneas Mory Horn, a 22-year-old fruit grower of Exning, near Newmarket, was driving a 30 h.p. car from Evesham towards the Sandys Arms. His passenger was Daniel Green, a law student from London. As Mrs Emily Jane Field, aged 63, was walking along the footpath by the inn she was hit by Horn’s car. The car had mounted the footpath, hit a hedge and overturned; Mrs Field suffered multiple injuries and died instantly. The two occupants of the car escaped with slight cuts and bruises.

A pedestrian said that Horn’s car had passed him about 25-30 yards before the Sandys Arms and he estimated that it was travelling at over 60 m.p.h. Horn later estimated his speed as 40 m.p.h and conceded that he found the bend in the road steeper than he had anticipated. Several witnesses remarked that the road’s camber at this point was not helpful to motorists travelling in the direction of Broadway.

The car on its roof after the accident at the Sandys Arms on 19th September 1938
The car on its roof after the accident at the Sandys Arms on 19th September 1938

The Inquest

At the Coroner’s Inquest, on 22nd September, Dr J.M. Robertson of Evesham stated that he had been called to the scene of the accident at 10.00 p.m. He detailed the numerous injuries that Mrs Field had suffered and said the cause of death was shock, due these injuries. Henry Francis Field said that he had last seen his mother as she left 8 Council Houses at 9.40 p.m. to visit the Sandys Arms, about 300-400 yards away. There was a footpath all the way and she did not have to cross the road; she was carrying a shopping bag and an electric cycle lamp.

Victor Tittensore, of Broadway told the Coroner that he was about 10 yards from the Sandys Arms when he saw the car go into the hedge. Arthur Jones of Evesham said the car passed him just before the accident, going at a considerable speed, followed by a screeching of the tyres and the car overturning. He opened a car door to see if the passengers were all right and one of the men asked him to “look for the woman.” He had not noticed her before the accident but now found Mrs Field lying under the roof of the car and he pulled her out.

At the inquest, Pheneas Horn elected not to give evidence. Police Sergeant Lawton told the coroner that he arrive on the scene shortly after 10 o’clock and noted marks in the road, which Horn admitted were caused by his car. These marks were measured at a total of 153 ft 6in. and a gap in the uprooted hedge was 10ft long. Arthur Howard, a motor engineer of Evesham, reported that he had found that the car’s steering was in good order but could not comment on the state of the brakes before to the accident. Photographic evidence was submitted and the Coroner was sorry that Horn had elected not to give evidence and he was committed for trial.

The Magistrates’ Hearing

At the hearing, in Evesham Police Court on Monday 26th September, the Inquest witnesses again gave evidence and were cross-examined. In addition, James Stanley, market gardener of 1 Council Houses, told how he heard the crash whilst sitting in his kitchen and later saw two headlights burning brightly on the overturned vehicle. He stated that he had seen hundreds of vehicle getting into difficulties on the corner by the Sandys Arms with cars hitting the kerb and lorries mounting the footpath.

The Chair of the Magistrates, Mr R. Aldington, considered a prima facie case had been made out and Horn was committed trial at Worcester Assize on 20th October. Bail was refused.

The Trial

Pheneas Mory Horn was accused of manslaughter at Worcester Assize. The court was told that there was no evidence of drink being involved and that Horn’s conduct after the event was all that could be desired. The prosecution contended that if the car’s lights were operating correctly he driver could not fail to see the bend. The defence counsel contended that Horn was driving at 40 m.p.h, and that the bend was a ‘trap’, as many witnesses had already testified. The defendant had complained to the cars’ suppliers about the state of the brakes and on 5th September new ones had been fitted. However, Arthur Lambert, a London consulting engineer, stated that they were fitted in such a way that ‘they were sending a man to what might be his death.’ The tension in the cables was wrong and no single brake assembly was correct. The condition of the front near-side tyre showed that the wheel had locked.

The trial conclude on Friday, 28th October and Horn was found guilty of dangerous driving, but not guilty of manslaughter. He was sentenced to three months detention and a £50 fine; his licence was suspended for two years. The jury added a rider that a warning sign should be placed near the spot where the fatality occurred.

Emily Jane Field as a young woman
Emily Jane Field as a young woman

Postscript

Emily Field’s, market gardener husband, John, died just over a year later, on 27th September 1939, aged 71.

Phineas Mory Horn was born in 1916 in Islington, London. He married in 1954 and died in the Newmarket area early in 1957, aged ‘39’ according to the records. All reports of the accident in the Evesham Journal spell his name as ‘Pheneas.’ There is a record of Probate of his estate under that name ‘Phineas Moryseph Horn.’

4. A Fatal Air Crash near Hodys Place

On 14th August 1941 a Hampden AD935 aircraft, OL-U, belonging to 83 Squadron set off from R.A.F. Scampton near Lincoln on a training flight. It was flown by Pilot P/O Ernest R. Davis and his crew were Sergeants Gilbert Arthur Newbold and W. Wells. The air base was later to become famous as the home of the Dambuster Squadron.

Ernest Davis was 26 years old and, while he was in Lincolnshire, his wife was working as a nanny to two children of the Loehnis family, at Hodys Place, Wickhamford. Gilbert Newbold was in the Volunteer Reserve of the R.A.F. He was born in 1920 at Barrow-upon-Soar, Leics. and he had attended Humphrey Perkins School there.

Ernest Davis had told his wife that he would be flying that day and that he would bring the aircraft over from Lincolnshire to fly past Hodys Place. He attempted a low pass, approaching from the West, probably following the line of Wickhamford Lane towards the Manor and Church. As he came in to the village the plane clipped the tops of some trees, just missed hitting the houses and then crashed into an apple orchard that was alongside the Badsey to Willersey Road. The orchard belonged to Mr Ballard of Badsey.

Aerial photograph from 1945
Aerial photograph from 1945, four years after the Hampden aircraft crashed. The position of the crash can be seen in the orchard at the junction of Golden Lane and Willersey Road.
- Copyright Google Earth

Ernest Davis and Gilbert Newbold were killed in the crash, but Sgt Wells survived. Both deaths are listed in the Evesham registers, but presumably they were buried in their home parishes as there is no record of them being buried locally. Due to war-time censorship there was no report of this accident in the Evesham Journal. Sgt Wells service record stops in 1941, so presumably he was unfit for further military duties.

Humphrey Perkins School 'Old Boy's' Memorial Roll of Honour,  Barrow-upon-Soar, Leicestershire
Humphrey Perkins School 'Old Boy's' Memorial Roll of Honour
Barrow-upon-Soar, Leicestershire

Postscript

Following the RAF plane crash at the Willersey Rd/Golden Lane junction in 1941 two locals were recommended for the Albert Medal as they had been involved in rescuing the sole survivor.    However, the recommendation was turned down and no award was made.    The two people concerned were Francis Robert Wheeler (57) a Badsey blacksmith and wheelwright and Doris May Haynes (26).

A description of the events was written at the time by a Badsey schoolgirl, Jean Salter, and her handwritten account, with some graphic details, is shown below.


(Click to enlarge)

Tom Locke – April 2013 (additional material added November 2015)