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A FATAL TRAP ACCIDENT

At about half-past ten in the evening of Monday 27 July 1891, Edward Wilkins was riding home from Sherborne to the Castle Inn in Middle Street, but as he descended Babylon Hill, he heard a man’s voice calling for help. Dismounting, he could just make out in the darkness, the figure of a man leaning against the roadside bank and going closer, he recognised James Gill, who pointed to a dark shape lying in the road exclaimed that it was a dead man. Bending over the recumbent figure, and in the flickering light of a match, Edward Wilkins saw that the man lying on his face was unconscious but still breathing. Kneeling closer, the landlord also recognised him as William Harris, a local auctioneer, and turning to James Gill asked what had happened. James Gill replied that together with his wife Lucy and the auctioneer, he had been travelling down Babylon Hill, when the horse pulling the trap in which they were riding suddenly bolted, the two men were thrown out, and the horse galloped off down the road with Lucy Gill still in the vehicle.

William Clode, who was driving an empty carriage from Sherborne back to the Choughs Hotel in Yeovil, arrived on the scene and offered to help. Leaving William Clode to stay with Harris and Gill, Edward Wilkins remounted his horse and galloped off down Babylon Hill to summon medical assistance. As he was approaching Yeovil Bridge, his horse suddenly swerved around an object in the road and stopped. Dismounting Wilkins found it to be a woman, and by the light of a match recognised Lucy Gill; she was unconscious and he dragged her to the side of the road before setting off again to get a doctor.

Meanwhile James Gill decided not to await the attendance of a doctor but take his friend on to Yeovil for treatment. With the help of William Clode, he lifted the insensible auctioneer into the carriage and laid him on the seat. As they neared Yeovil Bridge, the carriage horses shied and the two men made out the shape of a woman’s body lying at the side of the road. Fearing the worst, James Gill leapt from the vehicle and recognising his wife tried to revive her but without success. With no room in the carriage for another recumbent passenger, Gill instructed Clode to drive as fast as he could to William Harris’s home in Bond Street, and he would await the arrival of medical assistance with his wife.

Doctor Ptolemy Colmer, called out by Edward Wilkins, set off on horseback, from his house in South Street, but had not gone far when he met the carriage conveying the unconscious William Harris and after examining the auctioneer returned with him to Bond Street. However, finding he could nothing to aid immediate recovery, the doctor set out for Babylon Hill where he found the Gills waiting at the side of the road.

Lucy Gill was still unconscious, and the doctor’s examination revealed a deeply cut face, severe abrasions to her head and a possible fractured leg just above the ankle. From the torn and dusty state of her clothes, Dr Colmer concluded that Lucy Gill had been dragged some distance along the road. After stitching her face, the doctor examined her husband, and apart from a cut on the back of his head, James Gill was in good shape.

News of the accident had brought a horse and cart to the scene, and the Gills were conveyed to Yeovil Hospital. Doctor Colmer returned to his patient in Bond Street, and carried out a more detailed examination of the unconscious man. William Harris was found to be suffering from severe bruising to the back of the head, bleeding from one ear, and the doctor concluded that there was an extreme fracture at the base of the skull; recovery was unlikely. For Dr Ptolemy Colmer, it was going to be a busy night, because he then went to the hospital to examine the Gills and treat their injuries. One thing Dr Colmer noticed, however, was that all three smelt strongly of liquor.

William Harris died at half past midnight on Tuesday morning and the Inquest into his death opened on Wednesday 29 July in the Rising Star Coffee Tavern. After taking evidence from several witnesses, including Henry Slade, from whom William Harris had hired the horse and two-wheeled trap, the jury found it difficult to establish what had happened. The horse, still harnessed to the trap, had returned to its stable of its own accord, but Henry Slade had found the offside wing board and rails had been knocked off. However, as the only witnesses to what had happened were dead or in hospital, the Inquest was adjourned for evidence to be given by James Gill who was expected to recover within a few days.

Doubts were being raised on the cause of the accident and the rumour mills were turning. Miss Louisa Harris, whose journals were edited by Miss Jean Harper, and published by the Western Gazette in 2003, wrote on 29 July, that the affair was involved in a good deal of mystery and much speculation, plus a few hints of foul play. Could there have been a fight or struggle in the trap resulting in the two men falling out and breaking the rail and wing in the process? At the moment everything was speculation.

On Sunday 2 August, Mrs Lucy Gill died from the effects of concussion, exhaustion and septic infection. The Inquest when it re-opened in the Red Lion Inn on Thursday 6 August, was now into the deaths of William Harris and Lucy Gill.

After hearing the medical evidence, the next witness was Edward Green, the post boy at the Antelope Hotel in Sherborne, who testified that he had seen William Harris, sitting between the two Gills, leave the hotel in the horse trap and the seating was a ‘tight fit’. William Harris was driving and they all appeared to be very friendly and sober.

Arthur Field, a gardener, next testified, and stated that he was helping an Irishman drive six colts from Sherborne Fair to Pen Mill Station during the evening concerned, when a small trap with three passengers passed by and then stop. Two men had got down, and when the witness enquired what was wrong, he was told that the trace had come off. No one could provide rope or string to effect a repair, but one of the men produced a pocket-handkerchief and tied the trace. The repair to the trace was confirmed by Henry Slade who found a handkerchief tied from the harness to the front part of the trace.

The jury then adjourned to the Hospital and James Gill gave evidence from his bed. He said that he had met William Harris by appointment at the Sherborne Horse Fair between five and six o’clock and accompanied by his wife, they had visited several hotels during the evening. However, he could not recall whether they were sober. When they left Sherborne, James Gill could remember that he was sitting on the near side of the trap, his wife in the middle, and William Harris on the off side driving the horse; he recalled that it was a very tight fit. He could remember little of the journey back to Yeovil, he could recall something snapping, but had no memory of falling from the trap or how he came to be on the road, he could remember, however, the doctor ‘sewing up his wife’.

Following James Gill’s evidence, the jury returned to the Red Lion Inn where the Deputy Coroner reviewed the evidence, remarking that the movements of the deceased in Sherborne were reasonably clear, but thereafter not so. Gill’s evidence of the seating arrangements differed from other witnesses but he had little memory of the journey. In the Deputy Coroner’s opinion, the jury might consider it reasonable to conclude that the deaths of the two persons concerned were accidental.

The jury returned a verdict of accidental death in both cases caused by falling from a trap.


Jack Sweet
September 2019

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