Child killed by the fall of a fence at Hertford

Hertfordshire Mercury, 14th July 1906


An inquest was heard at the General Infirmary on Monday afternoon before Mr T. J. Sworder (Coroner) as to the death of a little boy named Herbert Frank O’Smotherley, one year and eight months old, who died in the Infirmary a short time after admission on Saturday from injuries caused by a fence falling upon him. Mr R Lapper was chosen foreman of the Jury.

Mrs Annie O’Smotherley, of 12, Millers Yard, Castle Street stated that she was the mother of the deceased. On Saturday, two of her children – George Ashton and the deceased went for a walk in the Queen’s Road. The eldest was nine years old and the youngest (the deceased) was one year and eight months and could walk well. They went out about 10.40 and she heard of the accident about 12.30. she went out at once, and as she was going down Rooke’s Alley she saw the baby going by in a carriage with a policeman. The child was not dead then, and was brought to the Infirmary. He died about twenty minutes past two.

George Alexander Ashton stated that he was nine years of age, and on Saturday morning he went out with his little half-brother. They went up by the Boys’ School and then down to the Green Coat School. The baby was trying to climb up the fence near the school, and witness went to take his hands away and the fence fell on top of his little brother. it was the fence over the ditch near Green Coat School. All the fence came down.

A Militia sergeant and another man came up and lifted the fence off and picked his brother up and took him to the Plough. Witness did not touch the fence himself. His brother had got his foot on a cross rail not very high from the ground.

In answer to the Foreman, witness said the fence struck him as it fell. He tried to lift it off his brother, but could not do so, as it was too heavy.

Sergt. William Griffin, 4th Batt Beds Regiment, stated that he was on duty at the barracks gates about 12. 20 and saw the two children near the fence on the opposite side of the road. He saw the younger one put his feet through the palings on to the cross-bar about four or five inches from the ground; and he clung to the fence with his hands.

Immediately the fence crashed down with the child underneath it. Witness went at once to raise it off the child, and with the assistance of a civilian he pushed the fence back. It was too heavy for witness to lift himself. The whole lot of it came down. The civilian took the child to the Plough and witness sent for a doctor. He thought the child was trying to look at the water in the ditch. The fence would be about 6 feet high at the highest point, and from 6 to eight feet in length, and would weigh from 150 to 200 pounds. The fence appeared to be loose and rickety, as he had heard it squeaking in the wind.

P.C. Saunders stated that he was called on Saturday about 12.15 p.m., and found the deceased at the Plough being attended to by Dr Fraser. Witness assisted the doctor to dress the wounds, and by his orders conveyed the child to the Infirmary, where he was admitted at 12.40. The child was unconscious, and seemed in a collapsed state.

Dr Stidston stated that the deceased was admitted to the infirmary on Saturday, and he saw him at once. He was in an unconscious condition and bleeding from the right ear and from the skull. He lived about an hour and three quarters. The cause of death was bleeding from the skull caused by a blow of some kind. A fence falling on the child would be quite sufficient to cause the injuries.

William Griffin, road foreman to the Hertford Corporation, stated that he knew the fence in question, but he did not know who it belonged to. It was over the Gulphs in the London Road. He did not think he, as road-foreman, had any responsibility over it. He examined the fence about three weeks ago. Mr Mole (coachman to Miss Green, who rents the meadow on the other side of the fence) told him about it, saying the fence ought to be seen to, and that it belonged to the Corporation. Witness examined the fence at reported to the Borough Surveyor that it was in dilapidated condition, but not dangerous to the public in his opinion, and he did not think there was a pressing necessity to put it right. He saw it again last Saturday week, but did not see then that it was dangerous to the public. He had now had it put right temporarily under the Borough Surveyor’s instructions.

The Foreman Of The Jury said he drew Mole’s attention to the fence, and told him he did not consider it had anything to do with Miss Green or himself (Mr Lapper). He (Mr Lapper) rented the field from Miss Green, and he told Mole he had better mention the matter to the Corporation and ask them to put the fence in order. Certainly it was in a dilapidated condition, and had been for twelve months, during which time it had been getting worse. He did not think it was in such a bad state as to be pulled over by a little child like the deceased.

Mr Griffin was of the same opinion, as he shook the fence on Saturday week, and it did not seem dangerous to the public then.

Mr Lapper said he had known the fence for twenty-six years, and he was told it was put up thirty-three years ago. He thought it belonged to the Corporation.

The Borough Surveyor said that with reference to a remark of one of the witnesses that the fence creaked when the wind blew, the fence was attached to a tree and when the wind blew it would naturally cause a noise of that character. The road-foreman reported the matter to him and said he did not know to whom the fence belonged, and he did not think the fence a danger to the public. Steps would be taken in due course to ascertain the ownership of the fence and it would have been reported to the Highways Committee, and upon their instructions, if it was acknowledged that the fence belonged to the Corporation, steps would have to be taken to replace it with a new one or a brick wall.

In answer to a question, Mr Lapper said he believed Miss Green only rented the field, and he (Mr Lapper) was the sub-tenant.

The grandfather of the boy spoke as to the dilapidated condition of the fence, and said he had been told that it had been reported three times.

The Borough Surveyor said it had only been reported once, and there was no negligence as far as his office was concerned.

The Jury considered their verdict in private, and after twenty minutes deliberation The Foreman said the Jury thought Mr Mole ought to have been called as witness. They considered he would have been a very valuable witness, as he had known the property for so many years.

They returned a verdict that the child had died from the accidental fall of the fence over the Gulphs in London Road, and expressed the opinion that all expenses incurred by the parents should be paid by the owner or owners of the fence, and they considered there was negligence by the owner or owners.

The Coroner said that with reference to the expenses he was afraid a Coroner’s jury had no power to make that condition. It was the first time he had ever had a jury deal with the question of expenses. As to the remarks as to negligence, if that was part of their verdict he thought they would have to find someone against whom to bring a charge of manslaughter. Did they think it was any criminal negligence?

The Jury decided to leave that part out, but they seemed to think there was carelessness on the part of the owner in not having the fence seen to.

P.S. Huckle said he had never heard of Mr Mole until the inquest, or he should certainly have had him as a witness.





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