Can you trust what you read? No – don’t answer that! I was reading through my Chambers Book of Days’ – dinner was a while yet – when I came across an entry that told me that, on Saturday 25th February 1899,‘The first driver to die in a car accident was one F R Sewell, who was test driving a Daimler down Grove Hill in Harrow when the rear wheels collapsed.’
That intrigued me so – after dinner and a few days – I started searching to see if I could learn any more. I could and found a fascinating, if sad, story of the early days of motoring. It also shows that what you read may not be the absolute truth – no matter what period of history you are in.
Firstly I re-read the piece from Chambers and noted the key points: F R Sewell; test driving a Daimler; going down Grove Hill in Harrow; rear wheels collapsing. My search began:
The Sunderland Daily Echo of Monday 27th said briefly that: ‘On Saturday evening some gentlemen connected with the Auxiliary Army and Navy Stores were making an official trial of a waggonette motor near Harrow. While the car was going down Grove Hill at a high speed the front wheel collapsed, and the occupants of the car were violently thrown out. A man named Sewell, who was driving the car, was killed, one gentleman was seriously injured, and four others received minor injuries.’
The Sussex Agricultural Express of Tuesday 28th February reports it in more detail: ‘A party of officials from the Auxiliary Army and Navy Stores met with an accident in descending a steep decline known as Grove Hill, Harrow-on-the-Hill, in a motor car, driven by an employee of the Motor Car Company. The car left Harrow for London at a pace which attracted attention, and it dashed down Grove-hill at a very great rate of speed. It was impossible to turn Roxeth Park Road at right angles, and to avoid collision with a high bank the brake was applied, but this was done so suddenly that the car reared up, tore a track in the road, and collapsed. The occupants of the car were thrown out, and the driver, Sewell, was killed. Major Ritchie sustained a severe fracture at the base of the skull, and Messrs Greenhill, Hutt and Brennan were badly bruised and shaken. The whole party were conveyed to the Harrow Cottage Hospital, and Major Ritchie now lies in a precarious condition’.
The Glasgow Herald of Tuesday 28th looked at it from a different view-point under the heading MOTOR CAR ACCIDENT
‘The horseless carriage, when the non-existent steed gets the bit between his teeth, is, says the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’, anything but a companionable vehicle. Two accicents, of a significant character, are recorded. At Nice, Prince Lubomirski’s motor car bolted, ran over its driver, smashed into a carriage and pair belonging to the late Baron de Reuter, all but slew an Englishman and his wife, and finally butted itself to bits against the pillars of the Hotel des Anglais. “It was a mercy” says a report somewhat obviously, “that nobody was killed”.
It then went on to tell ‘our’ story:
Somebody was killed, unfortunately, in a trial trip between Harrow and Shaftsbury Avenue. A hill labelled “Dangerous for cyclists,” and therefore, most dangerous for motor-carrists, was the cause; the effect, the driver killed, one passenger, Major Ritchie, in hospital with a fractured skull, and others greatly bruised and shaken.
Accidents will happen, no doubt; but the Grove Hill affair would certainly seem to show that danger boards are no less desirable for motor drivers than for cyclists.’
This is a classic case of ‘the facts remain the same but the story can be quite different’!