Coach accident, 1817

Coach-Racing by the Winslow Stage-Coach in 1817 had serious consequences

by Ed Grimsdale

Based on articles in the Morning, Bury and Norwich, & Cambridge Chronicles and medical reports from Dr Thomas Clarke who supervised continuing care for one of its victims

There had been an outbreak of what newspapers termed "furious driving of stage-coaches". The cause seems to have been fierce competition between rival coach firms, each wanting to be the HS2 of its time – we’ll get you to town more quickly.  The Winslow coach overturned in the dark around 7pm on Monday 13 October 1817 close to Kilburn turnpike on the final stage of its journey to the capital. Coach cabins were high off the ground supported by strong metal springs that dampened the vibrations which solid wheels transmitted from cobbled and rutted road surfaces. When an accident occurred, outside passengers and the coach-driver would be projected from their high perches straight onto the metalled surface below, whilst inside passengers were at risk from flying glass and the fractured components of the cabin’s shell.

In this accident, there was one inside passenger who escaped with having his "arm put out", i.e. a dislocated shoulder.  The coachman was so seriously injured that he had to be taken to town in a hackney coach – civilian ambulances were not introduced in London until 1832. Three of those passengers most at risk on the outside were seriously injured. One had his thigh broken and his jaw cut, another had his leg dreadfully lacerated, and the other’s arm was broken. 

What happened to these victims after the incident?  Had they died as a result, a written record may still remain, but those maimed or left lame receive few mentions in documents. In this case, Dr Clarke treated Mr George Caruthers, aged 22 of Lambeth, who had "a compound dislocation of the ankle joint inwards, with a fracture of the tibia … occasioned by the overturning of a stage-coach at Kilburn." Fortunately for us, Dr Clarke kept and published detailed notes of the treatment he administered to Mr Caruthers and the latter’s slow route to recovery. Mr Caruthers must have been the man with the "dreadfully lacerated" leg for Dr Clarke writes both of the projection of the tibia through the skin of the ankle and that "the bleeding must have been copious, but subsided before [I] saw him." The main problem with such trauma victims was the lack of effective infection control before the invention of antibiotics in the latter half of the 20th century.  Simple dressing were applied to the wound and kept in place with a "many-tailed" bandage that had been soaked in an evaporating lotion. The leg was splinted and rested in a slightly bent position on a quilted pillow. The doctor noted "great constitutional excitement" from the "serious" injury. As a result, poor George Caruthers was bled, his system purged and much saline medicine was administered. The body had to fight infection mainly through its own resources. Abscesses formed and much material was "exfoliated" before any natural healing occurred. The doctor commented that all this "produced considerable exhaustion of the patient’s strength", but also noted, approvingly that Caruthers' "general health had been good for some months previous". Caruthers remained in pain until January, 1818 when "a considerable portion of bone came away and the sore immediately healed and has so continued; […the patient] is now in better health than before the accident. He employs himself in superintending a farm, around which he walks with one crutch and a stick, but if the ground be level, with a stick only; and the limb is becoming daily more and more useful."

In 1822, Dr Clarke’s assistant wrote to Caruthers inquiring about his progress.  Caruthers answered that he could walk three or four miles easily, and eight if required, and that he would not exchange his injured leg for a wooden one for "the whole of Europe".

Caruthers had been lucky to receive the best care then available, costly support unavailable to most accident sufferers. Accidents were tragedies and people recognised that they needed to be avoided if possible. The Bury and Norwich Post reported of this Kilburn incident:

“… there is now opposition in the Aylesbury road, and coaches from town are in the habit of going to Aylesbury, a distance of some 40 miles, in five hours, stoppage included; indeed, sometimes, they have gone down in four hours, which is a rate of 10 miles an hour, one coach racing against the other."

It’s unsurprising that another report in an evening paper about this accident concluded in this manner:

"It is much to be lamented that a stop is not put to coach-racing.  On the subject of coach-racing we have merely to say, that it is an offence punishable by fine or imprisonment and that any passenger who neglects to complain neglects his duty to himself and the public."

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Copyright 9 August, 2015