It seems rather fitting – if not tragically so – that, on the eve of a century that would see so many lives lost to the mechanisation of warfare, the first fatal car accident occurred, and on, of all places, the slopes of Harrow’s very own hill.
It was the twenty-fifth of February 1899, and Edwin R. Sewell was driving from Whitehall to Harrow in a 6HP Daimler Wagonette – of the same line of Daimler’s that would by the twentieth century be used by a number of royal families including those of Britain, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Japan, and more. The wagonette was a bulky vehicle – its design not far off a typical horse-pulled carriage – with eight seats and an open-top, with thin, large wheels. At the time, it was one of the best that could be bought. Accompanying Sewell was a Department head of the Army and Navy stores – the sixty-three year old Major James Stanley Richer – who had expressed interest in possibly purchasing the vehicle for the company.
Hoping to see the Daimler in action, Richer joined Sewell for a test run across London, eventually coming to Harrow for some rest and lunch at the King’s Head (of which could still be visited on High Street until very recently when it was converted into a block of flats). After what we may presume was a lovely meal – possibly too lovely considering what was to follow – the pair returned to wagonette with the intention to testing the brakes on the downward slope of Harrow’s hill. Neither could have anticipated how tragically this choice was to turn out – indeed, it’s perhaps likely that Sewell, considering his intention of selling the vehicle, was all-too confident that the Daimler’s brakes would hold out and prove to be a real strength.
As it turned out, any confidence in the vehicle’s brakes would have been well-placed – but the same could not be said for its wheels. As the Daimler sped down the road along Grove Hill at some twenty miles per hour, it came to a corner and, braking, the rear wheel all of a sudden collapsed, bringing the car down, and without any seat-belts to hold them back, shunting its two passengers forward into the bend of the road. According to a local press report at the time, Sewell and Richer were ‘violently’ thrown from the vehicle. It was enough to kill Sewell on impact, while Major Richer died some three days later in hospital.
In such a motorised world, it’s easy to forget that there was once a time when the notion of a car accident – let alone a fatal one – was far-off. The journey to the world of today in this aspect – where there is a hyperawareness of car safety and the threats posed by cars – is as long as it is important, and one which has its roots in Harrow. While it has been suggested that the Grove Hill car crash was not the first fatal car accident – some point to an accident in Purley, South London a year before as having been the first – it was nonetheless one of the first, and arguably the most high-profile one in its dramatic, downhill nature. Indeed, between this and the death of Thomas Port – one of the first to have died by train-travel – it seems Harrow has quite the history, and a grisly one at that, of fatal travel accidents.
Like Port, there remains a physical reminder of the car crash in Harrow today in the form of a plaque on Grove Hill – supposedly at the spot where the Sewell and Major Richer were flung from their vehicle – though, rather humorously, the plaque makes no mention of either Sewell or Richer, instead only the Harrow Mayor who unveiled it in 1969.
All the same, it may be worth a look next time you walk – though perhaps not when you drive – down Grove Hill road: a grim reminder of the need for road safety, and another artefact of Harrow’s strange and bloody history of travel accidents.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: Easy Hiker