William Thomas Poulter – A Fatal Accident in Bedford

William Thomas Poulter - A Fatal Accident in Bedford

On Saturday 27th March, 1897 The Bedfordshire Times and Independent (page 7) reported the tragic death of a young boy, William Thomas Poulter, who had suffered a fatal accident whilst at work. Below is a summary of the Inquest.

On Saturday afternoon, at the Infirmary, Dr. Prior, the Borough Coroner, held an enquiry into the circumstances attending the death of a lad named William Thomas Poulter, who was admitted to the Infirmary on Thursday with serious injuries, and who died the next day. Mr Mark Sharman attended on behalf of deceased’s father: – William Poulter, an engineer of 35, Coventry Road, Queen’s Park, identified the body as that of his son, who was an errand boy, and who was 14 years old. He was employed by Mr Hauberg, cycle agent, of Midland Road.

In answer to a question by the Foreman of the Jury (Mr. Rabbitt), the witness stated that his son was not deaf. William Wright, coachman to Mr. W. Mills of Cardington, stated that on Thursday, March 18, he went to the Midland Station with a horse and dog-cart to buy two papers. He was accompanied by a man named Hobbins. He returned from the station at about 3 p.m., and went by Midland Road. When he got in front of the Grafton Hotel the horse suddenly started, and went left handed on to the pavement. Hobbins was thrown out with the seat, which left the witness at the bottom of the cart holding the reins. He remained in that position until the horse fell at the corner of Prebend Street. He shouted for assistance, and a man came and took hold of the horse’s head. He got down and observed that the harness was broken at the hame (a bar of metal which is attached to the horse’s collar on each side). He had felt a jerk before the horse started and had noticed that he could not pull on one side. He produced the near side hame, which was broken off short. It was unsound, and had not been properly welded. He never saw anything of the boy and was not cognisant of any accident until he was out of the cart. He had only had the horse two months, it was not nervous, and he had never known it to shy.

Mr. Sharman (a lawyer attending on behalf of William Poulter), said that the harness was twelve months old, but that no defect had ever been noticed in it. Charles Hobbins, a helper in Mr. Mills’ stables, corroborated the evidence given by the last witness. George Arthur Sempkins, an auctioneer’s clerk, of Westbourne Road, said that on the Thursday in question he was at the corner of Prebend Street. He heard a shout and on looking up, saw a horse swerving towards the pavement. As the off wheel caught the kerb, the last witness was thrown from the cart with the seat. Practically at the same moment the hub of the near wheel caught the ladder on which young Poulter stood. It was a step ladder, and the lad was about five steps high. The ladder was swept from under him, and he saw the boy fall on his head on the pavement.

The lad was taken into Mr. Stafford’s office, and was afterwards removed to the Infirmary in a cab. The horse swerved again into the road until it fell at the corner of Prebend-street. The driver stuck pluckily to the horse, trying to pull it up. By Mr Sharman: The driver was quite sober. Mr. S. J. Rose, House Surgeon at the Infirmary, stated that the deceased was admitted to the Infirmary at about 4 p.m. on Thursday, suffering from a fracture of the skull and four fractured ribs on the left side, with penetration of the lungs. At one o’clock on Friday morning he suddenly became worse and died shortly afterwards. Mr Rose made a post mortem examination and found, in addition to the above injuries, that the stomach was ruptured in two places, the spleen was ruptured, and there was external bruising of both kidneys.

The Coroner, in summing up, said that it was a relief to him to find that no blame was attachable to anybody. The Driver seemed to have exercised all presence of mind possible. He drew the attention of the Jury to the harness, and he asked all other persons but the Jury to leave the room, as they would reconsider the condition of the harness in private. On returning, the Coroner stated that no blame was attachable to anyone, but great credit was due to the driver for the presence of mind which he showed. The Jury brought in a verdict of “accidental death” and added a rider to the effect that it was their opinion that the accident was occasioned by the unsound work of the hame, and that such work ought not to have been passed by the foreman of the works where it was made.”

It would seem that the traces, which are the ropes or lengths of leather joined to the hames were the cause of the accident. If either hame fractures, the driver is only able to pull on one rein, pulling the horse tightly to one side. In other words, the steering mechanism is disabled. This explains why the horse veered to one side and eventually fell.

A typical delivery cart

As a result of this failure to control the horse, young William Poulter suffered four fractured ribs, penetration of the lungs, stomach rupture in two places, a ruptured spleen and external bruising of both kidneys. It seems likely that he was struck by the horse or the cart. With skull fractures in addition to these injuries, suffered by falling from a ladder onto his head, it was unlikely that the victim could survive, with the limited medical interventions at that time, 1897.

The Education Act of 1870 provided secondary education for children from 5 to 12 years. At that age the vast majority of school leavers joined the workforce and were regarded less as children than young adults [the article refers to William as a ‘lad’]. On leaving school it was expected that the youngsters would immediately pass into employment. William was employed and working as an ‘errand boy’ and undertaking a task for his employer which window cleaners today might well consider risky on a busy day in Midland Road or Prebend Street, balanced precariously on a ladder. Such was the life of working-class children.

William Thomas Poulter came from a large family, living at the time of the accident at 35 Coventry Road, Queens Park. The 1891 Census shows that William Poulter (senior) was living at 59 Carpenter Street, Battersea, describing himself as an engineer borer. He was employed by the W H Allen York Street Works in Lambeth, situated alongside Waterloo Station. He was living on a direct railway line to the Allen works. The expanding Waterloo Station was responsible for the relocation of the Allen works around 1890 and their establishment in Bedford. William Poulter, his wife Elizabeth and family are believed to be one of the hundred or so Allen workforce who relocated to Bedford.

The 1895 Bedford Directory shows the family living in an unnumbered newly-built house [October 1894] along with two engineer neighbours, a vacant house, one occupied by a professor of music, a fifth occupied by a coal merchant and with a further house under construction. These were the early days of development in Queen’s Park. The development was first proposed in 1887, in the run-up to Queen Victoria’s Jubilee that year, which is why the area was named Queen’s Park, and Allen’s was known as Queen’s Engineering Works. William Poulter maintained his position in the company and was ‘superannuated’ for his services, and perhaps for his loyalty. William Henry Allen, the founder, died in 1926 and the company finally closed down circa. 2000.

Workers at the W H Allen works at
York Street, c. 1890

The company sustained William and Elizabeth and their large family. In the 1901 Census William is described as an engine maker, aged 48. Living with him was his wife Elizabeth, three daughters and seven sons. William Thomas had been their second child, so they had at least eleven children. Their daughters Elizabeth and Emily were laundry workers, Walter aged 14 was a baker’s boy, five children were at school, one was aged two and one was younger. The 1911 Census shows they had moved to 5 Westbourne Road, Queen’s Park. William was aged 58 and Elizabeth his wife aged 50. The eldest of the children is R Samuel Poulter aged 22, an electrical engineer, one son is a Moulder, two are errand boys and one works in a dairy. There is a grandson aged 8, so there were eight children and a grandson in the house. This was an industrious family with a good work ethic, sustained largely by their income from Allens.

It is a sad fact that William Thomas Poulter lost his life whilst working to help support his many siblings. The owner of the horse and cart and the drivers of that vehicle were perhaps not as safety-conscious as they could have been. They had to tack-up every day before venturing out with the horse and cart and it is perhaps surprising that they did not notice a weakness in the harness which they were handling and should have been inspecting. It was tragic that William Thomas died as a result of this, but had the horse bolted there may well have been further fatalities, and it is likely the driver of the vehicle would have lost his life also.

William Thomas Poulter’s father, William Poulter, died in the first quarter of 1917 and his wife died in the last quarter of 1923. The Bedford Directory for 1918 shows that Elizabeth Poulter is the main householder living at 5 Westbourne Road. The Bedford Directory for 1925 shows William Thomas’s brother, Charles Poulter (born 11.06.1890) as the main householder, described as a Moulder – possibly still working at Allens. He later moved to 25 Oldfield Road (1940) and was described as a Machine Miller, married to Alice Jane. His first wife, Agnes, whom he married in 1913, died in 1916. He joined The Royal Engineers in 1914 (Territorial Force) according to the British Army Service Records, and was living in Brighton on 25 April 1914 (WW1 Pension Records). Charles Lipscombe Poulter was discharged from the Royal Engineers unfit for military service, on 8 August 1914.

Charles Lipscombe Poulter may have been unfit for military service, but according to The Bedfordshire Times and Independent, March 9th 1934 p. 15 and The Bedfordshire Mercury October 5th 1906 he was a football referee (1934) registered with The Bedfordshire FA and was still refereeing in 1939. He died in 1960.

William Thomas Poulter would have been proud of his brother I believe. He himself was less fortunate, dying at such a young age.

William Thomas Poulter Grave Site

He was buried in an unmarked grave at Bedford Cemetery on 25th March 1897. Grave Plan G5, Section 192






1895, 1918, 1925 Bedford Directory
1891, 1901 and 1911 Census
The British Army Service Records
WW1 Pension Records
The Bedfordshire Times and Independent Saturday March 27 1897 p. 7
Bedfordshire Mercury October 5 1906
Bedfordshire Times and Independent March 9 1934 p.15
The Allen Magazine, York Street Works October 1950


Allen workers c.1890 – The Allen Magazine, York Street Works October 1950
Mr M Boyles (Bedfordshire’s Yesteryears)
Grave site photographed by the Author, Ref. G5 192

The author’s sincere thanks to Maurice Nicholson, Linda Ayres and Colin Woolf for their support in researching.

(Copyright: Brenda Fraser-Newstead
30 October 2019)