Southwick Airplane Disaster
Five people killed during Food Controller's meeting near Sunderland
Civil Parish: Southwick
Here is how the Sunderland Echo reported on the fatal air disaster at Southwick on 24 May 1917:
Sunderland Daily Echo
25 May 1917
Aeroplane Falls On Crowd
Five People Killed and Eight Injured
Airman invited to fly above food meeting
A shocking catastrophe involving the deaths of five persons and injury to eight others occurred on the Green at Southwick shortly before nine o’clock last night. The accident arose through an airman crashing into the Southwick branch of the Sunderland Co-operative Society’s premises with his biplane and then falling on to a crowd of people that had gathered to listen to addresses on the question of food economy.
Two of the five persons were killed outright, one of them, a little boy, having a portion of his head cut off, and the other three died a few hours later. Ten injured were conveyed to the Royal Infirmary, and there three of them succumbed to their injuries, and the surviving seven still remain in that institution. It is, however, anticipated that they will soon be able to return to their homes. Another of the injured persons, Mrs Brannigan, was treated at the Monkwearmouth Hospital. There were thus in all 13 victims, the complete list and particulars concerning them being as follows: –
Elizabeth Curry (49) 28 Grosvenor Street, Southwick, wife of George Curry, a patternmaker. Injured on head, etc.
Robert Spargo (11) son of Robert Spargo, a labourer, living at 27 Nelson Street, Southwick. Severe injuries to the head, part of which was taken off.
John Connolly (29) of 25 Alice Street, Southwick, married. Injuries to head. Died at 10:30pm. Plater at Messrs Priestman’s
John Thompson (80) a widower, of 10 Camden Street, Southwick. Injuries to head. Died at 1:30am.
George Davison (47) of 16 Cowper Street, Southwick. Injuries to face, head, and fractured ribs. Died at 11:30pm. Insurance agent.
Ellen Rowell (14) 7 Ogle Street, Southwick. Shock and concussion.
Thomas Corner (21) 13 Maraburn Street, Southwick. Shoulder injured. Miner at Hylton Colliery.
Robert Peary (54) 8 Cowper Street, Southwick. Injuries to back and face. Labourer at Messrs Priestman’s.
Isabella Unwin (58) 26 Abbey Street, Southwick. Injuries to arm. Wife of a joiner at Messrs Priestman’s.
Annie Cullerton (17) 2 King’s Road, Southwick. Injuries to arm and face. Employee Swan and Hunter’s, Southwick.
William Hodgson (13) 4 Church Street, Monkwearmouth, son of a soldier. Concussion.
Bernard Smith (10) 3 Wellington Street, Southwick, son of riveter at Messrs Doxford’s. Lacerated leg,
Elizabeth Brannigan (76) of 12 Malaburn Terrace, Southwick. Injury to hand and shock.
Flights Arranged For
It appears that the promoters of the Food Economy Meeting at the west end of The Green had arranged for a series of flights during the time the meeting was in progress. The meeting began shortly after eight o’clock, and while the Chairman was making the opening speech an airman made his appearance from a westerly direction. His coming was hailed with loud applause by a crowd that quickly assumed quite large proportions, and must have numbered several thousands. The airman travelled a short distance beyond the crowd, and then turned and flew about the vicinity to the great delight of the people. The intending speakers who were seated on a form on the rolley also appeared to enjoy the flights. Indeed, he quite captivated the crowd, both the Chairman and the Rev. Father Smith (who was the first speaker) were unable to proceed with their addresses, having to stop every now and then owing to the attention of the crowd being riveted on the machine each time it hove in sight.
In the course of these periodical visits the airman came down quite low, and it was during one of these dives that the catastrophe occurred. It may be stated that the meeting was being held at the west end of the Green, just at the top of Stoney Lane. At the top of the Lane, and facing the Green, is the Southwick branch of the Sunderland Co-operative Society’s premises, which are very high. In the centre of the Green is a flagstaff some 40 or 50 feet in height, and when the meeting began the Union Jack was taken down and put on to the waggon. The airman in what proved to be the last flight, came straight up the Green, with the intention evidently of flying just over the crowd. As he came along, with all eyes upon him, one of the planes struck the flagstaff. The machine, however, still came along, and passed just over the heads of the people and those on the waggon. All ducked as speedily as possible, and the machine continuing its course crashed into the Co-operative building, and dropped on the portion of the crowd behind the rolley.
So suddenly had the whole thing occurred that it took some seconds for people to grasp that something serious had happened. Fortunately there were a number of soldiers and special constables on the scene, and while some made a cordon round the debris others at once set to work to get the people out from underneath. The airman was got out by P.C. Atkinson and others, and was found to be uninjured, though, naturally, very much upset. He was taken into a house close by, where every attention was accorded him. The search quickly revealed the fact that a little bare-footed boy had been killed outright, and his head taken practically off by some portion of the machine. A middle-aged woman had also been instantly killed by a blow on the head. Both bodies were reverently covered up until they could be removed to their homes. Some fifteen or a score of men and women were also badly hurt.
Drs Brears, Thompson, and Carruthers rendered all possible aid to the sufferers. Meanwhile ambulances had been telephoned for, and soon Red Cross and police ambulance vans were on the scene, and in these the injured persons were conveyed to hospitals or houses close by. The injured having been attended to, the damaged biplane was removed to headquarters. Two of the large windows in the shop were completely broken, and a portion of the machine rested in the shop window. Several people were hurt through the falling glass when the panes were broken.
The news of the disaster quickly spread, and soon many thousands were wending their way up from the town to the Green, the cars being also packed. It was well on to midnight ere the thoroughfare resumed its normal appearance, and long before that time arrive the only indication of anything having occurred was the boarding up of the windows at the Stores. It was noticed this morning that the top of the flagstaff, a model of a ship, was missing, it evidently having been knocked off by the airman in the course of his flight.
The Borough and County Coroners have been officially notified of the deaths, and the inquests will be held in due course. It is probably that they will be formally opened, so that certificates for burial be granted, and then adjourned for a week.
Careful Investigation Needed
Mr J F Burnicle opened an inquiry at the Royal Infirmary this afternoon on the bodies of three of the victims of the accident at Southwick last night. The three were: John Connolly, John Thompson, and George Davison, each of whom, as stated in our report, died in the Infirmary. In each of the three cases only formal evidence of identification was given, the Coroner intimating that he was only opening the inquiry for that purpose, and to enable the funerals to take place.
The first witness was Elizabeth Richardson, of 75 Ryhope Street, Ryhope, who stated that she was the wife of Ald. Robert Richardson, of the Durham County Council, and the deceased, George Davison, was her brother-in-law. He was an insurance agent, and was 48 last June.
In the case of Connolly the evidence of identification was given by Mrs Jane Lewis, his sister-in-law, who lives at 31 Stoney Lane, Southwick. She stated the deceased was a plater in the shipyards, and was 29 last September.
James Thompson, a son, was the only witness in the remaining case. Witness said he lived at 10 Camden Street, with his father, who was 80 years of age. At 8:30 last night the deceased, who was a retired roadman, left the house to go to the meeting on the Green. As he did not return witness made inquiries, and ascertained that he was in the Infirmary.
The Coroner then read the report of the lady house surgeon (Dr L de Menezes), and this intimated that the deaths of Connolly and Thompson were due to a fractured skull, and Davison had died from shock arising from fractured ribs and other extensive injuries.
This completed the evidence tendered today.
The Coroner remarked that it was a most regrettable thing that these people should have lost their lives in the way they had. They had gone to a meeting on the Green at Southwick, and while there an airman, from some cause or other, which would have to be dealt with by the jury later, descended so low as to strike some obstruction, with the result that it was driven out of control among the crowd. Several were injured and up to now five had died. The matter required to be carefully investigated, and would take a little time. He, therefore, proposed at adjourn the inquiry until next Thursday at 3 pm, when all the necessary witnesses would be present and state exactly what had occurred, and why it had occurred. The accident took place in the county, and with the concurrence of the Coroner for the county division the inquiry relating to the death of the two who had died in the county, should be adjourned to the same time. Owing to the jurisdiction being separate, it was necessary that each coroner should hold a separate inquiry, and the witnesses, where required, would pass from one to the other.
The jury were then bound over to the adjourned inquest at the Central Police Station on Thursday next at 3 pm.
For a transcript of the newspaper report of the two coroners’ inquests that took place into the deaths at the disaster, scroll down the page to “Supporting Material” and click on the link.
Contributed by Durham County Record Office