Edward Swift Jones faced a potential jail sentence after his wife, Susan, died in a road accident. Susan – who was connected to my mum’s family – was riding pillion on a motorcycle driven by her husband when it was involved in a collision with a car in Cardiff in 1926. An inquest jury returned a verdict of criminal negligence against Edward and the car driver before dramatically changing their decision. Here I look back at the inquest – and how the car driver was later charged with and cleared of manslaughter.
They were together on a motorcycle in Cardiff when disaster struck at a notoriously dangerous crossroads.
Susan Courtney Jones was ‘flung through the air’ and landed heavily on a footway as the vehicle was involved in a collision with a car on October 23, 1926.
Susan – who was riding pillion on a motorcycle driven by her husband, Edward – suffered catastrophic skull and brain injuries in the crash. She died the following day at Cardiff Infirmary, aged 40.
At an inquest held two days after her death, a jury initially returned a verdict of criminal negligence against Edward and the car driver, William Albert Howell.
When the coroner told them that their verdict was equivalent to a verdict of manslaughter against the two men, the jury changed their verdict to accidental death.
Susan was a great-great niece of John Arscott (1807-1879), who was my great-great grandfather.
She and Edward had been married for almost 20 years at the time of the accident.
Her death and inquest hit the headlines in a number of Welsh newspapers, including The Merthyr Express and The Western Mail.
Edward a colliery timberman, told the inquest that 12 yards before reaching the junction of the Colum Road and Park Place crossroads, he slowed down to 11mph.
Just before reaching the corner, he said he had remarked to his wife that he always regarded the spot as dangerous, and she agreed with him.
As he was crossing the corner, he noticed a car approaching from the left. His wife called out: ‘Oh, my glory, look’, and the car struck them.
He said the car, which he believed was travelling at about 30mph, struck the back of his motorcycle, throwing Susan into the air and ‘flinging’ her a considerable distance. He himself was injured.
When asked by the solicitor defending the car driver if there had time been for him to avoid the accident, Edward said there was not.
Asked if he had put on the brakes or took any steps to avoid the impact, Edward said: ‘There was no chance. He was going at such speed that there was no earthly hope for anything.’
Jeweller William Hayes said he was crossing the road near the crash when he heard a woman scream. He looked round and saw her somersaulting through the air on to the footpath.
The car and motorcycle ‘dashed’ into an electric light standard near where Susan had fallen. When he first saw the car, it was moving at a ‘terrific rate’ – between 30 and 40mph. He did not hear a car horn sounded before the collision and did not witness the crash.
The car driver, William Albert Howell, a commercial traveller, said he applied his brakes when nearing Park Lane. His car skidded on ‘account of the greasy nature of the road’. A motorcycle with a woman riding pillion came out of Colum Road and passed in front of the car.
The left front wing of his car collided with the rear of the motorcycle. His skid continued until the car was ‘brought up against the electric standard’. He said he had been driving at about 6-8mph at the time and had repeatedly sounded his horn.
He told the inquest that the motorcycle was ‘travelling far too fast’ in approaching the crossing.
Geoffrey Parsons, representing Edward, asked William Albert Howell: ‘Do you seriously ask the coroner and jury to believe that your car skidded 70ft when you were only previously traveling at 6-8mph?’
He replied: ‘I do – I have seen longer slides than that.’ Geoffrey Parsons said: ‘I put it to you that you may have skidded, but that skid was due to the fact that you were travelling at an excessive speed?’
William Albert Howell replied: ‘No sir.’
The coroner, in summing up, said that ‘pillion riding was always a dangerous practice, and particularly so on a wet day’.
Edward admitted that he was travelling at 11mph, which was ‘excessive’ at that crossing. There was no corroboration of his estimate that the car which struck his cycle was travelling at 30mph, while the car driver said he was travelling at 6-8mph.
After a short adjournment, the jury returned a verdict of criminal negligence on the part of both drivers.
The coroner said: ‘That means a verdict of manslaughter against both men. Have you come to the conclusion that both men should be sent forward for trial on that charge?’
The jury foreman said: ‘We consider that there was criminal negligence, but we do not think that it should be called manslaughter.’
One juryman told the inquest: ‘We are a little divided over whether both should be sent forward for trial.’
The jury expressed a desire to reconsider their verdict, and again retired. On their return, they changed their verdict to one of accidental death, with negligence on both sides.
The coroner asked: ‘But you do not find that negligence was criminal?’ The foreman told him: ‘No, not criminal.’
Forty-year-old William Albert Howell was charged with manslaughter on November 10, 1926 and sent for trial.
He appeared before Glamorgan Assizes in Swansea 15 days later. He was acquitted after a two-day trial.
The Western Mail, on November 27, 1926 reported how the defending counsel, Thomas Artemus Jones, KC, criticised the police authorities involved in the case.
He said it was ‘the duty of the Crown not to call witnesses favourable to their side, but to place all the facts before the court.
‘In this case, for some reason which I cannot fathom the police authorities appeared to have played not the part of the impartial prosecutors anxious to place all the facts before you, but seems to have desired to secure a conviction at all costs, notwithstanding the evidence. It is the wrong attitude for the police to take up.’
The jury, without retiring, found William Albert Howell not guilty.
Susan was the daughter of Charles Arscott (1858-1926) and Emma Courtney Turner (1855-1899). Charles was the son of Samuel Arscott (1814-) and Mary Ann Courtney (1815-1905). Samuel was the brother of John Arscott (1807-1879), my great-great-grandfather. Born in 1885 in Aberfan, Susan married Edward Swift Jones on November 7, 1907 in Aberfan.
Edward was a miner at Merthyr Vale Collieries for many years. He was disabled when he died on July 31, 1949. A verdict that his death was caused by acute cardiac failure due to coronary thrombosis and pneumoconiosis was recorded at an inquest by the Merthyr Coroner, Mr J Lloyd Atkins.
Headlines from The Merthyr Express and The Western Mail about Susan’s death, the inquest and the trial of William Albert Howell.