With much of the country blanketed under deep snow and underlying frost that had brought hundreds of mills and factories to a close with over 15,000 workers within East Lancashire alone all being left unable to work, for children – it brought an unexpected break from their daily chores of not just work but that also of school.
Many took to the parks and playing fields to enjoy the extended break, throwing snowballs, making snowmen and if they had the means, they would find somewhere steep enough to enjoy the rare opportunity to sledge down.
And it’s within the township of Haslingden that we are once again travelling back to, and to the evening of Wednesday, 3rd March 1909 as we delve into the story of the Charles Lane toboggan misadventure.
Fifty year old, James Roberts, a waste breaker who was employed at Spring Vale mill, had left work at around 7.40pm to make his way home at nearby 27 Prospect Hill. With him was a man named Havelock Bond, an engineer who also worked at the same mill as James.
Taking a pipe out from his jacket, lighting it and after a couple of puffs of smoke, Havelock patted James on his back, telling him it wouldn’t be long before they both reached their homes, despite the lane ahead being in a hazardous condition.
“Aye, perhaps your ‘reet.” replied James as he lit his own pipe.
Charles Lane was a public highway back in the early parts of the 1900s and was a main artery for many of the mills and factories that once aligned the nearby roads and pathways, as well as it being the quickest route home for many of the workers who lived in the houses nearby.
The winter of 1909 had been severe and the worst to hit East Lancashire for over twenty-six years since the last one that had brought neighbouring towns and villages to an entire standstill, and by March – Charles Lane had become almost impassable for horse drawn carts which struggled due to the steep incline when approaching the center of Haslingden.
The icy conditions along with a decent amount of snow had, throughout the day, brought dozens of local residents to the area who were all eager to enjoy the inclement weather.
It was a cold evening as both James and Havelock began their walk home. The gas lamps flickered in the evening air, and whilst not the brightest, they still managed to give off enough light to aid those brave enough to ascend the lane in such dire conditions.
Charles Lane was still a hive of activity, with a reported fifty to sixty people still using the lane as the ideal coasting area for their sleighs and amongst all those using the lane were fourteen-year-old, Thomas Edwin Pickup and his friend, fifteen year-old Robinson Sagar.
It was around 7.40pm by the time they had made their way back up towards Peel Street, the highest point that joined onto Charles Lane and after adjusting his sleigh, Thomas placed himself towards the front whilst Robinson sat behind him. With both boys ready, Thomas began to countdown; “three, two, one…”
The trip down Charles Lane would only take a minute or so, with the sleigh picking up speed from the off. Charles Lane, has already been mentioned, has an incline that becomes steeper towards Haslingden and it was at this point, Thomas and Robinson would begin their descent.
Making their way down the lane, whizzing past children and adults alike, they both laughed at the exhilarating speed they were most likely encountering.
Unfortunately, their fun would soon turn into tragedy.
As they approached the end of Charles Lane and at point where the lane begins to bend to the right, Thomas noticed two men coming up in the opposite direction.
Shouting at the men to get out of the way, Thomas’s screams would ultimately prove futile as the sleigh he and Robinson were travelling on would collide with James Robert’s, throwing him into the air before crashing down, landing head first onto the icy ground behind the boys who by now had travelled a further twenty to thirty yards away.
Havelock Bond, who had seen the boys coming towards them managed to jump to safety, shouted over to James; “Hey up, Jim!” but the sleigh was within a few feet of James by the time he could react.
James Edward Berry, who was also a hard waste breaker at Spring Vale Mill and who had seen the collision quickly made his way over to where James Roberts was now lying unconscious on the ground. Several other people who had seen what had occurred also made their way over to offer their assistance and after a few minutes of deliberating on what to do, Havelock Bond and James Berry, between them both, would manage to carry James into an adjoining house nearby and after attending to the injuries on his legs and head, they would then carry him to his home which was situated only a few minutes’ walk over on Prospect Hill.
They arrived at James house at around eight o’clock, around fifteen minutes after the accident, and after making him comfortable, doctor Stewart would be called for.
For the next twenty-four hours, James Roberts would remain in a critical condition and on Friday, 5th March and just before seven o-clock that morning, he would sadly pass away from his injuries. He had never regained consciousness.
The inquest into the death of James Roberts took place on Monday, 8th March at the Haslingden Court House with Mr. J. L. Whitaker representing James’ wife, Alice and Mr. A. K. Whitaker representing young Thomas Edwin Pickup.
Alice would tell the court that James was a steady man and had always enjoyed good health. He had left home at around 1.15pm on the Wednesday afternoon for work at nearby Spring Vale Mill where he was employed as hard waste breaker.
The next time she would see her husband would be at around eight o’clock that same evening, after the collision with the two boys on Charles Lane. He was unconscious when brought home.
Havelock Bond would be next to speak to the court and he would tell of how James was walking on the left hand side and around three yards from the wall.
He recalled seeing both Thomas and Robinson fast approaching and when they had reached the bend at the lane, the sleigh caught James’ legs, knocking them from underneath him.
Havelock told the court that whilst he had time to jump out of the way, James had no such time, despite his attempts to warn him.
When asked if remembered hearing any shouts from either of the boys, Havelock replied, saying he did not hear anyone shout or give any warnings.
Mr. J. L. Whitaker would describe the scene of where James was knocked over, saying; “The part of the road in which deceased was struck was 20 yards this side of the bridge, on practically level ground. The bend to which he had referred was practically a quarter of a circle. They were at the back part of the circle. They had not got to Carr and Parker’s mill, nor even to the houses. They were about 20 yards below the lowest houses. Witness would say it was dangerous to sleigh down a road of this sort at any rate of speed. It was impossible for those on a sleigh to see who might be coming up the road.”
Mr. A. K. Whitaker then asked Havelock if perhaps James was oblivious to the impeding danger due to maybe lighting a pipe, to which Havelock replied, saying he had already lit up two minutes before then and they were ‘going on’ up the lane.
James Edward Berry, one of the first witnesses to offer help to stricken James would tell the court that the sleigh was about three yards from the wall on the right hand side of the road. It came down at tremendous speed and after passing him, he remembers turning around by which time James was lying on the ground.
Berry would also back up what Havelock had said in that he could not recall any of the boys shout or give any warnings as the sleigh was approaching.
Thomas Edwin Pickup would next be called up.
The Deputy-Coroner, addressing him, said he must warn him that if the jury decided to commit him on a charge of manslaughter any evidence he might give that day could be produced against him on his trial. He was not bound to give evidence and after this warning, he asked Thomas if he was still willing to give evidence.
Thomas replied with a simple; “Yes.”
He would go on to tell the court that he was fourteen years old and resided as 101 Grane Road.
Thomas would also give his recollection of events, saying that both he and Robinson Sager had been sleighing down Charles Lane on a sleigh which had belonged to Thomas and that on the evening of the tragedy, he had seen James in the road, about three yards from the wall. Shouting at him to move out of the way, both boys were around ten yards away when Thomas first shouted.
James apparently then seemed to get out of the way but as they were about to pass him, he seemed to step back into their track.
Surprised by this, the Deputy-Coroner asked; “Do you think he heard you?” to which Thomas replied, “It appeared so. He moved, and the other man with him too. The sleigh seemed to strike one of the deceased’s legs, and deceased was thrown right over our heads. The sleigh went on for ten yards or so and then stopped. They (other people) had been coming down the hill very fast, but they slackened down as they came round the corner. There were 50 to 60 of them sleighing and sliding in the road.”
Mr. J. L. Whitaker then asked; “If you were going at ten miles an hour and you shouted when within ten yards of the deceased, he would have only 15 seconds to step out of the way. There was not time for all this to happen as you say?”
“We were not going so fast.” Thomas replied.
Picking up on what Tomas has already told the court, Mr. J. L. Whitaker then asked; “Do you want the jury to believe that the man got out of the way and then stepped back? What do you do when the policeman comes?”
Unsure as to what this last question meant, Thomas replied as would many, normal teenagers at the time would probably say; “I generally run!”
“Then you know perfectly well you were doing what you ought not to have done?”
“Yes.” Thomas then replied.
Happy with this answer, Mr. J. L. Whitaker replied; “And as a result, this unfortunate man has met with his death.”
In a reply to a juror, Thomas said he could have stopped the sleigh as soon as they saw James in the road, but as he had got out of the way, they carried on.
Quick to pick up on this, Mr. J. L. Whitaker asked; “You have heard the evidence of the two men who say that after you had knocked this unfortunate man down, your sleigh continued to run 20 or 30 yards, and yet you tell the jury that you could have stopped it instantly?”
“You want the jury to believe that?”
Sheepishly, Thomas replied; “Yes.”
“Why didn’t you stop it then?” a juror then asked.
“We did stop it when we had gone a little way.”
Superintendent McLean, who was attending court then asked Thomas; “What means have you of stopping a sleigh?”
“We put our feet in the ground.” Thomas replied.
The Deputy-Coroner again asked; “You were near the turn?”
“Oh, we were 15 yards from the turn. We could see from the top of the hill to the bottom and we saw the deceased when we approached the corner. We could see him from over the top of the wall forming the bend when we were higher up the hill. We both shouted and whistled to the deceased and the others.”
In reply to a question already answered by Havelock Bond and James Edward Berry on whether they heard any shouts or warnings by either of the two boys, Thomas said they must be mistaken.
A juror then asked; “Were there not more boys shouting at the same time?” to which Thomas replied; “There were some boys behind me, and they shouted too.”
Robinson Sagar would be next to be questioned, but as he was not legally represented and his father was not present, the Deputy-Coroner asked that someone should advise him.
Robinson backed up what his friend, Thomas, had already told the court – in that Thomas had shouted out when they were about six yards away from James.
Robinson himself, who was travelling at the back, told the court he could not see as far as Thomas, but after Thomas had shouted, Robinson recalled seeing James coming into the middle of the road and seemingly straight in front of the sleigh.
He told the court that if James had not stepped in front, then they would have passed by him safely.
Robinson would also admit to the court that he knew it was wrong to sleigh on this lane and that both himself and Thomas had only just arrived at the lane, only ten minutes before the accident had taken place.
Mr. J. L. Whitaker then asked him; “Do you agree with Pickup that you could stop the sleigh instantly?”
“I don’t know about that.” replied Robinson.
Superintendent McLean questioned Robinson, asking him; “What means have you of turning a sleigh going at any rate of speed?”
“I don’t know. There is only a piece of string in front.” was his reply.
After all evidence had been given, the Coroner, addressing the jury, said he should place more reliance on the men Bond and Berry than upon the boys as to whether any warning was given. In the time which they had, he did not think the Thomas and Robinson could possibly give any warning.
He would also remind the jury that it was illegal to sleigh on the highway and it was dangerous to sleigh on inclines. This man (James Roberts) had lost his life from sleighing, and it entirely depended upon the view of the jury as to whether they should return a verdict of manslaughter against the boys or not. If they considered it merely a case of misadventure, nothing more would be heard about the matter.
After a short deliberation, the jury would return a verdict that James Roberts met his death by misadventure.
The Foreman said that they desired the Deputy-Coroner to talk to the boys severely, so that they and others might take warning against sleighing or sliding. They also desired the Deputy Coroner to request the Corporation to throw ashes on this and other roads in winter weather; in as much as several mishaps occurred in Charles Lane, and the road was difficult to people going to work in the early morning.
James Roberts would be interred within the grounds of Haslingden’s St. James’ Church on Tuesday, 9th March. He was just fifty years old and left behind not only his wife, Alice but also that of his three children – Herbert, Annie and Edith.
The people of Haslingden and neighbouring villages would all come together to raise funds, set up by the Haslingden Wheelers Club, to help his family during their time of need, with many workers from most, if not all of the mills in the vicinity all donating what they could afford at the time.
Mr. Thomas Baxendale, Secretary would list details of those individuals as well as mills and factories that had kindly donated to the cause and in total, a grand sum of £71 19s was collected. Around £8,642 in today’s value. This value was reported in some publications to be much higher, around the £100 mark, which would equate to around £12,172 today.
As for lessons learned; it seems that with the combined efforts of the police and that of the parents of the children, tobogganing had practically disappeared from the roads within days of the death of James Roberts.
The press later reported on Saturday, 13th March, that parents should remember the tragic events that had sadly occurred on March 3rd, that when snow again falls in the future, they should influence their children into the rights or wrongs when indulging in what may look like seemingly harmless fun. But it also brought into question the actions of the parents themselves, stating the obvious – that a toboggan is not the kind of thing a child can come into possession quite easily and without the knowledge of his or her parents.
The death of James Roberts would also prove to be a pivotal turning point in how roads and public pathways would be treated during frosty periods throughout the year, not only on Charles Lane but also in the villages and towns within the same districts. Reminding the Corporation of the Foreman’s recommendation that sand or ashes to be used without question.
“They may have had reason for in the past being less generous with sand at such times than are other boroughs of similar importance, but they cannot continue their economy of the past without knowing that to do so is to give encouragement to things inseparable from danger. Let there be a full realisation of all that is involved.”
Sources used in this story;
Bradford Observer – Thursday 28 January 1937
Daily Mirror – Thursday 28 January 1937
Lancashire Evening Post – Friday 29 January 1937
Yorkshire Evening Post – Wednesday 27 January 1937
Nelson Leader – Friday 05 February 1937
Special mention to Jackie Ramsbottom for allowing the use of the two old photographs of Charles Lane. Please visit the website https://haslingdens.blogspot.com/ for more information on the town of Haslingden!
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