This part of the story Steady is based on a real life event. Reproduced below is a report of an inquest into the deaths that occurred as a result of the accident referred to in the story, a van falling into the River Wansbeck. Some of the people involved in this unfortunate accident were friends of the author's older sisters but the story he weaved around it is fictional. For narrative purposes the location has been moved to another bridge across the river, and the day the crash happened has been changed from a Friday to a Saturday, but otherwise the account Rose gives of the accident coincides with the facts. The newspaper article is fascinating not least for the unsensational coverage of the bravery displayed by the constables who came to the rescue and for the casual attitude shown at the time not only by the young men at centre of the incident but by the authorities to the issue of drinking and driving.
From the Ashington & District Advertiser Friday 20 September 1957
(reproduced by permission)
Young driver tells about death plunge
It was revealed at Monday’s inquest on two young men who lost their lives when a motor van crashed through a fence and plunged into the River Wansbeck that one of them – James Edward Douglas (23), of Bywell Road, Ashington – died of heart failure when trapped in the submerged vehicle.
The other victim – Harry Jolley (23), of Tenth Row, Ashington – was drowned, and his body found under a shelf of rock in the river the following day.
William Rickard of Newbiggin Road, driver of the van, and George Lawrence Coutts, of Simonside Terrace, Newbiggin escaped by climbing on to the vehicle as it lay in the river. They were rescued by Constables Joseph Kelly and John Leslie, who were commended by Coroner Hugh Percy for a “brave effort under such difficult conditions.”
Coutts, in evidence, said the party of four arrived in Morpeth at about 8.15 on the Friday night of August 23, and visited three public houses. At the first each had two glasses of cider and two bottles of stout, at the second two half pints of beer, at the third a half pint of beer, a glass of cider, and a bottle of stout.
Dr. J.B. Davison said that both bodies had traces of alcohol in them when a post mortem examination was carried out. Concerning Douglas, the doctor said:
“He had a diseased heart and any shock or severe physical exertion could have killed him at any time.”
“He probably had the disease for some time previously and was unaware of it.”
Coroner Percy said in his summing up: “There is no suggestion that the driver was under the influence of drink in the sense that he was drunk.”
“At the same time it seems to me rather sad to think that youths of this age should, in one and a half hours or thereabouts, have consumed this quantity of drink in three public houses.”
“Of course the laws of this country – although I think personally, unhappily – do not prescribe that cars must not be driven after the consumption of alcohol. How far that exact co-ordination between mind, hand and foot, which is so essential for safe driving, may be impaired by alcohol we do not know,” said the Coroner.
“We must not assume because an accident has occurred that it was due to alcohol,” he added.
A statement made by Rickard on August 24 was read by Sgt. J. Byers. In this he said that he left home about 7.25 p.m. on August 23 to meet Coutts at a Laburnum Terrace, Ashington, cycle shop. “Then” he continued: “Harry Jolly and Jimmy Douglas came along.”
They went to Morpeth, drank in three public houses and then had a supper of chips, peas and egg, at about 10 p.m.
He was driving back to Ashington, with the roads wet, and had just arrived at the series of bends near East Mill when he felt a sensation of skidding. He put on the foot brake but they went through the fence into the Wansbeck.
He got out on to the side of the van.
“I have never had such an amount of drink before when I have driven a van but I was certainly not drunk,” he had said.
Mr. Hedley Proctor, of Hawthorne Cottage, Morpeth, said that he was driving towards Morpeth from Ashington when he saw pieces of wood in the roadway. He stopped to clear them away, and then noticed the van in the river.
It was a very black and showery night: the sort of night when he did not like driving, he said.
To the Rescue
P.C. Kelly found a number of cars parked near the scene of the accident, one of them shining its lights upon the van, which was on its side, 15 feet from the bank. He immediately stripped, and with a rope swam out to it. The river was not in spate but there was heavy rain.
After taking the survivors off the submerged van P.C. Kelly tried to get the body of Douglas out. P.C. Leslie went to his aid. They took the ignition key from the dashboard and opened the rear door to recover the body.
There were 35 feet of railings broken down where the van entered the river, said P.C. Leslie. On the other side of the fence was eight feet of bank and an eight feet drop to the river. The van was five or six yards out into the river.
Mr. Percy said there was very little evidence to go on to satisfy the jury as to the cause of the accident. The driver said he felt a skid and there was a possibility that the van had skidded.
The jury returned the following verdict:
That the deaths occurred in accordance with medical evidence by reason of the car leaving the road, the reason for which is not clear in the evidence.
They added a rider stressing the urgency for this part of the road to be made safer.