The Great Haywood Motor Fatality of 1905

By Jono Oates

Great Haywood is a peaceful, and picturesque, village set in lovely Staffordshire countryside and close to the Shugborough Estate. In 1905 the village was in shock after a tragic motor accident which resulted in two deaths – and reports that that the ghost of one of the victims still wanders the streets around the village today.

In the early 1900s motor cars were still relatively rare, with only 23,000 cars on the roads in 1904, and, due to the low speeds, accidents were rare. One tragic accident occurred in Great Haywood on 9 March 1905 when a car plunged in to the mill pond by the River Trent, throwing two of its passengers in to the water.

The driver of the vehicle was James Roper, a chauffeur, was taking his passengers, Mrs Challinor and her 20-year-old niece Dorothy Notely, from their home at Little Ingestre to Great Haywood. The car, a French-built Gladiator, was new and was owned by Mrs Challinor’s husband who was the Deputy Town Clerk of Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent.

As Roper approached the bridge crossing the River Trent there was a sharp bend and he turned the steering wheel accordingly. He quickly realised that the steering assembly had broken and, despite his best efforts, the car turned towards the bridge wall which was low, and poorly constructed. As the vehicle was about to strike the bridge Roper leapt out of the car, it went straight through the wall, somersaulted, and fell in to the deep waters of the mill pond, with the passengers still trapped in the back street of the car. Roper ran to the nearby mill house and raised the alarm and, returning to the scene, he saw Mrs Challinor in the water and he was able to help her out. There was, however, no sign of her niece. Mrs Challinor explained that she had gone under the water twice and on the second time she heard her niece cry out twice…but she could not see her anywhere in the water. More rescuers arrived and they all searched around the mill looking for Dorothy but to no avail. It soon became apparent that she must have drowned in the mill and, after underwater divers had failed to find her, the Police decided to completely drain the mill pond. Five fire engines, and dozens of volunteers, helped to pump the water out of the pond but all that could be seen in the bottom of the pond basin was a handful of bricks from the bridge – but no body.

A large crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle from the banks of the pond and, as the crowds looked on, another tragedy was to strike the scene. Mrs Henry Payne, of the nearby Haywood Brewery, was watching the pumping taking place when a frightened horse, attached to a furniture van, bolted and knocked her to the ground. The van ran her over and she was kicked by the horse, and was killed instantly.

Three weeks later a village grocer, Reginald Gibbs, was walking along the banks of the Trent to fetch corn from the mill, when he spotted a body in the river, caught in the roots of a tree. Fetching the village policeman, they dragged the body from the river which was then identified as that of Miss Notely.

At the inquest the coroner ruled that the driver, James Roper, has acted as many people would in that circumstance, and that by throwing himself clear ha had managed to raise the alarm and save the life of Mrs Challinor, if not Miss Notely. The fault on the steering gear was found to have been a broken bolt, which was confirmed by a representative of the Gladiator Motor Company, although there was no claim for compensation, the coroner ruling death from accidental drowning. After the inquest the road was straightened and the bridge over the River Trent was rebuilt. Later the mill was demolished and the mill pool permanently drained.

That, however, is not the end of the story as several local people have seen the ghostly figure of a young lady, dressed in Edwardian clothes and carrying a posy of flowers, seen by the nearby Essex Bridge and along the river banks. Is this the ghost of young Dorothy Notely, still trying to find her way out of her watery grave?

The Great Haywood Motor Fatality of 1905 is one of the most tragic, and shocking, accidents in the early years of British motoring history and one that is still remembered in the village over a hundred years later.


The British Newspaper Archive; Staffordshire Past Track website; Liverpool John Moores University Research Online

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