In Memory of Henry Lindfield – First Victim of the Motor Car

Last year saw the centenary of what is probably one of the more unusual Lin(d)field anniversaries, when Henry Lindfield of Brighton became the very first motorist to die from the injuries he received in Britain’s first fatal car crash. Accompanied by his 18 year old son, Henry’s car smashed into a tree at Russell Hill Road in Purley, Surrey. He was rushed to Croydon General Hospital, but died the following day.

All the main details of the accident, which happened on February 12 1898, were reported in the ‘Evening Argus’ of Brighton, where Henry had his home. As usual for this period, the article was particularly thorough:

"A sad fatal accident occurred on Saturday to Mr. Lindfield, a gentleman, of 42, Montpelier-street, Brighton. Mr. Lindfield, accompanied by his son, Mr. Bernard Lindfield, a young man of 18 or 19 years of age, was driving a motor car from London to Brighton. They had passed through Croydon, and at about two o’clock were descending a long hill, the machine running of its own impetus.

About half way down the hill the car began to sway, probably owing to the action of the brake, and at that time the son happened to remark, "I believe the bag has fallen out." Directly afterwards the vehicle became unmanageable, and swerving round on to the path ran through a light fence of barbed wire and struck against a tree with great force. Unfortunately one of Mr. Lindfield’s legs came between the motor car and the tree, the result being that it was completely smashed just below the knee. The son was thrown from the vehicle. He escaped practically unhurt, and finding his father jammed against the tree at once obtained assistance.

Mr. Lindfield was removed to the Croydon Hospital, where his injuries were found to be so serious (the main artery was shattered) that the three surgeons who were in attendance came to the conclusion that the only possibility of saving his life was by amputation of the injured limb. This was done, but after the operation Mr. Lindfield remained unconscious, and yesterday morning at about nine o’clock he died. Mr. Lindfield was able, just after his admittance to the hospital, to converse with his son, and to give him some directions in case he should not survive. The deceased gentleman, who was only 42 years of age, leaves two sons and a daughter to mourn his loss, for whom the greatest sympathy is felt. Mr. Lindfield was well-known and highly esteemed in Brighton, and the news of his untimely death will be received with very great regret by his many friends.The motor car which Mr. Lindfield was driving was a two-seated one, which he had just purchased. He took considerable interest in motor cars, and had on the previous Saturday brought another one, which he had also just purchased for private use, from London to Brighton, but on that occasion, it may be remarked, he was accompanied by an engineer."

The accident was also reported in the ‘Croydon Times’. Henry was apparently a ‘retired builder and contractor’ who lived at Lynton House, 42 Montpelier Street, Brighton. We now know from his birth certificate that he was born in Hampstead, Middlesex on November 21 1855, son of Thomas Lindfield, retired builder and his wife Elizabeth. During the 1870s, Henry married Laura Louisa Isom, and their son Bernard was born on July 3 1879 when they were living at 24 Albert Street. Henry’s occupation on the birth certificate is given as "gentleman". Following in his father’s profession, Henry was obviously doing well for himself; to own a motor car in those early pioneering days of motoring was a sign of wealth.

According to the article above, Henry and Laura had other children, another son and a daughter – certainly there were further births registered in the district of St. Pancras (notably Frances Jane Lindfield, registered in the 2nd quarter of 1881; Mira Edith Lindfield and Stanley Lindfield, registered in the 3rd quarter of 1883; and Sarah Lindfield, registered in the 1st quarter of 1884.)

On the anniversary of the tragic accident, a certain Mr. Porter of the safety group Roadwatch organised a prayer vigil at the spot in Russell Hill Road, at the junction with Purley Way, to "remember the half a million people who have died on Britain’s roads over the last century." A report in the Evening Argus also stated that he was trying to trace any descendants of Henry Lindfield. I have no idea whether he succeeded, but it would be intriguing to know. Assuming there are, do they actually know of their unfortunate ancestor’s untimely end, which has made him such an unenviable statistic? Certainly there are many who would argue that the motor car has, in many ways, been the scourge of the 20th century. Incidentally, although Henry was the first motorist to die in a car accident, he wasn’t the first person to die in a car crash. That dubious honour belongs to Bridget Driscoll, of Croydon, south London, who was knocked down by a car on August 17, 1896. According to a report in ‘The Times’ of August 12 1996, the coroner at the inquest into Mrs. Driscoll’s death "expressed the hope that such a thing would never happen again." (!!)

Although only 42 years of age at the time of his tragic death, Henry was already a widower, having lost his wife in 1893 at the age of 45. The administration of his estate, with a ‘limited’ will, was granted to Percy Benjamin Edward Isom, retired bootmaker, presumably his brother-in-law. The probate value of his estate came to £4230 16s 10d, a fairly substantial sum for the time.

Of course, driving at the turn of the century would have been unimaginably different to anything we take for granted nowadays. Not only were the roads badly made up, but there would have been an incredible amount of mud about, largely produced by the vast numbers of horses conveying the predominantly horse-drawn vehicles of the time. Another consequence was the large number of hobnails from horse shoes causing frequent punctures. And then there were also the practical difficulties involved in driving the cumbersome, heavy machines in these adverse conditions.

The Daily Mail was the only national newspaper to report the story in an article on February 11 1998 entitled "In memory of the man who found the car can be a killer." An interesting fact they managed to discover was that Henry was "agent for one of the newly formed motor companies of the day, International Cars." They also assert that "he was probably worried about whether the vehicle’s batteries would last all the way. Maximum range before recharging tended to be only 25 miles . . . " But going back to a Brighton Herald report of the Inquest (dated February 19 1898), the car "was worked by petroleum ignited by electricity." An engineer had driven them to Hammersmith before Henry took over, no doubt confident there would be few problems, especially as he "had driven the car two or three times" previously. The verdict of "Accidental Death" was returned at the inquest held at Croydon Hospital on February 14.

We may know little about Henry’s descendants, but we do know something about his predecessors. As mentioned before, his parents were Thomas and Elizabeth Lindfield. Thomas married his mother, Elizabeth Chorley on 28 April 1855 at the parish church in Bethnal Green. When Henry was born, they were living at 19, Stanhope Street, Hampstead, St. Pancras. This was his father’s second marriage as he is shown on the marriage certificate as a widower. In 1839, according to the Times of 2 October, "Thomas Lindfield, junior, Stanhope Street, Hampstead Road, builder . . . " was to appear before the Bankrupt’s Court. This suggests that his father was also called Thomas.

From our index of wills and administrations (Linfield and Lindfield Wills and Administrations 1858-1920 from the Calendar of Wills at Somerset House by Alan Lindfield, 1995) we know that Thomas Lindfield died on 27 May 1867, at the age of 75 – presumably Thomas’s (and Henry’s) father. According to the marriage certificate, Thomas’s father was William Lindfield, gentleman; Elizabeth’s father was John Chorley, engineer. A possible match for his parents would be William Lindfield of Patcham, Brighton (born 1764) who married Mary Miles at the parish church of St. Nicholas, Brighton on 23 September 1788.

Incidentally, we have in the Group archives part of an indenture dated 11 February 1825 between William Raddon (of the first part) of Sidmouth Street, Thomas Lindfield (of the second part) of Beaumont Place and Thomas Griffiths of George Place (of the third part).

This indenture is concerned with land in "the parish of St. Pancras in the County of Middlesex fronting west on York Market" and in "the east by an intended Mews." The lease, to William Raddon, was for a period of 98 years land was situated in the the Regent’s Park area. Unfortunately, the missing portion of this document means we only have some of the details.

As something of a footnote to the tragedy surrounding Henry’s untimely end, our former President, Eric Linfield, contacted ‘The Guinness Book of Records’. Unfortunately, their reply was most unhelpful and rather imperious: "this proposal is not currently suitable for publication". I would have thought it more interesting than the record for eating the most baked beans with a cocktail stick, or the person with the longest finger nails in the world! It would seem that the ‘Guinness Book of Records’ is more interested in the bizarre and sensational these days, which is a great pity.

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