Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Death on the Highway, 1914 - the Melesi Mausoleum, St Pancras & Islington Cemetery

Never completely trust anything you read on the internet, however unimpeachable the source might seem. The Mausolea & Monuments Trust website told me that this Mausoleum had been built by Gaetano Melesi in 1913 after his wife Letizia had been run over by a taxicab in “the first motor accident”. Other sources informed me that the accident had happened in Holborn. Unusually Gaetano decided that his wife’s funerary monument should memorialise the manner in which she had died. The artist responsible for the marble relief on the panel to the left of the door seems to have not had even a basic grasp of narrative sequence as it shows Letizia already prostrate on the floor behind her dropped handbag with the taxi that has presumably just knocked her down still approaching from the rear, its helmeted and goggled driver, open mouthed and hunched over the steering wheel,  waving his left  arm frantically in a futile attempt to ward off an accident that has already happened. A benign angel hovers over the scene waiting to accompany Letizia to heaven. We see her ascent to paradise in the panel on the right side of the door where Gaetano kneels in prayer in front  of a representation of the mausoleum itself (which must mean, that if you look at the right hand panel on the representation of the Mausoleum, you will see replicated in miniature, the same panel, with Gaetano kneeling in front of the mausoleum, in which the right hand panel will replicate, even more minutely, Gaetano kneeling in front of the mausoleum in which the right hand panel….. and so on, ad infinitum, in an infinite regression).     

The ur-motor accident should have been noteworthy enough to make the newspapers I thought. A quick search of an online archive soon dispelled the notion that there was anything original about Letizia Melesi’s accident. Road traffic accidents involving pedestrians were, as we shall see, a relatively common occurrence from the early years of the twentieth century. The first pedestrian killed in the UK by a petrol driven motor vehicle was 44 year old Bridget Driscoll, who was knocked down visiting the Crystal Palace in Sydenham in August 1896. Although there was some dispute concerning the speed at which the car which killed Bridget was travelling, the engine had been modified to stop it exceeding a top speed of 8mph. The driver claimed to have been travelling at half that. Just a few weeks before this first fatal accident the law had been changed allowing cars to travel at a maximum 14mph; previously the upper speed limit had been 4 mph in the country and 2mph in urban areas. The new speed limit ushered in the age of motorised carnage that we live in today.

The only fatal accident in Holborn in 1913 involving a pedestrian and a taxi that I could find in the newspapers occurred on Monday 14 July. According to the Pall Mall Gazette  ‘William Edward Minty, thirty-six, a taxi cab driver, of Camden-street, Islington, was charged at Bow-street with the manslaughter of an elderly woman named Fanny Braider, a barrister’s laundress, living at Theobalds -road, Holborn.’  The cab had been driven into a hand cart being pushed along the road by Alfred Waring, a porter of White Cross Place, Finsbury. Waring was sent flying and the handcart was knocked onto the pavement where it fell on Fanny Braider. According to Waring immediately before the collision Minty had been driving with his “head hanging over the steering wheel, as though he were asleep.” The cab driver took Waring and Fanny Braider to the London Homeopathic Hospital but the elderly woman later died of her injuries. My searches revealed no trace of an accident involving anyone called Melesi in 1913, or even 1914, which is actually the year, according to the inscription on the mausoleum, that Letizia died. The only reference I found to Letizia in the newspapers was a notice of her marriage to Gaetano in the Cork Examiner of Thursday 02 May 1901;

Melesi – Sessarego  April 27th, at St. Colman’s Cathedral, Queenstown, by the Rev M' Higgins, PP Castletownroche, Gaetano Melesi, of Ballabio, Lecco, Italy, to Letizia (Lettie), third daughter of Joseph  Sessarego,  Queenstown.

An article in the Winter 2013 edition of Mausolus (the Mausolea & Monuments Trust’s magazine) gives more accurate details of the mausoleum than the Trust’s main website. We learn for example that it was actually built in 1922, that Letizia died on 11 January 1914 and it makes no claim to her fatal accident being the first motor related death. While there are no contemporary accounts of Letizia’s accident the article gives a family version from Angela King, passed down from Helena Sessarego who was Letizia’s sister and Angela’s grandmother. Angela says the two sisters were very close and that Helena was the matchmaker responsible for Letizia’s marriage to Gaetano.  “A few days before Letizia's death they visited a fortune teller,” Angela writes, “the woman refused to tell Letizia's fortune and insisted on refunding her fee. Both my great aunt and my grandmother had thought this very amusing. Later that week, they both went to confession. As they came out of church, Letizia said goodbye to Helena, turned and fell and was run over by the taxi. My mother said Letizia had a magnificent funeral with black horses wearing white plumes and a black carriage with a mass of wreaths on top. I think looking at the mausoleum it was believed that she went straight to heaven. She appears to be borne aloft by angels. As she'd just been to confession she would be in a state of grace and free from sin.”

Depictions of motor accidents are unusual enough to have earned the Melesi Mausoleum Grade II listed status but fatal accidents involving pedestrians were already sickeningly common in 1914. On Saturday 24 October the Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette opened an account of an accident on Bath Road; “the ugly dangers of motor traffic were again experienced near Colnbrook on Sunday afternoon. About 4.30 a gentleman and lady were walking on the side of the road near the 18th mile stone, where there is no footpath, when two motor cars came along behind them, and the hindermost, in attempting to pass the other, ran into the gentleman. The mudguard of the car appears to have twisted him round suddenly and his head was evidently struck violently by a portion of the car, whereby a gash of three inches was made across the forehead and a depressed fracture of the frontal bone. Fortunately, Silas Birch, of Pleasant Place, Langley, was near by and able to render first aid.”  The fortunate intervention of Silas Birch seems not to have been of any long term benefit to the the injured gentleman; he was taken to the King Edward VII Hospital in Windsor where he “passed away early on Tuesday morning”.  

It was the young and the elderly that seemed to have most trouble dealing with the dangers posed by the new fangled motor car as it roared around the streets of London at 10mph. As in Letizia’s case, taxis were often the culprit. On 06 February,  52 year old Emma Ellen Sayers, wife of Captain Robert Sayers of 91 Palewell Park, East Sheen, was killed changing omnibuses on Hammersmith Broadway when struck down by a passing lorry.  Ten days later 5 year old Richard Berry was knocked down and killed by a taxi cab as he crossed Tottenham High Road.  8 year old John Thomas Kempton of 16 Mardale Street, Shepherds Bush was killed on the afternoon of Saturday 28 March, by a car travelling at 9 or 10 miles an hour on Goldhawk Road as he raced across the street to spend a halfpenny his mother had given him to buy sweets.  On 09 April 9 year old Charles Thomas Deade of 3 Bennett Street, Chiswick was run over by a van belonging to Steinway Pianos in front of the Police Station on Chiswick High Road. According to witnesses the van ‘passed right over his head’.  A month later an unknown woman of around 70 was knocked down by a taxi cab on Chiswick Road fracturing her skull and later died of her injuries. 48 year old Martha Baker of 10 Woodlawn Road, Fulham, was knocked down by a taxicab on 10 September  at 11.15 at night in King Street Hammersmith. She was taken to hospital and treated for scalp injuries before being discharged home where she died the following Tuesday.  On 20 October 14 year old butchers boy Leonard Pryke was knocked off his bicycle and under the wheels of a LGO omnibus on the London Road, Norbury, by a car driven by an unnamed lady. He was taken to Croydon General Hospital  where he was found to have sustained a fractured left humerus, bruised chest, fractured ribs on the left side, and concussion of the brain. He died soon after five o'clock the same day.

The most unlikely accident of 1914 happened on 29 June on Holborn Viaduct. 23 year old Doris Emily Hawkes was hurrying across the viaduct when she found her way obstructed by a large crowd of concerned onlookers which had gathered around a small boy who had just been knocked down by a car. The boy’s injuries were thankfully not fatal. Doris quite naturally paused at the edge of the crowd to see what was happening and perhaps failed to notice that she was standing in the roadway.  As she craned to see over the heads in front of her she would not have been aware that Dr Langdon Brown of Welbeck Street was being driven at a reckless speed of 12 miles per hour by his chauffeur along the viaduct on his way to his job as a consultant in St Bartholomew’s Hospital. The chauffeur may well have been distracted by the sight of the crowd but he certainly did not see Doris;  surely he would not have run her over if he had? After driving over the hapless girl Dr Langdon Brown ordered his chauffeur to stop and put her in the back seat. They were already on their way to hospital after all. For some reason he refused to accept responsibility for the small boy mown down earlier by another vehicle Alas urgent medical attention failed to save her life and Doris died of her injuries the same day.    

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