A small treat and a careless driver leads to a tragic accident in Poplar

London was a busy city in the 1800s and, just as it is today, it was full of traffic and people in a hurry. As a consequence of this, accidents happened and fatalities were fairly commonplace. We should also remember that in the nineteenth century medicine was not as advanced as it is today and the emergency services (such as they were) far less effective. Sadly then, traffic accidents often led to death where today lives might be saved.

Every accidental death is a tragedy but the early death of a child is  more upsetting, and more devastating for the parents and those involved.

In May 1852 Mary Ann Merritt and her mother were in a grocer’s shop in Poplar. Mary Ann was three years old and probably as delightful as all three year-olds can be. The grocer’s wife offered her a fig, but her mother intercepted the treat, and told Mary Ann she must give half of it to one of her siblings.

Mrs Merritt divided the fruit in half and gave one part to her little daughter. Excited, Mary Ann ran out of the shop and into the street.

Meanwhile Matthew Gale, a 23 year-old greengrocer from Bromley, was ‘lolling’ in the back of his cart while his vehicle proceeded along the road, guided only a four year-old child he had entrusted the reins to.

As the cart rumbled along the cobbles at a speed of ‘four or five miles an hour’ Mary Ann rushed out to cross the road and the cart with its load of potatoes, collided with the little girl. Mary Ann was ‘knocked down and one of the cart’s wheels ‘passed over the child’s head, and it [sic] died almost immediately’.

Whe Mary Ann’s father, a mechanic, discovered what had happened he quickly found Gale and grabbed him. ‘You vagabond, you have killed my child’, clearly holding him responsible for the accident. Merritt hit the greengrocer and the pair ended up in the Thames Police court on the following Monday, with Gale charged with causing the child’s death.

The magistrate, Mr Yardley, thought that some responsibly did indeed lie with Matthew Gale. The court heard that if ‘the prisoner had been in his proper place, in front of the cart, with the reins in his hand, he could have pulled up and prevented the occurrence’. Drivers, he said, should ‘be more careful in a neighbourhood where children were running about’.

But Mr Yardley also attributed some of the blame to Mary Ann’s mother. She should, he said, ‘have looked more cautiously after her little girl, and prevented it running into danger’. Gale was bailed to await the findings of the coroner’s inquest. He doesn’t appear again so I expect that it was accepted that  this was just an accident. It was avoidable, and the young man would have to live with it, as would Mrs Merritt, her husband and their family.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 11, 1852]

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