Title - A Fatal Motorcycle Accident

Three men, all of whom had served in the army during the Great War, were killed in an horrific road accident near Eccleston, Lancashire, in the early evening of Sunday, 7th September 1924.

At 3pm that afternoon, William Rawlinson left his home in Croston with two companions, Thomas Bullen and Harry Whittle, ostensibly for a visit to a pigeon loft six miles away in Wrightington. The three men all mounted Rawlinson's motorcycle, a 1924 Triumph of four-horse-power capable of reaching a speed of 50mph. The deputy coroner, 42-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Harold Parker D.S.O., would later say that it "was absolutely a ridiculous way of riding a motor cycle" as "control of the machine was impossible, as the body [of the driver] was right between the handle bars."

Rawlinson was a 29-year-old joiner who had enlisted into the King's Own Scottish Borderers in 1915, and became a sergeant instructor in the Army Gymnastic Staff. Thomas Bullen, a 29-year-old horse-driver, and Harry Whittle, a 34-year-old tailor, had both enlisted into the Chorley company of the Accrington Pals in September 1914, and both had been wounded on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. All three men were married, each with one child.

From the time the three men left Rawlinson's home in Croston, nothing further is known of their movements until 7.30pm when they were seen to be somewhat under the influence of drink in the Original Seven Stars, a farm three-quarters of a mile north of Standish village on the road to Eccleston that also ran a beerhouse. Patrick Smith, a dealer in antiques who helped out in the beerhouse, would later testify that he refused to serve the men more drink as they had had enough. The licensee, Andrew Clark, recalled that he had advised Rawlinson, who was a friend of his, to leave the motorcycle behind and take a charabanc home. The advice was ignored and the three men left on the motorcycle at about 8.05pm, twenty minutes after sunset.

Charabanc, early 1920s Triumph 550cc SD 1924

Above: Charabanc excursion in the early 1920s, with kind permission from the Collection of Brett Payne. Above: Triumph 550cc SD 1924, with kind permission of Peter Imrik.

Two hours before the three men left the Original Seven Stars, a 23-seater charabanc driven by Harold Fairhurst, and filled with passengers, left Wigan on a circular tour. At about 8.15pm, the charabanc had passed through Eccleston and was travelling slowly along Langton Brow when Fairhurst was shocked to see a motorcycle travelling towards him at high speed from the direction of Heskin. The motorcycle - exiting the slight left bend at Heskin Bridge on the wrong side of the road - was being driven by Rawlinson, sitting on the petrol tank, with Bullen on the seat behind, and Whittle riding on the pillion. Fairhurst immediately applied the brakes, bringing the charabanc to a stop on the correct side of the road outside of Sydbrook Farm. It was to no avail. Maud Gaskell, a passenger sat alongside Fairhurst in the charabanc, would later describe how the motorcycle approached "like a whirlwind" and made straight for the charabanc as if the driver had lost his head.

The motorcycle struck the charabanc head-on, the force of the collision smashing it into pieces. Rawlinson was killed instantly, his body ending up beneath the charabanc. Bullen and Whittle were both flung some distance across the road; although both were said to be just breathing immediately after the accident, both died within minutes.

Right: Looking towards Heskin Bridge from the scene of the accident on Langton Brow.

Scene of the accident

Harry and Wilhelmina Whittle Police officers called to the scene of the accident quickly ascertained that Fairhurst was in no way to blame: he was quite sober, and the charabanc was standing close to the hedge on the near side of the road. Acting-Inspector Gaskell had the bodies removed to the Brown Cow Inn at Eccleston where he and Harold Sames, a general practitioner from Croston, examined the corpses. Among other injuries, Rawlinson had the base of his skull fractured, Bullen had a fractured spine, and Whittle had internal damage."

Left: Harry and Wilhelmina Whittle, taken post-war. Photograph courtesy of John Garwood.

At the inquest that was held two days later, on the evening of 9th September, a verdict of accidental death was recorded for each of Rawlinson, Bullen and Whittle. The deputy coroner, Harold Parker, remarked that "The poor fellows are dead now, but nobody is to blame at all for what has happened. They have paid a rather big penalty."

Footnote: Little seems to have been said of the role that poor visibility might have played in the accident. Sunset on the evening of 7th September was at 7.47pm, and twilight at 8.23pm. At 8.15pm, when Rawlinson's motorcycle came onto Langton Brow - reportedly with a broken lamp - the road must have been in near darkness (lighting-up time was not until 8.46pm). Fairhurst claimed that at the time of the accident the off side headlight of the charabanc was lit, but it is not clear that this was verified.

© Andrew C Jackson 2020

Compiled from articles in the Lancashire Daily Post of 8th and 10th September 1924.

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