A succinct guide to Britain’s first recorded fatal car accident

Matt Press

It turns out that I was born and brought up right by Britain’s first fatal car accident. Quite the grisly and macabre claim, I guess. But as a car enthusiast, it’s always something that piqued my interest.
So, with that in mind, here’s a quick guide to the incident, which happened in Harrow, North London, over 120 years ago.
Way back on the 25th February 1899, 31-year-old Edwin R Sewell was travelling from Whitehall to Harrow in a 6HP Daimler, a vehicle from the same line of cars used by a number of royal families across Europe.
Now, the Daimler was a wagonette motor vehicle and not the most sturdy of cars. Basically, it was like a fairly luxurious car – a typical horse-pulled carriage. And whilst expensive, nonetheless it was not very flexible in terms of handling due to the huge wheels.
Anyway, joining Sewell on the journey was a department head for the Army and Navy stores, a 63-year-old man called Major James Stanley Richer. Major Richer was interested in buying the car for the company he worked for, so the pair were effectively testing it out and heading to Harrow for a spot of lunch. Two other unknown passengers were in the back.
After eating at the King’s Head pub, Major Richer wanted to test the breaks of the Daimler on the downward slope of Grove Hill. Sewell, keen to sell the car and presumably confident in its ability, reached a reported speed of 20mph (pretty quick for the time) before tragedy struck.
The Daimler reached a corner in the road and when Sewell hit the brakes, a rear wheel collapsed and the car crashed into a wall. Without seatbelts, all four passengers were thrown violently from the car.
Mr Sewell died instantly, while Major Richer suffered a fractured skill and died three days later in hospital. The two passengers in the back only suffered minor injuries and survived.
Some people say that there was, in fact, another fatal car accident a whole year earlier in Crystal Palace, but there is very little proof of this incident. Plus, even if the Harrow crash wasn’t the very first fatal car accident, it’s certainly one of the first. And it’s definitely the first to cause two fatalities.
It’s easy to forget that, at the time, it was an extremely high-profile incident. Nowadays, road safety is paramount, from awareness campaigns through to car technology. But in those days, accidents were few and far between.
Interestingly, a plaque to commemorate the incident was unveiled in 1960 at the corner and wall where the Daimler crashed, some 70 years after the accident by the Mayor of Harrow at the time (Alderman Charles Stenhouse).
Ironically, the plaque has the headline ‘Take Heed’, yet it’s placed on a wall by a very tight corner and in a very obvious, prominent position, thus proving to be a really distracting piece of memorabilia for curious drivers.
Take heed, indeed. If you’re ever in the area, it might be best to check this piece of motorcar history out by foot.
Matt Press is a copywriter who has written words for some of the UK’s biggest brands, such as Sky, Three and Vodafone. He’s also a car nut with a driving school that delivers intensive driving courses.

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