Sometimes even those discoveries from recent times yield stories of intrigue and
fascination and record events and occurrences that remind us how times
and social attitudes have evolved – in some cases through much needed
legislation. One such story of note from not so long ago relates to the death of Jacob
Woolley in a road traffic accident in Pontefract on the 22nd May 1934.
In the context of genealogy seventy years past is hardly something to
arouse a sense of exhilaration but such events as occurred on that day
defined some of the changes and reforms effected over the last seven
decades which now appear more distant in our minds than in reality they
Ironically, the year 1934 saw the introduction of a Road Traffic Act which, from the
1st June 1935, introduced compulsory driving tests for all drivers who
started driving on or after 1st April 1934. The Act was introduced in a
year when 7,343 people lost their lives as a result of a road traffic
accident with only 2,500,000 vehicles on Great Britain’s roads.
To put this in perspective it is interesting to note that in the year 2003
some 3,508 people were killed on Britain's roads, less than half the
number of fatalities as in 1934, with in excess of 30 million vehicles
on the roads by that time. In the first year that driving tests were
made compulsory the number of deaths on our roads fell by 900.
In 1934 there was no legislation prohibiting people from driving while
under the influence of alcohol. Only as recently as 1967 did a Road
Traffic Act enforce a major piece of drink/drive legislation which set
the 80mg/100ml limit and introduced the breathalyser.
The following account of the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of
Jacob Woolley is reproduced from a newspaper report of a court case
which featured in the Pontefract & Castleford Express in July 1934
and was submitted to me by Colin and Tracy Halkyard.
ASSIZE SEQUEL TO CUTSYKE MAN’S DEATH
COL. TETLEY’S EVIDENCE
JUDGES REASON FOR LENIENT SENTENCE
Jacob Woolley was 37 years old and returning home on his bicycle at the end of
his first day’s work as a roadman after a long spell of unemployment.
Married with three children, he and his wife Rose lived in Ramsden
Street, Cutsyke. He was cycling through Tanshelf towards Glasshoughton
at 5.10pm on Tuesday 22nd May 1934 when a car being driven from
Glasshoughton towards Pontefract swerved first to the left and then to
the right before colliding with Woolley’s bicycle. Jacob Woolley, who
had been well on his proper side of the road and travelling at a
reasonable speed, was flung high in the air and fell on the road at the
other side, the bicycle being carried for some distance by the car.
Evidence given before Pontefract Borough Magistrates showed that the car
travelled on at a fast speed and did not stop until it reached the
Premier Picture House some 100 yards away from the point of impact. A
witness told the Bench that the driver of the car did not get out but
reversed his vehicle towards the scene of the accident.
A witness got into the car to show the accused where Dr. Hessel lived in
Halfpenny Lane, and on returning, although the car could have been
turned round, the accused reversed it all the way down Halfpenny Lane.
The car mounted the footpath at one point and, still in reverse gear,
hit a wall at the opposite side of Halfpenny Lane and after leaving the
lane was still kept in reverse gear towards Tanshelf Station. Other
evidence was to the effect that the accused was unsteady on his feet and
when asked for an explanation of the accident he replied "I don’t
remember". Later when charged he stated "I have had a few
drinks – it looks like my fault."
Dr. Hessel, upon examining the accused, formed the opinion that he was under
the influence of drink and unfit to drive a car.
Jacob Woolley was taken to Pontefract General Infirmary where he died the
following morning from his injuries.
ACCUSED’S ACCOUNT OF THE TRAGEDY
The accused in evidence said he had visited a number of public houses
accompanied by a beer tester. At each place they refined beer and as a
result of the operation, which caused the beer to effervesce, he got a
shower bath and his clothes smelled of beer. Up to lunchtime he had had
four half-pints of beer but nothing to drink after that time.
He stated he was driving on the crown of the road when Woolley approached
on his proper side. He was riding with his head down, but when he was
about eight or nine feet away he lifted his head, appeared startled, and
swerved in front of the car. The accused said he swerved to his right in
an attempt to miss the cyclist.
A Castleford licensee, Mrs E. Fowler, was asked by the Judge if the beer
was ever tested by taste and she replied that they just tasted it and
then spit it out.
Hubert S. O’Hara, a cellar inspector employed by Joshua Tetley & Son
Ltd., who was with the accused on the day of the accident was asked by
the Judge if the firm permitted their drivers going from public house to
public house to have a drink at them and he answered "I don’t
suppose they do my Lord." He said he did not know if there was any
rule forbidding them to drink.
The accused was found guilty of manslaughter but the Judge said he wanted to
know whether a man in that position was allowed by his employers to take
intoxicating liquor when he was discharging his duties for them. It made
a great deal of difference with regard to the prisoner. If his employers
allowed him to take a drink when he was driving from one to another of
their public houses, the blame seemed to him to be considerably
lessened. He believed the evidence showed conclusively that the accused
was under the influence of drink at the time of the accident but
postponed sentence until some responsible person from the brewery could
When the court later reconvened, Colonel C. H. Tetley, Chairman of the
Company, was questioned by the Judge as to whether their employees on
duty were allowed to take intoxicating liquor, and he said the Company
had no rule against it but left it to the men’s good sense. Until this
case their trust had never been misplaced.
The Judge said that in the circumstances there was a danger to the public at
large, for whom some protection must be provided, and asked "So far
as this man is concerned, he was doing nothing contrary to orders?"
Colonel Tetley replied "Nothing whatsoever Sir."
The Judge then asked "Was the inspector at liberty to allow him to
drive although he was under the influence of drink?"
Colonel Tetley replied "He ought not to have done that."
"It does not seem right," continued the Judge, "that a man going
from public house to public house and exposed to temptations, should be
allowed to take drink. This is the first occasion this has happened in
the experience of your Company, but it is very lamentable."
Passing sentence on the accused his Lordship said, "I am entitled to take
into consideration the fact that this is your first offence and also the
fact that your employers, on whose business you were engaged when you
were driving the car, had not thought it necessary to make any rule
forbidding you to take drink during your working hours. In my view such
a regulation is imperatively required."
Those who take the responsibility of allowing a man to drive from public house
to public house, and trust to their good sense in this matter, are
incurring a very dangerous responsibility. But since you were not
prohibited from taking drink and since your superior officer who was
with you did not prohibit you from continuing to drive, blame for this
mans death morally lies at his door also. I think I can deal with your
case with more leniency than otherwise would be the case."
The accused was sentenced to eight months imprisonment and had his driving
licence suspended for five years.