A Hand in Her Own Death?

The stone bridge by Lapford Mill was once perilous and the scene of the village’s first known road fatality in 1848. The bridge’s 1854 replacement had higher parapets and appeared to be much safer. However, when approaching Lapford, the bend onto the bridge was only protected by a low blackthorn hedge. Beyond this was a steep drop to the River Yeo, below.

At the turn of the century young North Tawton doctor named Montagu Cutcliffe had a lucky escape when his horse attempted to jump the low hedge rather than swing with the road onto the bridge. The horse and its rider mounted the hedge and narrowly avoided plummeting to the river. At the time it was regarded as a freak accident and no improvements were made, but history would soon repeat itself.

At 6.30pm on Monday, 10 May 1909, Hugh Densham was driving his mother, Ellen, in a dog-cart from their home at Bury Barton. They were due to attend a meeting at the Congregational Church. As they descended the incline towards the bridge, their young horse became restless and started to bolt. The horse approached the turn onto the bridge with speed and attempted to jump the low hedge, just as the doctor’s horse had done a few years before. Mrs Densham was thrown over the horse’s head towards the river-bed below, a distance of 30 feet. The horse and dog-cart were left suspended on the hedge. Hugh found his mother lying unconscious on her face next to the river. She had received a bad blow over her eye.

Ernest Barter, a retired draper, witnessed the horse running away. He immediately left his home at Barris Gate and descended Mill Hill. He was one of the first at the scene, joined by Mary Radford, of Lowerfield, and Edward Wickham, the curate of Lapford (probably lodging at Lowerfield). Help also came from nearby railway workers who carefully stretchered Mrs Densham up the steep bank and back to her home at Bury Barton half a mile away. Dr Davies of Morchard Bishop was telegraphed and arrived with haste, but little could be done. Mrs Densham died at 9.45pm that evening without ever recovering consciousness.

This hand coloured picture shows the metalled road declining from Lapford Cross towards Lapford Mill bridge. The low blackthorn hedge is in the centre of the picture on the right hand side of the road. Mrs Densham fell over the hedge just before it meets the bridge.
Roger “Hugh” Densham

At the inquest into his mother’s death, Hugh Densham said he had had perfect control of the horse after it became restless, but that his 64-year old mother became frightened and seized his arm holding the left reign. Some reports of the inquest state that Mrs Densham managed to take hold of the reign herself. According to Hugh, her action caused the reign to snap and the horse could no longer be controlled as it careered at speed towards the bridge.

Differing reports of the inquest indicate that Hugh either fell off the cart onto the blackthorn hedge to the right, or that he jumped. The inquest returned a verdict of “Accidental Death”.

Inquests were often rapidly arranged affairs, and were not necessarily detailed nor fully independent. In this particular case, the inquest took place two days after the accident at the Densham’s Bury Barton home. Although the purpose of the inquest was to assure that Hugh’s driving had not played a part in the incident, and that that his mother’s death was entirely accidental, Hugh was the only person to give an account of events leading to the accident.

There was a eye witnesses. 12-year old Eric Challice saw the cart turn off the main road, the rapid decent towards the bridge and Mrs Densham’s fall. Yet, his evidence was never heard.

The Denshams were a highly respected family. Mrs Densham’s widow, Roger was a Justice of the Peace and a long-time public servant, chairing the Parish Council, District Councils and various County Council Committees. The family’s word was trusted and asking a young schoolboy to come to the family home to provide additional evidence may have been considered unnecessary or inappropriate.

The independency of the inquest is clearly questionable—Hugh effectively cleared himself of any wrong doing, within this own home and without the only eye-witness being called—but there is no reason to suspect that Hugh’s recollection of events was anything but honest. Nevertheless, the young schoolboy’s account could have thrown some extra light on the incident.

Aged 88, Eric Challice wrote his Memories of Old Lapford. It included his recollections of Mrs Densham’s accident 77 years before. His account is the only record that the nearside wheel of the cart collided with the bridge. For this to have happened, it seems likely that the horse jumped the blackthorn hedge a few metres before the bridge with the cart then swinging around clockwise and hitting the right-hand (east) side of the bridge. Traditional dog-carts had a box for dogs with passengers perched on raised seating above. If the cart had hit the brickwork of the bridge, as Eric suggested, there would have been little to stop a passenger seated on the box from jettisoning forward. Eric Challice’s account described Mrs Densham being “catapulted” to the river bed below.

Looking across the bridge toward the point where Mrs Densham was jettisoned from here seat . The height of her fall can be appreciated.

Eric was walking from the river and was starting to walk up to the main road, so he would have clearly seen the cart travelling at speed towards him. Whereas Hugh Densham had stated that he had the frightened horse “fully under control” before his mother’s intervening hand, Eric remembered the horse bolting and seeing Hugh do all he could to bring it under control. There is no mention of a broken reign or Mrs Densham taking the reigns.

The recommendation of the inquest was that a taller hedge would be more appropriate. Over a hundred years later, the thorny blackthorn hedge is still there. Today’s hedge is much taller, as recommended. Unbeknown to most motorists, it remains the only barrier to a steep drop. Users of Lapford bridge, beware!

The blackthorn hedge of 1909 still protects traffic from a fall into the river below.

Ellen Jane Densham (née Mortimer), was hugely respected in the village and her death came as a great shock. Her funeral procession took the same route from Bury Barton to the Congregational Church that she had intended to make on the day of her death. Her glass hearse was followed by four carriages, a carriage full of floral tributes, other conveyances bearing relatives and numerous villagers walking by foot. Other villagers lined the street with shops shut and blinds respectfully drawn.

In his address, Rev. J. H. Stanton, pastor of the Congregational Church, paid tribute to Mrs Densham’s work as a local benefactor, her warm hospitality at Bury Barton, her strong convictions and her boundless energy for good causes.

Lapford has lost a benefactress who was ever ready to sacrifice herself for the good of others, and was a beautiful example of unselfishness. Quiet and unostentatious in her gifts.
Rev. J. H. Stanton,
Pastor of Lapford Congregational Church

The Congregational Church raised funds to build a vestry as a memorial to Mrs Densham who had been church treasurer and a member of the congregation for more than 40 years. The vestry was opened and dedicated on 10 October 1910 by Dr. Hayman Wreford of Exeter. John Rice and Thomas Tucker of Lapford were jointly responsible for the building work.

There is irony in Ellen Densham’s tragic death. Responsibility for inspecting the safety of most bridges was with the County Council Bridge committee. One of the most vocal advocates for better bridge safety on this committee was Mrs Densham’s husband. Unfortunately, as Lapford bridge crossed both a railway line and river, safety for the bridge fell under the railway company and Mr Densham’s committee had therefore never performed a safety inspection.

Mrs Densham’s grave at Lapford Congregational Church.