IN BUGLE 1074 we told the story of Sergeant John Malcolm Carter, the West Bromwich veteran of 48 years’ service who was buried with full military honours in All Saints’ churchyard in 1914. The details were supplied to us by John Carter’s greatgreat- grandson, Ray Durnall, and his wife Jan, from Cradley Heath. Keen genealogists, they have discovered many interesting people among Ray’s ancestors, including one who guarded Emperor Napoleon in his exile on St Helena. Now they have supplied the Bugle with a tale from more recent history, that of the death of Ray’s grandfather, Jeremiah Richard Durnall, who was tragically killed in an accident at work in 1933.
Jeremiah, who married John Carter’s granddaughter, was killed while working on the construction of Swan Village gasworks, West Bromwich, on Wednesday, 13th September, 1933.
Ray and Jan have supplied a newspaper cutting that reported the incident: “Greets Green Workman Killed. Jeremiah Richard Durnall, aged 55, of 14 Grout Street, Greets Green, West Bromwich, was killed on Wednesday afternoon while at work in Swan Lane, Swan Village. He was engaged in digging a trench in connection with the dismantling of Shell Mex Stores, when the sides ‘caved’ in and buried him. Fellowworkmen succeeded in extricating him after a quarter of an hour’s work, but artificial respiration applied by Dr Soutter and ambulance men proved of no avail. An inquest will be held on Saturday.”
The inquest was held on 16th September, 1933, and was reported as follows: “The West Bromwich Coroner paid a great tribute to the efficiency of the West Bromwich ambulance, when he enquired, on Saturday last, into the circumstances of an accident at Swan Village.
“Jeremiah Richard Durnall (55), of 14 Grout Street, West Bromwich, was buried by a fall of earth when digging in a trench and although he was got out under 8ft of clay within ten minutes, evidence was given that the ambulance was then there waiting to apply artificial respiration.
“The man was employed by Hewit and Pike, of London, who were digging out a number of petrol tanks at the BP and Shell Mex Stores at Swan Village, and according to John Whitehouse, a labourer, of 103 Union Street, West Bromwich, was in a trench eight or nine feet deep when the fall occurred. Whitehouse heard a shout and ran to the trench and together with the foreman and other men, he began digging to get the man out.
“In reply to the Coroner, witness said the trench sides were not timbered, and other large tanks had been dug out in the same manner. There was a quantity of timber on the site.
“In the rescue operations, he said, they took it in turns to get in the trench and dig. as each was exhausted in the feverish effort another took his place. ‘I don’t think any man could have worked harder than the foreman did,’ he added.
“William Dougherty, the foreman, said he had considered the trench safe without timbering. In fact he had only once used timbering, and that was on a job 14 months ago. That occasion concerned burying a tank, and not raising one.
“He said he gave instructions for the ambulance to be summoned and organised the rescue as soon as the accident happened. Actually the ambulance was on the scene before the man was got out of the trench.
“Dr Soutter said the ambulance men called to him in the street. When he got to the scene special respiration apparatus was being used, and, he and other ambulance men present took turns at applying additional artificial respiration for two hours without success. He was of opinion life was extinct before the man was brought to the surface, the cause of death being suffocation due to the weight of earth.
“The Coroner said the foreman seemed to be an experienced man, and apparently timbering of the trench was unnecessary from the observations made. It now appeared, however, that such timbering might have avoided the accident.
“He was satisfied all reasonable precautions were taken, and that there was a competent man in charge of operations.
“He added, ‘I should like to pay a tribute to our excellent ambulance. The prompt manner in which it turns up at those emergencies is marvellous, and this fact must be a great satisfaction to the public.’ “He recorded a verdict of ‘accidental death’ and expressed sympathy with the widow in this tragic loss.
“On behalf of the employers, Mr A.A. Millichip endorsed this expression, and the widow, who was represented by Mr James, herself said her husband had spoken highly of his employers.” The pictures of Jeremiah that Ray and Jan have provided comes from his time in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War. In the large group photo Jeremiah stands at the centre of the back row.
Ray writes, “As Jeremiah was born about 1878, he was called up aged nearly 40 in February 1917. On the census his father and grandfather were recorded as coalminers, but his occupation was given as ‘whitesmith’ or ‘springmaker’. This skill probably explains why he was made a fitter in the RFC. A family story says he reported to the recruiting office together with one of his sons.
“It seems tragically ironic that having a skill that enabled him to work on the cutting edge technology of the day, Jeremiah, who according to another newspaper article, had been out of work for two years, should be killed by a fall of earth, something his father and grandfather must have feared on a daily basis.” Jeremiah’s death was not the only tragedy to afflict the Durnall family. His uncle Charles Durnall was killed in the Hall End Colliery explosion of 1884 (see Bugle 738). Although the name was given as Darnell in reports of the day, Charles was the brother of Jeremiah’s father Henry.