‘RUN’: The Ryecroft Plane Crash, 1917.

The Walsall Coroner
This is a story that I became aware of while I was working on the Walsall Coroner’s records some years back. Indeed, it left such an impression on me I have incorporated it into a couple of talks. As this all started with a coroner’s inquest, I thought it worthy to include a few paragraphs about the role of a coroner and a history of the office – especially as I intend to look at further cases in the future.

Quincy, M.E. many people's view of a coroner.

Quincy, M.E. many people’s view of a coroner.

Today, the purpose of a coroner is to investigate un-natural, sudden and suspicious deaths in the view to finding an explanation. To do this the coroner will gather medical testimony, eyewitness statements and other background knowledge, which will be presented at an inquest. An inquest is a public hearing and not a trial. A jury may sit if deemed ‘in the public interest’ (for example, it occurred in police custody).

Firstly, an inquest establishes the identity of the deceased and then how, where and when the death occurred, but not who (if anyone) was responsible for it – I believe the last person to be named in an inquest as being ‘responsible’ for a death was Lord Lucan back in 1975. Once the facts are determined a verdict is returned, for example; accidental death, suicide, unlawful or lawful killing, industrial disease, natural causes or an open verdict – where insufficient evidence exists.

A coroner was originally a crown appointment (hence the name) and was certainly established by 1194. The original qualification was to be a landholder and a knight of the realm, and the duties of the early coroners were varied but mainly regarded the investigation of suicides and sudden deaths on the grounds that goods and chattels could then be forfeit to the crown. He also heard appeals and took outlaws to court. Shipwrecks and ‘treasure trove‘ (still a duty today) were added after the civil war.

In 1888 the post became one appointed by the Local Authority (Staffordshire County Council for Walsall, Cannock and the in-betweeny lands). The Walsall Borough split from the South-East Staffordshire District in 1910, choosing to appoint its own coroner. Believe it or not, it was only after 1926 that a coroner was required to have either a medical or a legal qualification – prior to this it was still down to land ownership. Prior to 1926 all cases went to inquest and had a jury of 12-24 persons, afterwards a case could be closed after a post mortem and juries were between 7-11 persons, or often dispensed with.

The events that relate to this article start in the April of 1917 and take place in and around Brewer Street in the Ryecroft area of Walsall, which was then in the parish of Rushall. On 7th April 1917, Second Lieutenant Thomas Mann left Tern Hill, near Market Drayton, on a routine flight to the Castle Bromwich Aerodrome. He was piloting his Avro 504 aircraft. Mann was to crash in Brewer St and while he was to survive the accident killed the 62 year-old Frances North and her 10 month-old grand-daughter, Edna May Vass.

Brewer St Cottages, Ryecroft. 1884. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Brewer St Cottages, Ryecroft. 1884.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

You get the feeling that Frances North was a strong woman. She was born in 1855 in the Ryecroft area and in 1861, she was living with her parents and younger sister, Louisa, in Brewer’s Cottages – which is what becomes Brewer St. She was described as a scholar, so she is attending a school before she was legally obliged to so and when it would have cost.

By 1871 she had become a harness-stitcher and the family, parents Thomas and Harriet, sister Louisa and the 8 year-old brother, Frederick  are still in Brewer’s Cottages (number 23). Louisa North, I believe, died the following year.

In 1891 census Frances is still at 23 Brewer’s Cottages, living with her widowed mother and a ‘grandson’ named Thomas William North. Frances is described as single, yet Thomas was her son. She was also at that time heavily pregnant and on 25th April 1891 she gave birth to a daughter, Louisa. The father’s name is not given on the baptism record. Frederick, her brother, is living next door to her at 22 Brewer’s Cottages.

1891 census for Frances North, residing at Brewer's Cottages.

1891 census for Frances North, residing at Brewer’s Cottages (National Archives).

Harriet died in 1905. In 1911, Frances and her two children were living at 5 Brewer St – the road having been renumbered. Frances is still a harness stitcher, while Thomas works as a grocer’s assistant and Louisa, representing a changing world, was a machine stitcher.

1911 census for 5 Brewer St, the home of Frances North and scene of the 1917 aircraft crash that killed her (National Archives)

1911 census for 5 Brewer St, the home of Frances North and scene of the 1917 aircraft crash that killed her
(National Archives)

Louisa North married Arthur Vass at Rushall Church on 26th June 1915. Vass was younger, a 21 year-old collier from 42 Butts St. The marriage would give him the first chance in his life of a settled family – well, that was the hope.

Vass had had a rather unsettled childhood. He was born in 1893 to parents John and Charlotte. John was a fancy leather goods maker originally from Northamptonshire. In 1881, he was 39 and married to the 41 year-old Emma. They had a couple of children, John and Joseph (4 and 2 respectively). Sadly, within a few years Emma was dead and John went on to remarry within a couple of years. Charlotte, his new wife, was 17 years his junior.

The 1891 census shows that the couple were living with John’s two boys from the former marriage, but they had started their own family too. There were three children, Frank and twins Ethel and Annie. The couple were sufficiently provided for so as to have domestic help. The family continued to grow, with James and Arthur being born by the tail end of 1893.

Of course nothing lasts forever – but in Arthur’s case, it had never really started. John Vass died at the age of 50, just weeks after Arthur was born. This left Charlotte to struggle, although John and Joseph were of workable age. However, in the long run it wasn’t really going to be too much of an issue – Charlotte followed John to the grave in early 1899, she was just 38.

In 1901, Frank was staying with his half-brother, Joseph – the rest of Charlotte’s children were in the Josiah Mason Orphanage in Erdington. The family were rescued however, and by 1911 Frank, James and Arthur were all living with their half-brother. All three were leather curriers.

So, Arthur married Louisa but any attempt at a settle life would be ripped from him. In June 1916 Louisa gave birth to their daughter, Edna May Vass. One assumes that Arthur did get to see her, as he was called-up. Arthur’s was record doesn’t survive, but we know he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery and was in France by 1917. Frank we know joined the Coldstream Guards.

And so, in April 1917, distant and fighting, it was Arthur Vass that was the one to receive the telegram that brought bad news – not the wife at home. Somehow Vass had to reconcile that his daughter had been killed – not from disease (common enough at the time) – not even from a Zeppelin attack, like the one on Walsall a year before – but from an allied military aircraft…

An Avro 504 aircraft, the type that crashed in Brewer St in 1917. (Unknown Source)

An Avro 504 aircraft, the type that crashed in Brewer St in 1917. (Unknown Source)

Act I
Thanks to the witness statements in the Walsall Coroner’s inquest file, we know exactly what happened on 7th April 1917. The day started as any other, but at around 11am Louisa heard the sound of an aeroplane in the sky and went outside with her mother where they watched it circle, as they had ‘often done before’. After a few minutes Louisa nipped back into the cottage and brought Edna outside – something she would later regret.

Louisa Vass' statement to the Coroner (Walsall Local History Centre)

Louisa Vass’ statement to the Coroner
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Louisa simply describes the aircraft as circling: Kate Beebee, who resided at 115 Mill St, stated that she felt that the pilot was trying to find a place to land and Thomas Deakin, licensee of the Royal Exchange on Mill St, was ‘of the opinion that the pilot was in difficulties’. Deakin then says he ‘suddenly saw the aeroplane fall’ – but it must have come from the direction of Mill St as Kate Beebee said it ‘just cleared her house’ (adjacent to Brewer St) and it landed in the garden of the cottages behind.

Louisa was taken by surprise – she heard someone shout ‘run’, but by then it was too late and the aircraft struck the three of them flinging Edna onto the garden path killing her instantly and partially landing on Frances, again killing her instantly. Louisa injured her arm.

Louisa Vass' statement to the Coroner (Walsall Local History Centre)

Louisa Vass’ statement to the Coroner
(Walsall Local History Centre)

A crowd of railwaymen soon gathered, joined by Beebee and Deakin. The plane had come down nose first and Deakin set about getting the pilot, 2nd Lt Mann, out of the wire entanglements. Amazingly, Mann was not killed. Two days later Mann was interviewed by Sgt Shepherd of the Walsall Borough Police, as he was the liaison for the Coroner.

Mann, of the 43rd Squadron Royal Flying Corps, stated that he was on a flight from Tern Hill to Castle Bromwich. While cruising at an altitude of around 4000ft, Mann encountered a ‘thick mist’ which forced him down to around 500ft where he discovered that he was over a town that he believed was Walsall. It was at this point, frighteningly, his engine petered out.

Mann's statement to the Coroner (Walsall Local History Centre)

Mann’s statement to the Coroner
(Walsall Local History Centre)

He circled around without power – which is what the witnesses saw. Mann tried to make for open ground but when the plane was around 100ft high, it collapsed. Mann saw several people and ‘waved for them to get out of the way’. He remembered nothing more until he was loaded into a lorry to be taken to hospital.

Mann's statement to the Coroner (Walsall Local History Centre)

Mann’s statement to the Coroner
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Mann was clearly distraught over the incident.

2nd Lt Thomas Mann (thanks to Graeme Clarke)

2nd Lt Thomas Mann
(Royal Aero Club)

No court martial was held, as the pilot was not fatally or seriously injured. Mann would return to active service for a short while before being declared medically unfit.

The casualty card for Thomas Mann (National Archives)

The casualty card for Thomas Mann
(National Archives)

At 3 o’clock on Tuesday 10th April an inquest was held at the Walsall & District Hospital. The RFC were present in the form of Captain White, who explained any military detail. The outcome was that verdicts of accidental death were passed on Frances and Edna, and to be honest, I think that was right. Mann was and should have been exonerated – this was clearly a tragic accident. Today of course, accident or no, Mann and/or the RFC would have been sued to high heaven on a no win no fee basis.

The inquest reported in the Walsall Free Press (Walsall Local History Centre)

The inquest reported in the Walsall Free Press
(Walsall Local History Centre)

And so the curtain fell on the first act with the Coroner, Mr Addison, being reported in the press as approaching the Mayor of Walsall, one Samuel Slater, regarding assistance for Louisa Vass. Slater had lost his wife in the Zeppelin raid and was all too sympathetic, as too were the Royal Flying Corps, or so the newspaper said.

Act II
And so the curtain rose on the second act, one which would see communities rally and the shameful abandonment by the state. The cost of the burials would amount to £11 10/-, which included grave space, interment fees, coffins and mourning coaches – but not headstones. Addison wrote to the Mayor again to confirm that the Mayor’s War Fund would foot the bill. Slater readily agreed.

The Coroner writes to the Mayor regarding the bill for the burials of Frances and Edna (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Coroner writes to the Mayor regarding the bill for the burials of Frances and Edna
(Walsall Local History Centre)

After confirmation, Addison wrote Louisa in order to relieve her of ‘any anxiety’ regarding the funeral expenses and so Frances Ann North and Edna May Vass were interred at Rushall Church on 14th April 1917.

Addison informs Louisa that the costs would be covered by the War Fund (Walsall Local History Centre)

Addison informs Louisa that the costs would be covered by the War Fund
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Things went quiet for a month, until the Mayor Slater received the final invoice from the undertaker, Mr Adcock. Slater wrote to Addison requesting him to make further enquires into the affairs of Mrs Vass. Slater remembered that the newspapers had proclaimed that the Royal Flying Corps were bearing the costs of the funeral and Slater simply wanted the money the War Fund had pledged to be used for Louisa’s benefit – not that he wanted it back.

Slater writes to Addison regarding the RFC involvement (Walsall Local History Centre)

Slater writes to Addison regarding the RFC involvement
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Addison did as he was asked and spoke to the local community, as well as Louisa Vass. What he reported back to the Mayor on 23rd May makes you both proud and your blood boil. Addison reported that the RFC had not involved themselves in any way to assist Mrs Vass – in fact she had not even received a communication from them.

Addison went on to say that the local Ryecroft community – one that wasn’t the most affluent in Britain – raised locally the sum of £8 to assist her. This was being paid to Louisa in installments of 10/- per week. This mean’t that both Walsall and the local area of Ryecroft stepped-up to the plate to help one of their own.

Now, not only did the RFC do nothing, but Addison went on to tell the Mayor about Louisa’s separation allowance. An allowance such as this was paid to women whose husbands were fighting in the army and on whose wages they had been dependent before they joined-up. Louisa had been receiving 12/6 for herself and a further 7/- per week for Edna. It appears that Louisa received three weeks worth of payments for Edna subsequent to her death and that the overpayment of 21/-was now being claimed back at 1/6 a week.

Addison reveals the shocking truth of state abandonment. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Addison reveals the shocking truth of state abandonment.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

How Arthur and Louisa felt about the events we will never know, but I think we can guess. Arthur was certainly no stranger to death – having lost is father as an infant he now lost an infant as a father. He survived the War and returned. The couple went on to have another child, Arthur junior, in 1920. Arthur Vass died in 1936 and Louisa in 1960.

It was a different world then – then an accident was an accident and to be honest there was little room for complaint, as democracy was something ushered in by the War. As I said earlier, today the military would have been sued, irrespective that Mann had tried to manoeuvre his plane to safety. It was an accident, but you must feel for Louisa. Surely to God they could have let 21/- go.

My thanks, as ever, to:
The Walsall Local History Centre
The National Archives
Royal Aero Club
Ordnance Survey

Without their allowing me to use the images, these articles would be as dull as my dress-sense

  1. Kerry Bannister says:

    Very interesting story….more please.

  2. Clive says:

    Nice one mate, found it very intresting; its amazing what history is on your doorstep, and you would have never know on till you put it all together for us to read. Thank you.

  3. Judith bannister says:

    The family in this story are my ancestors .. My maiden name was north .. Frances was my great aunt on my fathers side .. He was William north born 1927 to Fredrick and Ada north. I would love to see the grave where Frances and Edna were buried … Thank you publishing this sad event ., of my ancestors … Judith bannister

    • Charlotte Wood says:

      Hi, their grave is in Rushall Parish church with Thomas and Florence North. We go to their grave at Christmas. Louisa North is my Great Grandmother.

    • Paul Buckler says:

      Judith born around 1955 ? went to Edgar Stammers ? …if so…it’s a small world

  4. Charlotte Wood says:

    I really enjoyed reading the piece however you have missed out their second child (my Grandmother) Muriel Vass who was born January 1918 and died in 2008 aged 90. Thank you.

  5. Carol says:

    Just seen this. Muriel Vass was my aunt by marriage, she married my uncle Frank Longdon. Frank’s sister Margaret has mentioned several times about this death but she always thought it was due to a zeplin raid. Now I can send her the information.

  6. michael vass says:

    Thomas William North was also sent to the trenches in France , where he was blinded in 1918.

  7. […] ‘RUN’: The Ryecroft Plane Crash, 1917. […]

  8. Patrivia Robinson says:

    Found this really intresting as i was born in Brewer st although many many years later. Thankyou.

  9. Tracy jackson says:

    Heart and honour goes out to all involved in this forced flying skills which caused innercents loss of life. Thankyou for all that put all the files and pictures together if it wasn’t for people who live to keeping our history records in order. What a small piece of walsall past most would never have known. Again thank you for allowing me to read this.

  10. Terry Carter says:

    I came across this story by accident whilst on the British Newspaper Archive. I googled Ryecroft, Walsall and found your well researched blog and found it very interesting. I live a mile or so from the former Castle Bromwich aerodrome and enjoy reading accounts connected to it.

  11. Nigel Mann says:

    Thomas Mann was my grandfather

  12. Rebecca Robinson says:

    I’m the great grand daughter and the incident left a great hole in our family history. They were never forgotten and their tragic story has been told to many generations. Their grave is still tended to at Rushall. Thank you for this informative piece as sadly my older relatives are no longer with us to tell the story themselves.

  13. Kate Kirman says:

    Fantastically written and well researched piece of Walsall history- came across this as I was researching my family “Beebee” and the “Adcocks” If anyone has any information of those names I would love to hear from you

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