Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Tales from the cemetery: Little Freddy Whitby

There are 33,000 stories in Radnor Street Cemetery, all waiting to be told. Every death touched someone; a husband, a wife, a friend, a lover - even a stranger. These are the imagined stories of that unknown witness.

'My grandfather always lingered awhile at the corner of Clarence Street opposite the site of the old Empire Theatre. He would grip my hand tightly and recall the tale of little Freddy Whitby.

I know the story well as he never failed to mention it. It was only much later that I full understood; well you don’t as a child, do you? It was one of Pop’s stories, like the ones about the war, stories you heard all the time as a child and yet could only recall in fragments as an adult. How many times have you wished you’d asked about this or that, wished you had listened more carefully?

The Empire Theatre has long gone and there are traffic lights at the busy junction now, so as I wait for the traffic to come to a halt, I too think of little Freddy Whitby.

Freddy Whitby was 10 years and 10 months old on that fateful Friday in June 1911. He was on his way to school from his home in Swindon Road. At the corner of Clarence Street Freddy stepped off the pavement as if to cross, but then he hesitated before breaking into a run.

A witness said when he saw the car so near him Freddy appeared scared and dazed, and knowing not what to do stood absolutely still.

The driver of the car was racehorse trainer Mr W.T. Robinson from Broome Manor who was on his way to the GWR Station to catch the nine o’clock express train to London.

Mr Robinson told the inquest how he had been blowing the whistle all down the street from the tramlines and how, realising the danger the boy was in, he slammed on his brakes. The left headlamp clipped young Freddy, knocking him off balance and under the front wheel of the car.

Mr Finn, a butcher, was on his way to work when he too saw the accident. He ran across the street and picked up the boy, carrying him to Dr Lavery’ surgery just round the corner in Regent Circus.

The children on their way to Clarence Street School gathered round.

“Who is it?” they asked one another, but nobody seemed to know the boy.

Complaining of pain in his stomach Freddy was transferred to the Victoria Hospital where he was subsequently operated on for an internal haemorrhage.

The operation had proved successful and Freddy was showing signs of recovery when he died suddenly on Saturday morning. A post mortem revealed that the injuries had been slight and it was believed that Freddy had died from shock.

“I never even knew him,” Pop used to say, which always struck me as odd. Why, half a century later, did he still grieve for the boy knocked down on the corner of Clarence Street that he never knew?

But perhaps that was why? Nobody had known Freddy Whitby. Had he been walking to school with a group of boys, or even just one friend, that accident might never have happened? I think my Pop believed that had he been that one friend, Freddy Whitby would have lived. Throughout his long life my Pop somehow felt responsible for the death of Freddy Whitby…’

At the inquest Freddy’s father described his son as being a very nervous boy who had poor eyesight and wore glasses. The family had previously been living in Liverpool, Freddy had only been in Swindon since Tuesday of the previous week and the streets were new to him, he told the court.
The Advertiser reported that ‘the accident again calls attention to the danger of children crossing the streets on going to school when motor cars are frequently passing.’

The Deputy Chief Constable suggested that in future motorists travelling from Old Town to the GWR station should proceed by way of Drove Road to avoid the Clarence Street schools area.

Freddy’s funeral took place on June 14, 1911. He is buried in plot B2238 in a grave he shares with three other children; Herbert Mark Keen who died in July 1894 aged 12 months; Oswald Hall who also died in July 1894 aged two years and an eight week old baby George Henry Clifford who died a month after Freddy in 1911.

The grave is marked by a memorial to Freddy, a cross toppled off long ago and lies in the grass. The inscription reads: In Loving Memory of Little Freddy the beloved and only son of F. and E. Whitby aged 10 years and 10 mths Accidentally killed by motor car June 10th 1911.

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