The world’s first motoring casualty was remembered in Birr over the weekend

The world’s first motoring casualty was remembered in Birr over the weekend
Derek Fanning


Derek Fanning


The famous scientist Mary Ward was tragically killed when she fell from a primitive vehicle on August 31, 1869.

A hundred and fifty years after the tragic accident, a large group of history lovers gathered on Oxmantown Mall beside the Birr Castle gates, and, in the company of local historian Brian Kennedy, followed the route of Mary’s last journey down the Mall to the point where the accident occurred beside St Brendan’s Church of Ireland.

As we walked down the Mall Brian told us about the events of the accident itself and also about some of the interesting people who lived along the wealthy houses of the Mall, including the fascist sympathiser Fay Taylour.

Mary Ward takes her place alongside the Rosses, Jolys and Stoneys in the King’s County / Offaly people of science gallery. She was a Ferbane woman and was 42 years of age at the time of her death. William, the Third Earl of Rosse, was her cousin and she was a frequent visitor to Birr Castle. She observed and chronicled the building of the giant telescope in the castle grounds in the early 1840s.

Mary became well known as an artist, naturalist, astronomer and microscopist. She was the first woman to write and have published a book on the microscope in spite of the fact it was very difficult to find publishers who would accept book manuscripts from women. As well as being an excellent scientist she was an exceptionally fine artist.

On August 31, 1869, Mary Ward, Henry Ward, two of Lord Rosse’s sons and a tutor were travelling on a steam carriage invented by the Third Earl when it jolted and threw Mary to the ground where she was crushed by one of its heavy wheels and died instantly. It was a very cruel end for someone who obviously had a considerable amount of gentleness and kindness in her character and had been so receptive to the beauties of nature. Sic vita est hominum.

The incident has long been known as the first motor accident in history. It is interesting to speculate how many road deaths there have been since the automobile was invented in the 19th century, but it’s an impossible question to answer with any degree of accuracy. Some analysts estimate that since 1899, worldwide, there has been about 125 million deaths caused by road accidents. It’s also estimated that globally about one and a quarter million people die in road crashes each year, which is an average of 3,287 deaths a day. An additional twenty to fifty million are injured or disabled.

The medical doctor Doctor Thomas Woods, author of the 1845 book “The Monster Telescopes”, was immediately on the scene of Mary’s accident but it was impossible to do anything to save her.

John S Sheilds’ “King’s County Chronicle” reported the death in its edition the following day. “On yesterday,” the report stated, “the people of Parsonstown were much excited and grieved at the sad accident which occurred in the town. In the afternoon of yesterday the Hon. Captain Ward, his wife, the Hon. Mrs Ward, The Hons Clere and Charles Parsons, and Mr Biggs the tutor to the young gentlemen, were on a steam carriage which has been built by Lord Rosse. The vehicle had steam up and was going at an easy pace, when on turning the sharp corner at the church, unfortunately the Hon. Mrs Ward was thrown from the seat and fearfully injured, causing her almost immediate death. The unfortunate lady was taken into the house of Dr Woods which is situate nearly opposite the scene of the unhappy occurrence, and as that gentleman was on the spot everything that could be done was done, but it was impossible to save her life. The utmost gloom pervades the town, and on every hand sympathy is expressed with the husband and family of the accomplished and talented lady who has been prematurely hurried into eternity. The deceased lady was the sister of J.G. King, Esq., Ballylin, and the untoward occurrence will plunge several noble families into grief.”

The report said the body was taken to Birr Castle after the accident where it was awaiting the coroner’s inquest. Mary and her husband had been staying with the Rosses for a week before the accident.

The inquest consisted of the most prominent members of the local community. The inquest report stated, “On this day at 10 o’clock John Corcoran, Esq., coroner, held an inquest at the Castle on the body of the Hon. Mrs. Ward. The Resident Magistrate, H.G. Curran, and James Rolleston, J.P., were in attendance. The following respectable and intelligent jury were sworn: – Messrs B.W. Fayle, (foreman), James Connolly, Henry Davis, R. Goodbody, John O’Meara, John Meara, John Murphy, George Dooly, Matthew Keane, Thomas Hornidge, Stephen Matthews, Wm. Paxton, Wm. Fitzpatrick, Wm. Boyne, and Wm. Delany.”

The driver of the steam carriage, Richard Biggs, was the first witness examined. “There were five people on the steam carriage,” he said, “of whom Mrs. Ward was one; she was sitting on the corner of a raised seat; next to her was Captain Ward her husband; I was guiding the engine; at the corner of Cumberland Street and Oxmantown Mall on yesterday, at about half-past 3 o’clock; had just turned into Cumberland Street when I felt a slight jolt and saw Mrs. Ward fall; I jumped off immediately; I cannot give any reason for the jolt. The Hon. Clere and Charles Parsons were also sitting; Hon. Charles was on the back of the engine; I jumped off at once when I saw the deceased fall, and found her already in the hands of two men; there was no sign of life in her then.”

A witness, Mary Magrath, told the inquest that she was observing the passage of the steam carriage in her mother’s house in Cumberland Street “at about 20 minutes past 3. I saw the engine coming and called a friend of mine who never saw the engine before; I saw the lady fall; saw the engine ‘rise’ at one side; saw the lady fall off; the wheel was raised at the opposite side to Dr Woods’; the engine was just turned at Mr Goodbody’s side; the wheel hit the lady and pushed her on one side; I assisted her into Dr Woods’; she appeared to try to grasp something and had nothing to catch; a man was up to the lady at the same time, he is a man named Flannery; the lady was bleeding at the time; she bled from her mouth, nose, and ears; she afterwards looked like as if in convulsions as we were carrying her into Dr Woods’; I believe the affair to be an accident.”

Mr Biggs told a juror that “under ordinary circumstances there was no danger in the machine” and he could have “stopped the engine in a very short time.”

Another witness said he was walking some distance behind the engine on the Mall. “It went at a moderate pace,” he said. “We kept near it till it got near the centre houses of the Mall; we had it in view till it turned the corner of Cumberland Street, near the church; it appeared to me to go slowly round the corner; the noise of the engine ceased shortly after it turned the corner; I saw people running. I do not think the engine was very dangerous; the front wheels from the excellent management gave great stability to the engine; the engine was going about from three and a half to four miles an hour.”

Dr Woods told the jury that he saw the deceased about two minutes after the accident happened. “She was then merely breathing, with slight spasm of the tongue; she died in about one minute after I saw her; her neck was broken and her jaw bone greatly fractured; she was bleeding a good deal from the ears which showed that there was a fracture of the base of the skull: she was a good deal bruised about the face and her lirs (ears or eyes) cut: these injuries were the cause of her death.”

The jury’s verdict, which was given without the jury having to retire, was that Mary’s death was caused “by an accidental fall from a steam engine on which she had been riding in the town of Parsonstown on the preceding day. The jury begged to express their sympathy with the Hon. Capt. Ward in his sad bereavement and also that there was no blame attaching to any person in connexion with the occurrence.”

Brian Kennedy told us on Saturday that Mary’s funeral service took place in the Birr Church of Ireland church. He said very little was known about it and we can only guess what format the service would have taken. “It was likely,” he said, “that her body was conveyed to the church by a horse-driven carriage as that was a common practice among the local aristocracy. However it is also possible that she was conveyed to the church by the servants of Birr Castle Demesne on a wooden bier.”

Our tour entered the Church of Ireland where Brian told us many fascinating things about this beautiful building. He thanked “Frank and Kay and the select vestry for giving us access to the church today for our tour.”

Afterwards the tour paused outside the church, at the spot where the accident occurred, for a minute’s silence in memory of the terrible event and all the people who have died in automobile accidents since 1869.

The tour then walked down Emmet Street (the former Cumberland Street mentioned in the above reports) to Emmet Square (formerly Cumberland Square) where Brian pointed out the bowfronted building on the corner of the square and main street. He said it was formerly the offices of King’s County Chronicle and was where Mary’s book “Sketches with the microscope” was printed in 1857 which, according to Tullamore historian Michael Byrne, was “perhaps the finest book to be produced in Birr in the nineteenth century.” According to Michael, Birr has a printing tradition going back to at least 1775.

Brian told us a number of interesting facts about the square, unrelated to the Mary Ward story. He said the Duke of Cumberland, the Butcher of Culloden’s statue was in a poor condition in 1915 and was leaning dangerously. The Town Council decided to take it down for reasons of safety, and it was taken down by professional steeplejacks and not by angry Scottish soldiers temporarily billeted in Crinkle Barracks (as is sometimes reported). Brian also told us that Haines’ Garage used to be located where Melba’s Nite Club now is and in July 1922 a number of men stole cans of petrol from the garage to burn down Crinkle Barracks. “They must have had a bit of a conscience,” commented Brian, “because they afterwards brought the grand piano from the Barracks and left it in the garage as a way of recompense for taking the petrol.” He told us as well that a tailor living in the square was fined in the years just after World War Two because he put more pockets in a suit than the regulatory number.

The tour proceeded down to the old St Brendan’s cemetery beside Spinner’s which unfortunately we couldn’t enter “because of health and safety reasons”. This location is most probably the site where St Brendan’s monastery was positioned in the early Middle Ages. It’s a very important graveyard with a number of fascinating tombs, but it could do with a bit of attention and tender loving care, including grass cutting.

Afterwards the tour proceeded to Birr Castle Science Centre for the launch of the reprinted “Sketches with the Microscope”, beautifully printed by Brosna Press of Ferbane, a printing press which has been producing beautiful-looking publications for many years.

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