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Article by Sue Comont based on papers in the Northamptonshire Record Office Ref: NE 315
Court Case against the Rushden and District Electric Supply Company 1926

Receipt for damages and costs paid by the Rushden Electric Company on 4 August 1926
Receipt for damages and costs paid by the Rushden Electric Company on 4 August 1926

On 15 July 1926 a case was brought against the Rushden and District Electric Supply Company Ltd for damage caused to a van belonging to James Bros and Sons.The case was heard at the County Court of Northamptonshire at Wellingborough.

Photo of 297 Wellingborough Road today
Photo of 297 Wellingborough Road today

The particulars of the claim were that in the month of October 1925 the defendants, The Rushden and District Electric Supply Company Ltd, dug up part of the highway from Rushden to Wellingborough situated just outside Rushden in the course of supplying electricity to 297 Wellingborough Road. It was their duty to restore the said highway to its former condition but it was claimed that in breach of this said duty, they not only did not restore the said highway to its former condition but on the contrary negligently left it in an unsafe and dangerous state which led to a van belonging to the plaintiffs, James Bros and Sons Ltd., being driven by the plaintiff’s servant along the highway, being damaged.The surface of the highway collapsed with the result that a ditch or cavity was formed across the highway and in crossing the cavity the plaintiffs’ van sank into the said cavity and the back axle of the van was broken.

The plaintiffs, James Bros and Sons, sent an initial letter to the Rushden Electric Supply Company as follows:

James Bros and Sons,

Commercial St.,


15 October 1925 

To the Rushden Electric Light Company

Dear Sirs,

We understand that you are responsible for the new electric main that is being laid into Rushden on the Wellingborough Rd.

We beg to inform you that where the main is taken across the road – near the dip, just before entering Rushden from Wellingborough – that owing to the road not having been properly made up – the opening not having been properly rammed and filled in level with the road, our vanman in crossing same this morning snapped a 2 ton axle, thus causing the wheel to be broken off.

As this will necessitate a new axle and springs etc we must hold you responsible, or if the work is being let out on contract, would you kindly give us the name of the contractor.

James Bros and Sons     

The Electric Company did not see why they should pay to repair a van from Northampton so the case eventually came to court. Witness statements were taken, beginning with Mr William Charles Small, the superintendant of the Rushden Electric Supply Company, who appears to accept that the road could have sunk enough to damage a vehicle:

“I am the resident superintendant of the defendant Company at Rushden and I am responsible for the laying of mains by the Company in its’ area of supply. On 8 October 1925 a service main was laid in Wellingborough Rd to connect the house of Mr Benjamin Dickens to the Company’s mains. The service main was laid across the carriageway of the road from one side to the other at right angles to the length of the road. A trench was dug about 1’ 6” in width and about 2’ 6” in depth. The cable having been laid, the soil was replaced. The digging and filling in of the trench was completed in one day. I was present at one time while the trench was being filled in. I saw that the material being replaced was good hard stuff and was being rammed down properly. I did not see the trench again until after the accident. At about 11am on the morning of 15 October I received a telephone message from Mr Dickens to say that the trench had sunk slightly. I immediately sent a man to fill it up. I did not hear of the accident until 16 Oct when I received a letter from the plaintiffs. It is the practice for the defendant Company to fill in its’ trenches and when they have settled sufficiently the Rushden Urban District Council reinstates the surface and charges the cost to the Company. Just after the accident I inspected the road between Wellingborough and Rushden along which the car had come and I found many pot holes quite as deep as the sinking of the trench could have been, and sufficiently deep to damage the axle of a heavily laden car.”

The cause of the accident was a trench dug in the road to bring an electricity supply to the house of Mr Benjamin Dickens at 297 Wellingborough Road. Mr Dickens was therefore an important witness, especially as his position as foreman to a builder meant he had a good understanding of such matters. His concern was for cyclists rather than motorists:

View of 297 Wellingborough Rd where the trench was made
View of 297 Wellingborough Rd where the trench was made

“I live at 297 Wellingborough Rd Rushden. I am foreman to Mr Robert Marriott, Builder, of Rushden. In early October 1925 a trench was cut by the defendants in the road opposite my home for the purpose of laying a cable to supply my house. I naturally took special notice of the trench after it had been filled in and I saw nothing wrong with it for some days. If it had started sinking at once I should certainly have noticed it. On 14 October there was a good deal of rain and during the night I heard motor vehicles bumping over the trench. On the morning of 15 October on leaving my house about 7.30 I noticed that the trench had sunk a little, about 2” in the middle. Having a special interest in the trench, when I got to my place of business I telephoned the Company to say that the trench had sunk a little. My object in telephoning was because I thought the sinking of the trench would inconvenience cyclists and not because I thought there was danger to motor traffic. A water main trench dug near the electric trench had also sunk a little after it had been filled in. Having regard to my employment, I do not consider that the trench for the electric cable had been filled in badly. It is usual for trenches to sink a little after being filled in. I attribute the sinking to the rain which had fallen the day before. I do not consider that the sinking of the trench shows that the work had been done badly.”

Mr Dickens’ opinion was shared by Mr Henry Roe, a road foreman employed by Rushden Urban District Council, the body responsible for the final reinstatement of the road surface once it had settled and therefore a man with a thorough understanding of what was dangerous to traffic.

“I live at 121 Newton Rd. I am a road foreman employed by Rushden Urban District Council. My employment under the Council in October 1925 took me every day past the trench made by the defendant Company in Wellingborough Rd. I noticed the trench every day as I passed it and saw nothing wrong with it. It was certainly all right on Wednesday 14 October. If the work of refilling the trench had not been well done it would have sunk by the Wednesday. I was surprised to find a breakdown arising from the trench. There is a good deal of heavy traffic on the road and the trench was just at the point where lorries going towards Rushden change gear. The Rushden Urban District Council does the reinstatement work for the Company, usually 1 – 2 weeks after the trench is filled in. I am the foreman responsible for doing the reinstatement work. If I had seen any subsidence I would have had the trench attended to. I had seen the trench being filled in and I had been quite satisfied with the way the work was done.”

After what might be termed “expert witnesses”, we get an eye witness to the accident, Mr John Sargent Burgess who thought the van was going too fast:

“I live at 9 High St South. I am a carter employed by Rushden Urban District Council. On 15 October 1925 about 10.15 am I was coming out of a gate with a horse and cart on the Wellingborough Rd when I saw a motor van pass me going down the hill towards Rushden. I heard the car bump just as it began to go up the other hill and I saw the off rear wheel come off and run across the road into the hedge. The car was dragged along the road for some distance. I consider that the van was going much faster than was safe.”

Mr William Ames came on the scene shortly after the accident, having been sent to inspect the road and fill in the trench if necessary, following the telephone call made by Mr Dickens to the Electricity Supply Company. He found it had sunk at the edges but not in the centre of the road:

“I live at 55 Wellingborough Rd, Finedon. In October 1925 I was employed by the defendant Company as a labourer and am still so employed. I worked with the gang digging and filling in the trench opposite Mr Dickens’ house in Wellingborough Rd. On the morning of Wednesday 15 October I was sent up to Wellingborough Rd to look at the trench and fill it in if it wanted it. I went there and found the trench in the centre of the road had not sunk but that at each side of the road it had sunk about 2”. I filled in the parts of the trench which had sunk. I saw a van with a wheel off. It was up the hill about 70 yards beyond the trench. I noticed the spot where it stood and have paced out the distance since.”

Mr John Henry Yates explained how the trench had been dug and subsequently filled in. He was responsible for sending the previous witness to inspect it and fill it in if necessary:

“I live at 21 Carnegie St. I am a cable jointer employed by the defendant Company. I was responsible for digging the trench in question and for laying the cable in it and filling in the trench. The trench was dug 1’ 6” wide and about 2’ 6” deep. The trench was filled in with the hard material taken out and it was rammed in hard. The usual procedure taken in filling a trench was taken. I inspected the trench daily after it had been refilled up to and including Wednesday 14 October and each day I found it in perfect order. When the trench was filled in it was slightly raised to allow for sinking. On Thursday morning I was told by Mr Small to send a man to see to the trench. I did not then know there had been an accident. The material removed from the trench was about sufficient to half fill a hand truck. The bulk of the cable laid in the trench and the tiles used for covering the cable would be about equal to the bulk of material removed.”

Mr William George Wilmott added his opinion of the trench:

“I am a builder and contractor, and live at ‘Dulce Donum’ Wellingborough Rd, Rushden, close to where the trench in question was dug. I have had considerable experience in the making and repair of roads. I saw the trench after the accident. There was subsidence at each side of the road. I should say the sinking was due to the rain. Even if it had been rammed with hard material I should expect the trench to sink. I do not attribute any negligence to the Company. I passed the trench several times a day and would have noticed if it sunk before the day of the accident.”

Police Constable F.S. Luck had twice passed by the scene of the accident, although without actually witnessing it happening, but had not become involved as it appeared to be a mechanical breakdown:

“I was on duty in Wellingborough Rd. On 15 October about 10.15am I was on duty in Wellingborough Rd when I saw a motor van standing in the road with the rear axle broken. About 11.15 when passing again I saw a man filling in a hole in the road where it had been opened to lay an electric light cable. The lorry was standing about 80 yards on the Rushden side of the hole. The driver did not make any complaint to me. As it was a mechanical breakdown I made no enquiries.”

Finally, Mr H.F.C. Hawkins gives an interesting explanation of why the James Bros van was damaged:

Photo of a Ford Touring car of 1915, similar to the type described by Mr Hawkins
Photo of a Ford Touring car of 1915, similar to the type described by Mr Hawkins
“I am a motor garage proprietor carrying on a business at the Ivy Garage, Abington Avenue, Northampton. I have had upwards of 10 years experience as a motor mechanic and have a fairly thorough knowledge of cars of all sorts. I am acquainted with the 7cwt Ford car which at one time used to be increased in length for the purpose of carrying a load of upwards of 1 ton. The engine was the same 22½ hp engine as was fitted to the ordinary Ford touring car. The frame was lengthened by the addition of an extra axle instead of the axle position existing on the car as supplied and the back wheels were moved back to the new axle. The drive from the old axle to the new axle was by chain. This type of car is now quite out of date and none have been constructed in the last 8 years. Consequently a car of this sort must be an old car. It could not be anything like so reliable as a modern car of equal capacity. I am not surprised to hear that the engine has been repeatedly broken down, as I should not consider it equal to the strain imposed upon it of drawing up to 30cwts. I certainly should never advise any customer of mine to buy such a car. The market price of a car of that sort would not be more than about £10. I think that the vibration of an ordinary bumpy road would be quite likely to result in a broken axle without any particularly deep holes being in the road. If such a car was driven rapidly the risk of breakdown would be even greater.”  
Photograph of the judgement awarded against the Electric Supply Company
Photograph of the judgement awarded against the Electric Supply Co.

However, despite all the sympathetic statements from the witnesses, the case was not destined to go the Electric Company’s way. Judgement was given against them.

It is this day adjudged that the Plaintiffs do recover against the Defendants the sum of £18 for debt or damages and £13 4s 1d for costs amounting to £31 4s 1d

And it is ordered that the defendants do pay the same to the registrar of the court on 4 August 1926.

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