Memories of a Tragedy

When I was younger I found it relatively easy to stick with the task at hand until it was finished. Now I’m easily side-tracked and seem to jump from task to task willy-nilly as the whim takes me – a new project is always more appealing than the existing one. My late father’s history of his home village, High Spen, needed an awful lot of work if it was ever to be published, and time and again over the years since his death I’d started the task, only to set it to one side after a week or so and move on to something else which had taken my fancy. This time, I promised myself, it would be different; I’d see it through to completion. And it almost worked. The editing and checking stage was completed and I was having a final re-read to help me decide which photographs and illustrations I might need. But for some reason, when I came to a reference to Garesfield Golf Club, I immediately remembered a dreadful event there from my teenage years – the first time I saw a dead body.

My cousin Ian and I were working at the Marley Tile Factory near Ebchester during the school summer holidays. Our Uncle Ray worked there and he’d got us the jobs. One afternoon we were on the works’ bus travelling home, when a motor-bike overtook the bus and a little further on, not far from the club-house of Garesfield Golf Club, it crashed into another motor-bike coming the other way. The first we knew of the crash was when the bus stopped and we saw the crumpled bikes and the casualties on the road just a few yards ahead. Ian and I got off the bus to try to help – nobody else did, which I found very surprising. One casualty, just a young lad in ordinary clothes, lay silent and unmoving – the damage to his head left little doubt that he was quite dead. The other casualty, a slightly older person dressed in leathers, was in extreme distress. He was coughing or vomiting copious quantities of frothy blood and was obviously in great pain.

We held the injured man, not that there was much we could do apart from supporting him so he could more readily clear the blood from his airways. I’ve always admired that man, because, in spite of his dreadful state, his only concern was the other lad. “How is he? Is he dead?” We assured him that the lad was just knocked out and would probably be fine – but he asked the same questions several times. Not a word about his own condition – he was still vomiting blood and grimacing in agony every time he moved a muscle. A bus conductress emerged from another bus carrying part of a bus seat and she suggested that we lay the casualty on it – but there was no way we dared lift him as he had several very obvious injuries and probably many that we couldn’t see.

Then a distant bell quickly getting closer. An ambulance? No a police car – a black Wolseley – then another black Wolseley and police everywhere. But they ignored the casualties; they just left Ian and I holding this poor man who seemed to be getting worse by the minute. I thought he was going to die in my arms. The police shifted one of the bikes, then they frantically waved traffic here there and everywhere and cleared the road. Still no help for the injured man or his carers – nothing at all.

Then another bell and a car roared up with a police escort. It was Doc Henderson driven by his nurse – he was driven everywhere by his nurse because he was rarely sober enough to drive himself. I can personally testify, however, that drunk or sober he was damn good doctor – he’d patched me up more than once. The doctor and nurse came straight to the injured man, and Ian and I stepped to one side. Then we realised our predicament – our bus was gone and there we were in the middle of nowhere with our hands, clothes and shoes saturated with blood. We had no option but to walk home – two and a half miles in my case – looking like mad axemen in the middle of a murder spree.

As we set off, an ambulance turned up and the attendants made first for the dead boy – but Doc Henderson shouted at them “Leave that one, he’s dead”. Wonderful, I thought, that’s going make the survivor feel great, isn’t it. Then we saw the ambulance men lift the injured man onto a stretcher – one of them lifted him by his legs, completely ignoring the fact that his right femur was very obviously broken.

In retrospect I’m very surprised at how little this experience bothered me at the time. I felt very sorry for the suffering, of course – a young boy, probably younger than me, dead – another man, a really brave man, probably dead too. Their families must have been devastated. Yes, I’d felt dreadfully sorry for their families, but I wasn’t traumatised by the event in any way. Perhaps the incident would have had more impact if I’d known the casualties, but as it was my life went on as if nothing had happened, a short time more at Marley Tiles and then back to school. Soon it was just a distant memory, although a memory which was refreshed annually for many years by entries in the Evening Chronicle’s “In Memoriam” column.

What else could I remember? The dead lad was a local boy from Towneley Terrace at High Spen – possibly his name was Wilkinson, though I wasn’t sure. The other man wasn’t from the immediate area and, as far as I recall, I’d never even heard his name. As to the time frame, I had no idea. I had a variety of summer and part-time jobs from late 1960, when I reached 15, until I started teaching at the age of 21, so I suppose it could have been any summer holiday in that period. A challenge, and one I couldn’t resist. Dad’s history could wait a day or two until I filled in a few of the blanks.

Where to start? I was at school with Tom, a lad from Towneley Terrace where the dead boy lived. Perhaps he would know the lad’s name at least? He’d long since left the area but I had his phone number and e-mail address and we were Facebook “Friends”, so getting in touch would be easy. It was, but Tom said he couldn’t help – he remembered the incident, but no more. However, Tom phoned back soon afterwards and said the surname was “Williamson” and he phoned a second time to suggest that the forename “Derek” rang a bell, but he wasn’t sure if “Derek” was the name of the dead boy or his brother.

The date? I checked my old diaries – yes, sad though it seems, I always kept a diary as a teenager, though the detail recorded changed over time. When I was 12 I noted every little detail of my life: what time I got up and went to bed, what homework I had, who “JA” smiled at that day (though I cannot remember who JA was), what I had for school dinner etc etc etc. Later it was just important dates – holidays, birthdays etc.

Surely, even in my minimalist days, I would have recorded an incident like this? But no, I didn’t. What I did record, however, were the dates I started and finished at Marley Tiles, and I only ever worked for them once, so that had to be the relevant period. I was there for four weeks from 12th August to 6th September 1963 immediately after spending a week camping at Grinton in the North Riding with the Boys’ Brigade. That was when Ian and I were 17 and would be going into the upper-sixth when we went back to school in the September.

So I could narrow down the date of the accident to a weekday between 12th August and 6th September 1963. So next stop the local library to check out the Evening Chronicles and Journals? Perhaps, but that was potentially 48 papers to search – that’s a lot of searching and, even worse, my nearest Local Studies library, Gateshead, didn’t have either paper for the relevant period. They did, however, have Evening Chronicles for 1973**, so, remembering that the family of the High Spen lad commemorated his death annually in the Chronicle, the solution was obvious: I’d check the “In Memoriam” section of the Evening Chronicle for the period 12th August 1973 to 6th September 1973. Checking that one section in each paper was going to be much easier than looking for an article which might be anywhere in the paper, and doing so in a library five minutes from home was better than travelling further afield.

It was easier than I dared hope. In the second paper I searched, that of Tuesday, 14th August 1973, were two heart-rending “In Memoriam” entries for Derrick Williamson, aged 16, of High Spen who was accidentally killed Aug. 14 1963. One from his “mam and dad” and brother Trevor and family, and one from his sister Moira and family. Ten years on and the tragedy had been a distant memory for me, but clearly not for that family. For those who’d lost a much-loved son or brother, it was yesterday!

So I then had the date of the accident and the correct name and age of the dead boy, what next? Well it had to be the newspapers of the day, and the nearest library to house them was the new Newcastle City Library. According to their online index***, they had both the Evening Chronicle and Journal for 1963 on microfilm.

As it happened, the relevant Evening Chronicle microfilm reel was missing, but the library staff kindly produced an alternative – a much used and much abused volume of bound Evening Chronicles.

I found two brief articles about the crash, both dated 15th August 1963, the day after the crash.

Journal 15th August 1963

High Spen youth killed in motor cycle crash

A MOTOR cyclist was killed and another seriously injured when their machines were in collision between High Spen and Chopwell last night.

The dead youth was 16-year-old Derek Williamson of Townley Terrace, High Spen.

The other rider, Peter Jameson*, aged 25, of Whitehall Road, Gateshead, was admitted to Shotley Bridge Hospital with multiple injuries.

The collision was on a bend near Chopwell Golf Club, 400 yards from Williamson’s home.

Williamson, whose father, a miner, was visiting relatives at Corbridge with his wife at the time, bought his machine only recently.

Evening Chronicle 15th August 1963


A 25-year-old Gateshead motor-cyclist was still on the danger list in Shotley Bridge Hospital today after a collision with another motor-cycle at Chopwell.

The rider of the other machine, 16-year-old Derek Williamson, of Townley Terrace, High Spen, was killed.

A hospital spokesman said that Peter Jameson*, of Whitehall Road, Gateshead, had spent a comfortable night.

His condition had improved considerably, but he was still on the danger list. He has multiple injuries.

A quick check of both newspapers over the subsequent month failed to find any follow-up stories, but I knew that there would have been an inquest for Derrick and that this would have almost certainly been covered in the press. Perhaps the other man gave evidence or was at least mentioned. Inquests, however, sometimes occur months or even years after the death, so searching through the papers until I found it wasn’t a sensible option. Death certificates always give the date of any inquest, so the next step was to buy a death certificate.

Derrick died on the road near Chopwell which is within Gateshead Registration District, so I assumed that the record of his death would be held at Gateshead Register Office in Gateshead Civic Centre. When I applied there in person for the certificate, however, I was told that they didn’t have it, but they’d made enquiries and determined that it was held at Bishop Auckland Register Office (which now holds all of Co Durham’s non-current registers) and was in Register Consett 30, Entry 325. Why Consett? I wondered. But it was kind of the Gateshead staff to track the registration down for me.

Applying for any certificate relating to a juvenile and dated within the last 50 years is not always straightforward because of rules presumably intended to make identity theft more difficult. I had obtained several such certificates in the past from Gateshead Register Office without difficulty, but that may have been because I applied in person or because the staff knew me. Consequently I hadn’t anticipated any problems obtaining the certificate from Gateshead, but that might not be the case when I applied to Bishop Auckland as I would be applying by telephone and I was unknown to the staff there. They might well ask for more information such as Derrick’s home address or his father’s name – information I didn’t have. I wasn’t even sure that Derrick would be considered a juvenile at 16, but I thought that I’d better be prepared. But where to find the extra information.

Then I remembered that back in the 1960s I’d bought a copy of the then current Register of Electors for the High Spen South Polling District which would have included Towneley Terrace. I located it and found that the register had a qualifying date of 14th October 1965, a little later than the accident, but Derrick’s parents might well have still been at the same address as in 1963. A quick check showed that the only Williamsons at Towneley Terrace in 1965 were Maurice and Annie Williamson of 13 Towneley Terrace. It seemed a reasonable assumption that these were Derrick’s parents and that had been his home address.

I telephoned Bishop Auckland Register Office and gave the details – Derrick Williamson – aged 16 – killed 14th August 1963 beside Garesfield Golf Course, Chopwell – Register Consett 30 Entry 325. Then I was asked for my reason for wanting the certificate – Local History – and my relationship to the deceased – None. Finally, after giving my name and address and payment information, and almost as an afterthought, I was asked for Derrick’s father’s name – Maurice. It’s fortunate that I was prepared.

The certificate arrived three days later.

When and where died: Fourteenth August 1963 – Dead on arrival at Shotley Bridge General Hospital, Consett.”

So that’s why the death was registered at Consett; he officially died at the hospital.

Name and surname: Derrick Williamson”

Sex: Male”

Age: 16″

Occupation: of 29, Towneley Terrace, High Spen – Plastic Works Machinist.”

Not 13 Towneley Terrace – his parents must have moved after the accident.

Signature … of informant: Certificate received from Bryan Dodd Reynolds Stevens Deputy Coroner for the West (Chester) Ward of Durham Inquest held Seventeenth October 1963″

Now I had the date of the inquest and could look for a newspaper report of the proceedings. Back to Newcastle City Library to check the Journal and Evening Chronicle. I found only one report of the inquest and that was in the Journal of 18th October:

Death ended the second solo

A 16-YEAR-OLD learner driver was killed in a head-on collision with another motor cycle on his second solo ride, it was said at an inquest at Shotley Bridge Hospital last night.

Derek Williamson, a machinist, of Townley Terrace, High Spen, was killed instantly in a crash on the High Spen to Chopwell Road.

His father, Mr Maurice Williamson, a miner, told the jury that his son had had the cycle for four or five weeks, but he had used it only on private ground.

“I was very impressed by the way he handled the machine. I am an experienced motor cyclist and I gave him his instruction.” he said.


Two days before the accident, he took his son on the pillion to instruct him on the road.

The youth went out alone the following night for his first solo ride, and the accident happened the next evening.

Mr. Kenneth Gettings, a lorry driver, of Taylor Street, Consett, who saw the collision from about 80 yards, said both riders seemed to be well in the middle of the road.

The coroner, Mr Bryan Stevens, commented: “It is unfortunate that this lad had acquired his cycle only a short time before he met his death.

But that doesn’t mean he was doing something wrong. It is impossible to say who is to blame on the evidence.”

Verdict: accident.

This gives more information on the accident itself, and underlines the pathos of the situation. Two young men, a moment’s carelessness, and tragedy. One young life lost dead and another man badly hurt, perhaps dead too – but what of that injured man, Peter Jameson*, the brave man whose only concern as he lay injured was the other rider? I had hoped that he might have given evidence at the inquest, either in person or through a statement, thus confirming that he was alive, or that his condition might at least have been mentioned by the coroner, but there was no mention of him at all in the Journal account of the inquest! Did that imply that he didn’t give evidence and wasn’t mentioned, or did the journalist simply fail to report it?

The inquest records would answer that question, but accessing such records is far from straightforward for two reasons. First, coroners are only obliged to keep records of inquests for 15 years, so the ones we seek may well have been destroyed. Secondly, such records as do survive are normally considered “closed” for 75 years. One can seek permission from the coroner to access them within the closure period, but such permission is generally only given to family members and I certainly don’t think that I would be allowed access simply to satisfy my curiosity.

Were there any alternative, and perhaps better, newspaper accounts? Peter Jameson* lived in Gateshead, so what about the Gateshead Post? There were copies for the appropriate period in Gateshead Central Library**, so access was easy, but no, not a mention, not a single word! The Consett Guardian and the Blaydon and Tyneside Courier would be excellent candidates. They both might well have covered the inquest at Shotley Bridge Hospital and the accident at Chopwell too, and they might have revealed more about Peter Jameson*. But, as it happens, access would be very difficult. Newcastle City Library*** had later issues of the two papers, and Gateshead** had both earlier and later issues, but neither had any copies from 1963. In fact the only copies of those newspapers from 1963 that I’ve managed to locate are in the British Library Newspapers collection at Colindale in London. I could travel to London to see the papers or order expensive copies by post, but both options are somewhat excessive.

How else might I hope to find whether Peter Jameson* survived the tragedy, and if he’d lived, what subsequently happened to him. Well, if he’d died the death would have been registered and his name would appear on the General Register Office (GRO) Death Index# which is available online. Was there a Peter Jameson* death registered in the North-East in 1963 or shortly thereafter? Yes, there were several, some with and some without middle names, but they were all older men. In fact, even considering the period from 1963 to 1970, all the Peter Jameson* death registrations in the area were of men of at least 45. The man I saw lying injured after the crash was far younger than 45 – newspaper accounts gave his age as 25.

So can we conclude that the injured rider survived the crash? We probably can if his name was Peter Jameson*, but the only evidence of that came from the two newspaper reports of the crash, and in both of those Derrick Williamson’s name had been missplelt, so we can’t place too much reliance on those sources. Can we perhaps determine if there was a Peter Jameson* living on Whitehall Road in 1963? If there was, it would support the information in the newspapers.

Yes, it’s straightforward, we can look at the Electoral Registers covering Whitehall Road which are held at Gateshead Library. First the register which included Whitehall Road and covered 16 Feb 1963 to 15 Feb 1964 with a qualifying date of 10 October 1962 – or rather the four registers covering the four Polling Districts which included sections of Whitehall Road. There was no Peter Jameson* in any of them.

What about the next register, the one with a qualifying date of 10 October 1963? Yes, there he was, “Peter A Jameson*” living with his parents on the north side of Whitehall Road near the junction with Rectory Road. The only downside was the fact that Peter’s* name on the register was preceded by a bold “Y” implying that he would reach voting age – 21 in 1963 – during the currency of the register. So, if this man was the one who was injured in the crash, he wasn’t 25 years of age at the time as stated in the newspaper reports, he was 20 or 21.

So is he the correct person? On balance I think it’s very likely that he was – the newspaper report said he was Peter Jameson* aged 25 of Whitehall Road, Gateshead and here we have a Peter A Jameson* aged 20/21 of Whitehall Road, Gateshead. Had it been a very common name, I might have been less willing to assume that he was the correct person, but as it is, there can be little doubt. The age discrepancy is most likely a simple error and of little significance.

So if the man injured in the crash was indeed this Peter A Jameson* of Whitehall Road, what can we say? Well, we’ve already established from GRO records# that no young man called Peter Jameson* died in the region between 1963 and 1970, so we can say that he didn’t die of his injuries, serious though they undoubtedly were. Indeed, we could have established that using Electoral Registers alone. The register already mentioned which listed Peter A Jameson* had a qualifying date of 10 October 1963, 2 months after the crash, and a later register of the area (Cotfield Polling District, Gateshead West Constituency) with a qualifying date of 10 October 1967 showed that he was still living at the same address with his parents four years later.

What became of Peter*? GRO records# show that a Peter A Jameson*, almost certainly the same man, married in the early 1970s and had a family. The full Electoral Roll for 2002 is online##, and this shows that Peter A Jameson* and his wife of nearly thirty years were then living less than 200 yards from Peter’s* 1963 home.

It’s great to know that the brave man I encountered briefly in 1963, not only survived the crash, but was alive just eight years ago. I hope he and his wife are still alive today and have many years ahead of them.

* Name changed for reasons of privacy.





One thought on “Memories of a Tragedy

  1. Derrick was my best friend. We used to do everthing together and I have been trying to trace his brother, Trevor, for some time now without success.
    He was someone vey special to me and at the time of the accident, I was working at the Towneley Arms Hotel in Rowland Gill. I remember hearing the bells of the Ambulance and thinking to myself ” Who is the poor soul wanting an Ambulance” I didn’t find out until the following day, it was going to the aid of my dearest friend Derrick, all be it in vain. Why do such dreadful things happen, why oh why oh why. I remember the card I wrote for the flowers I took to his Funersl, it read ” To my dearest friend Derrick, in Gods garden rest”. I still think about him almost evey day. I have tried to make contact with his brother Trevor but to date, I have not been able to make any contact. If Trevor gets sight of this message, please contact me Trevor, I need to speak with someone from Derrick’s immediate family.


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