Mike Hawthorn's fatal accident

1959, 22 January: Tony Keefe: Mike Hawthorn fatal: Road Traffic Accident Guildford By-pass, Thursday 22nd January 1959. Officers involved:

  • Senior Officer: Inspector Arthur Bruce
  • Reporting Officer: PC Tony Keefe
  • Coroner's Officer: PC Frank Jens
  • Police Witness: PC Butler
  • Photographer: PC Stan Fleck.

I was working 0700-1500 with PC Doug Brazier. He was the driver and I was the observer for the day; the observer being responsible for dealing with any incidents. We were only a few hundred yards away from the scene of the accident when called.

There were two men at the scene, one stated that he was a doctor and the driver of the car was dead, the other identified the driver as Mike Hawthorn. Details in Pocket Book:

1205 hrs attended the scene of a road traffic accident on the A3 Guildford by-pass. The exact location was four hundred yards the Guildford side of Coombs Garage. There were two vehicles involved:

1) A Jaguar 3.4 litre saloon car index VDU 881. I was informed that the vehicle had not been moved. It was stationary on the left hand side of the road when facing uphill towards Coombs Garage. The vehicle was badly damaged with the whole front half torn and twisted.

It was lying in a hedge with the front across a broken tree trunk. The car was on the edge of a steep bank with the back of the vehicle on the ground and leaning away from the road. The vehicle was approximately 15 feet from the kerb at the edge of the road.

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There was the body of a man, John Michael Hawthorn, "Greenfields", Folly Hill, in Farnham. He was lying across the back seat with his head towards the nearside and his legs pointing forwards across the driver's seat. There was a doctor in attendance. The body was removed from the car and taken to the Royal Surrey County Hospital by ambulance. Vehicle.

2) A Bedford open truck index JTP523, stationary approximately one hundred yards the Portsmouth side of vehicle 1. It was close to the nearside road edge, I was told that it had not been moved. The driver Frederick George Rxxx, 1xx Winterslow Drive, Leigh Park, Havant was with the vehicle, he was not injured. The offside rear tyre was cut, the wing torn and pushed up and the rear number plate bent.

The road at the scene is straight from the third bollard the Guildford side of the Manor Road junction, approximately forty five feet wide and divided by islands and bollards with each half divided by a broken white line. From Coombs Garage prior to the straight section, the road is in the form of a sweeping right hand. Down the whole length there is a good unrestricted view. The road is downhill all the way.

At the time of the accident the weather was clear, it had been raining earlier in the day and the road surface was still wet. Traffic was light.

The above was given by me in evidence at the inquest. The Jaguar was travelling downhill when it drifted or skidded to the offside and collided with a lorry which was travelling in the opposite direction. The car then swung behind the lorry and drove head on into a tree.

I cannot comment on Tony May's statement in "Old and Bold" or on Ted Wilde's accident book. I didn't see it having started my own. Perhaps Inspector Bruce disposed of it.

The question regarding the Jaguar car, it was the 2.4 model with the rear wheel track being narrower than the front. This particular vehicle had wheel spacers fitted between the back wheels and hubs making the track wider.

Tony Bailey sent me a copy of a newspaper's account of the Inquest. It states that three Police Officers gave evidence, PC Keefe details of the accident, PS Hill photographs of the scene and PC Butler measurements. In my evidence I said that it was not raining at the time of the accident although the road surface was wet. The witness Mr Duncan Hamilton stated the same thing as did PS Hill.

The Coroner's Inquest: A full report of the official Coroner's inquest at Guildford Guildhall appeared in several newspapers after it was held on the evening of Monday the 26th January 1959. The report below is mainly taken from the Farnham Herald of Friday 30th January, 1959 - this is very well worth reading in its entirety as it presents all the officially known facts at that time as the basis for various later investigations into certain aspects of the crash.

How Mike Hawthorn met his death: A verdict of accidental death was returned by the jury at a Coroner's inquest at the Guildhall, Guildford, on Monday evening on John Michael ("Mike") Hawthorn, aged twenty nine, motor racing champion of the world. Hawthorn, whose home was with his mother at Green Fields, Folly Hill, Farnham, was the proprietor of the Tourist Trophy Garage at East Street, Farnham.

He was killed on the Guildford by-pass shortly before noon on Thursday last week when his Jaguar car left the road and crashed against a tree. The accident occurred a month after he had announced his retirement from the race track. The coroner, Mr G T M Methold, told the jury at the opening of the two hours inquest that they should pay no attention to whatever they might have seen in the newspapers or whatever they might have heard in conversations outside.

"The verdict you give must be on the evidence you hear in this court and nothing else," he said. Mr R I Badfield, Farnham solicitor, was present to represent Mr Hawthorn's family. The first witness was James Duncan Hamilton, company director and a close friend of Mike Hawthorn, of Wokingham, who gave evidence of identification.

Archibald Stephen Frank Morgan, of Coneycroft, Selborne, the manager of the Tourist Trophy Garage, told the coroner he had known deceased for twenty five years. Deceased arrived at the garage at 11 a.m. on Thursday and went through his correspondence and chatted with witness. He seemed quite normal and did not complain of feeling tired. At about 11.30 he left to keep an appointment at the Cumberland Hotel, London, where, witness believed, he was expected at 12.45. His Jaguar was in good mechanical condition so far as witness knew.

Robert Ramsey Campbell Walker, of Frome, Somerset, owner of a garage at Dorking, said that at 11.55 am on Thursday he was driving his Mercedes car from Somerset towards Guildford. He came along the Hog's Back road and then joined the Guildford by-pass.

He stopped at the link road junction to see what traffic was approaching. A fraction before that he had seen in his mirror a dark green Jaguar corning up behind him. It had to stop behind him. He had no notion who the driver was.

Witness pulled away and soon the Jaguar came alongside, about opposite Coombs' filling station. "The driver seemed to equal my speed, turned round and gave me a very charming smile. I recognised Mike Hawthorn and turned and waved back."

Asked by the coroner what his speed was then, witness replied: "I haven't any idea. I was in second gear." The coroner: Are you telling me seriously you have no idea of your speed? Witness repeated that he had no idea. Continuing, he said the Jaguar's speed was increasing all the time. "As he passed me I slackened my speed. There was a great deal of spray around and I did not want to be too close.

I suddenly saw the back of his car break away slightly when he was 30 to 50 yards away. I was very surprised because I couldn't see any reason for it all. I didn't think much about it; it was a most normal thing to happen to him and I expected him to correct it. He did not slow at all.

My impression is that his speed increased all the time and the car didn't correct at all, but the tail went out farther and farther, and suddenly I realised it had got to a state of no return, when even Mike Hawthorn could not do anything about it.

"It hit something and a bumper came off and something else flew in the air. It carried on backwards across the road and disappeared in a spray of mud and things flying everywhere and I could not see anything further." He did not see the Jaguar hit the tree but stopped opposite where it came to rest.

He ran over and could not at first find Hawthorn. Eventually he found deceased lying on the back seat. "His position looked quite natural; he was not in any way tangled up." It was not raining at the time but the road was wet. In answer to Mr Hadfield, witness said there was a very strong wind indeed. He had never encountered such a wind before on the Hog's Back; it must have moved witness's car at least two yard sideways. Replying to a further question, he said the wind could have had effect on the Jaguar's skid at its beginning.

Edward Ernest Anthony Rumfitt, general manager of Coombs Garage, said he was sitting in his car at the garage, waiting to drive off at about 11.55 a.m. when he saw two cars heading towards Guildford, the first a Jaguar, the other a Mercedes. Asked by the coroner about their speeds, he said: "It's terribly difficult to assess speed if you are not actually sitting in a car."

The Jaguar was overtaking the other and as it went past it pulled back towards the near side. It was then approaching a right-hand sweep and as it followed the sweep the back of the Jaguar broke away towards the near side kerb and it continued then to spin slowly as it went down the road. It completed about three-quarters of a complete spin and then went from witness's sight. As witness drove towards Guildford he saw it had crashed and he returned to the garage to telephone the police and an ambulance.

James Christopher Marks told the coroner his house in Guildford overlooked Coombs Garage on the by-pass. He had a clear view of the 'S' bend from where he was standing at his lounge window and saw two cars going towards London. "My impression was that both cars were going very fast. I went to the side window of the lounge and looked out to see the progress of the cars. The first bend was safely negotiated. At the second bend the dark car was in front and it' s back slewed to the near side kerb and the car was then in my view broadside. It appeared to shoot across to the off side of the road. I should say it was too near to the centre of the road to negotiate the second bend safely."

Arthur Hill, of Guildford, gave evidence that he was standing on the forecourt of the garage. "I heard the loud noise of the exhaust of a car and turned and two cars went flashing past towards Guildford. There was quite a lot of spray thrown up. I estimated the speed at somewhere about 80 mph. I followed them for two hundred yards and the dark car was lost to my view by spray."

Miss Elsie Stenning, of Guildford, said she was walking along the by-pass footpath towards Guildford by Coombs Garage, when her attention was suddenly drawn to a car as it bounced on the road when it was by a bollard. The car slewed out from the bollard; then it turned towards Coombs Garage. It hit the rear off side of a lorry, continued for a few yards and then turned round anticlockwise until it was facing the opposite direction, mounted the pavement on its off side and went on. "Then it just seemed to rise up and stop and I saw smoke coming from the bonnet."

Frederick George Rice, of Leigh Park, Havant, the driver of the lorry, stated in evidence that he was driving towards Portsmouth at from 15 to 20 mph up the slope. He had a glimpse of an oncoming car, the speed of which he could not calculate. "It was coming towards me at an angle. All I could think of was increasing my speed. If I had stopped it would have hit me." He felt no impact although afterwards he knew the car had hit the lorry as a mudguard was slightly cut. He heard a bang, stopped, and ran back.

PC Keefe said he went to the scene of the crash which was about four hundred yards on the Guildford side of Coombs Garage. The Jaguar had hit a tree fifteen feet off the road and the tree had been uprooted.

PC Butler gave measurements of the road at this point and said there were "Keep left" bollards in the centre of the road. Questioned by Mr Hadfield, witness could not say if there was a camber on the road there.

PS Hill, who produced photographs of the crashed car for the jury's inspection, said the road surface was in good repair. It was wet and a stiff breeze was blowing. The coroner said that in view of communications he had received he would ask this witness if, on this stretch of the by-pass, there was any mud from cattle crossing and, secondly, if there was any sign of chalk from nearby excavations. Witness's answer was in the negative in each case.

Inspector H Smith produced a list of accidents on this stretch of road in the two years from January 1957, to December 1958. Accidents involving injury numbered 15 and there had been two fatal accidents. In three of the accidents persons had been seriously injured; in 12, injuries had been slight.

Mr. Louis James Shaw, an automobile engineer, of Rodborough House, Jenner Road, Guildford, was the next witness and reported on his examination of the Jaguar after the crash. It was, he said, a 1957 3.4 Jaguar which had done 12,028 miles. It was extensively damaged but was mechanically sound. The brakes were efficient and the steering still connected. The end of the gears had broken and had severed the prop shaft. The tyres were in very good condition. There was nothing in the condition of the car which would suggest a cause of accident.

Dr. Serge Keys, a pathologist, said there were severe head injuries. Fragments of bone had penetrated the skull and this was the cause of death. There was blood in the lung, which led him to assume that Mr. Hawthorn had lived a very short time after the crash. There was no evidence of any physical trouble which would have caused him to lose control of the car.

The coroner, summing up, said the jury might think the lorry was being driven perfectly properly and that Mr Rice did all he could to avoid the collision.

"There is no question whatever that Mr Hawthorn was going quite fast," he said. "There is no question that he hit a bollard, and that set his car on the way it did until it came into collision with this tree, with the result that the front of the car was very nearly severed from the rear. "That, I suggest to you, is an indication of the cause of this accident — speed. We have no indication of what that speed was, except that Mr. Hill said it was doing 80 mph.

"Having regard to all the evidence the jury might think there was no question of any other person being criminally responsible or that the accident was caused by the action of any other person, certainly not by Mr Walker or by Mr Rice. "You may therefore be forced to the conclusion that the only possible verdict is one of accidental death," he said.

The jury, after consisting among themselves for a few seconds, returned a verdict of accidental death. The legal representatives present expressed sympathy with Mrs Hawthorn, the mother and the makers of Jaguar Cars.

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