Smith, Robert

Smith, Robert            1920 April 30th

Soldier Found Dead

Pte Robert Henry Smith (attached to the Southern Command Headquarters), whose home was in Tavistock, was found dead in bed at the Chough Hotel on Tuesday morning. Gas had escaped from a pipe and he had been suffocated. The City Coroner (Mr A M Wilson) opened an inquiry on Wednesday afternoon at the Council House.

Thomas Henry Hawke, mining engineer, of Tavistock, brother-in-law, said Smith was a private in the RASC, and was a clerk at the Southern Command. He joined the Army four years ago and previously was a clerk at Plymouth. He was a quiet, cheerful kind of fellow, and a total abstainer. He had served three years in Egypt, coming back to England twelve months ago. He had been married seven years and corresponded four or five times a week with his wife, who resided at Tavistock. He was going to be demobilised in a day or two and he had arranged to re-enter the employ of his old firm on May 3rd. He was on the best relations with his wife, who three weeks ago gave birth to a child. In a letter received by her on Tuesday he complained of having a headache.

The Coroner : Have you any reason to think that he would take his life? I know of no reason whatever. He was perfectly happy, and was looking forward to coming home. He was the last man I should have expected to do such a thing. He added that the police had told him that an envelope addressed to Smith in his wife’s writing, and containing a blank sheet of notepaper, had been found on the body.

The Coroner decided to adjourn the inquest in order to obtain the widow’s evidence with regard to the contents of the envelope. He regretted he had to take that course, but the widow’s evidence was essential.

Inquest continued         1920 May 21st

The adjourned inquest…..was held at the Council House yesterday (Thursday). At the opening the Coroner dispensed with a jury, but on this occasion a jury was called, Mr Wilson remarking that he thought it was best, in view of the circumstances, to call a jury.

Dr J E Gordon said he was called to the hotel about 9.45am on April 27th, and in a room adjoining the billiard room he saw the soldier’s body in a bed. He could find no signs of any struggling or violence, and there were no marks of injury. The body was stiff and the lower part of the trunk and the limbs discoloured. The man must have been dead several hours. There was a strong smell of gas in the room, which he detected when he entered the billiard room, and he formed the opinion that the appearance of the body and its discolouration were consistent with coal gas poisoning.

Mr W H Jackson (who appeared for the widow) asked if the discolouration was consistent with anything else having happened in the room?

The witness replied that in cases of carbon monoxide and coal gas poisoning discolouration occurred very quickly.

When asked whether he had any doubt as to whether gas-poisoning was the cause of death, the doctor said that everything was consistent with that conclusion.

Pte Clarence E Thornton said that at the time of Smith’s death he was stationed at the Headquarters with him, and they were friendly, and went out together in the evenings. He met Smith on Monday, April 26th, at the YMCA, about 7.15pm, and after walking around the town they went to the Palace Theatre at 8.15. After the show they returned to the “Chough,” and at ten minutes to eleven he left Smith and went to his own billet.

The Coroner : Had he at any time complained to you about anything?

Witness said that a few days previously he had complained of neuralgia and of one or two sleepless nights, but he did not complain of anything during the evening. He was quite cheerful and had never hinted that he would take his life.

Replying to the Foreman, witness said that Smith, upon demobilisation on April 30th, had arranged to go back to his pre-war employment. As far as he was aware he had no worry regarding his future employment, and he seemed very hopeful.

Mr Jackson : You say he was hopeful of going back, but would you say he was looking forward to it? He did not seem to worry in the least, he seemed quite cheerful.

Augusta Ann Tizzard, proprietress of the “Chough,” said that Smith had been billeted at the hotel about six months, and all his letters were sent there. On April 26th a letter came addressed to him, and though she did not know where it came from she had seen previous letters in the same writing. Smith came to the hotel at about six o’clock that evening and took the letter from the rack in the hall and went to his room. There were two keys to the door of the room and he usually kept one and they in the hotel kept the other. He was always quiet and sober and very reliable.

Frank Male, ostler at the hotel, said he saw Smith on the evening of the 26th in the bar having a little brandy, and he had a drink with him. Between 10 and 11 he saw Smith in the yard when he asked for some brandy because he was feeling ill. He brought some brandy and Smith drank it when standing on the steps in the yard, then wished him good night. Witness slept in a room adjoining one end of the billiard room and Smith’s room was at the opposite end. When he went to bed about 11 o’clock he did not see Smith and there was no light in his room.

The Coroner : Did you notice a smell of gas? A very slight smell.

It must have been slight, because if it had been bad you would done something? I should have been very uneasy had there been a bad smell, but it so slight.

Witness added that he got up the following morning about 7.15, and when he passed through the billiard room there was still a very slight smell of gas, and he noticed that Smith’s door was closed. He happened to return to the billiard room at about 9.15 and saw Mr Hayter, the marker, sweeping it. During their conversation he opened the door and saw Smith lying in bed. He did not expect to see him there so went across to wake him, and then noticed he had a peculiar colour. When he touched him he found he was cold. Directly he opened the door he noticed a strong smell of gas, but did not feel any ill-effects from it, and the smell was not so strong as to cause him to think that Smith might have been overcome by it. The windows of the room were closed, though the windows in the billiard room were open.

Frederick Hayter, formerly billiard marker at the “Chough,” living at Clifton Row, West Street, said that he tried to light the gas in the billiard room during the evening, but could not do so, although an hour earlier it was alight because a game of billiards was in progress. Upon enquiry he learnt that the meter was all right and the burners in the bar alight. He thought there must be a stoppage somewhere, and as it was rather late he decided to go to the Gas Company the following morning. When he came to work again about 9am he noticed a slight smell of gas in the billiard room. He attempted to light the burners again, but he could not do so. Presently Male came into the room and he described how they discovered Smith’s body.

In reply to Mr Jackson, witness said that previous to the last 14 days Smith had slept in a room which had electric light attached. He was perfectly certain he turned off the burners when he unsuccessfully tried to light the gas the night before.

PS Brice said that when he entered the billiard room at 9.35am, he smelt gas very strongly, and when he opened the door of the bedroom the gas was so strong that it nearly took his breath away. Smith was in bed and undressed, and his clothes were on the bed rail, but his bed clothes were not dis-arranged. He searched the room and tried to discover where the gas was coming from, but he could see no burner. In a corner of the room, however, there was a gas pipe an inch in diameter, and when he got near he heard gas hissing from it, and about a foot from the floor he noticed a tap had been removed from the pipe. Any interference with the pipe would prevent gas going to the billiard room, but there was a smaller pipe, which supplied the bar, which had been pulled away six or seven inches in order to allow access to the nut of the tap. He found the tap on a small stand, and owing to the rust upon it he thought it must have been on the pipe for some time before it was removed. He formed the opinion that a spanner must have been used and he discovered a bicycle spanner there. He searched Smith’s clothes and found £2 15s 8d in money, and the envelope which Mrs Tizzard had referred to, and which contained a blank sheet of notepaper. There were no letters, only a testimonial, some postcards and photographs.

Mr Jackson : Have any enquiries been made to see whether Smith purchased the spanner at any shop? No, I have made no enquiries. He added that there was formerly a burner in the room and there remained of it a piece of pipe, which was blocked, from the ceiling, and if anyone had it in mind to poison himself one could have easily opened this pipe with a knife.

Mrs Mabbett, of 62, College Street, said that she was employed at the hotel, and she went to the room on April 26th, having previously got the key from the office. As she had to bend to attend to the carpet she particularly noticed that the tap was in its place. When she left she locked the door and took the key to the office.

Ida Emily Smith, the widow, living at Tavistock, said she corresponded with her husband four or more times a week. She received a letter from him on April 27th (the day he was discovered dead), and the letter was quite a cheerful one, and told her the train he was coming by the following Friday when he was demobilised. She had not the slightest idea as to why he should wish to take his life, if he did in fact do so, but she could not believe it. He had complained of pains in his head. The envelope referred to was written by her, and she put the blank sheet of paper around the letter she had written (because the envelope was rather thin) so that the writing should not be seen through the envelope. She could give no other explanation, and he had always been anxious to come home and he had arranged to start work on May 3rd. They had two children.

The letter which Smith wrote to his wife was read at the request of Mr Jackson, and was in a cheerful vein and spoke of his home-coming.

The Coroner, in summing up, said that as Smith had been dead in the room for some hours with the gas hissing from the pipe all the time, and the windows and door shut, one would naturally have suppose that Male would have noticed something much more then a “strong smell” of gas. In fact, when Sergt Brice went into the room he was nearly choked, and he (the Coroner) supposed from this that the explanation was that some people were more susceptible to gas than others. The extraordinary fact was that the marker was able to light the gas in the billiard room early in the evening, and yet an hour or so later he could not do so, so that it must have been during that time the tap was removed. It was possible that Smith might have gone to his room and removed the tap, without the marker seeing him pass, though that was merely a supposition on his part.

The jury retired to consider their verdict, and upon their return they announced that Smith died as the result of gas poisoning, but they decided that there was not sufficient evidence to show how his death had been brought about.

The Coroner : You return an open verdict?

The Foreman : Yes.


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