Robert Hume unveils the Irishwoman who became the world’s first car accident fatality.
Each year about 1.2 million people die worldwide in car crashes, now the 9th most common cause of death.
In Ireland over 40% of fatal collisions are due to excessive speed, while alcohol consumption plays a factor in 38% of deaths on Irish roads.
But when Mary Ward died 150 years ago this week from a broken neck and fractured skull, she had not been driving like a bat out of hell, nor had she been drinking. She was not tailgating, undertaking, nor failing to look in her blind spot – and she certainly wasn’t texting at the wheel. She was crawling along, perfectly sober, as a passenger in a spanking new vehicle.
The 42-year-old daughter of the rector of Ballylin, Ward was a promising astronomer and entomologist. Her manual, Sketches with the Microscope (1857) – self-published because she could not find a publisher willing to accept a scientific work from a woman – had been taken on by a London publisher and was proving a bestseller.
Eminent scientists had praised her detailed, near-photographic quality drawings of stars and planets, made using ‘Leviathan’, the giant reflector telescope built by her cousin, the Earl of Rosse at Birr Castle, and she was one of only three women – along with Mary Somerville and Queen Victoria – on the mailing list of the Royal Astronomers’ Society.
But instead of being recognised for her achievements in science, Mary Ward (great-grandmother of actress Lalla Ward who played Romana in Dr Who) is remembered today as a statistic: the first person in the world to be killed by a car.
On 31 August 1869, Mary and her husband, the Hon. Captain Henry Ward, were travelling through Birr in Co. Offaly – or Parsonstown as it was known then – in the company of their two young sons, Charles and Richard, and their tutor, Richard Biggs. It is not clear who was at the controls of the vehicle, a steam car, which her cousin had built in the family workshop. It had taken over an hour to get steam up, but the car was now merrily travelling down the Mall ‘at an easy pace’, about three and a half miles per hour.
Suddenly it jolted while turning a sharp corner by the church, leading to Cumberland Street.
Mary, who was perched on a stool at the front, slipped off, and fell into the road. A second or two later, one of the car’s heavy iron wheels ran over and crushed her head.
Dr Woods, who lived nearby, ran to the scene:
The Locomotive Act of 1865 stipulated that a vehicle should travel at a maximum speed of 2 mph through a town, and that a man carrying a red flag must precede it by at least 60 yards. No evidence exists that this was being observed.
An inquest was held at Birr Castle on 1 September. After hearing from Dr Woods and other witnesses, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. Mary’s death certificate records: “accidental fall from steam engine. Sudden”.
Like the vast majority of road deaths since, human – not mechanical – factors were to blame.
After the crash, the family left for Castle Ward, Co. Down – where, today, visitors can see many of Mary’s scrapbooks, paintings and microscope.
The vehicle was broken up, as was customary with machinery involved in accidents. Family lore says that it lies buried under the courtyard of Birr Castle.
Among the more high-profile car deaths since that time have been Grace Kelly, who suffered a stroke and lost control of her Rover P6 3500 in 1982; and Diana, Princess of Wales who died when her Mercedes S280 struck a pillar in the Pont de I’Alma road tunnel, Paris in 1997, on the very day as Mary Ward died, 31 August.
On Saturday August 31, there’s a walking tour in Birr,commemorating the life and work of Mary Ward.This will be followed by a book launch - a reprint of her first book with new introductory essays. The book will be available to buy from 1 September and included in the essays is the transcript of the inquest held after her death.