Friday, January 21, 2011

The Deodand

Until today, I had never come across the word deodand. If I had lived in the first decade of railway development I might have seen it regularly. The deodand, which means something given to God, was frequently in the news when railway accidents were common.

The experimental nature of the technology and the lack of awareness of the dangers of speed led to a number of railway accidents, many of them fatal. The problem that juries found was that there was no mechanism in law at the time to award compensation to victims of accidents, so they settled on the medieval precedent of the deodand to meet the need. Under this law, the thing that caused the death could be seized by the Crown, sold, and the money donated to the Church - given to God. Later, a cash payment in compensation was acceptable. In the case of railway accidents, the locomotive was seen as causing the death and was therefore forfeit, or usually a monetary amount set at the value of the locomotive.

In November 1840 at Harrow a waggon had apparently derailed in the late afternoon. The immediate stations along the line were notified and people began efforts to clear the line. At about 5 o'clock, a goods train, hauled by two locomotives (as was the practice in those underpowered days) was coming towards the accident on the up line. The first driver, Brown, shut down his power on seeing the red light but the second driver, Joseph Simpson, merely stepped it down and still maintained forward power. The rain collided with the one in front which was in the process of pulling the obstructing waggon out of the way. Brown survived the crash but his fireman, Dawson, was caught under the wheels while jumping for safety and killed, and apparently Simpson was also killed while jumping for safety. His fireman survived.

After several days of hearings, the jury, which had also listened to evidence from John Bedford of Wolverton, Superintendent of Police, that Simpson had not previously been a negligent driver in any way, found Joseph Simpson guilty of the murder of William Dawson. Simpson, being already dead, could not be hanged for murder; however, the jury set a deodand of £2,000 against the value of the two engines.

The tailpiece of this story is that the agent of Lord Northwick, Lord of the Manor of Harrow, appeared, in a piece of monumental cheek, to claim the £2,000 deodand for himself on the basis of a charter issued in the time of King Stephen. The judge very curtly told him that he would have to make his case to the Exchequer and would hear no more.

In 1846 an Act of Parliament which properly dealt with compensation awards was passed, consigning the deodand to history.

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