Grim Deaths And Treasure Are All His Concern (19 April 1974)
With the retirement of Mr. John Smithie, Bletchley’s town manager, I can think of only one man prominent in local affairs who still holds the position he held when I came to this district in 1946.
He is Mr. Edward T. Ray, who for the whole of that time, has occupied the ancient and honourable office of coroner for North Bucks.
Mr. Ray, of course, has been prominent in other respects – such as clerk to the local magistrates, president of the Bletchley Chamber of Trade, president of the post-war Bletchley Town Band and a leading figure in the Boy Scout movement – but over and above all that has been his regular appointment as coroner.
The office of coroner is one of the oldest in our system of local government. We read that coroners were first appointed to keep check on the county sheriffs at a time when those officials were becoming almost minor kings, though both were subject to election by the freemen’s courts of the counties.
As the centuries went by and the appointment of “Conservators of the Peace” later known as Justices of the Peace, pushed sheriffs into the background, the duties of the coroners shrank accordingly.
In their case, however, a necessary division of labour came into play. Someone was still needed to inquire into suspicious deaths and into the ownership of treasure trove, and those functions fell to the lot of the coroners.
To carry out these functions coroners necessarily have considerable powers in their own courts for much may depend on their judgment.
Quite early in my reporting life my duties included attending a city coroner’s court twice a week. I suppose that in those days many more poor people died without having “had the doctor” than happens today. At any rate, a good many of the cases needed only the pathologist’s report to establish the cause of death.
One result, however, was that I gained a knowledge of the meaning of the then-prevailing medical terms and of how to spell them.
But what I most recall about that court is the powerful personality of the coroner himself. While the witness was being conducted to the stand, the coroner took a snuff-box from his waist-coat pocket and sniffed a pinch up each of the widest pair of nostrils I have ever seen.
Then, after the coroner’s officer had told the witness to take the book in his right hand, the coroner put away his snuff-box, stuck a monocle in his right eye, fixed the witness with a glassy glare, and barked “. . . and repeat after me, please.” I often wondered what would have happened had some unlucky witness actually “repeated” there and then.
I do not recall anything like the number of road deaths to be inquired into that there are today. There was, however, one kind of death which was fairly frequent and which was particularly nasty, since it exclusively concerned young women and girls.
Each had been drying her hair or just standing in her nightie in front of an open fire when suddenly she was wrapped in flames.
There are not many such deaths today, but having reported so many in former years, I do seriously add my warning to those of fire prevention officers.
Collecting an inquest jury could have its problems, but in my earliest years in Bletchley the idea seemed to be to get suitable men who might be expected to have more time to spare of a morning than most.
The coroner’s court being held in the magistrates’ court-room in Simpson Road, the choice usually fell on a sprinkling of publicans and a sprinkling of other tradesmen at Fenny. And they invariably appointed ex-police superintendent E.E. Callaway, of the Bull Hotel, as their foreman.
Over the years some of them must have spent a good deal of time on that duty, and this paragraph is written in recognition of the fact.
Most of the unnatural causes of death to which mankind is prone have come under the scrutiny of Mr. Ray. Death on the road, death on the railway, death in the canal, death in the woods and fields. Most often by accident or misadventure, but occasionally by suicide.
Most of the time ordinary people have been concerned. But I recall one occasion when the body of the court was occupied by a number of fairly high-ranking RAF officers from the experimental station at Farnborough. This was for the inquest on a test pilot whose machine crashed in Brickhill Woods.
Expressing his sympathy, Mr. Ray typically pointed out that the pilot had lost his life in the country’s service equally with those who had lost theirs in war.
As to treasure trove, I suppose some coroners could spend the whole of their service without coming upon a case. Mr. Ray, however, has had at least one such case to my knowledge.
This happened some years ago when two local archaeologists discovered a hoard of Roman silver coins while a natural gas main was being laid at the Brickhill crossroads.
The inquests I have referred to have been those undertaken at the Bletchley courthouse only. Mr. Ray’s “parish,” however, extends far and wide over North Bucks, including Wolverton, which was bigger than Bletchley 25 years ago.
But of inquests in those parts, which are now all in one with Bletchley in the new Borough of Milton Keynes, I cannot write with the same intimacy.
In general, it would seem to be that while councils may come and councils may go, the office of coroner goes on for ever.