Tragedy On Derby Day

31 May 1911

The New King Attends he tDerby - Illustrated London News 03 Jun 1911
The New King Attends the Derby
Image Source Illustrated London News 03 Jun 1911

Owing to the coronation of King George V in early June, the Derby of 1911 was held a week earlier than usual on the 31 May. Despite this, an estimated gathering of over 100,000, surpassing all previous records, had made their way to the Downs for the races on a warm sultry afternoon.

After the main race had been run, the oppressive heat was interrupted by a few hailstones bouncing around the feet of the crowd. Suddenly there was a vivid flash of lightning followed by a terrific crash of thunder and it appeared "to let loose all the elements of rain and hail in a merciless torrent" People trying to leave the course on foot or in open carriages were soaked to the skin and women in their fine summer dresses were left drenched and bedraggled. The roads into Epsom became muddy flowing rivers and people were forced to a standstill.

A photograph taken at the 1911 Derby
A photograph taken at the 1911 Derby

A group of 20 people who had already left the Downs, ran to take shelter against the wall of the reservoir on Banstead Downs, eight of them were struck by lightning and two killed outright, George Curran from West Ham and William Storr from Lower Sydenham. The coroner at the inquest later said that he thought the lightning had been attracted by a wet bowler hat that was being worn by one of the deceased. A bicycle nearby had its handlebars broken by the lightning and the boots of one of the victims were split apart.

As another cyclist coming from the Downs approached the reservoir he decided to stop there, remarking to a colleague, "I think I'll get off and shelter under this wall" No sooner had he spoken then he was struck and knocked unconscious, suffering severe injuries.

Back at the racecourse, one of the victims of the violent storm was a young greengrocer named Wilfrid Noah Wetherall, aged just 17 and who came from Beddington near Croydon. The fate of young Wilfrid, who was sitting in the back of his employer's horse drawn cart at Buckle's Gap, went unnoticed for some time as the thunder and lightning crashed all around. The terrified horse began to panic and several people tried to restrain it, calling to Wilfrid to help them. It was then that he was seen sitting with his hands raised as if to ward off a blow. The crown of his straw hat had been cut out by the lightning and the brim had slipped over his face. The horse was also struck and killed but amazingly people sitting around them were unaffected.

Later at the Epsom mortuary the boy was found to have a fern-leaf design on his body as a result of the lightning strike. A survivor said he had seen a ball of fire and that he tasted sulphuric acid in his mouth. Several others were said to have been "rendered quite deaf for a considerable time".

At Tattenham Corner a group of eight men working as job-masters were standing in a tent when they were struck. One man was seriously injured with severe shock to the system, burns to his arms and legs and loss of muscle action down the right side. Another man was leaning on the rails by the course when he was struck, he remained unconscious for over two hours and was taken to Epsom Cottage Hospital.

The chaos was not only restricted to the Downs as the storm reached out as far as Mitcham, Morden Bletchingly, Godstone and Redhill it caused immense damage to property and several people were seriously injured. Among them was a ten year old boy in Bletchingly who was hit and was found to have a scar in the shape of a fern-leaf, similar to that of Wilfrid Weatherall. Fortunately the boy survived. Water rose to over three feet high in places and in Godstone, hail the size of marbles lay six inches deep, bringing traffic to a standstill.

In nearby Tadworth the hail was so fierce that people were left with bleeding hands and faces and in the North Looe smallholdings in Ewell, 50 chickens were drowned.

Huge amounts of rain fell that afternoon but the greatest downpour was at Banstead where 3.59ins [92mm] fell. By the end of that awful afternoon, five people were dead and scores were severely injured many of them needing hospital treatment. At the inquest into the Derby deaths the coroner said he had heard many people say that the storm was a judgement on those who visited the races He described the remark as "a very foolish one".

Janet Painter © 2011


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