Somerset County Herald 26 Aug 1939 South Petherton Father and Son Drowned James William and Michael John HARRIS Funeral at Kingsbury Episcopi

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Somerset County Herald Saturday 26 Aug 1939
Page 14 Column 7





A man and his five-year-old son – the boy clasped in his father's arms – were found dead on Sunday morning in a water barrel about 200 yards from their home at Picken Bridge, South Petherton.

The victims were James William HARRIS, aged 32, mason's labourer, of Picken Bridge; and Michael John HARRIS, aged five years and 11 months.

Evidence was given at the inquest on Monday afternoon that HARRIS has been suffering from neurasthenia. He left a pathetic note, in which he mentioned what Dr. Alan J. E. EDELSTEN (South Petherton) described as “entirely a delusion.”

The Coroner for West Somerset, Mr. Geoffrey P. CLARKE, said it was a most distressing case.

The jury, of which Mr. H. F. BARTLE was foreman, returned verdicts that HARRIS murdered his son and then drowned himself, while the balance of his mind was disturbed.

The inquest took place at the Ilminster Police-court, after the Coroner had visited the house and inspected the water barrel.


P.C. WHITE, the village constable, said the barrel was standing on the ground level by the side of a shed. It was five feet high and 2ft. 6ins. in diameter, and contained 22 inches of water. There was a mark six inches above that level, showing where the water had risen when the bodies were in the barrel.

It stood on land that was rented by HARRIS, who owned a number of bee-hives.

The Coroner, in opening the inquest, referred to the farewell note left by HARRIS. “I do not propose to make it public,” he said “but I will hand it to the members of the jury, and I think it contains sufficient evidence to enable them to give correct verdicts.”

The jurors read the note before hearing the evidence.


The widow, Mrs. Betty Rosina HARRIS, who now has one child, Janet, aged four, said she had been married six years. Her mother-in-law died about six years ago, when her husband became very depressed and received medical attention. He recovered and kept in good health until about two years ago, when he had another attack. About five weeks ago he complained of pains in his side, and he worried about it very much. He visited the doctor's surgery for treatment, but continued with his work until about a fortnight before his death. The doctor advised him to rest.

On Saturday night, Mrs. HARRIS continued, her husband slept with his uncle, Mr. WELSH, and at about 6.30 on Sunday morning he took witness up a cup of tea. He was only partly dressed. Witness had a conversation with him, and asked him how he felt. He replied, “I don't feel too well. I got up to have a smoke.” He then went out of the room, and that was the last time witness saw him.

She heard Michael, who had his own bedroom upstairs, say “I want to get up.” She told him to cuddle down and go to sleep for a little longer. He repeated that he wanted to get up, and to have some bread and butter and honey. Michael looked into witness's room, and she then heard him go downstairs. That was about 7.30. Witness got up at 8.45, and on going into the kitchen she saw the note (produced) in her husband's handwriting, on the mantelpiece.

The Coroner: When you read the note you realised something had happened and called for assistance? - Yes, sir.


Police-Superintendent FRY asked Mrs. HARRIS if she could say why her husband should have written the first sentence in the note.

Mrs. HARRIS: Yes. He thought he had a certain disease and that the doctor had not told him

Superintendent FRY: How long had he been discussing that matter? - Only since he had been home.

Quite recently? - Yes, within the last fortnight.

Did he think he was becoming worse? - I do not know. He felt quite well towards evening, but afterwards he kept coming over queer. I thought it might be his nerves. After I had given him a good talking to he seemed to buck himself up, and he was quite well for a time.

Dr. EDELSTEN said he attended HARRIS about two years ago for neurasthenia and depression. He made a good recovery. About a month ago HARRIS called at the surgery, when witness treated him for neurasthenia and disordered action of the heart. He had no organic disease of the heart. He complained of pain in the side, and witness repeatedly assured him there was no organic disease.


The Coroner: Did he say anything about the matter raised in cross-examination? - Yes. I assured him definitely that there was nothing in it. He seemed convinced at the time, but each time he came back to me he asked the question again.

Dr. EDELSTEN said that when he last saw HARRIS on the previous Thursday he was still depressed. Witness talked to him, and he certainly cheered up and left in a happier state of mind.

Witness added that he saw the bodies on Sunday morning and formed the opinion that death in each case was due to drowning.

Superintendent FRY: Did he at any time tell you why he though he was suffering from this disease? - No.

Did he say that anyone had spoken to him about it? - No.

Did you think it was a delusion on his part? - I thought so, entirely. There was no foundation for it at all.


Fredk. William WELSH, a miner, of 3, Gadlys-road, Aberdare, said he arrived on Saturday to spend a holiday with his nephew (HARRIS) and his wife. They were chatting until about 11.30 on Saturday night. HARRIS, who was in very good humour, said he had been poorly, and had suffered from nerves, but he now felt “as right as rain.” Witness shared a bedroom with HARRIS, who went downstairs about 6.30 on Sunday morning. Witness dozed again, and did not see his nephew afterwards.

Frederick Arthur HARRIS, builder's labourer, of Picken Bridge, South Petherton, said he lived next door to his brother and sister-in-law. He last saw his brother about 7.40 on Sunday morning, when he came to witness's house, dressed in his pyjamas. It was quite usual for him to call in that attire at that time on Sunday. Earlier that morning witness had seen Michael riding a bicycle on the garden path. Witness did not notice anything unusual about his brother, who left by the back door.


Later witness heard that his brother could not be found, and he assisted in the search. At about 9.15 he found his brother in the water-barrel at the top of the field. It was about three parts full. He was in a sitting position with the crown of his head just above the water. He had Michael clasped in his arms, the boy being face downwards with his head under the water.

Charles RUSS, agricultural labourer of Picken Bridge, South Petherton, said he was first of the searchers to find the bodies in the barrel. He helped in getting them out.

P.C. WHITE, having given evidence, was asked whether HARRIS would have had any difficulty in getting into the barrel. He replied, “No, because he was a very small man. But I think he would have had to make a most determined effort to keep himself in a position to drown in such a small quantity of water.”


The Coroner said it was a very distressing case. For some reason not known to them, Mr. HARRIS was worried about whether he had a certain complaint. There was no doubt from the first sentence in the note that something was preying on his mind, although the doctor assured him as well that there was nothing organically wrong with his heart. It appeared that he acted on a sudden impulse for reasons that they knew had no foundation.

The Foreman announced, “We find that James William HARRIS murdered the boy by drowning him, and then drowned himself while the balance of his mind was disturbed.” He added, “We should like to express our very deep sympathy with the wife and the relatives.”

The Coroner associated himself with this expression of sympathy.

The jury gave their fees to the widow.

The Coroner stated that Dr. EDELSTONE also wished to give his fees, £3 7s, to the widow.



There were impressive scenes at the funeral of the father and son at Kingsbury Episcopi on Wednesday afternoon. Both were laid to rest in the same grave following a service in the Parish Church conducted by the Vicar (the Rev. E. R. TUXFORD). The hymns. “Our Blest Redeemer” and “Abide with me” were sung. Miss M. BRADFORD being the organist.

The family mourners were:- Mrs. HARRIS (widow), Mr. F. HARRIS, Shepton Beauchamp (father), Mrs. F. HARRIS (step-mother), Mr. and Mrs. F. HARRIS (brother and sister-in-law), Mr. and Mrs. B. BROWN South Petherton (brother-in-law and sister) Mr. and Mrs. S. TILLEY (father-in-law and mother-in-law), Mr. F. WELCH, Aberdare (uncle), Mr. T. WELCH, Aberdare (cousin), Mr. and Mrs. Arthur HARRIS, Mr. and Mrs. Henry HARRIS (uncles and aunts), Mrs. BOND and Miss D. BOND, Hardington Mandeville (aunt and cousin), Miss Edith HARRIS and Mr. Sidney HARRIS (cousins), Mr. and Mrs. B. TILLEY, Mr. and Mrs. E. SMITH, Mr. and Mrs. J. MICHELL, Mr. and Mrs. J. TILLEY, Ilton, Mr. and Mrs. J. BUNSTON (brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law), Mr. and Mrs. Harry RICHARDS, Mr. and Mrs. A. SMITH, Langport (uncles and aunts), Mrs J. PINKARD and Mrs. D. LOCKE, Somerton (aunt and cousin), Mrs. LEACH Coat (cousin).

There was a large attendance of sympathisers, including Messrs. W. H. HEBDITCH (former employer), R. FRY (employer), B. RUSS, C. BISHOP, and F. PARRIS, the Rev. R. F. SAWYER (rector of Hardington Mandeville), and many villagers.

The bearers were Messrs. G. GARRETT and S. HARRIS (cousins), C. RUSS and W. STUCKEY (neighbours) for the father; Arthur and Jack SMITH and Roy BROWN (cousins) and John RUSS, for the boy.

A large and beautiful collection of floral tributes included tokens from the lad's school chums, the inscriptions on which were written in affectionate terms, and wreaths from the employer and employees at West End Works, Kingsbury, and the teachers and children of Middle Lambrook Sunday School.

The family of the late Mr. HARRIS wish to express sincere thanks for letters and messages of sympathy and for the beautiful flowers.


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