Family History: Accidental Death

Family History: Accidental Death

Lockdown is the perfect time to do a little online family history research. The moment you visit a website such as FindMyPast, Ancestry etc, you can say goodbye to several hours of the day.

Once you’ve pieced together the bones of your research (birth, marriage, death and census records), newspapers archives are a great place to look at to get to know your ancestors that little bit better. Of course, some people may never appear in a newspaper, apart from maybe their death notice, but others (such as my “drunk & riotous” ancestor) may appear quite frequently.

My first jaunt into using newspapers for family history research was over a decade ago, using the microfilm machines at Ludlow Library. Ah yes, the good old days of having to scroll through a reel of film, only to discover the article you hope will be there is at the end of the reel. Of course, once you’ve (hopefully) found the article, you then have to rewind the microfilm back onto the reel and all by hand! As fun as that was, I much prefer today’s technology of being able to search online from the comfort of my own home.

Today, I thought I would share with you a little about my 3 x great grandfather which I discovered through searching newspaper archives (offline & online)…

Christmas 1899 was not a happy time for the Middleton family of Burfield, Clun, Shropshire. On the evening of Friday, 8th December 1899, John Middleton was drunk in charge of a cart, it wasn’t the first time, but it was most certainly the last.

I’ve been told that John Middleton was a serious drinker (he’s not the first I’ve found in the family!). After a drinking session (perhaps flush with cash after selling animals at the market), the cart would be hitched up to the horse, John helped up onto the cart, the reins strapped to his hands/arms and he would be sent on his way home (the horse knowing the way having travelled it so many times).

A few years previous to the fateful evening… On 31st December 1894, John was found drunk in charge of his horse and fined 8 shillings including costs at the Petty Sessions the following month in Purslow. Did he learn his lesson? Apparently not!

On that cold December evening in 1899, John Middleton (aged 63) was found dead on the road just a mile from his home, the reins still wrapped around his arm and the horse across the lane. He had been sitting on the side of the spring cart but had evidently fallen off the side of the cart, receiving head injuries. Had he fallen asleep in a drunk stupor (quite likely) and fell or did something else cause him to fall? The jury at his inquest returned a verdict of “Accidental Death”. Just before Christmas, the Middleton family was left without a husband and father.

Other instances of John Middleton appearing in newspapers include a report of a Martha Edwards stealing John’s axe in February 1872, and he is briefly mentioned in the report about his son George’s golden wedding anniversary in January 1944 (just over 44 years after he’d died!).

John Middleton’s gravestone.

John’s wife Matilda survived him and died in 1924, aged 81 years. Their gravestone, a beautiful Celtic cross, stands proud in the churchyard of St George’s Church, Clun. The inscription reads:

In Loving Memory
John Middleton
who died December 8th 1899
aged 63 years
Until the day break and the shadows flee away.
Also of Matilda his wife
Who died Jan 14th 1924
aged 81 years

Once again, newspaper archives have proved helpful. I love the glimpse into times gone by that they provide. More and more newspapers are being digitised and indexed all the time, so it’s worth going back and searching again if you haven’t found anything previously.


  1. Alejandra says:

    It’s so nice to see the history of our ancestors right? I am still looking for mine as they are quite scarce, and with the mixed genealogy of mine I think it will be impossible, but your post reminded me of this and now I will try again.
    Just a question: what were the petty sessions? And how do they put 2 person in 1 grave? Normally families have like a space for all the coffins, but never thought about a grave for 2.

    Take care,

    • Nikki says:

      The petty sessions were like a small local court dealing with minor offences etc.

      Many of our graves here will be for 2 people… A single plot is often dug deep enough to hold 2 coffins, although apparently you can have 3 in one plot. Sometimes there are family plots too, but not many of my family would have been able to afford one of those (although some have been lucky enough to have been buried next to each other, due to being in a rural area).

      Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment!

  2. Hi Nikki,

    A few years ago, my mother-in-law was well into tracing back both her own and her husband’s family trees, she even purchased a lap-top so that she could, like yourself, while away an endless few hours, researching online.

    Now, at almost 90, she has given up on it, as she went back as far as she could go from traditional means of obtaining records, and her next recourse was having to travel around the country to delve into parish church records.

    I actually got quite caught up in it all, as coming form Portsmouth, it turned out that both families had quite a colourful history!

    I’m pleased that you have found out so much about your 3 x great grandfather quite so quickly and I hope that you carry on with your research.

    Take Care 🙂


    • Nikki says:

      Hi Yvonne,

      I’ve been researching my family history for around 20 years now… I found the first newspaper article on John Middleton over 10 years ago (at the library) and the others just this past week (online).

      Many of the parish records are now online in some form or other and are being added to all of the time.

      A colourful history sounds fun! Most of my ancestors were agricultural labourers and pretty non-eventful.

      I hope you’re well. Take care.

  3. Interesting that you’ve had two relatives found dead on the side of the road, with the horse nearby!
    My sister is the family-tree researcher; I’ve done a bit for my husband’s family, and even found his great-grandparents in a nearby cemetery, which he had no knowledge of.
    My parents are children of immigrants, so my sister researches information in Italy, Poland, and every other country in Europe. She recently found some long-lost cousins, living in the same area that my mother’s mother lived in, but no one knew about them until now.

  4. What an interesting family story. You’re right, time while pass quickly when doing this kind of research. You can find so much other interesting info along the way. Have a wonderful evening and stay safe.

  5. Kelly says:

    What a fascinating story! Poor guy… you can only hope it was a drunken stupor so that he didn’t see what was coming!

    When I was in college, I had a job in the archives searching newspapers, clipping articles, and photographing them to make those microfilms. 😉

  6. Carol says:

    I had great-great grandfather who came home one night dead in his buggy – shot! Horse brought him home – poor widow was cheated out of farm within a year I was told. Fascinating to hear these stories.

  7. Kris P says:

    I’ve some friends and relatives on my husband’s side that have gone down similar rabbit holes looking at family histories. I admitted to a friend that I’d rued the fact that I hadn’t taken the opportunity to learn more family history from my mother before she passed away in 2013. My friend immediately dug into her resources and found some interesting, if basic, information on my father’s parents. Complicating matters, my grandparents on both side migrated from Scandinavia so the US records are slim to start with.

  8. Alan says:

    Family history research can consume years never mind a few hours from what I’ve seen of friends’ research. My family history remains unknown.

  9. Diana Studer says:

    I started digging back thru family history with my mother – till one day she answered my questions abruptly with – that’s enough now. And there the story ends. Never did think to take time to ask my father.
    Since my mother came from London and my father from New Zealand, I have 2 cabin trunks to remind me of LONG journeys. My mother’s was HER grandmother’s and crossed the Atlantic 3 times to visit sons in Vancouver and California.

    • Nikki says:

      I can’t tell you how many times I asked my grandparents things and got the reply “I don’t know” or “We were told never to ask when we were children”. I’d go away and do some research and excitedly go back to them with a story only for them to turn around and say “Oh yes, we know about that!”.

  10. It’s amazing that you were able to do this! I’ve always wanted to do my family tree but there are a few gaps only a few generations back so it’s a tough one. My grandma did her side of the family a while ago but they only made it back to the early 1800s. I’d love to get the fuller picture one day x


  11. Lisa says:

    I’ve never explored my family history like this before but I know on my father’s side there were some real rogues so that would be fun to find out more! Lisa

  12. Eunice says:

    What a fascinating story about your 3x great grandfather. I’m afraid I have neither the time nor the patience for researching family history so I have someone doing it for me – he’s 83, more computer literate than I am, and says he does it just to keep his brain active! He’s found some very interesting skeletons in my family cupboard – one distant relative was found drowned in a local pond not far from where I currently live, another was imprisoned for beating his wife and starving her and his child to death, and I’ve also got cousins in America who are still living. I don’t know how far he’s going back with this but it’ll make a lot of interesting reading when he finally gives me all the paperwork 🙂

  13. Aimsy says:

    It is so interesting looking into your family’s past, isn’t it? More so when you don’t have the older generation around anymore to tell you the information. We have been looking into our family tree on my mum’s side for years, but often do come up to a blank at parts. I can’t wait to see what else we can find out.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Aimsy xoxo
    Aimsy’s Antics

  14. jeanie says:

    I cannot tell you how much I love this post and how much I appreciate your deep dive into your family history. It’s so important, isn’t it? To know the STORIES, not just a list of dates and places. That’s helpful, of course and a good record. But not terribly interesting. John Middleton is interesting. Sad. Tragic. But interesting. I’ve blogged before about my genealogy search and my book I’m writing about them and I was lucky to have many anecdotal stories from my mom and her aunts. But the richest, most fascinating stuff came from digging deep into the people we didn’t know and I discovered so much, as you have. I really need to get on a newspaper site and I appreciate your mentioning that because I know there must be something somewhere that is beyond what I have in piles of clippings or online searches.

    And by the way, that Celtic cross is so very beautiful. It’s a wonderful memorial. I hope you share more stories!

  15. Enjoyed reading that, Nikki. It’s easy to lose yourself in stuff like this, where the past comes alive learning about people of whom you are a part. You start to imagine what a conversation with them would be like.

  16. Passionnant de pouvoir retrouver ainsi ces ancêtres , mais aussi d’en connaitre leur histoire au travers des années passées
    J’aime beaucoup cette croix celtique !
    Merci pour cette page d histoire

  17. Lauretta says:

    This is fascinating! It must have been amazing to find out about your family history like this. I wouldn’t mind giving it a go myself. Poor John – but if you’re going to go, go happy I guess!

  18. My main reason for researching my family tree was my nana’s insistence that I was related to the Rowntree (Of York) chocolate making family (I’m not :- though I am a descendant of the Rontree family who were chocolate makers living in York). You are so right, once you get onto sites such as these you are hooked.

    I’d also hoped for someone of notoriety, a murderer or two, someone who had perhaps found themselves transported to Botany Bay would have been great but so far (and I have got back as far as the mid 1800’s) nothing.

    What a wonderful if tragic tale you have uncovered in your family’s past. Its wonderful that we can now gain such insights into our family history relatively easily.

    • Nikki says:

      I was told that a distant cousin has married a Red Indian. After some research I discovered she had in fact married and Indian man… from India!

  19. Hi Nikki thanks so much for calling in at March House Books. It was lovely to hear from you. We are all well, thank you. Hope the same is true for you?
    I’ve found many a drunken ancestor on Find My Past. 🙂 My membership ended a few years back so I’ve done no more research on my family but it is something I intend to take up again one of these days. Keep well, love Barbara x

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