Noak Hill's first road death or something far more sinister ?

Del Smith

Thomas Philip Reynolds died one hundred and twenty five years ago. It was the 5th July 1890 and Thomas's brief life had come to a violent, premature end. The five year old was discovered, apparently asleep in the middle of the road outside his home. His sister had thought he was sleeping when she went out to fetch him but his mother, Ellen Eleanor Reynolds finally went out to check for herself and she knew he was dead.

  At the inquest the mother claimed that she had seen a hay cart heading away further down the road. This evidence was backed up by her brother-in-law James Reynolds who confirmed he too had seen a wagon though he hadn’t seen the driver. The driver of the cart, if he ever existed was never traced, in fact no attempt was made to trace him. If identified he could have been asked as to how he came to run over a five year old without noticing, perhaps his horse was also blind. Didn't the horse shy, was there was no jolt to the cart, did it just trundle on down the hill leaving the corpse "sleeping" in the middle of the road? Why didn't anyone recognise the cart or the horse. How many carts were there trundling up and down this quiet country lane, 125 years ago! Would not every local have known them all. Well apparently not. Ellen and her brother-in-law having just a casual recollection and no one else coming forward with evidence. Perhaps it's understandable for James. After all why should he notice a cart, he was allegedly working away in a roadside field oblivious to the tragedy that had just befallen his family. You might think that Ellen would have been far more interested in this cart and it's driver, after all it was the only explanation for the death of her son. Sadly not, she treats the cart as of passing interest. For her dead was dead. The cart's driver was either a figment or a fleeing killer. I suspect the former, I suspect that Ellen made little fuss because she knew the truth. Either she or more likely her husband had caused the death of little Thomas.

During the inquest held at the Bear Inn the Coroner heard that a post mortem had been carried out by Dr Mackennie and he stated “that the deceased’s liver was extensively fractured and death must have been instantaneous. The injury was consistent with the child having been run over or violently squeezed” The foreman of the Coroner's jury was Mr. J H Smith the local farmer from Wolves and Joy's (now Widdrington Farm) in Paternoster Row. He employed eleven people and was for some time the Chairman of the Noak Hill Parish Council. He would have known the Reynolds well, he was a very frequent visitor to the Noak Hill School. All in all a local bigwig. The rest of the jury wouldn't have argued with him out of fear or respect, who knows. Anyway he wasn't too keen on spending any more money on a serious investigation. Why waste money on the peasants. Hence the verdict "Found Dead" and as Ken Hatfield points out later "talk about state the obvious"

  The first of the Reynolds family arrived from Broxted in the 1820's when at  least two Reynolds brothers came to marry Noak Hill girls. They liked it there and they settled in Noak Hill. They were both farm labourers. The father of the dead boy Thomas was one son, one of many of the first settler also called Thomas. He was just one of the first generation of Noak Hill Reynolds born and bred in the hamlet. He eventually married Ellen, probably in about 1880. By now the family were very well established in Noak Hill. Thomas having been  born there on the 11th October 1857, Ellen being born nearby in Stapleford Abbots in 1863.
The couple were undoubtably fertile, Ellen bearing at least ten children, not really that unusual in those days. What was unusual was the circumstances surrounding the deaths of two of them.
  Almost all of the menfolk were farm labourers. When the women worked they were often servants but mostly the women were too busy child bearing or child rearing, leaving little time or energy for paid work. Many male members of the extended Reynolds family were troubled and troublesome; they regularly featured in local news reports. Every report I have been able to uncover is negative. Likewise in the Noak Hill School logs every entry is negative. No prizes, no commendations just a string of reports of misdemeanours and punishments. The Reynolds were not easy to get on with.


Damage to the liver and other internal organs is not unusual in road accidents neither is it unusual in child abuse cases. In adults the liver is protected to a great extent by a mature rib cage but in young children ribs are softer and more pliable. Compression of the abdomen through impact even by a kick or punch can seriously damage the liver. That damage might not lead to instant death, it could be a lingering death the child might well die later in its sleep.

The following is taken from the clinical review website "" It's a more in depth explanation of my synopsis above

    "Blunt abdominal trauma occurs in 10 to 15 percent of injured children  Solid organ injuries are common in children who sustain major trauma with isolated injury to the spleen occurring most frequently  Injuries to the liver spleen and pancreas occur in two typical scenarios  isolated injury caused by a direct blow to the upper abdomen  or multi-system trauma caused by high-energy mechanisms (eg motor vehicle or all-terrain vehicle crash fall from a great height). Isolated injuries to these organs are more common but those associated with multi-system injury are more life-threatening with reported mortality as high as 12 percent The liver spleen and pancreas lie in the upper abdomen. They are partly protected by the ribs. This protection is less effective in children than in adults because the ribs are very pliable and because the liver and spleen may extend caudally beyond the ribs  especially in infants and toddlers.  In addition  children have relatively larger viscera  less overlying fat and weaker abdominal musculature In children  almost all injuries to the liver spleen  and pancreas are caused by blunt force The mechanism can be a direct blow to the epigastrium with deformation of the abdominal wall  avulsion of the blood supply by rapid deceleration  puncture by a fractured rib or crushing against the vertebral column
Because the liver and spleen are highly vascular injuries to these organs can cause fatal blood loss either from the parenchyma or the arteries and veins that supply them  Both perform essential physiologic functions  but the spleen can be removed completely to stop bleeding when all other approaches fail"

   There are many ways to kill children obviously you can shake them or beat them to death. You can neglect them through your own ignorance or indolence. Or maybe like the old woman who lived in a shoe you could have so many children you simply didn't know what the hell to do with them. Obviously as parents the Reynolds were either pretty unlucky, pretty careless or maybe pretty hopeless. Because just five years after the death of Thomas the Reynolds lost another child. It was yet another unfortunate accident. This child, eleven year old Ellen Reynolds was found in a farm pond. The story goes that Ellen left her home with her five year old brother to collect a can of water from the pond at Harold Hill Farm. She fell into the pond and by the time her five year old brother had run home and the would be rescuers had returned Ellen was dead, presumed drowned. It was late March. The pond margin may have been slippery. The girl could easily have been just four feet six inches tall or even less and she certainly would never have had a swimming lesson. Even so to drown in a small farm pond is somewhat unlucky, maybe just as unlucky as being run over by a hay cart. Harold Hill farm was not far from where the Red House stands to this day. The most significent pond belonging to Harold Hill Farm was roughly at the junction of Whitchurch Rd and North Hill Drive. There were other possibilities, two of them belonging to neighbouring Brickkiln farm in the Taunton Rd Fields. They are long gone, lost under what is now Hitchin Close. They were all small ponds as can be seen on the 1895 map below. These were primarily cattle drinks, all very much smaller than the any of the three main ponds in Dagnam Park. For example it would take six or seven ponds the size of the largest pond on Harold Hill Farm to fill the Dagnams Lily Pond.



There is some evidence though it's not conclusive that at the time of the "drowning" the family were living at Brickfields on the Broxhill Road and although it seems a long way to go from Brickfields to Harold Hill Farm there may not have been any clean ponds with easier access. Whichever way you look at it, fetching a can of water all that way implies that the eleven year old was not a weakling. There is also a possibility that the family were still living in the Noak Hill village area. Even so that journey to the pond would have been even more arduous. Kids were reputed to be much tougher in those days and it may well be that Ellen Jnr had undertaken the task on previous occasions, anyway on the 16th March 1895 she arrived at the pond for the last time. We know that because she was found dead there by her mother, grandfather and a neighbour. Did she fall, was she pushed, was she just dumped there? we will never know.

The Reynolds family were well known locally and probably avoided by many of their neighbours especially when in drink. The cuttings below are typical of many from the period. Though note that Thomas doesn't feature.










The women folk were not exempt from problems Barbara Reynolds getting involved in an incident with a neighbour in 1877. Barbara was the wife of James Reynolds and of course she may have been entirely blameless. Naturally even when young the Reynolds youngsters were joining in the fun. Alfred and George Reynolds were each fined five shilling plus costs for riotious behaviour at a Harold Wood church service in December 1881.


















 These news cuttings refer to the first Noak Hill generation of Reynolds.

But what of the next generation, the generation that included young Thomas and Ellen the blameless victims in this sorry tale. We are fortunate because as well as some birth, death and census records we also have the Noak Hill School log books for the period of their education. Not all children get a mention in the books, they needed to be very good or very bad. As for the middle majority it seems they drifted by unrecorded but I am sure not forgotten. Well the Reynolds were certainly not part of the middle majority and they made their mark for all the wrong reasons. They appear on numerous occasions throughout the nineties and beyond into the turn of the century. Between 1888 and 1904 one Reynolds or another regularly appears in the books. James Reynolds is the star performer, being constantly punished for abusing the girls, cheating, idleness, etc. The Reynolds girls also get mentioned but they were blameless really.. They feature for having brought vermin into the school. (it must have been a frequent problem but there are few records in the log books) Below some selected entries from the Noak Hill School log books exemplifying general neglect, undoubtably precipitated at least in part by the widespread poverty. The sisters Emma, Daisy and Florence were cousins of the two dead children.

Author's Note. Perhaps it's time to fess up here; in the eighties our children attended Ingrebourne School and two of them picked up head lice on two occasions, who knows they may have passed them on before we were aware. Needless to say we spent a lot of time with nit combs and various chemicals in our frantic efforts to eradicate them. Our son was sent home on the afternoon of an important football match and refused readmission until we had eradicated the problem. Even with all the modern chemicals at our disposal it was quite a job. So I am not rushing to judgement on this.

Nov 20th.1903

During this week complaints have been received from the parents that their children though sent clean in the morning have returned at night with vermin both in the head and body.  The cause of this having been traced to three sisters (Emma, Daisy & Florence Reynolds) the matter was at once reported by J.H. Smith Esq. to the Medical Inspector of Health, who after examination found that both the children and their home were infected with pedicule (lice).  These children are therefore suspended from attendance till certified by M.O.H. fit to resume.

Dec 4th. 1903   

The Reynolds are still away.  The elder sister of these children called with her sister to inquire if they could be re instated.  The master told them that immediately they were certified as clean they should at once resume their places.

Jan 15th.  1904

The Reynolds having been certified as cured returned to school this week after some weeks absence. 

Feb 12th. 1904  

The boots of the children are beginning to fail through the continued heavy weather.  Owing to the kindness of Mrs. Sands (The Priory) the three Reynolds children were each provided with a stout pair of boots and a pair of woollen socks, as their own were absolutely useless.

Oct 10th. 1904

Rather better attendance today.  One girl came with her clothes very untidy, and her back showing in places, so I sent her home to get them mended.

Oct 11th. 1904

The above girl (Reynolds) absent today.

Oct 18th. 1904

I have received complaints from parent that their children coming to school clean, return home with vermin.  I have traced the same to the Reynolds Family and this morning I sent them home as they were so untidy & dirty.  I went to Romford and informed the Vicar & J.H. Smith Esq. who promised to have the same attended to immediately.

Oct 21st. 1904 

Average for week. On books 79.  Present 78.  Average 73.4.  %92.9.  This is rather lower than usual owing to the 4 Reynolds being absent since Tuesday.

Oct 28th. 1904 

Removed names of 4 Reynolds this week.  Also V. Joyce who is not likely to be at school for some time.

Oct 31st. 1904 

The 4 Reynolds have been returned clean & tidy and I have readmitted them, acting on the advice of the Vicar.


All in all the extended Reynolds family were at the very least a cause of concern for the other residents of Noak Hill. Most of them would probably have preferred that the original settlers from Broxted had simply stayed there.
 Times were hard for rural communities in the 19th century. Agricultural labourers had no job security they could be dismissed on the spot by the farm owner and that would most often mean that they and their family would be turfed out of their home. Their bargaining power was minimal or non existent and when they earned wages those wages were often barely subsistence. Life was a grind and little wonder that some succumbed to the demon drink.

If anything the wives and children were worse off than the men. The women were expected to care for an ever growing brood of children, no birth control in those days. They were expected to do it all on poverty wages and they had to cope 24 hours a day and 365 days a year it’s little surprise that some of these women failed in the task. The extended Reynolds family often failed wholesale but there was mitigation they had some valid excuses. Though none failed so spectacularly as Thomas and Ellen who lost two children to fatal “accidents”

Many Reynolds children died, some are buried in the Noak Hill churchyard.  Every Noak Hill familiy would have known death. There are numerous babies and children listed in the parish records as dying as babies or in early childhood. It is difficult to work out which Reynolds family they belonged to because death certificate information is limited to the name, age, date of burial, abode and vicar and of course the chances are they would not appear in the ten yearly national censuses. The best you can do is to look at the birth dates of the surviving children and if you find a gap of two years or so between them then assume that a baby or a child had died! Having said that no other Reynolds family seem to be as unlucky as Thomas and Ellen. Death by disease or illness was commonplace. Two deaths by accident seems to be unprecedented in the village and probably far beyond.



















Post script

Just in case you thought James got over his childhood exuberance. Well apparently not, as a young man he continued to raise hell in his own sweet way. Here he is in Navestock in 1911 doing his own version of hell raising. Looks like he would have fitted in well in any Harold Hill pub in the sixties on a Saturday night. Though the people Reynolds assaulted were in their seventies, that didn't happen, even in Harold Hill pubs. Don Tait has researched this tiny Beer House. The Harrow was in fact run from a cottage at Curtis Mill green and a brief history can be found here. or here Curtis Mill Green History




In researching this document I have used many internet resources including

British News Archive.

Essex Record Office.

Find My past.

Special thanks to Ernie Herbert, who died in 2014, for his painstaking transcription of the Noak Hill School log books. And to a small army of my friends and critics who have each in their own way either improved or attempted to improve my original text. I considered all of their suggestions. I rejected some and I made changes in response to others. I am grateful to all of them for giving me cause for reflection.

Finally of course the local historian Don Tait has given his advice and guidance as freely as ever. Thanks Don.


Ken Hatfield has contributed his own comments on the story, below. Any other comments or additional information will be welcome.

At the inquest of young, Thomas Philip Reynolds his mother claimed that on reaching Thomas’s body in the road she’d seen a hay cart heading down the same road which, if her claim is true, must have either been very shortly after arriving at and then passing Thomas’s body lying in the road or, after running him down. This so called sighting of the hay cart was confirmed by Ellen’s brother-in-law who had been working in a nearby field. Was this collusion between them in an attempt to throw the authorities off of the scent of something more sinister?
       Both said they hadn’t seen the driver of the cart, well Ellen wouldn’t have seen the driver looking at the cart from behind would she, particularly if it was laden with hay? I assume this information came as an answer to a question put to them both by the authorities. If so, was this as far as the questioning re. the cart went? As said in Del’s account, no effort seems to have been put into tracing this mysterious cart and it’s driver but more importantly and given what is written below, there were never any questions posed by the authorities for the reason for the mention of this cart by the two for what did it prove? I believe the mention of this hay cart to be a fabrication by Ellen and James Reynolds and one which was presented as a smoke screen in their belief that the presence and location of this cart at the time would provide a plausible explanation for the untimely death of young Thomas. I also believe that it was successful in doing so, at least in part, and should never have been. There were so many questions to be answered which I understand may not have been asked at the time and on the surface and from the limited information available today, the “investigation” by the authorities at the time was very much wanting. It is my belief that had a thorough investigation been carried out and the resulting more substantial evidence been made available to the inquest jury then the verdict would have been a very different one to that which was reached and which was one of, “found dead”, talk about state the obvious!
        It appears highly unlikely that the cart’s driver, if a cart existed at all, would take no notice of such a scene before him, a five year old lying “asleep” in the road. If this cart and it’s driver did ever exist, either the driver ignored the boy lying in his path, perhaps even being forced to steer his cart around him or, he ran over him with the cart and then carried on along the road at the same leisurely pace (see below). If this were the case he would surely have heard a cry or scream as the cart’s wheel(s) ran over Thomas and if so would almost certainly have brought the cart to a halt immediately and ran to the back of the cart to investigate. The whole idea of any involvement of a hay cart in the demise of Thomas is, in my opinion, unlikely to say the least. It seems very strange that here was Thomas lying dead, apparently asleep, in the road and not so far away, a hay cart, presumably with the horse walking, otherwise it would almost certainly have been stressed by the two that it was making off at speed with the horse at a trot or quicker, and which had either passed Thomas’s body or had actually run over him. One of these applies if the cart’s existence is to be seen as credible. Strange too is the notion that a walking horse could actually run over a child without the driver noticing, either visibly or audibly. Was there bruising to the body of Thomas consistent with being run over by a cart wheel? Was there any bleeding from Thomas’s body? Did Thomas’s sister ever mention a hay cart and if not was she ever questioned about one?
One scenario is unlikely but it does need to be considered. Was Thomas actually asleep in the road and did a hay cart come along and run over him with the driver of this cart asleep and / or “in drink” at the time thus being unaware of any incident taking place? As said, just a possibility. I find the post mortem comments amazingly brief. No mention at all of cuts, abrasions or bruising to the skin, only reference to internal injuries. I know it’s over a hundred years ago but to me it is so obvious that a large cart wheel would definitely leave it’s mark on young skin and there would very likely be a cut left by the iron or steel rims which would probably have been fitted to the wheels of the cart. A sad case indeed.
Just five years after the death of Thomas the Reynolds’ lost another child. It was yet another, “unfortunate accident”. This child, eleven year old Ellen Reynolds was found dead, drowned in a small pond some considerable distance from her home. She had, by her mother’s account, been sent there with her five year old brother by her to collect a can of water from a pond, possibly one at Harold Hill Farm, see map. She had apparently fallen into the pond and drowned. It is believed the family lived at “Brickfields” on the Broxhill Road (see map) some distance from any of the small ponds seen on the map, see attached. Why was she sent to fetch what would be about a gallon of water, probably less, (a gallon of water weighs ten pounds, some weight for an eleven year old girl to haul over a long distance) from a dirty pond which the cows would use for drinking and defecating in and one so far away? Where did the family usually get their drinking water from? With surrounding countryside being a lot higher than the location of “Brickfields” there is a natural spring nearby their home (see map) so I cannot see the reason for this errand at all. My point is, wherever they used to get their drinking water it wasn’t from a pond so why this journey to the pond to fetch water? I don’t believe that Ellen was innocently sent such a distance to fetch some dirty pond water, water which wasn’t fit for drinking which leads me to ask, why the story concerning the pond, for that is what it was, a story? Again, I find that the authorities very likely failed in their duty to establish the truth in yet another tragedy involving the Reynolds family.