Posts Tagged ‘drowning’

Tragedy at West Mon (Revised account)

June 20, 2008

PREFACE TO THIS POSTING

When I wrote my book, “Pontypool Memories” (October 2010), because of so many conflicting ideas and memories received from past students at West Mon, I did a considerable amount of research to try to discover the truth about the tragedy. I wrote the “Tragedy at West Mon” section of the book based on that research and now post below that section of the book.

As I said on the “About” page – bottom of right hand column – I will not be writing this blog in chronological order. After all, some memories are more indelible than others; some even occur to me as I write. But one memory I have of my life at West Mon Boys’ School remains with me as clearly as though it happened yesterday.

When I was in form 3A, that was the classroom immediately on the right as you enter the hall from the main door, there was an extra door at the front of  this classroom which led out into the corridor. Immediately opposite on the other side of the corridor was another door which led into a small room. This became the new Form One. At that time there were about 80 boarders at the school. They were the same age as the rest of us but were exempt from having to sit the entrance examination. However, that year the governors had decided to start an extra class for much younger boys down to the age of six. We thought this a strange arrangement and, when we heard that they not only had to learn Latin but Greek also, we were astounded; it sounded to us like child cruelty! This was the new Form One which was quite small having only about 12 or so boys in it. I’d often wondered why the youngest class when I started at the school was known as Form Two so perhaps this was a return to something which had existed many years before, but this is only supposition on my part.

Later, in 1947, an incident occurred which had a shattering impact on everyone at the school.  One of the little lads from Form One, Robin Henry Lafone, of Radcliffe, Lancashire, only nine years of age, drowned in the school swimming baths. We were all horrified. The swimming baths was the place where the boys had fun. It was a heated pool and the poor ventilation system meant that you could hardly see a thing as you entered because of the cloud of water vapour permanently hanging about. But we splashed and shouted to our hearts content as we learned to swim.

Mr D.C.Harrison, the Headmaster, spoke to us about the tragedy the following morning in assembly. It seemed so sad to us all that this little lad, so young, should die during a school lesson. Apparently he had dived into the baths because of a dare. His friend, John Hancher, of Birmingham,  made a gallant attempt to rescue Robin and became unconscious is doing so, almost losing his own life.

*     *     *     *     *     *

QUOTE FROM CHAPTER FIVE OF THE BOOK:

Tragedy at West Mon

Of all the posts on my internet blog the account of this tragedy is one of the most frequently read. The tragedy occurred during my last year at the school and is certainly the saddest memory of my time there.

Based on the large number of emails I have received about the event from past Westmonians in this and other countries, I have come to the conclusion that, over the years, the re-telling of the tragedy has led to certain inaccuracies in some accounts. In view of this I have undertaken some research into the matter and now offer what I consider to be a reasonably accurate account based on newspaper articles written at the time, the coroner’s inquest, evidence given by those who witnessed the tragic event, and the opinion of the doctor who performed the post-mortem examination.

The tragedy happened on the afternoon of Wednesday 14th May 1947. The victim was nine-year-old Robin Henry Lafone who had started at the school the previous September as a Form One boarder.

Because of a pact he’d made with another boy, he jumped from the spring board at the school swimming baths into six feet of water, although he could not swim. His daring cost him his life.

At the Inquest The Coroner, Mr D.J.Treasure, was told by  nine-year-old Martin Adam Lewis of Bridgend, a particular friend of Robin’s, that they had agreed the day before the tragedy to both jump into the deep end of the bath the next day. Martin admitted that the suggestion had come from him.

The Coroner asked, “You were making a pact?”

Martin replied, “Yes, sir.”

“Did you shake hands on it?”

“Yes, sir. We had another little chat about it the next day.”

Martin went on to say that during the lesson he saw Robin get out of the bath at the shallow end. He himself walked towards the ladder at the deep end. He went on to tell the Coroner, “I had told him to jump into the bath from the side near the ladder, not from the springboard.”

He then stated that he didn’t see Robin jump in but he heard a splash and, when he looked around, he saw Robin and another boy, John Hancher, apparently fighting at the bottom of the water. He added that he thought they were just having a bit of fun.

Another nine-year-old, Robert Hughes Lewis of Abertillery, said he saw Robin jump in from the springboard. He said that Robin came up splashing about and that John Hancher, a good swimmer, had dived in to help him.

The Coroner asked Robert whether he thought Robin Lafone was in difficulties.

He replied, “Yes, sir. Hancher tried to push him towards the surface to get some air. He got his head above the water but he went under again. In the struggle Lafone slapped him and he became unconscious.”

The Headmaster, Mr D.C.Harrison, giving evidence, said that at 2.35p.m. a boy came to him in his office and said, “Sir, there are two boys in the swimming bath and they may be in danger of drowning.”

He stated that the swimming bath was about 80 yards away and he immediately ran there. As he passed through the hall he saw Mr Gilbert Garnett and he accompanied him. As they went into the baths Mr Garnett threw off his coat and dived into the bath. He brought John Hancher to the side and handed him to Mr Harrison. He then went back into the water and brought Robin out.

Mr Harrison said that Mr Wildash, the master who had been in charge of the swimming class, was lying on his stomach on the side of the bath in a very exhausted state. He recovered and immediately applied artificial respiration to John Hancher who came round after two or three minutes.

In the meantime Mr Harrison turned his attention to Robin Lafone while medical help was being summoned. This arrived in the persons of doctors Enid and Bertram Siddons who applied artificial respiration and other forms of treatment, all without success, so Robin was taken to Pontypool Hospital for further treatment. He was given further artificial respiration by relays of ambulance workers from the GWR and from Pontnewynydd Works, but after three and a half hours, hope was abandoned.

Mr Harrison went on to say that at the time there were 18 boys in the bath aged from 9 to 11. Some could swim but others were learners. Swimming was a definite subject in the curriculum and the boys were there to take the set course of instruction not to enjoy themselves.

The Coroner asked, “Are you satisfied, after what happened, that the degree of supervision which was being exercised was sufficient?”

“Yes sir,” replied Mr Harrison.

“Do you propose to alter it in any way?”

“No.”

“You don’t think it would be safer and add to the precautions to have another master or one or two senior boys present?” asked the Coroner.

“No sir, I don’t think that is necessary.”

“You are satisfied that no additional precautions could have prevented this accident, other than preventing the boys going into the bath?”

“Yes sir, I feel that.”

The Coroner replied,”If you are satisfied, far be it from me to question your decision. I shall be quite content to leave it to you.”

Replying to Mr D.P.Tomlin who represented Mr Wildash, Mr Harrison said that it was obvious that both Mr Wildash and Mr Morgan had been in the bath. “Mr Wildash,” he said, “was very exhausted. Mr Morgan had dived in and lost his spectacles. Both had done all they could to get the boys out.”

Leonard John Wildash, the art master, said that John Hancher was the first boy to enter the bath. “He sprang off the springboard and swam perfectly. The rest of the boys went down to the shallow end.” He went on, “I walked down to the shallow end, talked to two new boys and took the depth with a broom to prove to them that the water was not as deep as it looked. I was instructing one or two boys to put their hands on the rail and kick their feet up. There was a lot of shouting and splashing. A boy called Jefferys came to me and said, ‘There are two boys in trouble in the bath.’ I immediately hurried to the deep end, threw my coat off and went in.”

Mr Wildash went on, “The boys were floating face downwards. One appeared to be clutching the other around the shoulders and one boy’s legs were around the other’s body. In my opinion they were unconscious.”

The Coroner remarked, “They must have been in the water some time before you got there, and in difficulties some time before the boy came to you?”

Mr Wildash replied, “That is so. I grabbed hold of both boys about three feet under the water. I found I could not manage them with the weight of my sodden clothing. I was going down and coming up with them. They were locked together. I separated them with my knees, grabbed Hancher and pushed his head above water. As I put my head out of the water, I shouted to the boys, ‘Go and get some help.’ Help arrived while I was holding Hancher. I was pretty exhausted and lost my grip. I made my way to the side of the bath and was helped up by Major Williams [another staff member]. I lay on my stomach exhausted. Next I remember Hancher’s body lying in front of me. I knew something had to be done immediately and I applied artificial respiration.”

The Coroner then asked, “Looking back was there anything more you could have done than you did?”

“No sir.”

“Is there anything you reproach yourself with?”

“No sir.”

The Coroner then commented, “He was a little daredevil and, although he could not swim, he jumped in at the deep end. Don’t you think it would have been better to have a senior boy at the deep end to prevent people doing foolhardy acts?”

“After what has happened I agree,” Mr Wildash replied.

The Coroner added, “I think so. You can’t expect boys to behave like a well-disciplined lot of soldiers. The sole object of a lot of them is to do things they are not entitled to do.”

Replying to Mr W.R.Dauncey (for the Headmaster) Mr Wildash said he told the boys the rules before he let them enter the bath door. They said they knew them. He remembered seeing Lafone enter the water at the shallow end but did not see him get out again before plunging in at the other end.

Asked by Mr Evans how he came to remember seeing one boy out of the crowd, Mr Wildash replied, “He had a rather cheerful grin, and he was one of my best art pupils. Some boys have more personality than others.”

Gilbert Garnett, the school sports master, described how he got both boys out of the water and said he then climbed out himself and applied artificial respiration to Lafone until he was relieved. He then went to change into dry clothes. By that time Dr Siddons had arrived.

Dr Kurt Triger, who performed a post-mortem examination said that death was due to asphyxia caused by drowning. Three bruises on the face were recent and could have occurred minutes before death. Others occurred after death, and were due to the pressure of the mask used for resuscitation

The Coroner commended the efforts of Mr Wildash, Mr Garnett and the ambulance teams who applied artificial respiration after the boy had been taken to hospital. “But for Mr Wildash’s action in raising Hancher’s head above water, I might have been investigating a double tragedy,” said the Coroner. “It seems to me that it would be an added precaution if a master or a prefect could be told off to supervise at the deep end while instruction is being given at the other end of the bath.”

The remains of Robert Lafone were cremated at Pontypridd following a largely-attended memorial service at St James’s Church, Pontypool conducted by Rev W.E.H.Williams, vicar. Mr Harrison, the Headmaster, read the lesson, and the congregation included representatives of the school teaching and boarding staffs, and many pupils.

Hymns sung at St James’s were: Hail the day that sees Him rise, The strife is o’er the battle done, and Thine for ever, God of love. Organ voluntaries were played by Professor A.J.Thompson.

Bearers at St James’s were: E.W.B.Blythe (head prefect), D.Owen (deputy head prefect), B.J.Kennedy (school rugby captain), D.Fraser (cricket captain), D.A.Arnott (School House captain), and D.S.Jones (Robin’s dormitory prefect).

Four staff members were bearers at Pontypridd: Major C.Williams, Mr E.Stephens, Mr I.H.J.Evans (Robin’s housemaster), and Mr R.F.Witty.

Mrs Lafone, who had given birth to a daughter three weeks earlier, was unable to attend the funeral.

About a month later, at the school’s Annual Speech Day, John Hancher was hailed as the school hero for his brave attempt to save his friend. Amid deafening applause and cheers, he was presented with a chromium clock by the headmaster, Mr D.C.Harrison. He recalled that when the memorial service for Robin was held at St James’ Church, John was ill in bed recovering from his ordeal so was unable to attend.

We heard later that Dr Lafone, Robin’s father, was presenting West Mon with a shield for life-saving, artificial respiration and coolness in crisis, to be competed for each year by the boys.

A short while after the publication of my first post about the tragedy I was delighted to receive an email from Peter Jefferys who for the past 42 years has been living in Ilfracombe. He was the one referred to above in the evidence of Mr Wildash as “a boy named Jeffferys”. He writes:

I came upon this site after looking for a picture of West. Mon. and was amazed to see the sad account of the drowning. The boy who ran for help was myself. I was a boarder at that time . . . I returned to the school a few years ago, but most things have changed, the dormitories, swimming bath, are no more.

I have been reading through the accounts of this sad accident, which has brought many memories back again. I was the boy who ran for help and was in the same class as Hancher and Lafone. Lafone was a close friend and sat next to me in class. The day’s events of this tragedy will be with me always, and sadly the circumstances of the accident were not as generally accepted. The teacher in charge was unable to swim, and my memory of him in the water hanging on to the side of the Baths with his gown still on, is as clear now as then. I ran for help to a classroom on the ground floor, and the teacher attempted to save both boys. I was a boarder at the school, having moved down from London in 1945? until 1950.

In my reply to Peter I asked him some questions to try to clarify in my own mind exactly what happened on that day. He replied:

 

The master in the water with gown was not the teacher that I went for help to.  [I cannot recall his name.] The teacher that I went to in a class came back with me and dived in to try and save the boys. My recollection was that Garnett was not there. I did wonder why the boys were not questioned at the time about the event, but maybe we were all thought to be too young to be reliable witnesses.

Lafone jumped in, as he had been dared to by the boys, and he had been told to jump in from the deep end of the baths and jump towards the side so he could get out, although he admitted he could not swim I think he felt he could not lose face.

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