Click here to return to the main site entry page
Click here to return to the previous page
Adapted, Eric Jenkins, 24th October 2001. See Wellingborough News 16th November 1900, p.3.
Frederick James Barge
Actor shot

A portable theatre opened on Duck Street, Rushden, on Friday 9th November 1900, with a play "Driven From Home". There was a poaching scene in which a gun was used. On Tuesday 13th November, before the curtain rose, the company were standing in a group behind the scenes, conversing. One suggested that the shooting scene should be rehearsed. The gun was accidentally discharged, and being loaded with a live round instead of a blank, the bullet went into the leg of an actor and shattered the bone below the knee. A doctor was sent for, and he sent for the Rushden ambulance team who carried him to the Infirmary at Northampton. Inspector Onan made enquiries about the incident but decided that no crime had been committed. The injured man, Frederick James Barge, died at the Infirmary on Wednesday morning, 14th November, and on Thursday morning an inquest was held in the Board Room of the infirmary, before the Borough Coroner, C. C. Becke.

George Lewis, Assistant House Surgeon at the Infirmary: The deceased was admitted on November 13th, Tuesday, suffering from a compound fracture of the left leg, resulting from a gunshot wound. He died the next day.

Harry Farris: I am the Manager of a strolling theatre company, at present performing at Rushden. On Tuesday, we were performing a piece which required a gun to be fired.

Coroner: How did you provide the cartridge?

Farris: I always give the property lad orders to get a blank cartridge. I didn't see that one, but he has always got blank cartridges before. One of the gentlemen of the company, Wilfred Dewsnap, had to take the gun on to the stage unloaded. He asked me if that was the gun for him to use, and I said, "It is”. I took it from him, and told him I would load it before the second scene in which he would use it. I took hold of the trigger to show him how it worked, and it went off in my hand. I have always loaded it myself, and seen that the cartridge was a blank one.

The gun was produced, loaded and fired.

Farris: At the time, Barge was standing close to me, and the charge went into his leg. A doctor was sent for immediately.

Coroner: How long has the boy in charge of the cartridges been with you?

Farris: Six or eight weeks. He has often bought the cartridges.

Coroner: Was it his duty to load the gun?

Farris: No. I always do that myself. I never allow any other member of the company to do it.

Coroner: Do you know as a fact that he loaded it?

Farris: No, I had not the slightest idea it was loaded. I didn't need the cartridge till the second act.

Wilfred Dewsnap corroborated that evidence. He believed that the gun was not loaded.

John Dench (18), property boy (cautioned by the Coroner about incriminating himself by his evidence): I was told to fetch a cartridge. I had done it before. Sometimes it is a blank, and sometimes a charged cartridge.

Coroner: You knew that the cartridge to be used on the stage should be a blank?.

Bench: No. I have put one like that in before.

Coroner: Didn't you know that the gun in the first act was to be unloaded?

Dench: No. I had never seen the play before.

Coroner: Hadn't Mr. Farris told you that he would always load it. Did you tell anyone that you had loaded the gun?

Dench: No. I was out, up the street, at the time.

Coroner: Where do you get the cartridge;?

Dench: At the top shop, William Freestone.

Coroner: Did you ask him for a blank cartridge?

Dench: No. He knew what it was to be used for.

Coroner: Did he tell you it was a live one?

Dench: Yes. He offered to withdraw the charge, but I said I would do it.

Coroner: Why didn't you?

Dench: I was doing something else, and then I forgot about it.

When I came back from my tea, I slipped the cartridge into the gun.

Coroner: Why didn't you do it at once, there and then?

Dench: I went home for tea.

Coroner: You thought your tea was more important then?

Dench: When I came back, Mr. Farris had it in his hand. Then the accident happened.

A juror: Have you ever taken the charge out of a live cartridge before?

Dench: Yes. Three or four times.

Coroner: You have put a loaded charge into the gun before?

Dench: Yes. At Skegness. The gun did not point at anyone.

Coroner: Didn't the bullet damage the scenery or anything?

Dench: No, the gun was fired with the muzzle pointing down. The stage was made up of earth, not boards, so the shot went into the earth, not splintered the woodwork.

A juror: When you were first instructed to fetch a cartridge, did Mr. Farris tell you it must be a blank one?

Dench: No, sir. Some times he did.

Coroner: Who fired the gun on the occasions when a live cartridge was used?

Dench: Mr. Farris.

Coroner: Let Farris stand forward. Do you recollect these occasions?

Farris: It might have been live when we couldn't get a blank, but I fired it into the ground myself.

Coroner: That was very dangerous. A blank makes a good report.

Farris: When we couldn't get a blank, I used to cut the top off and draw out the shot.

William Freestone, assistant to Mr. Nattrass, ironmonger, Rushden: The boy came to me for a number twelve cartridge. I asked him if it was to use in the theatre and I offered to extract the charge from a live cartridge, as we had no blank ammunition. The boy said he would do it himself. He said, if he had a penny for every charge he had drawn he would be rich.

Henry Robert Barge, Woodstock Road, London E.: The deceased was my brother. He was 53 years old, a widower, and an actor.

Coroner to the jury: If you believe Farris, the boy improperly put a live cartridge into the gun and left it in the dressing room. Dewsnap asked for the unloaded gun he was supposed to use, and it was handed to him as being unloaded. Farris took it from him for the purpose of showing him what to do, and it went off. You have to decide whether anyone was legally guilty of such dereliction of duty as to make him responsible for the death of the man. If you believe Farris, he had no idea the cartridge was not a blank one. If he had known, he would be responsible for what happened. The young fellow, Dench, did not tell you quite all the truth, but you will come to the conclusion that he knew the cartridge should be a blank one. Instead of doing so, he put a live round into the gun, and went off to tea. He did not return until after the accident. Was he guilty of negligence, as to make him criminally responsible, and thus guilty of manslaughter? But he could scarcely be said to have the absolute duty of withdrawing the charge. He was neglectful. How far was that culpable neglect? If it was a case of foolish forgetfulness, you could say death was accidental.

After the jury had retired for ten minutes, the Foreman led them back to ask supplementary questions of Dewsnap. They ascertained from him that he had never used the gun before, and that the company had only started at Rushden three days previously.

Returning from another retirement, the jury found a verdict of Accidental Death, adding a rider. "The manager must be more careful than to allow a boy to purchase live cartridges and keep then in his possession until required.

Farris: I promise to purchase all cartridges myself in future.

Coroner: That's the best way. Dench, the jury have taken a lenient view. You were undoubtedly careless in placing a live cartridge in the gun at all. Your carelessness has cost the life of this unfortunate man.

Click here to return to the main index of features
Click here to return to the People & Families index
Click here to e-mail us