The inquest was held last Friday afternoon on the body of Mr. R. L. Lawson, the owner of Saltwood Castle, whose dead body, with a gunshot wound in the head, was found in the Castle grounds last Wednesday afternoon, as reported in our last issue. The East Kent Coroner, Mr. Rutley Mowll, conducted an inquest at the Saltwood Working Men's Institute. Mr. Oswald Cox represented the deceased's relatives.
The Coroner, before the jury viewed the body, said it was a very distressing case, for no doubt many them knew Mr. Lawson as a prominent resident of Saltwood, residing at the Castle. He was 38 and the tragedy occurred on Wednesday afternoon about 4.15. When the body was found Mr. Lawson was lying face downwards, full length on the ground, with his arms under his body. The body was turned over before the arrival of the police and a 12 bore double barrelled shot gun was lying at right angles to the body. The safety catch was not in the safe position, and the right barrel had been fired through and contained an empty cartridge. The head was shattered on the left side. There were two unfired cartridges in deceased's right hand jacket pocket. He understood that a gunsmith would be called before them and would tell them that the release action of the shot gun was not quite normal. The front trigger, he understood, was rather light and sensitive to the touch, but the triggers were protected. It was possible that the foremost trigger was discharged by the gun falling to the ground.
The scene of the accident was the edge of a spinney not far from the Castle. There was a 2ft. 6in. high wire fence near where the body was found, and the two top strands of wire were barbed. From what he had heard he rather doubted whether the barbed wire had much to do with the affair. From where the fence was towards the position in which deceased was found there was a gentle slope, and the fence was higher than the ground where the body was found. The ground was moist and slippery. It looked as though the gun was discharged in a vertical position, and he understood that some of the pellets dropped on some steps where some workmen were engaged some 100 to 150 yards from the scene of the tragedy.
Walter Edward Skipp, Estate Secretary to the deceased, said he had identified the body. Deceased, he added, was a gentleman of independent means. A juryman asked why they had not been allowed to see the place where the accident occurred. The Coroner said that was not a question for the witness to answer.
Bernard William Turner, of Rose Cottage, Rectory Road, Saltwood, a gardener in the employ of deceased, said on Wednesday afternoon about 3.30 he was talking to Mr. Lawson in the Castle gardens. He then seemed quite all right, and he was planning different things for the kitchen garden. He was talking with him for about ten minutes, after which he went into the Castle. About ten minutes later Mr. Lawson came out again with his gun. Deceased had mentioned when they were talking that he had seen several pigeons flying about, and he said he would like to try for one. Deceased walked straight to the spinney and a very few minutes after witness heard the report of a gun and quite a number of pigeons fly out of tho spinney. After that he carried on with his work until the tea gong sounded at the Castle. He went to the Castle, and was requested go and find Mr. Lawson as tea was ready. "I went straight through the gardens to the spinney, where I found Mr. Lawson lying on his face," continued witness. "I then fetched Gilbert, the other gardener. We turned the body over and saw that Mr. Lawson was obviously dead. We then went straight away to the Castle to get a doctor and the police. The arms were completely under the body, only the stock and breach of the gun were showing, the stock being under the feet."
Police Sergt. Brooker, of Hythe, said he arrived at the scene of the tragedy at about five o'clock. Witness produced a plan of the spot, and this was shown to the jury. The ground, added witness, sloped up towards the fence, and the head was higher than the feet. Where the body was found the ground was partly mud and partly grass. The head was less than six inches from the fence. The Coroner: Was there any mark of slipping?— That I could not definitely say. There were a number of foot marks there. The right barrel had been fired, and contained an empty cartridge, and the left barrel was loaded. There were two other cartridges, not of the same kind, in the right hand jacket pocket of the deceased. There was a slight scratch on the right hand, which might have been caused through falling. There was also a bruise on the same hand. On the inside of the left sock, above the ankle, there was some mud. The fence was 2ft. 6in. high, and the top two strands of wire were barbed. The soil was slippery.
The Coroner examined the gun, which was produced, and after he had put it in a firing position he tried to "fire" it by knocking the butt heavily against the floor, but the triggers were not released. Mr. Turner, recalled, said that deceased was a very good shot and had plenty of experience with a gun. A juryman examined the gun and said it took quite a pull to pull the trigger off. Police Sergt. Brooker, replying to a juryman, said there was no sign of deceased having tried to get over the barbed wire fence.
Charles William Churcher, "The Gate" Inn, Hythe, a gunsmith, said he had examined the gun, which he tested for pull. He found the right tigger pull was 3½lbs. and the left trigger pull 41bs. The right trigger pull was on the light side. He compared the pull with three different makes of brand new guns and found the average pull was 4½ to 5lbs. The Coroner: Did you see whether the gun would go off on falling or receiving a jolt?— Yes, I did. With what results?— I could not get it off. Witness added that the lever of the gun had been strained, and the strain might have been due to the catch catching in one of the wire strands of the fence.
Dr. E. C. Rayner, of Hythe, said there was a wound on the left side of the head, consisting of a deep central groove. The charge of the shot had penetrated to the brain, and death must have been instantaneous. He thought the head must have been turned to the right when the gun was fired, thr gun probably being about 6 inches from the head. After the doctor had shown how he thought the gun was being held when it was fired, the Coroner said it seemed an extraordinary position for a sportsman to have a gun.
A juryman remarked that they had had evidence of how the deceased got on in his home and whether he had any mental worries.
Robert Albert, of 7, Beckett's Terrace, Saltwood, an under gardener in the employ of the deceased, said when the shot was fired he was about 140 yards from where the deceased was found and he heard quite a number of pellets fall on the steps. Deceased and the gardeners were in the habit of crossing the fence.
The Coroner said they had had no evidence from the house. Mr. Skipp said Mrs. Lawson was not in a fit condition to come. One of the jurors said deceased had been involved in a fatal accident near Ashford, a little girl was killed. Did that worry him? Mr. Skipp: Not more than it would anyone else, I think. The Coroner: Have you seen him since then — No. Mr. Skipp added that deceased and his wife were ideally happy. They hardly did anything without one another.
Dr. Rayner said he saw deceased on the Monday before the tragedy, and he then seemed all right, happy and cheerful. The Coroner said he himself enquired about the accident referred to, and the Deputy Coroner for East Kent had told him that deceased had no reason to blame himself for it.
Summing up, the Coroner said there was no evidence of any design on deceased's part to take his life. What evidence there was went in the opposite direction. They had heard deceased was happy and cheerful and that he had no worries whatever. He thought it was not at all improbable that in some way or another that deceased, losing his foothold or slipping, the gun went off. How that could happen with the trigger so well protected he could not tell them, but truth was often stranger than fiction.
The jury returned a verdict of death from misadventure, almost at once.
A fortnight before the tragedy, Mr Lawson had been riding in a car in Ashford when it was in collision with a little girl, who died of her injuries. It was said that the accident affected him badly. Mr Lawson had recently purchased Hurstmonceux Castle, for around £100,000, and was restoring it, under the supervision of Mrs Lawson, in order to live part-time there, and part-time in Saltwood. He also owned a house in Audley Street, London.
His family had been dogged by tragedy: in 1903, his elder brother, Lionel, had died in a fire at Eton College and, in 1920, his brother, Frank, had also died. Mr Lawson had inherited about £200,000.