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A Tragic Story From My Family's Past

The British Newspaper Archives have this week taken me back 115 years on an adventure of the heart as well as the mind.

Before the 20th century the occupation most attributed to male Petchey’s of Essex County, was agricultural labourer. The story I have uncovered is a heart rending tragedy involving two farm boys, James Ernest Petchey, aged 17, and his 12 year old nephew Harry. They were working boys who were also good friends.


The following story involving my own ancestors was discovered by searching

the British Newspaper Archives

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The ancestors I have in common with them are my great, great, great grandparents Samuel Petchey (1793-1863) and his wife Sarah. Their son Edward and his wife Emma were the parents of James and their daughter Eliza was the mother of Harry. Harry was registered as Edward Harry Petchey and his grandparents Edward and Emma raised him from birth. Eliza Petchey later became Eliza Cottis, although I have not found any record of her marriage.

farm gate

In 1901, Edward and Emma were employed at Finch’s Farm near Paglesham, Essex. It was on Sunday morning, 27th October 1901, when James arose early to go about his duties. Rooks were plaguing winter crops and they needed scaring. He took down his old double barrel shot gun, that had only a single working barrel, and loaded it from his pouch: half a thimbleful of powder and a quarter of shot. At 7 am he left the farmhouse to go about his business.

Harry was then playing outside with the farmyard dog, his grandfather Edward and his sister Florence. He obviously had a fascination for guns. His mother recalled that on the previous Thursday he had been picking potatoes at an adjoining farm when he came home for some bread and butter. While his mother was getting it he took hold of the gun and looked down the barrel. He had been cautioned about it before but obviously did not heed those warnings. Seeing his uncle going off to scare rooks he quickly went up to join him. James was holding the gun with the butt resting on his left foot.

“Is the gun loaded?” Harry asked James, “Can you see anything down the barrel?”

“No!” said James, “keep away from it, it might go off.”

“She won’t go off,” Harry retorted and promptly stuck his head over the barrel, peering down into it.”

Exactly how it occurred is not certain. At the inquest James said he was unsure, he never felt any interference with the gun. But somehow, a part of Harry’s clothing caught either the trigger or the hammer. Although the hammer was not cocked it was found it had a very light action and if lifted, just a little, it would spring back and the gun would fire. The worst thing possible happened. The gun discharged, blasting shot through poor young Harry’s forehead.

farm house down the barrels

At the end of the inquest held the following week at Finch’s Farm, after hearing all the testimonies, the Coroner finally summed up the whole tragic affair.


“The witness, James Ernest Petchey, gave the only evidence available as to the accident itself. The mother had said there was no disagreement between the two boys. The witness Petchey, I might say, has given his evidence in a very straight forward manner; there was no hesitation in his story.”


A chorus of approval as to this statement was heard from the jury, who, without retiring, returned a verdict that the lad had died from a shot wound caused by a gun that was accidentally discharged.


The Foreman added that the jury would like to express their condolences to Mr. and Mrs. Petchey in their trouble.


Just what consequences arose from this accident I have been unable to determine, however, upon looking at the 1901 census, which must have been taken after the above incident as young Harry is not listed with their other children, Edward and Emma were now living in Bowers Gifford.


Neither have I found any record of James Ernest marrying and having children, however, he appeared to live to the ripe old age of 93, passing away at St Michael’s Hospital Braintree in 1977, leaving behind just £93.