CWG: Pioneer James McDowell

Pioneer James McDowell

James Valentine McDowell was born in Ashburton, Devon, on 2nd January 1865. He was one of eight children to William and Louisa McDowell. William was a labourer, and this was a trade that James also took up when he left school.

In the summer of 1884, James was brought up to the Devon Assizes in Exeter, on the charge of attempted suicide. A local newspaper reported that:

It appeared that on June 13th the prisoner, fully dressed, was seen lying at full length in the Yeo, his head resting on a stone, but the remainder of his body was under water. The stream, however, was but three feet deep and six feet wide at this particular point, so the actual danger was not very great.

A witness seeing the position of the prisoner called upon him to come out of the water. He did so. He was very drunk. On leaving the Yeo, the prisoner proceeded towards the Dart, and on his way wished the witness to bid his father and mother good bye. Arrived at the Dart the prisoner attempted to throw himself into the water, but was prevented and handed over to the police.

When in custody the prisoner said this was the second time he had been in the water: next time should be more lucky. Subsequently, however, he stated that he only went to the Yeo for a wash, and this statement he now repeated.

The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, and his Lordship, in discharging the prisoner, advised him next time he wanted a bath not to get drunk beforehand, or he might find himself in deeper water than that in which he was discovered on the present occasion.

Western Times: Saturday 26th July 1884

The same Assizes saw trials for embezzlement, horse stealing, larceny, stack-burning and endeavouring to conceal the birth of a child. The alleged perpetrator of a count of buggery was found not guilty (his alleged offence not named in the same newspaper), while a Henry Davy, 51, was sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour for indecently assaulting a 6 year old girl.

The following year found James back on track. He married local woman Mary Ellen Ellery; the couple set up home in Ashburton and went on to have seven children. The family settled into a routine – James worked as a mason’s labourer; in his spare time, he joined the 3rd Devon Militia. His and Mary’s daughters found work as wool spinners, while their sons also got into labouring work.

War came to Europe in 1914; despite his age, James wanted to play his part. He enlisted when the call came, joining the Royal Engineers as a Pioneer on 19th August 1915. Within a week he was sent to France, and this is where he stayed for the duration of the war.

Pioneer McDowell returned to England on furlough on 2nd February 1919, and was waiting to be demobbed. However, tragedy struck before that became a reality, the same newspaper picking up the story some thirty-five years later:

An Ashburton man named James McDowell, aged about 56 years, a private in the Royal Engineers Labour Battalion, who joined up in August 1915, and had been in France continuously since that time, was found drowned in the mill leat of the the River Yeo at the rear of the cottages in Kingsbridge-lane early on Saturday morning.

He left his home at Great Bridge about 8:30 on Friday night for a short time. To get to the town he had to pass along by the river, which was running very high through the recent heavy rain, and it is supposed that he must have fallen in and had been washed down to where he was found, which was a considerable distance.

He had been demobilised, and was on furlough, and every sympathy is expressed for the family on their sad loss. Dowell [sic] who was well known and was of a jovial disposition, leaves a widow and grown up family.

Western Times: Monday 24th February 1919

Later that week, a summary of the inquest was printed:

Dr EA Ellis said he found a ragged cut over deceased’s left eyebrow, but otherwise there was no sign of violence. The cut was inflicted before death. A post mortem revealed that the cause of death was drowning. His theory was that deceased fell into the river, his head coming into contact with a stone, which inflicted the wound and caused unconsciousness. The spot where the accident was supposed to have happened, he thought, was unsafe and dangerous.

…the jury returned a verdict that the deceased was found drowned, caused by accidentally falling over the wall at the top of North Street… and they wished… to call the attention of the responsible authorities to the danger at this spot, and to the unsatisfactory state of the lighting there.

Western Times: Friday 28th February 1919.

Pioneer James Valentine McDowell drowned on 21st February 1919: he was 56 years of age. His body was laid to rest in the graveyard of St Andrew’s Church in his home village.


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