A summer’s evening stroll in the park ended in tragedy for two families

Local historian Thomas Walsh delves into our archives to tell the tale of an horrific accident at the entrance to Mesnes Park which claimed the lives of two innocent victims.
Mesnes Park gates which have had a chequered history over the yearsMesnes Park gates which have had a chequered history over the years
Mesnes Park gates which have had a chequered history over the years

One of the saddest chapters of Mesnes Park’s history was on July 4, 1957.

It was a warm summer evening and I can’t help but think that had the weather been inclement this chapter would not have been part of the park’s story and two families would have been spared a lifetime of sorrow.

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The tragic events that were about to unfold on the 4th of July started in The Park Hotel, where an American serviceman Russell Boaz made the acquaintance of a Wigan man Thomas Watts, a 37-year-old shoe repairer.

Boaz had been drinking heavily all day celebrating American Independence Day. Watts, who when interviewed by the police said he had drunk two half pints but when asked by Boaz to drive him home agreed to do so - even though he had never driven befor.

From the time Watts took the wheel, the fate of two innocent people was sealed - a 14 year old school boy Thomas Philip Higham from nearby Heeley Street who was riding his bicycle and an engineer Luigi Scerri.

The latter was taking a stroll in the park with his wife and other relatives, Mrs Scerri and her brother in law had just left the park when she saw a large car careering towards them, her brother in law pulled her away from its path in all probability saving her life Her husband and another family member were still inside the park admiring the flowers.

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The car collided with two cyclists, one of whom was Thomas Philip Higham, who sadly was one of the victims of this tragedy.

It then demolished the gates and two pillars striking and killing Mrs Scerri’s husband Luigi inside the park. At the subsequent trial a police man gave evidence that the car came to a halt in a flower bed, approximately 60 yards inside the park.

The gates that proudly stand guard at the entrance of Wigan’s Jewel have witnessed so many happy times, many marriages came became about because courtships that started there, as young people promenaded from them to the steps and back again in the hope of meeting a suitor, Sunday afternoons being the most popular for this particular endeavour.

Countless thousand of children have run excitedly through those gates to enjoy delights of the park, and if funds allowed an ice cream in the cafe.

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During WW2 the gates, much to the chagrin of Wiganers were removed along with the railings to be sold for scrap and the money raised would be used for the war effort. Over the years I have heard many stories about how the gates survived. Ranging from being buried during the duration to be unearthed when peace was achieved. There was another piece of folklore that held sway, they had been stored for safekeeping in the crypt of Wigan Parish Church. These and other ‘urban myths’, romantic though they are, were just that. The truth is much more mundane, but no less interesting for that.

After the war they were discovered in a local scrap yard somehow they had escaped the melting pot and thankfully were still intact. The council repurchased them from the owner of the bushiness, and they were refurbished by Bridge and Sons (Wigan) Ltd. and we’re proudly rehung in July 1950.

The same firm restored the gates after this horrific incident. At the time, a spokesman for the firm said all the fragments were sent to the their Seven Stars forge. Unbelievably it was found that the former Wigan Coat of Arms, the old Moot Hall, which decorated the centre of each gate had escaped damage.

As a matter of interest each gate is six feet wide and eight feet six inches high at the highest point and each weighs 7-8 cwt; this information came to light whilst researching the terrible incident.

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The trial held at Liverpool Crown Court heard that the car involved had been parked on The Market Square.

It was referred to as ‘an American car’ throughout the trial - the make and model never mentioned. Witness said at the outset Boaz took the driver’s seat before changing places with the accused. Other witnesses gave evidence that the car was driven recklessly hitting a parked car and a bus, the speed when it hit the park gates was estimated to be 50- 60 mph .

After the trial, Watts was found guilty by a Jury of 10 men and two women, of causing death by dangerous driving. The trial Judge expressed astonishment that Watts had never driven a car before. In sentencing him to 18 months imprisonment on each charge to run concurrently, he said that the Jury had no alternative other to find him guilty as charged.

A heart-breaking aspect of this tragedy Thomas Philip Higham’s father was walking past the past the scene of the accident and saw crowds milling around the park gates not realising that his son was involved and carried on with his journey.

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Only when he arrived home some time later and a result of being told by a neighbour, did he attend the mortuary to identify his son.

Whist researching this sad story I have been aware that Thomas Philip Higham was roughly the same age as me and consequently I have a feeling of empathy with him. I can’t help wondering what life would have held for him. A life snuffed out because an act of utter stupidity

I wish from the bottom of my heart that I hadn’t needed to write this piece, but tragic though it is, it is part of Mesnes Park’s story and needed to be told.

As I alluded to earlier ‘if’ it had rained heavily on the day in question the people involved would no doubt have stayed at home; but as it has often been said ‘If’ is the biggest word in the English language!

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