I’ve carried out further investigations into John Barker’s death. The coroner held an inquest two days later and decided it was an accident. He based this verdict on the testimony of one witness, Henry Clarke, whose account raises a few questions. Clarke described how a cart broke away from its blocks, rolled down a hill, then struck a trolley. Although both vehicles were on the move, Barker ran between them and tried to apply the brake on the trolley. It seems odd that there was sufficient space, and that the victim didn’t realise the consequence of his actions.
The press report the day before gives a different (and more believable) story. It suggests Barker was trying to halt the trolley when the second cart broke its blocks and thundered down with such force that crushed the showman and caused significant damage to other vehicles.
It sounds implausible that there were two runaway carts, unless the possibility of sabotage is considered. Just over a year earlier, James Wenn, a retired coastguard from Lowestoft, died on one of Barker’s rides. The tragedy occurred in the Cattle Market, the same place where Barker would perish. The consensus at that inquest was that the victim was drunk, but the one dissenting voice was a Harry Smith, listed as either a nephew or son-in-law of Wenn. Smith denied his relation was intoxicated and blamed Barker’s company. His anger at the accidental death verdict may have been inflamed by the magistrate’s threat to not pay his expenses on the grounds he had lied.
It’s easy to imagine Smith either bribing or threatening Clarke to keep quiet about what really happened. Most likely it was a simple accident, but…