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Decisions of the Nineteenth Century Tasmanian Superior Courts

R. v. Ruffin [1841]

coach accident, Perth Coach - road accident, culpable negligent driving - manslaughter

Supreme Court of Van Diemen's Land

Montagu J., 6 April 1841

Source: Launceston Advertiser, 8 April 1841[1]

            Richard Ruffin was indicted for the manslaughter of Jane Burnfield, whose death it will be recollected, was occasioned by the upsetting of the Perth coach.

            The Attorney-General, on behalf of the crown, briefly stated the facts, without comment, and called

Peter Burnfield. - I live in this town, on the 10th February I was on the Perth Coach coming into Launceston, I got on at Perth, my wife was with me, there were other passengers on the coach, I paid eight shillings for our seats, the coach was upset; I do not know how many passengers were on the coach at that time. I can swear to five, I was sitting behind the driver, my wife was alongside of me, I saw my wife lying dead after the accident, I never saw her after that time, I was taken insensible to the hospital.

George Renton. - I was a passenger by the mail cart on the 10th February, on the morning of that day I saw the prisoner at Britton Jones's, we travelled at the rate of between six and eight miles an hour, the coach started first, about a minute before us. I observed one of the passengers drop his hat from the coach when we had gone about half a mile, I picked it up, we overtook the coach and gave the hat to the person who dropped it.

When the coach came to the hill it went on at the rate of ten or twelve miles, increasing rapidly as it descended, it swung from side to side and then overturned, there were at least twelve persons outside the coach, there might have been less. In my opinion the swinging of the coach was occasioned by being overloaded.

Cross-examined by Mr. Stephen. - The coach was going about ten or twelve miles an hour, when it began to descend, and increased very rapidly till it got to about twelve when it upset, about half way down the hill; it is a long steep hill; at the moment of the accident I was about 100 yards behind the coach.

At the request of Mr. Stephen the witnesses deposition before the coroner was here read.

Mr. Stephen then resumed his examination. I think there might have been fifteen persons on the coach, do not know how many were inside; until it got to the top of the Sand-hill it was going about the rate of six miles and occasionally down the hill it went a little faster; when the coach began to descend the hill the mail-cart was about 100 yards behind, there was no racing between them; I did not see any passenger jump up on the coach after it left Britton Jones', I saw some passengers get off before it began to descend the hill.

John Doughty. - I am a surgeon recollect the 10th February went to the Sand Hill, between eleven and twelve and saw the Launceston coach, lying in the road, and also several people. Peter Burnfield was insensible, and Jane Burnfield was dead. She was quite dead, the skull was fractured, and the brains were lying scattered about the road, that fracture was the cause of her death, Burnfield was not in a fit state to see the remains of his wife at the inquest.

Joseph Kirby, I live at Evandale, on the 10th of February, I was coming into Launceston, about a mile from town, on the Sand Hill, my attention was attracted by the upsetting of the coach, it passed me just before it upset, it was going upwards of twelve miles an hour. I believe there were upwards of twelve persons outside the coach, it was driven by Mr. Ruffin, when it passed me, it was swaying unusually, I called out to the driver for God's sake pull up or you will overturn the coach, but I do not think he heard me. I saw a woman lying dead after the accident.

Cross-examined. - When Ruffin passed me he had the reins tight in hand it appeared to me that horses had got the better of him, and he was trying to pull them up, the coach was on the left side of the road, and he got it into the middle, it was about fifty yards, from me, when it upset; it laid a little on one side, rather across the road, the hind part went over first as if something had given way in front.

Thomas Cooper, I was a passenger on the Perth coach, when it was upset, sometime in February, I got up at Mr. Kitson's, there were eleven passengers when we left there, another passenger got up at Britton Jones' and another afterwards, besides there were the driver and his son, I believe there were four inside. I know there were three; on going down the Sand-hill the horses increased their speed very rapidly, I observed the coach give way; I saw Mr. Kirkby at the time, I heard him call out, one man got off the coach, coming up the Sand-hill, because he was ill, and another got off after the coach gave way, one man sat in the seat with the coachman, three in the seat behind them, seven sat in the hind seats, and one on the roof.

Cross-examined. - I know there were so many passengers because I saw them round the coach, after it upset, and a little time before it upset, I know them all by sight. Mr. Ruffin's son was behind, I do not know whether he was sitting or standing, but I know he was in the back. Ruffin had the horses tight in hand when Mr. Kirkby called to him, and I heard him call out "God help me what can I do?"

Richard Davis. - I am a district constable; I saw the Perth coach on the Sand Hill on the 10th of February; I saw several men there, and the prisoner at the bar. On the following day, I saw something painted on the coach.

His Honor said, that if that question were put as proof, of the licence, it was not evidence; but the licence itself should be produced.

The Attorney-General said, he believed the coach was not licensed at all, and asked the witness how many passengers the coach could safely convey?

Mr. Stephen objected to the question - the witness's opinion was not evidence.

His Honor concurred with Mr. Stephen, but they could receive evidence as to what was painted on the coach as matter of fact.

Examination continued. - This panel is part of the coach; there was written on it, "Licensed to carry four inside, and six out." (Part of these words were on the panel produced.)

John Chance. - Was on the coach when it upset; I sat with my back to the horses; there were some persons in the hind seats.

This ended the case for the prosecution.

Mr. Stephen addressed the jury for the defence at great length; but we are compelled to omit the learned gentleman's remarks for want of space. He contended that the upsetting of the coach arose purely from accident; the iron stay which connected the pole with the splinter-bar gave way; the horses then became unmanageable, and the overthrow of the coach was the result. It was an error in judgment on the part of Mr. Ruffin to attempt to pull up his horses; for he would show that this very attempt was the occasion of the unfortunate accident. He wished the jury to distinguish between a person who acts foolishly, and he who acts criminally; an error in judgment cannot be construed into a crime, and they could not convict his client of manslaughter if they were of opinion that the accident was attributable to an error in judgment on his part.

Samuel Forster. - I was on Ruffian's coach on the 10th of February, sitting alongside the driver; I think there were ten or twelve passengers besides him and his son; the coach went at a steady pace to the middle of the Sand Hill, when the horses got the better of him; he used every exertion to pull up; the near side front wheel went over a stone; it gave the coach a tremendous shock, and from that time it swayed very much to the fro; something broke underneath; it capsized after going about fifty yards; I observed the end of the pole sticking up, and the other end was down; he could not urge on his horses - his whip was broken.

Cross-examined. - I saw Mr. Kirkby a little a head of the coach; he called out to Mr. Ruffin to pull up, and he replied he had tried all he could.

Britton Jones. - Recollect Ruffin's coach leaving my place on the 10th of February; Ruffian refused to take a man up, and I afterwards saw him climbing up behind the coach; there was only a small box on the coach; there was no other luggage that I saw - it contained wearing apparel.

His honor examined the witness as to the construction of the coach, and suggested that the vehicle should be sent for, without which he did not see how the jury could safely come to a conclusion. A great deal depended upon its construction and capabilities. The coach was then sent for.

Mr. Sams, Mr. Heaney, and Mr. Pitt were called as witnesses for character, and had never heard any thing against his general conduct for humanity.

The coach having arrived, the jury inspected it outside the Court-house, and on their return the council for the prisoner called.

John Austin. - I examined the coach on the 10th February, found the splinter-bar broken and the stay that connected it with the axle-tree, it would have no effect in going down hill, unless the horses were pulled up, it would sway from side to side, the wheels would have a tendency to lock, and the coach would then overturn.

Cross-examined. - The coach is considerably smaller than the one that runs between this and Hobart Town. The Hobart Town coach carries ten outside.

By Mr. Stephen. - If it was as strong as the Hobart Town coach, it would carry the same number outside.

By his Honor. - I have known this coach about two years and six months, it is not as strong as the Hobart Town coach, the splinter-bar was made of wood, the stay seemed to be a little gone in the place where it broke, it had been welded, it is an old coach and very much worn.

His Honor then summed up, going through the whole of the evidence with great care, and leaving the question entirely to the consideration of the jury, whether they believed the upsetting of the coach was occasioned by its being overloaded, or furiously driven, or both combined.

If in either of these, or both combined, they were of opinion that the prisoner had acted heedlessly and incautiously, they would find him guilty, on the other hand, if they were of opinion that the upsetting of the coach was occasioned by accident, without any culpable negligence on the part of the prisoner, they would acquit him.

The jury retired for a few minutes, and brought in a verdict of Not Guilty.


[1]              See also The Cornwall Chronicle and Commercial and Agricultural Register, 10 April 1841; Hobart Town Advertiser, 16 April 1841.


Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University and the School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania