Hungerford’s very own James Dean

If one were to mention James Dean, most people would automatically think about the American actor who starred in Rebel without Cause in which he played the role of an angry teenager who was disillusioned with society and full of teenage angst.

James Dean was born on 8th February 1931 and died at the age of just 24 in a motorcar accident, while driving a Porsche 550 on Route 466 in California. At an inquest into his death, the court was told that he died of multiple injuries caused by speeding. No surprise perhaps, as he was passionate about motor racing. His grave can be found close to his birthplace at Park Cemetery, Fairmount, Indiana.

Co-incidentally, Hungerford has its own famous–or more famously unlucky–James Dean. His story came to light again when, in 1973, many of the headstones and memorials were cleared from St. Lawrence’s churchyard by the Town Council, in an effort to reduce the maintenance costs of the churchyard. The old graveyard had once contained around 300 memorial stones but one of the most interesting remaining stones is one dedicated to the memory of James Dean.

James Dean was probably born in Trowbridge but christened at Urchfont near Devizes on 23rd February 1761. He was not an actor but rather a coachman who drove the London to Bath route via Hungerford in the early 1800s. Hungerford was of course one of the principal coach stops along the road.

The inscription on the head stone reads:
Sacred to the Memory of JAMES DEAN, late Bath Coachman
Who departed this Life
June 10th 1827
Aged 36 Years.

Beneath these details is a verse which reads:
Passengers of every age
I safely drove from stage to stage
Till death came by in a hearse unseen
And stop’d the course of my machine.

So it seems clear then that this James Dean was involved in an accident, one that probably occurred in Charnham Street (the Bath Road). At the time of his death Charnham Street was still in Wiltshire and it was not until 1895 that the boundaries changed and it became part of Berkshire.

The verse suggests he was involved in a collision with an undertaker’s hearse. A report appearing on Hungerford Virtual Museum website indicates that upon collision between the coachman’s coach and a hearse, a coffin fell off the hearse, hitting James Dean and killing him. A newspaper report states that he fell off his box and died. In other reports published over a hundred years later in 1932, it was stated that the accident occurred on the King’s Highway.

The final mention of John Dean, the coachman, is strangely to be found in the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail which reported that a local from Hungerford had undertaken to restore the tombstone to its former glory.

James Dean was not the only coachman to have died in Hungerford. When Queen Elizabeth I visited her friend Sir John Popham at Littlecote in 1592, it was recorded in the Parish Registers that her coachman, Mr. Slie, unfortunately died while staying at the Bear Hotel. Apparently, he was suddenly taken ill but the cause of his death remains unclear.

The King’s Highway was the name given to the original Roman Road which led from London to Bristol. In the early part of the 19th century coaching was at its height in Hungerford. By 1830, there were six daily stagecoaches carrying passengers to and from London along the Bath Road. Within a few years, this had risen to ten. Hungerford is at about the midway point of the journey between London and Bristol and was therefore ideally positioned to take advantage of the increase in coaching. In this context, it was known as the cross roads of Southern England.

In 1836, five companies operated a coaching service through Hungerford. However, this peak was short-lived due to the construction of the Great Western Railway and by 1843, the coaches which ran through Hungerford from London or Bath, had ceased operation.

Dr Jimmy Whittaker

References
Hungerford Virtual Museum website (2017)
British Newspaper Archives
Yorkshire Post (1932)
Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail (1932)
Essex Newsman (1932)
Reading Mercury (1829)
Familysearch.org (2017)
Ancestry.com (2017)

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