"Not guilty, upon mine honour"

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I have been looking at the trial of Lord de Clifford, the last time a peer agreed to be tried “before God and his fellow peers”, and so a slice of history. It is intriguing as it involved a charge of manslaughter resulting from a collision between Lord de Clifford’s Lancia saloon, probably an Augusta, and the chain-drive Frazer Nash of Douglas G Hopkins, who was killed. It took place at about 3am on December 12, 1935, on Kingston Road, towards the Kingston Bypass.

John Aldington recently gave me a précis, which the Frazer Nash CC had used in its Gazette, and later I obtained from the Stationery Office the depositions. His Lordship was tried before 84 peers, of whom Lord Charwood, Lord Waleran (a Frazer Nash owner), Viscount Wakefield, the Earl of Cottenham, the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, and the Duke of Argyll, knew about fast cars. The case was heard before the Lord Chancellor, aided by four High Court judges. Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, KC and three other banisters represented Lord de C; the prosecution was led by the Attorney-General, the Solicitor-General and two other lawyers.

On this dark night Lord de Clifford’s Lancia was taking him home from London and Hopkins was driving with his sister and another girl from Ashstead to London. The cars collided. De Clifford said, the ‘Nash was going “at a terrific speed” and so he swerved to his offside to try to avoid a collision, then back. The Lancia was about three feet over the centre of the road when the cars collided. The speed of the ‘Nash was said by a local policeman to have been “steady” (45-50mph), and on its own side of the road. The girl passengers said they were all talking about a book and at over 40mph you could not be heard. Hopkins’ sister was taken into a house after the crash and the other girl fainted.

The Prosecution tried to suggest that, three-up, the ‘Nash was dangerous to drive, but the girls said that despite bucket seats it was perfectly comfortable, explaining that the gear and brake levers were outside. “You mean on the right-hand side?” “Yes.” “You mean outside the door?” “Yes.” Curtis-Bennett continued with the matter, to make this quite clear in spite of the ‘Nash being only about 42in wide. The Attorney-General returned to it, until both girls said the car was comfortable for three in front.

Hopkins’ speed was questioned. Curtis-Bennett cleared it up. “This was a fast car, was it not?” Miss Reynolds: “Yes, Frazer Nashes are, I believe.” “You were not going frightfully fast. By ‘frightfully fast’ do you mean 60-70mph ?” Reply: “I should call 60mph frightfully fast.” It was admitted that with no speed limit this was in order, but at the time in question it was 40-45 mph. The AG established that both cars had bad “injuries” on the offside.

In his summation, the A-G put it that Hopkins was likely to have been unconscious after the impact and that there was no evidence for supposing that the car was being driven in such a reckless or fast manner as to show that Mr Hopkins caused the accident. The Lancia ran some six feet over the centre of the road.

All the peers found Lord de Clifford “not guilty, upon my honour”. The case is interesting because Hopkins was a Committee Member of the Frazer Nash CC when it was formed in 1933, was a keen competition driver, in trials etc, and did the 1934 Alpine Trial with Alan Marshall in his TT Replica. His own F N Colmore, UG52, was formerly owned by a Mr Rudd from February 1932 and Hopkins bought it in 1934 when it was given a Meadows engine from Fane’s ‘Nash. Whether it was ever rebuilt I do not know, but a picture shows it with a bench front seat.

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