IT was August Bank Holiday, 1911, and a crowd of some 20,000 people converged on the Common in Southampton to enjoy their leisurely pursuits. But tragedy lay in wait.

Suddenly there was a cry of 'fire' and the town's horse-drawn fire engine was summoned to tackle a blaze devouring a pocket of furze.

Arthur Westbrook, 37, was the designated driver of the three-ton machine that thundered along The Avenue before it reached a corner that would lead them down Cemetery Road. Seeing it approach, two police officers who had been directing traffic, signalled to him - one holding up one hand, his colleague raising both - to slow down.

But Ernest Charles, prosecuting at Hampshire Assizes, alleged he ignored their requests. "The driver took little, if any, of their warnings. He slowed down as he reached the corner as it was unsafe to go around it at a gallop. Directly, after he had rounded the corner, he let his horses go and the speed of the engine was accelerated."

But crossing Cemetery Road on their way home were two sisters, each pushing a pram, one leading the other. One just got out of the way but not the other. Her pram was shattered and one of the two children in it was killed.

Daily Echo: Southampton Fire Brigade and their horse-drawn engine in 1871.

"It is very little use going to rescue a person if they killed a person on the way to a fire," Charles commented. "This was only a furze fire and he should have taken special care to have the engine under sufficient control to avoid people who almost certainly would have been crossing the road."

Jurors heard the horses wore sleigh bells and the engine was fitted with a bell and a steam whistle. Rose Egg, who was slightly ahead of her sister, said she was only alerted to the danger by the whistle as the engine was only two yards away. Mrs Edwards, who was walking with two of her children and had two others in the pram, told her to be quick but she herself wasn't. The engine smashed her pram to pieces and her son Daniel suffered extensive injuries. He and his mother were trapped under the horses with their hooves flailing wildly.

It was not until they had been quietened down that the pair were rescued. Mrs Edwards, the wife of a carter, had suffered a scalp wound and slight concussion and both were taken to a nearby house. A doctor was quickly on the scene but Daniel died within minutes.

Charles alleged the fire could not have been classified as an emergency and Westbrook had been driving too fast in the circumstances. "It is very little use going to rescue a person if you kill people on the way to a fire, and this was only a furze fire. As it was a bank holiday, the driver should have taken special care to avoid people who almost certainly would have been crossing the road."

Westbrook, said by his commanding officer to have an exemplary record and was a careful driver, appeared at the Assizes on November 9 to answer a charge of manslaughter which he denied.

Sgt Reeves estimated the fire engine's speed as between 8-10mph which he considered too fast for a furze fire, but he tempered his criticism by saying Mrs Edwards seemed to "hesitate before she was rushed on again."

Daily Echo: The Avenue and Southampton Common.

Giving evidence, Westbrook claimed he had been only travelling at 8mph and on seeing the police signal, he indicated with his whip his intention to turn into Cemetery Road and slowed down as he approached the corner. Once the road had been cleared, he increased the horses' pace but as he did so, the two women crossed in front of him.

"The second woman hesitated and I thought she was going to pull back. I then went forward again and the perambulator went under the horse. I was pulling up and the brakes were on. It was the offside horse which went down. I could not have done anything more to prevent the accident. I wasn't going at an excessive speed and the two women seemed to have shot out of the crowd. I did not see the prams until I was close to them. The crowd prevented me from that."

Lord Alverstone, the Lord Chief Justice, then recalled both Mrs Egg and Mrs Edward to clarify how they left the footpath to get on the road but neither could explain why.

The jury only retired for a few minutes before acquitting Westbrook.