Dr. Arthur O'Brien Jones

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Arthur O'Brien Jones

Birthdate: (76)
Birthplace: Stamford, Lincolnshire, England, United Kingdom
Death: May 01, 1889 (76) (Suicide)
Immediate Family:

Son of Rev. Thomas Arthur Jones and Elizabeth Jones
Husband of Sibella Stephen Morison Farish
Father of Arthur Vernon Jones
Brother of Jemima Jones; Ellen Jones and Ann Jones

Managed by: Susan Mary Rayner (Green) ( Ryan)
Last Updated:

About Dr. Arthur O'Brien Jones

Arthur was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire in 1813 and qualified as a doctor in 1836; he was the only son of the Reverend Thomas Arthur Jones and Elizabeth O'Brien.

In the 1851 census Arthur was already practising and living in South Street, Epsom with two of his sisters, Jemima and Anne, and three of Ellen's children were also in residence (it seems that Ellen's husband, coal merchant Arthur Burton, had gone to Paris in 1848 to escape his creditors and he set up in business there). Jemima married Australia merchant Joseph Matthew Holworthy in 1852 and Anne never married, eventually returning to Bromley College. I believe that Arthur and Ellen Burton and their son, Charles, were already in Paris by 1851: six of the eight Burton children died of consumption.

Court Case

Since Easter 1877 young John Kyrle Howell, then aged 10, had been a boarder at Epsom College; his father was Thomas Symonds Howell of Wandsworth, a surgeon. On 14th February 1879 John died from pyaemia, resulting from scarlet fever, in the College Infirmary and almost immediately his father instituted proceedings for breach of contract/duty against the headmaster, Dr William de Lancy West, and the attending surgeon, local Epsom man Arthur O'Brien Jones. Unusually for a claim of this kind, the hearing was held before the Lord Chief Justice and a special jury, with the Solicitor General, Sir Hardinge Giffard QC, appearing for the plaintiff - indications that this was a matter of major public importance and principle.

It is difficult to understand why Thomas Howell sent John to the College at all, since he had already removed another son on the grounds that he felt the boy's health had not been cared for sufficiently, although Dr West said this had been an issue about the College food rather than anything strictly medical. The main plank of Howell's case against West was that, during an interview early in 1877, he had received assurances that John would not be housed in the main hostel but would lodge with Dr and Mrs West in their home, under their personal care, and if he was ill he would be looked after there: this was the contractual term which he claimed had been breached by removing his son to the Infirmary. Howell claimed damages in the sum of £5.25, which mainly comprised the cost of travel between Wandsworth and Epsom College.

Obviously, no one goes to the High Court for a contract claim this small, but Howell's motive was to put West and Jones on trial for what he saw as negligence - effectively he was accusing them of manslaughter. Howell could have attempted to press criminal charges against the men, but was very probably advised that this would not succeed, so he brought a civil action. The doctrine of negligence as we understand it today was not properly developed until 1932 (in the case of Donoghue v Stevenson, which involved a Mrs Donoghue suffering ill effects from ginger beer containing a decomposed snail), so that before then it was usual to frame a civil action in terms of contract law. However, this in itself is fraught with difficulty, as first one has to establish that there was a contract and then what the terms of that contract were. In this instance there was nothing specific in writing, so it fell to Howell to show that particular terms should be implied.

The hearing took place at Westminster on 12-16 April 1880 before the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn (and, if he had had any personal connection with Epsom, apart from being the losing barrister in a court case relating to the 1844 disqualified derby winner 'Running Rein', he would have rated an article in his own colourful right - please see http://en.wikipedia.org).

When John Kyrle Howell fell ill Dr and Mrs West were in a predicament. They had indeed promised that if the boy became ill they would tend to him at home, but in this instance a highly infectious fever was involved and Mr Jones considered that he should go to the Infirmary, where he could be isolated from other boys and attended to by a qualified nurse. This seems entirely reasonable, but the bone of contention was the condition of the Infirmary building.

Howell and other medical witnesses said that John's accommodation in the Infirmary was too damp and cold, with a temperature of around 50°F, although Jones countered that the boy's room at the Wests' house was too warm and that airier surroundings were required. However, although Howell had called in other doctors and, towards the end, took over John's care himself, he had apparently made no major complaint about either the conditions or the treatment at the time. Howell's evidence on the condition of the Infirmary was disputed: the Matron said that the temperature was more like 55°F and that a fire had been lit intermittently. There was no real evidence suggesting that John would have survived if he had not been moved.

Howell lost the case. Cockburn was disapproving of the fact that it had been brought as a civil claim at all, saying that such charges were a criminal matter, although in this instance he felt the charges were such that they might have been construed as malicious. If Dr West had entered into a contract that John would be kept in the house whatever his illness, then he would have been in breach of contract, but Cockburn did not believe this was so: there was an implied contract between West and all the boys in his charge and the headmaster had to consider the effects on everyone. Cockburn went on to say, 'It seemed as if the grief - the passionate grief - of the plaintiff at the loss of his child had precluded him from taking a fair and candid view of the real facts of the case.' The jury found for the defendants on every point.

Howell had not finished yet; he immediately asked for a new trial, which application was denied. He then went to the Court of Appeal to challenge that denial: the ground for appeal was that the Lord Chief Justice had misdirected the jury. Sir Hardinge Giffard once more appeared for the plaintiff and I think it fair to say that if this man could not win the appeal then no one could. Later that same year Giffard became Lord Chancellor, the first of three stints in the post, and he was also appointed 1st Baron Halsbury and compiled the legal bible called 'Laws of England', which subsequently became 'Halsbury's Statutes', a giant multi-volume tome, as indispensable to the legal profession today as it was when first published.

Giffard was a criminal barrister, which reinforces the point that this case was a criminal matter wrapped up as a contract claim. Having read the lengthy Times Law Report of the appeal, which took place over three days, it seems to me that he was flogging a moribund horse and almost certainly knew it. Lord Justice Brett, giving judgement, said, 'So far as we are concerned, the curtain must now fall on this deplorable litigation. It was an action brought against two defendants - brought technically in the form of an alleged breach of contract, but in reality with intent to charge them with culpable negligence leading to a disastrous result - negligence by the one in his character as schoolmaster, and by the other in his character as a medical man.' It was clear from his further remarks that, had the judges agreed that there was misdirection and been obliged to order a new trial, they would have felt reluctance. Brett concluded by saying, '… I think it right for myself to say that I not only do not dissent from the findings of the jury, but agree with them, and especially in their finding that, even supposing Dr West and Mr Jones not to have been absolutely right in their conduct, they were actuated from the beginning to the end by the kindest and most Christian views and wishes as to the child, and that there was nothing derogatory to their character, either as to one of them as a schoolmaster or as to the other as a medical man; and I may add that in this my brethren concur with me.' The appeal was dismissed.

Source: 'The Times' April-May 1880

As mentioned in The Shrubbery article Arthur Senior was found dead at home from prussic acid poisoning on the night of Wednesday, 1 May 1889, having committed suicide. A piece of paper was found, on which he had written 'Taken prussic acid'. The inquest was held at Epsom on 10 May 1889 and reported in The Surrey Mirror next day. Sibella's evidence was taken at her house; she had returned home at about 5pm on 1 May and found Arthur in a chair, evidently dying. 'He tried to open his eyes, but he could not speak. I left home at eleven in the morning, and I then noticed nothing particular in him. He had been very cheerful and happy lately. Nothing had happened to disturb him in any way. His age had incapacitated him from doing so much work and this might have preyed upon his mind.'

Dr George Robinson Barnes, said, 'I was formerly in partnership with the deceased, but during the last six years we had only a working agreement. I last saw him alive on Monday afternoon about two o'clock. He was in a good state of health and did not appear depressed. On Wednesday I was sent for to see him, and on my arrival found he was dead. The prussic acid bottle was by his side and a glass measure was standing on the table. I detected a strong smell of acid. The cause of death was poisoning from prussic acid. I know nothing which would cause the deceased to commit suicide. I was not aware of any financial difficulties. His practice had declined. He had outlived his old patients and a new generation had come into Epsom. I think this feeling of not being able to do much worried him considerably. He had not, through his declining years, been equal to his work, particularly his night practice'

Sibella stayed on in Epsom for a while but on 19 January 1899 she died in Brighton, having resided at 4, New Steine: this building is now The Square Hotel and was a boarding house when she was there. Her effects amounted to £27,864 (approximately £3.1m in today's money).

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Dr. Arthur O'Brien Jones's Timeline

Stamford, Lincolnshire, England, United Kingdom
May 1, 1889
Age 76