Corporal Frederick James McKenna
At 10.15pm on the night of Tuesday 15th September, 1931, a tragic accident took the life of 26 year old Corporal Frederick James McKenna, whose car collided with a signpost at Alderstead Heath, Merstham.
Also travelling in the car were Aircraftsman Ronald Frankish Graham, who was also stationed at RAF Kenley, and Mr. Guy Frank Archer, of Park Rd, Caterham, both of whom were thrown clear when the vehicle overturned.
Frederick James McKenna was born in Colaba, Bombay, India, on 17th November, 1904. His Father, Major Henry McKenna, was serving in the British Army and had been posted to India in 1902. Prior to that, Henry had married Ellen Smith (aka. Nelly) at St. Patrick’s Church, Cork, in 1899. The family returned to England in 1908. Fred, had an older brother John (aka. Jack) and a younger sister Ena. At the time of Frederick’s death, Henry had retired from the army.
The inquest into the death of Cpl. Frederick McKenna was held by Mr. F. J. Nightingale, the coroner for East Surrey, at East Surrey Hospital, Redhill.
Major McKenna, Frederick’s Father, of “The Acacias”, 8 Granville Rd, Sidcup, confirmed the identity of his son and that he was driving his own car. He testified that Frederick was an expert driver with more than 10 years experience behind the wheel.
P.C. Washington described the scene of the accident. The car was laying on its right hand side, with the bonnet about 4 yards away. McKenna lay face down nearby, while Graham and Archer were walking about in a “stupefied condition.” The accident happened on a sharp bend near Alderstead Heath Ponds, which the coroner agreed was a “difficult place at any time.” To make matters worse, it was a very dark night and there was a slight ground mist. There was nothing to indicate that the occupants of the car had had too much to drink.
Corporal McKenna and Aircraftsman Graham had set off in the afternoon for Lewisham. Later, they met Mr. Archer, who accompanied them back to Caterham to call on a friend. However, he wasn’t home, so they went to Merstham and it was on the return journey to Caterham that the accident happened.
Graham testified that the car was travelling at 25/30mph when he suddenly saw the signpost in the light from the headlamps, felt a crash and the car overturned. That was all he could remember. The coroner thought it would have been very dangerous to attempt the corner at 30mph. Archer said that he thought McKenna had underestimated the amount of turn needed to make the corner as a result of the ground mist and the car had lurched to the left and overturned.
Dr. P. H. Taylor, the House Surgeon at the East Surrey Hospital, explained that when McKenna was admitted, he was semi-conscious, with a broken leg and several fractured ribs on his left side. It seemed that he had been crushed against the steering wheel. Frederick lost his fight for life at 4am the following morning.
The Coroner, in summing up, said that the driver might have been confused by the mist and lost his bearings. A verdict of accidental death was returned. The family’s solicitor expressed Major McKenna’s deep gratitude to the police and Mr. P. V. Desprez, who represented Chaldon on the Rural District Council, said that there were plans to round off the corner where the accident happened.
Corporal McKenna’s funeral took place on 19th September. The procession started from RAF Kenley, headed by a contingent of airmen, followed by a firing party, slowly marching with reversed arms.
McKenna’s coffin, draped with the Union Flag, upon which lay a bayonet and Frederick’s cap and belt, was conveyed on an aeroplane trailer drawn by an RAF lorry. They were followed by Major and Mrs. McKenna and Frederick’s brother and sister, Jack and Ena.
The destination was the Church of The Sacred Heart, Caterham where a short requiem was conducted by Father Fitzgerald, before the march continued to the cemetery, where Frederick was laid to rest in the catholic section.
At the close of the ceremony, three volleys were fired over the grave and two RAF trumpeters sounded “The Last Post,” while all ranks stood at the salute. Frederick was a member of the Royal Antidiluvian Order of Buffaloes and his brethren wore their chains of office and formed a silent link around the grave before dropping ivy leaves onto the coffin.
Rest in peace Sir and thank you for your service.
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