Unsolved Murders

William Henry Coombs

Age: 33

Sex: male

Date: 30 Sep 1947

Place: Manor Farm, Bradford Abbas, Sherborne, Dorset

William Henry Coombs died from tetrachlorethane poisoning.

Tetrachlorethane was a poison most commonly used in the leather, silk and aircraft industries.

William Coombs was a farm worker and had lived in North Street, Bradford Abbas.

He collapsed in a field at Manor Farm that he was working in on 30 September 1947 at about 11.15am and died a few hours later at his home after being taken back. It was first thought that he had suffered from an epileptic fit.

He had gone off to work as usual on the morning of his death and appeared to be in good health, but was found lying ill on the ground beneath a hedge in the field at 11.15am and taken home where he received medical aid.

At his post-mortem a strong smell of chloroform was noticed and as a consequence his organs were sent off to the Forensic Laboratory in Bristol for analysis. The result of the analysis showed that William Coombs had about 25gms of tetrachlorethane in his intestines and that his death was due to respiratory failure caused by acute poisoning.

It was noted that tetrachlorethane was commonly used for industrial purposes but that it was unusual to find a layman in possession of it.

The analyst said that it would have been quite possible for the tetrachlorethane to have been administered and for William Coombs to have also suffered an epileptic fit.

It was said that the latest time that the tetrachlorethane could have been administered was about 4pm. It was said that if it had been administered to an unconscious person that the most like way would have been as a drink.

It was noted that the colour of tetrachlorethane was light amber, like cider, but that there was a very strong smell.

The doctor that was initially called out to see William Coombs said that he had been of the opinion that William Coombs had suffered a fit and said that if he had taken some tetrachlorethane that he would have expected to have smelt it.

He said that William Coombs looked blue but said that his normal colour was on the bluish side and that his appearance was very similar to how he had appeared on a previous occasion when he had attended him for a fit.

He said that William Coombs had been his patient for the previous 11 years for epileptic fits and that they recently been growing more serious.

The inquest heard that William Coombs was alleged to have told someone that he had taken 24 phenobarbitone tablets that his doctor had given him on the previous evening and then another 12 in the morning. However, the doctor said that he had checked the tablets that William Coombs had in his possession and said that unless he had been storing them up previously instead of taking them as prescribed then he could not have taken a large number.

William Coombs's father said that William Coombs had suffered from epilepsy for about eleven years. He said that he didn't think that any poison could have been administered whilst he was with him in the field or whilst he was at home. He said that witnesses had told him that William Coombs had thrown away his lunch in the morning and had made rambling statements.

William Coombs's stepbrother said that he had been with William Coombs when he had died and had noticed a smell that he had mentioned to the doctor in a telephone conversation.

The inquest heard that the police were unable to trace the tetrachlorethane or find out very much at all.

The coroner noted that if it had not been possible for the tetrachlorethane to have been administered before the fit that it might have looked bad for someone, but as the doctor had said that it was possible that William Coombs might have suffered a fit and from the poisoning at the same time then it was possible that the poison had been taken some time before the fit. He said that the evidence indicated that the tetrachlorethane had been taken before William Coomb fell into a coma.

The coroner noted that there was nothing to suggest that William Coombs had any intention of taking his life or anything of that sort.

He suggested that William Coombs might have come across a bottle and thinking that it was liquor, and feeling unwell, might have taken some.

However, he said that the only conclusion that he could come to was that there was no evidence to say how the poison was administered and an open verdict was returned.

*map pointers are rough estimates based on known location details as per Place field above.

see www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

see Western Gazette - Friday 14 November 1947

see Western Gazette - Friday 10 October 1947