This is the story of the horrific death of Mr John Radford of Exmouth who, in the first half of the nineteenth century, was a brewer of beer and a maltster. When he was not brewing and malting his passion was to visit the Bight and to shoot wild fowl from his duck punt. His gun was mounted to his punt by a swivel. It was a veritable ‘goose cannon’ which generally carried three quarters of a pound of shot and one ounce of powder. It would have looked much like a length of drain pipe. He no doubt discharged it so as to blast ducks and geese sitting on the water which is not very sportsmanlike but very effective. The explosion would have been deafening and the punt would have shot backwards in the water like the proverbial bat.
One day, it was Saturday 13th October 1837, both Mr Radford and his gun were ashore at Exmouth. He wanted to withdraw the wad and the charge from his giant muzzleloader. To do this he used an iron rod with a worm at each end. Such a rod was the traditional tool for the job, a ‘worm’ being a screw or spiral, so called because that was the way earthworms were supposed to move through the ground. This gun, however, was too big for one person both to hold it steady and to poke about down the barrel so he placed it across a block of wood and asked the boy who was with him to lean on the gun and hold it firm.
While Mr Radford was wrenching away, trying to worm the charge out of the barrel, the gun slipped and fell and went off and three quarters of a pound of shot together with the iron rod with its two worms lodged in his body. He cried out, “Christ have mercy!”, reeled once or twice and fell flat on his face, dead. When his body was raised it was found that his bowels were splattered all over the pavement and his chest was riddled with shot. The boy who was with him must have had quite a shock. The ducks and geese might not have known it but they were fearfully avenged.
Mr Radford left a wife and five young children. Mrs Radford was just about to produce their sixth.
The details of this gory story are taken from that splendid book, Memorials of Exmouth, compiled by the Reverend William Webb, B.A. Curate of Littleham-cum-Exmouth and published at Exmouth in 1872 by T.Freeman, Baring Place. I am grateful to that indefatigable researcher Ray Girvan for drawing my attention to Mr Webb’s wonderful compilation.