Coroner hits out at Padstow’s traditional May Day parade and says it ‘must be professionally managed’ following the death of mother-of-two who was struck by a ‘Obby ‘Oss wooden horse costume, inquest hears
Padstow’s traditional May Day parade ‘must be professionally managed’ following the death of a mother-of-two who was struck by a wooden horse costume, a coroner has today told an inquest.
Laura Smallwood, 34, died in hospital three days after she was struck in the back of the head by the wooden framed horse – known as an ‘Obby ‘Oss’ – an inquest heard.
The incident took place during the 2019 May Day parade in the north Cornwall town, which has hosted such celebrations since as far back as the 16th Century.
The Obby Oss, meanwhile, is thought to have been used as part of the parade for more than 200 years.
The inquest in Truro heard there are two ‘Obby ‘Osses, one with a red ribbon and one with a blue ribbon, that parade through the town and each has a separate organising committee.
But police told the hearing that there had not been one person in overall charge of the celebrations.
Today coroner Andrew Cox, who is holding an inquest into the death of Mrs Smallwood, said the event, which regularly attracts more than 20,000 people to Padstow’s streets, should now be ‘properly managed’.
‘We need to make sure there is proper professional management of the event,’ Mr Cox told the inquest.
Laura Smallwood (pictured), 34, died in hospital three days after she was struck in the back of the head by the wooden framed horse – known as an ‘Obby ‘Oss’ – an inquest heard
Today coroner Andrew Cox, who is holding an inquest into the death of Mrs Smallwood (pictured), said the event, which regularly attracts more than 20,000 people to Padstow’s streets, should be ‘professionally managed’
The incident took place during the 2019 May Day parade in the north Cornwall town, which has hosted such celebrations since as far back as the 16th Century. Pictured: An Obby Oss at the Padstow Traditional May Day Festival
‘What we need is someone taking responsibility of the event. These arrangements are not working and we need to do something about it.’
Mr Cox’s comments came after Jay Trestain, a member of the committee behind the blue Obby ‘Oss, told the hearing of her deep sorrow at the death of Mrs Smallwood.
Fighting back tears, she said: ‘I would like to personally express my ongoing sorrow and sympathy to Mrs Smallwood’s family and friends.
What is the ‘Obby ‘Oss Day celebration?
‘Obby ‘Oss Day is the biggest day in Padstow’s calendar.
Thousands of people cram into the little town to celebrate the festival every May Day.
The origins of the Obby Oss are numerous.
Some say the celebration has its roots in pagan times, others that it’s a rain maker, a fertility symbol, a deterrent to a possible landing by the French some centuries ago or perhaps a welcome to the summer.
Locals spend the night decorating the town’s streets with flags, flowers and greenery complete with a maypole.
The next morning, two ‘osses’, one red and one blue emerge from their stables.
The ‘osses’, swirling and dancing proceed through Padstow’s streets taunted by a Teazer, who leads the dance with theatrical movements.
As the procession moves around the town, dancers perform a traditional gyrating dance to the sound of musicians and drummers.
Source: Visit Cornwall
‘Mrs Smallwood was a well-loved, well-known and popular member of our community, not just as a friend but an exceptional midwife in neonatal intensive care caring for babies struggling at birth, including my own child.
‘Her passing has torn a hole in our community in the most painful way.
‘Padstow is a small place and close-knit community where many come together to celebrate an ancient and unique May Day tradition.
‘The fact that one of our own lost her life during the celebration is something I don’t think our small town will ever recover from.’
Mrs Trestain said there had been ongoing improvements to the festival since 2017, including more stewards, medical support and road closures, as well as improved communications between the two committees.
And measures had also been introduced to increase the distance between spectators and the ‘Obby ‘Oss.
‘We come to this year’s May Day in a very different place (than) where we did in 2019 and previous years in terms of the relationship we have built with the authorities and the improvements we have made,’ she said.
Amanda Hannon, an events planner with Devon and Cornwall Police, told the inquest there had not been one person in overall charge of the celebrations.
‘That would be best practice,’ she said.
She added there was a ‘reluctance’ from Padstow Town Council to ‘come forward or contribute to the running of May Day’ and they ‘don’t want to be identified as an organiser’.
Mr Cox said that in correspondence with the council it did not have any ‘obligation’ to be the event organiser.
‘Isn’t the answer for me at the end of this to write to Government and say legislation as it stands does not deal with the situation where no-one comes forward as the event organiser,’ Mr Cox said.
‘When you are getting to an event of this size with this number of people, if safety is being compromised because no-one is willing to take that on, then that should give consideration to whether these events should continue.
‘Let me be very clear. It would be a terrible thing if May Day could not continue. I am not for the first second saying that is what I want to see.
‘These are the events that keep Cornwall Cornish. I want them to continue but they have to continue in a way that minimises the risks to everyone who attends and hopefully any similar fatalities in the future.
Mr Cox’s comments came after Jay Trestain, a member of the committee behind the blue Obby ‘Oss, told the hearing of her deep sorrow at the death of Mrs Smallwood (pictured)
Another witness, Charlotte Stupple, said Ms Smallwood (pictured with her friends) had been laughing about a ‘scuffle’ earlier with a young woman called Chelsea Powell
‘At the moment the police and no-one else has any way of compelling someone to act as an event organiser.’
Ms Hannon replied: ‘No, we also can’t grant or deny permission for these events to take place.’
The inquest heard Mrs Smallwood, a paediatric nurse, was ‘knocked out’ when the Obby Oss struck her as it was paraded through the streets of the town in the annual festival.
Home Office forensic pathologist Dr Amanda Jeffery carried out a post mortem and said she had been told 34-year-old had ‘some direct contact’ with the Obby Oss in the region of her head, neck or shoulder.
Dr Jeffery said there was ‘very little to see’ in terms of external wounds and ‘nothing significant around the face or back of the face or back of the neck’.
The pathologist said that Laura’s cause of death was brain stem stroke caused by a tear to both arteries in the neck.
Coroner Mr Cox heard that Laura may have suffered a ‘minor incident’ around ten days before the Obby Oss collision, which had likely caused some damage to her arteries.
Activities like doing yoga or painting a ceiling can cause such an injury, Mr Cox was told.
The inquest was also told that Mrs Smallwood had earlier intervened in a row between a young couple and suffered a ‘push, slap or wallop’ to the face from a woman .
The hearing was told that scuffle left her with a mark on her face but she had ‘laughed’ it off.
But Dr Jeffery said: ‘The Obby Oss worsened the damage precipitating her (Mrs Smallwood’s) collapse.’
And she also said of the earlier incident: ‘The blow to the face (from the earlier row) could have aggravated the damage that was present.’
She said the final incident with the Obby Oss was the most significant but said she was not dismissing earlier things that happened that day that may have contributed.
Consultant neuropathologist Dr Kathryn Uranker said Mrs Smallwood had suffered a tear around ten days before May Day and it was healing – but the injury had torn again on May Day.
The festival is one of the biggest events in Padstow’s calendar as thousands flock to the small town in Cornwall
Dr Jeffery said it was ‘extremely unlikely’ that the unknown incident around ten days earlier caused Laura’s collapse.
She told the inquest the Obby Oss collision worsened the damage that was there and was her ‘favoured cause of the final deterioration’.
Earlier in the inquest, the coroner told how Mrs Smallwood was standing behind the Obby Oss, which is carried by a person inside the wooden framed costume, when it suddenly moved backwards.
A witness told the inquest they believe Kevin Constance, a 66-year-old who was inside the Obby Oss at the time, had slipped and the wooden structure had struck Mrs Smallwood in the back of the head.
The inquest heard that shortly after, Mrs Smallwood felt dizzy and grabbed a friend’s arm. Her face had begun to droop before she collapsed.
Mr Constance told the coroner: ‘I was not aware of hitting anybody. I could only see forward.’
The hearing was told that up to 20,000 people may attend the May Day parade and it is considered a ‘low risk’ event.
Police sergeant Susan Honeywill told the inquest it would be helpful if there was more legislation in place to ensure safety at this type of event.
The inquest at Cornwall Coroner’s Court continues and is expected to end on Thursday.