Open conclusion at inquest into death of ‘Sidmouth legend’ in car fire

Jimmy Small with his dog Ben. Picture by Alex Walton. Ref shs 7434-29-13AW

Jimmy Small with his dog Ben. Picture by Alex Walton. Ref shs 7434-29-13AW - Credit: Archant

The cause of a car fire that claimed the life of a great grandfather described as a ‘Sidmouth legend’ will never be known, an inquest heard.

The body of James ‘Jimmy’ Small was found in his Ford Maverick in a narrow bridleway near his home in Seaway Lane in Tipton St John on November 8, 2016.

Returning an open conclusion, coroner Luisa Nicholson said she could not be certain beyond reasonable doubt that the 73-year-old took his own life or intended to do so.

She said it was unclear if Mr Small, a diabetic, suffered a medical episode and crashed his car, if there was a vehicle fault that started the fire, or if he failed to extinguish some smoking paraphernalia.

His Jack Russell, Shuckles, also died in the fire.

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The inquest at County Hall today heard that the driver side door was wide open and Mr Small’s right leg was out, suggesting he may have been trying to exit the car, which had come to a halt after hitting a tree in the bridleway.

His body was badly burned in the blaze and he was identified from his hip replacements.

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A post mortem revealed the presence of prescribed medicine, but no other drugs or alcohol. His family said he never smoked and rarely drank.

The inquest heard Mr Small was a former fairground boxer who kept animals and owned land around the Sid Valley. He moved from the Bowd to Tipton after complaining about pollution from the Exeter road.

The inquest heard he had contemplated suicide 20 years ago and recently had complained to friends that his type 2 diabetes had ‘robbed his life’.

Dr Nicholas Reed, Mr Small’s GP, said in a written statement he was reluctant to attend appointments for treatments that could improve his health.

John Small said his uncle had boxed in his twenties on fairgrounds and tried working under a coach but was ‘too headstrong’ to be told what to do, adding: “It was his way or no way. I think his diabetes upset him. He always considered himself fairly fit.

“He was on medication but I don’t know if he took it or stuck to any diet given by his doctor. He had both hips replaced and didn’t allow himself to recover properly.

“When I last saw him he wasn’t feeling well, which was becoming more regular.”

The inquest heard Mr Small normally took care of his appearance but his friends and family said he looked unkempt and his behaviour had become more unpredictable.

He was seen driving around his caravan at around 10.30am on the day of his death.

The fire was discovered in the afternoon by Geoffrey Madley, a former tenant of Mr Small’s who was visiting to feed the cats.

Fire investigation officer Paul Bray said the vehicle had been burning ‘for some time’ before crews arrived and 100 per cent of the combustible material had been consumed.

The glass had melted and the tyres had burned away. Mr Bray said there was no sign of any accelerant, but he could not determine conclusively where the fire started. He added that it could not be ruled out that Mr Small started it deliberately.

John Snow, a police vehicle examiner, said the fire had been most intense in the centre of the car, suggesting it had not started in the engine.

There were reports of the engine stalling when it reached a certain temperature but he said there could have been a number of causes for that and it was unlikely to cause a fire.

Mr Snow said there was nothing to indicate fuel had been leaking, or that the impact with the tree was any more than a ‘bump’.

Miss Nicholson said: “Mr Small spoke of suicide many years ago and may have been depressed. Perhaps he intended to kill himself.

“His dog was found with him in the vehicle. Perhaps he wanted to die with his dog.”

This was disputed by Martin Small, who said his father wanted him to have Shuckles after his death.

Miss Nicholson added: “In the absence of any evidence I am not satisfied to return a conclusion of suicide.

“There are many answers we will never know. I consider it most appropriate to return an open conclusion. I appreciate this may feel unsatisfactory and leave unanswered questions.

“We simply don’t know what happened. To return any other conclusion would be unfair to Mr Small.”

Tributes to Jimmy after his death described him as a ‘gentle giant’ and a ‘Sidmouth legend’.

Speaking after the inquest, Martin, one of his six children, told the Herald they are ‘no wiser’ what happened to him.

Describing his father’s character, he added: “My dad used to like driving round seeing people and looking after his animals. He was going to leave me the dog and everything else.

“He was a boxer, used to do the fairgrounds. He did that until he was 40-something. Then he lost interest. He preferred his animals and going down the market.

“He had three or four fields and some caravans. He put up with a lot of people other people wouldn’t take – especially single men who couldn’t get houses. He used to put a lot of people up.

“He would treat everyone equally and look after people. I’m keeping it [the caravans] the same.

“People used to like him down Sidmouth. He wasn’t scared of the council. He put his name down for a council house but he’d only move to Seaton. He kept coming back because he loved his animals too much.”

Jimmy was born and raised in Sidmouth. He had six grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

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