A verdict of death by misadventure was returned by the South Devon Coroner (Mr. E. Hutchings) at a Brixham inquest yesterday on Mrs Ethel May Robins of 18 St. Peter's Steps, who died on August 20 as a result of gunshot wounds.
Roy Malcolm Roper aged 12, a London evacuee, described how Mr. Henry John Robins and his wife (the dead woman), returned home, Mr. Robins placing his rifle in the corner of the room. After some joking remarks, about how useful the rifle would be when the Germans came, his "uncle" (Mr Robins) took the rifle from the corner and inserted a cartridge.
"At first the rifle was pointing at the ceiling", the boy said, "but then he pointed it at Auntie . That made me say: "I would not point it because it might go off".
To this, Uncle said: " It is all right because the safety catch is down. "With this the gun went off and Auntie was struck."
Mr and Mrs Robins always seemed happy together. He had not heard them quarrel at all and on this particular evening, heard no angry words used. His impression was that the whole thing was done as a joke.
Piers German, a Belgian, of 16 St. Peter's Steps, said Robins knocked at his door and shouted "Come, come and look to my wife! My gun has gone off accidentally!"
Percival Charles Robert Smith, a foreman of the Post Office Engineering Department was the next witness. He testified that Robins was issued with a rifle on Monday August 19. Robins had previously handled a rifle on the range but had been absent when a lecture was given on the handling and care of a rifle.
The Coroner then asked: "Do I understand that rifles are handed out to men who join the Home Guard although they may have no knowledge about them?" to which Smith agreed that this was so.
The Coroner then read out a short statement made by Robins, in which he said that after leaving a public house, he remarked to his wife that they would be all right now that he had a rifle. She had laughed and in the course of a further conversation had said " I dare you to shoot me!" He had taken up the rifle, placed one cartridge in the gun, but did not realise that he had brought it into the shooting position. He then said to his wife: "This is how you take aim." and was in the act of raising the rifle to his shoulder when it went off and his wife was hit.
Robins told the Coroner that he was actually showing off by handling the gun in his wife's presence. The Coroner, summing up, said it was not an accidental death and if he decided against manslaughter it would be on the evidence of the boy Roper. If this were not manslaughter, it was as near it as could possibly be. It was very fortunate indeed that the boy had been in the room and was able to tell them exactly what had happened.
Mr Hutchings said he believed what the husband had said when he stated that he thought the rifle was still harmless when he pointed it at his wife.
The Coroner added that great care should be taken by those in authority when handing out guns and ammunition to members of the Home Guard and should first ensure that they knew how to use them properly."