Death of nurse struck by costume horse has torn hole in community, inquest told

Laura Smallwood was hit in the neck by the costume – a large wooden circle weighing 50lbs worn by a masked male dancer

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The death of a nurse who died after being hit by an ‘Obby ‘Oss festival costume during a traditional Cornish May Day parade has “torn a hole” in the close-knit community of Padstow, an inquest has heard.

Laura Smallwood was hit in the neck by the costume – a large wooden circle weighing 50lbs worn by a masked male dancer making his way through the north Cornwall town.

The 34-year-old paediatric nurse died in Derriford Hospital on May 4 2019 – three days after the centuries-old annual festival.

The inquest in Truro heard there are two ‘Obby ‘Osses that parade through the town and each has a separate organising committee.

Mrs Smallwood had been struck by the blue ribbon horse and Jay Trestain, a member of that committee, told the hearing of her deep sorrow.

Laura Smallwood died in Derriford Hospital on May 4 2019
Laura Smallwood died in Derriford Hospital on May 4 2019

Fighting back tears, she said: “I would like to personally express my ongoing sorrow and sympathy to Mrs Smallwood’s family and friends.

“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.

Mrs Smallwood’s husband Oliver told the court his wife was a “very happy”, “strong-willed”, “really fun”, and “very caring” woman
Mrs Smallwood’s husband Oliver told the court his wife was a “very happy”, “strong-willed”, “really fun”, and “very caring” woman

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”.

Andrew Cox, senior coroner for Cornwall, 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.

“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.”

Mr Cox is due to record his conclusions on Thursday and said one of the issues he had to consider was what caused Mrs Smallwood’s injuries.

The inquest has heard that while the incident with the ‘Obby ‘Oss may have caused Mrs Smallwood’s death, she may also have been hit in the head during a row with another woman earlier in the day.

There was also evidence of a medical report which asked whether an existing injury, from days or weeks before, could have been to blame.