A mother-of-two who died after being hit by a wooden horse costume at a Cornish May Day festival had ‘her back turned but should have known how to face it with outstretched hands’, an inquest has heard.
Laura Smallwood was knocked down by the Obby Oss – one of two used in the festival – in Padstow, north Cornwall on May 1, 2019.
A witness told Cornwall Coroners Court today how she saw her being hit in the back of the neck by the man in the blue outfit, but said she ‘carried on as usual’.
Her condition then deteriorated and she died three days later in hospital where she worked as a pediatric nurse in Plymouth.
An inquest is investigating whether she died from the impact or whether an altercation with a woman earlier in the day played a part.
Meanwhile, Ms Smallwood’s husband Oliver wants the court to determine whether the handling of the event was properly organised.
The Obby Oss is made from a two meter wooden frame covered in black oilskin with a small horse head on the front.
There’s a blue one known as the Peace Oss that tries to discourage the overconsumption of alcohol by Red Oss supporters.
There are two separate processions that circle Padstow on circuits that last 12 hours.
Laura Smallwood (pictured) was knocked out by the Obby Oss, one of the pairs used in one of the oldest festivals held in Padstow, North Cornwall, on May 1, 2019
Witness Sian Howells told the hearing it was when the two met that she saw Ms Smallwood (pictured) ‘very rude and angry and I’ve never seen her like this before’
Obby Oss horses are large oval frames covered in black wax, which have a small horse head in the front with a snapping jaw
What is the Obby Oss Day celebration?
‘Obby’ Oss Day is the most important day on the Padstow calendar.
Thousands of people crowd the small town to celebrate the festival every May Day.
Obby Oss has many origins.
Some say that the celebration has its roots in pagan times, others that it is a rainmaker, a symbol of fertility, a deterrent against a possible landing by the French centuries ago or perhaps a welcome in the summer.
Locals spend the night decorating the city streets with flags, flowers and greenery with a maypole.
The next morning, two ‘bones’, one red and one blue come out of their stables.
The ‘bones’, swirling and dancing, run through the streets of Padstow, taunted by a Teazer, who leads the dance with theatrical movements.
As the procession moves through the city, the dancers perform a traditional spinning dance to the sound of musicians and drummers.
Source: Visit Cornwall
Witness Sian Howells told the hearing that Ms Smallwood was ‘very rude and angry and I’ve never seen her like this before’ on the part of the road where the two outfits crossed.
She said she was two meters away from her when the Oss started dancing. She said, “Laura had gone behind the Oss.
“All of a sudden, the Oss retreated. It’s very unusual for him to step back. As he fell, Laura stood with her back to the Oss.
“The only thing we always tell you is not to turn your back on the Oss. Most people face the Oss with their hands outstretched.
“Laura would have known better. I could see him coming towards her, the edge of the Oss hitting the back of her neck.
She said the band was playing and Ms Smallwood would not have heard her warning. “I could see what was going to happen but I couldn’t do anything.”
She said she could see the Oss hitting her head with a heavy impact that would injure her and knock her down.
She said: ‘She was knocked down and looked like she had fallen to the ground. She carried on as usual and she didn’t get hit as hard as I thought.
The Oss man had fallen but got up and the motorcade continued but she did not see Mrs. Smallwood after that.
Another witness, Charlotte Stupple, said Ms Smallwood laughed at an earlier ‘fight’ with a young woman called Chelsea Powell.
But she said: ‘The person carrying the Oss must have slipped and the frame fell towards all of us. I didn’t see the Oss hit Laura.
She said Ms Smallwood said she was fine, saying “I’m in a bit of pain” and rubbed the back of her head once or twice.
But then she grabbed his arm saying she felt dizzy and thought the dizziness was caused by the drink.
‘Thirty seconds later Laura grabbed my arm and said ‘Charlotte, my face’. I could see that the right side of her face through her mouth was down.
Ms Howells said the band were playing and Ms Smallwood (pictured) would not have heard their warning “I could see what was going to happen but I couldn’t do anything”
Ms Smallwood was aware people were watching her and she said: ‘My head hurts.’
Her breathing was labored and Ms Stupple looked away as emergency crews tended to Ms Smallwood before she was taken to hospital.
The inquest heard his death may have been caused by injuries in a number of different incidents.
The coroner said one of the issues was whether she died from injuries sustained when the Oss fell on her while being carried by a man named Kevin Constance.
He said another explanation was that she suffered injuries caused during an altercation with Powell earlier that evening that occurred outside Rick Stein’s bakery.
The coroner said Ms Smallwood may have suffered injuries from an unidentified event around ten days earlier, or the fourth possibility was that she had suffered injuries “in some other way”.
Her husband Oliver also wanted to know if the management of the event was organized properly and if any changes had been made.
The inquest at Cornwall Coroner’s Court in Truro heard Ms Smallwood was a pediatric nurse who had returned to live in Padstow and worked at the hospital where she died.
Her husband said she was a caring, fun, happy and strong person who had no health problems or illnesses.
The court was told the May Day festival is a long-standing celebration to welcome summer and is ‘an integral part of Padstow’.
Mr Smallwood said the Blue Ribbon Oss, known as the Peace Oss, ran through town with the former Red Oss – and Ms Smallwood supported the latter.
He said he received a phone call at work in a pub at 7pm that evening saying Ms Smallwood had been ‘knocked out’. He went to find her “lying on the ground”.
He said she was receiving CPR and then an air ambulance arrived to take her to Derriford Hospital in Plymouth.
Another witness, Charlotte Stupple, said Ms Smallwood (pictured with her friends) laughed at an earlier ‘fight’ with a young woman called Chelsea Powell.
The inquest heard “it was not clear where she was hit”, but her condition deteriorated and she died on May 4.
One of his friends, priest Kirsten Norfolk, said he drank a few bottles of wine with another friend for 90 minutes before going to watch the parade.
Ms Norfolk described the altercation with Ms Powell when the streets were ‘very busy and congested’.
She said a large number of people gathered and had a buggy with them and there had been an argument with Ms Powell over Ms Smallwood’s pram.
She said there was ‘pushing and shoving’ and Ms Smallwood was punched in the face, leaving a red mark and her sunglasses flying off.
But the situation quickly calmed down and Ms Smallwood and her friends ‘laughed at what had happened’.
She was later seen “crying on a bench after being hit by the Oss”, but was conscious as a first aid team attended to her and an ambulance was called.
The festival is one of the biggest events on Padstow’s calendar as thousands flock to the small town in Cornwall
Ms Norfolk said she thought Ms Smallwood, who was holding the area by her mouth, would be fine because people were with her, adding: ‘People get jostled by the Oss all the time.’
She then saw her receiving CPR and ran towards her before being led away by medical staff.
But Ms Norfolk did not see the incidents when Ms Smallwood was punched in the face by Ms Powell or the Oss.
Padstow lifeboat crew member Michael Dennick said a tall man grabbed Ms Smallwood by the ‘skin of the head, either side of her clothing’ during the scuffle with Ms Powell .
He said: ‘The big man was shaking her, pushing her, pulling her back very aggressively’ and the man was telling Ms Smallwood: ‘Stop it, you’re supposed to be the most mature.’
Ms Powell told the inquest: ‘I pushed Laura’s face but it wasn’t a slap or a punch. The streets were crowded.
Cornwall Supervising Coroner Andrew Cox has apologized to the victim’s family for the delay in the inquest due to the pandemic.
The investigation should last three days.
The traditional event (pictured) features two hobby horses – Old Oss and Blue Ribbon Oss – parading through the town