Never-ending curse of Guinness dynasty

As the inquest into the death of Guinness girl Sheelin Rose Nugent ends, Stephen Dodd reports on the latest tragedy in a family nightmare

As the inquest into the death of Guinness girl Sheelin Rose Nugent ends, Stephen Dodd reports on the latest tragedy in a family nightmare

THOSE who witnessed the crash talk of last-minute desperation, of frantic efforts to rein in a bolting horse. In an instant, something had turned the docile animal harnessed to Rose Nugent's Romany caravan into a panicked runaway.

``She was pulling on the reins,'' a driver remembers. ``Her arms were fully extended, trying to control the horse. But I knew the horse would not make the bend.''

Sheelin Rose Nugent, the 31-year-old niece of Guinness heir the Earl of Iveagh, died in a freak accident last autumn when the horse-drawn gypsy caravan she was driving overturned and crushed her. Last week, a British inquest failed to throw significant light on to what remains a baffling episode. At the close of the hearing, a verdict of accidental death had to serve as epitaph for the inexplicable. What had spooked Rose's trusted horse? What went so badly wrong, that an experienced horsewoman could be crushed to death under a caravan so heavy it took seven men to pull it clear of her body?

The death of Rose Nugent, on the afternoon of her mother's birthday, was the latest tragedy in a run of uncommon misfortune. The Guinness dynasty, founded on a £100 inheritance two centuries ago, is worth millions, yet the family's recent history contains as much curse as blessing.

In 1978, Natalya Citowitz, a great-granddaughter of the then Earl of Iveagh's brother, was killed after she fell into a bath while taking heroin. Eight years later, Olivia Channon, great-granddaughter to the earl and the daughter of a Conservative minister, was killed by a drug overdose. There have been other deaths. Four-year-old Peter Guinness died in a car crash. Denys Guinness was killed by drugs. A severely depressed Lady Henrietta Guinness, Rose's aunt, died in 1978 after jumping from an Italian bridge.

It was against this background that news of Rose's death sparked familiar commentary last November. ``A family beset by tragedy,'' suggested one newspaper. It was inevitable reflection on an accident that appeared to be shrouded in mystery.

At 3.40pm on Friday, October 30 last year, Rose, an artist, was driving her Romany caravan on a small country road near her mother's house in Wiltshire. There appears to have been nothing out of the ordinary. She had earlier phoned her mother, Lady Eliza Mays-Smith, to make arrangements for attending the birthday celebrations, and to suggest she might take six young relatives for a ride in the caravan.

Local farmer Roger Denton was driving behind Rose and remembered overtaking her.

``The lady who was driving smiled at me for passing slowly,'' he told the inquest. He described a peaceful rural scene; smoke rising from the caravan's chimney, and a dog sitting beside Rose.

Then, something happened that scared the horse, named Big John. The animal picked up speed. The caravan was dangerously close to a corner.

``I realised that if it didn't slow down it would not be able to make the bend it was approaching,'' he said, adding that he believed Rose's frantic efforts to rein in the horse were doomed. ``It would have been almost impossible,'' he said, ``as the caravan would have been trying to outrun the horse as they went down the hill.''

A telephone engineer who witnessed the crash watched the caravan being pulled ``up against a hedgerow and flipped straight over ... I saw someone thrown out of the caravan,'' he said.

The coroner's court heard that a post-mortem said Ms Nugent had been crushed to death beneath the wagon. ``The horse slowed down but dragged the caravan along its side for a distance,'' said coroner David Masters. ``There were no other vehicles in the vicinity, no bright lights or loud noises. For whatever reason there was a loss of control which caused the caravan to overturn.''

After the inquest, Lady Mays-Smith and her second husband announced they were going to have the caravan burned.

``Rose was a very experienced rider,'' said her mother. ``It was her hobby and she had ridden all her life. But with the camber of the road and the speed she was travelling she must have just hit the bank and been thrown over.''