ONLY one Member of Parliament is known to have been killed by a turnip – and he took over his North Yorkshire seat from an MP who reckoned he was a bird.

The story of Sir William Payne Gallwey’s fatal brush with a brassica has recently been posted on The Victorian Commons blog, which is part of the History of Parliament project, and we are hugely indebted to David Walsh of east Cleveland for bringing this amazing story to our attention.

Sir William had stood down as Thirsk’s MP after 28 years in 1880 due his declining health, but he died on December 19, 1881, after a very unfortunate encounter with a root vegetable.

“On Thursday, Sir William was out shooting in the parish of Bagby and in crossing a turnip field he fell with his body onto a turnip, sustaining severe internal injuries,” said The Northern Echo the following day.

“All that medical aid could do was done, but with Sir William’s failing health, he gradually sank and died about ten o’clock on Monday morning.”

The paper was positive about his legacy: “Sir William, during the last few years of his life, conferred a lasting boon on the poor of Thirsk and Sowerby with the erection of some scores of cottage homes, which were let at low rents.”

He lived at Thirkleby Park, to the south of Thirsk, and was buried in the nearby church in a funeral “of the simplest character”, although it sounds to have been quite elaborate.

“The body was borne from the mansion through the park to the church on a hand bier, carried by workmen employed on the estate,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times. “At half past 10, the funeral cortege started from the principal entrance of the hall, preceded by the schoolchildren singing suitable hymns.”

The Victorian Commons blog says that Sir William took over the seat from John Bell, of Thirsk Hall, who had been elected unopposed in 1841. Even then, though, John’s friends were worried about the mental health of the 31-year-old who was a big fan of avian taxidermy.

Indeed, as the 1840s wore on, John came increasingly to believe that he was a bird.

In June 1849, a Commission of Lunacy was held at the Three Tuns Hotel in Thirsk to investigate his state of mind.

“Sometimes he fancied himself to be an eagle, and made motions with his arms,” said his butler.

Members of his family said he was convinced he could fly better than a bird because he kept his shoulders oiled.

The jury found unanimously that he was of unsound mind, but there was no way he could be dismissed from Parliament (it wasn’t until the Lunacy (Vacating of Seats) Act was passed in 1886 that insane MPs could be removed). Therefore, he remained as Thirsk’s MP until he died in 1851, enabling Sir William to take over.

After his tragic tumble onto a turnip, Thirkleby Park was inherited by Sir William’s son, Sir Ralph, who was himself an enthusiastic shooter, ballistics expert and duck decoy builder. His 1913 book, High Pheasants in Theory and Practice, is essential reading for anyone who has difficulty in shooting high-flying pheasants.

Sir Ralph’s son, William, preferred cricket but having played a couple of first class games for the Marylebone Cricket Club, he was killed in northern France in the first month of the First World War.

This left no one to take over Thirkleby Park when Sir Ralph died 1916. It failed to sell in 1927 and was demolished. Now a caravan park is on its site – perhaps even on the site of the turnip field.