Gardener ‘died after brushing past poisonous plant’ in millionaire’s garden
Nathan Greenaway, 33, died of multiple organ failure after touching the deadly purple flowering plant, known as Devil’s Helmet and Monkshood on £4m estate
A gardener collapsed and died after apparently handling a highly-poisonous plant on the £4 million estate of a wealthy businessman, a coroner has heard.
Nathan Greenaway fell ill after brushing against the deadly flower aconitum, also known as Devil’s Helmet and Monkshood, which was growing in the grounds of Millcourt House, owned by retired venture capitalist Christopher Ogilvie Thompson and his wife Katherine.
A pre-inquest hearing was told that Mr Greenaway, 33, died in hospital from multiple organ failure.
The gardener was rushed to hospital but despite frantic analysis of his blood, doctors were unable to work out what was wrong with him and he died five days later.
The coroner heard that it was only after Mr Greenaway’s father, Richard, carried out hours of tireless research in an effort to find out what happened, that the link with the aconitum plant became apparent.
North Hampshire coroner Andrew Bradley heard from histopathologist Asmat Mustajab, who concluded it was “more likely than not” that Mr Greenaway died after coming into contact with the deadly purple flowering plant.
He was employed by South African-born Mr Ogilvie Thompson and his wife to maintain the manicured gardens of their sprawling estate in exclusive Upper Froyle near Alton, Hants.
The inquest was told that the gardener was thought to have handled the highly-toxic plant, which is a member of the buttercup family of ranunculaceae, while working on the estate. He died in hospital on September 7 this year.
Poisioning from the aconitum plant can occur if it is ingested or handled without gloves. In severe cases the poisoning causes vomiting, dizziness and diarrhoea followed by palpitations, paralysis of the heart and airways, and death.
Mr Ogilvie Thompson is a consultant for high-end technology companies and formerly worked as venture manager for operations at Element Six Ventures, a fund focusing on early and growth phase investments in material science companies.
Aconitum is also known as monkshood and devil’s helmet due to its resemblance to a drawn hood, and is known by some as wolfsbane, because its poison is so toxic that it was once used to kill wolves.
The attractive plant has also been responsible for several human deaths, including that of Canadian actor Andre Noble, who died on a camping trip in 2004 after accidentally consuming the plant.
In 2009 Brit Lakhvir Singh, dubbed the ‘Curry Killer’, poisoned her lover Lakhvinder Cheema with a curry dish laced with Indian aconite, from the same plant family.
Barrister Tim Sharpe, representing the Ogilvie Thompsons, told the pre-inquest hearing in Basingstoke, Hants., that an expert on plant toxicology was needed to establish whether or not coming into contact with aconitum was the definitive reason for Mr Greenaway’s death.
Coroner Mr Bradley said that, while blood samples taken after Mr Greenaway’s death were still available for analysis, the sample taken at the time of his admission had since been destroyed.
Dr Maggie Bloom, representing the family of Mr Greenaway, who lived in nearby Aldershot with his wife, said: “There’s even a note in the medical records where it says all samples are to be retained.”
The hearing was also told that the plant’s deadly toxin works so quickly that it would have caused huge damage to Mr Greenaway’s internal organs within hours and would have been out of his blood system altogether within a day.
How Poisonous, How Harmful?
The principal alkaloids are aconite and aconitine. Of these aconitine is thought to be the key toxin. Ingestion of even a small amount results in severe gastrointestinal upset but it is the effect on the heart, where it causes slowing of the heart rate, which is often the cause of death.
The gardener’s widow, Tegan, and his parents, Richard and Marian, attended the hearing with other members of the family.
Mr and Mrs Ogilvie Thompson’s Grade II-listed Georgian house lies at the heart of a sprawling complex of outbuildings and staff cottages at the end of a long gravel drive, next to the River Wey.
At the back there is a veranda with seating room for at least a dozen guests, overlooking a manicured square lawn featuring two black sculptures of sheep.
On Thursday, gardeners employed by the Ogilvie Thompsons could be seen tending to a vast vegetable patch to one side of the house, which also has several outhouses for its army of staff, a chauffeur’s cottage and even its own cavernous barn complete with ornate weather vane.
A member of staff, who asked not to be named, described Mr Greenaway as “a really nice guy who was really good to work with.”
Answering the door under an elaborate, colonnaded porch, Mrs Ogilvie Thompson said the couple did not wish to comment on the inquest or the circumstances leading to the gardener’s death.