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Connecting people through the project

People are central to our project in so many ways. Obviously the railway staff who had the accidents, details of which we’re making more easily findable (via our database). Their families, too, as the accidents rarely simply affected one person. Their work colleagues also appear in the records. Behind the project work are several small teams of excellent and dedicated volunteers. They do the hard work of transcribing the information in the records and in some cases digging deeper and doing further research.

But there’s another group of people in our project: you! Hopefully all of you are finding interesting things. We know that some of you are finding your railway ancestors. That’s both good (we’re helping your research) and bad (your ancestor had an accident). What’s been really refreshing has been hearing from you about it when this happens. Sometimes that’s been in person, sometimes via email or Twitter (follow us here!). And even more excellent, you’ve been willing to share your research and family history stories, via guest blog posts (see here for more). It’s also helped to make new connections or bring new details to light, benefitting all of us. This blog post has a few examples.


Portrait of Sydney Leeming
Sydney Leeming, from the North Eastern Railway Magazine, recording his death.

The fact we’ve reached a descendent of the person who had the accident is poignant. Connecting with the family brings home the individual impacts, sometimes with long last effects. In one blog post we looked at Sydney Leeming. He was injured at work, surviving to go on and fight in the First World War – where he was killed. His Great Niece, Mary Burns, contacted us to say that she was very proud of her Great Uncle and hadn’t been aware of Sydney’s accident. She also added that Sydney’s father died in the same year as his son, mourning his only child. This family tragedy was clearly still important, as Mary noted that she would continue to remember Sydney.


Last year John Davison Cameron contacted us to say he’d found his first cousin, three times’ removed, in our database: Bartholomew Stephenson, killed at work in April 1915. Brilliantly he wrote up the accident and its wider family context as a blog post, here. It gives us more of an understanding of Bartholomew’s life and times. Even better, some time afterwards we were contacted by another descendent of the same family line, based in America. We were able to put him in touch with John, who worked out that they were third cousins, twice removed. A nice demonstration that the links forged via the project aren’t just backwards, but right up to the present day!

And even better – in July 2021 we had another contact about this same blog post, from a new family connection to Bartholomew and hence to John, the blog author. From a previously unknown branch of the family, also based in the USA, they were related via Margaret Ann Frances Stephenson (1879-1968), Bartholomew’s sister. They have now exchanged family information.


Norton and Winning's graves at Dernancourt.
The graves of Norton and Winning at Dernancourt Military Cemetery, Somme

Sandra Gittins has written a number of posts for us, looking at accidents to railway staff who were in France as part of the First World War. One was about John Norton, killed in an accident in January 1918. We were contacted by John’s Great Nephew, Mick Norton, offering to share the wider detail of John’s life. He provided us with a great deal of background and some copies of original documents. So, we now know that John Norton worked as a coal trimmer at Barry Docks before his war service. Six of his seven siblings received a 10 shilling war gratuity upon John’s death: one brother under 18 and five sisters (mostly over 18). The one brother over 18 didn’t get anything. Sadly the children’s parents had died in 1915. Mick made clear that they really were a railway family, with the line continuing into his generation. He also noted that discovering John’s accident resonated, as he said: ‘I also served in the Corps of Royal Engineers [… ] and coincidentally had many times visited Longmoor where J R Norton would have received some training in his Railway occupation.’ Although they knew about John’s accident already, Mick’s comments about the connection were lovely and bear repeating: ‘It has been a fantastic genealogical journey for us Nortons here in the UK and Australia attempting to fill the gaps for J R Norton.  Many thanks for your site overview and what Sandra Gittins’ contribution has added to the jigsaw.’


Percy Abbott in the later 1920s.

Finally, sometimes the most unusual of connections comes out. We met Chris Abbott at the Family Tree Live event in 2019. From another railway family, he told us about the railway accidents in his family past. With the help of his father’s recollections, Chris put together his blog post, detailing the accident to his grandfather, Percy Abbott, in the 1930s. It also discussed his great grandfather’s role in the infamous Salisbury passenger crash of 1906. The Salisbury connection was strong – and there was a link to another of our volunteers, Gordon Dudman. Gordon had been Assistant Station Master at Salisbury in the early 1980s, and knew Chris’ uncles who also worked there. Gordon was able to provide some lovely personal detail of Chris’ family. He said:

I vividly remember two footplate trips with Norman. First was acting as Pilotman between Wilton South and Gillingham on the 01:15 Waterloo to Yeovil Junction newspaper train. We departed Salisbury at about 03:30 on a pitch black and foggy morning. It was an odd experience because I couldn’t see a thing. Norman gave me a running commentary “Just coming up to a bridge” – then “woosh”; just coming up to Tisbury Gates; we’ll get the AWS bell in a moment – “Ringggg!” “Hang-on there’s a bit of dip coming up” – lurch! And so on.

Arthur was absolutely brilliant as a ticket collector, not only for the reasons I put previously but also perfect record keeping. It was part of a manager’s nature to expect that ticket collectors would put the odd pound or two into their own pockets so you tried to keep a close check. Quite possibly his driver’s background but his records were always meticulous.

What was particularly pleasing about this sharing was that not only did Chris hear this, Gordon added: ‘Thanks for helping me re-live some very happy memories.’ That’s the ideal outcome for our project: everyone benefits.


As we add more cases to the database – we’re currently working on cleaning around 20,000 further records – we’ll be able to help more people make connections like these. That’s a wonderful thought.

So – if you do find an ancestor or someone you’re researching in our database, do please let us know! We relay this to the volunteers, and it gives us all a boost. We can see our efforts being put to good use. If it helps to make new connections between different researchers, that’s even better.

And if you fancy it, we’re always more than happy to have guest blog posts – they really help to tell the wider stories of the people involved. Just get in touch!

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