Francis Howcutt has looked at where his family history and railways met previously, in this blog post, so we’re delighted to welcome him back. In this post, Francis explores the story of Hezekiah Brett, a cousin of his 2x great grandfather. Sadly, Hezekiah committed suicide in 1895, but the reasons mentioned at the inquest may not have been the only misfortunes on his mind as he headed for the railway bridge. Hezekiah’s suicide also appears in the records that will be coming into the project in the future, from the Midland Railway – an interesting point of cross-reference.
In terms of historical study, railway suicide is almost entirely neglected. And of course, it’s a challenging topic, past and present. Thankfully today there is support available to help prevent railway suicide and reduce the impact on those affected. The Samaritans do excellent work in all areas, but have a dedicated railway programme, working with the current industry – more details here.
When those reading the Leicester Chronicle on Saturday 25 May 1895 turned to page 8, they were confronted with this headline – ‘Horrible Railway Fatality At Glen – A Man Cut In Two By An Express’. It flagged up a report about Hezekiah Brett, aged 62, of Blaby who had been weakened by influenza and unable to follow his usual employment as a brickyard labourer for 12 months. He had a reputation as a hard-working man and his dependence on his family had preyed on his mind. On the previous Wednesday, it appears he walked along the bridle road from Glen Parva to Aylestone, climbed the embankment onto the railway a short distance from Blaby station (on the London and North Western Railway) and sat on the corner of the bridge. As the 8.15 Midland Railway express from Leicester to Birmingham approached, he jumped across the rails in front of him, as a result of which his body was cut in two. The inquest held at the Union Inn, Blaby returned a verdict of suicide during temporary insanity.
Hezekiah, the third child of William Brett and his wife Sarah Dalby, was born at Blaby about 1832 and probably lived throughout his life in that village, which is about five miles south of the centre of Leicester. Sarah was only 26 years old when she died in 1833. It seems William (c.1805-1855) remained at Blaby but did not remarry and was unable to bring up his three young children singlehanded. The 1841 census records Hezekiah and his older sister and brother as living at Glen Ford Road with their grandparents Francis and Grace Dalby. Francis died in 1848 but the grandchildren remained with Grace at least until the 1851 census when the four of them were sharing a house at Chapel Street with Sarah’s brother James Dalby, his wife and three of his offspring. By this stage “Ez” (as he was recorded by the enumerator) was one of the many local residents earning a living as a framework knitter.
On Boxing Day 1853, Hezekiah married Mary Dale with whom he went on to produce six children. Mary’s final pregnancy did not go well; the birth of her child Charles was registered in December quarter 1867 and she was buried at Blaby on 8 December of that year, having reached the age of 33. Hezekiah’s second marriage – to Mary Webster, formerly Hyde (c.1832-1925) – took place at Blaby on 13 September 1869. Mary was also widowed, her first husband, Thomas Webster, having died late in 1865. Mary had six children living when she married Hezekiah and he had five. A further six children were born to Hezekiah’s second marriage.
For much of his life, Hezekiah lived in very crowded conditions. Only three children were living with him and his first wife at Wrights Yard in 1861, but ten years later Hezekiah’s home at Coltmans Yard in Chapel Street was teeming with a total of eleven children aged from 17 years to 3 months, in addition to the two adults. Chapel Street was the address recorded for the family in 1881, when Hezekiah and Mary shared a house with nine children and a grandson. By 1891, they had returned to Wrights Yard with only four children present on the census night.
1861 was the last census that described Hezekiah as a framework knitter – an occupation that in the latter part of the nineteenth century was being increasingly undermined by factory work. Subsequent censuses recorded him in the arguably less well-paid and less skilled roles of an agricultural or brickmaking labourer.
The bereavements that stalked Hezekiah’s life included the deaths of at least four of his biological children – two as infants and two in their teens. At least one of his surviving children ventured far afield from Blaby. Ada (1876-1954) and her husband David Charles Clarke emigrated to America in 1907. When in 1920 they applied for a US passport prior to visiting England to see relatives, Ada’s photograph was submitted with the application.
Francis Howcutt has indexed the 1674 hearth tax lists for the whole of Northamptonshire and completed editing an index to over 87,000 probate records of the local courts that operated in Northamptonshire & Rutland until 1858. His index and introduction to a collection of over 2,000 pedigrees compiled by Rev Henry Isham Longden was launched in July 2022.
He administers Facebook groups for those interested in Naseby, Thornby & Haselbech Village History, Howcutt & Howcott History and Norwood Society Local History.