How Robert Henry Stanbury became Tylwch’s one-armed stationmaster

We were delighted to receive an email from this week’s guest author, Derek Savage, offering further information on one of the more intriguing cases from our database we’ve featured recently – an accident involving Robert Stanbury, though not one in which he himself was injured. Always happy to have such an offer, we gratefully accepted – but had little idea of what was to come. The to and fro with Derek was very interesting, not least as he kept us updated on the progress of his research, which as you will see was extensive.

Derek’s account clears up the remaining questions we had about Robert Stanbury. Even better, it puts him in his context – his family life, his railway service, his place in the local community, and his place in Derek’s own family history. This account is a wonderful marrying of family, local and railway history and we’re pleased to share it with you now – all thanks to Derek’s hard work.

We warmly welcome guest contributions, so if you have something that would fit our project, please get in touch.

 

On a wet winter’s afternoon, as I explored my family history, I stumbled across the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project. As soon as I saw references to a one-armed stationmaster at Tylwch named Robert Stanbury – and a request by Mike Esbester for further information about him – I knew I could assist from earlier work I’d undertaken.

I first became acquainted with the remote community of Tylwch in the heart of Wales some years ago when I began looking into the lives of William Mantle and Sarah Lawrence – my great-great-grandparents. The couple had started a family there after marrying in 1870 and the census of the following year listed William as a ‘platelayer on the railway’. The Mantle family resided very close to Tylwch station, which was situated on the Mid-Wales Railway between Moat Lane Junction (near Caersws) and Brecon.

Tylwch station on the Mid-Wales (Cambrian) Railway looking south towards Rhayader and Brecon. Robert Stanbury was based at Tylwch in the 1870s and 1880s. The station closed in 1962, along with the rest of the line between Moat Lane and Brecon.

 

My research led me to the diaries of the Rev Francis Kilvert and an entry in which he’d mentioned talking with a ‘one-armed station master’ at Tylwch in 1876. Kilvert worked as a curate in the Welsh Marches at the time. He later became known far beyond when extracts from some of his diaries, in which he chronicled rural life with a compassion for his parishioners and a love of nature, were published.

In his diary for the 6th of May 1876, Rev Kilvert described his conversation after he’d stepped off the train at Tylwch:

I had some pleasant talk with the one-armed station master who told me a good deal about the country and the people and much that he said was friendly and favourable…The station master told me that upon the mountain above Tylwch, peace had been signed between the Welsh and the English in the reign of Edward I, and that some allusion to this historical fact was preserved in the word ‘Tylwch’ which means, he thought, the ‘House of Peace’.[1]

My interest in Tylwch largely concerns family history in the 19th century so I have not investigated Kilvert’s references to earlier times. However, his comment about meeting ‘the one-armed station master’ particularly intrigued me as my ancestors lived at Tylwch at the time of the reverend’s visit. The railwayman was not named in the diary but he would have been a neighbour and one-time colleague of my great-great-grandfather. Therefore, with a desire to learn about the people my ancestors would undoubtedly have known, I set out to try to discover more about the man.

Using the censuses of 1871 and 1881, I noted the names of the station masters who lived at Tylwch station. They were listed as Edward Smith and Robert Stanbury, respectively. I then found that Robert had been working at the same station as an agent and porter as early as 1873.[2] However, I still had no definitive proof of who actually held the post in 1876 when Rev Kilvert visited so I turned to the British Newspaper Archive. It was there that my hunt concluded when, having searched for both railwaymen, I discovered an article about a man named Robert Stanbury who had lost his right arm in a railway accident in Wales on the 21st of December 1868.[3]

According to the report, the accident took place when Robert was employed as a porter at the ‘Neath & Brecon station’ as he assisted with the shunting of trucks. Unfortunately, during the procedure he slipped and trucks passed over his right arm which was completely crushed. It was necessary for ‘medical gentleman’, John North, to amputate close to the shoulder. The press report stated that railway officials gave ‘every attention to the unfortunate man’, and directed that ‘everything possible’ was to be done for him.

Robert was said to be ‘progressing satisfactorily’ but it was impossible to say whether he would recover from the shock to his system. However, Dr John North had clearly performed an excellent operation as Robert survived his ordeal. Taken just a few years later, the 1871 census provides a little more detail about Dr North, revealing that he was a 61-year-old General Practitioner. He lived with his wife and family at Lion Street in Brecon and had a son, 23-year-old John Cunningham North, who was listed as a ‘medical assistant’.

In 1873, five years after his accident, Robert Stanbury married Susannah Gregory and they began raising a family at Tylwch station, just as my own Mantle ancestors were doing nearby. Their lives had taken them all to a sparsely populated remote hamlet, tucked away in a deep picturesque valley where just a few cottages nestled either side of a meandering brook – known as the Afon Dulas. Times were hard for many people but Tylwch must have been an idyllic place for their children to grow up, surrounded by nature, perhaps waving to the steam trains as they slowly chugged through the peaceful, scenic valley.

The picturesque approach towards Tylwch on the B4518 from Llanidloes to Rhayader, looking west across the Afon Dulas valley.

 

Today, Tylwch remains a quiet rural backwater where a narrow road bridge spans the brook which once formed the border between the old counties of Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire (now part of the County of Powys). The old station building has become a private residence and there are just a few cottages dotted either side of the brook. Back in the 1870s, however, Tylwch would have been busier with the railway station handling goods and passenger traffic for the wider area, as well as providing some limited employment. In the hills surrounding the station, a few small lead mines provided work for some people. Others worked in agriculture and there was a corn mill and a carding mill (the latter known as Tylwch Factory).

In 1871, William and Sarah Mantle, lived on the Montgomeryshire side of Tylwch. However, the birth record of one of their children confirms that by 1875 they had moved just a hundred yards or so across the Afon Dulas to the Radnorshire side. The 1881 census counted them just over the bridge but still very near to the station at number 2, Tylwch Cottages. Their home is likely to have been located in a terraced row of three which later became known as Brook Cottages.[4]

Looking across Tylwch towards the east. The old station buildings (where Robert Stanbury once lived and worked) can just be seen through the trees to the left. To the right, the former row of three cottages (where the Mantle family is likely to have lived) has been converted to a single property, now known as Brook Cottage.

 

The same row of homes appears to have been visited by Rev Kilvert after he’d spoken with Robert Stanbury at the station. In his diary, the reverend wrote about crossing the brook to the Radnorshire side of Tylwch. There, he knocked at the door of one of a group of cottages and spoke to ‘a tidy woman with a plaid shawl pinned over her breast’. In the course of their conversation, the woman said that she sometimes ventured as far as her parish church at St Harmon ‘though it was five miles off’. There will always be a possibility that the woman was my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Mantle, who’d have been in her early forties. Unlike Robert Stanbury, however, it seems she had no obvious physical characteristics for the reverend to note so I will never know for sure!

One thing is fairly certain, though. I’m sure that both Robert and the woman could never have imagined that the curate who’d spoken to them, deep in the Welsh countryside on a spring morning in 1876, would later become known internationally. Today, almost 150 years later, The Kilvert Society has several hundred members who are united by their appreciation of Rev Francis Kilvert’s daily musings of British country life in times long gone. Such reflections perhaps help to offer some detail about the character of Robert Stanbury. Kilvert’s words suggest that he’d met a friendly soul who seemed content with his environment; a man who was interested in his locality and keen to share his knowledge and interpretation of its history with travellers arriving at Tylwch station.

I was able to discover more information about Robert after making local enquiries and contacting descendants of his wider family. Through a genealogy website, family members described an independent and determined man who had not let his accident prevent him from leading a full life. They recalled how Robert had learned to write again, with ‘beautiful copperplate handwriting’, having lost his right-arm at nineteen years of age as he worked on the railway.

Press reports offer additional examples of how Robert refused to allow his disability to hinder him. They reveal that he won first prize at Tylwch for the best kept station on the Cambrian Railways in 1888.[5]  The Company encouraged station masters and staff to display their gardening skills by holding regular competitions. By 1891, Robert had transferred to Pontdolgoch station (between Caersws and Machynlleth) and there he received similar accolades, including another award of first prize in 1903.[6] Later, in 1906, a further report noted that Robert was a ‘consistent winner in the competition for best-kept stations’. Pontdolgoch station was said to have ‘artistically laid-out plots’ with ‘the phloxes, dahlias and asters being especially commendable’.[7] Such achievements were, of course, extraordinary for a man with only one arm.

Award-winning station master Robert Henry Stanbury (1848-1933). Image courtesy of Jackie Smout of ‘The Talkhouse’, Pontdolgoch, Caersws, Powys.

 

Robert Henry Stanbury proudly standing amongst the flowers and shrubs in the station garden at Pontdolgoch in 1911. The photograph also features his daughter, Louisa Ann (1883-1973) and son William Henry (1891-1938). William worked for the Cambrian Railways as a clerk. The Stanbury family is listed at Pontdolgoch station on the 1891, 1901 and 1911 censuses. Image courtesy of Christine Edwards.

 

Back at Tylwch, and before the Stanbury family relocated to Pontdolgoch, my great-great-grandfather, William Mantle, left his job on the railway to work nearby as a lead miner. However, increased competition from cheaper, imported lead began to affect local job opportunities and he was recorded working as an agricultural labourer when the 1881 census was taken. William’s salary would have been reduced but he had a growing family to feed. It’s not surprising, therefore, that like many people in search of better prospects at the time, the Mantle family joined the exodus to the booming South Wales coalfield. There, William’s former skills, acquired from working as a railway platelayer and as a lead miner, earned him a place as a block-layer, laying the rails in a Rhondda pit.

When my ancestors departed for the South Wales Valleys in 1883, they probably travelled by train from Tylwch. I’d like to think that William Mantle purchased the tickets for the journey from station master Robert Stanbury, the man who despite his disability would continue to work for the Cambrian Railways for many decades and would soon be winning prizes for his station gardens.

Pontdolgoch station, where the Stanbury family lived for decades after relocating from Tylwch. The station was located on a single track section of the Cambrian Railways system, west of Caersws. Passenger trains have not called at Pontdolgoch since 1965 but the Cambrian line remains open and is considered to be one of the most scenic routes in the UK. Today, direct services from Birmingham via Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and north along the coast to Pwllheli continue to speed past the old station house which is now a private residence.

 

After recovering from such a terrible accident at work, it’s inspiring to know that Robert Stanbury’s resilience and determination enabled him to continue his railway career and live a long and full life with his family. He died at Oswestry in 1933 at the age of eighty-five. Today, the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project, and the conversation it’s creating, is helping to put meat on the bones of family trees and is serving to ensure that stories of railwaymen like Robert Henry Stanbury – the lives they led and the sacrifices they made – are not forgotten.

 

Derek Savage

After a long career in the TV broadcasting industry, Derek Savage took early retirement. He has been delving into his family history ever since.

 

 

[1] Kilvert’s Diary Volume 3 by William Plomer. Published by Jonathan Cape, 1940,

pages 292-294.

[2] Cheshire Archives – Railways Staff Registers online database.

[3] The British Newspaper Archive – The Brecon County Times, 26 December 1868,

page 4, column 2.

[4] The National Archives – 1901 Wales Census

[5] The British Newspaper Archive – Eddowes’s Shrewsbury Journal, 25 July 1888,

page 5, column 6.

 [6] The British Newspaper Archive – The Barmouth & County Advertiser, 5 November 1903,

page 8, column 2.

 [7] The British Newspaper Archive – The Cambrian News, 14 December 1906,

page 2, column 6.

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  1. Improvising to work with a disability - Railway Work, Life & Death - June 22, 2020

    […] (June 2020): We have more! See this guest blog post to fill in the gaps in Stanbury’s career – including more about the accident which […]

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