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Ada Davies, gatekeeper

Continuing our Women’s History Month focus on where women feature in our project database, this week we’re turning to what remains a concern for the current industry: level crossings. These are the points at which road and rail meet on the level. They exposed – and expose – employees, railway users and road users to dangers. As a result in the Railway Work, Life & Death project we see railway staff and members of the public having accidents in connections with level crossings.

This includes, of course, women – like Mrs J Moore, 72, killed whilst on a level crossing at Earby station, near Colne in Lancashire. She was a member of the public, intending to travel on a train from the station. She was struck by a train as she crossed the lines. However, the project database also includes women who worked on and around level crossings. This is something that Helena Wojtczak has blogged about for us in the past. Today we look at another railwaywoman gatekeeper.

Ada Davies (1863-1922)

We can pick up a fair bit about Ada Davies’ life from her appearances on the census over the years. She was born in 1863, in Carmarthen. She seems to have been a Davies before she married David Davies in 1885. By 1891 they were living in the small village of Abergwili, east of Carmarthen, with their two daughters and son. As is typical of the time, Ada didn’t have an occupation listed on the census. No doubt she ran the household, and might have undertaken some form of unrecognised paid employment. David was a fisherman – the first of many jobs he had over the following years.

On the 1901 Census Ada and David had three daughters and three sons still living with them. Ada again had no occupation listed; David was now a lead pit banksman. By 1911, Ada and David had three sons and one daughter living with them. We know from the Census detail that Ada had had 15 children, 8 of whom had died. Ada once again had no occupation given – though we shall come back to this. David was now a platelayer – someone who maintained the railway lines – for the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). They were living in the Castle Pygyn railway crossing cottage.

Ordnance Survey map, showing a single railway line running from north-west to south-east, past fields, over the level crossing concerned and with the village of Abergwili to the south.
1906 Ordnance Survey map of the LNWR railway line, to the north of Abergwili. Ada Davies’ level crossing is to the left of the line, near the Ebenezer Chapel.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

By 1921, Ada was 58 and David 56. Living at home with them were two sons, Daniel (23, a piano tuner) and Edward (19, an unemployed draper’s shop assistant). David was still working on the tracks, for the LNWR. For the first time, Ada had a given occupation: LNWR gate keeper. She was responsible for the Castle Pygyn crossing, on the single track line between Carmarthen and Llandilo. Platelayers’ wives sometimes occupied the role of gate keeper, sometimes informally deputising for their husbands. Sometimes this was more formal, as seems to have been the case for Ada.

Unfortunately Ada doesn’t appear on the 1939 National Register, and David appears as a retired platelayer and a widower. So what happened to Ada?

20 March 1922

Sadly, Ada Davies was killed in an accident on 20 March 1922. It was the subject of a Railway Inspectorate investigation, by Inspector JAA Pickard, and hence appears in our database.

At around 9pm the indicators in the crossing cottage showed that a train was approaching. They didn’t indicate from which direction. Ada went out to open the gates to the railway and close them to road traffic. She managed to close one gate, but whilst closing the other the train, approaching from Carmarthen, passed signals at danger and ‘ran through the gate, and Mrs Davies was fatally injured.’

In the investigation, the driver of the train was quizzed about why he didn’t see the signals which were set at danger – in theory a command to stop the train. He claimed that the lamps on the signals immediately ahead of the crossing were not lit, and as soon as that was observed, he applied the brakes. However, Inspector Pickard was sceptical: ‘Such corroborative evidence as was given as to these signal lamps being out was wholly unconvincing and in some respects contradictory, and I am unable to accept it as reliable.’ Strong stuff indeed – for these reports!

Driver Evans was held responsible for the accident, as he was deemed to have been travelling too fast to stop in the space available, and hadn’t paid sufficient attention to the signals. The LNWR was also advised to provide a mechanism for the crossing keeper to be able to tell which direction the train was approaching from.

We mentioned that the 1911 Census did not list an occupation for Ada Davies. The accident report notes that by 1922 she had been a crossing keeper for 16 and a half years – back to 1907. This suggests, as others have observed, that the Census returns were not always accurate in recording women’s occupations.

‘Blind son’s tale of woe’

Tragically, Ada’s son Daniel was present at the moment of the accident which killed his mother. Daniel heard it all, and was able to provide evidence at the inquest – but he did not see it, as he was blind.

Ada mistook which direction the train was approaching from. In doing so, she opened the wrong level crossing gate first, meaning by the time the train reached the crossing, she was still in the process of opening the other gate – and was hit. Daniel said he followed his mother out of the house:

‘…I heard the train approaching […] Then I knew it was an up train from Carmarthen. I realised that it was coming close, and that the brakes were not on, and that the engine was still panting. My mother was at the gates, and I shouted to her that it was the up train, and for her to come away and leave the gates alone. I heard one of the gates clang and the key turn, and I heard the sound of the train. I do not know what happened then, but the crash came. […] After the crash came […] I shouted to her and had no answer, and then I feared the worst. I went over the wreckage […] and followed the rail, and almost simultaneously as I reached her she commenced to groan. Then I felt myself helpless, and the least thing I thought I could do was run for help immediately’.

He found a cyclist who went to find a first aider in the village and a doctor – but to no avail. Ada died that day. Having heard his mother’s death but been unable to prevent it must have been very difficult to deal with.

The coroner, Thomas Walters, criticised the LNWR’s use of long-burning lamps, lasting up to 7 days: ‘to leave it to a mechanical contrivance was too dangerous a scheme to be tolerated. […] He thought the present arrangements were rather lax.’ Nevertheless, a verdict of ‘accidental death’ was returned (Western Mail, 22 March 1922).

Those left behind

It’s hard to judge the impacts of Ada’s death. The records which survive are formal – which means they tend to miss or obscure the emotional aspects. We know from David’s National Union of Railwaymen membership record that he retired in September 1927. Did he remain working the same stretch of line where his wife died? Did he remain in the crossing keeper’s cottage? Indeed, did the wider family keep the crossing keeper role within the family? The house would have gone with the job, so if they didn’t keep the role, they would have had to move elsewhere. Whatever happened, these must have been very painful and very present reminders of what had happened.

On the 1939 National Register, David was recorded as a widower and retired platelayer, living by himself. The two sons who were living at home at the time of Ada’s death – Edward and Daniel – were both married by 1939. Daniel lived with his wife in Carmarthen; he remained a piano tuner, making use of his sensitive hearing.

Women’s railway work & accidents

Of the 37 women whose accidents were investigated by the Railway Inspectorate and who feature in this run of data, seven were not formally employed by a railway company. Of the remaining 30 accidents, six involved gate keepers. This was work which was clearly seen by the railway companies as suitable for women. Gate keeping was also used as ‘light work’ for male employees who had been disabled in workplace accidents on the railway (see Frederick Potter’s case, here) – an interesting equivalence between women’s work and disabled work.

Were it not for Ada Davies’ death, it seems unlikely that her work would have made much of an impression in the formal documentary records. It might perhaps only have been that reference in the 1921 Census. Yet from the accident report and the wider context we’ve been able to piece together, we start to see a much wider and richer picture of one woman’s railway work and wider life story.


  1. Helena Wojtczak

    Thank you for this. A well-researched account.

    During my own research I came across dozens of female gatekeepers who held the job for twenty years or more yet are shown as not working on successive censuses. It is deeply disrespectful and dismissive of these hardworking women, who were on duty typically 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

    I have read a fair number of gatekeepers’ deaths in this way and the question that always pops into my head is, why did so many die because they not hear the train coming? Steam trains in particular were very noisy, and often there were ‘whistle’ boards on the approach to crossings.

  2. Mike Esbester

    Thanks as ever Helena for your readership, support & comment!

    Curious about the missing female gatekeepers on the census – someone was clearly deciding it wasn’t ‘real’ work and therefore it wasn’t recorded. Wonder if it would be possible to see differences by area or enumerator? Hard (and time-consuming) to unpick though; as you point out, it reflects some of the wider social values of the time.

    The noise of an approaching train is a really interesting one. You’ll know better than I how deceptively quiet they can be: if there’s no steam being applied and they’re effectively coasting under their own momentum, there’s only the rail-wheel interface for friction, and that’s tiny. If someone was distracted, or the wind blowing the wrong way, or any number of other possible scenarios … and you’ve seen the reports the follow, sadly.

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