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From Gofa to Warden Law – the Death of a Ranter

Earlier this year we put out a call on Twitter to see if anyone would like to write a guest blog post – this kind of contributory work is important to our project, and we enjoy seeing people get involved. We were therefore very pleased to have a quick response, from Jo Boutflower, author of this post. In it, we’re taken back to the very early days of the railways in England, and reminded that risks weren’t just encountered by staff or even passengers. The railway environment was new for other people too – sometimes with tragic consequences.

Guest posts are always very welcome, so if you’ve a suggestion, please get in touch!


When I began researching my family history, I knew very little about the Branfoot branch but almost immediately found my way back to Richard Branfoot, my great great grandfather. Richard, a ship carver and gilder, was born in Hexham, Northumberland in 1826. At the time of the first census in 1841, Richard was living at Coronation Street, Sunderland with his widowed mother, Hannah, and his three brothers and a sister. I was interested to see that Hannah was born in Yorkshire as it is my own birthplace, and I traced her baptism record and then found her marriage in 1821 at Guisborough to John Branfoot.

I drew a few blanks in trying to find out more about John from official records and decided that his name was unusual enough to warrant an online search. This revealed that John Branfoot was a primitive Methodist preacher. The ‘primitive’ apparently refers to an intention to return to a simpler, purer form of religion closer to the origins of Methodism. Preachers, both men and women, usually travelled from place to place to spread the word, hoping to convert the large crowds who gathered to hear them. Also known as ranters, they preached to the working class, a movement led by the poor for the poor.

Map of the accident location
1856 map of the accident location.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

On Saturday 26 February 1831, John was walking to an appointment with fellow ranter, John Hewson, when they crossed the Hetton colliery railway at Warden Law. The railway ran for around 8 miles from Hetton colliery to staithes at Sunderland. When it opened the railway was considered an engineering wonder because of the complexity of the terrain it covered and the solutions that had to be put in place, and it attracted visitors from around the world. At Warden Law Hill there was a reciprocating arrangement whereby the ascent of a run of 8 empty wagons was powered by the descent of a run of 8 laden wagons. It seems that the brothers were unaware of this and, having waited for the laden wagons to pass, crossed the tracks only to be hit by the ascending empty wagons. John Hewson was killed immediately and John Branfoot suffered mortal injuries, dying a few hours later in Sunderland Infirmary. John Hewson left a widow and 6 children, and John Branfoot a widow and five children.

Hewson and Branfoot were buried at Holy Trinity, Sunderland on 2 March 1831, and their funerals were reportedly attended by thousands.

John Branfoot’s obituary led me to his birthplace, near Ripon in North Yorkshire, and I was able to find his baptism record. A slight mystery remains as John’s baptism took place at Kirkby Malzeard although the obituary reports that he was born at Gofa. Gofa is possibly an attempt to render in print the vernacular interpretation of the nearby village of Galphay [Garfa or Garfay]. The final twist was that, in trying to pin down John’s birthplace, I contacted a local village historian who very kindly located a reference to John’s death in a local newspaper. The York Herald of 5 March 1831 reported that in 8 months there had been 6 accidents on Sunderland’s wagonways.


Jo Boutflower

I’m a new and very amateur family historian researching my family in the north east and Yorkshire. I tweet sporadically as @myfamilytrees and have my own blog (from which this post was adapted) at

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