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How did Charles die?

Every so often someone gets in touch with us to say they’ve found an ancestor in the project database. Despite the sad nature of the contact – generally it means something bad has happened to their ancestor – we welcome these messages. They’re really valuable to us, as we can find out more about the people involved and understand them in a more rounded way, as well as seeing the accident in its wider context.

Today’s blog post is absolutely one of those times. We’re incredibly grateful to today’s author, Linda Rollitt, and her wider family, for sharing their story. We’re also glad that our project was able to help them find out more about the railway staff accident in their family. It’s another demonstration that, whilst the events our project looks at happened 80 or more years ago, they remain very powerful and their reach still touches the present.

We’re keen to hear from other people, too, so do please let us know when you find people or events in our database.


Auntie Brenda was talking about the old days and brought up a very sensitive subject: the untimely death of her father on a railway line in Bala, Merionethshire, something she has never mentioned before. Brenda’s mother Florence had been unforthcoming about her husband’s death. How exactly did he die? Perhaps now it was time for some light to be thrown on Charles Pestell’s demise.

Charles died in 1938 at the age of 40, not knowing that his wife was pregnant – how sad that he never knew that he had a daughter on the way.

Brenda was sure she had seen a newspaper cutting about Charles’ death from the Shrewsbury Chronicle years ago amongst her aunt’s possessions but that has since gone astray. Early research brought no results – nothing via a search in the British Library newspaper archives (though more scans are constantly being added) and there was no account of the incident in the Shrewsbury Chronicle archives online.

Charles’ death certificate was ordered from the General Register Office, which reported “Decapitation and severe injuries due to being run over by a Railway engine. Accident”. What a shock to see that cause of death! There were no further details of the accident.

Death certificate for Charles Pestell.


The death certificate also notes an inquest held on 3 June 1938. The National Archives via a live chat link recommended the Gwynedd Archives. There I was told that there was no record of the inquest and in any case I would have to write to the Coroner for permission to view it as coroners’ records are closed for 100 years, so that was one avenue closed. However, the archivist has offered to translate a detailed account of the inquest from the local newspaper, Y Dydd (“The Day”) in Welsh.

Imagine our surprise when, the very next day, an article about Railway History serendipitously popped up in my husband’s Facebook feed! A link to the Railway Work, Life & Death website led to a spreadsheet that came up with details of railway accidents. Listed there was Inspector J A Sinclair’s report on Charles Pestell’s death. He was a labourer for the Great Western Railway:

Fatal. Hit by engine whilst about the track. Acting as chargeman for bridge gang, he was checking plumb-lines on bridge. Pestell was walking between main line & siding when may have crossed 4-foot way to not walk in unprotected planks in bad weather. Responsibility/cause: Pestell’s want of care.

We had found a report where the railway authorities claimed that Charles’ death was as a result of his “want of care”. However, Mike Esbester of the Railway Work, Life & Death project assures us further that:

Today I am reasonably confident this accident would NOT be pinned on Charles. He was expected to work in poor conditions (which might still happen today) but the working area (the planks over the bridge) were unsafe, causing him to move into the path of the train and leading to the accident. The company would today be expected to provide a safe working environment and ensure he didn’t have to step onto the tracks.

Lightly colourised photograph of a young couple, Florence and Charles Pestell, sat on chairs and smiling at the camera.
Florence and Charles Pestell


With heartful thanks to all involved in the Railway Work, Life & Death project, archive staff and volunteers for providing resources that helped us to establish the circumstances of Charles’ death, a small comfort to this family.


Linda Rollitt

Linda Rollitt has researched her family history since childhood; the extended family ranged from Chirk in North Wales, Shropshire, Norwich, Ipswich, Kent, Orkney and as far as Canada, where a couple of great aunts were sent as “home children”. Now retired from a 25-year career in IT, she spends many hours researching and writing about family and local history.

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