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John Haughton: the life and death of a railwayman

We’re really pleased to be able to feature this guest blog post from Neil Gordon – it’s always heartening to receive contributions, but this is particularly interesting one, written by a descendent of the worker, John Haughton, at the centre of the piece.

We met Neil at the Family Tree Live show, where he mentioned that he’d found his great grandfather’s accident in our database. We’re therefore delighted that the project was able to help, and that Neil ‘wrote up’ his piece and has allowed us to share it with you.

Thanks to Neil for the blog, and for anyone else who finds out more as a result of the website and database, please let us know!


My great-grandfather probably never heard the train that hit and killed him at the age of 56. A family story, handed down from his widow, my great-grandmother, says he was hard of hearing, something that runs in the family. This could have been significant, as will be shown below.

John Haughton (Houghton as he was referred to in the accident report) was born in 1857, on 26 April, ironically the date before my own birthday, at Aspull Common, Pennington, near West Leigh in Lancashire. He had married Fanny Davies in 1877 and they had seven children, one of whom was adopted.

John worked as a platelayer on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway at Salford, near Manchester. He was described at the coroner’s inquest of 10 October at Pendleton Town Hall by John Phillips, a foreman platelayer, ‘as an experienced man’ who had ‘been used to the locality for several years.’ On the 7 October 1911, a Saturday, he was examining a section of track between Windsor Bridge and Oldfield Road where a bolt had broken. It was the custom for one man of the gang to take on this duty at weekends, and this was John’s turn. The official report said that six lines had to be walked and traffic over them was ‘exceedingly heavy’ there.

Salford, c.1915. The accident took place between the two bridges crossing the curve of the tracks.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

The 2.20p.m. to Manchester express train on the up line passed through this area daily, along with two other trains which passed the spot at the same time. John had been on duty for six hours when the incident took place. According to a newspaper report, John was “looking at a set of facing points on the up fast line” at 2.17p.m. A bolt had broken, making the points defective.

The official report suggests that “he appears to have been considering what should be done without giving thought to his own safety”. The driver of the express, Edmund Taylor, stated to the coroner that he had been travelling at about 40m.p.h. and that about 150 yards in front, near Windsor Bridge, he saw the deceased. (Note that the official report said the driver saw John when 50 yards distant, but that John could have seen the train from about 150 yards.) He sounded the whistle, but the deceased did not seem to hear and was run over.

Harry Thomas Knight, a lampman in the employ of the company, gave evidence to the coroner that he was in a signal cabin at Oldfield Road on Saturday afternoon when he was informed by Taylor that he had knocked the deceased down. Knight went to the spot and found pieces of the body about the line.

John Stephen Haughton of 68, Britannia Street., Salford, said the deceased was his father, and he lived in Hall Street, Salford. He had seen the body at the mortuary.

The inspector who carried out the official inquiry on behalf of the Board of Trade, John P. S. Main, stated that on weekdays it was normal for two men to perform the duty that John was undertaking on his own. The foreman platelayer admitted under questioning at the coroner’s inquest that one man ought not to do the work by himself on an express line where there was a curve.

The borough coroner, Mr. A. Holmes, said it was a sad case, and if the man had had someone to warn him the train was coming he would not have been killed. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death and recommended that in future one man should not be employed on the particular job on which the deceased man was working at the time of the accident.

John Main concluded in his inquiry that the same method of two-man working should be adopted throughout the week both on the length where John was killed and on similarly busy stretches and recommended the railway company to give instructions to this effect. Nevertheless, the summary of his report baldly stated that no others were involved and there was no responsibility to be apportioned.

John’s death certificate is shown here:

John Haughton’s death certificate.

The family was left bereft by John’s untimely death. John Stephen, the eldest boy responsible for identifying the body, was very shaken by the experience; his marriage had taken place only a few months previous to the accident. Zillah, the youngest and adopted, was just nine years old when this happened. Martha, my grandmother, was 21 and married five years after the event.

The photograph below shows the family in 1914.

Back row: Martha, John Stephen, Frank, Eliza
Front row: Ada, Zillah, Fanny, Gladys

Fanny died in 1934 at the age of 75, having lived for the past 23 years without her husband. Her death certificate described her as “the widow of a railway platelayer”.

Throughout the research into my family history and John Haughton’s death, the “Railway Work, Life & Death” project was invaluable in detailing the specifics of the accident and its location, especially the report of the official inquiry. Also irreplaceable was the newspaper report of the coroner’s hearing, carried by the Salford Chronicle of Saturday, 14 October 1911. This added witness accounts and plenty of local colour to the proceedings.

I do have another ancestor who was killed on the railway, seemingly in even more horrific circumstances as described by newspaper reports. Harold Llewellyn, who worked for GWR, committed suicide on the railway line in November, 1933. Unfortunately, this date is outside the present scope of the “Railway Work, Life & Death” project, but I note with interest that they have plans to move onto that period soon, so I hope it will again prove a fruitful source for me. I encourage all family historians with railway connections to investigate the resource provided by this splendid team.


Neil Gordon, great-grandson of John Haughton

From my roots in Salford, Lancashire I moved south to Essex as a lad and became a Geography teacher. After 40 years I have retired to spend more time with my family history and other hobbies including hill-walking, classical music, cultural visits and historical research about my town, Rayleigh.


  1. Pamela Hall

    John Haughton was also my Great Grandfather. Well done Neil for putting this article together. I knew John Haughton had died a horrible death whilst working on the railways. You have filled in a lot of the details I did not know. I suppose a glimmer of comfort can be taken from the fact that his death did result in working practices being changed to make them safer.

    • Mike Esbester

      Wow, thanks Pamela – great to read that Neil’s piece has helped to fill in details in your (shared) family history, just the sort of thing we hoped our project and the blog would achieve.

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