John Pratt (1869 – 1914)

Earlier this year we were contacted by the author of this blog post, Sarah Maczugowska, seeking information about her Great Grandfather John Pratt’s role on the railway – in particular, the ‘special guard duty’ during the First World War that was to result in his death. Whilst we couldn’t help directly, when knew someone who could: author and long-time project friend Sandra Gittins. As ever, her help was invaluable, explaining what John was doing at the time of his accident and clearly up a family mystery: our thanks to Sandra for her help.

Of course, our thanks to Sarah for this post and for sharing her family history with us. Guest contributions like this are always welcome, so if you have one, please get in touch.


In recent years I have taken greater interest in my family tree and, whilst I have heard many family stories over the years, I have been keen to discover more about some of my direct ancestors.  My Great Grandfather John Pratt being a case in point. I have always known he died at a fairly young age working on the railways but that was the extent of the family’s knowledge.

John was born in Bayford, Hertfordshire, in 1869 to parents Samuel and Sarah Ann. One of 10 children, he spent his childhood in Bayford before the family moved to South Mimms. It was here he met and married his wife, Mary Ann Parker. They married in October 1892 at the Church of St Giles, South Mimms.  Their first child Christina was born shortly after.

By this time John had started working for the railway and the 1901 census shows he was living in Islington and working as a platelayer on the railway. He soon moves his family out of London and back to Hertfordshire, settling on the outskirts of Rickmansworth, which of course has a Metropolitan Line station. By 1911 he and Mary Ann had welcomed 10 children, including my Grandmother Annie, who was 5 years old.

John was sadly killed on 22 August 1914 at the age of 45. A little digging into the archives and I was able to find the full transcript of the inquest published in the Bucks Examiner on 28 August 1914.

At the time of his accident, he was employed by the Metropolitan and Great Central Joint Railway as a platelayers’ ganger. World War 1 had just started, and according to the inquest into John’s death, he was working as a Special Guard on the fateful night. The newspaper article starts by stating ‘it seems undoubtedly a fact that he is one of the victims of the “special guard” system now on the railway, but the evidence showed that no one could possibly be blamed for the occurrence’. Having contacted Mike on the “Railway Work, Life & Death Project” he passed my query on to Sandra Gittins, who told me that when World War 1 commenced platelayers were tasked with patrolling key railway lines, with special attention to bridges and tunnels, to protect from potential enemy action. Soldiers were also initially posted to this duty. But being unfamiliar with the railway environment and its particular dangers, a number were quickly killed, no doubt in similar circumstances to John. Gradually, as the war progressed, fewer and fewer men were allocated to this duty.

John was tasked with guarding bridge number 97 in Chorleywood and during the night his lamp ran out of oil; he set off for the station to get some more. No-one witnessed the accident, but these extracts from the report of the inquest give details of his good character and the conclusions that were drawn from where he was found and the injuries he had sustained.

Mr. Ormerod, permanent way inspector, and in charge of this portion of the line, stated that deceased was under him and had so worked for about fourteen years. He was a most careful and trustworthy man and at one time was put in charge of 190 men. Deceased was on special watching duty that night, and that would necessitate his walking along the line. He was provided with a lamp, but it appeared he had run out of oil and was on his way to the station to get some oil when the platelayer saw him. When the platelayer saw the deceased, he was on the bridge and it appeared as if deceased had just got over the bridge and had stepped off the sleepers when he was struck by the engine: no doubt thinking he was clear, but not being so. There were signs that deceased had been walking on the edge of the sleepers and had just stepped off when the accident happened.

As well as the down trains spoken of, there was an up train due at about that time, although it was impossible to find whether they “clashed” … passed each other at the same time. It was quite possible that they did so. The up train would be proceeding towards Rickmansworth and the deceased, who was walking from the direction of Rickmansworth, would be facing that train. It was quite possible, also, that the noise of the up train would take his attention off a train behind him, and that he was caught before he realised that there was a train behind him, or before he could get clear.

Dr Fothergill stated that he was called to see the deceased at about 11 o’clock on Saturday night and found life extinct. There was a tremendous gaping wound in the centre of the deceased’s back, between the shoulders, about 9 inches in length. It extended from the upper inner margin of the shoulder blade on the left side right across the backbone to the lower angle of the right shoulder blade. Deceased’s back was broken, and the spinal cord severed. There was also a wound on the top of his skull. The wound in the back was sufficient to cause instantaneous death. There would be no pain: It would be instantaneous death. It was such a wound as might well have been caused by the buffer of an engine and was in the spot where you would expect the buffer to cause the wound.

The impact John’s death must have had on his large family would have been huge, I imagine. Mary Ann was left with 7 children under 12 years of age, although the eldest 3 daughters being 22, 20 and 17 would no doubt have been a great support with the younger ones. The inquest heard that before leaving for work that evening John had been cheerful and playing with the children. They must have taken a little comfort from the medical testimony that proved his death was instantaneous and he would have known nothing.

For most of my life I lived about half a mile from where my Great Grandfather died in such tragic circumstances, passing under the bridge many times, and travelling into London on the Met line not knowing that his accident occurred so close by. I am still looking into John and his family history, but it has been good to finally understand what happened to him.


Sarah Maczugowska

I’m fairly new to researching family history, having become interested in the last 5-6 years. Originally I’m from Chorleywood in Hertfordshire, where this tale takes place, but now living in the heart of Devon with my family.

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