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John Preece, his bravery, and his terrible injuries

We’re delighted to have received this timely guest post from long-time project friend and support Steve Jackson. It’s timely because, as Steve notes, it meshes nicely with this month’s focus on tragedies centred on a particular place. One of the virtues of our project is that it will increasingly allow us to take a place-based approach, amongst others, to railway staff accidents. Here Steve extends our reach back into the 1860s, linking a variety of sources to uncover a fascinating story.

It’s been a busy time for Steve in relation to our project, too, as he spent some time digging away to uncover further details about last week’s blog post, helping us and (more importantly) the grandson of the injured man at the heart of the post. This is a brilliant testament to the benefits of collaboration – it makes our research better. Thanks Steve!


‘One-Place Tragedies’ is the Society for One-Place Studiesblogging prompt for February 2021 (social media hashtag #OnePlaceTragedies). We’ve had many fascinating and suitably tragic tales contributed already – you will not be surprised to learn that there’s no shortage of material when it comes to unfortunate deaths and injuries in the places we study. All this grimness can be a bit overwhelming however (particularly in the midst of a global pandemic). So, I came up with a bonus theme to be used as an alternative or as an addition: One-Place Joys.

In my efforts to find a joyful story to share from my own one-place study of Waters Upton in Shropshire, I found one tinged with tragedy – Waters Upton’s first amateur entertainments, which I am currently writing and posting in several instalments. These entertainments – evenings of songs, music and readings held in February 1867 – were “for the benefit of John Preece”. It did not take long for me to find that John was a railway employee who, in a selfless attempt to save a life, suffered horrendous injuries which led to multiple amputations. Although John had no connections with Waters Upton, I wanted to research and tell his story. Where better to do so than here on the ‘Railway Work, Life and Death’ blog?

The accident

John’s accident was one of two involving railway workers which were reported in the Shropshire papers of Saturday 29 December 1866. Both had taken place on the preceding Wednesday, the 26th. The other victim was David Jones, a wagon inspector, who “was engaged coupling some carriages to an engine, when he was caught between the buffers, and sustained severe internal injuries.” According to the Wellington Journal’s report, he was not expected to survive. With regard to John, the Journal reported:

On Wednesday, a man named Thomas [sic] Preece was seriously injured on the Railway, between this town and Oakengates. The way in which the accident occurred is thus described by the poor fellow: he states that whilst engaged at his post, at Wombridge crossing, he ran across the line to rescue a child that had strayed there, and at the same moment an approaching train knocked him down. He lies in a most precarious state at the Shrewsbury Infirmary.

Map of accident location
Wombridge crossing c.1880, seen inthe centre of the image.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps

Two weeks later on 12 January 1867, the same newspaper updated its readers on “The Pitiable Case.” Mr Wood, an honorary surgeon at the infirmary in Shrewsbury, acknowledged “on behalf of his poor patient who lost both his hands and one foot in saving a child crossing the railway at Wombridge, subscriptions amounting to £16 3s., and to say that the man is now recovering.” Additional subscriptions were solicited and would be received by Mr Wood and his fellow surgeons at the infirmary.

Diagram of the accident location
GWR signalling diagram for Wombridge crossing, c.1904.
Courtesy GW Railwayana Auctions.

Additional appeals for subscriptions followed, with Eddowes’s Shrewsbury Journal on 16 January publicising an effort led by Colonel W Kenyon Slaney. The notice of this noted, with regard to John Preece:

He is now lying in the Infirmary, with his left arm amputated at the shoulder, and also his right hand and his right foot. He has a wife and two children. Believing that the public will wish to alleviate the suffering incurred in this act of courage and humanity, we will undertake that any subscription shall employed in the most useful manner for the man and his family.

The same notice announced that the “Eleventh of the Penny Readings and Musical Selections” to be given at the Music Hall in Shrewsbury would be for John Preece’s benefit. Other fund-raising initiatives Additional subscriptions were soon set up at Shifnal, Wellington, and of course Wombridge (Wellington Journal, 26 January 1867). The latter parish was where John Preece not only worked but also lived, and the vicar, James Russell, naturally took up the case of his “unfortunate parishioner”. In a letter published in the Wellington Journal of 2 February 1867 the Rev Russell noted that a subscription had also been set up in Birmingham, and said “I was myself present some two or three minutes after the accident, witnessed the sad scene at his house, and saw him put in the train on his way to the Infirmary, where I have since visited him.”

The same day’s edition of the Bridgnorth Journal had this to say about John’s situation:

To the benevolent.—Many of our readers doubtless have had their attention called by the public papers to the lamentable accident to John Preece, the railway porter, stationed at Wombridge, when successfully attempting to save the life of a child, who had incautiously wandered on to the line at that station. The injuries inflicted on Preece were so extensive that since his removal to the infirmary at Shrewsbury he has suffered amputation of his left arm, immediately below the shoulder, his right hand and right foot, but we are happy to my the operations have been most successfully performed and that the sufferer is progressing very satisfactorily. Preece however, has thus been reduced to further helplessness, and a few friends have formed the laudable intention of raising a small fund by which he and his wife may be placed in a business by which they may realize a competency for the future. John Preece and his wife are natives of this locality, both having been born at Shirlet, where they have ever been respected by all their acquaintances, and for a considerable period Preece occupied the situation of under gardener to a lady in this neighbourhood, to whom be afforded every satisfaction. The Mayor, with his usual kindness, has signified his willingness to receive any contribution that may be kindly subscribed.

Interest in John’s plight and support for the subscriptions set up in his name grew over the ensuing weeks. The Shrewsbury Chronicle of 8 February 1867 reported on a well-attended entertainment “given at the Wrekin Assembly Rooms,” and noted that John was an employee of the Great Western Railway Company. Two weeks later that paper reprinted a letter which had appeared in The Times, in which it was stated that: “About £130 has been subscribed in Shrewsbury and the neighbourhood, and it is calculated that with a little more than £300 a small annuity might be purchased for him.” The letter also said that John was aged 32, and that his accident had taken place at the level crossing at Wombridge.

The entertainments at Waters Upton took place about this time, and receipt of the money raised was acknowledged in the Wellington Journal on 2 March in a short report on “The Case of John Preece, Gatekeeper.” Another update in that paper three weeks later on the amount collected in Wombridge is the last news item I can find on the subject – not knowing the final grand total raised for John is very frustrating!

Who was John Preece?

John was at first a little tricky to track down in the usual genealogical sources. The fact that he was referred to as Thomas in most of the earlier reports on his accident added an element of uncertainty. His reported age of 32 gives an approximate birth year of 1835, but was his age reported accurately?

Another issue was John’s birth place. As you have seen, the Bridgnorth Journal reported that both John and his wife were born at Shirlet (Shirlett), which lies in the Shropshire parish of Barrow. My searches revealed several John and Thomas Preeces of around the right age, but not one born at Shirlett or Barrow.

So I changed tactics and checked the Wombridge baptisms close to the date of John’s accident. This revealed the baptism of Lucy, daughter John and Martha Preece of that parish, on 22 July 1866. Crucially, in that record John’s occupation was given as “Railway Porter”. This one record provided the key which unlocked the door to many others and allowed me to find out more about John Preece.

John, son of James and Susannah Preese (as the name was written in the register) was baptised at Broseley on 26 April 1835. John’s father James was a labourer, an occupation he was still engaged in when the census was taken in 1841. At that time the ‘Priece’ family was living at Woodhouse in Wombridge parish. James was still a labourer – of the agricultural variety – in 1851, as was 16-year-old John. The family by then was residing ‘out in the sticks’ at Willey, adjacent to the parish of Barrow, southwest of Broseley.

In 1860 John married Martha Downes. The Shropshire BMD website shows that their wedding was of the “Register Office or Registrar Attended” variety, in Madeley Registration District. The couple took up residence in Broseley, where they were enumerated (along with Martha’s younger sister Ann Downes) at Delph Side on the 1861 census. The birth of the couple’s first child, a son named George, was registered at Madeley in the last quarter of that year; I have not found a record of his baptism online.

After George came James Preece, who was baptised at Wellington All Saints on 20 September 1863 (although the birth was not registered until the following quarter). The baptism register shows that the Preece family was then residing at Pump Street in Wellington – and that John Preece was working as a Railway Porter. Sadly, baby James died the following year and was buried at Wellington All Saints on 10 Apr 1864, by which time the Preeces had moved to Lady Croft Terrace.

As we have seen, daughter Lucy was added to the family in 1866, so reports relating to John Preece after his accident, stating that he had a wife and two children, were correct.

What happened to John and his family?

I don’t know about you, but after reading about John Preece’s terrible injuries I wanted to know how he and his family managed following his discharge from Shrewsbury’s infirmary. While I have found no accounts of his life as a multiple amputee, I have found John in the usual records post-accident, and references to him in newspapers, all of which indicate that he coped remarkably well.

It appears that John and his family had moved to Wellington by 1869. In a “Notice of sale by auction of various pieces of land” in that parish, published in the Wellington Journal of 23 October 1869, Lot 1 was “A Valuable Piece of BUILDING LAND, as now staked out, having a frontage to the south side of the road leading to Haygate of 67 feet, now in the occupation of John Preece, and containing 454 square yards or thereabout.” Lot 2 was “Four well-built Brick and Tile MESSUAGES or DWELLING-HOUSES, with the Gardens and Appurtenances, as now staked out, situate adjoining the last lot, in the occupations of John Preece, William Jones, James Bizzell, and Richard Brazier […].”

How can I be sure that the John Preece referred to in the sale notice was our man? Well, on 29 May 1870, at Wellington All Saints church, John, son of John and Martha Preece of “Hay Gate Road” was baptised. John senior was described as a “Signal Man” – his employer had found a way to retain his services! Not for long however. John and Martha Preece, now with three children were still living in Haygate Road when the 1871 census was taken, but John’s occupation was now recorded as “Gardener”. Incidentally, the next three households on that census included Sarah Jones, a “Railway porter’s Widow” (presumably her late husband was the William Jones named in the sale notice detailed above), with lodger William Morris (Railway porter); James Bizzell (Railway Fireman – and named in the aforementioned sale notice); and Joseph Horley (Railway Shunter).

Another entry in the Wellington All Saints’ baptism register, for Frank Preece on 26 January 1873, shows that the family remained in Haygate Road for at least another couple of years. It also shows that John Preece had changed his occupation and was now a greengrocer. He was still pursuing that business when daughter Edith was baptised on 17 February 1878, but by this time the Preeces had moved to Wrekin Road in Wellington, where they would remain for many years.

I am not sure whether the next entry in the All Saints baptism register for a child of John and Martha Preece is evidence of yet another occupation, or of an error made by the clerk when completing it! Three baptisms took place at the church on 11 April 1880, and all three of the fathers of the children concerned were described as Innkeepers. The third entry was for Harry Preece, who was a leap year baby born on 29 February that year. Was John Preece trying his (prosthetic) hand at another way of earning a living? If he was, it was a relatively brief experiment.

On the 1881 census John Preece gave his occupation as Market Gardener. Living with him was wife Martha, and the couple’s children Lucy (14), John junior (10), Edith (3) and Harry (1). There was also a lodger, 25-year-old Bernard Starkey, a native of Congerstone in Leicestershire. Bernard was working as a Railway Guard, and I can’t help wondering whether his employer – John Preece’s former employer – had put these two in touch so that John could boost his income.

The last of John and Martha’s children was Frederick Preece, born on 24 May 1882 and baptised at Wellington All Saints on 9 July 1882. Again, John Preece was recorded as a gardener. How successful was he in this occupation? Given that he had lost one foot and, even more crucially, his left arm and his right hand, I can only imagine that gardening would have been a struggle even if John was equipped with the best prosthetics the late 1800s had to offer. Whatever the difficulties, John overcame them and produced prize-winning vegetables, fruits and flowers.

The earliest evidence I have found for John’s amazing achievements as a gardener comes from the Wellington Journal of 12 August 1882. A report on the Wellington Horticultural Society’s shows that in the cottage garden category, “John Preece, of Wrekin Road, Wellington, was awarded first prize for a garden well stocked with produce, especially winter stuff.” In addition, John won prizes for Three Sticks of Celery (1st place), a Dish of French Beans (30 pods) (2nd), and a Collection of Pot Herbs (2nd).

Further recognition followed in the years that followed, the full extent of which I will probably never discover due to OCR errors in the machine-reading of the old newspaper page scans. Here’s what I have found. All of the following are taken from reports relating to competitions open to cottagers, and to John or J Preece of Wrekin Road or of Wellington:

  • 1885 – Shropshire Floral and Horticultural Society’s Summer Show and Fete – Brace of cucumbers (6th place, prize 1s 6d), Turnips (4th, 2s 6d) (Eddowes’s Shrewsbury Journal, 26 August)
  • 1886 – Shropshire Horticultural Society’s Annual Fete – Spring onions (5th place, prize 1s 6d), Autumn onions (3rd, 2s 6d), Collection of potatoes, three dishes (6th, 1s 6d) (Eddowes’s Shrewsbury Journal, 25 August) [Illustration]
  • 1888 – Shrewsbury Floral and Musical Fete – Six carnations, in variety (4th place, prize 1s), Six picotees, in variety (3rd place, prize 2s) (Eddowes’s Shrewsbury Journal, 29 August)
  • 1889 – Shrewsbury Floral and Musical Fete – Six roses, in variety (1st place) (Wellington Journal, 24 August)
  • 1890 – Shrewsbury Floral and Musical Fete – Two vegetable marrows (1st place), Six carnations, in variety (2nd) (Wellington Journal, 23 August)
  • 1891 – Shrewsbury Floral and Musical Fete – Six roses, in variety (1st place), Six carnations, in variety (4th) (Wellington Journal, 22 August)
  • 1892 – Shrewsbury Floral and Musical Fete – Dish of nine potatoes, any variety (5th place), Dish of white currants (1st), Six apples, dessert (5th), Six roses, in variety (3rd) (Wellington Journal, 20 August)

Although we can see from the above that John Preece continued competing in the annual shows at Shrewsbury into the early 1890s, when the 1891 census was taken no occupation was recorded for him. Was that an error, or did John retire from gardening as paid employment in the 1880s and continue just for pleasure for a while? Either way, the family was not without income as Martha Preece was working as a Laundress.

The household – its address given as 57 Wrekin Road – also had a boarder, David Breeze aged 26, who was a Railway Train Examiner. Bernard Starkey had not disappeared from the scene, although he was enumerated as a visitor (and a Railway Goods Guard) rather than as a lodger in 1891.

Bernard was still with the family (or back with them) as a boarder in 1901, by which time the Preeces had moved to 6 Cemetery Road in Wellington. John Preece’s occupation was recorded as “Retired Railway G”, which to me indicates that although his injuries had forced him to give up his work for the Great Western, he still regarded himself as a railwayman first and foremost. Does it also indicate that he was receiving a GWR pension?

There was only one of John and Martha’s children left at home in 1901, 21-year-old Harry. In addition, granddaughter Beatrice P Shaw, aged 11 and born in Newport, Monmouthshire, was staying with the family. How marvellous to see that John, who could so easily have been killed back in 1866, lived to become a grandfather! On a sadder note, John also survived long enough to outlive his wife Martha, whose death at the age of 67 was registered at Wellington in the first quarter of 1907.

The census of 1911 was the last one on which John Preece was recorded. A 75-year-old widower and Retired Railway Man, he was living at 50 Urban Terrace in Wellington with his daughter and son-in-law Lucy and John Shaw, and their children. Those children included Beatrice Preece Shaw and Albert Downes Shaw – what a nice touch to see that they were given their grandparents’ surnames as ‘middle names’. I hope that John continued to live with them, surrounded by family, well cared for and happy, until his death at the age of 81 in 1916.

And so this story, which started with John Preece’s name being mentioned in a newspaper report of an event in my one-place study, concludes. There is much that I find fascinating, not to mention moving, within it. Here’s something else: Anyone researching John Preece using census and vital records alone would have no idea about the bravery John displayed, or of the heavy price had to pay for his life-saving actions in December 1866.

Steve Jackson

1 Comment

  1. Pingback:#OnePlaceTragedies and #OnePlaceJoys Part 2 - Society for One-Place Studies

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