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John William Hawley, 1868-1909: A family tragedy remembered

A year ago, we posted this blog about the 1909 Sharnbrook accident, which killed 2 railway workers. Shortly afterwards, we were contacted by this week’s guest author, Megan Carswell – the Great Niece of one of the men killed at Sharnbrook. A discussion followed, and we’re grateful that Megan was willing to do a bit more digging into her family history and then write it up for us. What follows is a fascinating and moving insight into one man’s family life and the lasting impact of his death.


Portrait photograph of John William Hawley, in a 3-piece suit with a pocket watch, leaning on a book.


John William Hawley died in a railway accident at Sharnbrook, Bedfordshire, on 4 February 1909.

I needed to undertake little research to discover the impact of such a tragic death. I grew up with the story. This photograph, used also on the fundraising postcard below, was displayed on my aunt’s sideboard throughout my childhood. She was nine years old when her beloved uncle was killed. Uncle John Willy was my grandmother’s older brother.

I was spared the upsetting details, but I knew he was on an express train from Manchester. The steam trains hurtling through Peak Forest station towards London were a familiar sight. My aunt would often mention his name. ‘Uncle John Willy was killed on one of those.’ I was a young adult in the mid-1960s before my uncle showed me a newspaper he had inherited from my grandmother. Nothing had prepared me for those images. The photographs of mangled wreckage, that were used to illustrate the postcard, still fill me with childhood memories of the sadness and grief felt by his extended family.

John William Hawley was my great uncle. He was killed almost forty years before I was born but his story was part of my childhood. The postcard had been kept by John William’s great nephew. When it was shared on ‘Ancestry’ I immediately recognised his handsome portrait and the pictures that had upset me so many years ago: ‘Terrible accident’ so often repeated by my aunt. The railway report into the circumstances of the crash confirmed the immense horror remembered by so many. My grandmother had collapsed when they came to tell her of his death. My aunt was with her at the time. Another relation thought a boiler had burst but had not been told of the rail crash. One aunt had gone into premature labour with the shock. Another young baby was to be named John William Hawley Burton. Family memories of the events at the time remained fairly consistent.

The starkest evidence for me was his Railway Employment Record: “Last employed date February 3rd, 1909. Reason given…. Deceased.”

1909 postcard of the railway crash at Sharnbrook, showing wreckage and including portrait photographs of the 2 men who died.


Who was John William Hawley?

In the1881 census he was 12 years old, living with his family in the village of Upper End in Wormhill Parish. My aunt would say: ‘A Hawley related to the Warhursts.’ They were local hill farmers who had strong connections with relatives in the Dukinfield area. His grandfather Samuel Warhurst had a butcher’s shop and farms in that locality. His father died in 1884 and his mother in 1886. The older children like John William found lodgings and employment on relatives’ farms. My grandmother lived with an aunt. It appears that despite the breakup of the family unit they remained in close contact. Expanding quarries employed increasing numbers of men and the small farming village grew rapidly. John William married Sarah Burton in 1890 and like some of her relatives he found employment on the railways. In the 1901 census he is living in Gorton, Manchester, with Sarah and their six children. They also have a railway apprentice as a lodger.

Industrial Manchester was only a short distance from his Derbyshire hills and the area around Stockport was home to his two sisters and numerous cousins. He was a kind, popular man who was loved and respected by his friends and family. I have never heard anyone speak ill of him. My distant cousins have confirmed how he was mourned by their families too. We all shared the similar sad story.

Memorial to the 2 men who died in the Sharnbrook crash; in a cemetary in Gorton, Manchester.


A memorial was erected in Gorton Cemetery.

A railway enthusiast sent me this photograph through Ancestry. I have visited Belle Vue many times, but I have not yet had the opportunity to visit this memorial. I wondered what happened to his family and discovered that in many ways life just went on. I have no evidence of the financial impact on their lives.

The 1911 census reveals that Sarah and her family remained in Gorton. Her two eldest sons and a lodger were employed at the rail yard.

The Great War was to take the life of one son, John George. James William survived, and her youngest daughter Lydia married a Canadian soldier. Frank, Ralph and Lydia were to emigrate and seek brighter futures in Canada and America. Recent communications with members of their families confirms that they are aware of the accident, but they have no details or papers surviving from that time.

James and Ida remained in the Gorton area. They raised their own families and supported their mother until her death in 1943. She had made at least one journey to visit her family in Canada in1931.

The detailed report of the crash and the scale of the destruction caused by the collision would explain why the accident is remembered even now within the extended family. The fund-raising postcard remained a reminder of its significance.

Grief, after such a tragedy, is passed down so that 113 years later a few of my generation in our family still remember him. I asked my sister how she would explain John Wiiliam Hawley:

‘He was always there. He still is.’

A family tragedy that is still remembered.


Megan Carswell

1 Comment

  1. Pingback:‘For God’s sake go and stop him’: The Sharnbrook crash, Feburary 1909 - Railway Work, Life & Death

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