Menu Close

Major Keaton Kay 1871–1935

This week’s blog post is another that came about via an enquiry received by the project. Derek, this week’s author, was researching his family history, including a railway staff accident. Whilst we weren’t able to help directly – the date was earlier than our current project coverage, though we are moving backwards deeper into the 19th century – we made a few suggestions and provided some general context.

The story that Derek told was – as they always are when you get down to the individual and family level – fascinating, and he’s been good enough to feature it here. It’s fitting that we can present it this week, as we’re in Disability History Month, and we see another railway example of how people adapted after a life-changing accident.


This all began many years ago after a discussion with my wife’s Aunt Maureen (the oldest of 3 sisters) about their family history. Family legend was my wife’s Great Grandfather, Major Keaton Kay, lost his arm as a result of an accident, which happened whilst he was taking lunch to his father on the railway. Major Keaton Kay died in 1935 and Maureen was born at the end of 1934 so she did not have any first-hand knowledge.

Major Keaton Kay, was born on 13 August 1871 in Bolton, Lancashire. His father Major James Kay was an engine driver on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (L&YR). Major Keaton’s elder brother Thomas also worked for the railway as an engine cleaner, later also becoming an engine driver. Major Keaton later worked for the L&YR as a porter based at Moses Gate station, not far from Bolton. It was at Bolton Goods Yard on 14 June 1890 that Major Keaton lost his left arm in an accident.

Major Kay’s Railway Accident Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive.

Until we found the newspaper article we did not appreciate that Major Keaton also worked on the railway; the story about taking his Father’s lunch could well be true, especially with the accident happening around noon.

Not clear what happened to Major Keaton in the immediate time after the accident; we cannot locate him in the 1891 census, though would suspect he may well have still been recovering somewhere.  In the 1901 census Major Keaton was a railway signalman living in Oldham, some 15 miles from his home town of Bolton. So, we can assume that at sometime he was fitted with a prosthetic limb; again family legend states that he always wore a black glove over his left hand.

It would appear that early in the new century, Sarah Ann Foster and Major  Keaton Kay started a relationship, their first child James Mark Keaton was born on 30 August 1902 in Elton, Bury. Sarah Ann was we suspect no longer living with her employers the Beech family (though she is still listed as such in the 1901 Census taken on night of 31 March); she already had two daughters, Florence and Sylvia (from a relationship with her employer) who were still living with the Beech family, and they are also listed as such on the 1901 census. Sometime in the next year or so Sarah Ann and Major Keaton moved to Birkenhead on the Wirral, where Major Keaton became a District Bailiff.

Their next child Elizabeth Harriet Kay (my wife’s Grandmother) was born in Birkenhead on 25 March 1904. On 28 January 1905 Sarah Ann and Major Keaton were in Liverpool, to get married at St. Nicholas Church which stands just across the river from Birkenhead (only 15 minutes or so by Ferry or train).

St. Nicholas Church, Liverpool.

A son, Major Kay, was born in October the same year, but unfortunately died as an infant not long after. Another daughter Ellen Kay was born on 26 August 1906 in the Birkenhead Lying-In Hospital, at Grange Mount, but she also passed away early in 1909, at the age of just two years. Meanwhile another son, Major Robert Kay was born on 14 December 1908. Finally birth wise, Ellen Mary Kay was born on 23 March 1912.

As for Sarah Ann’s first two children (Florence & Sylvia), it is not clear when she told Major Kay about them, though from a Barnardo’s report at the time it would appear she told him sometime after the marriage and Major Kay refused to have them in the family home (the same report also confirms that Major Kay had one arm). We suspect that the two girls had been left with Edward Beech (father of them both) and his wife up till then. Edward though became blind and was moved into the workhouse in Burnley, not far from where they lived. The same report painted a fairly bleak picture of Sarah Ann’s behaviour since getting married, but of course we do not know the circumstances of what really happened in those early days of their marriage. We do know the family moved around a few times in the same area of Birkenhead, possibly because of rent issues, and from newspaper accounts Major Keaton lost his role as a Bailiff, where money issues appear to be at least part of the cause.

In 1914 Sarah Ann left the family home with her youngest, two-year old Ellen Mary (family Legend indicates that Sarah Ann ran away with a local Doctor) and joined a ship for Canada. Sarah Ann and Ellen Mary ended up in Vancouver, British Columbia – but that’s another story and the main subject of a forthcoming book. Major Keaton remained with the rest of the family, and died in 1935. Finding work though must have been difficult after losing the Bailiff role. We can see that he worked in Cammell Lairds shipyard in Birkenhead, firstly as a time keeper but later as a cleaner. With the end of the First World War of course there would have been many ex-military looking for work and a lot of them would be missing limbs also.

For my wife’s Grandmother it must have been a shock for her mother and baby sister to disappear from her life when she was only ten years old herself. Later she would also lose her husband at an early age in 1942 (dock accident at Cammell Lairds, during the blackouts of WW2), leaving her with a very young family to bring up (the youngest was only just one year old).


Derek Walford

I am a retired Marine Engineer, initially served in the Merchant Navy for a number of years, but then came ashore for the rest of my career. I’ve always had a passion for history and have been researching family history for many years. More recently I have been assisting a couple of local museums with history research projects. As for my own family, I can trace them back to the village of Feering, Essex, then with the arrival of the railway they gradually moved into Stratford, London – several at least working on the railways, including my own Great Grandfather – who joined the Army whilst working on the railway up in Manchester.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.