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Rosebay Willowherb: The Alternative Archive of a Railway Accident

This week’s blog post comes from project friend and champion, Catherine Clarke. Catherine’s support has been tremendously helpful – so we were really pleased when she contacted us to offer this story. We didn’t know how moving it would be, but it is tremendously affective. Catherine demonstrates the lasting impact of a railway accident, and the power of the written word – and exactly why it’s crucial that we go beyond the written record. There isn’t any more we can say that will do this piece justice, so do take your time with it. Our heartfelt thanks to Catherine and her family for sharing this with us all.

Content Warning: child death


Herbert Granville Cauldwell: December, 1969

A middle-aged man, wearing a dark suit, steps into the empty house. His father is only a few hours dead, and the silence is still raw. He walks awkwardly with a stick, legs in callipers – a war injury from Burma – but with determination. He knows what he’s looking for. On the polished wooden table, a tall glass dome. Under it, an ancient posy of flowers: withered and shrunken, faded to grey, impossibly fragile. He knocks aside the glass dome and it cracks in two. Then he takes the posyoutside and crushes it in his fist. It crumbles into dust on the ground.

Herbert Cauldwell: July, 1906

It’s a fine and blustery day for the Sunday School outing. Up on Wharncliffe Crags, you can see for miles: the Don valley laid out below, the rooftops of Deepcar, and white clouds chasing across the sky to the distant Pennines. He’s king of the castle, waving to his mother down below on the grass. The picnic is laid out on the rocks, but his friend Norman wants to hunt for the Dragon of Wantley, so they take sandwiches and explore. Further down the hillside, there are tall straggly flowers with blazing pink petals. He knows what they’re called – Rosebay Willowherb, a bit like his own name: Herbert. There’s no sign of the Dragon today, so he decides to collect a posy for mother instead. Then there’s Norman calling out and pointing. Masses more of the pink flowers down by the railway! Herbert runs down, through the long grass, the Rosebay Willowherb held tight in his hand.


This is a story about two moments in time, and two people called Herbert. But it’s also about four generations of a family, seven decades, and how the effects of a railway accident can reverberate over many years and multiple lives. It explores an episode in my own family history, drawing on memories and shared stories, as well as archival evidence. It aims to address, and redress, what’s often absent in the documentary record: the experiences of families around a railway accident, and the way such trauma unfolds over time.

Sarah Caldwell and Herbert Granville Cauldwell, mid 1920’s

On 22 July 1906, Herbert Cauldwell, aged 12, was struck by an express train on the line near Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire. Herbert was the son of Joseph and Sarah Cauldwell, who lived in Granville House, Worsbroughdale, along with his brother, Willy. Joseph Cauldwell was a self-made man, who’d started out as a sawyer in the mine, then saved 1d. a week to attend night school and learn to read and write, and rose to become President of Barnsley Co-operative Society. Willy Cauldwell was my great-grandfather, and Herbert would have been my great-uncle.

The Cauldwells were a staunch Methodist family, and the Sunday School outing would have been a keenly-anticipated trip. But the day ended in tragedy. The Sheffield Daily Independent reported the news the following Wednesday: ‘the death of a little fellow named Herbert Cauldwell, aged 12 years of age’. Reporting on the coroner’s inquiry, it states that ‘young Cauldwell was taken picnicing [sic] to Wharncliffe Craggs by his mother. He and another boy named Norman Knock [sic], aged nine years, left the party and got on the railway line. Young Knock told the coroner… that they went to look at the railway train. They were standing near to the metals when the train dashed up. Cauldwell was a few feet distance away from the train, but it appeared to draw him in. The child got a knock on the head and was then flung away from the engine.’

The accident was observed by the driver of a goods train which was standing on the sidings nearby. When he found Herbert, his body was in a ditch, having obviously suffered a catastrophic head injury. Norman was trying to pull him out. Herbert died the next day in Sheffield Royal Hospital. His father, Joseph, was by his side, ‘having kept watch over his little son all through the night’.

Joseph and his wife Sarah never recovered from the loss. And another childhood also ended that day: that of Willy, Herbert’s brother. The tragic death of Herbert cast a long shadow over the rest of his life. For whatever reason – blame, resentment, or simply an unbearable reminder of what had been lost – his future was blighted.

According to family sources – but unreported elsewhere – Herbert had been found with a posy of Rosebay Willowherbstill in his hand. A familiar sight on railway banks and verges, he’d been gathering the pink flowers to give to his mother.Joseph and Sarah kept the posy as a treasure, a holy relic: they made a shrine out of it, keeping it under a glass dome in pride of place at Granville House. Always present, always visible: the pink petals greying and dropping, the leaves curling. When Joseph and Sarah died, Willy carried the pain with him, quite literally; moving the glass dome and the crumbling posy of flowers into his own home.

Willy grew up to be a skilled craftsman: a wood-worker and cabinet-maker. He served in the Fleet Air Arm in World War One, and then ran a coach-building company. He later worked as an undertaker. He married Ethel Nock – the sister of Norman, who had been with his brother Herbert on the fateful day in 1906 (his surname misspelled by the newspaper). Perhaps they found some comfort together in their shared kinship of trauma. They had two children, Gwen and Herbert Granville – my grandfather – named after Willy’s lost brother, as well as their childhood home. I never knew him as ‘Herbert’: he chose to use his middle name.

In later life, Willy ran a little shop in Goldthorpe, on the corner of Frederick Street and the High Street. Today, the Frederick Street window is bricked up, but my mother – Willy’s granddaughter – remembers an impressive display: pots and pans, dishes, and rows of knives in the best Sheffield steel. The other window was completely different: nothing useful or grown-up or mundane, but instead simply row after row of sweets in jars, in every colour and flavour imaginable. My mother and uncle would spend hours there after school, eating sherbet and flying saucers (though my uncle, John, was scared of the little frog that lived in the outside loo!). They describe it as a child’s dream, a wonderland: an enchanted place in the company of their gentle Grandad Willy.

The shop never made any money: as a business, it was a failure. But perhaps it was doing more important work for Willy, conjuring into being that innocent childhood joy he’d been denied, after the death of Herbert.

The fault-lines from Herbert’s death ran deep and long. When Joseph and Sarah Cauldwell died, their estate went directly to their grandson, Herbert Granville, bypassing Willy. But my grandfather, Herbert Granville, saw all the pain, and the longblight on his father’s life. Herbert Granville, born in 1920, grew up with the glass dome, and that posy of Rosebay Willowherb, ever present: first on the polished table at his grandparents’ house, and then in his own boyhood home. He always grieved for the life his father, Willy, might have had.

When Willy died, in December 1969, the first thing my grandfather did was to go to his house, break the glass dome,and throw the Rosebay Willowherb away.

Rosebay Willowherb photo

Some things are recorded and preserved in the archive, and some are not. The full story of a railway accident extends far beyond the documentary record, and deep into the lives of those surrounding the event. The traces of Herbert’s story are there in ledgers and papers: coroner’s records, death certificates, newspaper articles. But also in a material archive which now exists only in family memory: a row of sweet-jars in a shop window, a glass dome, and a posy of Rosebay Willowherb.

This article is dedicated to Herbert, Willy, and Herbert Granville. It is shared with permission from the family.


Catherine Clarke

Catherine is Professor and Director of the Centre for the History of People, Place and Community, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London. This article also draws on research kindly shared by Lesley Cauldwell (Catherine’s aunt).

1 Comment

  1. Gordon Dudman

    Rosebay Willow herb (Chamerion angustifolium) is also known as ‘Fire Weed’ and is not native to the UK (Common or Great Willowherb – Epilobium hirsutum is), rather its a North American import.

    Fireweed is found in abundance along railway lines and water courses. Come mid to late August the flowers will literally explode; releasing upwards of 60,000 seeds. These get gently wafted by passing trains (or carried down stream).

    Its a stunning plant at this time of year and is easy to understand the desire of a youngster to creep inside the railway boundary and pick them.

    Thanks for sharing the story.

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