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Stapleton Road: the men, pt 4

This blog is our final post in this series, ahead of the centenary tomorrow of the 1921 Stapleton Road accident. Yesterday we looked at the family connections between Arthur and Charles Hobbs. Today we focus on the final man who died, Stephen Francis.

Stephen Albert Francis proved to be somewhat tricky to pin down – but once again, Jane Barton’s genealogical skill and experience saved us (thank you Jane!). We’d also like to thank Mike Litten, who has allowed us to share some of images in today’s post, taken from his extended family tree, in which Stephen features. And we’d extend our thanks to the Radstock, Midsomer Norton and District Museum Society, especially volunteer Anny Northcote who has been so helpful.

Stephen Francis was born in Weston-super-Mare, on 5 May 1887, to Leonard and Eliza (nee Litten). Leonard was listed on the 1891 census as a coachman groom, and between that and the 1901 census, we see that Stephen was the 5th of 11 children born over a 20-year period.

By the time of the 1911 census, Stephen was a coal miner in Camerton, in Somerset. He was living with Beatrice, and they had a 10-month old son, Leonard. Beatrice died in 1912.

Rose Reid, pictured in later life, wearing glasses & a hat.
Rose Reid in later life.
Courtesy Mike Litten.

That same year, 1912, Stephen married Rose Reid. In 1913, Stephen and Rose had a son, who they named Stephen Albert.

Mells colliery rescue team, incl Stephen Francis.
The Mells colliery rescue team, pictured c.1915. Stephen Francis appears in the back row, 2nd from left – close up below.
Courtesy: Radstock, Midsomer Norton and District Museum Society

In approximately 1915 Stephen was pictured as the captain of the Mells Colliery (Coleford) rescue team, so was still at work in the mines of the Somerset coalfield at this point. This would have been dangerous work if called into action in the event of emergency. At some point thereafter, Stephen left the mine and the area, and the family moved to Bristol.

By November 1915 he was working for the Great Western Railway (GWR) as a ‘packer’ (a track worker who would ensure the ballast was correctly in place under the tracks). He joined the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) on 5 November 1915 as a member of the Bristol No. 4 branch.

On 1 May 1916 he was injured in an accident near Stapleton Road station. Another man, Harry Hawker, was injured and Jesse Bryant was killed. Tragically it was at almost exactly the same location as the 1921 accident. The men, all track workers, were attempting to stand clear of a train on the South Wales line when they were hit by an engine approaching unobserved on the Clifton line. They were taken by train to Bristol Temple Meads station, and then on to the General Hospital; Stephen suffered from a bruised thigh and internal injuries. At this point we was living locally, in the Stapleton Road area.

Sadly his son with Rose, Stephen, died in late 1916. Another son, William Henry Francis, was born on 5 October 1919.

Stephen Francis, in the press of the time.
The picture included in the Western Daily Press of 30 September 1921, captioned as ‘C. Francis.’ Discussion with Stephen’s descendents suggests that this was actually Charles Francis, one of Stephen’s brothers; presumably a mistake on the part of the newspaper in the scramble for information after the accident.
(c) Mirrorpix

In the 1921 accident, Stephen was initially injured. He was taken to hospital, but subsequently died. He was buried on 3 October 1921 at Greenbank cemetery. According to the Western Daily Press report, ‘evidence of widespread sympathy were shown by the drawn blinds in the vicinity and the thousands of people who lined the roads and assembled in the cemetery.’

Around 50 railwaymen processed after the hearses, from both the GWR and the Midland Railway (which also served the Bristol area). His widow, Rose, and sons, Leonard and William, attended, along with Stephen’s sisters and brothers and their spouses. Harry Hawkes attended, and as at the other funerals, the GWR was officially represented. The NUR also sent representatives too, from Stephen’s branch. The pall bearers were all NUR men.

There was a particularly sad coda to Stephen’s life. When he died, Rose was pregnant again. On 24 April 1922 she gave birth to Robert Roy Francis. As a family it must have been exceptionally difficult. Sadly, Robert died during the Second World War – at sea, on board HMS Fame, on 14 April 1944.

Stephen's 3rd son, Robert Roy, in the Navy.
Stephen’s third son, Robert Roy, in his naval uniform.
Courtesy: Mike Litten.


Hopefully the blog posts over this past week have given some sense of the Stapleton Road accident and its impact. This was a particularly severe staff accident, though sadly not the worst in terms of fatalities. It allows us to see something of the nature of railway work in the early 1920s – and the risks. Tracing the families allows us to understand the men involved as individuals, beyond their work and their accident; the more we can find out about them and their lives, the better we can remember them.

On the centenary, the four Pilning men (Charles Oakhill, George North, Joseph Barrett and Charles Edmonds) were remembered in the services at St Peter’s church, where they’re buried. Pat Edwardes, great great niece of Charles Oakhill, arranged for four posies of flowers to be placed in the churchyard, at the point where the men are believed to be buried. It’s wonderful to know that the men are being remembered by their community.

The Pilning men's grave sites today.
The graves of Charles Oakhill, George North, Charles Edmonds & Joseph Barrett on 26 September 2021.
With thanks to St Peter’s, Pilning.

On the railway network, the railway chaplain covering the area which includes Stapleton Road released a short tribute to the men, based on the research that we’ve been doing. We’re grateful that Network Rail and others were able to do this, and we will of course publicise it, and any other initiatives.

In the longer run we’d like to see some sort of permanent memorial, perhaps at Stapleton Road station. We warmly invite your comments on this (feel free to leave a message in the comments) and hope that there will be more to report in the future.

The south Wales lines, looking towards Stapleton Road station.
The south Wales lines, looking towards Stapleton Road station. The remaining single line to Clifton can be seen in the middle distance. The accident occurred at around this piont.
Courtesy Rob Brewer.


  1. Shaun Hodges

    Great articles.
    We should push network rail to erect a small memorial plaque at Stapleton Road station..
    I’ve worked for the railway in Bristol for 30 years and didn’t know about this tragedy.

    • Mike Esbester

      Thank you – from discussions so far, I think there’s willingness to listen from all who might be involved, which is good. We’ll certainly be carrying on discussions and trying to make it happen. It really helps to have the families of some of the men involved, too.

  2. Michael Subow

    What a brilliant series of posts, and a huge amount of research! Very well put together and so informative, but how sad, tragic and seemingly easily preventable. Our modern day Health and Safety rules may be derided as being “over the top”, but this sorry tale demonstrates the casual attitude prevalent at the time- we are so lucky to live in this day and age where working mens` lives are so much more precious. I am appalled at the huge number of accidents and indeed, deaths on the railways at the time. Thank you very much for this extremely interesting story.

    • Mike Esbester

      Thank you, that’s really appreciated. Completely agree about how important health and safety is and the differences between now and the past. There were some really bad aspects to the past, on the railways and elsewhere.

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