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The Life & Death of Thomas Hall

Last year the author of this guest post, Tom Hall, got in touch with us. Having found out about the project, he wanted to let us know about an accident that wouldn’t feature in our database as it was too early – the death of his Great Great Great Grandfather, Thomas Hall, in 1860. After a little discussion it was clear that there was a really interesting railway family story to be told – and we’re glad to say Tom was willing to tell it!

We’re grateful to him – and we’d encourage anyone else with a railway accident in their family past to consider getting in touch to tell their story. We’d love to hear from you.


Thomas Hall (1813-1860) was born in the village of Gnosall, Staffordshire, the son of a cordwainer – shoemaker – Thomas and Denes (or Deniah), a midwife. The Halls had been a Gnosall family for many generations, mostly working in this trade.

Both Thomas and his younger brother William (b. 1820) took advantage of the alternative employment opportunities of the day. They were labourers on early railways. In July 1837 Thomas married Mary Ann Pratt in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, during the time the London and Birmingham was going through this area. Mary Ann was 17 when they married and seven years younger than Thomas. She was also pregnant with their first child, Henry, who lived for under a year.

They had three children, all boys, only one of whom (Thomas junior) survived into adulthood.

Family lore suggests Thomas and his young family spent some time building railways in Wales, presumably during the 1840s. Thomas cannot however be found on the 1841 census. On the 1851 census the family were together in London, living in Islington, very near King’s Cross at a time of great railway construction in that area. His wife appeared to be keeping house for her husband, son and several excavators. Thomas’ brother, William, was visiting at the time. One of these excavators, Thomas Davis, reappears in this story after Thomas’ death.

Census return for Thomas Hall

Thomas junior, who appeared in the 1851 census as a 12 year old scholar, joined the North London Railway himself as a messenger in 1854, early in the line’s existence. His appointment in an age where character references were of pivotal importance was no coincidence. The staff register noted that his ‘father was formerly in the company’s service’.

Like so many residents of Bow, Bromley (today’s Bromley-by-Bow) and Poplar the family lived and worked close to the NLR’s works at Devon’s Road. In 1857 Thomas junior and Elizabeth Chandler, another native of Leighton Buzzard like her mother-in-law, married in St Mary’s, Bromley St Leonard’s.

On 26 January 1860 Thomas (senior) was working as a platelayer on the North London Railway near the East India Road Bridge, Poplar. We do not know the exact circumstances but somehow he was crushed to death beneath the ashpan of a locomotive. It was, the Middlesex coroner John Humphreys noted on the death certificate two days later, a violent death and an accidental one.

National Library of Scotland map
Likely accident location, from the National Library of Scotland Maps website.

The death certificate’s wording ‘crushed by the ashpan of a railway locomotive’ can be interpreted in two ways. The first and likeliest is that Thomas was crushed by the ashpan itself, possibly after he had been struck by the train or fallen on the line. As a platelayer he is likely to have been working on track close to moving locomotives in a hazardous location. Either way, the unpleasantness of Thomas’ demise is unquestionable.

The other is that he was crushed by the contents of the ashpan being emptied on to him, possibly as he worked beneath. However, the emptying of a locomotive ashpan seems more likely to have happened at the Devon’s Road depot a short distance north, where taking an engine out of service seems more likely.

The coroner’s report for the incident has not survived. Beyond the death certificate additional context comes from the North London Railway board meeting for 31 January 1860. For this I am indebted, as many looking into their ancestors with North London Railway connections are, to the work of the late Peter Bloomfield* published here.

Peter’s NLR staff list records that two platelayers had died in the two weeks leading up to the meeting. One was ‘T. Hall’. Peter noted the surname could be read as Hale or Hall. I believe it to be Hall due to the coincidence of dates. The NLR board meeting minutes note Thomas’ widow petitioned for pecuniary assistance and, as Thomas was found to have been of good character, she was granted an annuity of £10.

The untimely death of a husband and father must have had a huge impact on the Hall family. For Thomas junior, now a 23 year old messenger on the railway, he found himself working for an organisation and in railway-focussed social environment where his father had been killed.

For Mary Ann, there was the immediate problem of how to deal with the loss of income, as well as the loss of a husband. While the annuity would have provided some relief, she married again less than a year after Thomas’ death. Her second husband was another railway labourer Thomas Davis (Thomas was then, as now, a popular name), who as noted above she appears to have lived with under different circumstances in 1851. They married in December 1860 in Bromley. Mr Davis was the same age as Mary Ann.

A few months later in June 1860 Mary Ann had become a grandmother for the second time, the infant being named Thomas William Harklestone. Her first grandchild had passed away after less than a year. History repeated itself, with the child dying in May 1861. She eventually had nine grandchildren, seven of whom survived into adulthood.

Mary Ann and Thomas Davis settled into life in Bromley, close to her son and his growing family. During this period Thomas Hall junior advanced from being a messenger to be a labourer for the Northumberland and Durham Coal Company – which ran coal trains over the NLR – to a brakesman and then guard on the North London Railway itself. He retired in 1907 after 52 years’ service and died in 1924.

Thomas Hall (junior), c.1915. An NLR man through and through. The nearest he seems to have come to an accident is being fined for violent shunting at Dalston Junction while working as a brakesman!

Thomas junior’s sons (and grandsons) John and George also worked on the NLR. John worked as a train register boy, detective and signalman. George Hall, an NLR scaffolder, was drowned off Skegness while on an NLR staff outing in July 1893. Along with 18 colleagues their vessel was swamped by a sudden storm. His wife Elizabeth, already widowed once, was left without a father for three children. Like Mary Ann she remarried.

Mary Ann died on 7 Feb 1898 at her home in Brabazon Street in Bromley. She had been widowed for the second time as Thomas Davis had died a year before, in July 1897. Mary Ann was buried in City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery (known locally as Bow Cemetery) in Mile End, the same burial ground as her first husband.

Brother of Thomas senior, and fellow railwayman, William also died in 1898, back in Gnosall. He continued to work as a railway labourer until his retirement. Many members of the Hall family continue to live in London. The rediscovery of the story of Thomas senior’s death has provided a moving connection to a tragic, forgotten event.


Tom Hall (Thomas’ third great grandson) is a travel writer by day and a keen railway and family historian by night.


* Note from Mike: I was fortunate enough to discuss a few things with Peter before his death, having found his website very helpful. Peter put together a guest post for us about one of the cases where the NLR staff records he’d so meticulously document intersected with our project records – that’s available here.

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