The Oakworth Anti-Vaccinator’s Railway Accident

One of the great things about this project is that it takes us in all sorts of unexpected directions. That includes the research and topics we’re exposed to – as in today’s guest blog post: another surprise that the apparently mundane topic of railway accidents has thrown up.

There’s another aspect to the directions the project goes in, and that’s the people we meet along the way. We’re grateful to everyone we’ve talked to, who have shared information or personal stories with us, and who’ve supported the project in some way. Today’s author, Sylvia Valentine, is one of those people. A professional genealogist and a Director of the Register of Qualified Genealogists, Sylvia has been a firm friend of the project for some time – so we were delighted when she found a ‘cross-over’ case between her PhD research and our interests …

The Oakworth Anti-Vaccinator’s Railway Accident

I am a post graduate student with the University of Dundee, researching the Anti-compulsory Vaccination Movement in Scotland between 1864 and 1918. My interest in anti-vaccination movements started when writing my Master’s Dissertation about the anti-vaccination movement in Keighley in West Yorkshire. Amongst the collection of Keighley Anti-Vaccination League (KAVL) records in the Keighley Local Studies Library is a membership book, which recorded the payments of membership fees. One member, Pharoah Feather, joined the League in 1882, paying his first subscription of one shilling in April. The entry in the membership book for 1884 includes a note against his name, ‘Killed on Bingley Station’. In addition to these records, the digitised collections of the British Newspaper Archive and other genealogical records it has been possible to put his story together.

Map of Bingley, 1889. Courtesy: National Library of Scotland Maps

During his short membership of the KAVL Pharoah made five separate payments of a shilling in 1882, a further one shilling and sixpence in 1883 and four shillings in the year of his death. Most members paid their subscriptions at the rate of six pence per month, and a few members paid weekly at the rate of one and a half pennies a week. Some of the more prosperous League supporters paid significantly more than the minimum monthly contribution to support the League. Like many of the local anti-vaccination societies across England, membership subscriptions were effectively an insurance to cover any fines which might be imposed in the event a member was prosecuted for failing to have their child vaccinated. Pharoah benefitted from his membership in November 1882. He originally appeared before the Keighley Petty Session on 15 July 1882, and the case was adjourned for three months to give time for the unnamed child to be vaccinated. Another KAVL member Ezra Moore, a greengrocer of Lidget was also ordered to have his child vaccinated at the same hearing. Both Feather and Moore appeared before the Petty Session again on 3 November. On this occasion both were fined ten shillings plus costs. The collection of KAVL records includes a list of members and non-members alike who were fined, although it was only kept for a few years and only recorded the names of those whose names appeared in the local press. The fines list shows Feather’s fine and costs amounted to £1. 2s 6d yet makes no mention of Ezra. However Ezra appears to have joined the society in September, making him ineligible for any support.

The Fatal Day

On the 27 August 1884, Pharoah, who was a joiner and cartwright by trade, set out from his home in Lidget, part of the village of Oakworth, West Yorkshire to travel to Bingley to attend the Airedale Agricultural Show in the company of another Lidget resident, Jonas Moore, the brother of Ezra Moore. Today Oakworth has a claim to fame as being the station made famous in the 1970 film of E Nesbit’s The Railway Children, produced by Lionel Jeffries. It is a stop on the Keighley and Worth Valley preserved railway, which continues to take visitors up and down the Worth Valley between Keighley and Oxenhope.

Oakworth Station © Sylvia Valentine 2022

Airedale Agricultural Society was established in 1862 and the show had become a very popular event both for those working in agriculture and locals in search of popular entertainment. The showground was a short distance from Bingley Station. Living within walking distance of Oakworth Station, it is very likely that Pharoah and Jonas caught a train down the valley to Keighley where they would have had to change trains to take a train on the Midland Railway line to Bingley. According to the Weatherweb site, 1884 was a particularly dry year, with rainfall below average. The report of the show in the Leeds Mercury described the show as the best show ever held since the Agricultural Society had been established and that the weather was beautiful. Being a cartwright by trade, an agricultural show would have been an ideal place for Jonas to look for new customers in need of his skills. And no doubt he was looking forward to a day out with his friend Jonas and enjoying a few pints of ale.

It was when the time came for Pharoah and Jonas to retrace their steps home that tragedy struck. The report of the incident in the Leeds Times reported the accident thus:

Bingley Railway Station, on the Midland Railway, is small, inconvenient, and very dangerous, and this has been the case for more than twenty years. Pharoah Feather, wheelwright, Lidget, Oakworth, was killed there on Wednesday evening. There was an unusual amount of traffic, owing to the Airedale Agricultural Show being held at Bingley, and crowds were on the platform waiting the arrival of the trains. Several horse boxes were in the awkward siding between the down platform and the booking-office. These were being shunted when Feather, who is said to have been under the influence of drink, fell against one of the trucks, and was knocked down between the platform and the train. One of the wheels passed over his head, killing him instanlly. Great excitement prevailed among the crowd on the platform.

At the time, it was very common for stories to be syndicated across several papers and similar versions of the accident report appeared in other newspapers across the country and appeared in both Scottish and Welsh papers. 

The inquest into the accident took place at The Fleece Hotel Bingley on Friday 29 August. The jury returned a verdict of Accidentally Killed. The death certificate elaborates: ‘Run over by a horse box through falling against it. Neck Injured. Instant death.’ Jonas Moore told the inquest that he and Feather had ‘called at a few places’, presumably public houses, before arriving at the station. He confirmed that the “Deceased was not quite sober at the time.” As well as returning their verdict, the jury recommended that there ought not to be a shunting line between the platform and the booking offices.

The newspaper carrying the report of the inquest also carried a leader article which expressed the hope that the Midland Railway Company would take into consideration the recommendation appended to the verdict of the jury. They pointed out that the line used for shunting purposes between the offices and the platform was not often used, meaning that passengers were not in the habit of paying much attention to it. This made the shunting operation dangerous. Whilst the jury found that Pharoah’s death was accidental, the proximity of the shunting line between the booking office and the platform contributed to the accident. ‘To allow such state of affairs to continue is not worthy of the character of the Midland Company, and its managers must feel that any neglect of the recommendation to get rid of the shunting line would entail upon them in the eyes of the public serious moral responsibility if any further accident occur through continuance of its use.’

Two months after Pharoah’s death, the Bingley Improvement Commissioners wrote to the Midland Railway, ‘praying them to provide better station accommodation for the town.’ The former Midland Railway line which passes through Bingley had been extended to Carlisle in 1876. Whilst the old Bingley station may have been adequate for local services, it was no longer fit for purpose once express trains regularly passed through. The Commission thought at least half of the passenger traffic was formed of express services. The waiting rooms were cold and uncomfortable. The goods sidings were in constant use, and the sanitary conditions were inadequate. They estimated that about 22,000 people used the station each month, and the ‘level crossings across the sidings and main line were a continual source of danger.’ They concluded their prayer to the Directors of the Midland Railway thus: 

Your memorialists therefore respectfully pray and earnestly hope that you will be pleased to provide adequate and proper station accommodation to meet the requirements of the town and neighbourhood.

The prayers of the Bingley Improvement Commission remained unanswered. The Midland Railway Directors acknowledged that the station required improvements but were not prepared to spend the estimated £20,000 required. The Improvement Committee decided to let the matter drop. However, a new station was finally opened in Bingley in July 1892. It was moved closer to the centre of the town from its original location. A bridge was erected to cover the track, and waiting rooms with fireplaces were provided. The Bradford Weekly Telegraph remarked that the new station was a vast improvement on the old place, and no longer a disgrace to the town. It was up to date and more conveniently located. The station remains in use to this day, although the coal fires no longer provide heat during chilly weather. 

The site of the old Bingley goods yard continued to be the site of accidents and fatalities. In 1900 the former Bingley Station site was redeveloped as a goods shed and remains in use today albeit not as a railway goods shed. It has been a Grade II listed building since 1985.

Former Bingley Goods Shed © M Valentine 2017.

Bingley Station remains part of the historic Settle Carlisle route to this day.

What Happened to Mary Eliza and her family?

At the time of the 1881 census, Pharoah was living at 98 Lidget, part of Oakworth, with his wife Mary Eliza and their three children, Mary Alice, born 21 October 1872, Martha Ann, born 1873 and Emma, born 1880. In 1882 a son named Fred was born. There had already been a family funeral in February 1884 following the death of their eldest daughter Mary Alice Feather. She was buried in the Wesleyan Methodist Burial Ground in Oakworth. On August 30, Pharoah was interred in the same grave but it is unmarked. 

The grave of Mary Eliza and Pharoah Feather Oakworth ©Andy Wade 2022

Pharoah’s death left Mary Eliza a widow with a young family. With the family breadwinner gone, and another child on the way (Mary Eliza’s son Percy was born on 6 February 1885), times would have been extremely hard for the family. No doubt the fact that Pharoah was intoxicated at the time of the accident would have caused raised eyebrows and any sympathy for the family lessened. 

No evidence has been located to confirm that Pharoah and Mary Eliza were married. In 1871 Pharoah was living with his family and Mary Eliza was working as a bar maid in nearby Haworth. Holmes was Mary Eliza’s maiden surname given on the birth registrations of the Feather children. The compulsory vaccination law made fathers responsible for ensuring the vaccination of their children. Mothers of children born out of wedlock were responsible for their vaccination. Seemingly Pharoah took responsibility for the vaccination, or otherwise, of the children of his relationship with Mary Eliza. 

There is no evidence to suggest that Mary claimed poor relief in the Board of Guardian minute books, although there are no overseer or workhouse admission records. Possibly she was able to support herself. Five years after Pharoah’s death Mary Eliza married John Binns on 21 January 1889. The bride’s name was given as Mary Elizabeth Holmes. On the marriage certificate her occupation is a Confectioner living at Lidgett (sic) in Oakworth, and her status is given as spinster. In 1891, she is living at Hermit Hole Keighley with her Feather children but no sign of husband John. 

Sylvia Valentine

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