Menu Close

Tracing a railway career pt. 1 – introducing James Stoneman

Many of our blog posts focus on the thing central to our project: railway staff accidents. Increasingly we’re trying to think more broadly about the life stories of the individuals involved – where we can find out more about them. Very often family historians have been leading the way here. Today’s guest post turns the usual focus on its head, putting the life story and career of James Stonemen first, and not once mentioning a railway accident!

Needless to say, there’s a reason for that! Here, Malcolm Stoneman looks at his Great Grandfather Malcolm’s life in the round, partially understood from his railway employment record. He’s deliberately missed out the accidents and other issues, as he’ll be returning to them in future posts.

We’re delighted Malcolm is doing this. It really helps us see the bigger picture, which is important. It all came about because Malcolm mentioned on Twitter a fine imposed upon James for smoking at work, and we started talking about discipline, employment records and safety. We’re always open to conversations like these, and guest blogs – just get in touch! Thanks to Malcolm for the start of some excellent posts!


The hulks of rusting metal & peeling paint, no longer with names such as ‘Majestic,’ ‘Highflyer,’ or ‘Sprightly,’ were drawn up just inside the shed gate. We turned our backs on them & returned the way we came through the underpass under the main line where once these express engines had thundered by. At the top of the steps my father paused and pointed to a two-up, two-down terraced house and said “that’s where he lived.”

Little did I know years later, when I investigated that driver’s career, just how significant the railway was to him. It is a suitable metaphor that he would live a stone’s throw from the sheds from which he drove engines of the Great Western Railway. He may not be special, but for my Great Grandfather & thousands of other men & women the “company” was central to their lives.

James Stoneman was born at Newton St Cyres, Devon in 1859, the son of James (an Agricultural Labourer) & Sarah. She was only able to make a mark on his Birth Certificate. Tragically Sarah had died by the time of the 1861 Census. James & his older sister were cared for by their Grandparents. The care given by the extended family becomes a recurring theme during James’ life even during the time of his railway employment.

His grandparents lived right beside the Exeter & Crediton Railway, which had eventually opened as a Broad Gauge line, run by the Bristol & Exeter in 1851. However, by the time we next discover James, in the 1871 Census, he is living with his father (now a Hay & Straw Dealer), his sister Ann & a house keeper. Their cottage was just above the floodplain of the River Creedy, with the railway, now with standard gauge LSWR trains, visible 1/2 kilometre across the fields.

When James came of age in 1880, did the sight of those trains during his childhood influence him, when he moved from the country to London? It is impossible to say, but at the age of exactly 21 years & 3 months he joined the Great Western Railway. Employed at Paddington for a year as a cleaner, he was promoted to 3rd class fireman. Nothing is known about him apart from misdemeanours, reported in his GWR Service Record, such as being late on duty or smoking for each of which he was fined a shilling. An indication maybe of a draconian railway discipline, since this amounted to a 1/4 of his weekly wage of 4 shillings.

Despite this he was still able to live in a 5 room house on K Street, London in shared accommodation. This property had been built, so rapidly that they gave the streets letters for names, by the Artizans, Labourers and General Dwellings Company. In the Dickens’ Directory of 1879 the weekly rental was given as 7 shillings & 6 pence. From this house James, according to his Marriage Certificate, left to get married in July 1888 to Bessie Ann Shillabeer the daughter of a local carpenter.

Two months later their daughter Kate was born. It was a measure of the demands of the “company” & the commitment of extended families, that Bessie Ann gave birth at her sister’s house in Brixham Devon and it was she that registered the birth there. James we assume carried on working in London.

It was always a mystery how the Stoneman family, which eventually came to number 5 boys & 4 girls, were born in a variety of places in Devon & Cornwall. Eventually James’ GWR Service Record provided the answer. The eldest boys (Samuel & William) were born within 9 months of his next two promotions, initially to 1st Class Fireman at St Ives & then Engine worker at Tiverton Junction. The youngest boys (Albert & Stanley) were born after becoming 3rd Class Engineman in Truro. The youngest girls (Dorothy & Violet) after moving to the new engine shed at Laira as a 2nd Class Engineman & taking up residence at that terraced house mentioned at the start.

A recurring theme became apparent. Given his varied hours of work for the ”company”, he didn’t like to walk too far. Homes respectively at Tregenna Terrace, Parkfield Terrace, Richmond Terrace, Brandon Road & Wake Street were all less than 1/4 mile away from his place of work. Of these only Wake Street has been proven to be a shared property, when he was working at Plymouth shed. A 5-room house was divided between 3 families, with the Stonemans having 3 rooms for James (41), Bessie Ann (32), Kate (12), Samuel (11), William (9), Albert (4), & Stanley (2) according to the 1901 Census.

The GWR expected much of James, & by extension his family, as they moved repeatedly around the South West. But it, or perhaps its managers, could be supportive. Such was the case with the sad life of the fourth-born child. Thomas was born June & baptised August 1894. The Willand Baptism register described James as an engine driver, a position James did not really attain until transfer to Truro – 11 January 1895. Tragically Thomas died on 28 February 1895 & his death was registered not by James (presumably away in Truro), but by a Shillabeer relative of Bessie Ann. Thomas was buried on 6 March. But now another side of the disciplinarian GWR could be seen. James was assigned duties of ballasting at Hemyock (the branch line from the Stoneman home at Tiverton Junction) & spare at Truro on 26 March 1895. Being transferred back to Truro Goods on 13 April 1895, but with spare work at Hemyock. Was this the GWR being paternalistic or was it actions on the part of the local managers to help the Stoneman family at a time of great distress?

Tragedy again struck the Stoneman family in 1913 when James’ wife Bessie Ann died in the February & their youngest child Alice died in the June. By now James was a first-class engine driver on the London expresses with (according to his grandson) a “Double Home”. His sister Ann, resident in Exeter, had stepped in to care for the baby Alice. Consequently Alice was buried in Exeter, 40-odd miles from the family home. An insight into the financial cost of burial is that it cost 16 shillings, when James only started to earn 15 shillings six years later.

James did remarry in April 1916, when he was 56, to Ann Hawke, the daughter (perhaps unsurprisingly) of a former engine driver. In the 1920s my father would visit his grandad & “Mrs” to hear a little about James’ life as an engine driver, but by then James had been demoted from being a first-class Driver to Local Goods Driver because of failing eyesight. He retired exactly on his 65th birthday & lived to the age of 78.

It is a measure of how official records have now become available in our digital age, that when my father died in the 1990s he only knew the names of his relatives & of that terraced house near Laira Shed. As a postscript my childhood holidays were spent on Porthminster Beach, St Ives. Our shortcut to the beach took us every day along Tregenna Terrace, past the station & engine shed. My father was walking in the footsteps of his grandfather 75 years earlier and he never knew.


Malcolm Stoneman

I am a retired teacher having lived and worked in West Norfolk for 40 years. However, I am a third-generation Plymothian. My Great Grandfather James, whose career was with the GWR, worked all over the South West and eventually became an express train driver. He finished that career in Plymouth and spent his retirement there. James ensured his four sons learnt a trade. My Grandfather served his apprenticeship in the GWR works at Swindon, but was then employed in the dockyard at Devonport, including First World War work at Invergordon. My father was employed as a fitter and turner in Devonport Dockyard too. I am interested in history, travel, railways and my ancestors.

1 Comment

  1. Bill Howard

    Enjoyed your piece Malcolm. I too come from a railway family, I am/was the third generation. Having read your finding I think I must try to do something similar.

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.