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Tragedy on the Tracks – 2

Narrating the lives and losses of young railway workers

The second in the occasional series relating to staff accidents at Crewe.


Guest author Margaret Roberts returns to look at another Crewe accident. Her first post in this series looked at the 1923 death of 15-year old Frank Nixon at Crewe railway works. Tragic though his death was, he wasn’t the first young worker fatality at Crewe. In this week’s blog post, Margaret looks at an earlier death. In 1902 William Lightfoot, aged 16, was killed at work. His life may have left relatively little trace in the documentary record, but the circumstances of his death ensured that the local press reported it.

As ever, we’re delighted to receive this post, exploring one of the many cases in the Railway Work, Life & Death project database of accidents to British & Irish railway staff before 1939 (available here). Our thanks again to Margaret, and we warmly encourage you to consider putting something together for the blog if you have a case that would fit – please just get in touch.


William Joseph Lightfoot

In the frenetic world of the works in Crewe, the young railway workers, often embarking on their very first jobs, full of enthusiasm and energy, frequently overlooked the reality that lay behind the clattering tracks and roaring engines. This meant that the accidents suffered by  these young men were often easily blamed on inexperience and carelessness.

The son of a London and North Western Railway (LNWR) engine driver, William Lightfoot was born in June 1886. The family lived for many years in Henry Street, Crewe, with William being one of nine children born to Walter and Louisa, nee Stubbs; sadly four of those died in infancy.[1]  William was listed as aged 14 and a railway coach painter in the 1901 census,[2] so he had been employed from an early age. As with Frank Nixon, if your father was employed by a railway company then sons found it easier to gain an apprenticeship.

At 9:15m on Friday 1 August 1902 William, by then employed by the Great Western Railway as a wagon greaser, was run over whilst crossing the track. He died from his injuries, but this simple statement does little to relay the horror of what actually happened to William.[3] His death certificate, below, states that death was caused by ‘shock due to severe injuries caused by being knocked down and run over by a goods train’: again, an understatement![4]

Extract from death certificate for William Lightfoot. Tabular layout, with handwritten entries giving name, date and basic details of cause of death.
William Lightfoot’s death certificate.


Mr H C Yates, the coroner, held an inquest at Crewe police station a few days later.  William was recorded as having died in the LNWR’s Hospital on Saturday evening after being run over by a goods train near Gresty Road the previous day. William, who had only just passed his 16th birthday, was working in the Gresty lane sidings. It was supposed that he was crossing the line when a goods train, which was being shunted came around the curve and before the young lad realised the danger he was knocked down. The first indication that anything was wrong was when the wagons began to jump and a pointsman, on looking down the line, saw William’s legs on the metals and his body in the track spacing.  He shouted at the driver to stop, but at least 24 loaded wagons had passed over his legs before the train could be pulled up. A telegram was sent to Crewe station and James Collins, ‘an expert ambulanceman’ arrived within twenty-three minutes and rendered first aid. At hospital it was found that William’s injuries were of a ‘frightful character’ and the only chance of saving his life was to amputate his right leg, which was performed successfully by Dr Atkinson. However, William died from shock on Saturday evening.[5]

Ordnance Survey map of the area of the accident. A triangle of land is enclosed by railway lines. The accident happened in the complex of lines to the south west.
Gresty Lane sidings in 1908.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.


At the inquest, the first witness was William’s father, who had identified his son, stating that he seemed happy in his work and that his hearing and eyesight were good. Shunter John Johnson, who was the first to reach William, said that on the way to hospital the deceased had said that he had not seen the wagons until it was too late and had not attached blame to anyone. William’s foreman gave evidence that he had had cause to speak to him about taking care when crossing the lines some three months earlier.

Further witnesses declared that the brakeman had been sitting on the side of a wagon, some four or five wagons from the engine, and that the whole of the train, except for the engine had passed over William.  The brakeman himself, Thomas Brammer of the Great Western Railway Company, when giving his evidence said that he had twenty-four trucks to his train and when he signalled the driver to move on the track ahead was clear. He was riding in the fourth wagon, due to the others being fully loaded and the first he was aware of anything untoward were the shouts of the pointsman attempting to stop the train.[6]

Newspaper byline 'Railwayman's terrible death'.
Title to the newspaper mention of Lightfoot’s death. From the Liverpool Weekly Courier.


There was a question posed to the jury by the coroner as to whether the brakeman should have been on the fourth wagon from the end of the train during shunting operations but rather on the front and therefore William would have been spotted and the accident more than likely prevented.  However, both Inspector Chester and Brammer explained that the wagon on which he was riding was the most convenient one as the others were heavily loaded and covered. Inspector Charles added that the rules were to ride on the first wagon but in the case of that not being able to do so, as in this instance, then a brakeman should ride on the neatest empty one. The coroner, in passing a verdict of accidental death, expressed his opinion that it was totally useless for a man to ride on the fourth or fifth wagon as it was nigh on impossible for him to see ahead.[7] The recommendation was made that, as many serious accidents had occurred due to men riding in the wagons, the company should abolish this practice and provide a brake van or other vehicle so that men working around the tracks could be adequately warned.[8]

1902 was a tragic year for the Lightfoot family. Earlier, in April, the youngest child of the family, Louisa, had drowned at the tender age of just 18 months. The children of Henry Street had taken to playing in a pond behind the gardens. Mrs Lightfoot had been distracted in preparing William’s packed meal and had not noticed that Louisa had gone out of the door and followed the older children to the pond. The inquest was carried out by Mr Yates and the doctor in attendance was Atkinson, the very same that were involved with William’s sad demise.[9] I wonder how many times these men came across families that had suffered loss and injury time and time again.

William was buried in the local cemetery alongside his 11-month-old brother Ashton who had died in 1893 and little Louisa. There is no report of William’s funeral in the newspapers.  William was a son, he had siblings, he was just 16 but nothing in the report from the accident report conveys anything about how such an accident affected his family. Another life unexpectedly ending so young.

The next blog will be about 17-year old Charles Maddocks.


Margaret Roberts

Margaret Roberts is an academic author, independent researcher and experienced family historian who specialises in Sports History.  Margaret is the the Editor and Administrator of Britain’s only online Sport and Leisure History magazine Playing Pasts as well as the Publicity and Social Media Officer for the Family History Society of Cheshire and a Family History Federation Trustee and Society Liaison Officer.  She can be reached on 


[1] Railway Employment Records, Family History Society of Cheshire, Crewe Research Centre;

GRO Birth Indexes, Second Quarter, Nantwich District, vol 8A, page 362, GRO Marriage Indexes, Second Quarter, Nantwich District, page 8A, vol 478; 1891 England Census, RG12, Coppenhall Church District, Folio 125; 1911 England Census, RG14, Monks Coppenhall District, Piece 21768

[2] 1901 England Census, RG13, Coppenhall Monks District, Folio 145

[3] Railway Work, Life and Death database accessed via

[4] Death Certificate for William Joseph Lightfoot, 1902

[5] Crewe Chronicle, Saturday 9 August 1902, page 6

[6] Ibid

[7] Crewe Chronicle, Saturday 9 August 1902, page 6; Liverpool Weekly Courier, Saturday 9 August 1902, page 5; GRO Death Indexes, Third Quarter 1902, Nantwich 182; District, vol 8A, page Death Certificate for William Joseph Lightfoot, August 1902

[8] Railway Work, Life and Death database accessed via

[9] Northwich Guardian, Saturday 26 April 1902, page 2; Runcorn Guardian, Saturday 26 April 1902, page 2; GRO Death Indexes, Second Quarter 1902, Nantwich District, vol 8A, page 212

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