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Volunteers’ Week 5: The fatal dangers of shunting

In the latest of our Volunteers’ Week posts, project volunteer Cheryl Hunnisett, working with us at the Modern Records Centre, takes a look at one case she encountered in the records of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants trade union. This is another great example of the ways in which our volunteers are actively taking the project focus and expanding it with the skills and interests they brought to the project – and by doing so, everyone benefits. As always, a huge thank you to Cheryl for the blog and for her work on the project.

For our previous Volunteers’ Week post see here; and for a guest post by another MRC volunteer, Chris Jolliffe, see here.


William Kearn, a 37 year old porter employed at Liss Station in Hampshire by the London and South Western Railway, was involved in uncoupling a wagon in the middle of a goods train before it was shunted into a siding. He gave the signal for the wagon to be pushed downhill by the engine into the siding and then fell off the buffers of the wagon he had been standing on. In the dark early morning of 7 January 1889, the wheels of the wagon ran over him unnoticed and he was later found dead, lying in the “four foot way” (i.e. between the rails), feet on one line and head on the other. William was a married man with 6 young children.

Liss station, 1908
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps

An inquest was held on the 9 January 1889 in the local hotel, and after a lot of deliberation, the verdict was accidental death. The coroner recommended to the Railway Company to find a less dangerous way of shunting and hoped they would offer some support to the widow.


A bit more about William and his family

William was born in Goldalming, Surrey in 1851 to Thomas and Mary Kearn, Thomas was a labourer and William was also an agricultural labourer by the time he was 19, still in Godalming and living at home as shown in the 1871 National Census.

He had taken up railway work by April 1887 and moved to Hampshire, as he was listed as a Porter from Portsmouth branch when he joined the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS). The ASRS took weekly payments which provided, amongst other benefits, a death benefit and ongoing payments for the support of surviving children.

William Kearn; image kindly supplied by Carolyn Elwin.

William married Harriett E Taylor in mid-1879. In 1881, the couple lived in Liss with their young baby, Charles, the first of their six children. By the time of William’s death, Ina, Alexander, Leonard, Elsie, and John had also been born, so the family ranged in age from a few months to 8 years old.


How did Harriet and the family survive?

The Society provided a one off death benefit of £5 and also 6s 6d per week to support William’s children until the age of 13.

A local fund was started in Liss for the family and by the 26 January totalled nearly £70.

Did the London and South Western Railway contribute anything? Nothing found yet.

In 1891, Harriett was still living in Liss “on her own means”, which means she had enough money not to take in washing (a common resort for poor widows with young children). John, the young baby, had died in 1890, so she had Charles, Alexander, Leonard and Elsie at home, with Ina visiting/living with her parents. Ten years later in the 1901 census, Harriett was found in Droxford (her birth town) and was working from home as a needlewomen making shirts. Her two youngest children, Leonard and Elsie, were still at home. As they were now over 13, the Society weekly payments would have ceased and Harriett needed to make a living.

Harriett married again in 1901, but her new husband died in 1904 leaving her a widow again.


Did any of the children work on the railway?

Charles worked as a domestic coachman in Droxford before going to Canada, coming back to England in 1934 with a wife and daughter, then working in the Corby Steelworks.

Ina worked as a scullery maid and a cook before marrying in 1914.

Alexander joined the Royal Navy in 1902, for a career leading to Chief Stoker and Petty Officer, retiring in 1919 to run a barbers shop.

Leonard first worked as a shepherd’s boy but just after his marriage in 1910 emigrated to Canada. The records show that before he emigrated he worked as a railway porter. In Canada, he worked as a salesman for a milk depot and he and his wife took in lodgers.

Elsie married Alexander Nicholson in 1909, he was a stoker in the Royal Navy.


A word from the transcriber

I found the record of William’s death when I was transcribing the earliest annual report of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) held by the Modern Records Centre, as part of the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project. William was the father of 6 young children in an era when the death of the breadwinner was likely to cause disaster to the family, leading to life in the workhouse. The ASRS paid out a lump sum within a few days and then took on the responsibility of the orphans support until they were 13. I wanted to find the story of this family and to learn whether the ASRS support made a difference to the family. The employer had no responsibility for the family, the verdict of accidental death allowing them to walk away without having to pay any compensation.

William’s family survived and thrived. This story and many others like it have made me a huge supporter of the ASRS and its work.


The next Volunteers’ Week blog post is available here.


Cheryl Hunnisett has been researching her own & other people’s families for about 5 years and is currently studying for the IHGS Higher Certificate in Genealogy. However she takes far too much time out to research and blog about interesting family stories she has uncovered, including those from the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project. Her blog is and she also tweets @hunnicv.



ASRS 1889 Reports, held by the Modern Records Office, University of Warwick

Newspaper reports from The British Newspapers Archive

Hampshire Telegraph – 12 January 1889

Portsmouth Evening News – Thursday 10 January 1889

Portsmouth Evening News – Saturday 26 January 1889

The photo of William Kearn was supplied by Carolyn Elwin, a descendent based in New South Wales, Australia.


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