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What happened to William Watson?

In January 2021 we received a comment on one of our blog posts. Sid Harbour had contacted us, saying ‘I have just discovered your website. Could you please tell me if the info is searchable. My Grandfather lost his leg while working on the railway possibly 1900. We know the Family story how it happened but no other details.’

Well … of course, the ears pricked up. We are working on a new run of data, covering 1900-1910, so we replied to Sid. That reference to the family story was particularly interesting – the official sources that we’re able to use at the moment are great, and tell us lots: from the official side. What we don’t get so much from them is the personal or family side – hence these discussions with descendants and family historians are so revealing.

It also happened to be a well-timed enquiry. For those particularly interested in one-place studies, a form of local history that focuses on a single location over time, the focus of attention for February 2021 is ‘One Place Tragedies.’ Whilst as we’ll see we don’t have certainty about the place, what we do have in the accident to Sid’s grandfather is a sad event with tragic consequences. If and when it’s possible to pin down the location of the accident at the heart of this case we can return to our database to see what other accidents occurred there over the years. This will give us that longer chronology focused on a single location that works so well with one-place studies.

Whilst ultimately we couldn’t find Sid’s Grandfather, William Watson, what Sid was able to tell us was very interesting. Sid wrote:

Very little is known about the accident. The Family story is that he fell under a moving wagon at the age of 19 while playing football in his dinner break. Time and place is difficult, it would be about 1900 possibly at Swaffham on the GER [Great Eastern Railway], as he was born at Saham Toney in 1881.

Obviously a nasty accident to befall anyone, and no doubt first aid was rendered at the scene. The railway companies were strong supporters of the first aid movement, and staff were encouraged to learn first aid skills – a testament to the likely need to put them into action, sadly. We were intrigued to hear that insight into the practices on company property – playing football in the dinner break. No doubt officially this wasn’t supposed to happen, but presumably by local convention or out of sight of local officials it occurred. Sid went on, though:

Another part of the Family story about the accident was very sad if it is true. His friend with whom he was playing football, was so distressed and felt himself responsible that he later committed suicide.

Very sad if that was the case; I wonder what William felt about his friend’s suicide? It must have been terrible. Again, we really see the importance of the collective family memory, bringing out connections and feelings that might not otherwise be captured. Sid continued:

In the 1911 census he is single (married in July) and his occupation is railway pointsman in Peterborough.  I believe that he worked in the New England shunting cabin ‘B’.  I have found on Ancestry his ‘Return of Staff Employed’ for 1939. Rate of pay £2 15s 6d. p w. That is all that I have found.

Upon reflection, Sid felt that raised another possibility in terms of William’s employment: ‘As I have been unable to find him with certainly in the 1901 census and knowing that he was in Peterborough in 1911, did the accident take place in the GNR [Great Northern Railway] New England Marshalling Yard?’ Impossible to say without any further evidence, of course, but it’s certainly a possibility.

If William was employed as a pointsman before the accident, he might have been working in a goods yard/ around sidings and able to carry on in the role after his accident. Alternatively if he had before his accident been employed in a role that involved more strenuous activity – as a shunter, for example – the physicality of the former role might have been impossible having lost a leg. In which case, in line with ideas about railway paternalism, the railway company might have found him a new role, as a pointsman.

Sid confirmed: ‘My Grandfather did stay on the railway. When I knew him he was called “peg leg Watson” and he worked in a signal box in Peterborough.’ Again, this little snippet opens up some important bigger questions: he had a prosthetic leg. Where did it come from? Was it paid for by the Company, or by William? How did William find the prosthetic – comfortable, inconvenient, ill-fitting, enabling? How often was the prosthetic replaced – and who covered the costs associated?

I put these questions to Sid, as he’d not initially mentioned anything more than the prosthetic. He came back: ‘In my Grandfather’s case, he had two limbs; one in use and one as a spare. I know that he found them most uncomfortable. Just who supplied them is an interesting question.’ How common was the provision of a limb for use and a spare? This isn’t something I’d considered before; all the references I’d seen to the provision of prostheses by railway companies seemed to suggest a single prosthetic – though that does beg the question of what the individual did when the prosthetic was sufficient worn to need replacement?

At the time of William’s accident, the GER wasn’t manufacturing prosthetic limbs itself, but in 1915 it opened up a workshop at its Stratford works (London) that produced limbs. This saved the Company from paying external manufacturers to do the job. You can find more on what provisions were made by the GER for members of its Benevolent Fund who’d had an accident in this blog post – with a run of data covering 1913-23 available from our database).

Finally, Sid added a more personal note, giving us a bit of insight into William’s character:

Another fond memory was that he used to stand at the front of his house handing sweets to the children as they were on their way home from school. Unfortunately there is no one else in the Family that will remember him as he died in 1951.

William Watson in 1950
William Watson in 1950: ‘a photo of my Grandfather in a jovial mood in 1950.’ Courtesy Sid Harbour.

We share this – with Sid’s permission – as it tells us more about one individual, William Watson; but also wider things – about his family life, about railway workplace culture and practices, about accidents and their after-effects. We’re keen to see more of this, for other railway staff, in our database and beyond, and we welcome contact like Sid’s. It all helps us build a bigger picture of railway work, railway accidents and life as part of a railway family.

Finally, if you’re able to find out any more about William Watson’s life, accident or railway career, then we’d happily hear from you and get the details about to Sid.


  1. Steve Jackson

    If William Watson was the son of bricklayer John Watson, then he is on the 1901 census with his widowed father plus his siblings, at Saham Toney, working as a bricklayer’s labourer – but with his age recorded on the enumerator’s schedule as 16 in error (sibling names and ages broadly match when comparing the 1891 and 1901 censuses for this family). If this is ‘our man’, then unless he returned home and worked for his father for a while before returning to railway work, his accident presumably took place after 2 April 1901.

    • Mike Esbester

      Thanks Steve – I had a little fish around the census returns to see if I could find anything likely looking, and also spotted this one. But my instinct had been that it’s not the right William Watson due to the age. If that was an error then it opens up some possibilities. I’ll put it to Sid and see if the other names on the schedule fit with what they’ve already got in their tree. Watch this space … and thanks for the digging!

  2. Steve Jackson

    Ah, it’s important to look at the whole picture though Mike……

    7 Jul 1866 at Watton, Norfolk, England: John Watson, 22, bachelor, bricklayer, of Watton, father Robert Watson, married Mary Ann Nott, 18, spinster, of Watton, father James Balls

    1891 census, Saham Toney, Norfolk, England
    John Watson, age 48, bricklayer, born Saham Toney, Norfolk, England
    Wife: Mary A, 41, born Watton, Norfolk, England
    Children (all born Saham Toney, Norfolk, England) – with birth registration details added:
    Jane, 13 – WATSON, JANE ELIZA; m.m.n. KNOT; reg. 1878, J Quarter, in SWAFFHAM RD, Volume 04B, Page 395
    William, 10 – WATSON, WILLIAM; m.m.n. KNOTT; reg. 1881, M Quarter, in SWAFFHAM RD, Volume 04B, Page 397
    Albert, 9 – WATSON, ALBERT; m.m.n. KNOCK [= KNOTT, I believe]; reg. 1882, J Quarter, in SWAFFHAM RD, Volume 04B, Page 373
    Henry, 7 – WATSON, HENRY; m.m.n. KNOT; reg. 1883, S Quarter in SWAFFHAM RD, Volume 04B, Page 355
    Lily, 6 – WATSON, LILLIE; m.m.n. KNOT; reg. 1884, S Quarter, in SWAFFHAM RD, Volume 04B, Page 391
    John P, 3 – WATSON, JOHN PERCY; m.m.n. KNOTT; reg. 1887, D Quarter in SWAFFHAM RD, Volume 04B, Page 367
    Florence E, 2 – WATSON, FLORENCE ELIZA; m.m.n. KNOTT; reg. 1889, J Quarter in SWAFFHAM RD, Volume 04B, Page 385
    Daisy S, 1 month – WATSON, DAISY SUSANNAH; m.m.n. KNOTT; reg. 1891, J Quarter in SWAFFHAM RD, Volume 04B, Page 378

    1 Nov 1892 at Saham Toney, Norfolk, England: Burial of Mary Ann Watson, age 44

    1901 census, Saham Toney, Norfolk, England
    John Watson, 51, widower, bricklayer, born Saham Toney, Norfolk, England – age discrepancy
    Children (all born Saham Toney, Norfolk, England):
    Mary A, 26 – WATSON, MARY ANN; m.m.n. KNOTT; reg. 1877, M Quarter in SWAFFHAM RD, Volume 04B, Page 385
    Lily, 17 – see Lily, 6, above
    William, 16 – age discrepancy
    Percy, 14 – see John Percy, 3, above
    Flory, 12 – see Florence Eliza, 2, above
    Daisy, 10 – see Daisy Susannah, 1 month, above

    Just compare those children – in 1901 all except William (and Mary Ann the younger, living elsewhere in 1891 no doubt) correspond nicely with the household in 1891. Which is why I believe William’s age – like his father’s – was recorded incorrectly on the schedule, and that this is the right record.

    • Mike Esbester

      Thanks Steve,

      That’s looking pretty conclusive, I’d say! So … will be getting back to Sid with all of this next, and naming & shaming you for your help: thank you!

    • Sidney Harbour

      Hi Steve,
      Many thanks for your excellent help in my quest to find out about my Grandfathers accident. I am now in complete agreement with you that he was In Saham Toney in 1901.
      So now I will continue to research the local papers at Peterborough after this date and just in case those for Swaffham. I have received a fantastic response from both you and Mike. Many thanks for taking the time and trouble to help.
      Best regards,

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