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William Charles Lilley

This week our blog features a guest post from Archie McDermott-Paintin, a 2nd year History student at the University of Portsmouth. Archie worked with fellow student Marc Treloar (whose post was featured a couple of weeks’ ago) and project co-lead Mike Esbester on project data, including early access to our data release planned for later this year. His blog post takes one case and looks at what he could find out about William Lilley, the man involved – including tracking down some of his family who live in the area today.

Archie and Marc have also created a leaflet about the individuals they researched – we’ll be launching that this coming weekend, at THE Genealogy Show and on our website. For now, thanks to Archie for this post!

We’re delighted to have been able to work with Archie and Marc in this way, as part of their undergraduate degree in History at Portsmouth. We welcome the chance to work with anyone interested in the cases we’re making more easily available and are looking forward to more collaborations like this in the future.


On 20 August 1921, William Charles Lilley was killed in an accident whilst at work on the railways. His accident happened in the small village of Irchester in Northamptonshire, which is where I am from. Hearing about his incident and where it happened led me to wonder why I had never heard about what happened to this man who was killed less than a kilometre from my front door. The railway brought development to my village and the neighbouring town Wellingborough, as it allowed people to live in the countryside whilst holding jobs in London. Without the development of the railways, most of the expansion Irchester and Wellingborough have seen would not have been possible.

So why, then, are people like William Charles Lilley who died working to maintain these railway lines not remembered today? Without their work Irchester and Wellingborough wouldn’t be the thriving communities they are now. After I found out about him, I decided to explore William’s story more. Who was he? Why was he in the area? What was his job on the railways? And does his family still live in the area?

William was born in Kempston, Bedfordshire, and was the second youngest of six children born to Charles and Mary Lilley, his father and mother. In 1888 he married Emma Parrott and in 1889 started a family when his first daughter, Florence, was born. They went on to have five more children (Ernest, James, Winifred, Doris and George) between 1892 and 1907. It is unclear when William began work on the railways; census records show it was between 1881 and 1891, but I was unable to locate a specific date. Before he began work on the railway, he worked with his father as an agricultural labourer.

When he began work on the railways, he was originally just an average railway labourer. In 1908 he joined the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants trade union. Their records show that by this point, he had become a ganger of platelayers. When I read this, I was unsure as to what his job actually was. But with a little research I found out that a ganger was the person in charge of a group of platelayers. A platelayer’s job was to lay track and inspect and maintain the condition of the railway line. This meant that William had a good job as a supervisor and therefore was probably a respected member of the workforce.

This led me to ask why there wasn’t some form of memorial plaque in the village or along the railway to commemorate him? Was it because his family had left the area? Or was it because, as an average working-class man, he simply wasn’t seen as important enough for history to remember him?

By this point in my research, it had become obvious that he was part of a large family which lived locally to me. With this knowledge I decided to try and reach out to some people over social media. This is where I found Mrs Jennifer Lilley. Jennifer explained to me that she had married into the family in 1982, when she married Simon Lilley. Simon was the son of Doris Lilley who was William’s youngest daughter. This makes Jennifer, William’s granddaughter-in-law.

Knowing that he had family still in the area eliminated my original thought of his family leaving the area and his being forgotten. My only other thought was that his death may have been the result of bad practice (misbehaviour or not following the rules) meaning that maybe the company thought he didn’t deserve a memorial. So, I looked into exactly how he had died. His death was on 20 August 1921 and it was clear that it had been caused by a collision with a train at work. However, I wanted to know how this collision had happened. After searching the local newspaper archives (Evening Telegraph) I hadn’t found anything about him, not even the mention of his name in an obituary.

I then searched the British Newspaper Archive where I found an article from the Mercury newspaper (another regional newspaper), which spoke about the inquest on a platelayer killed on the line near Irchester. The name William Charles Lilley on the first line confirmed it was him. The article gave a detailed account of the events leading to his death, explaining that he was walking the length of track he was responsible for maintaining with a large hammer over his shoulder when he stopped to talk to another worker. He began to walk away from the other worker but then turned to call back to him. As he turned back around, a Midland Railway train came by and caught the hammer on his shoulder, causing him to swing into the train. The injuries he sustained from the incident caused him to die immediately.

Posed accident prevention image.
1936 accident prevention image, about the type of accident that killed William Lilley.

This account allowed me to rule out William’s death being due to misconduct at work, leaving me with only one option as to why he hadn’t been remembered by the local community: history didn’t view him as significant enough. This blog, and a short leaflet (coming soon!), aims to bring light to what happened to people like William and to give them a voice which they have so far been denied.

So, I’ll finish by first of all thanking Mrs Jennifer Lilley for her cooperation and by thanking the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project for allowing me to bring William’s story to light by supporting my work and giving me access to their databases where I first found out about William Charles Lilley.


Archie McDermott-Paintin

I am a 2nd year History student at the University of Portsmouth, originally coming from Irchester, Northants.

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