On the day of the centenary of the Wilmcote accident, we turn to the fourth and final family to be affected: the Booker family. This follows on from our previous blog, which looked at Edward Sherwood and his family.
Of all the families to be affected by the accident, George’s has probably been the one that has become most personal to me. This is because I’ve been able to speak with George’s granddaughter, Lynda, who has provided us with some direct insight into how the accident affected her family. I and we are extraordinarily grateful to Lynda for being willing to share her family history with us like this. It’s really helped deepen our understanding of the accident and its impact.
George Gustavus Booker was born in late 1878, being baptised in Wilmcote in December 1878. He was the son of George and Sarah Booker (nee Houghton); George was an agricultural labourer. Sarah died in 1890; possibly George had already died at this point, or was unable to look after the children, as George Gustavus was living in Preston Bagot with his aunt and uncle at the time of the 1891 census. On the 1901 census, George was back living in Wilmcote and working as a general labourer. He was listed as a boarder in the household of Isaac and Anne Mason.
He next appears on the formal record on 3 January 1903, when he was married at St Andrew’s church in Wilmcote. George chose his younger sister, Emily Mary Booker, as a witness. He married Annie Mason (bn 9 June 1882) – daughter of Isaac and Anne, with whom he had been boarding. (A nice happenstance: the preceding entry in the marriage register is for Annie’s sister, and Annie was a witness to the wedding.)
George and Annie had three sons over the following years: Alfred Arthur (bn. 7 November 1903), Norman Gustavus (bn. 10 May 1906) and Edward G (bn 21 February 1911). Their fourth son, Denis Roland, was born in 1920.
It looks like George started on the Great Western Railway around 1907. He appears on the 1911 census as a platelayer, and joined the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) trade union in April 1912, as part of the Stratford-upon-Avon branch. There was clearly a recruitment drive for the Union, as 18 other men joined the branch on the same day – including Edward Sherwood, the focus of yesterday’s blog. However, for reasons not stated, George was excluded in December of the same year, one of a number of men from the branch who were excluded – including Edward Sherwood. This seems to have been a temporary blip, as George rejoined in December 1913; by this time the ASRS had become the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR).
George served in the First World War, joining up in December 1915 and mobilised in June 1916. He was recruited as a sapper in the 275 Railway Company of the Royal Engineers, and trained at Longmoor in Hampshire. He was posted to France in the first instance. Unfortunately his records were largely destroyed during the Second World War, so little evidence remains of his service.
After George’s death, what happened to his family? We have some factual details, from official records – either the 1939 Register or births, marriages and deaths.
Annie remains elusive. In 1939 she was living in the Alcester rural district, with her sons Norman and Edward. Both were working on the railway: Norman on the permanent way (track) and Edward as a porter; over the years he rose through the ranks to become Stationmaster at Wilmcote – which must have been tricky to reconcile, given he’s father’s death nearby.
In 1939 Alfred was living in Leamington Spa with Ella, his wife. He also worked on the railways, as a signalman. I’ve been unable to find Denis on the 1939 register; he died in 1994 and was, like his father and brothers, buried at St Andrew’s church in Wilmcote. Norman died in 1979; Edward in 1991. He had married Maud Shaw in 1941; they had a daughter Lynda – with whom we’ve been in contact.
And that contact has, as we noted, proven important. Lynda was good enough to talk some of her family history through with me, which she has agreed I can share in this blog post.
As might be expected, Lynda’s abiding recollection was that her Grandma rarely spoke about her Grandad: ‘life was rather different then … she was left with four young sons to bring up; it must have been very difficult.’ There were no pictures of her Grandad on public display in her Grandma’s house when she was growing up. Annie told her “he’s gone; I don’t want to talk about it”.
Whilst George and Annie’s children have now since died, Edward mentioned the accident in a couple of press interviews many years later. He recalled seeing the funeral train arriving at the station, and his father’s coffin being unloaded: “We’d heard there’d been an accident and I came running to the station. The old stationmaster patted me on the head. He said, ‘I’m sorry lad, I don’t think any of them are alive.’ There were four of us boys. A man from the Railway called and told Mother that, if we wanted them, jobs would be found for all of us.” He also noted that, whilst out on the track in the 1930s, in the same spot that his father had been killed, he narrowly avoided being hit by a train. Nonetheless, he said “I loved the railway despite my dad’s death.”
Lynda thought back to the war service of all four men, noting that they made it through the conflict only to be killed at home. She said: ‘it must have hit the wives and families hard’, noting of her Grandma that ‘it made her … angry; no, not angry, but she had a sadness about her’. Lynda’s father, Edward, was only 11 when his father died, and of course it must have been very difficult for the children, too. And Lynda noted that ‘it must have been awful for the driver as well’ – very true, but a difficult observation to make when it was so personal.
Lynda noted that she was pleased that her Grandad and the other men would be remembered: ‘it’s really nice that somebody’s thinking about them.’ That is exactly why doing this kind of research is so important, and seems a fitting point to draw us towards a conclusion.
Today we’ll be marking the centenary of the accident with a small in-person gathering at Wilmcote station. I’m delighted that this has been possible, with the support of a number of groups and people – but particularly Lynda and the other relatives of George, Lewis, William and Edward. It is gratifying that they will be there to remember their relatives – alongside representatives from the current rail industry.
Looking backwards is important, to pay tribute to those harmed in the course of their work but also to understand the shape of the railway today. It’s also instructive in terms of safety, to see where we’ve come from and how things have changed – but also to see how some of the issues are similar, and what we might learn from the past.
The final blog post in the series looks at how the accident was remembered on the day of the centenary.