In yesterday’s post we looked at what happened in the days following the 1922 Wilmcote accident. This included some of the community impacts, seen through the response to the men’s funeral and the financial support given to the dependents left behind.
Today we move the focus of our posts about the accident, to look more at the people directly affected. We want to share what we know of the men who died, and what happened to their families after the accident. We also want to say there’s a lot we don’t know about them, and we’d love to know more – so do please get in touch with us. We’d love to hear from you.
We start with Lewis Thomas Washburn, one of the more elusive of the Wilmcote men.
Unfortunately, the only image we have of Lewis is a poor quality reproduction of a war service photograph, taken from a local newspaper at the time. Lewis was born in April 1881, in Newnham, Aston Cantlow parish – close to Wilmcote. His parents were Albert and Emma Washburn; neither appear to have had any connection to the railway. On the 1901 census Lewis is still living with his father – though no sign of his mother or siblings – in Newnham. By this time he was 19, and his occupation on the census is given as ‘general farm labourer.’
The next time he appears in the formal record is 1907, when he married Catherine Hannah Millin (born 1887) in Bearley – again, not far from his birthplace. By this time he was a labourer on the Great Western Railway (GWR).
On the 1911 census Lewis and Catherine were still living in Bearley, without children. Lewis entered his role as a ‘railway packer’ on the GWR – that is, someone who packed ballast (the stone chippings) under and around the wooden sleepers that supported the rails. He joined the National Union of Railwaymen in September 1913, as part of the Stratford-upon-Avon branch.
Lewis fought in the First World War, joining the Royal Engineers 116th Railway Company in 1915. His war record was destroyed during the Second World War, as a result of enemy action, but we’ve been told that he served in Egypt and know that he was demobbed in 1919.
Lewis and Catherine appear on the 1921 census, living in Wilmcote. Lewis gave his occupation as platelayer; Catherine was listed as doing ‘house work’. They were living with Catherine’s widowed father, John, who was doing ‘nothing.’ They had also adopted a son, born in Birmingham in early 1919: John Lewis Washburn.
There wasn’t much time, then, between the 1921 census and the accident. After the accident, in the Birmingham Daily Gazette piece about the newspaper payment to the families, the Washburns were noted:
The position of Mrs Washburn is also particularly unfortunate. Her husband […] supported not only his wife but his mother and his wife’s father, Mr John Millin, who, through ill-health, has been unemployed for about six years, but is in receipt of an old-age pension. […] Beyond the old-age pension the household is left without any income whatever, and, therefore, the gratitude of the widow for the prompt payment of the free insurance was not to be wondered at.
Catherine identified her husband for the coroner’s inquest, where she noted that he had worked for the GWR for around 17 or 18 years. She might have married again in 1935, to James William Sabin, in the nearby Southam registration district. She seems to appear on the 1939 register, along with James, albeit with an 1897 date of birth. Did she take 10 years off her age, for the sake of social convention and appearances? And did her adopted son, John, also take Sabin as a surname? If so, he might have married May Bratt in 1940, in Birmingham – but this isn’t something we could be certain about.
All of this means it’s very difficult to know much about how the accident had an impact on Lewis’ family. We’ve made contact with distant relatives, Judy and Richard Green – Lewis was Judy’s cousin, twice removed. Whilst initially Judy and Richard didn’t know much more about Lewis, they’ve since done some more research and have found out a bit more – which we’ll be discussing with Judy on Thursday, at the memorial event for the Wilmcote men. We’re delighted that Judy and her sister, Elisabeth, should be able to be at Wilmcote for this.
In the next post, we’ll look at William Bonehill and his family.
 Birmingham Daily Gazette, 27 March 1922, p.3.