A Platelayer Whose Death Resulted In A Question Being Tabled In The House Of Commons
(originally published in Journal 60, August 2014, of the NLRHS)
[George Wells, Victor Geeves, and William Wells]
George Wells was born on Monday 6th August 1855, sixth of twelve children of John, a labourer, and Caroline Wells, in Leighton Buzzard. After any schooling he had received he became an agricultural labourer. On Christmas Day in 1873 he married Jane Geeves in All Saints’ Church, Leighton Buzzard. Jane was born on Wednesday 27th October 1852, also in Leighton Buzzard, daughter of Charles, a market gardener, and Emily Geeves. The marriage registration records the ages of both Jane and George as 20. However, Jane was actually 21 and George was 18. The two-year inaccuracy for George was perpetuated in the 1881 census when both declared their ages to be 27.
George and Jane came from an agricultural background. At the time of their marriage, George was an agricultural labourer. Three of George’s elder siblings and Jane and her two sisters were, at some stage in their teens, employed as straw plaiters. At that time the industry employed around 30,000 people. The area of Bedfordshire and the neighbouring counties were the British home of the straw-plait industry. The straw of certain varieties of wheat cultivated in that region was of fine bright colour and had the necessary strength. The straws were assorted into sizes by passing them through graduated openings in a grilled wire frame, and those of good colour were bleached by the fumes of sulphur. Spotted and discoloured straws were dyed either in pipe or in plait. The plaiters worked up the material in a damp state, either into whole straw or split straw plaits. The straws were put through a small mangle to flatten them. They were then braided to produce a woven strip which was sold on to the makers of hats, baskets and other wares.
After their marriage George and Jane moved to Kentish Town and George became a platelayer. After being a platelayer for well over ten years, tragedy struck. On the 5th February 1891 he came on duty at 6 a.m. and worked until 5.30 p.m. After about a 5½ hour rest he was back at work being specially employed on overtime in a relaying operation, which could not be carried out until after the passenger traffic had ceased. At 9 a.m. the next day, back on his normal shift, he was run over by a LNWR goods train and was killed at Highbury station. At the time of the accident he had been working 21½ out of the preceding 27 hours. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of accidental death.
Mr F A Channing, Liberal, MP for Northamptonshire, was running a campaign about the amount of overtime worked by railwaymen. On the 23rd January 1891, less than a fortnight before George was killed, he had moved a debate on overtime worked by railwaymen, which The Times covered fully. When it came to the vote the result was 124 for the motion and 141 against. On the 17th March he asked a parliamentary question: whether the Board of Trade had made representations concerning George’s death to the North London Railway Company? In response, the President of the Board of Trade gave the hours George had worked and that the Company attributed “the accident to failure on the part of another company’s driver to give warning.” He also stated that he would consider Channing’s request that when the report of a death of a railwayman was sent to the Board of Trade it also included the hours worked up to the time of the accident.
Jane would have received compensation from the LNWR, although the amount she received is unknown. Until the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1897 came into force, the NLR normally gave £10 and £5 towards funeral expenses to relatives for those killed on duty. The amount granted for funeral expenses covered only the most frugal. In 1885 when a driver and fireman were killed due to the failure of a trailing axle, the Company paid for the funerals of the two men, the cost of the two being £32 5s. If there were exceptional cases additional help was given. There was a case of widow whose husband, a stationary engine driver, was killed by a boiler explosion, had “eight children and near her confinement.” In this case, the General Manager was authorised to assist her and was given fifty pounds; ten pounds of which was set aside for funeral expenses: she was also given a job as a charwoman, a post she held for 34 years. In another case a widow was granted usual £10 plus £5 for funeral expenses, subject to withdrawal of claim for compensation: the claim was subsequently withdrawn and grants paid. Charwomen posts were, in fact, reserved for widows of NLR railwaymen whose husbands were killed on duty or were unfit for further work as a result of injury received on duty.
Shortly after her bereavement, Jane, then aged 38, was given a charwoman’s job at Chalk Farm on a wage of 15s a week. In mid-March 1908 she was moved to Dalston Junction station, at the same time taking a pay cut of 3s a week. It is not clear when she retired but it could possibly have been when the LNWR took over the management of the NLR in February 1909, when many staff were shed. In the 1880’s the family moved to 20 Herbert Street, Kentish Town. After being widowed Jane remained there for several years before going into the St Pancras Almshouses in Southampton Road about the time of the Great War. It was here where she died during the winter of 1928/29, aged 76.
They had nine children, from Victor Geeves, born 27 months before their marriage, although fatherhood is not certain, to the youngest Florence, born a month after George’s death. Family lore had it that Jane was unable to support the children after George’s death but recent research suggests that only one, Maud, born 1887, went to the Railway Servants’ Orphanage in Derby, a children’s home financed by the Railway Benevolent Institute.
Of the children, two, maybe three, followed him into the NLR, although Edward (born in October 1888) was employed by LNWR from December 1904 in the telegraph department and later as a parcels porter at Euston.
Victor was born in Leighton Buzzard on 14th September 1871. His mother married two years later and he assumed the name of Wells, presumably to save embarrassment at school. By the time he was working he had reverted back to Geeves. Prior to joining the NLR he had been employed as a grocer’s porter in Camden Town.
He started as a porter from 27th July 1891, within a month of his mother being employed as a charwoman. Eight years later he moved up ticket collector, getting his first pay rise since joining the NLR, when his wages went from the flat rate porters’ wage of 18s to 20s. Then for the next three years on the anniversary of his promotion he received a shilling a week rise, to 23s on 30th May 1902. He was then on the top rate for ticket collectors, although this was raised to 24s in March 1908. Along the way, he picked up a caution for incivility to a passenger, and a reprimand for swearing at a passenger. It is believed he stayed with the NLR, LNWR and LMS until he would have retired in the early thirties.
In 1897 he married Marylebone-born Mary Jane Hearn. They had no children. They spent the first part of their married life in Kentish Town and moved to Chalk Farm around the time of the Great War. In retirement they moved to Southend. He died on 8th December 1940 in Soulbury/Wing area of Buckinghamshire, within about four or five miles of his birthplace, Leighton Buzzard: presumably he was visiting relatives there and, possibly, having a rest from air raids. He left his widow £4887 9s 6d. Probate was granted at Llandudno: presumably the Probate Office had been evacuated there at the beginning of the 1939-1945 War. Mary died on 29th October 1952. She must have been very much financially acute since the value of her effects was £8867 15s 1d, some £4000 more than her husband, who had died twelve years earlier.
William was born about June 1878. After leaving school he was a fishmonger’s assistant but within a few months of his father’s death he was taken on as a train register boy on 8th May 1891, his pay being at the usual rate of 6s a week. He was first at Barnsbury, then on to Chalk Farm and later to Maiden Lane in June 1897. It was here a year later he was made a made a junior porter on 15s a week. In May 1899, by then a normal porter, he was sent to Highbury as a parcels porter, where he stayed for five years, his pay by then had then risen to 25s a week. It was during this period, 1901, that he married a Surrey girl, Emily Harrow.
In May 1904 he reverted to porter and went to Dalston and within a month he resigned. The following month, July, police arrested porters a Dalston on theft charges (see Journal No 53, pages 14-16). This does raise the question, was there any connection between his down grading, his resignation and the subsequent arrests?
After leaving the NLR he became a conductor and a father of a son Wilfred. Then on Wednesday 18th January 1911 the family upped sticks and set sail on the SS Oswestry Grange for Australia, arriving in Brisbane on Sunday 12th March. They settled in Ipswich, west of Brisbane, where they spent the rest of their lives. William became a signalman, a result of which towards the end of his life had very arthritic hands resulting from the pulling of point levers. He died in December 1949, aged 71, with Emily following him eight years later.
his great grandson,
with railway research
by Peter Bloomfield
Of the other five children:
Louisa was born in 1897;
Maud was born in 1886, as seen above went to the Railway Servants’ Orphanage;
Florence was born in 1891; and
two died in infancy.
Censuses, Birth, Marriage and Death sources, etc, through Ancestry and Findmypast
RAIL 529/29, 19 Feb 1891, Board Min 4675, 19 Mar 1891, Board Min 4684
RAIL 529/56 4 Mar 1891, Loco Com Min 7977, 1 Jul 1891, Loco Com Min 8096.
RAIL 529/64, 30 Apr 1908, Loco Com Min 13592.
Hansard, vol 351 cc1225-6. House of Commons Debate 17 Mar 1891.
The Times, Sat, 24 Jan 1891, pp 6-8.
Victor Geeves, RAIL 529/135/175 folio 87.
Edward Wells, RAIL 410/1800. f106.
RAIL 529/21, 17 Oct 1867, Board Min 714.
RAIL 529/58, 3 Apr 1895, Loco Com Min 9499.
RAIL 529/70, 5 Aug 1885, PW Com Min 2973, 4 Nov 1885, PW Com Min 3002.