For the driver of the light railway engine, heading north from Stratford upon Avon along the North Warwickshire line early on the morning on Friday 24 March 1922, the day no doubt started like any other. His route was to take him through the small village of Wilmcote, one-time home of Shakespeare’s mother, Mary, and on towards the junction at Newnham where the branch linked up with the Henley in Arden line. His instructions were to turn his engine at the junction so that he could then pull the 8.30am passenger train back into Stratford town.
In reality, the engine driver’s morning was about to take a tragic turn.
Horror on the track
As he steered his engine northwards and not far from the station at Wilmcote, the driver entered a cutting where the railway line followed a natural curve in the landscape at Bishopton Hill. The bend, combined with the depth of the cutting, restricted the driver’s ability to see what was ahead of him. However, he had no problem hearing the goods train that clattered by, heading south to Stratford, and he had no doubt that just after the goods train passed, he felt a sickening bump.
The driver stopped his engine and got out. What he saw must have filled him with horror: the bodies of four workmen, lying behind his engine on the northbound track.
Had he been made aware that there was a working party out packing the ballast on the track that Spring morning, the engine driver would have sounded his whistle as he approached the work site. And even if he hadn’t been forewarned, with greater visibility down the track he might have had the chance to alert the labourers. As it was, the four workmen had no warning at all of the light engine bearing down upon them on the northbound line, with any sound of it being drowned out by the passing goods train.
All four labourers killed that day were local Wilmcote men – husbands and fathers. They were: Edwood Sherwood (age 43), George Gustavia Booker (age 43), Lewis Thomas Washburn (age 40) and William Thomas Bonehill (age just 27). At any time, this would be a huge tragedy, but for a small Warwickshire village, the impact felt would have been massive. Five days later, on 29th March, the village school was closed as the small children there mourned their lost fathers and joined not only their fellow villagers – but also a crowd of more than 200 railway employees – who lined the streets for the funeral procession which began with a special train that brought the men’s bodies home to Wilmcote from Stratford upon Avon.
The men were laid to rest side by side, in death as they had laboured, in the churchyard of St Andrew’s Church. A large shared headstone was erected by the widows, and for each man, a small footstone was placed in the ground, bearing the deceased’s initials.
100 years on
As the centenary of this tragic accident approaches, I pay tribute to those four men and their families and friends for whom the loss of their loved ones can only have been made harder by the apparent lack of care shown by the railway company. Clearly, this was an accident that could have been avoided. Sufficient safety measures were either not in place or simply not followed. Yet the seven-man jury who attended the inquest returned a verdict of Accidental Death while the rail company’s only penalty was a light warning to review its working methods more frequently.
Borrowing from history
As a former Wilmcote resident, I used to spend many hours walking my dogs in and around the village, often following footpaths which criss-cross the Stratford upon Avon railway line, the adjacent canal and the nearby abandoned quarry. And as a writer of historical fiction, I would often follow up those walks with a bit of research, keen to find out about some old farm track, railway bridge, disused tramline or unusual building. I am still the same. Sometimes it’s an object that I find on the ground which intrigues me or even – as in the inspiration for my 2014 novel No Stone Unturned – a crater in the ground and a little row of four unusual footstones in a churchyard. As it turned out, the crater is the site of a former limestone quarry, which surprisingly was the source of the paving stone for the some of the floors of London’s great Houses of Parliament, while the footstones in the graveyard led me to the tragic story of the 1922 rail accident.
In my No Stone Unturned, I merged the two discoveries and played with the real historical timeline to align the rail accident with the opening of the Stratford upon Avon Railway in 1860, when the quarry was in its heyday. That is the fun in the fiction … to draw on the facts and blend them with fantasy. But in having that fun I never forget – and am always thankful to – the real people who lived and breathed, loved and lost in those times past, and whose experiences, achievements, passions, successes and tragedies, have helped me to breathe life into my books.