The life and times of a locomotive engine driver

Edward Smith James was born in the parish of All Saints in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1820. At that time, the city had a population of around 35,000 and was beginning to grow rapidly as the industrial revolution took hold. Along with all the heavy industry and the extractive concerns that provided a wealth of employment and vast wealth for the new breed of capitalists, came the curse of poverty, disease and slum conditions for the working class.

A workers lot back than was not a happy one, with poverty pay, poor working conditions, long hours and unpitying exploitation. The Victorian era was the heyday of rabid, unfettered capitalism, and the governments of the era left it to its own devices. It poisoned the environment and its workers in a frenzied and insatiable lust for profit at any cost, both natural and social.

All Saints was a very poor area of Newcastle upon Tyne, situated on the edge of the expanding city and close to the river. Life in the area would have been hard and the general environment fetid. This was a common situation with all industrial cities of 19th century England. Some idea of the huge population growth in the city can be gleaned from the population figures.

In 1801 there were around 28,000 people in the city of Newcastle. By 1901 there were in excess of 215,000 people, a vast increase in just one hundred years, especially given that between 1750 and 1800, the population only grew by only 8,000.

The Evidence of the Records

The first record we have of Edward is his Christening, which took place in All Saints parish church on the 9th January 1820. He next appears on the Census of 1841, still living in All Saints at an address in Trafalgar Street. He is sharing a house with four other persons all of the same age, and appears to have the occupation of ‘Cleaner’. This is likely to be an Engine Cleaner on the railway, given his future occupation and the career progression such an occupation entailed.

Our next record of Edward is from 1847 in Basingstoke, Hampshire, where he is named on the birth certificate of his firstborn son, along with the child’s mother, Anna James, whose maiden name was Waldren. His occupation is listed as ‘Engineer’, which is likely to mean either a Fireman or an Engine Driver on the railway. Anna is listed in later Census returns as being from either, Brook, Hawley or Fleet in Hampshire, but I can find no birth or Christening records for her in either of those places to date.

At the present time, I cannot find a marriage record for an Edward Smith James and an Anna Waldren. I have looked at Basingstoke, Newcastle upon Tyne and elsewhere too, but still nothing as yet. I really do suspect they were never married, but why?

I do know from the birth certificate of the child born in 1847 that Anna was illiterate. She was unable to write her own name and had to simply make a mark. Edward was literate and interestingly, by the birth of their second child in 1851, Anna was able to write her name. It would seem that Edward had most likely taught her to read and write to some degree. At that time in England, illiteracy was not in the least unusual amongst the majority of working class people.

A very interesting aspect of the birth of their first child, who became Edward Thomas James, was the fact that he was not given a forename at the time of registration of his birth. I have no idea why that happened. However, I confirmed the parentage of the child by later Census returns and cross-referencing him with his siblings and their shared parentage.

Edward appears to have had four siblings that lived, Frances Emma, born in 1851, William Joseph Charles, born in 1853, Catherine Anna Smith, born in 1855 and George born in 1861. The three middle children were all born in Norwich, Norfolk, whilst the last child, George, was born in Battersea, Surrey according to Census returns and his birth certificate.

At some point between 1847 and 1850, the family moved from Basingstoke to Norwich, where they are listed in the Census of 1851. At this point they only have the one male child, now called Edward, who was born in Basingstoke in 1847. Edward senior is listed as being a Locomotive Engine Driver on the Railway, which made him one of the working class elite, during those times when the railways were spreading out all over the country.

The Railways in Great Britain

Clapham Junction railway station in London, the busiest station in the UK

The railway did not reach Norwich until December 12th 1849, when the final length of track was run from Ipswich. The track was owned by the Eastern Union Railway, which later, in 1862, became a part of the Great Eastern Railway. Later still, this became a component part of the London North Eastern Railway before the nationalisation of the railways in 1948. After that date, they became enmeshed within the newly created unified railway, British Rail.

The growth of the railways was quite spectacular. In the beginning it was a collection of private companies, over two hundred of them at one point in the mid 19th century. It all started when the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened in 1825, but the first ‘real’ railway is generally acknowledged to be the Liverpool and Manchester, that opened in 1830.

From that point the amount of track began to grow as railways took off. 1n 1836 there were only 100 miles of track in the UK, by 1838 it had grown to 250 miles, and by 1843 there were some 1,800 miles of track. The railways proved to be the nemesis of the stagecoaches, which by 1840 could no longer compete and they quickly disappeared. However, road transport was to have its revenge upon the railways from the early 20th century onwards, with the advent of the internal combustion engine.

In 1845 - 1847 there was a railway boom and the amount of track increased to 9,500 miles, which is not far off what we have today in the UK at 11,000 miles. Newcastle upon Tyne held on to its railway traditions for a long time and continued to build locomotives right up until 1960.

Riddles in the Sands of Time

The last born child, George, was born in 1861. Now this was a mystery, as his father, Edward Smith James died at the age of 39 in 1859, probably as a result of an industrial accident. The railways were a dangerous place tom work back then. When I finally tracked down the birth certificate for George, it had the surname of the father as Harding. This was then crossed out and James added instead. The occupation of the father was given as Engine Driver, which was impossible, as Edward Smith James had died in 1859. Whatever the exact circumstances of the birth, the two older brothers appear to have dotted on George and to have been very protective of him. I have a family wedding photo of George from 1885, with his mum, sister and two brothers in it.

Edward, the first son of Edward Smith James and our direct paternal ancestor, married in 1866. He lists his father as being an Engine Driver, but does not list him as being deceased. That is usually written on the marriage certificate if the father is no longer alive. One of the daughters of Edward Smith James, Frances Emma James, married an Edward Clayton in 1874, and yet again she gives her fathers occupation as an Engine Driver on the Railway and once again also, there is no mention of him being deceased. I have no idea why they would omit that fact, as he was definitely deceased, and was buried near Norwich in 1859.

Anna James nee Waldren

At some point between 1855 and 1860 the family moved from Norwich to Lambeth in Surrey, which is now a part of south London. Anna James (nee Waldren or Walderon) is now listed in the 1861 Census as being the ‘head of household’. She is living with the children – Edward, Frances, William and Catherine at, 150 South Lambeth Road and holds the occupation of Plain Needle Worker.

Anna next appears in the historical records in the 1871 Census and at some point between 1861 and 1871, has moved from Lambeth back to Basingstoke with the children, Frances, William, Catherine and George. Edward, her first-born son, has moved from the family home. In the 1871 Census, she is listed as living at 15 Elbord Cottages and has the occupation of Tailoress. Her daughters are listed as being Sewing Machinists. They could possibly be engaged in a small family business or home working for an employer?

I was having trouble finding Anna James in the 1881 Census records and could find no trace of her in Basingstoke. I then decided to check the 1891 Census returns and found an Anna James living as a Boarder in Basingstoke at 19 Bunnian Place. She was living in a family headed by a Frances Clayton, a widow, who was born about the same time as the eldest daughter of Edward and Anna James. It appears that the husband of Frances Clayton, Edward, died in 1884. He was a Plate Layer (a person who laid down the rails an fixed them to the sleepers) on the Railway, a very dangerous job at the time. It is possible that he died in an industrial accident.

Looking at the records for Frances Clayton, I discovered that she had been born in Norwich and had the trade of Tailoress. Everything then began to fall into place. In the 1881 Census for the Clayton household, the eldest daughter of Frances Clayton, also called Francis was not present, although she was in 1891, where she was listed as being 15 years old. Why Anna James is listed in the Census records as being a Boarder in the relationship section to the head of household, rather than as a Mother, is a bit of a mystery. However, Census records can often be inaccurate to varying degree's.

I checked the records for the younger Frances Clayton and in so doing, also found Anna James, who is listed in the 1881 records as Hannah James, a Seamstress and a widower. It seems that at some point between 1871 and 1881, Anna moved to 14 Globe Lane in Woolwich, London, with her youngest son George. George is listed in the records as being an Iron Foundry Labourer working at the Woolwich Arsenal, the very place that the famous Arsenal Football Club is named after, for that is where they originated before moving to north London.

George Harding James

By 1901 George is married and earning a living as a Cloth Worker and is residing in Walthamstow, Essex.  It does seem that between 1885 and 1891 George was travelling, like his elder brother Edward, as his children during those years were born in various counties. After the Census of 1891, he appears to have settled permanently in Walthamstow.

His wife, Elizabeth Bodger, was born in Graffham, Huntingdonshire in 1863. They married in Bethnal Green, Middlesex on the 31st May 1885. In that year, George is recorded as living at 4 Albert Cottages, Yiewsley, West Drayton, Middlesex and Elizabeth at 14 Roscoe Street, St Lukes. Along the way somewhere, George also appears to have acquired the middle name of ‘Harding’, which is I believe, his natural fathers actual surname. He also lists his fathers name as being, Thomas Edward James, when it is actually Edward Smith James, at least according to the amended birth certificate. Why the Thomas appeared and the Smith disappeared I have no idea. I believe George died in 1911, but I have to definitely confirm that.

When George met Elizabeth, most likely around 1884, they were both seemingly in the same geographical area of Middlesex. I did begin to wonder how they would have met? George was most likely a travelling showman working the fairs, and Elizabeth was in domestic service and is described in the 1881 Census as being a ‘Domestic Servant Nurse Girl’. It is only informed speculation on my part, but I think they must have met at the fair when it was in town.

One interesting little snippet that did make me smile whilst conducting my research, was the job held by Frances Clayton senior’s eldest son Edward, in the 1891 Census return. He is described as being a - Luncheon Basket Carrier & Refreshment Boy on the South Western Railway. It does seem that in the 19th century, the James family was closely connected with the railway industry, from the footplate to the sandwiches.

I also found the death record for Anna James. It seems that she passed away in Basingstoke at the beginning of 1893. She is listed as being Annie James – her forename was transcribed wrongly in the on-line records – and was 70 years of age. That was certainly a respectable age for a woman of those times, when life was hard and the comforts and health care minimal.

Unfortunately, Anna passed away after suffering four days of acute bronchitis, according to the cause of death section on her death certificate.

Details from the Death Certificate of Anna James nee Waldren

Additional Information

Family history can be an eye-opening adventure at times. You never quite know what you are going to turn up next as you rifle through the records of past generations, and by them, discover a window into their lives and the world they inhabited.

As I had all the information to hand, I decided to look a bit further into the lives of Frances Clayton (nee James) - daughter of Edward Smith James and Anna Waldren - and her family.

As already noted above, Frances Clayton’s occupation is stated as being that of Tailoress in the Census return of 1891. Her husband, Edward, died in 1884, leaving her a widow at the age of 31 with four children to bring up. It seems that somewhere between 1891 and 1896, Frances became ill and moved to West Ham, Essex, most likely to be with her brother George and his family, who were living in that area at the time. She passed away in 1896 at the age of 44.

In the Census of 1901, we find the children of Frances Clayton still living together in Basingstoke at 41 Lower Brook Street. Her eldest daughter, also called Frances married in 1899 to a man with the surname of Jones. A male child, Ernest, was born a year later. By the Census of 1901 she is a widow, at the age of 25. I will be looking into the death of her husband anon, but I would hazard a guess that he was working for the railway and met with an industrial accident. The railways of the time were noted for the high death rate of their employee’s.

In the household with Frances we find her young baby, Earnest, aged one year, her sister, Sophia, aged 21, and also a Tailoress by trade, her brother, Frederick, aged 18, a Railway Engine Cleaner, and a lodger called, James Brooker, aged 20, also a Railway Engine Cleaner.

It seems that young Frederick has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, Edward Smith James. His occupation of Railway Engine Cleaner was the first step of the career ladder that led to the footplate of a steam locomotive. The next progression from Engine Cleaner was onto the footplate itself as a Fireman. That job entailed shovelling the coal into the fire and maintaining a head of steam.

The final step was from Fireman to Driver, considered the elite of the railway workers. The railway industry by this time was a ‘closed shop’, which basically meant that you only got into it if you had family already there, and this was especially so for jobs on the footplate.

It does seem that during the 19th century and into the 20th, the railways played a major role in the lives of the extended James family. The railways were the cutting edge technology of their day, and they were the backbone of the industrial revolution that made Great Britain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth.

The James family were a part of that revolution, riding the footplate of a thundering steam locomotive, all the way to the 20th century. It is quite possible there are distant James cousins who still work in the railway industry to this day. It is an industry that will likely see a strong resurgence in the 21st century as road transportation becomes ever more expensive.

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