When I was a child, I pestered my beloved Grandma, “Tell me some stories about your family!” She didn’t have a lot to pass on but mentioned one extraordinary snippet of information: a relative had lost his arm. Unsurprisingly, this fact has been lodged in my head ever since. All my life I have wanted to get to the bottom of this intriguing story. Was it was really true? Who was this mysterious one-armed relative? Recently, I have been able to piece together the truth behind this tale.

I decided that the most likely candidate for this one-armed relative was my Grandma’s paternal grandfather, Josiah David Bullock, a railwayman with the Great Western Railway (G.W.R.). Had he had an accident at work that resulted in the loss of a limb? Grandma, who was born in Wylye, Wiltshire, in 1897, had probably only met him on a few occasions growing up, as her paternal grandparents lived in the seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. Perhaps this is why she was not able to identify him directly.

In order to discover if it was indeed Josiah who had lost an arm, I wanted to view his railway employment records: they might contain a clue. The records of the G.W.R. are held by the National Archives (https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/), but in 2011, they were digitised by Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/). I was delighted to find two records pertaining to Josiah David Bullock. Here is his entry in a register kept by the G.W.R. for uniformed staff:

UK, Railway Employment Records, 1833-1956 via http://www.ancestry.com
The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Collection: Great Western Railway Company: Staff Records; Class: RAIL264; Piece: 342

This record provides chronological information on Josiah’s various positions and postings during his career with the G.W.R., along with commensurate salary details. His birth date was given as August 10 1844 but there was no record of his early history of his career, except for the information that he had joined in November 1866 and had been in Bristol, prior to his appointment as a porter in Salisbury in January 1871. I already knew that Josiah had married in Bristol in 1869 and his eldest child, my great grandfather, Albert Simeon Bullock was born there in 1870. In February 1876, Josiah moved to the seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, where he was promoted to a foreman porter. After a few years, in October 1879, he moved to Maiden Newton, Dorset. His pay had been steadily increasing from a starting salary of 17 shillings a week to 25 shillings a week when he got the job in Weymouth. However, it decreased to 20 shillings a week when he moved to Maiden Newton. Perhaps this was because the job in Maiden Newton also included a house.

Postcard of Maiden Newton Station (date unknown). Is Josiah David Bullock in this picture?

In March 1888 there was a mysterious entry in his record: ” Away” “Ill”. Was this an indication that Josiah had had an accident? Of course, it is entirely possible that he was ill for other reasons but it was obviously serious, as he did not get back to work until August 1888. From this date onwards he had a more lowly position, employed as a gateman at Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. His pay was cut to only 18 shillings a week, close to what he was earning when he started out in his career twenty years earlier. A gateman was in charge of opening and closing the gates on a level crossing. Since it was light work, it would typically be a job given to a worker who was older or not so able-bodied. A stamp told me that Josiah had been commended in August 1911 and the date of his resignation, June 1912, was given on the following page.

One further railway record gave me some additional information on Josiah’s career:

UK, Railway Employment Records, 1833-1956 via http://www.ancestry.com
The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Collection: Great Western Railway Company: Staff Records; Class: RAIL264; Piece: 470

The above staff record was contained in a book kept by the Bristol Division of the G.W.R. It similarly tracks Josiah’s career and corresponding salary, but also contained a note on one misdemeanour that he had committed. Josiah was fined 5 shillings for changing duty with another man without authority when he was working at Weymouth on May 27 1879. As he was earning 25 shillings a week at the time, it was a fifth of his pay. An entry states that Josiah was “Injured” and left the service on April 20 1888. A note was then added “resumed duty no record” and it was stated that he had become a gateman.

Looking at these two records together, it seems pretty certain that Josiah had injured himself badly ca. March/April 1888, and had not been fit enough to go back to work until August. He was then employed as a gatemen, working at a lesser capacity and correspondingly, he received a much lower wage.

Fortunately, I have one photograph of Josiah David Bullock and his wife, Mary. Although it is impossible to be certain, the thin sleeve on the left arm of Josiah’s jacket does suggest that his arm might be missing. This official photograph, taken by a photographer in Weston-super-Mare, might have been commissioned by the couple to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. If so, it can be dated to 1899, when they would both have been in their late 50s:

Photograph of Josiah David Bullock & his wife, Mary, Weston-super-Mare, ca.1899?

I felt confident that Josiah David Bullock was indeed the relative who had lost an arm but what had happened? A newspaper article would be the most likely place to find this information, as a terrible accident like this would surely have been reported in the local press. Using the website of the British Newspaper Archive, (B.N.A.) http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk, I began my search.

Although I found two references to Josiah appearing as a witness at inquests into other accidents (more on those later), I drew a blank when it came to a report covering Josiah’s own accident. One of the main newspapers covering Dorset was The Southern Times and Dorset County Herald but its coverage on the B.N.A. website ends in 1886, before resuming again in 1889. Were there no surviving issues for 1888? Not wanting to give up, I decided to change tack and instead of searching under “Bullock” or “Josiah”, I decided to use just the search terms “Maiden Newton” and “Railway Accident” focussing on issues published in March/April 1888. At last, I found what I was looking for in the Bridport News, published on Friday March 30 1888:

Bridport News Friday March 30 1888
Image Courtesy of British Newspaper Archive https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/


Railway work of every description is at all times subject to great risk and danger, but perhaps the most dangerous branch of it is that known as “shunting”. We believe we are right in stating that the majority of accidents and fatalities that occur among railway servants happen whilst they are engaged in this necessary branch of their work. Considerable care, however, seems to be taken at the stations in this district, for occurrences of the kind referred to are not, fortunately, very frequent. Maiden Newton, however, on Monday night was the scene of a sad accident of this character, by which a railway servant named Joseph Bullock, a foreman porter, at Maiden Newton, lost a limb. It appears that about a quarter to six Bullock was engaged in checking off the goods in a truck while shunting operations were going on, and the truck in which he was at work was shunted back, and came in contact with another, pitching the unfortunate man out on to the rails. He fell with his arm across the metals, the consequence being that the wheel of the trucks passed over it, severely crushing and lacerating it just below the shoulder. He was speedily picked up and Dr. Rendall was quickly in attendance, by whom the injured man was accompanied to the hospital at Dorchester, where the injured limb was properly amputated, and we are glad to learn that he is going on as satisfactorily as can be expected under the circumstances.

A similar article was published the same day in the Western Gazette newspaper:

Western Gazette Friday March 30 1888
Image Courtesy of British Newspaper Archive


Joseph Bullock, the head porter at the railway station, was riding on one of the trucks of the Swindon goods train, on Monday evening, engaged in checking the traffic to be transferred to the Bridport line, when he was pitched into the permanent way by the sudden jolting of the trucks. In falling his left arm came across the metals, and the wheels of the truck severed the limb above the elbow. Mr. Reed, the stationmaster, at once sent for Mr. W. Rendell, surgeon, by whom the limb was bandaged, and the unfortunate man was the despatched in the guard van to Dorchester, being accompanied by the doctor to the County Hospital. Bullock there went through an operation, but on the following day it was found necessary to amputate another portion of the limb.

In both newspapers, Josiah was referred to as Joseph, no doubt because everyone knew him as “Joe”; it was therefore assumed that his full name was Joseph rather than Josiah. “Bullock” had been rendered unintelligible by the O.C.R. (Optical Character Recognition) technology, used for scanning newspapers, which can be imperfect, especially when the print is poor. It is certainly worthwhile using alternative search terms if nothing comes to light at first.

Maiden Newton Station – the scene of the accident
Maiden Newton Station – the scene of the accident

From the two reports, it seems that Josiah had been in an open-sided goods truck when suddenly, it was shunted violently, throwing him out onto the tracks. Another truck ran over his left arm, severing it above the elbow. Fortunately, for him, the local surgeon, Dr Rendell, was quickly on the scene, conveying him by train to Dorchester Hospital. He was operated on and his arm was amputated just below the shoulder. Poor Josiah, what a terrible thing to happen! No wonder it had taken him five months to recover.

As mentioned previously, I also discovered from newspaper reports that Josiah had been called as a witness in court on at least two occasions when there had been accidents on the railway line. The first incident happened in 1877, when Josiah was working as a foreman porter at Weymouth, prior to his move to Maiden Newton:

Fatal Accident on the Tramway

A very distressing accident occurred on Wednesday afternoon on the tramway near the Great Western goods shed, by which an old man named Thomas Smith, about 70 years of age, residing in the Old Poorhouse, was literally cut to pieces by a goods train whilst in the act of shunting. The deceased had gone to the station-yard to purchase some coal, and, after being supplied with it, he went on the tramway for the purpose of picking up some "slag". Whilst so engaged he could not have either seen or heard a goods train, consisting of six-and-twenty carriages, was being shunted, and he was knocked down by the last truck, and the whole train went over him, mutilating him in a dreadful manner, no one being in charge of the train being aware of what had happened until the intelligence was communicated to them at Portland. Happily death had released the decease from all suffering; in fact he must have been killed almost instantaneously......

Southern Times and Dorset County Herald Saturday May 5 1877

Weymouth Town Station

The article continues at some length and various witnesses were called to give their testimony, as the Coroner sought to investigate the circumstances in which Thomas Smith had met his death. One of these witnesses was Josiah Bullock and this was his testimony:

I am a foreman porter of the G.W.R at Weymouth. Yesterday between one and two o’clock I was engaged in shunting trucks on the tramway, and was in the brake van next to the engine. The train was composed of 21 trucks for the tramway, 3 for Portland, Joliffe’s trucks of coal, brake van, and engine. That is not an unusual number – sometimes there are more, sometimes less. The train was stopped dead, the trucks being detached from the engine by a man named George Bishop. The trucks would not go on of their own accord, and would not move without considerable force. The engine did not push the trucks after they were disconnected. In answer to the jury witness said: I have never known an engine give the trucks a violent push so as to send them down the train nor have I seen them sent on without any one being in charge. The engine never passed the gate. I have never known trucks pushed so far as the timber yard. If I saw any one on the tram as the train was being shunted on it I should call the engine driver’s attention to it, and endeavour if possible to get the train stopped.

There was then what would have been a comical exchange if the occasion hadn’t been so serious:

Mr Collett [Weymouth stationmaster] remarked as a precaution and warning to the public the whistle of the engine was always blown during the time of shunting on the tram.

Mr Charles [foreman of the jury] said that was no good to a deaf man.

Mr Collett said the company’s servants took all ordinary precautions for the safety of the public, but could not undertake to restore a man’s intellect.

A Juror suggested a man should be placed on the tram with a red flag to warn people of danger.

Mr Collett remarked that perhaps that would be of no use, as a person might be colour-blind.

In the end, the jury ruled that it was an accidental death, on account of the fact that Thomas Smith had been trespassing in an area of the goods yard that was not open to the public. However, several witnesses testified to the dangerous shunting practices at the station. In particular, families who lived in housing close to the goods yard feared for their children, who out of necessity, played very close to the tracks. This terrible accident highlighted the need for additional safety measures to ensure that no further deaths were incurred. The jury recommended the following measures:

That the railway company should be cautioned to take greater care in shunting, and have persons in charge of the trucks so that the public might be warned at all times against any danger which might arise, and that in shunting they should take care the speed should be regulated more than it has been of late, they believing it to have been too great.

Did this incident play any part in Josiah’s decision to leave Weymouth and move to the quieter country station of Maiden Newton? It is ironic that dangerous shunting at that station too was to cause his horrific injury some years later.

This was to be not the only time that Josiah Bullock gave his testimony in a coroner’s court. On Wednesday June 26 1895, there appeared in the Weston-Super-Mare Gazette an article entitled “The Fatality at the Pottery Railway Crossing”. An inquest had been held into the death of a young boy, Henry George Jones, aged 8, who had been run over by a train at the Pottery Crossing the previous Wednesday, June 19. The construction of the railway line had cut off the Royal Potteries, (a business that specialised in making flower pots), from the town, along with some housing, so a crossing provided access. On the evening of that Wednesday, three boys had been crossing the railway line with their five donkeys, no doubt going home after a long day giving rides at the beach.

The Weston-super-Mare Gazette Wednesday June 26 1895

Evidence was given by William Jones, the brother of the deceased:

William Jones, aged 14, said – I am a donkey driver and live at the Lower Potteries. I am a brother of the deceased. Arthur Mayne, deceased, and myself were going home on the 19th inst, at about 8.30 p.m. We were in charge of five donkeys, and were riding them. When we arrived at the railway crossing leading to the Lower Potteries, we found the gates shut as usual. A boy opened the gate the town side of the line just after an excursion train had passed along. We did not see the down train coming and we proceeded across the rails. I got across safely, but my brother did not. No whistle was blown, but I heard the train and on looking round I saw my brother and the donkey in front of the train. I saw the train run into the donkey, and I then went straight home, not waiting to see what had happened. There was nobody in charge of the crossing when we got there.

William Jones must have been traumatised by what he had seen. What an ordeal to give his evidence in court! Another witness was asked whether she had seen notices on the gates warning persons of the danger of using the crossing. She replied “I have, but I can’t say that I have read them”. A juror asked if a man was stationed at the crossing to open the gates. The witness responded by saying that there was a man there but he does not open the gates, he only sees that there is no one on the line when a train is passing. The train driver said he had blown his whistle loudly, as he knew that visibility was reduced when a train was passing in the other direction. Josiah Bullock was then called to give his testimony:

Josiah Bullock said – I am gateman at the Potteries crossing under the G.W.R. Company. My duties are to see that people using the crossing close the gates after them and also to try and prevent any obstruction to the trains passing. I have also to keep trespassers off the line. I have no signalling duties to perform, but I should try and prevent an accident by signalling with flags.

The Coroner – You are really there more to protect the trains than the public?

Witness – Yes

Proceeding, witness said his duties were from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, except Sunday. He was not on duty when deceased was killed, and did not see the accident.

The Coroner – How many persons use the crossing?

Witness – I should think on an average the crossing was used by about 250 persons, including children, daily.

The Coroner – How many trains pass the crossing daily?

Witness – Between 40 and 50 while I am on duty.

The Coroner – Have you seen any accidents at the crossing?

Witness – No, but I have cautioned many persons and I have prevented accidents.

The Coroner – Is it a public crossing?

Witness – As far as I know.

Mr Gerrish, [representative of G.W.R] interposing, suggested that the witness was not in a position to give evidence on that point.

The Coroner – Do you close the gates when a train is passing?

Witness – Yes.

Mr Lillington [representative of the owner of the road] – From what you have seen at the crossing do you think the precautions used are sufficient for the protection of the public?

Witness – I can’t answer that question.

Mr Lillington – Do you consider there is an element of danger in the crossing as it exists at present?

Witness – I do, at times, such as when two trains pass the crossing at the same moment.

Mr Lillington – Do you think a man should be kept in charge of the crossing at all times?

Witness – I do.

As always, the remit of the inquest was to investigate what had happened and see who was culpable. The finger of blame could be pointed at Josiah, as he was the gateman. However, he was exonerated, as his hours were from 8 a.m to 8 p.m. each day bar Sunday, and this tragedy had occurred at 8.30 p.m. when he was not on duty. He had probably gone home. In addition, it is clear that his job involved making sure the gates were shut after people had crossed to protect the trains, not the pedestrians crossing, though he had prevented accidents in the past. It is evident that Josiah was in a difficult position when asked whether he thought sufficient precautions had been taken. Although he probably thought the G.W.R. were negligent, (the blowing of the whistle was the only concession to safety), he chose not to answer the question. If he criticised his employer, he might lose his job.

A verdict of “accidental death” was returned and the G.W.R. was recommended to dispense with the crossing and instead utilise an old line, so there was still access to the Lower Potteries. However, there is no indication from his employment records that Josiah ceased to be a gateman after this incident so perhaps the crossing was not removed after all. In the 1891 and 1911 censuses, Josiah is described as working for the railway police, and likewise, on the marriage certificates of his daughters in 1904 and 1906. Did his job as a gateman involve “policing” a crossing?

The stories that I have uncovered in the newspapers certainly illustrate the dangers of the railway, both for staff and for ordinary people. Indeed, many less serious accidents and near misses must have gone unreported and did not make the news at all. Sadly it is evident that expediency was put before safety, especially when it came to shunting trucks, the cause of so many accidents. Too often, self-interest rather than public spiritedness characterised the attitude of the railway companies.

It seems to me that Josiah was very lucky to survive his accident and this was only because he received prompt medical treatment, travelling to hospital by train. Nevertheless, he suffered a life-changing injury. How did his young family survive when he was unable to work for five months after the accident? Were his medical bills paid for by the G.W.R.? Did he receive any compensation from his employer? I consulted Dr Mike Esbester of the Railway Work, Life and Death Project, http://www.railwayaccidents.port.ac.uk/, which looks at railway worker accidents from the late 1880s until 1939. He thought it was unlikely that Josiah would have received any compensation for his injury. The offer of a job, after he had recovered, was the extent of the railway company’s recompense, despite his career and earnings taking a steep dive as a consequence. Interestingly, Josiah’s wife, Mary, is recorded as a monthly nurse in the 1901 census; I wonder whether she acquired her nursing skills through looking after her husband after he was injured?

I am glad that I now know something of Josiah’s working life of over 46 years on the Great Western Railway and the accident that was to change his life. His railway employment records were invaluable, as they pinpointed the date of the accident, but newspaper reports then proved vital in learning more about what happened to him. I also feel fortunate that from reading the newspaper reports, I have heard his voice, through the testimony he gave as a witness in court. In his job as a gateman at Weston-super-Mare, I’d like to think Josiah took particular care ensuring the safety of those who used the crossing, given his own experience of being maimed by a train. Most of all, I am delighted to finally prove the veracity of the story in my family and identify Josiah David Bullock, as its source.

14 thoughts on “The One-Armed Railwayman

    1. Thanks Marian! I was so pleased to find the report of Josiah’s accident. The newspaper accounts really illustrate the dangers of the railways, both for staff and for ordinary folk.


  1. What a sad story…poor Josiah – a lot of trauma in his life. I’m glad, however, that he had quick medical attention so his life was saved. Newspapers are such wonderful resources for family historians!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it must have been terrible for him, especially as he had a young family to support. It was a merry dance to find the newspaper report of his accident but what a find!


    1. According to the family story, he went to stay with his eldest son, my great grandfather, after the accident. However, I don’t think that can be quite right as his son was only a lad of 18 with no home of his own at that point. I wonder whether there was some charitable fund that helped him.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating ! I love the way you create the story and it gives such a vivid picture of what life was like – before the days of Health and Safety.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It is easy to complain nowadays about excessive health and safety but really, we should be grateful that these sort of accidents are thankfully rare because of the precautions taken.


  3. Poor Josiah. His photograph has such dignity, as does his testimony regarding the two fatal accidents. Although he wasn’t able to give his opinion about the sufficiency of precautions, he was brave to state that he thought that someone should attend the crossing at all times.

    It does not surprise me that he probably didn’t receive compensation. I hope that he was right-handed, and was able to still do a lot of things independently.

    I did find the verbal exchange about the old man, and the reaction about the suggestion of the flag, very darkly funny.

    As always, you inspire me to write about related stories from my own family, including my 3x great grandfather, a heroic station master who worked in England and Canada, and my great granddad, a very very bad engine driver!! Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to blog lately due to a bad back, but the loss of an arm does put things into perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I agree, there is something rather dignified about Josiah though as he is my relative, I may be biased. 😁 I really appreciated hearing his words in court and it is clear he must have saved many people from accidents on the crossing. I imagine he was pretty conscientious given his own personal experience. Let’s hope he was right-handed!

      Glad I am not the only one to find the verbal exchange humorous. I thought it had a touch of Blackadder about it.

      Hope to hear more of your stories soon when your back is better.


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