Reader Free was one of the unsung heroes of the railway through Woodlesford. For over 30 years, through freezing foggy winters and hot summers, he was part of the platelaying team which was responsible for maintaining and keeping the track safe. By the start of the Second World War he was the “ganger” in charge of the Woodlesford “length” of line but, tragically, he was run over and killed by an express train in the vicinity of the station in October 1944.
No official records or contemporary newspaper accounts of the accident have yet come to light so it’s not precisely clear what happened. According to second hand accounts Reader was “looking the line” and could easily see a train was approaching from the Methley direction. He may have stepped into the “four foot” between the rails on the Up line and was run over by a south bound express which he didn’t see or hear. It’s also possible that he found himself standing next to the Up platform with nowhere to jump.
Edgar Cooper, a clerk at Woodlesford station in the 1930s, told the Wakefield Express in 1971 that he had been working in the Control Office at Leeds when he was told of the accident. He said he had taken a call from Woodlesford saying that Reader had been killed by the “Devonian.” Edgar’s recollection was probably accurate, although named trains didn’t run during the war. However an express for Bristol left Leeds at 1005 and it would have passed through Woodlesford at speed at about 1015. A train from Knottingley to Leeds was due to call at Woodlesford at 1016, so assuming both trains were roughly on time, this is the most likely scenario and Reader must have forgotten the south bound express was due.
Stationmaster’s son Cyril Roberts, who was home on leave from his Navy training, remembered that he had been visiting the station office one morning to pick up a ticket application form. He spoke to Reader about his father who had retired early after his back was injured just before the war. Cyril left the station to catch a bus to Swillington and as he was waiting an ambulance went past and turned into Station Lane, but he thought nothing of it. It was was only when he returned three years later that he found out that Reader had been killed minutes after their chat.
Like many other members of his family Reader had three Christian names. In full he was James Arthur Reader Free and was born in Woodlesford in 1887 in a cottage at Dalton’s Yard off Station Lane. His father, Robert Henry Free, was by then a platelayer for the Midland Railway working at Woodlesford.
Robert Henry came from Horseheath in Cambridgeshire where his father was a shepherd. When he was a 17 year old agricultural labourer, living nearby was the stationmaster at Withersfield Siding station a mile or so away on the Great Eastern line between Long Melford and Cambridge. It’s likely therefore that he was influenced to become a railway worker, and even though the wages were poor, they were regular and year round, and better than he could have got from farming work.
It’s not clear where Robert Henry went first but in February 1887 he was already at Woodlesford where “just in time” he married Elizabeth Mary Warrington, the daughter of a shoemaker from Queeniborough near Syston in Leicestershire. Robert Henry was 22 and she was 21 and heavily pregnant. Reader was born two months later and was baptised by the vicar, Reverend A. J. E. Irvin. To make ends meet they took in lodgers including Henry Hart, a porter from Chippenham in Wiltshire.
Elizabeth Mary had been a domestic servant for a lacemaker in Lenton near Nottingham. It’s likely that she came to Yorkshire to live with her sister who had married a Swillington miner and she may have met Robert Henry whilst living with them. Her brother, Thomas Arthur Warrington, also came from Leicestershire to work as a miner and he ended up marrying Robert Henry’s sister, Sarah Ann Free.
To complete the picture two other Frees from Horseheath moved north to join them. The oldest brother, Jabez Free, came with his wife and daughter and got a job at Bentley’s brewery stoking the boilers. His family lived at Alma Place where two other daughters were born before Jabez was widowed.
The youngest brother, Isaac James Free, worked in a coal yard and then joined Robert Henry as a platelayer. At first he lodged on Prince’s Street with his sister Sarah Ann, but love was in the air from him too, and in 1897 he married Bertha Smith, the daughter of a Rothwell born miner, who lived nearby. They ended up bringing up their family at Airedale Terrace and he became a banksman on the pit top, probably at T. & R. W. Bower’s colliery across the River Aire at Astley.
The first five of Robert Henry Free’s children were born in Woodlesford but in 1899 the family had a sad loss when George, the second child, died when he was 8 years old. At some point the family, which eventually grew to six surviving brothers and a sister, moved to the newly built Station Terrace at Wood Row close to Methley station. In 1901 Robert Henry was the foreman in charge of the platelayers on the Methley “length”. Their neighbours included fellow platelayers Fred Harris and Fred Seague, and their families. The small close knit railway community, which included three signalmen, was still there ten years later.
When he left school Reader Free worked as an errand boy but then, according to the Midland Railway staff register, he followed his father onto the railway when he was 14 years old in December 1902. The record places him at Leeds as a parcels van boy earning 8 shillings a week. Living at home it would have taken him 20 minutes to get to work by a Midland or Lancashire and Yorkshire train.
His pay rose to 10 shillings and then 12 shillings in successive years indicating he was a good worker. In January 1906 the register records he was working at Otley on the Otley and Ilkley Joint Railway which was operated, as its name suggests, jointly by the Midland and the North Eastern Railway. He was a parcels delivery porter and stayed there for two years with his pay rising to 16 shillings a week, but then, just three days before Christmas 1908, he resigned.
By the census of 1911 he was back living with his family at Methley and working as a platelayer. A year later he married Martha Ann Lawton at Oulton church. Her father, Sam, worked as a gardener and she grew up on Quarry Hill in Oulton. Over the next ten years they had four children – Mary, Jack, Lucy and George. By 1933 they were living in a new council house on Holmsley Field Lane close to her childhood home. After that they moved to Armley for a period but by September 1939 they had returned to live at Park View on Oulton Lane. Shortly afterwards they moved to 46 North Lane.
As he grew older and less able to do hard physical work Reader’s father became the crossing keeper at Wood Row regulating traffic to Shann Hall and Savile colliery. He passed away in 1942, two years before his eldest son.
Two of Reader’s brothers, Robert and Samuel, started work as pony drivers down the pit, probably at Savile. Robert moved to work at Water Haigh colliery and lived at Midland Yard and then on Green Lea with his wife Evaline (nee Wrigglesworth). She was the daughter of a blacksmith at Bentley’s brewery. She grew up in a house at St. John’s Yard in Oulton and when she left school she became a machinist in a clothing factory.
Another of Reader’s brothers, Albert Edward Maynell Free, became a miner and he too worked at Water Haigh colliery rising to be became a deputy before he had his leg smashed in a fall and he was invalided out of the pit. The youngest of the brothers, Thomas Edgar Kenneth Free, became a railway signalman and lived at Methley.
Little more is known of Reader Free’s life, but it’s pretty certain he stayed working on the Woodlesford “length” and at some point achieved enough seniority to be appointed ganger in charge of at least five men. His death certificate states that he died, age 57, on 18 October 1944 from “multiple injuries from being struck by a passing train when at work. Misadventure.” An inquest was held two days after the accident. He is buried in Oulton churchyard.