John Hugh Mowatt could well have been the first station master at Woodlesford. He was also the founder of a small railway dynasty but it’s not known if he was appointed for the opening of the station in 1840. He was certainly in post by Christmas 1844 as the first official reference to him comes in a Report to the Committee of the Privy Council of an accident on 27 December that year. It records that a train from Manchester to Leeds ran into the back of one from York in foggy conditions in the late afternoon. Mowatt got the blame for not setting his signal against the Manchester train to prevent it from running into the back of the York train. It was running late since it had to shunt two wagons into the Woodlesford goods yard sidings.
The collision happened on the curve in the line just after the station towards Leeds. The Manchester train caught up with the one from York and crashed into the rear carriage which became detached from its train, the driver carrying on to Hunslet Lane station with the rest of the train, unaware that anything untoward had happened.
In those early days before more sophisticated signalling was invented trains were regulated by keeping them 5 minutes apart and after this accident the duration was increased to 10 minutes. Mowatt was fined and given a good ticking off by his bosses from the newly formed Midland Railway.
Only one passenger was injured in that incident but it appears that John Hugh Mowatt was somewhat accident prone as his name appears in another report from 1850. This time a guard from York was knocked down by a train from Nottingham. The injured man, who also ran a pub, was taken to Leeds by the train which knocked him down but died on the way.
According to research by his ancestor John Dixon, John Hugh Mowatt was born in 1793 in St George’s Parish, Grenada in the Windward Islands. His family owned a plantation but probably ran into hard times during a slave rebellion two years later. John Hugh joined the 5th Dragoon Guards as a musician in Canterbury in 1812 and served in Spain and France. He was eventually discharged from the army as a Chelsea Pensioner after being injured in Ireland.
Mowatt married his first wife, Ann Gregory, at Fulford near York on 14 December 1818. She died in the station house at Woodlesford and he remarried Mary Wright from Skipton at Rothwell church in 1851. She was the daughter of a railway ticket collector. Census records show they lived at the station house with three children from the first marriage and two from the second marriage.
John’s son James from his first marriage worked at Woodlesford station as a clerk and was still living at 10 Princes Street during 1881. His brother William was a coal agent at York and then Newcastle. James later contacted gangrene in his leg and died in the care of his brother’s family at Newcastle.
John Hugh and Mary’s two children were Joseph and Edmund, born in 1851 and 1855. After John Hugh died in 1856 they eventually moved to Hull with their mother after she ran a guesthouse in Bridlington. Joseph is recorded as a railway clerk and Edmund as a fireman in the census, but given the location, he could have been working at sea rather than on the railway.
Below is an engraving showing an early railway signal and a signalman or “bobby”, named because they were originally called railway policemen and wore uniforms similar to the civil police introduced by Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel in 1829. It’s likely that signals like this were erected at Woodlesford but it’s not known precisely where they were located.