Exploring the nineteenth and early twentieth century censuses for Westmorland reveals how the coming of the railway offered employment opportunities to thousands of people from all over the country, some of whom settled here and went on to found railway dynasties. In this blogpost, we will investigate the family of Joseph Ratcliffe, born around 1803, who we first came across in the 1851 census for Orton Parish listed as a Railway Labourer. At that time he was living at ‘Railway Cottage, Orton Moor’ one of two cottages housing railway workers next to the railway line. 49-year-old Joseph is called ‘Josh’ presumably to distinguish him from his eldest son Joseph (aged 22) who was also a Railway Labourer.
The nearby Lancaster & Carlisle railway line had opened in 1846 so we can assume that Josh/Joseph senior and Joseph junior were both employed as part of a permanent maintenance gang rather than navvies. They may well have started out in that career, but unfortunately we can find no trace of either the father or the son in the 1841 census [however, see UPDATE below]. Railway navvies are almost impossible to trace back in the census, their itinerant lifestyle and frequent use of aliases doesn’t help. We know from the 1851 census that Joseph senior was born in Holme, Westmorland. We assumed this is the tiny village 3 miles south of Milnthorpe and slap bang between the Lancaster Canal – the section running between Tewitfield and Kendal which opened in 1819 – and the line of the Lancaster & Carlisle railway. Joseph senior would have been 16 in 1819 and we thought he might have been employed as a navvy on the building of the canal. Children were commonly employed working alongside older family members. The name ‘navvy’ actually comes from the word navigator – the men who dug Britain’s eighteenth century canal network. However, we have an UPDATE on all this below which tells a different story.
He seems to have had an itinerant lifestyle before ending up in Orton Parish in 1851. His eldest son, Joseph junior was born in Firbank Parish and his other five children were all born in Old Hutton [and Holmescales] Parish, the last one, Hellen in 1847, the year after the Lancaster & Carlisle line was opened. Old Hutton village is just under 3 miles from Oxenholme Railway Station on the Lancaster & Carlisle line. If the ages of the children born there are anything to go by, Joseph senior must have lived there for at least 14 years, possibly as a navvy working on the line’s construction. He may also have worked up at Killington Reservoir (2.5 miles from Old Hutton) built to feed the Lancaster Canal and opened in 1819.
By 1861 both father (now 58) and eldest son (32) are still in ‘Railway Cottage’ in Orton Parish but now employed as Railway Platelayers. This job involved the inspection and maintenance of the permanent railway line, usually as part of a team. Life wasn’t all work though as this little snippet from the local newspaper shows – it’s not clear which Ratcliffe is the crack shot – father or son.
Strangely, the 1861 census records Joseph senior’s birthplace as Hutton, not Holme, though son Joseph is still recorded as being born in Firbank. Joseph senior’s wife Mary (59) makes an appearance – she was born in Middleton, Westmorland – west of Old Hutton over in the Lune Valley. Younger sons John (28) and Richard (18) have left home. Richard has married and moved to No 2 Lilygarth in Roun[d]thwaite near Tebay. He is employed as a Telegraphist Clerk presumably at Tebay Station – an important and well-paid role helping run the railway communication network. John has ended up in Preston at No 2 Bird Street and is working as a Railway Guard. He is also married and seems to have lived in Penwortham in Lancashire previously since his three young children were all born there and which also seems to be where his wife Mary Ann was born. Bird Street still exists in Preston and is less than a mile away from the main railway station.
The 1871 census shows us that John and Richard are both still employed on the railways. John now 38 is still a Railway Guard and has moved back to Penwortham, in fact to Prospect View in the village of Middleforth Green, part of Lower Penwortham and just south of Preston. He and his wife Mary Ann now have seven children and again their birthplaces show how personal circumstances or his job have moved the family around the locality – Preston (12 years previously); Farrington (9 years previously); Penwortham (4 years previously) and Leyland (2 years previously) all appear.
Meanwhile, Richard Ratcliffe has progressed to the job of Railway Brakesman and is living at No 11 Station Cottages in Tebay, now no longer in existence (but see below). Until the arrival of continuous braking throughout freight trains the brakesman or guard travelled in a brake van at the back of the train and helped stop or slow the train on gradients by applying a separate brake to the one operated by the engine driver at the front. It was clearly a skillful job and relied on a through knowledge of the route. Richard and his wife Margaret have produced five children in the ten years since the previous census – all born in Orton Parish (ie Tebay).
Their father Joseph [senior] and elder brother Joseph [junior] are listed at Railway Cottages, Orton in the 1871 census. Joseph junior is called Josh this time. They are both working as Railway Platelayers. Daughters Ann (single) and Mary Turner (married – listed as a Brewer’s Wife and born at Firbank the same as Joseph junior) are living with them. A granddaughter Mary Ann Ratcliffe – 24 months old – is also there. The two Josephs reappear in 1881 still presumably working together and now listed as residing at Low Moor Cottages in Orton Parish, this seems to be the same place they were in before but renamed. It’s right next to the Lancaster & Carlisle railway line. Joseph senior is now 78 but still, remarkably, working as a Railway Labourer. He has outlived his wife as he is recorded as a widower. His son Joseph junior (52) is unmarried and working as a Railway Labourer – it may be that labourer and platelayer were interchangeable names for the same job. His daughter Ann (39) is also unmarried and living with them along with two grandchildren, Mary and Joseph. Heather Ballantyne has discovered that they were Richard’s youngest children. His wife Margaret having died in 1875 they seem to have been given into the care of their aunt Ann.
John Ratcliffe (48) is living at Middleforth Green in 1881 but now working as a Railway Porter. This seems to have been a fairly junior role in the railway hierarchy for someone of that age. He has an adult son Thomas (22) also working as a Railway Porter while another son, Joseph (22), is employed as a Boiler Maker, they are both still living at home.
Richard Ratcliffe (38) is living in Tebay, now at No 11 South Terrace (is this the same house as in 1871 but with the road renamed, possibly when the terrace was extended or when North Terrace was built?) and his job is given as Railway Goods Guard which may well be similar to the role he had ten year’s earlier. His eldest son Walter (16) is working as a Railway Engine Cleaner, the first step on the ladder for a lad wanting a career in railways. Amongst his other children, Richard has a two-year-old son, John and a two-month-old son called Richard, who we will come across later in this story.
Ten years later in 1891, Richard Ratcliffe has had some upset in his railway career because we think we find him remarried and at 44 Lawson Street, Preston, employed as an Engine Tenter – someone who looks after the engine powering the tenter machinery, stretching cloth in a textile mill. His oldest son Walter (26) has progressed from lowly Engine Cleaner to a Stoker of Railway Engines and has married and set up home in a terraced house on Plodder Lane, Farnworth in Lancashire. The main railway line from Manchester to Bolton lies nearby. He and his wife Sarah have a William Henry Ratcliffe (24) boarding with them who is also working as a stoker. William was born in Appleby but we’re not sure if the two young men are related. Richard’s son John (22) is also married and living in Wharton Cottages in Tebay working as a Railway Fireman. There are no Wharton Cottages on the OS 25″ 1898 map for Tebay but the other places listed in the 1891 census lead us to believe that they were where Woodend Terrace is today, near to the Cross Keys Inn.
Richard’s brother John now 58 has remained at Middleforth Green and is still working as a Railway Porter. Local historian Heather Ballantyne discovered that Richard’s youngest son, Joseph senior’s grandson, also called Joseph, moved out of his grandfather’s cottage at Low Moor and by 1891 aged just 15 was lodging at 14 South Terrace in Tebay and working as an Railway Engine Cleaner, while Richard’s son Richard [junior] (21) is lodging at No 23 Helmside, a stone’s throw from the sidings at Oxenholme Railway Station. He is also working as a Railway Engine Cleaner. The double terrace called Helmside is now part of Helmside Road.
The turn of the century sees Richard [senior] still in Preston but having made it back into railways and now with the top job of Railway Engine Driver. In 1901, he and his (we assume second) wife Mary Annie are living at 39 Walker Street – long demolished – but the Preston Digital Archive on Flickr has a photograph of the junction of Lawson Street and Walker Street in the 1960s which shows what the area was like with rows of Victorian terraces and factories all mixed together. Lawson Street was where Richard was living in 1891 so he hadn’t moved far. Richard’s son John (32), born when the family was living in Tebay is still there but now with his own family, in a tiny house on Woodend Terrace. He is working as a Railway Engine Stoker like his older brother Walter. The stoker’s job was to keep the engine’s furnace burning hot by shovelling coal in from the tender, a physically demanding and highly skilled job.
Richard’s brother, John, at 68 remains in Middleforth Green but is now a Railway Goods Carter – we’ve already seen how important the role of carter was, linking the rail network delivery system with customers further afield before the arrival of motor vehicles. Their father Joseph seems to have passed away by 1901 but their older brother Joseph (72) and sister Ann (63) have remained at Low Moor Cottage, both still single. He is still working as a Railway Platelayer and she is his Housekeeper. Their next door neighbour is also working as a Platelayer but he has the railway company recorded with his employment, ‘L & N W R’ the London & North West Railway. The Newton Abbot Railway Studies Collection have some wonderful photos of railway platelayers from around this time, all wearing their uniform of sturdy clogs; waistcoats; shirts; neckties and flat caps. Not forgetting the magnificent moustaches.
By the next census in 1911, Joseph and his sister Ann are still living at Low Moor Cottage at the grand old ages of 82 and 72 respectively. He is listed as a Retired Railway Servant and she is his Housekeeper. They have been given a change of spelling for their surname, Radcliffe, but it’s clearly the same pair given their ages and birthplaces. Their brother Richard is not recorded in the 1911 census but we believe he remained in Preston for the rest of his life, dying in 1923. By 1911 brother John has made it to retirement and is shown as living off private means in Middleforth Green, presumably on a railway company pension. He has been married to Mary Ann for 55 years and they have had 11 children, 3 of whom are dead. His namesake nephew, John, has followed in his father Richard’s footsteps and is also a Railway Engine Driver, however, he has travelled the Stainmore line from Tebay to County Durham and we find him and his family at 29 Dent Street, Tindale Crescent, St Helen Auckland near Bishop Auckland. Google Earth shows Dent Street still standing but surrounded by a huge retail park.
An old OS map of the area reveals what was once there – St Helen’s Colliery – a huge coal mining and coking operation. Dent Street lay close to the Engine Shed and Coal Depot on the NER Barnard Castle and Bishop Auckland Branch railway line.
A mid-nineteenth century description of the colliery’s trade reads thus: “The distance of this colliery from the shipping place on the Tees is 26¼ miles; and to facilitate the transmission, 533 coal waggons are used. The coals were formerly mostly shipped for London and coastwise; but latterly a considerable quantity have been sent foreign. A large depot trade is also carried on, by which the coals are sent as far south as York; and the coke manufactured here is used by most of the railways for 60 miles south.”
Views of the Collieries (1844). Quoted on the Durham Mining Museum website
Richard’s youngest son Joseph (the one raised by Richard’s sister Ann) married Annie Cooper in Kendal in 1898. Heather Ballantyne found them in 1901 living in Crewe with one daughter. Crewe of course was famous for its position as a major railway junction and home to a huge railway engineering works manufacturing and servicing locomotives. In the 1911 census he was still living in Crewe working as an Engine Stoker like his two older brothers. He was still working for the railways on the 1939 Register and living in Eccles, where he died in 1958.
The story might have finished there but Heather Ballantyne told me that she remembered a family of Ratcliffes still living in Tebay when she moved to the area and pointed me to the record of a Joseph Edward Ratcliffe from Tebay, killed during the Second World War. His photograph is shown on the Orton & Tebay Local History Society website. His father Joseph was a Railway Signalman apparently. We’ve not traced the family this far but Joseph has been a Ratcliffe family Christian name through all the generations so we wonder if this brave young man with his namesake father was a descendant of the original Joseph who followed the railway north more than a century earlier.
UPDATE from Heather Ballantyne: “Joseph Ratcliffe [senior] of Low Moor died 6th October 1882 aged 80. His wife Mary died 24th Feb 1871 aged 71. Their son Joseph [junior] died 3rd Oct 1911. All buried in Orton Churchyard. Also listed on the headstone is Ann their daughter who died in 1921.”
UPDATE from Colin Ratcliffe – family historian: Colin kindly did some more research for us on the original Joseph [senior] and managed to find him in the 1841 census living with his wife Mary and their six children in a tiny farm hamlet called Ewebank, on the northern boundary of the parish of Old Hutton and Holmescales. The reason we couldn’t find him before is that his surname had been recorded as ‘Ratliff’, but all the birthdates and names of the family members match so Colin is sure it’s them. Joseph’s birthplace recorded in the 1851 census was ‘Holme’ which sent us off on a red herring originally but we now realise it was probably Holmescales – a small village in the south of the parish or perhaps, Millholme which is close to Ewebank. Colin has also found that our Joseph [senior] was one of eight children born to Joseph Radcliffe (1775-1840) and Mary Bulman (1769-?).
Our Joseph Ratcliffe/Ratliff was working as an Agricultural Labourer in 1841 and although there is some evidence that day wages had risen more in the north of England in the first half of the nineteenth century than elsewhere in the country, it was still a low paid job with few prospects and Joseph probably would have struggled to keep his large family fed and clothed. It’s no wonder then that he upped sticks and moved his whole family first to Firbank Parish where Joseph junior was born in 1829, then back to Old Hutton then on to Orton Moor to take advantage of better paid work building then maintaining the new railway. He would have found the work far harder than what he had been used to apparently but it clearly suited him given that he spent the rest of his working life as a Railway Platelayer/Labourer:
“Working mostly with pick and shovel, navvying demanded strength and great physical stamina. A lot of navvies had previously worked as agricultural labourers, and doubtless they were accustomed to hard, tiring work. Even so, it was said that it took up to a year to turn a common labourer into a navvy capable of excavating twenty tons of earth in a day.”
From ‘The Making of a Navvy’ https://www.railwayarchive.org.uk/
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