The Railway Children:
A Moving Story of Youthful Heroism
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 14 MARCH 2022
If, like me, you enjoy looking at old maps of London, the name Edward Stanford will have a familiar ring. Stanford was a leading figure in the world of Victorian map-makers, and his Library Map of London, which was first published in 1862, is cartography at its finest. You can access various editions of Stanford’s map online. The 1872, for example, can be found by following this link, and I am sure you will agree that it is a thing of beauty.
If you look up and down the left-hand margin of the 1897 Stanford, you will see that it just has room for Acton, and this is useful because the story I am about to relate is set in Acton in 1895. To be precise, it is set in Friar’s Place, which sits just below the line of the Great Western Railway and not far from that of the North and South Western Junction Railway.
Remnants of a railway
But of greater interest is a third line, which sweeps down from the Great Western at Friar’s Place, crosses the North and South and terminates in East Acton. The 1897 Stanford does not show it but the more detailed Ordnance Survey map does. What it represents is what would have been the Latimer Road and Acton Railway.
I say ‘would have been’ because the Latimer Road and Acton Railway was never completed. The building of the railway was authorised by parliament in 1882, and work on the line was done, but problems with the raising of capital led to its being abandoned in 1900. However, it did not immediately disappear, and its remnants included an iron bridge, which carried it over the North and South, and, at the Friar’s Place end, a disused cutting.
In the cutting
The story concerns three boys, whose names were Richard Welsby Cubitt, Ernest Augustus Erwin and Charles Stanley Holman. Richard and Charles, who were twelve and thirteen, were acquaintances, and their families both lived in Ladbroke Grove in Kensington, where they were sufficiently comfortable to keep a servant or two. Ernest, who was fifteen, did not know either Richard or Charles. He lived with his mother — she was widowed but able to keep a single servant at the time of the 1891 census — and siblings in Fairlawn Park in Acton.
On the morning of 3 January Richard and Charles met up, bringing with them their two younger brothers, whose names were Harry Stevens Cubitt and Alfred Gordon Holman. The four boys had planned to walk about two miles up to Willesden.
But either they had second thoughts or they took a long detour, for shortly before noon they found themselves in East Acton. And there, in Friar’s Place, they saw something going on in the disused cutting that interested them greatly. Scaling some railings, which had been put up by the Latimer Road and Acton Railway Company in a half-hearted attempt to keep members of the public off private ground, they scrambled down the slope.
In the winter of that year — 1895 — the water that had collected in the disused cutting had frozen over, and on the day in question, which was a Thursday, a dozen or so boys were skating and sliding on the ice. Richard and Charles decided to join them and made their way rather unsteadily on to the rink. Harry and Alfred left them to it.
All this was going on under the curious gaze of Ernest Augustus Erwin, who was sitting on a bank of the cutting. But suddenly, even as he was watching, the mood changed from harmless enjoyment to utter panic. The ice, on which Richard and Charles had only been playing for about ten minutes, had given way.
To the rescue
Hearing their cries, Ernest sprang into action. He took off his coat and threw it as a lifeline towards the nearer of the two struggling boys, who happened to be Richard. The unfortunate Richard grasped the coat, but, as Ernest tried to haul him out, the ice on which he was standing broke, and he too plunged into the freezing water. However, he managed to catch hold of Richard, keeping him afloat until he saw, to his relief, a man at the edge of the ice pushing a ladder towards them. By clinging on to the ladder the two boys were saved.
Tragically, Charles did not survive. He had been wearing a cold weather cape, which might have given those who had come to help a means of holding him up, but it had come off as he flailed around in the water. Ernest lost sight of him, struggling as he was to keep Richard afloat. The water was eight feet deep: poor Charles did not stand a chance. Before the man with the ladder could reach him, he sank out of sight and drowned.
The man with the ladder
When the ice gave way and Richard and Charles fell into the water, Ernest was not alone in responding to the crisis. Another boy immediately dashed to a row of dwellings in Friar’s Lane known as ‘Rosebank’, where he called out for help. A coachman by the name of Albert Burnham — the man with the ladder — hurried down to the cutting in the hope of effecting a rescue. He was in his mid-twenties: just the sort of fellow one needed in an emergency.
As we have seen, Richard and Ernest owed their lives to Albert Burnham. He in turn attributed his response to the accident to the fact that he had long been waiting for it to happen. He had always considered the cutting a dangerous place, and not only in winter, when young people ventured out on to the ice. The water itself was perilous because it was shallow enough at the edges of the cutting to lure the unwary towards the centre, where they might quickly get into difficulty. Burnham had seen other children taking risks in the cutting on previous occasions. He had taken it upon himself to warn them and even to send them packing.
Sadly too late
Nor was this the first time that children’s risky behaviour in the cutting had ended in a fatal accident, as emerged when the death of Charles Holman was examined at a coroner’s inquest. His body had remained in the water for about an hour, and was only recovered when men with dragging equipment were brought from a public house on the Grand Junction Canal near Willesden.
A doctor by the name of Garrett made desperate efforts to revive the boy, but it was too late, and his body was taken to the mortuary in Acton. Richard and Ernest, having been given dry clothes, made their separate ways home, sorrowfully brooding on the terrible tragedy that had claimed the life of young Charles.
Off the hook
The inquest was held two days later on the afternoon of Saturday 5 January at the offices of the Acton Local Board of health. The district coroner, Dr William Gordon Hogg, in response to a point made by Richard’s father, William Alfred Cubitt, raised the question of access to the cutting.
Cubitt argued that the cutting was inadequately fenced off, which presented a danger to the public, especially at night. Gordon Hogg suggested that under normal circumstances one trespassed at one’s own risk, but a failure on the part of the Latimer Road and Acton Railway Company to secure a place they knew to be dangerous, either by making it inaccessible or by draining it and filling it in, would amount to wilful negligence, bringing with it a charge of manslaughter.
As it turned out, the local board had instructed the railway company to deal with the hazard about eighteen months previously, but no action had been taken. The coroner’s view was that George Wright, the principal director of the railway company, needed to be summoned, and he adjourned the inquest until the following Wednesday. In the event, after a great deal of ducking and weaving, Wright got himself and his fellow directors off the hook, with the jury returning a verdict of accidental death. The railway company, so far from being found guilty of wilful negligence, was merely censured for its carelessness and urged to do something about the cutting.
Risking their lives
Even the legal wrangles over the company’s liability could not obscure the fact that Ernest Ewen had acted with extraordinary courage. On the first day of the inquest the coroner warmly congratulated the fifteen-year-old boy on the ‘pluck’ and ‘presence of mind’ he had shown in his response to the tragedy. He said that he intended to forward Ernest’s name to the Royal Humane Society, the organisation that had as its stated aim the prevention of death by drowning.
He was true to his word, and on the evening of Monday 18 February, at Portland College in Chiswick, where Ernest was a pupil, the Society staged a ceremony to honour his intrepid actions. The ceremony was attended by Alderman Benjamin Hardy, who made a rousing speech in which he celebrated the heroism at the heart of the English character, typified by the ‘Six Hundred’ who made the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, the soldier who risked his life to save a wounded comrade, firemen and the likes of Ernest Augustus Ewen. The speech over, Ernest had the Society’s bronze medal pinned to his chest by the effusive Hardy. The local newspapers reported that the public acknowledgements included
a silver medal suitably inscribed and an illuminated address on vellum from Ewen’s fellow pupils at Portland College, a silver watch and chain from Mr Cubitt, a gold pin from an admirer at Stockport, and a pair of field glasses from Mr J. F. Hone, of Hammersmith.
A lesson learnt
Nor was Albert Burnham forgotten. He too attended the ceremony, and, following some appreciative comments by Alderman Hardy, he was recognised for his part in the rescue attempt with another Royal Humane Society vellum certificate, together with a silver tankard given by Richard Cubitt’s grateful father.
Both Ernest and Albert were loudly cheered as they stepped forward to receive their awards. When the cheers had subsided, the school principal, Arthur Swatridge, addressed the audience on the importance of teaching children to swim. Then William Cubitt offered his personal thanks, principally to Ernest and Albert, but also to the local residents who had opened their door to Richard when he was taken out of the water, cold and frightened.
As well as celebrations, though, there was sadness for the death of Charles Stanley Holman, who was buried at Brompton Cemetery five days after the tragedy on Tuesday 8 January. By a cruel irony Alderman Hardy also died by drowning many years later in 1914. Racked with gout and rheumatism, he had fallen backwards into a large tank of water in his garden in Chiswick following a faint fit. He was eighty-three.
When war broke out later that year, Richard Cubitt and Ernest Ewen were both married men in their early twenties and gainfully employed. They both served. Richard enlisted in the machine gun section of the 2nd County of London Imperial Yeomanry — the Westminster Dragoons — Ernest in the Hampshire Cycle Regiment and later in the Suffolk Regiment. Although their movements cannot be traced with confidence, it is possible that Richard saw action in the Gallipoli campaign. Both survived the war and lived long lives, Richard dying in 1951 and Ernest in 1942.
We have little information for Albert Burnham for this period. When last seen — in the 1911 census — he was living in Worthing in Sussex. He was married with two sons and a daughter and was still working as a coachman. He was only in his mid-fifties when he died in 1926. But even though the records of his life are few, he has been remembered. For he was the man with the ladder, the man who did not hesitate to run into the railway cutting, where at no little risk to himself he pulled two young boys out of the water before they sank beneath the ice.
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