Mysterious death of local rail worker in 1888

17-year-old 'killed instantly' 200 miles from home


The headstones for 'Herby' and his parents, Annie and Henry Town Image by the North Mymms History Project, released under Creative Commons
The headstones for 'Herby' and his parents, Annie and Henry Town
Image by the North Mymms History Project, released under Creative Commons
The curiosity of a four-year-old, visiting St Mary's churchyard, North Mymms, with his dad more than 25 years ago, started a process that eventually shed light on the mysterious death of a local teenager in 1888.

Attempting to read the faint and fading etching on the headstone of Herbert George Town resulted in a father-and-son research project that gradually pieced together the story of 'Herby', as he became known to the pair.

Pupils at Welham Green Boys' School in 1880, Herby might be in the picture  Image from the Peter Miller Collection
Pupils at Welham Green Boys' School in 1880, Herby might be in the picture
Image from the Peter Miller Collection

In 1992, when David Lister was walking through St Mary's churchyard with his son, Michael, the young lad started asking questions about the headstones. He wanted to know what was written on them, and why they were there.

The headstone for 'Herby' in the churchyard at St Marys North Mymms Image by the North Mymms History Project, released under Creative Commons
The headstone for 'Herby' in the churchyard at St Mary's North Mymms
Image by the North Mymms History Project, released under Creative Commons

One headstone in particular, close to the entrance to the main door at St Mary's church, caught his attention. David Lister explains:
"Herby was no relative of ours. We first came to hear of him when my son was very young, and in the spring, summer and autumn days when there was nothing else on the agenda, we would ride the short journey out to North Mymms Park to go blackberry picking, horse-watching or just plain old exploring. We would park our car near the church and walk through the churchyard. Fairly early on, when my son was perhaps four years old, he would ask me what the headstones were, and having explained he liked to hear about the people who were resting below them. And so, we first met Herby."
David jotted down what was etched on the stone. Some of it was hard to make out - even harder now, a quarter of a century later. David's record reads:

IN LOVING MEMORY OF
HERBERT GEORGE
4TH CHILD OF
HENRY AND ANNIE TOWN
INSTANTLY KILLED AT WEASTE ON
L&NWR MAY 24TH 1888
AGED 17 YEARS
IN THE MIDST OF LIFE HE WAS IN DEATH

But the wording raised more questions than it answered.

What was Herby - the son of North Mymms residents Henry and Annie Town - doing at Weaste on the outskirts of Salford, now Greater Manchester?

Why had he travelled almost 200 miles from home?

And how was he "instantly killed' on the London and North Western Railway?

Five years later, and after several more walks through St Mary's churchyard, David and Michael decided to "search for Herby", as David puts it.

What followed was a research project involving the accessing of public records in order to fill the gaps and piece together the life story of Herbert George Town.

Herby's story on our history site


You can read about the Mysterious death of a Victorian railway lad on our history site, the North Mymms History Project,

It's a fascinating piece of historical research that describes life in North Mymms in Victorian times, and how one young man followed in his father's footsteps to become a railway worker, but who died in the first week on the job, and just days after leaving his North Mymms home.

What's thought to be Herby's last walk to work before he was fatally injured Ordnance Survey six-inch map of Weaste 1888-1913 Possible route between Herby's lodgings and workplace marked in navy blue Image courtesy of the National Library of Scotland, released under Creative Commons
What's thought to be Herby's last walk to work before he was fatally injured
Ordnance Survey six-inch map of Weaste 1888-1913
Possible route between Herby's lodgings and workplace marked in navy blue
Image courtesy of the National Library of Scotland, released under Creative Commons

The article first appeared in the St Mary's Parish magazine in April 2002, under the title The short life and death of Herby.

Thanks to David Lister, a Hertfordshire author and blogger, for allowing the North Mymms History Project to publish the story he researched and produced with the help of his son, Michael.




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