Family’s life on the railway

editorial image

HE stands on the footplate of his locomotive, every inch the proud railwayman.

In fact, so much did railways run through John Thomas Horsman’s blood, that he crossed Europe to see some of the Continent’s rarer and more unusual routes – dizzying contrasts with the sooty tracks he normally plied, as an employee of the old North Eastern Railway.

He would also father a railway family, one whose story is indelibly linked to the Tyne Dock area of Shields, in and out of which ran those great railheads of the coal and iron ore industries.

This is some of that family – seen in a lovely cache of photographs which have come to light following my recent piece on the old Station Cottages at Tyne Dock.

The cottages, which were demolished in the 1970s, were home to numerous railway workers over the years.

One of them was a JT Horsman, who I had come across as a regular contributor of letters to the Shields Gazette in the 1890s, on subjects as diverse as the Tyne’s Wellesley training ship and the place of perambulators on the pavement.

He lived at No 19 Station Cottages – and reader Margaret Horsman, who married one of his grandsons, thinks this is almost certainly him.

“I can’t think how it can’t be,” says Margaret, who remembers family descriptions of ‘JT’ as a typical Victorian paterfamilias and strong disciplinarian.

The photographs are from the collection of her late husband, George, who himself worked on the railways for 47 years, finishing as an inspector.

His father, Andrew, was one of JT’s five sons.

There were also two daughters.

John Thomas Horsman was born in 1860 and began his railway career at Malton, in his native Yorkshire.

By the time of his death, however, he had worked in the Northern district of the railways for 38 years.

An obituary in a contemporary edition of the North Eastern Railway Magazine describes JT as “a keen and practical student of railway working”.

He had a special interest in narrow gauge and mountain railways, travelling as far as North Wales and even Switzerland to see examples of both.

Leaving behind the coaly trains of Tyne Dock for the clear air of the Alps must have been invigorating.

“The combined smooth rail and cogged system of the Brunig Pass especially delighted him,” we are 

“While in Switzerland, he (also) made a point of travelling through the famous St Gothard Tunnel.”

His wife Susannah (nee Dixon) had been a domestic servant at North Leam Farm, Heworth, before their marriage.

In 1886 they were living in Green Lane, but by the time of JT’s death towards the end of the First World War, their home was in Alnwick Road.

Away from the railway, JT was also a lay preacher at the old Glebe Methodist Church in Westoe Road. Of their five sons, four – George, Jim, John Thomas Jnr and Harry – followed their father on to the railways, John Thomas Jnr becoming a station master.

George also had a spell at sea, and is known to have achieved at least a second engineer’s ticket in the Merchant Navy.

Only Andrew didn’t go down the railwayman’s route, becoming a miner instead.

It was while he was working as a deputy overman at Boldon Colliery that he broke his back in two places. He went on to find lighter employment as a gatekeeper at Tyne Dock.

Old JT Horsman eventually died, of heart disease, in the summer of 1918. He was only 57.

A garrulous voice to the Gazette, it seems, had been silenced.

A flavour of his letters is one he wrote concerning the railway company’s desire to abandon what was left of the old Stanhope and Tyne line through Shields.

He wrote: “The only portion that can in the least be expected to be of any use lies between Garden Lane and the Corporation’s manure depot. This may some day be useful to connect the Harton Coal Company’s Marsden line with South Shields station.

“The remainder is absolutely useless to the railway company and the people of South Shields.”