DEATH ON THE RAILROAD
In St Peter’s Church, Hook Norton a brass commemorative plaque can be found on one of the pillars. Nothing unusual in that you might think as no doubt there are countless similar plaques in churches the length and breadth of the country. This particular one is in memory of the short life of Theodore Littleboy who was killed in an accident in June 1928.
The location of his death intrigues me. Valparaiso, Indiana was where he was killed on the 10th June, four months short of his 27th birthday.
Who was he and what was he doing there? William Theodore Darby Littleboy was born on 24th October 1901 at Sibford Ferris, Oxfordshire, a small village some 3 miles north of Hook Norton. As the 1901 Census was taken in April that year he naturally does not appear on it, but his parents do albeit in differing locations. His expectant mother, Janet, was staying with her parents William and Jeanette Newton at Crowmarsh Battle Farm near Benson in south Oxfordshire. William was a farmer and land agent. However, to find Theodore’s father we have to travel north west to Brymbo, near Wrexham in north Wales. William was recorded as staying with John H Darby, his brother in law at a house named Penygarth. His occupation was listed as manager of an iron ore mine.
The name Brymbo is well known to those with an interest in Hook Norton’s history. It was the Brymbo Company who operated the ironstone workings in the village. Therefore it is no surprise to find the family living there when the 1911 Census was taken. William was listed as the head of the household. Aged 42 his occupation was given as the manager of the ironstone works. His entry has been scored through on the enumeration form and his wife Janet was “elevated” to head of the household. The household consisted of Janet and her two children, Theodore then aged 9 and his younger sister, Joan aged 4. The others listed residing at the house were the governess Francis Beechey, two servants Florence Cook and Annie Berry. In addition there was another governess, Margaret Giles, listed as a visitor. Two nieces Edith and Francis Walker completed the household. The family were living in The Moors a fairly substantial house which lies to the east of the village close to both the ironstone works and the railway.
On Census night William Littleboy was to be found staying at the Bushey Hall Hotel near Watford. Interestingly one of the other guests was John H Darby with who he was staying with at the time of the previous census.
So much for the background to this story. Theodore aged 18 left the UK on 9th December 1919 on the Empress of France sailing from Liverpool to St John, New Brunswick. He arrived on the 19th and set off on his new life in the US. He was fortunate that his uncle, Thomas Newton, his mother’s brother, was already established in the New World. Thomas, his wife Annie and his family of three daughters – Nellie, Muriel and Margaret, were living near Chicago at the time of the 1910 US Census. He was a cattle dealer. The Newtons would seem to have been successful as they are recorded as having made a “return” journey from Liverpool to New York in October 1912 on board the Mauretania. Only six months had elapsed since the tragedy of the Titanic. I wonder what thoughts these passengers had as they crossed the Atlantic.
At the time of the 1920 US Census Theodore was working as a labourer in a packing company in Cook County in Illinois which is fairly close to Chicago. The Newton family were living close by. Thomas was still dealing in cattle. At that time Chicago was the largest meatpacking centre in the US, partially due to the impact of the railways which by then stretched right across the country.
The Newton girls had all been born in Illinois and a search of passenger lists reveals that Mrs Newton and Margaret had made a journey back to the UK at some point. They were recorded as sailing from Liverpool in September 1925 on board the Alaunia bound for New York.
Meanwhile, Theodore too had made a trip back home as he is recorded as sailing on the Carinthia bound for New York from Liverpool in August 1926. This was probably the last time he saw his family before his tragic accident. A newspaper report published just after his death stated that he had in fact returned to the UK in 1921, travelling back to the US in 1926.
Thomas Newton, in the meantime, had diversified and had taken ownership of a farm in Porter Township across the state border in Indiana. Still only about 50 miles from Chicago it was while working here that Theodore met his death.
The local newspaper, The Vidette Messenger, in its edition of 11th June 1928 reported Theodore’s death. It stated that he had driven his truck in front of a fast passenger train at Burkhart Crossing in Porter Township. The accident happened shortly after 6 am and Theodore was killed instantly. He was on his way to Valparaiso to meet Thomas Newton as they were due to attend the 7.30 am service in St Andrew’s Episcopal Church.
According to local residents this was the first such tragedy to occur at this crossing. He was driving north across the tracks and should have had an unimpeded view of the approaching train. It was believed that his mind was otherwise occupied and he failed to check if the crossing was clear.
The train was stopped and did not proceed for about an hour. Theodore’s body was taken to a nearby funeral home, his chest having been crushed by the impact. The newspaper report went on to say that he was shortly to have been married to an English girl who had been making preparations to come to Indiana for the wedding. At the time of the accident Theodore had been making extensive improvements to the farm.
Apparently he had been held in high esteem in the local community despite not having lived there for a long period of time. It had been his habit to attend church with his uncle and members of the congregation had remarked on their absence that morning. It was not until the afternoon that details emerged of the tragedy.
The funeral was held on Tuesday 12th June at St Andrew’s Church. There was a large attendance of relatives and friends. The floral tributes were many and plentiful. Following the service Theodore’s body was interred in Graceland cemetery. Amongst those attending were Thomas Newton and his wife Annie together with two of their daughters – Margaret and Nellie.
The Vidette Messenger said that he had lived since February 1928 at the Sheffield Farm which had been purchased by Mr Newton from A J Worstell. He had extensively worked the fields in anticipation of having a good harvest later in the year. Theodore had made a large circle of friends, most of whom had attended the funeral.
A subsequent report in the edition of 16th June gave the verdict of the Coroner, Dr A O Dobbins, as accidental death. Testimony was given by the engineer of the train, Thomas Brown. As he neared the whistling post for the crossing he blew the required blast. The crossing was partially obscured by brush. The engineer could not see the car approaching until it was right in front of the engine. Despite the air brakes being applied the train went on about 300 or 400 feet after hitting the car. According to Mr Brown, Theodore apparently did not see the approaching train.
A young life full of hope and promise was tragically ended on a railroad crossing many thousands of miles away from his Oxfordshire birthplace.
In the intervening years the route of the railway has been realigned and a housing estate lies on part of the old site.
I have a subscription to both Ancestry and Find my Past which has been invaluable in researching this article. In addition I am grateful to Steve Shiook who is the webmaster of the Porter County historical web site who provided links to maps on his site which show the course of the railroad tracks and the sites of the farms mentioned in this article.