Tragic death and restitution in Stockport

Willow Grove Cemetery  is about a mile from where I live.  I don’t know about you, but I appreciate the serenity and peace of graveyards; their silence, the trees, flowers, birds and squirrels but, above all, long forgotten stories and personal tragedies.

The sign in Willow Grove Cemetery.

Willow Grove is punctuated by notice boards recounting histories of some residents. James Gaskell caught my eye. In a nutshell, the sign tells us James Gaskell, aged 37, died 11 October 1906 pushing a seven year old girl out of the way of an electric tram in Great Portwood Street, Stockport.   Erected by public subscription, the gravestone is ‘in admiration of the act of heroism.’

I spotted a discrepancy on  the gravestone itself.  He died, not in October but April 1906.  Inscribed at the bottom obscured by grass and pink clover was the name of his wife, Emily Jane Gaskell, buried alongside him.

James Gaskell gravestone

Not just because of the fundamental error on the noticeboard but in consideration of such a tragic yet ultimately heart-warming story, I had to investigate further.   

Did James and Emily have children?  What happened to them?  What about the little girl he saved?  What happened to her?  In effect, what happened next?

Bearing in mind reporters in the past made factual mistakes (not always their fault; illiterate people can’t spell their names and people often didn’t know how old they were), I turned to the BNA.

James Gaskell’s inquest was held on the 16th April 1906.   James was a hatter with wife and two children and the child he saved was ‘a little boy named Barrett.’  So much for the seven year old girl!

I started with hero James Gaskell.  In 1891, he was an apprentice hatter living with his parents (dad was a blacksmith striker) and six siblings at 179 Brinnington Rise (now Brinnington Rd) an extension of Great Portwood Street where James ultimately met his death.   His siblings worked in the cotton mills. Two years later James  married Bangalore-born Emily Jane Thompson and by 1901 James, Emily, their sons, 6 year old James and 3 year old Charles Edward, were living with granddad James Gaskell senior at 33 Hill Street, Portwood, Stockport.  Walking from home to Great Portland Street by passing their parish church, St Paul, would have taken about three minutes. 

Hill Street and the neighbouring streets no longer exist.   The Peel shopping centre now stands where once they did.  Portwood was (partly still is) an area of heavy industry; tanneries, bleach works, gas works, and mills sharing the banks of Rivers Tame and Goyt which, a little further on merge into the River Mersey eventually reaching the coast at Liverpool.   An 1899 map showing Great Portwood and Hill Streets is found at

Who was the little boy Barrett James saved from a tram car? 

The surnameBarrett/Barratt is relatively common and in the 1901 census there were two boys of relevant age living in James’ road.    10 month old William Barratt was the son of a spindle maker and he and his family lived at No 28.  Born around June 1900, he was 5 or 6 at the time of the accident so I discounted him.     

In Howard Street, the other side of Great Portwood Street, was another contender.  However, Thomas Barratt was a policeman’s son and I think that would have been mentioned at the inquest and in newspapers.

However living at No 1 Hill Street was greengrocer Henry Barratt and wife Ellen.  Their son Fred was baptised  17 October 1898 making him  7½ in April 1906. 

James’ heroic action is now personal!   Not only did he spot the danger to a child but in a split second realised he knew the boy…  the greengrocer’s son at the end of his road!  And in a split second, James shoved a neighbour’s child out of the way of imminent death – and was killed himself.

What happened to the boy whose life was saved?    In 1911, the greengrocer’s family now swelled to three sons ranging in age from schoolboy Fred, 12, to baby Sidney, 2, had moved to 39 River Street; five people in three rooms.   Fred’s dad still ran his greengrocer’s shop so if it were here, the family were shoehorned upstairs.   Fred next surfaces in the 1939 Register as a paper storesman and Works’ Air Raid Warden/first aider thus repaying James’ gift of life.  Sharing his home in Jennings St., Edgeley, was wife Martha and daughter Vera.  Fred died at home 30 October 1943 having easily repaid James Gaskell’s sacrifice.

James’ two sons?     The subscription for their father’s heroism raised £381 including a donation of 5 guineas (£5 5s= £5.25 today) from James’ employers.   This was a lot of money at a time when £400 would buy a small house however in 1911, Emily Jane, her two sons and their grandad, James Snr, lived at the same address, 33 Hill St.  I can find no WW1 records for elder son James although he was 20 when the war began. He married Gladys Preston in 1928 and in 1939  the couple were at 79 Winifred  Rd., Davenport, where  James was employed as a heavy worker at the gas works.   Like Fred Barratt whose life was saved by James’ dad, he too was an ARP Warden.  James died, aged 80, in 1974.    

Younger brother Private Charles Edward, 8 when his father was killed, survived WW1 (Cheshire Regiment; discharged November 1919 back to 33 Hill St) and married Mary Watson in 1931.  He became a finance clerk for the local education authority and in 1939, the couple lived at 7 Arlington Drive, Woodsmoor (just over a mile from his brother) with her parents, retired butcher Fred, and Elizabeth.   Did Charles realise his father-in-law had the same name as the child James Gaskell had saved? 

James’ widow Emily Jane never left 33 Hill Street.  She was there in 1939.  It was her address when she died at St Thomas’ Hospital 10 November 1957. Charles inherited her estate of £645 – £200+  more than the subscription raised for her selfless husband.    When Emily Jane was reunited with her husband, she’d lived with his ghost in the same house for over 56 years. 

There’s no plaque to James Gaskell in London’s Postman’s Park which commemorates 62 people who sacrificed their lives saving others.   Perhaps there should be.

Willow Grove Cemetery showing the notice board and, two rows behind, James Gaskell’s gravestone

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