Byers Family, Train crash and shipwreck!

I have been given, during my quest for searching my family history, a suitcase full of old photographs from my maternal grandparents . I’m fascinated by them, most of the people I met and the others have been explained to me, but there was one photo that nobody recognised, and very strangely, it belonged to my Granda, whereas all the others were from Nana’s side of the family.

tom & lucy

A lovely photo of a couple with a young girl and the ever popular aspidistra plant!

On the back of this Edwardian photo was written “Harry’s Aunt and Uncle”

That’s all, no other clues!

It fascinated me, and I had to dig deeper! i kept looking at the lady, thinking she didn’t resemble any other family members, but the gentleman did!

Eventually with help from distant cousins, I worked out that it must be Thomas Byers.

tom byers

Close up of Thomas Byers. I’d ruled out his Uncle Nicholas, Sister Elizabeth, Brother William and my Great Granda  John Byers.

sarah ward

The above photo is of his Mother Sarah Ward Byers of Rookhope with his siblings Nicholas and Elizabeth (Nickel and Lizzie Byers)

John Byers

John Byers ( my Great Granda)  Brother of Thomas.

Thomas was born in 1867 in Stanhope , Weardale,  County Durham, and married Elslia Alice Simpson.

It seems that Elslia died  young and they had no children, it’s possible she died during childbirth. So that ruled her out. Last seen in Fulwell on the 1901 census.

I followed Thomas on the census through to working on the railways at Blackhill, Consett, then through to Sunderland, where he became a railway signalman. In 1909 there was an incident in Sunderland where a train derailed and crashed into the signal box! There is a 7 page transcript but that makes for heavy reading so here’s a taste of it kindly given to me by Elaine Byers.

“I saw the train approaching my box,and there did not appear to be anything unusual in the speed of it. I was standing at the door at the top of the stairs,and I saw the engine jump.The engine was not going fast at the time.I did not wait to see anything more; I turned round and went to the north end of the cabin. I did not see the engine on the permanent way at all, and the next thing I knew was the cabin was knocked down. I was slightly bruised about the head but not seriously hurt. I could not form any idea as to what was the cause of the derailment.”

Although the cabin was completely destroyed, He survived with a knock to the Head, battered and bruised. During the Interview they asked him what steps would he take if a similar situation ever happened again, He replied the cabin steps!

cabin steps

If you look at the bottom right of the photo, you will see Thomas standing in the position that saved his life!

But there is a much bigger story about lives being lost and saved in the Thomas Byers story!

Thomas Married a young lady he met working in the pub “The Bluebell” in Fulwell Sunderland. Her Name was Lucy Casey. It was in 1905 and it was easy to work out she was a widow and maiden name was Brownsword.

tom wedding

with more help from the Byers descendants in Sunderland, I discovered that she was the widow of Captain William Casey.

wiliiam casey

William Casey born in Glasgow, married Lucy Brownsword in Northumberland in 1898. They had a son Harold born in 1895 and another child that was 18 months old.


William was the captain of the steamship “The Gordon Castle”

In 1900 in thick fog, it collided with a German steamship in Cardigan Bay, and both were sunk.

Lucy was on board as well, but was rescued luckily! Her baby was swept away during the incident sadly along with her husband.

the full report can be read in the Cardiff Times Collision in Cardigan

lucy b

Close up of Lucy Brownsword.


Lucy was interviewed whilst still in Llanelly hospital after suffering shock and bruising. Sadly she had initially thought she had seen her husband swim to shore, however this was her mind playing tricks as they were wrecked 30 miles away from the coast. here is a quote from Lucy at the time…..

“I joined the Gordon Castle at Hamburg, where she discharged, and then proceeded to Newport to coal. From the latter place the boat crossed to Barcelona, and then on to a small place in North Africa, where she was loaded with iron ore. Being afterwards bound for Barrow-in-Furness. The collision took place on Sunday evening, the boat at the time being a long way out at sea, near Cardigan Bay. The sea was beautifully calm, but towards evening a dense fog came on, and was at its height about half-past 10 o’clock. A short time before the collision my husbaud came into the cabin for his top coat. He had been on the bridge from 7 o’clock until half-past 10. I was in the cabin when a terrific shook occurred, and I immediately rushed on deck and tried to reach my husband. The steward was endeavouring to guide me to the spot where my husband stood when the water rose; and a terrific explosion followed. I was lifted clear over the rail and blown into the water. It was all over in a minute. I shouted for assistance, but could not make myself heard, and quiickly drifted away from the spot. I was thrown on to some wreckage, which I managed to grasp, and thus supported myself for about an hour and a half. A member of the crew whom I did not know drifted past, crying loudly for help. He was in a very exhausted condition, and soon disappeared. I must have then lost consciousness, for I remember no more until I woke and found myself in the boat of the German steamer which had collided with the Gordon Castle. After some time the boat was picked up by a schooner named Excelsior, and I was taken on board with four members of the crew of the Gordon Castle and 11 of the crew of the German steamer, which had also sunk.” Mrs Casey had her baby, only 18 months old, on board with her, but at the terrible moment had no possible opportunity of saving it.

The crew of the Gordon Castle numbered 28. The chief engineer was Mr Chapman, the second Mr James, and the third Mr Lisle. The fireman, who’s name our representative could not ascertain, was taken on at Newport. Captain Casey was 34 years of age. He bad not long been connected with the Gordon Castle, having joined her last August. Previously he had commanded a boat called the Maroon, which he joined at Cardiff. Ho was a sub-lieutenant in the Navy. It is interesting to note that the ill-fated Gordon Castle was the vessel on board which, after the Phoenix Park murder, the man Carey was shot ( maybe another story there!) Just checked it out! It was in fact a ship called the “Kinfauns Castle ” where James Carey was shot!


Lucy Casey.

After studying the census and being rather upset about Lucy losing her 18 month old child at sea, I eventually discovered who the little girl on the photograph is! Lucy was pregnant whilst she was shipwrecked! Her Daughter Lucy was born a few months later! So one happy story to come from the horror of it all.

Twenty crew members were sadly lost, all were saved from the German ship. There was another story that one of the crew members had been painting his berth all day, and the smell of paint was so strong he decided to spend the night on deck! This saved his life!

lucy casey2

Lucy Casey before she died aged 21.

Thomas Byers and his wife Lucy went on to have 6 children together! Young Lucy Casey sadly died young, aged 21. But one of  her half siblings Ada, lived to the ripe old age of 101! She died in 2011.


Thomas died age 77 in 1944.

Sadly his wife Lucy died age 41, in 1918 a Year after giving birth to Walter her youngest son. Her death certificate says she died of flu and Pneumonia.

If you find any old photos, dig around a bit, you never know the story behind them!

Thank you to Elaine Byers the granddaughter of Thomas and Lucy who helped me with tons of information and photos of them later in life!



One Comment Add yours

  1. Doris Button says:

    How amazing! I’m a historian, and ever since I’d love to dig a bit into my family’s history. I should do so, as all my grandparents are dead, some aunts as well, so I depend mostly on my parents memories. I love to look at old family pictures, even if you do not know exactly who they are, you feel a certain bond to those individuals because you know they are kin.


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