Susan Coney (née Phillips) is a prolific researcher and recorder of local history, especially about Truro. This article is about one of her relatives of whom she is rightly proud. The story of his act of heroism may not be new to you but this chance to read about it from the pen of one of his descendants should not be missed.
To me, this story about my great grandfather, Benjamin Wall, was a little farfetched – so I thought that perhaps, like many family stories, it became embellished over the generations. However, whilst doing my family history research, I found evidence which proved that Mum, once again, was quite correct.
My grandmother (Susan) Annie Truscott (née Wall) 1874-1964 was the eldest child of Benjamin Wall 1848-1915 and Elizabeth Ann Gummoe 1849-1887. In 1874 the Wall family lived in Baynards Place Truro. Elizabeth died of cardiac disease in December 1887 leaving eight children the youngest, Joseph, being only three months old. Unfortunately, Joseph died in March 1888.
Benjamin worked on the railway at Truro from soon after his marriage in 1873, initially for the Cornwall Railway Company then transferring to the Great Western Railway. He was employed as a porter then latterly as a Railway Policeman on the Newham line.
GWR railway employee record for Benjamin Wall
Mum said that she remembered her grandfather even though she was only four years old when he died. She said she was a bit frightened of him as he had a peg-leg, and she could hear him coming up the lane to visit his eldest daughter and her family. She remembers him as being tall, with lots of curly black hair and a beard. Mum told us that he had been awarded a medal for bravery for saving a woman from being run over by a train at Truro Station and had lost his leg because of that brave act.
After much searching, I did find evidence to prove that this story was true. He was awarded a medal for gallantry by ‘The Quiver’, a Victorian magazine. However, he lost his leg in a later accident at the station.
Report from the Royal Cornwall Gazette Friday 30th October 1885
A BRAVE ACTION. – Benjamin Wall a porter engaged at the Truro railway-station, is to be commended for his brave action on Monday afternoon. When the 5.25 p.m. train from Falmouth was entering the station at Truro, a woman was observed to be in the act of crossing the line, apparently unconscious of the approaching train, and although she was shouted to by the bystanders, she took no notice. Seeing the peril of the woman’s position Wall, who was nearby, rushed in front of the approaching train, knocking the woman down between the up and the down line only just in time to avert her being struck by the engine. The woman was not seriously injured but was much frightened. But for the bravery of Wall she would undoubtedly have lost her life.
Report from the Royal Cornwall Gazette Friday 4th December 1885
At a meeting of the Truro branch of the Church of England Working Men’s Society, held in St George’s schoolroom on Thursday, 26th ult., Benjamin Wall, a porter employed at the Great Western railway station, was presented with a medal for a gallant act achieved by him on 25th October last. The Rev. J. PILE, the chaplain of the branch, occupied the chair, and, in presenting the medal, said those present were pretty well acquainted with the fact that on 23rd October Wall rescued a woman from being killed at the station. It came to his (the chairman’s) notice, and he inquired as to the facts, and found that Wall had done a desperately brave act-(applause). He knew something of what an act of that kind meant, for, although he had not saved a human life, he had on one occasion, when young and active, jumped down before an express train on the South Western Railway near Windsor to save the life of a favourite dog, and so narrow was his escape that his coat tails caught the lamp iron of the engine. He communicated the fact of Wall’s case to the Royal Humane Society but had a reply to the effect that the society only rewarded acts of saving life on water. He then wrote to Rochdale, where recently a policeman had a medal given to him by the editor of the Quiver. That paper had a hero fund and having communicated with the editor he received a very nice letter and a medal (applause). The letter requested him to present it at a public meeting on behalf of the editor and readers of the Quiver. He could only say that it was no more than Wall deserved and was an encouragement for others to do likewise. An eyewitness had told the chairman that he “stood and waited to see the two scattered to pieces.” He then fastened the medal on Wall’s breast amid loud applause. WALL, in acknowledging the presentation, thanked the chairman for the trouble which he had taken to secure it, and said, although he felt the effects of what he did for several days after, he still believed that should a similar case occur “he should do the like again” (applause). A railway official present thanked the chairman on behalf of the company, and stated that it was not the first act of the kind by several that Wall, to his knowledge, had committed-(applause).
Image of a Quiver Hero medal
I think (from family like features) Benjamin is the one in the bowler hat half hidden by the young boy.
Report from the Royal Cornwall Gazette Thursday 10th August 1899
A representative of the “Royal Cornwall Gazette” some years ago was at the railway station at Truro and partially witnessed and recorded the following incident: – “A woman was crossing the rails, but, seeing a fast train approaching, she lost her presence of mind, and seemed rooted to the spot. Observing her terrible danger, Benjamin Wall, the porter in charge of the crossing, rushed on to the line, seized the woman, and dragged her from her perilous position. The two fell between the up and down rails just as the express flew by, and happily both were uninjured. A medal was sent to Wall at the time for his conspicuous bravery, and his name included in the roll of ‘Quiver’ heroes.” The incident has been revived in the “Quiver” by an illustration, and we are sorry to record the fact that Wall has since lost his leg by being himself run over by a train at almost the very spot of his former heroism.
This is a copy of the illustration published in ‘The Quiver’ in 1899 when this Victorian magazine revived the story of Benjamin Wall. A framed copy is held by the Courtney Library at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro.
A Quiver Hero – Benjamin Wall 1848-1915
Susan grew up near Truro and was educated at St Mary’s School and the County Grammar School. She followed a career in computer science providing and supporting systems for scientific research. Following retirement, she became interested in the history of the people and places of Cornwall.
Susan has written a book about the history of N Gill and Son of Truro and assisted others in their research. She has given presentations to local groups on various subjects of Cornish interest. She was a volunteer at the Royal Cornwall Museum for some years and her history of the Royal Institution of Cornwall Museum buildings in River Street was published in the RIC Journal of 2019.