By Geoff Courtney
A steam train driver who received fatal burns while saving his passengers from a potential catastrophic accident and was awarded a posthumous George Cross for his heroism will be honoured with a churchyard memorial, after lying in an unmarked grave for 52 years.
The recognition of Wallace Oakes’ bravery comes after an appeal by Heritage Railway for funds to pay for a headstone at his grave, at St Matthew’s Church in Haslington, Cheshire, where he was buried after an incident on the footplate of Britannia No. 70051 Firth of Forth on June 5, 1965.
Oakes, known to his friends and colleagues at Crewe shed as Wally, died after an incident on the footplate of the Pacific on the 10.42am Euston-Carlisle express, which he and his fireman, Gwilym Roberts, had taken over at Crewe.
Seven miles into their journey on the West Coast Main Line, a blowback from the smokebox, while passing through Winsford station at 55mph, engulfed both men in flames and smoke.
Roberts managed to climb out of the cab and cling on to the locomotive, but Oakes remained at the controls and brought the train to a halt before falling out on to the embankment.
His fireman, who was also badly injured, found him suffering from 80% burns but still alive, and managed to telephone a signalman, who stopped the southbound ‘Royal Scot’ to pick up the stricken men. Sadly, Oakes died a week later, aged just 33.
Four months after his death, Oakes, who had been a railwayman for 18 years, was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the second highest award in the honours system behind the Victoria Cross.
His heroism was also recognised with the award of a Carnegie Hero Trust medal, making him the only railwayman to receive this honour.
Read more in Issue 234 of HR – on sale now!Enjoy more Heritage Railway reading in the four-weekly magazine. Click here to subscribe.