Baby born as mother died in rail tragedy

GHOST STATION: closed station buildings by the level crossing in 1966. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

GHOST STATION: closed station buildings by the level crossing in 1966. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

HIS long and active life varied between the dangerous and the humdrum.

(MAIN PICTURE) WELCOME SIGHT: coal being shovelled from railway trucks on to a horse-drawn flat cart

(MAIN PICTURE) WELCOME SIGHT: coal being shovelled from railway trucks on to a horse-drawn flat cart at a wintry Belton Station many decades ago. The camera is looking towards Station Road North. Picture: BELTON AND DISTRICT HISTORICAL SOCIETY - Credit: Archant

He lived every moment to the fullest, enjoying its highs and even its lows, imbued with a drive and tenacity stemming from his knowledge that he was remarkably lucky to have survived so bizarre and dramatic a birth that it made headlines nationally.

Had he been born nowadays, in this era of instant celebrity and global communication, he might well have achieved fortune as well as fame to make life easier and more comfortable for him when he reached adulthood. But he was always content with his lot, however humble.

That man was Reginald Hubert Burrage who came into this world at Belton exactly a century and a-quarter ago this Sunday, and died in 1978, aged 88. His claim to fame was that his birth certificate officially recorded that he was born on October 26 1889 “On the Great Eastern Railway.”

The drama began the night his mother-to-be, 22-year-old Rose Selina Burrage, failed to return to her Burgh Castle home where she kept house for her widowed father Horatio, a market garden labourer unaware that his daughter was heavily pregnant. Her absence did not alarm him, for he assumed she had gone to Yarmouth.

But tragedy loomed.

The next morning railway plate-layer Jacob Saul was walking along the Yarmouth to Beccles line when he chanced upon a woman’s fully-clothed body sprawled beside the track. He assumed she had been hit by the 4am mail train from Beccles.

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The victim was Rose, and he told the subsequent inquest: “Just as I was about to remove the body, I heard a child’s cry.”

Bewildered, and in the middle of nowhere, he hurried along the line as fast as he could to Belton Station a quarter of a-mile away to summon help. It was a baby’s cry, he reported, so Burgh Castle widow Elizabeth Beckett, a practising midwife, was fetched and followed the track to where the body lay.

“I found under her a newly-born male child enveloped in her underclothing and not separated from her,” she said in evidence to the inquest into Rose Burrage’s death. The Yarmouth Gazette said discreetly that the midwife “did what she considered necessary”...and the baby survived.

Gorleston doctor John Bately told the coroner and jury that the baby was “full-time, full-grown and full-sized.” He believed the child was born while its mother “was in that insensible state during the process of death.”

The jury returned a verdict of “Suicide while in a state of temporary insanity.”

The rival Yarmouth Post headlined its report: “Shocking occurrence on the Great Eastern Railway.”

The identity of the baby’s father was never revealed, so far as I can ascertain.

The helpless orphan not only survived his traumatic birth but also had an early slice of good luck. For when he was only a few hours old, he was given a home by a Mr and Mrs Platford, handed to them by the rail-side midwife. Mr Platford, a Burgh Castle ploughman, and his wife raised him as one of their own family and, presumably, gave him his Christian names.

A letter to the Yarmouth Gazette suggested that as a Christian act, a public fund should be set up for the baby whose new “parents” were low-paid working folk, an idea that was adopted.

Back in 1978, after Reginald Burrage’s death at South Harrow in London was reported, I spoke with Mrs Violet Palfreyman, of Essex, one of the Platfords’ grandchildren. Although the couple had five children, “they raised Uncle Reg as one of their own although he was no relation,” she told me.

“When you hear today of these adoptions and children being put out in care and all paid for, it is wonderful how in those old days this baby was taken in and brought up as one of the family. There was no adoption but my grandmother must have had some [financial] help from somebody because my grandfather was only a farm worker on the plough.”

Violet Palfreyman’s mother was Ida (née Platford) who went into domestic service in London before marrying and having five children. “Uncle Reg” used to stay with the couple before he wed in 1915.

She described him as “a man who could not care less in life and was always happy-go-lucky. If ever the saying, ‘a cat with nine lives’, applied to anybody, it was to him.

“He came into the world with nothing – and left with nothing.”

Although only 11 years old, young Reg Burrage passed a fishermen’s trade test intended for 14-year-olds and briefly sailed as a trawlerman before taking various jobs, including drapery shop worker and bus conductor in London, meeting his future wife who was a barmaid at the King’s Arms where his Acton to London Bridge service 17 bus turned round.

The couple wed on October 26 1915 – Reg’s birthday. That same day he enlisted in the Royal Navy. The next year his ship was one of the 250 vessels of the Allied and German fleets that fought one another at the Battle of Jutland, resulting in the death of more than 8000 sailors and the sinking of 25 craft.

Reg Burrage survived it.

In 1932, back in ‘Civvy Street’, he moved to Harrow and for 17 years was a chimney sweep, then a window cleaner. In retirement, he worked part-time on the US Air Force base at South Ruislip, following that by serving hot dogs at a cinema.

Belton & Burgh Station was on the line from Yarmouth South Town to London via Beccles but was axed in 1959, exactly a century after it opened.

As a little lad in wartime, occasionally travelling with my parents from Liverpool Street to Yarmouth, I used to worry that we would end up in Lowestoft by mistake because if we were in the wrong half of the train when it divided at Beccles, one section would head to Lowestoft while the remainder steamed on to South Town.