Distinguished Scholar’s Tragic End, 1907

The 13th of August 1907, was  a day James Russell would never forget…

The 42-year-old foreman plate-layer for the Midland Railway Company was heading home for his dinner, as was his usual practice.   As made his way through the old tunnel  he came across the badly injured body of the distinguished Rev. Henry de Beltgens Gibbins.  The good Reverend, accomplished author and son-in-law of the late Dr John Bell (1), was found between the rails and the tunnel wall.

To this day the strange circumstances that jettisoned Henry from his comfortable carriage  into that damp pitch-black tunnel  remains a mystery – did he deliberately jump or was he pushed?

Read the fully transcribed details of the subsequent investigation below, all theories welcome…

1.)  Dr Bell was famous for his part in the notorious “Humbug Billy”  Bradford Sweet Poisoning case of 1858  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradford_sweets_poisoning

The Thackley  Old Tunnel  was constructed in 1848 on the Airedale line between Leeds, Bradford and Keighley.
The tunnel was contracted by James Bray and is 1496 yds long. Originally there was just one Tunnel cut, but in 1900 the line was increased to four tracks and a second tunnel bore was constructed.

The Southern tunnel was closed in 1968, coinciding with the final closure of the G.N.R Line from Shipley to Laisterdyke via Idle and Thackley.

Bradford Weekly Telegraph, Friday, August 16, 1907

Distinguished Scholar’s Tragic End



A shocking discovery was made in the Thackley Old Tunnel on the Midland Railway about twelve o’ clock on Tuesday by a foreman plate-layer named James Russell, living at 9, Sun Place, Woodbottom, Baildon.

Russell, it appears was walking through the tunnel, and when about 300 yards from the Shipley end he came across a body lying between the wall and the rail on the up line and clear of the metals. The body was in such a position that a passing train would not touch it.

The matter was reported to the Shipley rail way authorities, and the body was taken to the Shipley mortuary.

The deceased was in clerical attire and in his pockets which gave the name of the Rev. Doctor H. de B. Gibbins. His linen was similarly marked, and in his possession was the half of a return ticket for Colwyn Bay.

In his pocket was about £3 in money and near by where the body was found was a pair of gold glasses, and a letter evidently from a little girl, which had been written to him. The body was badly mutilated.

The deceased was wearing a gold watch and chain and the watch was going when found. Inside the watch was the following inscription.

“Presented to J.H. Bell, Esq., M.D.,by the woolsorters of Bradford and district, as a token of services rendered in the woolsorters’ disease, Bradford 9th April, 1881.”

Further inquiries showed that the deceased’s head was badly injured and one leg was nearly severed. The deceased obtained a first class ticket at Shipley on Tuesday to Apperley Bridge between eight and nine o’clock. This is the approximate time stated by the railway officials, but there must be some mistake, as he did not leave his father’s house at Thackley until twenty minutes past nine.

From the fact that a pair of eye glasses and a letter were found close to the body, it is conjectured that the deceased was reading in the train, when in some way, which it will be for the Coroner’s jury to determine, he fell out of the carriage. A train had evidently passed over his body, one leg and part of his head being practically severed. The injuries were of such a terrible nature as to leave no room for doubt that death would be practically instantaneous. A distressing feature of the fatality is the fact that deceased was over in this country from Canada on a visit to the father, who is a member of the firm of Gibbins, Healey and Co., merchants, Forster Square. Mr. Gibbins senior resides at Thackley.

Deceased arrived in this country from Canada on July 22nd, and with his family was residing with his mother-in law, Mrs. Bell, widow of the late Dr. Bell, at Victoria Park, Colwyn Bay.

The letter found near the body in the tunnel was from his daughter Eleanor. On Saturday the deceased went to Thackley to spend the week-end at his father’s house. He had breakfast on Tuesday between half past eight and nine, and afterwards went for a walk in the grounds adjoining his father’s house, Park Lodge, Thackley. The last time he appears to have been seen alive was at twenty minutes past nine.

It is known that the deceased suffered from a weak heart and was liable to attacks of dizziness. From the fact that he had in his possession a first class ticket between Shipley and Apperley Bridge, it is assumed that he afterwards walked to Shipley and booked for Apperley.

The body of the deceased was identified at the Shipley Mortuary by his father.

The deceased, whose full name was Henry de Beltgens Gibbins, was the eldest son of Mr. J.H. Gibbins of Thackley, and a well known Bradford merchant. He was born at Port Elizabeth, Cape Colony, on the 23rd May, 1865. His mother was the daughter of the Hon. J. de Beltgens,  Shawford, Dominica. The Rev H. de B Gibbins married Miss Emily Bell, daughter of the late Dr. J. H. Bell of Bradford. He was educated at the Bradford Grammar School and at the Wadham College, Oxford. He graduated M.A. at Oxford (Classical Honours) and University Prizeman in Economics. His first scholastic appointment was at Nottingham High School, where he was assistant master from 1889 to 1895. he afterwards became headmaster of the Liverpool Grammar School and Vice Principal of the Liverpool College. From 1899 to `906 he was headmaster of King Charles I. School, Kidderminster. As a member of the Worcestershire County Council Education Committee from 1902 to 1906, he rendered excellent service to the cause of education.

The deceased was author of no mean repute, his publications including “The Industrial History of England,” 1890; “The History of Commerce in Europe,”1891; “English Social Reformers”, 1892; “British Commerce and Colonies,” 1893; “Industry in England”, 1896, “The English People in the Nineteenth Century,” 1898; “Industrial and Commercial Progress of the Nineteenth Century,” 1901; “Economics of Commerce,” 1905. He was a frequent contributor to Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy, and to the reviews, and he acted as editor of the series of books entitled “Social Questions of To-day.”

In 1906, the deceased, who had taken holy orders, was appointed Principal of the University, Lennoxville, Canada. He was a Doctor of Literature of Trinity College, Dublin.



The death of the Rev Dr. Gibbins was the subject of a Coroner’s inquiry at the Manor House, Shipley, yesterday.

The inquest was  conducted by Mr E.W. Norris (Deputy District Coroner) and Mr E. Lister was foreman of the jury.

The Midland Railway Company were represented by Mr. H. K. Beale, solicitor, Mr. W. G Hawkins, superintendent, and Mr. T. Bradshaw, assistant superintendent, while Mr. T. H. Henley of Messrs Ellis and Healey, solicitors. Bradford appeared on behalf of the deceased’s relatives.


Joseph Henry Gibbins, Park House, Thackley, father of the deceased, said the deceased was a clerk in holy orders and a Doctor of Literature, and held various other degrees.

About a year ago he was appointed Principal of a college in Canada, but he recently gave up this post and returned to England, taking up his residence with his mother in law, Mrs Bell, widow of the late Dr.Bell (of Bradford), at Colwyn Bay. At the time of his death deceased was staying with witness. He came to Thackley from Colwyn Bay last Friday, intending to return on Tuesday. Deceased enjoyed fairly good health as a rule, although he had not been very well for some time past. He was however quite cheerful.


When you say he had not been very well, do you know what it was that was wrong with him? – He had been utterly disappointed respecting his appointment in Canada and he did not like the country. He was a very bad sailor, and suffered considerably from the voyage, so much so that when he got there he had to consult a doctor, who ordered him to take a rest. He did so and afterwards resumed work, but the appointment was not his liking, and he decided to give it up.

Do you think his disappointment about the post in Canada had affected his health? I think he was run down, owing to over work. The chief reason of his leaving Canada, however, was that he was utterly misled with regard to the appointment. He resigned a very good post at Kidderminster and went to Canada expecting to find an appointment that would not be in every way congenial to him, but it did not turn out to be so. He suffered from a weak heart whilst in Canada, but as I have said, he so far recovered as to be able to resume duties.


Continuing, witness said he believed the deceased’s illness was brought on by the effects of the voyage. On landing he wrote home to say how very much he had been upset, and that he had been ill all the way across. In letters which he sent home from Canada he always said that he did not like the work there and had no intention of staying for any length of time.

-Had his doctor recently advised a further rest?

– No, it was his own desire entirely to resign the appointment, because it did not suit him, and he preferred to return to England, where he had a vicarage offered. When deceased came over to Thackley on the Friday he and witness talked things over a bit, and witness gathered that there were two or three appointments in this country which his son could have taken up had he so desired.

On Tuesday morning deceased had to go to Bradford on business, and it had been previously arranged that he would meet witness there at two o clock in the afternoon. They had been together all day in Liverpool, the previous day, looking after the storing of his furniture, and he was quite cheerful the whole of the time.

-Did he make any statement to you as to what he was going to do on the Tuesday morning?

-He left me with the impression that he could easily find some way of passing the time with his sisters, or having a walk. He had no definite appointment with anyone. Soon after nine o clock deceased left the house saying that he was going for a stroll, and would be back in good time for lunch, which was served at one o’ clock.


-Had he intended to return to Colwyn Bay on the Tuesday?

– Yes, that was his intention when he came. But there was some suggestion that he might prolong his visit, and it was not definitely settled when I left home in the morning whether he would do so or not. It was understood that he would let me know his decision in that regard when I saw him at two in the afternoon.

-Then would he have met you in Bradford at two whether he had been returning to Colwyn Bay or not?

– I cannot say for that, as he might have communicated with me by telephone from a neighbour’s house.


-Do you know whether your son had any acquaintances in the district of Apperley Bridge?

– Yes he had a few friends, including the Wightmans. He was also interested in the changes that had taken place in the district since he had been away. When I was told that he had not returned home I thought it was quite possible – that he had gone to the Woodhouse Grove School. We had been looking at it from a distance on the Sunday, and I reminded him that some of his friends had been there. He was, of course, very much interested in all school work. Replying to further questions witness said that Park House was about a mile from Apperley Bridge Station, and two miles from Shipley Station. Anyone in Thackley who wanted to travel by the Midland Railway generally used Shipley Station, however as it could be reached in a few minutes, either by the Great Northern Railway or by tram. As deceased was not fond of walking any great distance, witness thought it possible that he has gone to Shipley and booked to Apperley with the intention of visiting Woodhouse Grove School, and afterwards walking to Thackley. Witness could not suggest any other particular reason why he should go to Shipley unless it was that he desired to get in telegraphic communication with his wife in regard to prolonging his stay at Thackley.

Witness added that deceased was short sighted, and carried two pairs of glasses – spectacles for long sight, and eye glasses for short sight.


J.Russell, of Baildon Woodbottom, a foreman platelayer, in the employ of the Midland Railway Company, stated that on Tuesday morning he was coming out of the old tunnel for dinner, when he came across the dead body of a gentleman, about 250 or 300 yards from the Thackley end. First he found a straw hat in the four foot, next the body, which was near the wall, nearer Shipley, again a pair of eye glasses, and some distance from them an umbrella. The body was on the outside of the line from Bradford to Leeds, and was lying with the face towards the wall. The injuries to the body were of a terrible nature, the top of the head being missing, while the right hand and left leg were practically severed.

The Coroner: Were you able to form an idea as to how long the body had been there?

-  No, sir; except that the body was in parts still slightly warm.

In answer to Mr Beale, witness said that owing to the conditions under which they carried on their work in the tunnel, although practically on the spot when the accident happened, they would have been unable to have seen what really occurred.

Mr.Healey: Did you examine the wall of the tunnel?

– Yes, sir

- Did you find anything?

– Yes, soot and filth were rubbed off the wall about seven feet high.

-What distance would the wall be from the side of the carriage?

– Two or three feet.

-Did you find any soot on the body?

– Yes, a good deal.

The foreman of the jury:  Would it be possible for anyone falling out of a passing train to strike the wall, rebound, and get on to the rail?

– Yes, sir.

Police Inspector Barraclough, Shipley, spoke to searching the body after it had been brought to the Shipley Mortuary, and Thomas Hagley, booking clerk at the Shipley Midland Railway Station stated that on Tuesday morning he issued a first class return ticket between Shipley and Apperley Bridge, sometime between 9.40 and 9.55. A train left Shipley for Apperley at 9.59.

At this juncture the deceased’s father said that a porter at the Thackley Great Northern Railway Station had this morning informed him that the deceased travelled by the 9.25 train from Thackley to Windhill on Tuesday morning. He pointed out that this would be a convenient connection with the 9.59a.m. train from Shipley to Apperley Bridge.


John Berkin, station master at the Shipley Midland Station, said that the carriage doors of the 9.59 train from Shipley to Apperley Bridge on Tuesday morning were all fastened when the train left the platform.

Mr Healey: Are the first class compartments on this train always lighted? – Not always.

Do you know if they were on this particular morning?

– I don’t think they would be.

Mr. Beale:  I have information that they were

Mr. Gibbins: I have travelled first class in a train this morning, and it was not lighted.

Mr Joseph Hartley, stationmaster at Apperley Bridge stated that he was on the platform when the 9.59 train from Shipley stopped there. He did not notice any carriage door open, nor was there a handle not turned.

Mr. Healey: Supposing that a carriage door had been open, would it not have been closed as the train sped along?

– Yes, sir probably.

-Will you undertake to say that not one compartment door handle in that train was unturned?

– Yes.

Mr. Thos. Bradshaw said that he had inspected the carriages which composed the train in question. The second and third carriages from the engine contained several first class compartments, but there was nothing unusual there. On the fifth carriage, which was made up entirely of third class compartments, however, there were blood marks.

Mr. Beale: The result of your inquiries is purely negative?

– Yes, sir.

Mr Beale: If the Midland Railway Company had any evidence which would throw light on the cause of the accident they would tender it, but they have practically none.


The Coroner, in addressing the jury, said that the deceased was evidently not the sort of person to walk anywhere when he could ride, therefore it was pretty safe to assume that if he intended to go to see the Woodhouse Grove School, or to visit friends at Apperley Bridge he would go by train to Shipley and thence by train on to his intended destination. It was safe to conclude that he did travel by the 9.59a.m. train from Shipley Station and that that was the train which inflicted the fatal injuries. It would have been impossible for the deceased to have taken the ticket found in his possession, and then to have walked along the line to the tunnel in the short space of time which elapsed before his death.


The Jury retired, and on their return, Mr F Lister (foreman) stated that they were agreed that the deceased met his death in Thackley Tunnel on Tuesday morning, having travelled by the 9.59 train from Shipley. They were however, of the opinion that there was insufficient evidence to show what was actually the cause of death.

The Coroner: To put it bluntly, what was it that actually killed the gentleman?

A Juror: We take it for granted that the train ran over him.

The verdict entered was that the deceased was “run over by the 9.59 train from Shipley to Apperley Bridge, by which he was travelling as a passenger, but there was not sufficient evidence to show how he came to be on the line.”

The Coroner expressed sympathy with the bereaved relatives of the deceased on behalf of the jury and Mr. Beale added remarks of sorrow on behalf of the railway company.

Mr. Gibbins, who was overcome with grief, briefly acknowledged these observations.