The arrival of Easter reminded the Education Department team of a beautifully handwritten letter held in the Archive Collection pertaining to a stationmaster’s special eggs and the fascinating story it revealed. This simple letter, dated 6th April 1895, a week before Easter, was handwritten by a Beryl Thomas of Swansea, to Wilson Mortimer, the station master at Stutton Station, requesting “a dozen of your Plymouth Rock Eggs.” It was not unusual for station masters on country branch line stations to supplement their income through side-lines such as selling coal or keeping hens for eggs. However, it appears Mr Mortimer was not happy with any ordinary chicken and egg, and according to other letters in the Collection he set about making enquiries into the “age, strain & blood” of Plymouth Rock pullets to purchase.

A scan of the Beryl Thomas of Swansea Letter - NYMR Archive

The Archive team first became interested in Station Master Wilson Mortimer of Stutton Station when a collection of correspondence pertaining to Stutton Station from the 1880s and 1890s period was added to the Archive in 2011. Reading through the correspondence the team noted that “poor Mr Mortimer seems to have struggled with the job as he receives constant letters from North Eastern Railway managers over lost goods, unbalanced accounts, and late station paperwork returns amongst other things.” Was it that Mr Mortimer was distracted by the success of his growing brood of Plymouth Rocks? Or was it something else?

David St John Thomas, in his book “The Country Railway”, points out that some station masters with little education found themselves “carrying far more responsibility than assistants at the country bank,” and that “often they struggled.” He notes that station masters were constantly tormented by the railway’s “prodigious paperwork” and “red-tape”. Despite the constant complaints by his managers, Wilson Mortimer held the position for thirty-two years, retiring in 1898 at around the age of sixty. A newspaper article from “The Wetherby News” dated September 1st 1898 which was helpfully sent to our Archive team during the investigations revealed that our station master must have, on a daily basis, faced even greater difficulties than the average station master… for Mr Mortimer was in fact an amputee.

The coal and lime drops at Goathland Station.
Station masters would often supplement their income through side-lines such as selling coal.

The Wetherby News reported:

“STUTTON, RESIGNATION OF THE STATION-MASTER. Mr W Mortimer, station master, Stutton, one of the oldest station masters on the N.E system who has occupied his position for 32 years, has resigned. Mr Mortimer was the only station master who had only his left hand remaining to do his clerical and other work, and had his right arm taken off over 30 years ago, and since that time he has served his employer and the public faithfully with his remaining arm. The right arm is taken off below the elbow and since that time the stump has been broken twice. Last time about a year ago, when he fell and had nothing to protect himself, and broke both arms and his ribs. Suffering from rheumatism in his only hand, he is unable to continue clerical work, and is resigning from the service, and we wish him long life and health.”

Wilson Mortimer was born in Wombleton, in 1939, the son of a shoemaker. On the 1861 census at the age of 22, he is recorded as being a farm labourer, and ten years later is recorded as being Station Master at Stutton. Whether his amputation happened during his time as a farm labourer or whilst at the railway, and whether it was caused by an accident or illness, isn’t known, but despite this disability, he not only worked at Stutton Station for 32 years but ran a successful side business rearing speciality Plymouth Rock hens and cockerels as well.

A pair of urban barred Plymouth Rock Hens - Thomas Kriese/Wikimedia

Originally an American breed, the large size of the Plymouth Rock eggs would be ideal at Easter for Victorian children to decorate as was the tradition at the time. However, having ten children of his own to feed, Wilson Mortimer may have needed quite a few of those eggs himself, before supplying any customers!

Helena Fox, Learning and Interpretation Officer, on behalf of Education and Archives.