John Axon GC (Direct Recipient)

b. 04/12/1900 Stockport, Cheshire. d. 09/02/1957 Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire.

DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 09/02/1957 Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire.

John Axon (1900-1957) was born on 4th December 1900 at 38, Providence Street, Stockport, Cheshire, the son of William Henry and Mary Eliza Axon (nee Smith). John had three sisters and a brother. John attended Hanover Church School in Stockport, before leaving at the age of 14 to become an apprentice to a painter/decorator. He soon became disillusioned with this profession, and he joined the staff of the London and North Western Railway on 12th December 1919.

John Axon GC

His employment on the railways began as a cleaner, before gradually working up the promotion ladder to fireman, eventually ending up as a driver. He married Gladys Richardson on 17th September 1930, and they had two sons, Bryan (born 1932) and Graham (born 1938). John moved onto working for British Rail, and at the time of his death, had served the railway industry for 38 years.

On 9th February 1957 he was the driver of the 11.05am freight train from Buxton to Warrington. The train consisted of 33 loaded wagons and a brake van, weighing over 650 tons. Less than two miles out of Buxton, the train was approaching Chapel-en-Frith station, and Driver Axon was preparing to stop his train before descending a steep gradient when suddenly the brake steam pipe fractured, destroying the braking system and filling the cab with blinding, scalding steam. Mr Axon was badly burnt. He could have abandoned the engine and saved his life, but, realising the risk of a runaway, he remained at his post and with great bravery endeavoured to get the engine under control. With the aid of his fireman, the regulator was closed, and the handbrake applied but the train could not be stopped going down the gradient. He then ordered his fireman to jump clear and apply as many wagon brakes as possible. In spite of his actions the train continued to gather speed. Nevertheless, he stayed on his engine, although steam and boiling water were still pouring into the cab, making conditions almost unbearable. He waved a warning to the signalman that the train was out of control. Sadly, the train smashed into a freight train and he was killed in the collision.

In the enquiry that followed led by Brigadier C.A. Langley, found no blame for any party but some modifications were made to steam brake gear as a result of his report. John Axon was posthumously awarded the George Cross (London Gazette, 7th May 1957), becoming the oldest man but one to earn it. He received several other posthumous awards, including British Railways’ Certificate of Courage and Resource, the Daily Herald Order of Industrial Heroism and Shield for Bravery from Stockport Council. He was also immortalised in song, when “The Ballad of John Axon”, was written by Ewen McColl and Charles Parker and was first broadcast on the BBC on 2nd July 1958.

On 7th June 1978, John Axon’s George Cross was presented by his family to the National Railway Museum in York, where it is on display. The Cross is unusual in that it only bears the name John Axon on the reverse, with no date beneath the name, as is the tradition. On 19th February 1981 at London Euston Station, Mr Frank Cannon, Assistant General Secretary of the National Union of Railways unveiled a nameplate “Driver John Axon GC” on locomotive 86261. It was attended by his widow Gladys and son Graham and his grandchildren.