St Woolos Cemetery - The Haunted Holy Ground

From the book "The Haunted Holy Ground" by Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame published in 1988.

About the Authors






Grave Of A Railway King

By Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame
First published 1988

© Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame 2012

The grave of Joseph Firbank is one of the grandest in the cemetery, its slim column topped by an intricately carved figure. It is a fitting memorial to a man who rose from being a Durham miner to a legend in his own lifetime.

The grave of Joseph Firbank
The grave of Joseph Firbank

The Carlisle to Settle railway which snakes across the North country high over the Pennines is one of the engineering marvels of the Victorian age and its construction marks the high point of Joseph Firbank’s career. Not many people know that in Newport’s cemetery is buried a man who as the creator of this railway could claim to be the equal of the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Firbank was the self-made man par excellence. Born in County Durham the son of a miner he was himself down the pit even before his teens.

But even by the standards of modern-day Yuppies who ride to riches on the Stock Exchange, Firbank’s career was phenomenal . It was obvious to Firbank’s family, and such friends as the intently serious young men ever had, that he was earmarked for great things.

He was determined to tear himself away from the pits, where the existence was brutal, the poverty grinding and the life expectancy short. Other men sought refuge in ale: Firbank sought it in books. Even while the lights in the pit village taprooms were burning, the candles in Firbank’s cottage spluttered as he slaved over his books and notes.

A man blessed - or cursed - with such singlemindedness must necessarily miss out some of the things that bring joy to the lives of the more frivolously inclined. There was no time for dancing or drinking and even though Firbank was to be respected as spectacularly successful, even his friends could not deny that he was a dour, rather hard and distant man.

By the age of 22 and with a good grounding in mathematics and engineering behind him had won an important sub-contract for work on the Stockton Darlington railway, the first passenger railway in Britain.

These were rumbustious days, when the shrewd and the aggressive could make it, but the hesitant and over-scrupulous went quickly to the wall.

Railway masters of the early and middle years of the last century had to control gangs of navvies, tough men whose days were spent in backbreaking labour and nights in brawling and drunkenness. It was common for the navvies to be set upon by gangs of rural workers employed by irate landowners who feared the railways were ruining their way of life. In one such battle Firbank himself was captured and held for 24 hours!

Images of the railway forging through the wild west of the United States are common on our screens, but it was every bit as tough in the Britain of the mid-19th century.

Firbank forged his way all through this. His dislike of idleness and holidays was legendary and his lifestyle was frugal to the point of being spartan. Each day he would rise at five and work through until eight, when he would go to bed for the next day.

A business colleague described a typical Firbank day thus: “When at home he used to rise at five and roam around the farm (at St Julian’s, near Newport) to see if all the labourers and others were at their posts, visit the yard and brickworks on the estate; back to breakfast at eight, read the morning’s letters then drive to his office and reply to them.

“This finished he would attend the magisterial bench or a board meeting of the gas, water or colliery companies of which he was a director, or failing this visit any railway contract he might have in progress near Newport, returning home at about four o’clock to dine. The evening was spent in conversation assisted by a pipe until half past eight when he retired to bed.”

On June 29, 1886 at the age of 67 Firbank died, leaving seven sons. Firbank Avenue and Firbank Crescent in Newport are additional reminders of the man they called Gwent’s Railway King.

In memory of Joseph Firbank who died June 29 1886 Aged 67 years. "From labour there shall come forth rest."
Inscription on the grave of Joseph Firbank.