Heir hunt finds tragic Wigan family history

The tale of a Wigan family's tragic demise in one of the country's worst rail disasters has been told in a fascinating television investigation.

Thursday, 19th April 2018, 5:59 pm
Updated Thursday, 19th April 2018, 6:06 pm
Staff at Wigan-based geneaology firm Estate Research

Popular BBC show Heir Hunters yesterday told the heartbreaking story of the Cheetham family, several members of which were among the 112 people who died in the Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash in 1952.

The intriguing investigation was carried out by Wigan genealogy firm Estate Research, who had been looking into the unclaimed estate of James Cheetham, a former factory worker who died in 2015, aged 72.

A lifelong bachelor, James left no will and had no immediate family, prompting authorities to contact Estate Research to launch the search.

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At the scene of the Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash in 1952

Their hunt for James’ next of kin would uncover a family history of both great strength and sadness, and sporting legend in the family tree.

The team found that James’ mother Alice Robinson had died in the rail crash when he was just nine years old.

They also discovered that his uncle Robert, a miner, was a world famous wrestler who fought under the name of Billy Joyce. His success elevated him from the coalface in Wigan to a world heavyweight champion.

Further enquiries then found that Robert was travelling with James’s mother onboard one of the three trains which collided in 1952, along with other members of the Cheetham family.

At the scene of the Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash in 1952

James’s mother Alice and pregnant cousin May Jean were killed. They had been on their way to Southampton to bid farewell to a relative who was emigrating to America.

Robert survived the crash, and in fact would become a hero that day, pulling injured passengers from the wreckage. He died in 2000.

Martin Dutton, who worked on the case, said of the investgation: “It made us feel sad, sometimes excited, depending on the scenario.

“We found someone famous who had great exploits, and other occasions of quite sad stories.

He added: “It was just fate that this Wigan family all got on that train.”

The researchers eventually found two living relatives of James in England and several other potential heirs in America. To find out more about how Estate Research traced them, catch Heir Hunters on BBC iPlayer.