The National Railway Museum has acquired the George Cross medal awarded posthumously to train driver Wallace “Wally” Oakes, who stayed aboard a burning locomotive cab to prevent a serious accident.
On 5 June 1965, Wallace’s bravery and quick thinking saved the lives of hundreds of passengers on the West Coast Mainline at Winsford outside Crewe.
After setting off from Crewe station at the controls of the ‘Britannia’ class steam locomotive Firth of Forth, which was pulling an express passenger train from Euston to Carlisle, a severe blowback occurred which filled the cabin with smoke and flames.
Driver Oakes suffered severe burns in the incident but remained at the controls while the engine was ablaze to bring the train to halt, protecting his passengers from harm. Wallace received 80 per cent burns and later died of his injuries.
His fireman Gwilym Roberts was also badly injured but managed to jump clear and summon medical help. He provided a first-hand account of Wallace’s heroism which led to the posthumous award of the George Cross on 19 October 1965.
The medal was introduced by King George VI and is the highest civilian honour. Only six railway workers have received the George Cross, making it extremely rare.
Wallace’s medal was purchased for £60,000 at auction, equalling the record for historical railwayana which was set in 2003 with the sale of the A4 Pacific locomotive nameplate ‘Golden Fleece’.
As well as the George Cross, the lot also includes a Carnegie Medal and a British Railways citation recognising Wallace Oakes’ great bravery. All items will be displayed to the public at the National Railway Museum in York.
Andrew McLean, Assistant Director and Head Curator at the National Railway Museum, said:
“I am delighted to confirm that the National Railway Museum has acquired the George Cross which was awarded posthumously to train driver Wallace Arnold Oakes in 1965.
“Wallace stayed on the footplate of a burning locomotive to bring his passenger train to a stop—an act of outstanding bravery which undoubtedly saved many lives. Sadly, he later died of his injuries and we plan to put this medal on display to recognise his heroism and to share his story, which deserves to be more widely known by the public.
“During the age of steam working on the railways was a dangerous profession and accidents were unfortunately a common occurrence, so it is fitting that as well as commemorating Wallace’s incredible bravery, we recognise and remember all those who were killed or injured on the railways. I would like to thank the Friends of the National Railway Museum who were instrumental in bringing this rare and significant item into the National Collection.”
The Science Museum Group provided £30,000 towards the purchase cost and the remaining £30,000 was provided by the Friends of the National Railway Museum. Set up in 1977, the charity supports the conservation, preservation and display of the UK’s railway heritage.
Philip Benham, Chairman of Friends of the National Railway Museum, said:
“The gallantry of Wallace Oakes, at great personal cost, is a courageous example of the dedication so often displayed by railwaymen and women, and it is fitting that his actions were recognised with the George Cross and Carnegie medals. The work of the Friends of the National Railway Museum makes acquisitions such as this possible, and I would like to thank all those whose donations and support help keep such important historical items in the UK and on display to the public.”
The National Railway Museum intends to display the medals to the public, and further details will be announced in due course.
The auction was held by Great Central Railwayana Auctions and took place on 2 September at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire.
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