In 1840, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s famous London to Bristol Great Western Railway arrived at Reading. So it could reach the town, the railway builders made a cutting nearly two miles long and up to 60 feet deep through high ground at Sonning. Several men were killed or injured digging this cutting.
But what’s perhaps the railway’s most unusual death was the result of a bizarre weather event. On March 24, just six days before the opening of Reading’s new station, a freak whirlwind killed rail worker Henry West.
The highly unusual mini-tornado ripped off a four-ton section of the station roof. Henry, a 24-year-old carpenter from Wiltshire who was fixing the glazing of the roof at the time, was hurled to his death. His broken body was found 200 feet away in a ditch.
A few days later his funeral was held at the nearby St Laurence church. It was attended by more than 40 of his fellow workmen, some of whom erected a wooden marker (known as a “rail”) on his grave to commemorate him.
The original rail was renewed by his brother George in 1862, by his niece in 1924, and again by Reading’s town council in 1971. Today, you can still see Henry’s wooden memorial hidden among the stone headstones of this historic cemetery.
Know Before You Go
Henry's memorial is only a five-minute walk from the railway station. You can find it by taking the footpath between the Victorian Town Hall and the medieval church of St Laurence’s. The path opens into a quiet cemetery despite its busy city center location, overlooked by the former 15th-century guest house or hospitium of Reading Abbey. The wooden grave marker is on the right of the path just before the steps leading down to the road and the Forbury Gardens.