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John Axon : biography

4 December 1900 - 9 February 1957

John Axon GC (4 December 1900 – 9 February 1957), commonly known as Jack Axon,Michael Ashcroft, George Cross Heroes, 2010 was an English train driver from Stockport (Edgeley Depot) who died while trying to stop a runaway freight train on a 1 in 58 gradient at Chapel-en-le-Frith in Derbyshire after a brake failure. The train consisted of an ex-LMS Stanier Class 8F 2-8-0 No. 48188 hauling 33 wagons and a brake van.


His grandson, also named John Axon, was a television actor best known for his role as Nigel Harper in The Royal; he also played roles in other series such as Life on Mars, City Central and Peak Practice. The Manchester Evening News reported on 25 October 2008 that he collapsed and died of a suspected heart attack, aged 48.


On the outward trip from Stockport to Buxton that day, Driver Axon had noticed a leak from the supply to the locomotive steam brake and had requested and received fitter's attention at the Buxton depot. On the return trip from Buxton to Stockport, the repair did not hold and the supply pipe broke away from the steam brake disabling the locomotive steam brake and whistle. This filled the locomotive cab with scalding steam and prevented Driver John Axon and Fireman Ron Scanlon from reaching the controls.

Before radios, engines used whistles to communicate with each other which was obviously not possible if the cab was filled with scalding steam. Thus the crew of the banking engine at the rear of Driver Axon's train remained unaware of the problems at the front and unfortunately kept pushing Driver Axon's train towards Dove Holes summit.

Driver Axon told his Fireman Scanlon to jump off and attempt to apply wagon brakes but, due to the speed the train was travelling, he only managed to apply a few before the train reached the summit and began accelerating down the 1 in 58 gradient towards Chapel-en-le-Frith. At the time of the locomotive failure, Driver Axon could have jumped clear of the then slow-moving train. However, aware of the danger that his train posed to life further down the line, he stayed with his accelerating train despite the scalding steam on the footplate, trying to close the regulator in the hope that this would mitigate the effects of a collision.

Warned by the Dove Holes signalman, the staff at Chapel-en-le-Frith were able to evacuate a two-car DMU, but had no time to warn the crew of a Rowsley to Stockport freight. The runaway smashed into the rear of it killing the guard and Axon.


Axon was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1957. His George Cross was donated to the National Railway Museum in 1978.

He was the subject of a famous 1957 radio ballad (The Ballad of John Axon), the first of the series, written by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and produced by Charles Parker. A CD released in June 2008, 'Primary Transmission' by the artist Broadcaster on Red Grape Records, included the song 'Johnny' which is based on samples from the Ballad of John Axon and set to new music.

On 19 February 1981, a British Rail Class 86 electric locomotive number 86261 called 'Driver John Axon, GC' was named at a ceremony at Euston Station, London.

In February 2007, a DMU Class 156 train was named 'Driver John Axon, GC' at Buxton and a plaque commemorating the events was unveiled, to be mounted at Chapel-en-le Frith station. The plaque is now mounted on the station buildings at Chapel-en-le-Frith facing onto the southbound platform.

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