Posted onJanuary 26, 2020|Comments Off on Why Family History is Like A Box of Chocolates
It’s the end of January and I’m still eating my way through my Christmas chocolates. As I do so I can’t help but compare them with my family history research.
Each box and tin contains an overwhelming selection. One temptation is to dive in and, without any planning or forethought, work your way right through the entire box. That can be true of family history. A scattergun approach, jumping from one tempting ancestor to another. It’s great to start with, but ultimately it becomes less and less satisfying.
The other similarity is that often in that box or tin, some flavours and types are your favourites. You may be like me and go for them first (coconut is my personal weakness). The least tempting I leave till the end, and then I’m faced with nothing but a heap of orange creams which I must force myself to eat (it has to be done). Again, family history research can be the same. You have your favourite ancestors and these are the ones you go for first. You can’t get enough of them. Other ancestors, for whatever reason, don’t hold the same interest. These are the ones left for another day. And when you do pick them up, they’re not very satisfying.
On the same theme some chocolates are expensive. Others have more substance. Or they may have multiple layers and taste sensations. These could be your wealthy ancestors, or your ancestors with lots of associated records or the ones with really fascinating and varied lives.
My final comparison is that you can have too much of a good thing. It’s that end of January feeling when eating chocolates becomes a huge chore rather than a great pleasure. Personally I’m at the stage of not wanting to see another chocolate, but I feel I must plough on. And yes, hard as it is to believe, that can happen with research too. Family history morning, noon and night can leave you jaded by it all. That initial enthusiasm can wear off. So it’s good to have a break from it, even if only for a week or so. Then, like chocolates, you can return to it with renewed enthusiasm!
Actually, in hindsight, I may have eaten far too many chocolates this month. And done too much family history too (only joking). Which is why I’m having such fanciful thoughts. Normal service will be resumed in February.
Comments Off on Why Family History is Like A Box of Chocolates
What plans have you made to preserve for your family history research after your death? That’s a question I posed nearly two years ago. Dealing with life from cradle to grave and beyond, you’d think this would be something family historians, more than most groups, were on top of.
Wrong. Almost half of those who responded said they had no plan in place. Reasons for this varied, including no-one in the family was interested; the researcher had no close relatives; or even simply a case that they had never given it a thought. Surprisingly, this latter response didn’t apply only to those new to family history. I guess we don’t like to think of a time when we’re not here!
What will become of my research is something I’ve considered ever since. Not least because I was one of the ‘no plan’ cohort. I guess I hoped it would all be OK. But, thinking about it, it isn’t fair to let my relatives and executors sort it out. In addition to their grief, they will have enough practical arrangements to deal with. And under those circumstances, there is a possibility it all may be thrown away as the easy option. So, I need to take responsibility and make things easier for them. It’s up to me to decide what I want to happen to my research…including if I’m happy for it to be destroyed.
The bottom line is I don’t want it to end up in the bin after I’m gone. And I expect many other family historians, one-name and one-place ‘studiers’ feel the same about their work. That means making plans now.
For some, the emotional and personal aspect of family history research means the ideal solution is to bequeath it to an immediate family member…assuming there is someone eager and able to take it on. Although conversely, does this ultimately rob them of the pleasure of research? That’s another dilemma.
In the case of a one-name study, there may be someone else willing to continue researching that name.
But beyond that, there are other alternatives. In this piece I’ve put forward some of these wider options.
Three key points from the outset.
You need to check that the individual(s) and organisation(s) who you intend leaving your research to are happy to receive it. They simply might not have the space or resources to house it. If it’s an organisation, it may not be suitable for them. And, particularly if it is an organisation, it’s only fair to make sure your donation is going to be in a format acceptable to them. All this requires planning. Which leads on to the second point.
If possible, do make sure you have properly organised and labelled your research. That’s one of the reasons for including in my 2020 New Year’s Resolutions the commitment to review all my research and ensure full source citations are included. Then I need to make sure it’s stored in an organised, logical manner. That means it’s far easier for it to be passed on, and those looking at it in later years can fully understand the sources used, any gaps with them, and the arguments underpinning the conclusions. And finally;
Whatever you decide, do formalise it by including it in your will. In addition, do make sure several people know this is your wish. You don’t want it ending up in the skip before the will has been executed.
So what are the wider options?
Many family history societies have library sections which take donations. Some will have established formal donation policies. It’s worth making contact to see if your research is something they would be interested in, especially if it fits with the area they cover.
Check out local history societies too. Again they may have a library section to accommodate research, or even an active website where they can share information about local families.
It may be worth contacting your local Council’s library department, particularly if there is a main local studies library, or if the various branch libraries specialise in local history themes. It is worth bearing in mind, though, the funding pressures facing libraries. Many have downsized or closed in recent years, with reference sections being particularly squeezed.
Depending on the type of documents you have, would a local archive be interested?
Nationally, organisations such as the Society of Genealogists (SoG) take donations. Their collections policy states they welcome “original work and papers of genealogists and family historians as well as material primarily of genealogical interest which other archives are not interested in.” More details about donating to the SoG are here.
If you have a one-name study check out the Guild of One-Name Studies, and their page which explains more about preserving your study, including an example will codicil.
Ultimately, it may be that your research covers a number of distinct areas, and is best split between multiple organisations. But, if so, even more reason for you to do the planning now.
There are other things to consider when bequeathing your research, particularly to an organisation or repository. These include asking yourself if they are likely to be around long-term to ensure your work is preserved. With so many organisations struggling due to cut-backs or falling membership numbers, their future viability is a genuine factor. If so, can you include provisions for that eventuality? For example, will your donation be classed as a permanent gift, or is a loan possible? If your aim is to ensure your research is made available to others after your death, will the recipient be able to deliver that level of accessibility? And would you want access to be free? Also, because there is a financial cost to the organisation in cataloguing, storing, conserving and making available your research, do consider making an accompanying monetary bequest.
Finally, there are some practical steps you can take to share and disseminate your work in your lifetime. These include blogging, creating a website, having a family history FaceBook Page, uploading a public version of your family tree (e.g. via Ancestry or GenesReunited), sharing information with relevant one-place or one-name studies, or even writing a family history book and distributing copies to relatives. But some of these may lead to whole new topics…not least around preserving your digital legacy!
Hopefully this has given you some ideas. As for me, I’m leaving everything to an interested family member. I’ve also got my blog which includes some family history tales. And in 2014 I wrote and distributed my paternal family history book (which now needs updating). Which reminds me, I must do one for my mum’s side – something I’d overlooked until writing this post. Family history is never done!
I love Call the Midwife. A recent episode, set in 1965, about illegitimacy and the pressure on single women to give up their baby (or marry) really does give pause for thought about attitudes towards women in society generally, even within living memory.
It got me thinking wider about beliefs about the role of women in the middle part of the 20th century, particularly married working women. Certain jobs today are perceived as traditionally female occupations. As a former civil servant, I have an interest in this work area. Civil Service jobs, particularly junior administrative and clerical roles, may fall within this traditionally ‘female’ category. But perhaps that impression may not be quite as it seems.
Today 53.9% of the UK Civil Service are women, of all relationship statuses. However, in the not-so-distant past, this was not the case. Until the Great War, it was a male-dominated profession. Yes, the labour vacuum created by the two wars did result in the influx of female workers. But the position was far more nuanced – particularly with regard to marital status. The way the Civil Service was structured and operated in the mid 20th century was transformed totally by the end of the century.
One key factor influencing Civil Service employment in the early and middle part of the 20th century, which may not be obvious today, was the distinction between established and unestablished Civil Servants. Linked to this was a marriage bar for established female Civil Servants, a ban imposed by the government.
It meant married women couldn’t become established (permanent, pensionable) Civil Servants , and single women who were in the established cadre had to resign when they did marry, unless granted a waiver to continue. This waiver was an exceptional occurrence, with only eight of these granted between 1934 and 1938. In effect, married women were second-class citizens.
The Civil Service position regarding married women working in permanent roles was not unique. Similar restrictions on the employment of married women applied for a wide range of professions, some of these also traditionally viewed as suited to women. These included the post office (part of the Civil Service until the 1960s), banking, teaching and nursing.
The reasons for having this restriction included the view that it was the woman’s responsibility after marriage to look after her husband. Marriage was, in fact, a career in its own right – albeit unpaid! In 1944, when the marriage bar issue was under discussion by the Union of Post Office Workers, one representative argued:
In this country we have always held that a woman’s place is in the home.
This from someone in an organisation championing worker’s rights!
It was also perceived that women became less efficient employees once married, as their minds were no longer wholly on their job. They also needed time off to have children, and were unpunctual or absent because of their family responsibilities. Linked to this was the belief that it was the fundamental right of a man to be the provider in his own home. Working wives somehow shifted this balance, emasculating their husbands. Furthermore, married working women reduced employment opportunities for men, and this contributed to male unemployment. These women also took jobs and promotion opportunities away from single women, who needed work more than their married (and supposedly financially supported) sisters. And perhaps I’m being cynical here, but it also saved money. Pay was linked to time-served progression. Forcing women out on marriage meant their progression up the pay scale was curtailed.
But attitudes slowly shifted as the Second World War drew to a close, and practicalities were weighed up. Banishing a whole section of the female population to the kitchen again, and denying them rights to a full working life, was becoming an increasingly difficult line to hold. Once more, women needed to plug wartime labour market gaps, and stepped up to the plate effectively. There was also a growing realisation that the experience, ideas and contributions of a whole section of society was being denied. Female university graduates were put off from applying for jobs with no long-term prospects. Arguments were put forward that married female employment was not a cause of male unemployment, and pulling a whole section of women out of the workforce was not the answer. The push for equality, and freedom of choice, therefore gained traction, despite ingrained prejudices. And, ironically, labour-saving devices around the home helped too, freeing time and opening up the world of work to more women.
The marriage bar was gradually removed from 1944 onwards (this was the date the wider teaching profession lifted the restriction). The Civil Service was only slightly behind the pace – it was becoming increasingly untenable for government to continue with the policy. For well over a decade, the restriction on married women working in the established Civil Service had been under discussion. It had a Marriage Bar Committee investigating various aspects associated with the policy, both pros and cons. There was even a National Whitley Council report on the subject. The decision could no longer be kicked into the long grass.
The marriage bar was finally abolished in October 1946 for the Home Civil Service, and 1973 for Foreign Service employment. More details about this are at here.
In his explanatory parliamentary statement on 15 October 1946, Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Edward Hugh John Neale Dalton, said:
In future, married women will not be ineligible by reason of their marriage for appointment to established posts in the Home Civil Service, and women who remain in the Service will be required to comply with the normal conditions and practices of their employment, including regular attendance, the working of overtime when necessary and the acceptance of the liability to transfer within the United Kingdom and outside it. Those who, on account of domestic responsibilities or otherwise, are unable to comply with these conditions will not be retained in Service. The abolition of the marriage bar will take effect today. It will not give any right of reinstatement to women who in the past have been required to resign from the Civil Service on marriage. Marriage gratuities will be paid , as hitherto, to women who voluntarily resign from established Civil Service posts on marriage.
However, the opposition to the removal of the marriage bar in the Civil Service and elsewhere continued to be aired well into the 1950s. For example, at the Civil Service Conference of 1950, a motion to re-introduce it was defeated by 7,348 votes to 5,454.
The arguments for its re-imposition focused around easing the redundancy threat facing established officers, particularly married men. Questions were also raised about the future shape of the Civil Service. The implication being this was a step on the slippery slope to employing married women with children. It raised the question:
What kind of Civil Service are we building up? Next we’ll be asking to requisition playpens so they can bring their children into the office.
There were even cartoons depicting the chaos of infants in the office.
And some were unhappy at the potential job competition faced by single women from their married counterparts. Men clearly had an ulterior motive for espousing this view, although some single women did put it forward too.
An illustration of the denial of jobs for unmarried women argument was seen at the Union of Post Office Workers Annual Conference of 1953. This was a union which had campaigned for the removal of the marriage bar in the Civil Service. Yet at their 1953 Conference, attempts were made to seek reimposition of the ban on married women in the Post Office. Those in favour here claimed it was unfair that single women who had dependents were being denied an income, whilst married women were able to afford TV sets and washing machines from their dual family income. The Conference contained the immortal lines of one speaker:
Do not let us have girls standing in unemployment queues while their married colleagues are going about looking like bookies wives.
However, the situation of married women working did gradually become tolerated and accepted.
By 15 September 1958, The Times, in a feature on Whitehall Women, focusing on Administrative Class (senior hierarchy) rather than the more junior Executive, Clerical and other Officer Classes, was extolling the opportunities in the Home Civil Service for suitably qualified women, stating that:
…the State is an enlightened employer recognising by generous maternity leave that a married woman may have children in the course of her career and arrange her life so she can have the best of these two worlds.
It went on to cover advantages such as annual leave, a five-day week, the prospect of travel to places such as Paris, Bonn, Geneva and Washington, and, from 1961, equal pay with male colleagues. This was all aimed at enticing more female university graduates to apply for a Civil Service career.
Yet even in this article there was the whiff of sexism, with lines such as:
If they are attractive, as well as having good brains, “they are most useful” to quote an official “in swaying meetings.”
Despite the example set by government for Home Service Civil Servants, the marriage bar continued formally and informally in the private sector even beyond the 1950s. For example, Barclays Bank did not abolish it until 1961. And there was still a bar in place for Foreign Service Civil Servants into the early 1970s.
So it is well worth considering this specific restriction on the employment of women when investigating the occupations of your female ancestors. Did such a restriction play a part in their career choices, even the choices for university graduates? And did it also play a part in prematurely ending their working lives, effectively forcing them to leave their jobs and work colleagues? And imagine how that felt, cut adrift from the familiar routine of their lives, their friends and daily interactions, let alone the monetary impact.
It also is worth considering that the Civil Service wasn’t structured as now – it contained two classes of workers: established (which is probably what we regard today as the Civil Service) and unestablished. And very different terms and conditions of employment existed when compared to today. Even if jobs and professions continue today, do investigate the terms and conditions which existed for your ancestors. You may be surprised.
Finally, the marriage bar and societal attitudes towards it, provides yet another fascinating insight into the lives of our female ancestors, and the job choices they had. And it is another example of the pitfall of using 21st century eyes to view the lives of our ancestors, and their work (and life) options. Many did not choose to give up work, they were in effect forced out because they married and their job did not permit them to continue under these circumstances.
Notes:  The Civil Service structure, and its strict recruitment and promotion procedures, was a complex system. In addition to established permanent Civil Servants, there existed another tier of unestablished employees. The unestablished Civil Service were essentially supposed to be non-permanent staff, not subject to the superannuation act. They were meant to plug gaps such as those created during wartime, or through seasonal fluctuations. They could be easily dispensed with when conditions changed, thus protecting established staff from the threat of redundancy. Recruitment of these temporary staff tended to be on a Departmental level and not as a result of stringent centrally imposed examinations. It was therefore a concern that if these unestablished workers did gain entry to the established ranks (which could happen) they would not match the rigorous intellectual standards attained by examination entrant Civil Servants. Nevertheless there was some blurring, with an increasing tendency for unestablished posts to become temporary in name only without the benefits of permanency. This in itself resulted in pressure for change. However, even as late as 1 January 1965 there were approximately 159,000 temporary non-industrial civil servants.  These length of service based gratuities were paid upon marriage to permanent female civil servants who had worked a minimum of six (established) years.
Perhaps taphophilia and family history go hand in hand? I can spend ages wandering through a cemetery marvelling at the various headstone designs and reading the inscriptions. The architecture and symbolic imagery of some headstones is simply stunning. They contain so many stories, so much history and they silently speak volumes about attitudes towards death, culture, beliefs, religion, mourning and mortality over the ages.
Importantly, for family historians, they can contain clues about family sizes, family relationships, occupations, interests and causes of death. For example, Lottie Oddy’s headstone (above) in Batley Cemetery, details her unusual death cause – a tale I wrote about in an earlier blog. And only the other day in Masham I discovered several occupational graves, including that of Ralph Edon (below).
They may record deaths of family members buried elsewhere. For example, several headstones in Batley cemetery record deaths of Great War servicemen buried overseas, or with no known grave. On a personal level for my research, a Hallas headstone at Roberttown All Saints includes the name of a child buried at Mirfield St Mary’s.
Some clues may be very subtle. One headstone in Batley cemetery recorded death dates for all family members bar one. Further investigation revealed his body had been dumped on a doorstep, and the exact date of death was unknown.
And don’t forget to note wider details. The headstone, or burial location within the cemetery, could be an indication of the family’s wealth or standing in the community.
I’ve visited so many cemeteries over the years, hunting down the headstones of ancestors and those I’m researching. Here are five tips to get the most out of family history tombstone tourism.
Plan your visit. Make a note of names, dates and plot numbers. Check cemetery opening times – not all are open 24/7. There may be a useful cemetery website, a church or local authority contact point.
See if there’s a map of the cemetery showing plot sections and plot numbers. Are there separate sections for different religious denominations e.g. a consecrated section for Church of England burials, and an unconsecrated area for other denominations? Even within the unconsecrated sections, there may be a clear division between Catholic and nonconformist areas.
Some local authorities may, for a fee, be able to say who is buried in a particular plot and if there is a headstone. Many cemeteries have ‘Friends Of’ groups, or there may be a family history society who has made a note of Memorial Inscriptions. They too may have information databases.
Cemetery registers may be available. If possible, try to note details of other plots in the particular section you are seeking. Your plot of interest may not have a headstone, and grave markers can be obscured. But you may be able to pinpoint your ancestor’s unmarked burial place from the neighbouring headstones.
Another tip is to check sites such as Find A Grave or BillionGraves and download the Apps. Their images and GPS may help in pinpointing a specific grave.
When you get to the cemetery don’t rush in. Take a general look to get an overview, establish bearings and see if the cemetery has identifiable sections depending on burial time period.
Dress sensibly and come prepared. Cemeteries can be vast, and a visit can involve lots of walking. The ground is often uneven, and not all burial grounds are immaculately kept. They can be overgrown with long grass, thorns and tendrils whipping around your knee and ankles, all hiding lots of biting insects. In wet weather the long grass may soak through points of contact. So stout, comfortable walking shoes are the order of the day. No heels, canvas shoes or open toed-sandals. Long trousers too. If it’s hot weather slap on the sunscreen and fetch your water. Pack waterproofs in case of a sudden downpour. And take something to kneel on – your waterproofs (if you’re not using them!) Even something as simple as a plastic bag comes in handy here. Without an improvised kneeler, damp, muddy trouser knees can be an uncomfortable occupational hazard of headstone photography – I speak from experience!
Take a pencil and notebook to record findings (including negative) and to write out problematical inscriptions, indicating where the gaps or issues are. It’s like a transcription exercise! In fact it may be prudent to copy in full all important inscriptions in your notebook, in case there is a problem with photographs which goes unnoticed until your return home.
And, sad to say, do take sensible safety precautions. Cemeteries can be lonely places. So explore in daylight, accompanied if possible, and not carrying lots of expensive kit.
Photograph. I take multiple snaps on both my camera and phone camera. If there’s a sign indicating cemetery name, that’s the first image. It signposts where the subsequent headstone images were taken.
Next, I take images of the full headstone from various angles, followed by close-ups of the inscription. These close-ups can run into several images depending on the headstone size, and the number and length of inscriptions. I include images from both back, front and, if appropriate the sides of the headstone. And don’t ignore the base of the headstone, peaking out at ground level. All these areas may contain inscriptions or additional details. One good example of this was the headstone of the Hallas Family at Kirkburton All Hallows. The front of the grave includes details of my 5x great grandparents Amos and Ann Hallas. Low down it indicates the grave owner is George Hallas, my 4x great grandfather. The reverse of the headstone has a gem of an inscription about the bizarre and unexpected way their daughter Esther met her death in July 1817, which I wrote about in my first ever blog post.
Finally, I take wider shots to include neighbouring headstones. These too may have a connection, as family headstones may be grouped together.
Once back home I can play about with image settings and use various photo editor apps and programmes. Manipulating the images may help overcome inscription legibility issues.
Don’t be tempted to clean the headstone unless you know exactly what you’re doing, and you have permission. It can be frustrating if an inscription is obscured by algae or lichen, or if weathering has faded lettering. But irreparable damage can be done to the headstone by trying to clean it using inappropriate methods and products, or using remedies such as flour or shaving foam to make the engraving legible. And do remember some plants are actually protected by law. I personally stick to nothing more than a light dousing with water to see if that removes headstone dirt or improves legibility. For me, going beyond that is simply not worth the risk.
Record findings and check information. Do this as soon as possible after your trip, and include the visit date. Graveyards and headstones change over the years. It’s easy to put this mundane chore off, so it becomes caught up in a huge work backlog. Then you forget what you’ve done and where you’ve saved the information. It may even get damaged, erased or permanently lost. All of which could create more work in the long run – through trying to find your original photographs and notes, or even duplicating the work through unnecessary repeat visits.
Also, do not automatically accept any inscription as gospel. Headstones are not official records, and even official records are not immune from errors! Headstones may post-date an individual’s death by some years, and details may be mis-remembered. As a result, ages, dates and information may be incorrect. I’ve seen countless examples of this. As with any other source, headstone inscriptions should be not used in isolation. Their accuracy should be weighed up against other sources.
Hopefully these tips will help you plan your next family history cemetery expedition.
Footnote: Another trick is using a reflective surface, or torch, to light inscriptions from different angles, which can help deciphering them. With thanks to Sue Adams of Family Folk
It has also been suggested don’t take your children with you. After the initial spurt of enthusiasm they can easily get bored!
Many will be starting their family history research in the New Year. That’s the time of year I embarked on my quest many moons ago, when my brother bought me some books as a Christmas present.
The other day I got to thinking about the mistakes I made in those early days, and the advice I wish I’d been given at the outset. Here are 10 tips I wish my younger genie had been given.
Talk to relatives…but only if they want to. Don’t push it. Not all relatives will be comfortable with this, particularly if there are skeletons in the family history cupboard. If they do agree to talk, bear in mind the memory isn’t infallible. Names, dates and events may not be recalled with total accuracy. And there may be some air-brushing to glass over uncomfortable truths.
Make a note of all the sources and references for your findings. That includes the document description, location and reference number. If it was accessed via an online search, note the website address, document dataset and search date. Basically anything and everything you will need to locate it again.
Make a note of all searches – negative as well as positive. It avoids unnecessary repeat searches. Note the search date. This helps with online searches. You only need to repeat when the dataset is updated.
Tempting as it is, avoid the scattergun approach. Plan your research strategy. If you plan, you focus. Don’t try do everything in one go. Concentrate on one person, issue, family at a time. Define the problem, and look at which records may help. Work through methodically.
Don’t accept online family trees as gospel. It’s all too easy if you’re new to family history to accept the research of others without question. Do so at your peril – you could find yourself barking up the wrong tree. Do your own research.
Record your findings as soon as possible. Don’t build up a backlog. I started with a card index system which I still continue. I also now record on a family history software programme. But it could also as easily be an ancestral notebook, or downloading forms such as those available on the FamilySearch Wiki. It’s whatever works for you. The key point is you do it, so your research is up to date. you can quickly evaluate it and spot the gaps.
Don’t get hung up on spellings. Literacy levels and accents all impacted. Be open-minded. Some of my family surnames have upwards of 20 spelling variations. Even Christian names could vary.
By the same token be aware that your ancestors were not necessarily consistent with facts. They may have not known their exact birthday. They may have wished to bend the truth. My great grandmother lied about her age to make it appear she was closer to the age of her husband. She and my great grandfather lied in the 1911 census about the number of years they had been married, to cover illegitimacy of children. Your ancestors were human. And humans don’t always tell the truth. So when searching, build up in parameters either side of dates. Question, question, question. And refer back constantly to previous findings,
Join a family history society. Consider courses. Read to expand your knowledge. Ask if you’re not sure. And accept help. We’ve all been there. And genealogists are a friendly bunch.
Finally be aware – family history research could end up taking over your life. You’re never finished.
I do hope these tips help you start your research on the right track!
2020 promises to be another busy and exciting family history year, both professionally and personally. Away from my professional research, I’m continuing with my monthly family history column in ‘Down Your Way’ magazine. I’m also starting my second year as editor of the Huddersfield & District Family History Society Journal.
But, as ever, I want to set myself some personal family history and general research targets. I’m aiming for a variety of tasks which will be mentally stimulating and stretching, as well as emotionally rewarding. Setting them down in writing will, I hope, focus my mind on these specific pieces of work. If I formally write them down, I can’t ignore them.
Keep on Blogging: If you’d have said back in 2016 how many would read my blog in 2019 I’d be gobsmacked. Due to other time-pressures, blogging is becoming increasingly difficult. The local history pieces are particularly labour-intensive. However, because the mix of local history, family history tales, genealogy tips and one-name studies posts is proving of interest I want to continue with the variety. I am formally committing to continuing writing a minimum of two posts per month.
Conference Commitment: In 2020 I aim to attend one national event, as well as a mixture of courses, talks and local family history fairs. I do feel formalising this is a signal that family history is not only looking backwards. It is pushing forwards, equipped with new skills and strategies.
Tree Review: My family tree has been developing for over 15 years. In 2020 I want to revisit this early research. This is important because my skills today are so much more advanced than my 2004 research abilities. Looking at everything with fresh eyes, using the knowledge I’ve gained over these years, may help me spot gaps and provide a wrecking-ball to earlier brick walls. I also want to re-visit my earlier research to include full source citations. When I started out I was more concerned with the thrill of the hunt, rather than establishing fully documented proof. Now I realise the importance of the latter, not only for me and the need to record the sources for hypothesis and their results, but also for the future generations to whom I will pass on the family history baton. They need to see exactly how I built my proof case.
A New Book Beckons: After completing ‘The Greatest Sacrifice: Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union‘ I said never again to researching and writing another book. The whole experience of authorship was akin to having a baby. The anxiety, doubts and pain of researching, writing, re-writing and proofing took over my life for months. My daily existence revolved around producing a perfect book which would do full justice to those in it. In the final weeks my entire being seemed to be totally devoted to creating this entity. It was my first thought in the morning, my last at night … it even haunted my sleep. And even then, once I’d given birth to it, the nurturing continued. I wanted to ensure others loved it the way I did. Seeing the fruits of all my labour was an overwhelming experience. And now, over a year on from publication, it is out there with a life of its own. I’m there guiding it and watching over it.
But it’s gained its independence. And I’m now ready to create once more. So 2020 will be the start of my new book’s research and development phase. Publication won’t be until 2021 at the earliest. I won’t say too much for now. But it will be based around giving voices to those not normally heard. And it will use my family history research skills. Watch this space for further updates.
It’s Good to Talk: I have already delivered several talks locally. However, I’m expanding on this in 2020. I am rolling out three talks aimed at family and local history audiences. They are about my Rugby League WW1 book, and more generally researching Great War Army ancestors; a Batley and Spen Valley local history talk; and, based on my experience as a genealogy blogger, I have one talk dedicated to blogging for family and local history.
2019 has been a busy year on the family history front, but not quite in the way anticipated when setting my New Year’s Resolutions. Part of the issue has been time spent on my two regular writing commitments: my monthly family history column in Yorkshire nostalgia magazine ‘Down Your Way’; and my role as the editor of the Huddersfield and District Family History Society Quarterly Journal. I will be continuing with both in 2020.
In addition to the above-mentioned responsibilities, research work has taken off. And in the last couple of months family illness had a significant impact on my spare time, and ultimately 2019 resolution performance.
So, how did I do?
My 4x great grandfather Abraham Marshall is still on hold…and he was a hang-over from 2018. Which goes to show how neglected my personal research is at the moment because it’s a low priority compared to my work for others.
I also committed to some continuing professional development goals involving a mix of courses, talks and lectures. Happily, I more than achieved here. As a general observation, I was disappointed I could not make Family Tree Live, The Genealogy Show or RootsTech London due to prior engagements. I hope to remedy this in 2020 by attending a minimum of one national event.
Data extraction for my Aveyard One-Name Study went well in the early half of the year, but tailed off in the second part. But it does continue. I keep telling myself it’s a marathon, not a sprint. As for Aveyard blog posts, I committed to six in 2019. I only wrote five, that tailing off too in correlation to my data collection. But on a positive, I’m further ahead than 12 months ago; and I am now beginning to receive, and answer, inquiries.
As for sewing, my family tree project is underway. Time permitting, it will be completed in 2020.
Not a formal 2019 resolution, but my blog continued to grow. I aimed to do two posts per month, which I more than achieved with a final yearly tally of 33 (including this post). I’m not going to do my usual annual statistical analysis, as the time I would devote to this is probably best spent researching other blog posts. But my 2019 numbers are significantly higher than 2018. Thank you for all your support. I’m thrilled that my family and local history musings and tips continue to be relevant and engaging. I aim to continue the output in 2020, with the same mixture of themes.
No year-end firework spectacular for my 2019 New Year’s Resolution performance, but by no means a damp squib. On balance I’m content with how it panned out.
In my next post I will set out in more detail my family history goals for 2020…including some interesting developments,
Posted onDecember 23, 2019|Comments Off on Hidden History of Batley: A Festive Fireworks Fatality
Festive fireworks on days other than bonfire night are not a modern phenomenon. And if you thought events to promote Batley and boost town trade, such as Batley Festival and Batley Vintage Day, were a 21st century invention, think again.
In the late 19th century, backed by an ambitious and forward-thinking Council, local tradesmen regularly promoted events to draw visitors into town. But the 1886 annual event is memorable for its tragic consequences, ones which would cast a shadow over the town for years to come.
On the 23 and 24 December 1886, the latest town promotional event was in full flow. The shops were decorated, two local brass bands paraded the streets and Commercial Street was partly illuminated by the marvellous innovation of electric lights. The culmination of the two days of festivities, drawing everything to a sensational close, was to be a grand firework display, scheduled for 8pm in the market place on Christmas Eve.
An established family firm of pyrotechnists from Dalton, Huddersfield, were engaged to provide this visual delight. Joseph Womersley Potter had been in the firework business for 15 years. His son Charles Henry Potter, assisted by another son Thomas and a third man, Joseph Pinder, were responsible for Batley’s entertainment. It promised to be an unmissable display, packed with rockets, mortars and spinning wheels.
The blaze of glory to round everything off, and send all home happy, was a volley of around 40 rockets ascending into the night sky, centred around triumphal arch with the motto ‘The Town and Trade of Batley.’ At the back and front of the rocket display stood two mortars which, when ignited by the sparks from the rockets, would each fire towards the heavens a massive shell, exploding to provide a final meteoric shower of lights. This was to be the unforgettable climax of the evening. Unforgettable, as it turned out, for the wrong reasons.
The rain of the day cleared, heralding a clear, crisp winter’s evening, with frost quickly hardening the ground. There was no moonlight, but thousands of stars twinkled in the night sky. A crowd numbering several thousand assembled to watch the spectacle. The focal point was the area around the firework display. A special enclosure was made to encircle this area, on ground between the Hanover Street Congregational Church and the Market and Town Halls. But such was the crush of eager spectators that barriers were pulled down, and some intrepid folk even climbed over railings and entered the Congregational Church grounds to get a better view.
Among the crowds congregated by the now-demolished Market Hall were six local lads, whose emotions within minutes would switch from curiosity, laughter, and eyes-wide-open wonderment to unimaginable horror.
They included two youngsters from Wards Hill: 9-year-old Schofield Senior, the son of Hannah Senior; and John William Tatham, age 10, the son of County Mayo-born couple Michael and Margaret Tatham .
Two of the other boys lived at Woodwell: George Bates, age 14, was son of Mary Jackson and her coal mining husband Henry; and 10-year-old Robert Cassidy, the son of John and Emma, was the brother of Thomas Patrick Cassidy, the man destined to become Batley’s famous rat-catcher.
14-year-old Charles Henry Pinder, the son of coal miner Andrew Pinder, lived at Woodkirk. His mother Hannah Jane had died over six years earlier.
The sixth lad, 13-year-old Liversedge-born Frank Fearnley Sykes, lived at Spring Gardens with his mother, Ellen, and siblings. These included his younger brother Herbert. His father, a leather currier named George, died only the previous month. As a result, Frank quit school to help his mother earn money by delivering the bread and tea cakes which she baked. He left home at about 8pm that evening, bound for the market place, no doubt looking forward to an evening with his friends and a temporary diversion from everyday life.
At just before 9pm, Charles Henry Potter lit the rockets for the grand finale. Thousands of pairs of eyes turned heavenwards to watch the dazzling spectacle. However, in a matter of seconds, a few of the more eagle-eyed in the crowd spotted things had not gone to plan. One of the mortar shells, instead of rising into the air, fired out horizontally, spiralling towards the crowd near the Market Hall, sparks emitting in all directions. Hoards rushed backwards in panic. John Bruce of Clay Fold in the Clark Green area of town, was one of the lucky ones. Standing in the area by the Market Hall, the missile passed to the left of him.
Then the screams and cries of pain rang out in the clear night air, centred around several boys now lying on the ground. Frank Fearnley Sykes clutched at John Bruce pleading “O master, will you take me home?” Bruce asked him “Whose bairn are you lad?” Before fainting, Frank managed to say “I’m George Sykes’s, of Spring Gardens.”
West Riding Police Constable George Edward Horner was in the crowd. He assisted several of the injured boys, four being conveyed to their homes on stretchers for treatment. He then went up to the relatively recently opened Batley Cottage Hospital, on Carlinghow Hill, where the two most seriously injured boys were taken.
By far the worse of these was Frank Fearnley Sykes. In extreme shock, and complaining of only sickness but no pain, he had suffered several burns including severe ones to the inner and upper parts of his thighs. And beneath the sheets of his hospital bed, his shattered, gunpowder-blackened legs were a mangled mess of tissue. Nothing could be done.
Dr Robert Dex Keighley (a former Mayor of Batley) stayed with him till around 11 o’clock on Christmas Eve, until Frank finally slipped from life. After he had left home only three hours earlier, a strong, healthy lad, his mother never saw him alive again.
In an odd aside, it was noted a policeman brought home one of Frank’s badly damaged boots later that night, and a girl fetched the other one to Ellen the following morning. Was this as much a commentary on the value of boots in this period, as a show of compassion and thoughtfulness towards a grieving mother? Boots were not disposable commodities. They were expensive, and essential for work and school. I’ve seen a local school log book in this period full of entries about children unable to attend school in winter due to a lack of boots. They were handed down, repaired time upon time, and passed on after death.
And, in addition to the overwhelming sense of grief, death could drive a family into desperate poverty. In the space of a month, Ellen had lost her husband and son. Besides the loss of income resulting from the death of two main breadwinners, the cost of the actual funeral could be financially crippling. And this was a period of high mortality. So Ellen, like many other families, had taken out life insurance for her son to provide for a decent burial if the unimaginable should happen. Her 44-year-old husband was buried in Batley cemetery on 27 November 1886 and her 13-year-old son was buried in the same plot on 28 December 1886.
The inquest opened on Monday 27 December 1886, at the Wilton Arms and Bridge Hotel. No longer a pub, it still exists as a burger joint – ironically named Frankie’s. Because Frank’s death was a result of a gunpowder accident, a Home Office Inspector of Explosives needed to attend. The Christmas period delayed Royal Artillery Major J.P. Cundill’s appearance and, after hearing from Dr Keighley and Frank’s mother, the inquest was adjourned. It resumed on 31 December, and shifted to the more imposing surroundings of the Town Hall.
The jury reached a verdict that Frank was accidentally injured by fireworks. They expressed the opinion that Charles Henry Potter had not used sufficient care in regard to the mortar. They also said that the fence around the enclosure had not offered sufficient protection to the public. The Jury Foreman, Councillor Isaac Barker, did not make any recommendations for future years as the jury hoped that this would be the last display of fireworks in Batley for some time.
So what happened to the other injured boys?
Of those treated in hospital, Schofield Senior’s right leg was shattered from the knee downwards. On Christmas Day, in a critical condition, the limb was amputated. Thankfully, he did pull through. He earned his living as a tailor, went on to have a family and died in Huddersfield in January 1956.
George Bates was initially taken home suffering burns to his head, face and left leg, but then it was found he needed hospital treatment. He recovered, went on to work as a coal miner and married Sarah Ann Almond at Batley Parish Church in 1895. By 1911 the couple had six surviving children.
John William Tatham was one of the boys treated at home. His injuries were burns to his face and lower limbs.
Robert Cassidy also suffered burns to his head, arms, body and legs. He married Mary Jane Speight in Hunslet in 1907. He emigrated to Australia in 1910 and died in Queensland in February 1954.
Charles Henry Pinder suffered burns to his arms, head and face. He emigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he became a naturalised American citizen, was employed as a mill worker, married and raised a family. He died in May 1950.
And Frank Fearnley Sykes’ name lived on. His brother Herbert named his son, born on 17 February 1907, after him.
Sources: These include various newspapers, the Coroner’s Notebook, censuses, GRO indexes, as well as parish, cemetery, migration, citizenship and burial records. The OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
Notes:  There are various spellings of this surname, depending on report.  Plot M223
Comments Off on Hidden History of Batley: A Festive Fireworks Fatality
Just before 2pm on Wednesday 2 December 1914, a tremendous explosion occurred. It centred on the Hollinbank Lane area of Heckmondwike. The ferocity was so great it was felt 50 miles away. A yellow mist and smoke enveloped the area, and an awful stench permeated everywhere. It was the early months of the War and people feared a Zeppelin attack, or some form of enemy sabotage. Madame Personne, a refugee who had escaped war-torn Belgium, now living in the comparative safety of a White Lee cottage, fainted from shock.
Close to the epicentre of the blast, homes and workplaces suffered major damage: roofs and doors were blown off, crockery smashed, furniture was damaged, wooden partitions in buildings were torn down, gas street lamp lanterns broke and, within a three-mile radius, thousands of glass panes shattered. Many homes were rendered uninhabitable. The scene represented a war zone, more familiar in Belgium and France.
Arthur Barber described the damage to his home:
Our houses were wrecked, all the windows being out and the roofs broken through, and much damage done inside also….The kitchen door was blown straight off, and the pantry blown down, and the staircase was riven off the walls. The cellars are practically tumbling in. All the hen-pens were blown in pieces. And where all the hens are we don’t know it is impossible to sleep there, and we are staying with relatives.
Collections were raised to help those whose homes were destroyed. The thousands of sightseers who visited in the aftermath helped swell the coffers.
Whole swathes of Heckmondwike, Cleckheaton, Healey and Batley were affected, with stories coming in from across the area. A tram car travelling between Batley and Heckmondwike temporarily lifted off its tracks. A man was thrown out of his sick-bed. Some workers at Messrs. J & F Popplewell’s rag works on Hollinbank Lane were forced to leap for safety from the top window of the mill, as the roof tumbled in. Scores of windows in Belle Vue Street, Healey were blown out. The pupils at Healey school were showered with glass as the windows shattered. As a result, several children were injured, with one boy, John William Stone, requiring treatment in Batley Hospital. The school was forced to close temporarily for repairs. Even Batley hospital did not escape damage, with an operating theatre window breaking during an operation.
Shoddy manufacturer Joseph Fox was particularly involved. Driving his car in the Healey area, it lifted off the ground with the strength of the blast. He witnessed the plate glass window of Healey Co-op stores fall out (known today as Healey Mini Market).
Fox was one of those involved in ferrying the scores of injured for treatment. And, returning to his Hollinbank Terrace home, he discovered his house was one of those buildings to have taken the brunt of the explosion’s impact. His wife’s maid May Thompson was in Batley Hospital with an eye injury caused by flying glass. The house, one of three in a terrace built originally for the Heaton brothers, still stands – now on Dale Lane.
But all this was overshadowed by the total devastation and carnage at the seat of the explosion, the Henry Ellison-operated White Lee chemical works. Situated on high ground off Hollinbank Lane, the firm moved in as tenants of the former Heaton family-owned chemical factory in 1900. Ellison’s were an established chemical manufacturer. They quickly obtained a Government licence to make picric acid, a major component of lyddite used for the manufacture of shells, in their newly acquired White Lee premises. They undertook this work for a couple of years until the end of the Boer War in 1902, when demand for the product slumped. They briefly re-opened the factory in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War, selling the picric acid to brokers. After this, demand tailed off once more and the works closed until August 1914.
The outbreak of the First World War proved a game-changer, with the Government’s need for picric acid for shell manufacture rocketing again. It was now a race to get the works ready to resume full-scale production, with buildings tarred inside and out, wooden floors covered with linoleum, and separating brick walls and rudimentary sprinkler systems in place. In total, the works comprised of five buildings in which the wet processes of picric acid manufacture were carried out. Four other buildings were used for drying, sifting/grinding, packing and storing the chemical.
Picric acid was regarded as safe in its pure state, but if it came into other substances, such as metals, it could form sensitive picrates which were dangerous. For this reason, production licences were required. Regulations limited the quantity of picric acid in any one area, ensured it was not confined and precautions had to be taken to ensure no foreign bodies were introduced to the production process. In order to avoid any ignition risk, no matches could be taken into the most dangerous areas, such as the sifting and grinding shed – so pockets were checked and sewn up before entry. Additionally, protective rubber overshoes had to be worn in these areas to prevent possible contamination by stones and nails. Commonly worn hobnail boots could be a particular issue, as they could cause sparks and, theoretically, the nails could be loosened by acid present on site. These objects could then contaminate the acid production, and potentially enter the grinding machines. The overshoes placed outside the doors to these areas, in theory, minimised the risk.
With all these precautions in place fire, not explosion, was believed to be the most immediate danger. If the fire was quickly put out to prevent the acid overheating, an explosion would be avoided.
On 2 November 1914 production recommenced at Ellison’s White Lee Works. On 19 November a government inspection found everything in good order, with only a few minor points identified due to the long period of building disuse. These were quickly rectified.
Labour was in short supply due to men enlisting, but picric acid production was not regarded as a skilled job. The company recruited a good, young analytical chemist from Cleckheaton, 22-year-old Bradford Grammar School and Leeds University educated Fred Wright. He had previously worked at the Barugh Benzol Works near Barnsley and, more recently, at the Benzol Works at Low Moor. However he had no previous experience with picric acid. He started work at White Lee only two weeks before the explosion.
Ellison’s also brought in a well-regarded employee from the Low Moor Chemical Works to act as foreman. 37-year-old James Nicholas had considerable experience of picric acid manufacturing.
The rest of the workers were recently recruited unskilled labourers, some starting on the day of the explosion. Because of the shortage of labour, these men worked across a number of areas of the production process, as required.
On 2 December, when the explosion occurred, 11 employees were on site. There were also several workmen engaged in construction, as the facilities were being extended to cope with the demands of the war. Unfortunately, these men were also caught up in the tragedy.
The afternoon shift started and production work was proceeding as usual. Wright and Nicholas worked in the packing shed, whilst three men were employed in the sifting and grinding room. At just before 2pm a massive blast occurred, centred on the sifting and grinding areas.
Buildings crumbled, a huge flash of flame soared into the sky, followed by dense clouds of yellow smoke. All that remained of the sifting and grinding shed area was a deep hole where the structure once stood. Peripheral works buildings were severely damaged, with any walls still standing being dangerously cracked. Surrounding fields were littered with masonry, smashed timber, pieces of machinery and roofing. Body parts were found for days afterwards. Containers holding liquid acid split, the corrosive liquid tracking down the hillside, which all added to the horrific scene.
One eyewitness, Leeds man James William Bellhouse working with a colleague on the roof of Robert Bruce’s William Royd cotton mill, stated:
The explosion made a tremendous row and blew us off the building. I saw a mass of flame, and the sky seemed to be lit up by a blazing red. A lot of debris were flying all up and around….
Bellhouse and his workmate were unharmed.
Some others had equally lucky escapes. A couple of men employed in the grinding area had not returned to work there for the afternoon shift. They had struggled to cope with the dust, despite covering their noses and mouths, and frequently opening the door. They survived.
Former Batley rugby league player Jim Gath of Wilton Street, Batley was on site to undertake work on the boiler. Minutes before the blast he decided to leave the boiler house to do some outside work. He had just climbed scaffolding when the explosion occurred. Covered by debris, only by sheer strength did he extricate himself, injuring his arm in the process. He remembered walking, then crawling, then nothing until he awoke in Dewsbury hospital.
William Sykes of Healey Street, Batley was working in the boiler house, which was demolished. According to reports at the time, concussed and dyed yellow by the fumes, he escaped too. However, this was not the whole story, and it did not end happily. Subsequent reports indicated he also sustained injuries to his legs and eyes. His health deteriorated and he died in July 1915. Coincidentally, his daughter Lizzie, working in the nearby Robert Bruce-owned mill, suffered a compound fracture of her right arm.
The blast killed nine men outright. Another died in Dewsbury hospital later that day. The men were as follows.
Percy Ashton, born on 26 October 1892 was the son of Willie and Elizabeth Ashton (née Barker) of Tidswell Street, Heckmondwike. He was a joiner working on construction of the new buildings. A popular member of Dewsbury AFC, he was buried in Heckmondwike cemetery.
Arthur Cooper, was born in Leeds on 19 February 1863. He married Martha Ann Wheelhouse in Leeds in 1885. A boot finisher for most of his working life, by 1893 he and his family were living in Lobley Street, Heckmondwike. He now had employment in the boot department at Heckmondwike Co-op. Sometime after the 1911 census he switched work to become a mason’s labourer for his neighbours, the Firth brothers. Initially amongst the missing, his body was found under rubble two days after the blast.
Albert Laycock Firth was a 51-year-old living at Lobley Street in Heckmondwike. He and his brothers Nimrod and Ralph were the stone masons erecting the new drying building. Ralph nipped back to their own Work’s yard prior to the blast, and heard the explosion. He identified his brother. Albert left a widow Elizabeth (née Briggs) who he married in 1893. The couple had three children in the 1911 census – Aked, James Albert and George.
Nimrod Firth the brother of Albert was 34 years of age. He also lived at Lobley Street. The son of James Firth and his wife Sarah Laycock, Nimrod married Lucy Wright in April 1913. He was identified through keys in his pocket. His funeral, along with that of his brother, took place at Heckmondwike Upper Independent Chapel.
James Nicholas was the works foreman. The 37-year-old was born in Herefordshire, but the family eventually settled in Cleckheaton. The 1901 census shows him employed as a picric acid labourer, so by 1914 he’d had at least 13 years experience of working with the chemical. Later that year he married Edith Emma Strickland. The couple went on to have four children – Harold Cookson, Eric, Edith Gladys and Laura. His brother John formally identified him. He was buried in Cleckheaton.
Clifford Thornton, a joiner from Boundary Street, Liversedge, only started building work at Ellison’s on the day of the explosion. Like Percy Ashton he was employed by Messrs. R Senior and Sons. A 25-year-old single man, he was the only living child of John Marsden Thornton and his wife Betty (née Cordingley). He survived the blast, but died as a result of his injuries at 4.05pm in Dewsbury Infirmary. An active member of Heckmondwike Upper Independent Chapel and Sunday School, this was where his funeral took place.
Fred Wright, worked as the establishment’s analytical chemist. From Cleckheaton, he was the 22-year-old son of Walter Henry Wright and his wife Elizabeth Savoury. Walter Wright was well known in local musical circles, being the organist at Providence Place Chapel, Cleckheaton and a former conductor of Cleckheaton Philharmonic Society. His son was so badly mutilated he was identified by the contents of his pockets (including a gold watch, purse, and visiting card) and a distinguishing mark. Fred was buried in Whitcliffe cemetery.
The three men working in the grinding room were William Berry, George Terry and James Alfred Morton (some sources mistakenly name him as John Edward Morton). Only identified amongst the dead from various items of clothing discovered in the days after the explosion, the partial human remains found which possibly belonged to them were buried in a single coffin in Heckmondwike cemetery. Father O’Connor, the parish priest at Heckmondwike Catholic Church (now the Holy Spirit Parish) conducted the service for Morton. Father O’Connor later became the inspiration for G.K. Chesterton’s fictional detective Father Brown.
William Berry transferred from Ellison’s Cleckheaton works two months prior to the blast. A labourer, he supervised the drying shed activities. 36 years of age, his widow Clara identified his overcoat. There was also his return railway ticket to Low Moor where he lived. Born in Halifax, he married Clara Hargreaves at All Saints, Salterhebble in July 1910. The couple had two children, Annie (b. 1911) and Arthur (b. 1913).
James Alfred Morton (38) was separated from his wife May, and living at Staincliffe. The son of Cornelius and Bridget Morton, he was a miner by trade. However, in recent years he worked as a casual labourer, most recently for a gardener in Batley Carr. He only started at the chemical works on Tuesday. His brother, Joseph, could only identify scraps of his clothing – parts of his trousers, shirt, coat and red, white and blue striped tie.
George Terry (22) of White Lee only started at Ellison’s on the Monday, previously working as a rag grinder in Batley. Initially his father wrongly identified one of the original bodies as his son, so badly mutilated was it. He was led away in a distressed state, only for others to realise the mistake. Days later, small strips of waistcoat and corduroy trousers belonging to George were identified by his widow Lilian. They had been married less than six months. She had left him at the gates of his work after lunch at 1.25pm on her way to visit her mother, and heard the explosion.
The official Home Office inquiry headed by Major Cooper-Key, Chief Inspector of Explosives, reported in January 1915. Although Cooper-Key found the wearing of protective overshoes was not strictly adhered to in the designated danger areas, crucially it was enforced in the sifting and grinding shed where the explosion occurred. He went on to conclude that Ellison’s complied with all the necessary regulations for picric acid manufacture, and could not be held responsible. Sabotage was also effectively ruled out.
He attributed the disaster to two factors. The ignition occurred in the sifting and grinding room, probably due to the accidental presence of a nail, stone or similar hard foreign body entering the grinding mill. Under normal circumstances this would have resulted in a spark and fire which would have been extinguished before the picric acid had chance to heat to explosion point. But the shed was extremely dusty, a situation exacerbated by the strong wind that day which constantly fanned the particles as the door opened and closed to try to let fresh air in. The initial ignition resulted in the explosion of this carbonaceous dust.
Although the White Lee explosion led to a review of picric acid manufacturing guidelines, it did not mark the end of accidents resulting from its manufacture during the war.
And the ten men who died on the day of the explosion, as well as William Sykes who died seven months later, are yet more local casualties of the First World War.
A plaque has been laid by the Spen Valley Civic Society to commemorate the event and those affected.
Multiple sources were used, including newspaper reports, the official accident report, censuses, civil registration indexes and parish registers.
Special thanks to Kirklees Image Archive for permission to reproduce their image of the aftermath of the explosion. http://www.kirkleesimages.org.uk/ This is a fabulous local pictorial archive. The images are subject to copyright restrictions.
Armistice Day 2019, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, marked the centenary of the first two-minute silence. The tradition of holding a silence to remember the dead began a year after World War One ended. But for many wounded ex-servicemen their personal battle was not over when the guns ceased firing. Not even a year on as the country paused to reflect.
As the country fell silent at 11am on Monday, I attended a Project Bugle graveside wreath-laying ceremony for St Mary of the Angel’s man Sergeant Joseph Edward Munns of the 12th King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry). He was awarded the Military Medal (formally announced in The London Gazette of 13 September 1918) for saving the life of an officer trapped under the debris of a burning building whilst seriously wounded himself – wounds which resulted in a badly damaged right arm and the amputation of his right foot. He died at Prescot Hospital on 7 January 1921, age 32, and is buried in Batley Cemetery. Because he died before the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cut-off point of 31 August 1921 he has a CWGC headstone and is commemorated on their Debt of Honour database.
Whilst in the cemetery I also visited the grave of another St Mary’s man, Gunner James Delaney. He was my mum’s uncle, married to my nana’s sister. My mum never knew him, but according to her family he was a lovely man. I have a photograph of him and on the back is written the fact that he died of injuries he received during the Great War. He died on 27 January 1928 so was not eligible for an official CWGC headstone. He features on no database of the dead. He is not recalled on any War Memorial. He is but one of so many others whose deaths occurred years after the end of the War, but whose lives were cut short as a result of the injuries and health issues directly attributable to it. They are casualties as much as those who died whilst the war raged. They are the forgotten casualties.
James’ headstone reflects his sacrifice, bearing his rank and Regimental details.
Here is his story.
James Delaney was born in Batley on 9 July 1895, the son of Dublin-born John Delaney and his wife Ann McLouglin, who hailed from Dumfries in Scotland. The family were associated with St Mary of the Angels RC church in Batley, where James was baptised. His older siblings included Sarah Ann, William, John Edward and Charles Emmett. From the 1881 to 1911 censuses the family lived in the Courts off Taylor Street in Batley. In the 1911 census it was 4 Court, 2 Taylor Street, with James now working as a cloth finisher. This was his abode and occupation when he attested in Batley on 9 December 1915, age 20.
He was mobilised on 28 December 1915 and the following day posted to 1B Reserve Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (RFA) at Forest Row Camp in East Sussex, assigned Service Number 111921. His Company Conduct Sheet whilst at Forest Row shows only two offences. He was absent from 6.30pm parade on 9 May 1916. Then he overstayed his leave from midnight on 28 May 1916 until 4pm on 30 May 1916. For this latter offence he was deprived two day’s pay and sentenced to the humiliation of Field Punishment No.2., shackled in irons and liable to undertake menial and heavy labour. But these were relatively minor misdemeanours and overall his military character was described as very good.
On 15 July 1916 Gunner Delaney was posted to France, joining the ‘A’ Battery of the 80th Brigade RFA on 24 July, part of the 17th Divisional Artillery. Their Unit War Diary refers to reinforcements of men and horses being allotted that day, whilst in camp at Dernancourt. The RFA operated the army’s medium calibre guns and howitzers. These mobile guns were horse-drawn, and deployed close to the front line.
James joined his unit in the midst of the Battle of the Somme. The Unit War Diary notes total casualties for July, (killed, wounded and from sickness) was 5 officers, 124 other ranks, and 32 horses. These rates explain the need for reinforcements.
On 1 August 1916 they moved to the Montauban area, where James saw action until the 20 August when the Brigade was withdrawn. Days later the news came through the Brigade was being broken up to supply guns and personnel to other Brigades in the Division. James was deployed to ‘A’ Battery in the 78th Brigade. His first full month in action had seen much lower losses than in July, with only two other ranks killed and 16 wounded.
September was spent with his new unit. His final
days at the beginning of October 1916 saw them operating in the Hebuterne area,
with the guns primarily employed in wire cutting. However, James was back on
home soil on 11 October 1916, with 5C Reserve Brigade.
His Casualty sheet and Medical History forms are not among his surviving service records, so the specific reason for his return home is unclear. However, he was back on the Western Front on 30 May 1917, joining the 24th Divisional Ammunition Column (DAC) on 12 June 1917 in Belgium. DACs were responsible for transporting all ammunition and artillery as well as small arms for the Division, taking it as far forward as possible for collection by batteries and infantry brigades. This made them targets for enemy guns and aircraft. They also provided reinforcements of men for the RFA. James was once more in action in another infamous battle – 3rd Ypres, better known as Passchendaele.
But yet again his stint did not last long and he was once more back in England on 21 July 1917. From notes on his service records it is clear this was as a result of injury or illness as he now spent time in 3rd Northern General Hospital, Sheffield. There are no more details as to the specific problem at this point in time.
Following his discharge from hospital he re-joined
5C Reserve Brigade at Charlton Park on 8 September 1917. But it is clear he
never re-gained his health. He was compulsorily transferred to the Royal
Engineers in June 1918, serving with the Tyne Electrical Engineers at
Haslar Barracks, Gosport. His new rank was Pioneer, and new Service Number
Suffering from the painful condition of neuritis, this disorder is defined as inflammation of the nerves. It can be caused by injury, infection or autoimmune disease. In addition to pain, symptoms include tenderness, impaired sensation, numbness or hypersensitivity, weakened strength and diminished reflexes. Maybe this was the legacy of the injuries which necessitated his earlier hospital stay. His resulting health category of B3 meant he was only fit for sedentary work. As a result, he was only capable of undertaking HQ Fatigues work.
James’ condition was serious enough to lead to his
discharge on 1 October 1918. After serving for two years and 278 days he was no
longer deemed fit for military service. He was awarded a conditional pension of
11s per week, to be reviewed after 52 weeks. This pension continued beyond this
date, over the years mainly set at 12s per week with his disability estimated
at 30 per cent.
He returned home to Batley and towards the end of 1919 married 19-year-old Ethel Rhodes. The couple settled at 18 Brearley Street, Mount Pleasant, Batley, with James back at his old job as a worsted cloth finisher. The couple had no children. In brittle health after the tolls of the war, Ethel became his carer as well as his wife. It was a role she made her job for others after James’ death.
James died on 27 January 1928 as a result of
cardiac failure, myocardial disease and rheumatoid arthritis. He was only 32.
He died with Ethel by his bedside not at home in Batley, but in the East
Lancashire Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home, Park Lane, in the Higher Broughton area
This was an establishment for disabled servicemen
opened under the auspices of the East Lancashire Branch of the British Red
Cross Society. With a massive influx of wounded men returning home to ad-hoc
care facilities, in the summer of 1916 the organisation – along with the Mayor
of Manchester and the Earl of Derby – was involved in the launch of a public
appeal to raise money to provide suitable accommodation in which they could be
cared for. By the end of September 1916, and after only one month, £22,841 was
raised. The fund hit the £75,000 mark by February 1917, an amazing amount for a
cash-strapped war-torn society. The appeal was so successful it enabled the
provision of not one but five homes which, by 1921, provided in excess of 100
beds. One of these still provides care for ex-service personnel today.
Two of the private houses purchased to provide
these facilities were on Park Lane, and both were still in operation in 1929.
Miss A.E. Tasker was the sister in charge of Palm House, whilst Miss M. Tracy
was the matron at Broughton House. Neither James’ death certificate or the
newspaper notices by his wife, parents and siblings indicate in which home he
died. He was buried in Batley cemetery on 31 January 1928.
Ethel was understandably devastated after her husband’s death. Her mother, Edith, was instrumental in helping her through this intensely difficult period, when at one period in particular Ethel felt she had no reason to carry on. She did eventually re-build her life and married Fred Armitage in 1931. Ethel never had children. She died on 8 November 1958 and chose to be buried alongside James.
As a footnote to this story, the one surviving former East Lancashire home for Disabled Servicemen is Broughton House. More details about its history, current work and future plans are here. It includes information about how you can help support the continuing work of the charity, because funds are needed throughout the year, not just in the period leading up to Armistice Day.
24th Divisional Ammunition Column (DAC) Unit War Diary WO 95/2198/3;
78th Brigade Royal Field Artillery Unit War Diary WO 95/1991/3;
80th Brigade Royal Field Artillery Unit War Diary WO 95/1991/5;
1929 Kelly’s Directory of Manchester, Salford and Suburbs;
1881 to 1911 England and Wales censuses;
Batley Cemetery burial records;
Batley News – 13 July 1918 and 4 February 1928;
Batley Reporter and Guardian – 12 July 1918 and 4 February 1928;