I always remember as a child my parents would insist on having both the front and back doors open during a thunderstorm just in case a lightning bolt came down the chimney. I am not sure how common the open-door policy was in other households, but I assume it was adopted so that the bolt could exit the house.
To be honest I have never been too keen on lightning myself. And I remember the inconvenience once when both my modem and computer were rendered beyond economic repair following a lightning strike. Perhaps my mistake was to keep the doors shut!
But this was a minor nuisance in comparison to the tale I discovered in my family tree.
My five times great-grandfather was Amos Hallas. Born in the West Riding village of Lepton, near Huddersfield, in around 1754 he was baptised at St John the Baptist, Kirkheaton later that year. He married Ann (Nanny) Armitage in the neighbouring parish of Kirkburton in August 1780 and the couple set up home at Highburton, a hamlet within the parish and township of Kirkburton. This is around five miles from Huddersfield.
The predominant industry of this region was woollen textile manufacture, and Amos was described a fancy weaver. The area around Kirkburton was known for its fancy woven waistcoat fabrics so it is likely that Amos was engaged in this skilled occupation.
These were difficult times for the textile workers as the period marked the early stages of the transition from domestic to factory-based operations, with 1776 marking the introduction of the first spinning jenny locally in the Holmfirth district. This was closely followed by the first scribbling engine being set up in around 1780 at Ing Nook Mill. By the end of the eighteenth century with the abundance of coal in the West Riding and the introduction of steam power the stage was well and truly set for the transformation of the area’s textile industries.
At the same time this was the period of economic hardship with Britain at war with France almost continuously from 1793 until Napoleon’s defeat by the Duke of Wellington in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Alongside the threat of invasion, the French sealed off British exports to continental Europe, a campaign designed to cripple the economy. It nearly succeeded, British exports slumped with handloom weavers, such as Amos, the first to be affected. Unemployment and food prices soared.
This toxic twin cocktail of industrialisation and economic distress was the fuel for the rise of the Luddites. From 1811-1816 these well organised gangs, smashed the new machines and burned down mills in an attempt to protect jobs. In 1812, the same year as Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, was shot dead by a ruined businessman a Marsden mill owner William Horsfall, known locally for his anti-Luddite stance, was also murdered. This event took place only around 11 miles away from Kirkburton/Highburton.
Troops were stationed locally to deal with the marches, riots and machine-wrecking which had become a regular feature of British life. 12,000 were sent to Yorkshire in 1812 to stop this industrial sabotage. At its peak there were around 1,000 soldiers based in Huddersfield alone to deal with the threat.
Kirkburton too, unsurprisingly, had its Luddite contingent. At the end of September 1812 residents John Smith and David Moorhouse were committed to York Castle on charges of “burglary under the colour of Luddism” resulting from a robbery at gunpoint at the home of another Kirkburton resident, Mr Savage, on 13 June 1812.
So this tumultuous period is the backdrop to the life and times that Amos and Ann Hallas brought their family up in.
Between 1780-1802 the couple had 13 children. 12 of these baptisms are recorded in the Kirkburton All Hallows parish register. The youngest child, baptism unrecorded in the register, has been identified from her marriage certificate, on the occasion of her second nuptials.
My four times great grandfather, George Hallas, born in around 1794 was their 9th child. But it is their 12th child, Esther, who suffered an unusual fate.
According to the parish register Esther was born on 27 July 1800 and baptised in the local church on 5 October 1800. She died only days before her 17th birthday. It is her burial record on 13 July 1817 at the same church which contains the helpful and fascinating notation: “killed by lightning”.
More in hope than expectation, I followed up this discovery with a visit to Kirkburton All Hallows church. My family of coal miners and textile workers are not normally associated with headstones. At the time of my visit there was no churchyard guide so it was a case of wandering round on the off chance of spotting something. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a Hallas headstone – and what was more it proved to be a very unusual one.
The headstone owner was George Hallas, my four times great grandfather. Inscriptions to his parents Amos and Ann Hallas are on the front of the headstone; and on the reverse of the headstone, very weather-worn, and difficult to read is, as far as I can make out, the following inscription about his sister Esther:
lieth the Body of Esther
Daughter of Amos Hallas
of Highburton who was
Killed by A Thunder
Storm the 11th day of July
1817 aged 17 years.
Death little warning to me gave
And soon did take me to the grave
As I one day was set at meat
The lightening [sic] took me from my seat
To all who hear or may be told
both male and female young and old
May this my fate a warning be
Remember God, Remember me
So the epitaph makes cautionary, poetic reference to the manner of her death.
Since this initial visit the All Hallows Churchyard team have established a website with an inscription and location guide to the headstones which is invaluable to those with Kirkburton ancestry.
Finally I looked to see if the events were covered in the newspapers at the time. I did think this was a long shot given that they took place in 1817. But I “struck” lucky with the “Leeds Mercury” of Saturday July 19 1817. Obviously deaths by lightning strikes were as big news back then as they are today. The snippet is as follows:
“Yesterday se’nnight, a fatal accident took place at High Burton, near Huddersfield, during the thunder-storm on that day: The lightning struck the chimney of a house belonging to Mr Fitton, and having partially destroyed it, proceeded down the chimney, into the kitchen, and in its passage through which a servant girl was struck, and killed on the spot; the face of the clock was melted, and several panes in the window broken. Two men were also hurt by the lightning, but not dangerously”.
Esther was not named but I assume that she was the servant girl referred to. So a case of how an entry in a burial register, a headstone and a newspaper report came together to tell a story.
Esther’s father, Amos, died two years later in 1819 and her mother died in 1838, aged 82.
Other Sources (not mentioned in main body):
- Parish Registers: Kirkheaton All Saints are available at http://home.ancestry.co.uk/
- Parish Registers: Kirkburton All Hallows are available at http://home.ancestry.co.uk/
- “Leeds Mercury” newspaper is available at http://www.findmypast.co.uk/
 “The History and Topography of the Parish of Kirkburton and of the Graveship of Home, including Homfirth in the county of York” – Henry James Morehouse