In “Attempted Murder in Halton” I wrote about the nasty confrontation which occured in 1842 between my 4x great grandfather Francis Hill and his eldest son William. This resulted in the detention of Francis, accused of stabbing his son in so serious a manner as to endanger his life.
I was reminded once more of Francis whilst doing my Cause of Death Pedigree Charts. He died on 5 April 1857 in Leeds Infirmary.
Described as a farmer, his death certificate states he died as a result of “Disease of the Brain”. I think farmer was used in its loosest terms. The 1847 Tithe Map of Temple Newsam shows Francis renting a cottage and garden in Halton from Joseph Asquith. The cottage was the equivalent of 1 perch and the garden 15 perches. A perch equates to 1/160th of an acre. The cottage and garden were not adjacent and the area was surrounded by mainly grassland with some patches of cultivated land. So he did have a little land to cultivate, but not a farm. And I can’t see things changing at the time of his death.
Starting off as a butcher, essentially throughout most of his adult life Francis worked as a general labourer. He, and some relations, seemed to have set up together as hay dealers in the 1820s, but this petered out. Other sources at the time of his death described him as labourer, and putting it together with all other documented sources for his occupation I’m inclined to question the death certificate information.
The death certificate also inaccurately gives his age at death as 71. Wrong – he was 67 years old.
Francis’ funeral took place at St Mary’s, Whitkirk on 7 April.I did wonder about his cause of death and why it occurred in Leeds Infirmary. Also his death was registered by the Coroner, Mr Blackburn. So what had happened?
Further investigations left me stunned.
With hindsight the drunken argument with his son 15 years earlier provided a clue. Things though hadn’t always been so bleak for Francis. When I first started researching him I felt optimistic that he and his wife Grace Pennington (in early documents her family name appears as Penitent) would have a fairly good life. They married by licence at St Mary’s Whitkirk on 25 September 1811. This, I hoped, was an indication of a more comfortably off background, where life wouldn’t be quite such a struggle.
Initially they settled in Francis’ home parish of Sherburn in Elmet. This is where their first two children were baptised, Mary (1812) and William (1814). And it is where William was buried in 1815.
By the time their next child was born the family were back in Halton, from where the Pennington family hailed. This baby was also named William. He of the 1842 stabbing incident. And his baptism was not without controversy either.
The parish register entry at St Mary’s Whitkirk, records William’s baptism on 14 July 1816. However his surname is down as Pennington, and the entry states he was the illegitimate son of Grace. This was an extremely serious error. If left uncorrected the stigma could have significant consequences in terms of the family’s perception amongst their neighbours as well as for William’s future inheritance rights. At a time before general registration and birth certificates, the entry in the parish register was crucial providing legal proof of the antecedents of an individual, so the error could have grave implications. It came to light weeks later and the register does contain a corrigendum, a reflection of the legal importance of baptism entries.
It is not clear exactly how the error was discovered, but the correction does contain hints and it is clear that Francis took swift action to put the record straight. The fact that the couple’s marriage took place within the parish and appeared in the marriage register would have simplified a resolution of matters.
A note in the parish register states that on 1 September 1816, when William was brought to church having being privately baptised on 14 July, the original entry was discovered to be erroneous, Grace being lawfully married. It points out that the correct entry should read that William was the son of Francis and Grace Hill of Halton and that Francis worked as a butcher. Both the vicar and Francis signed the amendment. Perhaps the private nature of the baptism is a clue – William may have been ill at birth and the baptism rushed, possibly not in church, without Francis’ attendance.
Francis and Grace had four further children: Joseph (1821), John (1822), Francis (1824) and Sarah (1827).
Back to events in April 1857 and his cause of death. One headline in the 11 April edition of the “Leeds Times” summed it up: “Frightful Death Of An Intemperate Man”. On the same day the “Leeds Intelligencer” reported under the banner “Deaths from Drunkenness”
The multiple use of the word “death” shows this wasn’t an isolated incident. Alcohol-related deaths featured regularly in the Victorian newspapers. The 1830 Beerhouse Act (amended 1834 and 1840) was designed to curb the consumption of gin and steer working people towards the lesser evil of beer drinking. The Temperance Movement of the time supported the change. They were primarily an anti-spirit movement in the early 19th century, who regarded beer as more wholesome alternative.
However the Acts led to the rapid expansion of beer drinking establishments. Drunkenness from beer drinking was added to that from gin drinking, and the Temperance Movement switched to being one of teetotalism. Newspapers were filled with tales and warnings of the evil of intemperance, its effects and impact on the moral, social and industrial fabric of Victorian society.
At midnight on Thursday 2 April, Francis was discovered in a state of helpless intoxication, lying in mud, on York Road. He was taken to the police station and from there to Leeds Infirmary. He died in the hospital on Sunday 5 April, just over two days after his prone body was stumbled upon.
The inquest took place on 6 April. It appears from the unnamed witness that Francis was a regular and well-known drinker in the area – the number of Halton beerhouses, inns and taverns would have provided ample opportunity for socialising of an evening. York Road was less than a mile north of where Francis lived. How long he lay in the dark, wet, unlit road before his discovery is not mentioned in the reports. Neither is the person who found him named, but presumably the fact that he was taken to the police station and not to his home may indicate it was not a friend searching for Francis.
In accordance with the evidence presented by Mr R.G. Hardwick, house surgeon to the Infirmary, the inquest jury returned a verdict of “Died from disease of the brain; but whether it was induced by lying in the wet, or some other cause, there was no evidence to show”.
Once again the family were centre-stage for the wrong reasons. The events surrounding Francis’ death would have been the topic for much tittle-tattle in the local community, only adding to the family’s anguish. Maybe older residents remembered the earlier incident of 1842, and all this too was dredged up by Halton gossips, much to the embarrassment of the family. Perhaps the mental afflictions of Grace’s aunt were also poured out by these same scandalmongers.
Francis’ widow Grace died in 1873. In the years after Francis’ death she features regularly in the Whitkirk parish charities’ records, receiving money from four separate parish charities. And in the 1871 census, age 80, she still worked as a herb gatherer, an indication of the tough financial circumstances of her old age. But her life wasn’t always thus. I will return to another twist in her story at a later date. And that twist may also shed further light on the 1842 stabbing.
- Illustration of Whitkirk Parish Church by J.A. Symington from Morkill & Platt’s “Records of the Parish of Whitkirk” 1892. Copyright expired and in the public domain
- Death Certificate for Francis Hill
- Whitkirk Parish Records – parish register & charities’ records
- “Leeds Times” & “Leeds Intelligencer” – 11 April 1857 -FindMyPast newspapers
- Tracks in Time, the Leeds Tithe Map Project: http://www.tracksintime.wyjs.org.uk