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.