Category Archives: Batley

From Devon to Batley – A Gardener’s Life

The following is based on some research I did for the Family and Community Historical Research Society (FACHRS) gardeners mini project last year. The aim was to research a specific gardener from your locality. I was allocated Job Kenwood, who is recorded as living in Batley in the 1881 census.

This local connection element to research is one of the key things which attracted me to FACHRS. The benefit of this was certainly borne out with Job Kenwood, for I discovered the subject of my mini project had a surprising personal connection. And, as I investigated him, it transpired that gardening formed only a small portion of his life. He was well known in Batley, as well as throughout East Devon, not purely for his horticultural skills.

Job Kenwood was born in Buckerell, Devon, in around 1855 [1], the son of Whimple-born cordwainer Robert Kenwood and his wife Maria (née Goldsworthy). Buckerell described as ‘a pleasant village and parish, in the Otter valley, 3½miles W. by S. of Honiton…[2] had 343 inhabitants in the 1851 census [3], the year prior to Robert and Maria’s marriage. Job was baptised in Buckerell parish church on 25 February 1855 [4].

The 1861 census found the family living at Butts Cottage in Buckerell. The household comprised of 32-year-old boot maker Robert, 31-year-old Maria, six-year-old Job and his older sister, Rhoda, age seven [5].

By 1871 Job had left his parent’s home and was working as an apprentice gardener. He was one of five other single men employed as gardeners or apprentices, and lodging in the household of another unmarried gardener Thomas Shingles in Bicton, Devon [6].

Bicton was a small village of 181 inhabitants in 1871 [7]. But, as hinted by the occupations of those men Job shared a house with, the village had a renowned feature. A feature which made it a true horticultural mecca, with Victorian railways transporting admiring visitors from far and wide. It was the location of Bicton manor which boasted some impressive, well-established botanical gardens, described as one of the most impressive gardens in Devon and the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century [8]. Bicton Gardens remain a popular Devon attraction to this date, open to explore even in these difficult COVID-19 times.

Dating from the 18th century, an 1893 description gives some idea of the impressive nature of these gardens:

Bicton House…stands in a fine park of 74 acres, well filled with timber, and containing a small lake; the gardens are tastefully laid out, and have acquired much celebrity from the completeness and rarity of the trees, shrubs and flowers here collected, and the systematic character of their arrangement; in the park is a fine avenue of oak, beech and the Chili pine (araucaria imbricata); the arboretum contains the finest collection of trees in Europe… [9]

It is unlikely that Job spent much, if any, time working under the tutelage of the James Barnes. Barnes was the widely-known director and manager of Bicton Gardens, working in that capacity for almost 30 years until his retirement in 1869. Given Job would only have been around 14 then, any overlap would only have been very brief. But Barnes’ influence and legacy, right down to his strict behavioural rules (no pipe smoking, and no coming to work in a dirty shirt and with unlaced shoes), would still have been strongly felt in 1871. This despite a landmark Queen’s Bench libel case against his former employer Lady Rolle following his departure. A case which Barnes famously won.

Novice gardeners, and those serving apprenticeships, would learn by example initially, and through helping more experienced gardeners. They would start off with basic tasks such as soil sieving, washing pots or cleaning the greenhouse. They would learn to recognise plants, and differentiate between weeds. As they improved they would move onto the different gardening departments. The kitchen garden was often the first port of call, then the flower garden, and from there glasshouses with their hothouse fruit and early vegetables, as well as exotic ferns and orchids. Here heating, ventilating, shading and watering were amongst the early skills learned. From there it would be the plant department, then fruit. Knowledge of breeding a wide range of plants through hybridasiton and propagation were other important skills. In moving through the various departments, the developing gardener would become familiar with the various tools of the trade.

Commercial gardening, in market gardens or nurseries, was yet another angle; as was building up relationships with specialists in the various fields, and learning about the new exotic plants being introduced to Victorian Britain through far-flung exploration and widening travel horizons. All this would take several years, with a genuine apprenticeship lasting until the age of 21.

Whilst it might be possible to do much of the required learning in one location, especially at large gardens such as Bicton, some exponents recommended annual moves. And moving from county to county was definitely the way to gain experience of different climatic conditions. Therefore, gardeners tended to move regularly whilst learning, to acquire a range of work experience, training in different settings and experiencing different aspects of the craft [10].

Job, whilst not moving annually, did move to a number of locations to build up his experience and expertise. Leaving Bicton, he continued his formative gardening years with the renowned Victorian horticultural Veitch dynasty at their prestigious Royal Nurseries, Chelsea [11]. The Veitch family, who had links to Devon and indeed Lady Rolle of Bicton, sought plants worldwide. As a result, their nurseries became specialists in ferns, orchids, tropical species and new, rare plants. This would have provided a unique and enviable horticultural masterclass for the budding gardener.

1876 proved a memorable year for the Kenwood family. The changing seasons, the drum which beat the rhythm of Job’s working life, also counted out the huge changes on his family life. The progressing year marked a Kenwood marriage, re-location, birth and death.

At the beginning of that year Job’s residence was Studley Royal, near Ripon in North Yorkshire. The main garden here is the Studley Royal water garden. Today this is a UNESCO World Heritage site, managed by the National Trust. Historic England’s description reads:

A park of the late C17 probably with earlier origins, a water garden and pleasure grounds of c 1718-30 laid out by owner John Aislabie which were extended to include the ruins of Fountains Abbey by his son William Aislabie from 1768 onwards. The site has been described as ‘one of the most spectacular scenic compositions in England’ (Hussey 1967) and ‘the finest formal water-garden in the country’ (Jellicoe et al 1986) [12].

Studley Royal Water Gardens in Winter and Summer – Photo by Jane Roberts

Perhaps this is where Job now honed his craft. But it was at Nocton Parish Church in Lincolnshire on 11 January 1876 that 22-year-old Devonian, now described as a gardener, married shepherd’s daughter, 21-year-old Eleanor (Ellen) Pask [13]. It cannot have escaped the attention of those witnessing the wedding that there was a pressing need for the couple’s marriage. The bride was entering the third trimester of pregnancy.

The winter of 1876 scarcely over, and early spring heralded the arrival of the couple’s firstborn. Daughter Ellen Maria arrived in April 1876 [14], with the family now living in Batley [15]. The West Yorkshire town’s 19th century growth, and wealth, was based on its burgeoning woollen mills: in particular the production of its invention of shoddy and mungo, whereby rags were sorted, ground and recycled into new cloth. In 1801 Batley’s population stood at 2,574. By 1871 this had risen to 20,871 and ten years later stood at 27,505. The town must have seemed a world away, let alone over 260 miles, from Job’s childhood home of Buckerell. No more so than on 6 October 1876 when the burial of Job’s father, Robert, took place at Buckerell parish church [16].

The Kenwood’s Yorkshire life continued. In January 1878 son Robert Henry Kenwood was born at Healey, Batley, completing Job and Ellen’s family [17]. Healey was a hamlet in Batley township, whose population was chiefly engaged in the rag trade and blanket manufacture.

Yet, even though he lived in this industrial town, he retained links with Studley Royal. He is recorded on a number of occasions as amongst the prize winners at Studley Royal Flower Show. For example, in 1879 he won prizes for the ‘best arranged stand or vase for the drawing room’ and the heaviest bunch of grapes [18].

These shows were clearly keenly competitive, for ten years later Job featured in several Yorkshire papers following a controversy at the 1889 Studley Royal Flower Show. One paper reported it as follows:

Mr. W. Alves, Borrage Nurseries, was first for best arranged stand or vase, a most artistic and choice collection. J. Kenwood, of Batley, who was second, lodged an objection on the ground that Mr. Alves was neither an amateur nor a gentleman’s gardener… [19]

Clearly his objection was not upheld, as results confirm Mr Alves as the victor in this class. But it shows the importance attached by the gardening fraternity to the winning of these prizes. Presumably these wins boosted their gardening credentials, and potentially their job prospects.

The Kenwood family address in the 1881 census was Healey, Batley. This census shows the family income earned from Job’s gardening was supplemented by a lodger. George Kemp, originally from Lincolnshire, worked as a police constable [20].

In 1891 Job, his wife and son were living in a recently built terraced property at Prospect Terrace in Batley [21]. Again, this is in the Healey area. Daughter Ellen Maria was in Lincoln visiting her aunt and uncle. Job was now described as a domestic servant (gardener).

Prospect Terrace, Healey, Batley – Photos by Jane Roberts

There were several large houses in the Healey area belonging to prominent Batley townsfolk which may have provided his employment. The nearest house, literally a stone’s throw from Prospect Terrace, was Healey House. This was the home of widow Martha Taylor, and her five children, plus three servants. Martha’s deceased husband was Joshua Taylor, who died in July 1879. A prominent local mill owner, Joshua along with brothers John and Thomas, founded the firm of J., T. and J. Taylor. Of all the woollen manufacturers in town, Taylors were arguably the most notable. And it was for the family of Joshua, in the 2½ acre grounds of 18th century Healey House, that Job’s horticultural skills were employed.

Healey House – Date Unknown

And this was where my personal connection comes in. Over a century after Job Kenwood left Batley, my husband and I posed for our wedding photographs in the gardens he once tended. Who knows – he may have laid his gardening gloves and secateurs upon some of the shrubs and trees we stood amongst on our wedding day?

Circumstantial evidence points to his links to the family from the mid-1880s. For example, in March 1885 the Kenwoods were listed amongst the gift-givers at the marriage of Joshua’s daughter Julia – appropriately their present was a flower stand [22]. The following year Job and his wife gifted a glass strawberry dish and jug, whilst their children’s presents were flower vases, for the marriage of another Taylor girl, Alice Jane [23]. But conclusive employment proof is in a newspaper report of a talk Job gave about ‘The Vine’ to a gathering of fifty at the Batley and District Chrysanthemum and Paxton Society – no doubt drawing on his knowledge from his heaviest bunch of grapes prize-winning exploits of over a decade earlier! The report crucially describes him as a gardener to Mrs Taylor, of Healey [24].

These gardening talks, combined with his competitive streak – as evidenced in the Studley Royal Flower Show incident – give hints that Job was not lacking in confidence and had cerebral leanings. The strong, confident penmanship, with a flourish on the ‘K’, when signing his name in the Nocton marriage register perhaps offers another clue to Job’s intellectual pursuits. This aspect is something which can be overlooked, given the physical, hands-on characteristics of gardening. But gardening could also embrace a broad range of more academic elements, including landscape surveying, design, a knowledge of Greek and Latin, botany and mathematical calculations. All were important for any gardener who wanted to “get on”. And the ethos of moral and self improvement through education was an important Victorian doctrine. Job embraced this doctrine, as is demonstrated from his time in Batley onwards.

Besides giving gardening talks, Job was involved in other aspects of community life in Batley. Sharing his employer’s political and religious persuasions, he was heavily involved in both Liberal politics and the Congregational Church at Hanover Street. He is frequently noted in local newspapers participating in Liberal meetings. For example, in 1886 at a meeting of Liberals at Carlinghow, Job was elected as one of the association’s West Ward Healey and Staincliffe representatives [25]. He often chaired meetings of the Batley Congregational Young Men’s Literary Society. He also had a keen interest in education locally. The role he played here, and the esteem in which he was held, is evidenced by a presentation made to him when he finally left Batley in 1891.

PRESENTATION TO A SECRETARY. – A meeting of the Sunday School Union was held on Tuesday evening in the Town Mission Hall, under the presidency of Mr. Wesley Lodge, for the purpose of presenting Mr. J. Kenwood, secretary, who is removing to Honiton, South Devon, a copy of the “Oxford Teacher’s Bible,” as a small acknowledgment for his services. – Mr. J. Gladwin, in making the presentation, spoke of Mr. Kenwood’s connection with the Union, which had extended over a period of six years, as representative of the Hanover-street school…Mr. Kenwood said he received the present of a Bible…with as much heart pleasure as any man could receive a more costly prize. He spoke of the good which he had received at the Union, and encouragement given to him in many a trial by the meetings he had had with them. He thanked the Committee heartily for the token of respect. [26]

It appears once in Honiton he switched from domestic service to commercial horticulture. Job Kenwood became the proprietor of a shop, operating as a seedsman [27]. The 1901 census confirms this occupational gear-change with Job Kenwood residing at New Street, and working as a seedsman, a shopkeeper on his own account. Also, in the household is wife Ellen and son Robert Henry. Robert is a boot cutter, following the trade of his grandfather and great grandfather rather than his green-fingered dad. The family were prosperous enough to employ a general domestic servant [28]. The business is pictured in a postcard dating from 1904 [29].

Job’s political, religious and educational activities continued apace once in Honiton. An ardent Congregationalist, a life Deacon and Treasurer of the Honiton Congregational Church (the latter role he held for almost 40 years), he was one of those summoned for refusing to pay the sectarian proportion of the Education Rate on conscientious grounds [30]. Other roles included President of the local YMCA Debating Society. Then a huge forward step politically when, in the autumn 1905 Municipal Elections, he was elected to Honiton Town Council, representing St Paul’s Ward. It was a position he held until 1924. He was also appointed as a manager of Honiton National Schools by Devon County Council, and was still attending meetings a fortnight before his death in 1937 [31].

The 1911 census saw a more radical occupational switch for Job. Now living at Meadow View in Honiton with wife Ellen, he worked as a bookkeeper for a boot manufacturer [32]. One presumes this was linked to the business of his son Robert Henry, and brother-in-law William Doble (husband of Job’s sister Rhoda). Both the Kenwood children were now married with families of their own – Ellen Maria’s marriage to farmer Walter John Collins was registered in 1901. The following year Robert Henry married Florence Katie Otton.

On 11 January 1936 Job and Ellen Kenwood celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary. The occasion was marked with a presentation of a blue Morocco handbag to Ellen and a seat walking stick to Job. They also received a telegram of congratulations from the King and Queen. And their Batley connections remembered them too, in the form of an autograph card signed by thirty-two Batley friends, and a telegram from former Batley mayor, Elsie Taylor [33]. She happened to be one of the daughters of Joshua Taylor, growing up at Healey House whilst Job worked there.

Ellen and Job Kenwood in Later Life

A little over three months later, on 14 April, Ellen was dead [34]. She too had shared her husband’s devotion and dedication to the Congregational Church at Honiton, where she had been a member for 45 years. Her well-attended funeral took place at that church [35]. It was the second family blow to Job in a matter of weeks, with his sister Rhoda’s funeral taking place at the beginning of April.

Job died in the early morning of 1 February 1937, age 82, after a very short illness. He was active up until a week before his death, even attending a meeting of the Honiton National Schools Board in mid-January. His funeral took place at his beloved Honiton Congregational Church on 4 February [36].

Probate was granted in London on 15 March 1937 to his son Robert Henry Kenwood, and son-in-law Walter John Collins. Effects totalled £1417 12s 6d [37].

FACHRS previous mini projects have included a range of occupations from governesses to station masters and bank managers. The current one is parlour maids. If you want to get involved check out their website at http://www.fachrs.com/

Footnotes
[1] GRO Birth Reference, Honiton, March Quarter 1855, Volume 5B, Page 23, accessed via Findmypast
[2] White, William. History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Devonshire, and the City and County of the City of Exeter: Comprising a General Survey of the County of Devon, and the Diocese of Exeter: with Separate Historical, Statistical, & Topographical Descriptions of All the Boroughs, Towns, Ports … Sheffield: Printed for the author, by Robert Leader, and sold by Wm. White, Sheffield by his agents, and Simpkin, Marshall, London, 1850., accessed via Ancestry;
[3] https://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/place/4803 accessed 3 April 2020, Buckerell 1851 census data;
[4] Baptism Register, Buckerell parish church, accessed via Findmypast, original record South West Heritage Trust, Reference 1091A/PR/1/3;
[5] 1861 census of England and Wales, accessed via Findmypast, original record at The National Archives (TNA), Kew, Reference RG09/1377/88/4;
[6] 1871 census of England and Wales, accessed via Findmypast, original record at TNA, Kew, Reference RG10/2046/-/8;
[7] White, William. … Directory of … Devon … (1878-9). Sheffield: William White, 1878., accessed via Ancestry;
[8] Greener, Rosemary Clare. The Rise of the Professional Gardener in Nineteenth-Century Devon ; A Social and Economic History. University of Exeter, 2009;
[9] Kelly’s Directory of Devonshire. London: Kelly & Co., 1893;
[10] Greener, Rosemary Clare. The Rise of the Professional Gardener in Nineteenth-Century Devon ; A Social and Economic History. University of Exeter, 2009;
[11] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 5 February 1937;
[12] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000410, accessed 3 April 2020, Studley Royal, Historic England;
[13] Marriage Register, Nocton parish church, accessed via Findmypast, original record at Lincolnshire Archives, Reference Nocton Parish 1/10;
[14] The 1939 Register gives Ellen’s date of birth as 21 April 1875 (incorrect year), accessed via Findmypast, original record at TNA, Reference RG101/6821D/014/2 Letter Code WFND;
[15] GRO Birth Index, June Quarter 1876, Dewsbury, Volume 9B, Page 684, accessed via the GRO Website;
[16] Buckerell parish church burial register, accessed via Findmypast, original record at South West Heritage Trust, Reference 1091A/PR/1/7;
[17] GRO Birth Index, January Quarter 1878, Dewsbury, Volume 9B, Page 631, accessed via Findmypast GRO Indexes. The 1939 Register gives Robert’s date of birth as 18 January 1878, Reference RG101/6821A/017/34, Letter Code WFNA;
[18] Pateley Bridge and Nidderdale Herald, 23 August 1879;
[19] Ibid, 17 August 1889;
[20] 1881 census of England and Wales, accessed via Findmypast; original record at TNA, Kew, Reference RG11/4549/74/38;
[21] 1891 census of England and Wales, accessed via Findmypast, original record at TNA, Kew, Reference RG12/3721/16/1;
[22] Batley Reporter and Guardian, 28 March 1885;
[23] Batley News, 14 April 1886;
[24] Batley News, 26 April 1890;
[25] Batley News, 3 April 1886;
[26] Batley News, 13 November 1891;
[27] Kelly’s Directory of Devonshire. London: Kelly & Co., 1893;
[28] 1901 census of England and Wales, accessed via Findmypast, original record at TNA, Kew, Reference RG13/2022/29/11;
[29] Francis Frith Postcard, Joe (sic) Kenwood Seedsman, New Street, Honiton, 1904, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk UK, City, Town and Village Photos, 1857-2015. Unfortunately, copyright restrictions prevent reproduction;
[30] Western Times, 1 December 1903 and 14 June 1904;
[31] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 5 February 1937;
[32] 1911 census of England and Wales, accessed via Findmypast, original record at TNA, Kew, Reference RG14/12538;
[33] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 January 1936;
[34] Western Times, 17 April 1936;
[35] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 24 April 1936;
[36] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 5 February 1937;
[37] England and Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, original data Principal Probate Registry, Calendar of the Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration made in the Probate Registries of the High Court of Justice in England.

St Mary of the Angels War Memorial: Thomas Curley

This is another updated mini-biography of one of the men on the War Memorial of St Mary of the Angels RC Church, Batley: Thomas Curley. Significantly more records and information are available for him since my initial research, which I started over a decade ago.

Thomas’ parents, Anthony Curley and Mary Rush, originated from County Mayo but married locally in 1895 [1]. Anthony is shown in various records working as a labourer [2], with Mary’s employment (when mentioned) a rag sorter [3].

St Mary of the Angels RC Church, Batley – Photo by Jane Roberts

Thomas was born on 28 July 1896 and baptised at St Mary’s less than a fortnight later [4]. I have not obtained his birth certificate, but some sources indicate a Batley birthplace, others Heckmondwike. It is clear though that the family lived in Heckmondwike by the time of the 1901 census [5]. Given that sons John (born 12 January 1898 [6]), Anthony (born 8 August 1899 [7]) and Willie (born 1 May 1904 [8]) were not baptised at St Mary’s, but at St Patrick’s in Heckmondwike, (now the Holy Spirit parish), it is likely the move to this neighbouring town took place before John’s birth.

By 1911 the family had returned to Batley, living at what would be their home for life, 25 Villiers Street [9]. This was in the well-known Skelsey Row vicinity of town, popular with the Irish Catholic community. This census also indicates Anthony and Mary had another child, as yet untraced, who died at an early age. Mary though was once again pregnant when the family filled in their census form. The the couple’s sixth child, James, was born on 26 July 1911 [10]. No further children are recorded.

Extract of OS Six-inch map, Yorkshire CCXXXII.SE, Revised 1905, Published 1908 – Shows the location of Villiers Street

By the time of this 1911 census, 14-year-old Thomas had put school well behind him and was already working as a coal mine hurrier. A working life down the pit all changed with the declaration of war on 4 August 1914.

Thomas enlisted in Dewsbury as a Private with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. His Service Number, 3/1578, indicates he joined the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, a depot/training unit. They were based at Pontefract at the outbreak of war, subsequently moving to Hull. Although his service papers have not survived, his number indicates he enlisted around the mid-point of August 1914, at just 18 years of age. He was clearly keen to do his bit.

His disembarkation date overseas, in the France and Flanders theatre of war, was 26 January 1915. Technically, at 18 years of age, he was too young to serve overseas – the minimum age being 19. His Medal Index Card or Medal Award Rolls do not indicate which King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry battalion he first went out to serve with. However, investigating others with similar service numbers and medal qualifying entitlement dates, does give clues. Pte. James William Bollington, Service Number 3/1577, had the same disembarkation date and died on 1 April 1916. He served with the Regiment’s 2nd Battalion. It was based at Bailleul, on the French/Belgium border at the end of January 1915. It received drafts of 98 and 72 men respectively on 28 and 30 January [11]. Perhaps Thomas was amongst these men.

Confirmation that this was indeed the battalion Thomas served with overseas comes in the form of a Daily Casualty List. The War Office produced these grim rolls. A version of these was also published in the newspapers, in particular The Times. Column upon column, densely packed with the names of the dead, missing and wounded, appeared day after day after day. Although published some time after the event, these lists would be poured over by families up and down the country, checking to see if relatives, friends and neighbours were listed, praying they were not. In the 4 October 1915 list Pte. T Curley, 1578, of the 2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, was reported wounded.

This battalion’s Unit War Diary is scant on casualty details, with lots of ‘Quiet Day’ reports. In the weeks leading up to this 4 October list, the men rotated their time in trenches, or supplying digging and mining parties, around the Bray and Carnoy areas of the Somme. The only significant activity was the Germans detonating two mines on 4 September, blowing in some of the British listening posts [12].

Looking at Commonwealth War Graves burials for the battalion in the period 1 September to 4 October 1915, there are only six recorded. Five of these are in Carnoy Military Cemetery, the latest being 18 September, again indicative of nothing dramatic or large scale. Neither is there any report in the Batley News for the period to shed any further light on how Thomas sustained his injuries [13].

Thomas returned to action, possibly by now with the 8th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. For it was with this battalion that he sustained wounds which proved fatal.

Their Unit War Diary does not provide specific name details about Other Rank casualties; and again neither the Batley News or Batley Reporter and Guardian carried any report of Thomas’ injuries or subsequent death.

In terms of major action, the nearest time-wise to when he died was the Somme Battle of Le Transloy. Taking place between the 1-18 October 1916, the 23rd Division, which included the 8th KOYLI, assisted in the capture of Le Sars. This is a possibility. But in terms of it definitely being when Thomas was injured, it is speculation on my part.

The circumstances surrounding the 8th KOYLI involvement here is detailed in their Unit War Diary.

On 1 October, when in trenches near Martinpuich, the 8th KOYLI were tasked with the capture of two lines of German-held trenches. The diary account of the attack reads:

Battalion took up its position in assembly trenches behind DESTREMONT FARM just before dawn. The attack was timed for 3.15pm and the objective was the two lines of German trenches over a frontage of 300 yards in front of LE SARS. The advance was across 600 yards of open ground. At dawn our position was revealed and the assembly trenches were shelled continuously. About 25% of strength were then lost in casualties before the attack. At 3.15pm our artillery put up an intensive barrage and A. & D. Companies left their trenches clearly followed by C. Co[mpan]y in support. B. Co[mpan]y remained in reserve. The objective was gained easily despite a counter barrage by German artillery and work of consolidation on the two lines began. The objective was held all night against small counter attacks and at 2am B Co[mpan]y reinforced. At 4 am two companies came up from Brigade Reserve and took over O.G.2. While the remainder of the 8th K.O.Y. L.I. were withdrawn to O.G.1. [14]

By the time the O.G.1 contingent were relieved the following day, the battalion’s casualty count stood at 1 Officer killed, 2 missing, 8 wounded, along with 248 Other Rank casualties.

Despite this the operation was deemed a success. Major General Babington, the General Officer Commading the Division, sent his personal congratulations to them, writing as follows:

My dear Colonel. Will you please tell all ranks of your battalion how very pleased I am at their behaviour on Oct[ober] 1st. I congratulate them most heartily on their success which was due to their gallantry and the fine spirit they showed. Good luck to you all.
Yours Ever (Signed) J. M. Babington [15]

Additionally, a number of officers and men of the 8th KOYLI collected gallantry awards for the parts they played.

There then followed a period of quiet days resting, and undertaking working and carrying party duties before moving to billets prior to heading up to Ypres in mid-October. The only casualties mentioned in the period after 1 October are an accidental one on 19 October in the line at Zillebeke; and 1 Other Rank wounded at Ypres on 24 October 1916, where they were either bathing or assigned to working parties. But Thomas’ burial location makes these less likely options.

Wherever sustained, his injuries were sufficiently serious for him to be moved down the line to Rouen. The southern outskirts of the city had a number of military camps and hospitals. These included eight general, five stationary, one British Red Cross and one labour hospital, and No. 2 Convalescent Depot. Almost all of the hospitals at Rouen remained there for practically the whole of the war. The great majority of those who died in these hospitals were buried in the city cemetery of St. Sever. In September 1916, it was found necessary to begin an extension, and it was here that Thomas was buried when he succumbed to his wounds on 28 October 1916.

Thomas Curley’s Headstone, St Sever Cemetery Extension, Rouen – Photo by James Percival

Thomas was awarded the 1914/15 Star, British War and Victory Medals. In addition to his parish church of St Mary of the Angels in Batley, he is also remembered on Batley War Memorial.

The family remained in the 25 Villiers Street home in the years following Thomas’ death. This is Anthony and Mary’s recorded home in Batley cemetery’s burial registers when they died in 1937 (Anthony was buried on 29 March, and Mary on 21 November). It is also where William and James are living in their 1939 Register entry. The streets went in Batley’s slum clearances in the 1960s period.

Villiers Street – unknown source

Notes:
[1] GRO Indexes, September Quarter 1895, Dewsbury, 9B, Page 1182, accessed via Findmypast;
[2] 1901 and 1911 Censuses England and Wales, Labourer for Building Contractor in 1901 and Mason’s Labourer in 1911 Censuses, accessed via Findmypast, originals at The National Archives (TNA), References RG13/4261/141/28 and RG14/27245;
[3] Rag Sorter in the 1911 Census England and Wales, as above;
[4] St Mary of the Angels, Batley, Baptism register, accessed 2010;
[5] 1901 Census England and Wales, as above;
[6] Birth date obtained from 1939 Register, living 19 Villiers Street, Batley, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference RG101/3608B/008/22 Letter Code: KMEX
[7] Birth date obtained from 1939 Register, living 91 New Street, Batley, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference RG101/3608A/011/44 Letter Code: KMEW; and GRO Death Indexes January Quarter 1984, Dewsbury, Register 384 Volume 4
[8] Birth date obtained from 1939 Register, living 25 Villiers Street, Batley, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference RG101/3608B/008/32 Letter Code: KMEX; and GRO Death Indexes, January Quarter 1970, Bradford, 2B, Page 735;
[9] 1911 Census England and Wales, as above;
[10] St Mary of the Angels, Batley, Baptism register, accessed 2010, also his GRO death registration in 1974. Note the 1939 Register gives the date as 27 July;
[11] 2nd Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry Unit War Diary, 1 August 1914 – 31 December 1915, TNA Reference WO95/1551/1
[12] Ibid;
[13] The Batley News editions between 9 to 30 October 1915 have been checked to date. Earlier dates and the Batley Reporter for the period have not been examined;
[14] 8th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry Unit War Diary, 1 August 1915 – 31 October 1917, TNA Reference WO95/2187/2
[15] Ibid

Sources (other than mentioned in the notes):
• 1905 OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html;
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, https://www.cwgc.org/
Daily Casualty Lists, The Genealogist website;
History of The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the Great War 1914-1918 ; Bond, Reginald C. London: Lund, Humphries, 1929.
Soldiers Died in the Great War, accessed via Findmypast;
Soldiers’ Effects Registers, accessed via Ancestry, original record
National Army Museum; Chelsea, London, England; Soldiers’ Effects Records, 1901-60; NAM Accession Number: 1991-02-333; Record Number Ranges: 367001-368500; Reference: 197;
• WW1 Pension Ledgers and Index Cards 1914-1923
, accessed via Ancestry and Fold3, original record Western Front Association; London, England; Pension Record Cards, Reference: 055/0235/CUN-CAR and PRC Ledgers, Reference: 687/04D;

Michael Horan: St Mary of the Angels War Memorial, Batley

Several years ago I researched the men on the War Memorial of St Mary of the Angels RC Church, Batley. The resulting booklet was sold in aid of the Royal British Legion and the church roof appeal. Over the subsequent years I’ve continued to add to this research – somehow I’ve not been able to let them go.

In May 2020 a medal came up for sale in a military auction in Ipswich. The nearest thing to an auction I’ve participated in is eBay. But this medal was one awarded to a St Mary’s man. I felt compelled to bid, so signed up to do so online. And to my relief I won. The Victory Medal of Michael Horan is now back in Batley, after spending time in Hereford and Anglesey, before its sale at the Ipswich auction house.

Auction Win – Michael Horan’s Victory Medal and his Headstone Photos

Here is Michael’s story, significantly updated since my initial St Mary’s research.

Michael’s parents, Irish-born James Horan and Annie Gollagher, wed in late 1875. As anyone who researches family history knows, spellings of names can be notoriously inconsistent. The Irish accent adds to the confusion. Annie’s name in particular varies depending on records. Her maiden name is occasionally spelled Gallagher, and even her Christian name is inconsistent, with some documents recording it as Honora. The Horan surname is occasionally written as Horn.

The couple settled to married life in Batley. Plentiful employment opportunities in the shoddy industry, and a growing County Mayo community, of which James and Annie belonged to, were the town’s major magnets. James was an integral part of shoddy industry, working as a rag-grinder. It was a filthy, hard, dust-ridden, unhealthy job, which involved grinding down the rags in preparation for them to be mixed with fresh wool in order to produce shoddy fabric.

The couple had six children of which, to date, I have identified five. Only two survived to adulthood. These were Mary and Michael. All the Horan offspring were baptised at St Mary of the Angels, and the infant burials are all recorded in Batley cemetery, within sight of the newly built Catholic Church.

In order of arrival, Mary was born on 4 June 1876; Michael followed on 7 November 1878; Others included Ellen, born on 5 November 1880 and buried on 11 May 1881; John Patrick, born on 23 January 1883 and buried, age two, on 1 February 1885; and Thomas, born on 4 January 1885, just a month prior to his brother’s burial. He also died age two and was buried on 15 May 1887.

The Horan’s family addresses are reflective of ones associated with the Batley Irish community. They included New Street, Fleming’s Buildings, Newsome Fold, Scargill Fold and latterly Hume Street. The Horan’s lived at 64, whilst my Cassidy great grandparents lived at 36.

In 1891, when the family were living at Yard 2, Commercial Street, 12-year-old Michael was already working, as a hurrier in a coal mine. This was the first rung of the ladder to a career as a miner. In 1901 he was lodging along with another Batley man, Patrick Brett, in the home of Margaret Dawson in Winlanton, Durham, and working as a coal hewer [1]. But he was back home in Batley by 1911, still working as a hewer.

There are other references to Michael in Batley in the first decade of the 20th century, minor brushes with the law, two of which resulted in stays at Wakefield Prison. On 8 April 1904 the Batley Reporter and Guardian carried the following piece:

ASSAULTING THE POLICE – Michael Horan, collier, of Batley, was charged with being drunk and riotous in Commercial Street, on the 2nd inst., and further with assaulting Police-constable Harris. – Police-constable Moore stated that at ten minutes past seven on the date mentioned he was on Commercial Street, accompanied by Police-constable Harris, when they saw defendant fighting with another man. He was very drunk, and used bad language. They asked him for his name, which he refused to give, and after walking about 40 yards Horan commenced to kick Police-constable Harris. – The defendant pleaded guilty, and was fined 2s. 6d. and costs for being drunk and riotous, and 5s. and costs for the assault on the policeman.

The Wakefield Prison records show both his imprisonments resulted from similar offences – 10 days for being drunk etc., on 11 April 1904 [2]; and 7 days for obscene language on 24 May 1907 [3]. In the absence of a photograph of Michael, at least from these records we have a brief physical description. He stood at 5’2” and had brown hair. His education was the basic Standard I.

Michael enlisted in September 1914. At the time he was employed as a miner at Batley’s West End Colliery. In the ownership of the Critchley family, who were associated with Batley Hall, the workings of this mine were between Cliff and Spring Woods, near the bottom of Scotchman Lane, close to the Batley/Morley boundary.

Extract of OS Six-inch map, Yorkshire CCXXXII.NE, Revised 1905 to 1906, Published 1908 – Shows the location of West End Colliery

Briefly with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (Service Number 16939), it appears Michael quickly transferred as a Private to the 10th (Service) Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, with the revised Service Number 19681. His date of arrival overseas fits with him setting sail with the battalion from Folkestone at 10.30pm on the night of September 1915 on board the Duchess of Argyll. They arrived at Boulogne in the early hours of the following morning. With him was a fellow-St Mary’s parishioner Pte James Groark, Service Number 19677.

After entraining for Watten on 11 September 1915, arriving there at 11pm that night, there then followed a series of punishing marches, mainly in the evening and early hours of the morning. These equated to a distance of around 50 miles as the crow flies, until they arrived at Vermelles at 10pm on 25 September [4]. Exhausted before they started, they went straight into action, forming part of the reserve for an attack on the Hulluch-Lens Road. It was a true baptism of fire for the pair. They were being thrown into the Battle of Loos. This was the first time the British used poison gas during the war. It also witnessed the first large-scale use of New Army or ‘Kitchener’s Army’ units. And given their rapid approach, no wonder the casualty toll proved to be so heavy for these new troops. More details about the York and Lancaster Regiment at Loos can be found in the Online Diary of Eric Rayner blog [5].

The battle commenced on 25 September 1915. The British were able to break through the weaker German trenches and capture the town of Loos, mainly due to numerical superiority. However, the inevitable supply and communications problems, combined with the late arrival of reserves, meant that the breakthrough could not be exploited. A further complication for many British soldiers was the failure of their artillery to cut the German wire in many places in advance of the attack. Advancing over open fields in full range of German machine guns and artillery, British losses were devastating.

The 10th York and Lancasters were no exception. By the time they were relieved at 3.30am on 27 September their casualties stood at 14 officers and 306 other ranks killed, wounded or missing [6]. James Groark suffered a thigh wound in action on the 26 September. It was sufficiently serious for him to be evacuated to England for treatment in a Cambridge hospital.

From October 1915, the 10th York and Lancaster unit war diary is one of those beloved by family historians. Its appendixes name not only officers, but other ranks casualties too. It includes dates and, even better, other details. For example some month’s lists state if death or injury occurred in the trenches, in working parties (including those with the Brigade Mining Section) or resting etc. Some have other information, such as “wounded accidentally” or “self inflicted.” This extends right through to the end of July 1916, with a separate list devoted specifically to casualties incurred during fighting between 1 and 3 July 1916, the first days of the Battle of the Somme.

This Somme list is broken into sections, identifying those killed in action, men who died of wounds, and pages of the wounded who were evacuated to England, along with the date. There is also a list of others wounded but not evacuated to Blighty, along with the source of this information, e.g. 64th Field Ambulance. Then follows the missing men, and finally a section with amended casualties. This primarily includes updates on those initially posted as missing.

Michael’s name is in the unit war diary amongst these lists. So, what happened to him?

At 9pm on 30 June, the eve of the attack [7], the 10th York and Lancasters left their billets in Ville, making for their assembly trenches north east of Becordel and just west of Fricourt. They fell under the 21st Division, who would be taking part in the attack around the heavily-defended German-held village of Fricourt. As they made their way up the line, did memories flash back to the previous September’s march? Or was hope held of the “possibility of a collapse of the enemy’s resistance…”, brought about by the prolonged period of preparatory bombardment which commenced on 24 June? [8]

British Plan Somme 1 July 1916 (21st Division north west of Fricourt), Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

On 1 July 1916 the plan for the 21st Division was that on the left side of Fricourt village would be the 63rd Brigade (which included the 10th Yorks and Lancasters), and beyond them the division’s 64th Brigade, would together carry out an outflanking move to the north. They would join up beyond the village with units of the 7th Division carrying out a similar manoeuvre to the south. Attached to the 21st Division for the attack was the 50th Brigade (taken from the 17th (Northern) Division). Their battalions were designated to attack closest to the northern edge of Fricourt, in an area known as the Tambour. This area was a series of craters, the scene of heavy underground warfare since 1915. The 10th West Yorkshire Regiment would lead off here, followed by the 7th East Yorkshires [9]. Later in the day, when the flanking manoeuvre was complete, the plan was battalions from this brigade would take Fricourt.

Looking towards Fricourt in 2017, the Tambour Mines (to the left) and Fricourt New Military Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

Before the attack a final heavy bombardment of the Fricourt area began at 6.25am on 1 July. Gas was released between 7.15am and 7.25am, during which period a Stokes bombardment was also launched. At 7.28am two mines were exploded to the right of the Tambour [10]. Two minutes later the 63rd Brigade assault commenced with the 4th Middlesex Regiment and 8th Somerset Light Infantry in the initial wave. The 10th York and Lancaster were following up as part of the second wave of the attack, along with the 8th Lincolns. The York and Lancaster’s unit war diary for 1 to 3 July goes on to say:

At 8.30 a.m. [1st July] 10th York and Lancs. and 8th Lincoln Regt. advanced from Assembly Trenches and passed through the Middlesex Regt.and 8th Somerset L.I. respectively, coming under very heavy machine gun fire from FRICOURT and FRICOURT WOOD. After very hard fighting (in which heavy casualties occurred) the Battalion consolidated in LOZENGE ALLEY and later in DART LANE. Battalion remained in this position till about 2 p.m. third day when it moved up to SUNKEN ROAD and took up Support Position in DINGLE TRENCH, with H.Q. in SUNKEN ROAD. [11]

The 10th York and Lancasters were relieved at 4 a.m. on 4 July. The diary, in its appendixes, contains a more detailed account:

OPERATIONS
July 1st 1916 – July 4th 1916
The Battalion advanced through 4th Middlesex Regt, who were in German front line, and came under heavy machine gun fire from FRICOURT and FRICOURT WOOD. The leading wave got some distance in advance of DART LANE, when they were held up by machine gun fire from FRICOURT WOOD. At the same time three large parties of Germans attempted to bomb their way up all the trenches South of DART LANE. Also at the same time the Battalion Bombers were having a hard struggle with a large bombing party in LONELY TRENCH. They had three barricades in this, which we destroyed. We then placed a barricade at North end of LONELY TRENCH near junction of LOZENGE ALLEY. A party of D. Company with stragglers from other Units were sent into ARROW LANE to protect that flank, with the assistance of one gun of Machine Gun Corps. This party came under heavy fire from the South, the enemy making several strong attempts to bomb up EMPRESS SUPPORT and the remains of EMPRESS TRENCH. The remainder of Battalion were then in LOZENGE ALLEY with the Lincolns and parties of other Units. This we were consolidating. About 5.0 p.m. I re-organized the Battalion to take them to DART LANE, which I consolidated. I had also a holding party of Bombers at corner of DART LANE, EMPRESS SUPPORT and LONELY LANE. I had also a party in ARROW LANE: with this party were about 30 men of the 10th Yorkshire Regiment. The Battalion remained in this position until about 2.0 p.m. on the second day, during which time the Battalion was working very hard in passing up S.A.A., [12] Bombs, etc. to 62nd Brigade, who were calling for supplies very urgently. This work went on continuously till about 2.0 p.m. when I was ordered to move up and join 62nd Brigade. I took Battalion up SUNKEN ROAD and put them in DINGLE TRENCH from D 21 Central to about junction of DINGLE TRENCH and PATCH ALLEY, with my headquarters in SUNKEN ROAD at South end of ROUND WOOD.
Whilst here we were under a shell fire from 2 heavy enemy guns. We remained here till relieved by one Company of 12th Manchester Regt at about 4.0 a.m. on morning of 4th. The blocking party ordered to follow immediately in rear of 4th Middlesex Regt did not reach their objective, as all the men were knocked out with the exception of about six men, the Officer being wounded just after getting over the parapet. I also collected what spare bombers I had and sent them up to 62nd Brigade, who were calling for more men. The party protecting our right collected a fair number of prisoners from the dug-outs in DART LANE, EMPRESS SUPPORT and various small communication trenches.
One Officer and a small party of men actually reached the hedge running on outside of FRICOURT FARM, but were compelled to fall back owing to a large bombing party coming down LOZENGE ALLEY from FRICOURT FARM.
Lieut-Colonel.
5th July 16. Comdg. 10th (S) [13] Bn. York & Lancaster Regiment [14].

Extract from Trench Map 57D.SE.4 (Ovillers), Scale 1:10000, Edition 2B, Published 1916, Trenches corrected to 27 April 1916 – Illustrates some of the locations mentioned in the 10th York and Lancaster Unit War Diary Operations Report (above)

With elements of the 21st Division now behind them, the Germans began to abandon Fricourt during the night of the 1/2 July. British troops entered the village on the 2 July.

As a result of the part they played and their consequent heavy losses, the 63rd Infantry Brigade swapped with the 110th Brigade, to become part of the 37th Division. At its departure it received the following communication on 8 July from Major-General David ‘Soarer’ Cambell, commanding the 21st:

I cannot allow the 63rd Brigade to leave my command without expressing to all ranks my immense admiration for their splendid behaviour during the recent fighting.
No troops in the world could have behaved in a more gallant manner.
I feel sure that the 63rd Brigade will uphold the reputation of the 21st Division in the Division to which they are attached.
Whilst deeply deploring your heavy losses, I feel that these gallant men have willingly given their lives to vindicate the character of the 21st Division.
Hoping that our separation may be of short duration only, I wish you Good Luck [15].

Michael was amongst the heavy casualties. His name appears in the 10th York and Lancaster unit war diary. It is amongst the list of 24 other ranks listed as killed in action between the 1 and 3 July 1916. Officially his death date is 3 July.

News of his loss reached Batley later that month. According to reports he was carrying ammunition when a shell exploded in his immediate vicinity causing his instant death [16].

Michael is buried at Becourt Military Cemetery, Bécordel-Bécourt, in the Somme region of France. He is commemorated at home on the Batley St Mary’s War Memorial and Batley War Memorial.

Becourt Military Cemetery, Final Resting Place of Michael Horan – Photo by Jane Roberts

Michael’s parents survived him. His father (age 75) was buried in Batley cemetery on 7 April 1923. His mother (age 72) was buried in the same cemetery plot on 24 December 1925.

Whilst his sister Mary did marry John Owens at St Mary’s on 24 July 1915, the couple had no children. John died in December 1926 and Mary in November 1933. Mary’s death brought to an end the direct relations of Michael and helps explain why the medal went out of the family.

Michael was also awarded the 1914-15 Star and British War Medal. Those I have not traced. But at least his Victory Medal is back in his hometown. And although he is not buried in the same cemetery as his family, he is commemorated in the church just across the road.

St Mary of the Angels RC Church Batley – War Memorial Panel Commemorating Michael Horan – Photo by Jane Roberts

Notes:
[1] 1901 census, England and Wales, surname written as Horn, accessed via Findmypast, original records held at The National Archives (TNA) Reference RG13/4763/99/27;
[2] West Yorkshire Prison Records 1801-1914, accessed via Ancestry, original records at West Yorkshire Archives, Wakefield Prison Records, Reference C118;
[3] Ibid;
[4]
The route according to the unit war diary was Watten, Nortebecourt (Nortbécourt), St Omer, Campagne [Les Wardrecques], Aire [Sur la Lys], St Hilaire [Cottes], Auchel, Sailly la Bourse (Labourse) and Vermelles.
[5] For more on the 10th York and Lancasters at Loos see Eric’s Daily Diary, 2 September 1915, The Battle of Loos – how Haig tried to kill my grandfather, http://ericsdailydiary.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-battle-of-loos-how-haig-tried-to.html
[6] Unit War Diary, 10th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, TNA Reference WO95/2158/4;
[7] The attack was originally planned to start on 29 June. However, summer storms and heavy rain which led to the decision being taken on 28 June (less than 21 hours notice) to postpone until 7.30am on 1 July.
[8] Addition to Operation Order No. dated 23 June 1916, H Broadbent, Lieut. & Adjt. For Lt-Col. Cmdg. 10th (S) BNA. York & Lanc. Regt., 29 June 1916
[9] The 10th West Yorkshire’s suffered in excess of 700 casualties. According to Gerald Gliddon in Somme 1916: a Battlefield Companion their casualties were higher than any other British battalion on 1 July. Martin Middlebrook in The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916 stated their losses was probably the highest battalion casualty list for a single day during the war.
[10] The 178th Tunnelling Company laid three mines which were due to detonate that morning, but only two explosions occurred, with the largest mine failing to detonate;
[11] Unit War Diary, 10th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, TNA Reference WO95/2158/4;
[12] Small Arms Ammunition;
[13] Service;
[14] Unit War Diary, 10th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, TNA Reference WO95/2158/4;
[15] Ibid;
[16] Batley Reporter and Guardian, 28 July 1918

Sources:
1881 to 1911 England and Wales Censuses, accessed via Ancestry and Findmypast, originals at TNA;
• Batley Cemetery Records;
Batley Reporter and Guardian, 8 April 1904 and 28 July 1918;
Capture of Fricourt, Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capture_of_Fricourt;
• Cooksey, Jon, and Jerry Murland. The First Day of the Somme. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2016;
Commonwealth War Graves Commission Debt of Honour Database, https://www.cwgc.org/;
• Gliddon, Gerald. Somme 1916: a Battlefield Companion. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2016;
• General Register Office birth, marriage and death indexes
• Hart, Peter. The Somme. London: Cassell, 2006;
• Middlebrook, Martin. The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916. London: Penguin Books, 2016;
• OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html;
Parish Registers, St Mary of the Angels;
Soldiers Died in the Great War, accessed via Findmypast;
Soldiers Effects Records 1901-1960, accessed via Ancestry, original records National Army Museum Accession Number 1990-02-333, Record Number Ranges 322001-323500, Reference 167;
• Stedman, Michael. Somme: Fricourt-Mametz. Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 1997;
• Trench Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html;
Unit War Diary, 10th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, TNA Reference WO95/2158/4;
• Reed, Paul. Walking the Somme. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2011.
Wakefield Prison Records, accessed via Ancestry, originals at West Yorkshire Archives;
War Office and Air Ministry Service Medal and Award Rolls, accessed via Ancestry, TNA Reference WO329 Reference 1590 and 2787;
Western Front Association Pension Record Cards and Ledgers, References 102/0462/HOP-HOR and 686/04D;
WW1 Medal Index Cards, accessed via Ancestry, originals at TNA.

The Britannia Mills Tragedy – ‘Lord Help Me!’

It was 6pm on the evening of Thursday 20 October 1892. It had been an unsettled, breezy day with the constant threat of rain. As darkness descended, the signal was given for work to cease at Britannia Mills. Looms gradually abated, day-shift weavers turned off their lights, and those women not working overtime tied their handkerchiefs round their heads in preparation to leave the building and venture out into the chill, autumnal night.

Extract of OS Six-inch map, Yorkshire CCXXXII.NE, Surveyed 1888-1892, Published 1894

The building on Geldard Road in Birstall, known locally as ‘Slopers’ Mill, was a five-storey structure. The lower two floors were occupied by Messrs. Charles Robinson and Company, Carlinghow woollen manufacturers. The upper storeys were tenanted by Leeds woollen manufacturers Messrs. Hartley Brothers. The top floor contained around 30 looms, with about two thirds operating that Thursday.

Britannia Mills photographed after the July 1905 fire – source unknown

The distance from the ground to the fifth floor was around 30-35 yards [1]. Whilst a long, winding staircase could be used, after a tough day’s work tired workers from the upper floors often preferred to use the mill hoist, commonly used to carry goods between floors. This hoist, located in the centre of the building, controlled a contraption which workers referred to as a cage. Essentially an open-sided box with a wooden roof and floor, it was supported by an iron rope, and worked by pulleys and gearing suspended from girders: in effect a primitive lift system.

For younger workers the journey in this cage no doubt was tremendous fun, adding a frisson of excitement at the end of their arduous workday.

It was set in motion by pulling one of the two guide ropes at the side. One of these ropes acted as a brake. There was no one person designated to operate the hoist. It was started and reversed by the person nearest the ropes, something which might have particularly appealed to teenage boys. Youngsters did not see any danger with it. In fact 15-year-old Hilda North, who had worked in the Hartley portion of the mill for around a week, told her father on the second day there she only got one foot on the hoist when it descended. And it was not unheard of for agile workers to jump into the cage as it passed the lower floors.

The hoist was so popular with the workers that around five weavers from the top floor regularly knocked off at 5.55pm in order to beat the rush, and avoid the inevitable overcrowding. Because overcrowding was commonplace. Reports state many as 20 workers crammed into it on occasions. They rushed to it at the end of their shift, like children racing to leave school. In fact many were only teenagers.

James Gray, the engineman at the mill for eight years and whose responsibilities included looking after the engine powering the mill machinery, had been unaware of any mechanical issues with the hoist in that time. However, it was not his responsibility to oversee and maintain it. And he couldn’t remember any official inspection or maintenance of it by an external official either. The only incident he recalled was around five or six years earlier, when too many people in it caused it to land with a bump.

As a result of that incident the maximum capacity was limited to eight, and pulling on the ropes whilst was in motion was prohibited. The penalty for contravening these instructions ranged from a severe 1s fine to instant dismissal – although it seems these punishments were never meted out. There was a warning note at the hoist entrance, a legacy of the earlier incident, put up by the previous mill owners.

Wording on the Hoist Warning Notice

Although prominent, it was perhaps too high for some even if they could read [2]. Neither were new starters routinely informed about the restrictions; nor did it appear to be discussed generally, not even by those aware that the regulations were regularly being breached.

John Howitt, a warp dresser working at Hartleys for a fortnight, only used the hoist if it did not exceed maximum capacity even if it meant waiting. But he admitted he never thought to warn younger workers ignoring the rules [3]. And 15-year-old Mary Alice Mann, a recently employed weaver at Hartleys stated “I saw other people go down in the hoist, and I went with them.[4] No thought did she give to numbers.

That Thursday evening was no different. Eager workers, keen to quickly return home, rushed and pushed to make their way towards the exit. A crowd on the top floor jostled and jockeyed for position in the cage, with cries of “Let us get in.” Perhaps some on the lower floors had stolen a march, already in the cage before it reached the upper storey, similar to the tricks we use today at busy lifts: that was one rumour circulating later. According to at least one report one lad, Edwin Day, jumped in as it made its descent. In all, it appears around 16 people were now crammed in. It may have even been as many as 18, for collating names from various newspaper reports the occupants included:

  • Fred Beevers, Carlinghow. Born in July 1875, the son of Andrew and Sarah Ann Beevers, in 1891 the family lived on Coal Pit Lane with Fred working as a cloth presser;
  • Elizabeth Birbeck, 38-year-old wife of Turner Birbeck. They lived at Lambsfield Place, Geldard Road, Birstall. She only started work that week as weaver at Hartleys. Other information shows she was born on 7 May 1853, the daughter of John and Hannah Gooder, and she married Turner on 25 October 1873 at St Peter’s Church in Birstall;
  • Edwin Blakey Day, age 14. He was a piecer and the son of postman Ernest Day of Union Street, Birstall [5]. He had worked six months for Robinsons, but was due to start work the following week at Carr Mill;
  • Edith Crossley [6], weaver, wife of James Crossley of Geldard Road. Other sources show she was born in Holmfirth on 8 February 1861, the daughter of Hugh and Mary Ramsden, and married James Booth Crossley on 23 July 1881 at St Saviour’s, Brownhill;
  • Jane Donnelly, Richmond Street, Batley. Looking at other sources it seems likely she was the Dublin-born wife of Richard Donnelly, maiden name Egan. Her age was 30 in the 1891 census and she worked as a woollen machine feeder;
  • Ann Frankland, wife of collier James Frankland, of Britannia Cottages, Geldard Road. Further investigation shows she was born on 18 March 1869 and was the sister of Elizabeth Birbeck. She married James on 1 February 1890 at Batley All Saints;
  • Gooder, sister of Mrs Birbeck. No Christian name is given in the reports, which only mention she is a girl. Although possible this may be the recently married Ann Frankland, it is equally possible this is another of the Gooder sisters. Weight is added to this because in some of the casualty lists both Ann Frankland and ‘a girl named Gooder’ appear. But there is nothing conclusive;
  • Hannah Mary Grayson, Birstall. Putting together other sources she is likely to be the daughter of Solomon and Mary Grayson (and its many surname variants) who was born on 26 November 1863. In the 1891 census she is living with her widowed mother at Cross Street in Birstall [7], and working as a wool cloth weaver. She married George Easby at St Peter’s, Birstall on 8 January 1897;
  • Walter Jones, age 13, piecer, son of tripe dresser Edward Jones and wife Sarah Ann of Low Lane, Birstall. He was born on 12 March 1879;
  • Joshua Kellett, age 15, piecer, son of John and Mary Kellett of White Lee Road, Batley;
  • Nellie Lee, Skelsey Row, Batley;
  • Mary Alice Mann, 15, daughter of Mark and Elizabeth Mann. She was born on 5 November 1876 and lived with her family at Geldard Road, Birstall. She had been employed as a weaver for one week in the Hartley-run portion of the mill;
  • Kate McGuire, a young woman living in Batley. Although unverified, this might have been the 23-year-old niece of Michael McGuire living at Parker Buildings, Whittaker Street in the 1891 census;
  • Henry Mitchell, the son of Annie Mitchell, of Geldard Road, Birstall. Not employed at the mill, he had been there to drop tea off for another worker. The newspaper reports put his age at 9 or 10. My research points he was likely to be 9-year-old Harry Mitchell born on 17 October 1883, the son of Annie and William Mitchell. In 1891 he was living at Geldard Road with his mother and his maternal grandmother Mary Ann Ramsden. He was the nephew of Edith Crossley;
  • Sarah Moon, age 53, weaver and wife of tobacco pipe maker Charles Moon. They lived at Boar Terrace, Geldard Road, Birstall. Sarah and widower Charles married at Tong St James on 9 May 1880 – it was her second marriage too. Sarah was born in Cleckheaton on 24 December 1839, the daughter of James and Sarah Haigh. She married her first husband William Firth in Halifax on 7 October 1860, but was widowed with two young sons, in early 1865. Sarah only started work at Hartley’s on the afternoon of 18 October, in place of Annie Williams who was ill;
  • Hilda North, the daughter of George and his Irish-born wife Ellen North. Born on 11 February 1877, her family home was 22 Carlinghow Lane. When the accident occurred she had worked as a weaver for only one week in the Hartley portion of Britannia Mills. Well-liked by all who knew her, Hilda and her family were long associated with St Mary’s RC Church in Batley. In fact some newspapers claimed Hilda was a member of the church choir, though this was disputed in a subsequent report [8].
  • A boy named Ramsden. There are no further details. It is possible that this might be a confusion with Henry Mitchell (above); and
  • Ada Rymer, age 17 [9]. Born on 31 May 1875, she was the daughter of Thomas and Eliza Rymer. In 1891 the family address was Riding Street, White Lee, Batley;

Elizabeth Birbeck, holding one of the guide ropes, gave the signal and the cage began its descent. It quickly became apparent that things were not right: the cage was travelling faster than usual. Someone called out “Steady it!” Fred Beevers pulled one of the guide ropes which temporarily righted things. However, before it reached the halfway point, it hurtled out of control down the shaft. Shouting “Pull the rope! Pull the rope!” Elizabeth Birbeck grabbed the left hand side, whilst Fred Beevers took hold of the right. The pair desperately battled to steady the cage. Someone else screamed, and Edith Crossley cried out “Let’s jump up,” in a vain attempt to slow the cage’s descent. But in the words of Mary Alice Mann it “banged reight to t’bottom.” As the cage struck the floor Elizabeth Birbeck exclaimed “Lord, help me!” These were her final recorded words.

Some of the occupants were thrown out of the cage which, with the force of the impact, rebounded around three feet into the air. It smashed to the floor for a second time, and this ripped down the hoist’s gears and support girders. Weighing about a ton, these crashed on top of the cage.

The Hoist Gear and Accident Aftermath

The tremendous noise alerted those elsewhere in the mill, and workers rushed to the disaster site. James Gray immediately stopped the engine. Shocked and injured cage occupants emerged coughing and stunned from the dust-shrouded scene. The air gradually cleared, revealing the horrific sight of the crushed and splintered cage. Some mill workers were trapped under the wreckage.

Blocks were hastily assembled and the debris lifted off the badly mangled bodies, with Edwin Day first to be released. Those prominent in the rescue included John Leach, Joseph Wright, John Howitt and W. Lockwood.

News of the accident spread quickly beyond the mill. Crowds gathered at the gates, anxious to hear news of their loved ones. Wider in Birstall, and neighbouring areas, small knots of people gathered to speculate about events. Hushed voices and murmurs, rising to excited and expectant tones as they craned their necks to see the comings and goings at the mill. The local police rushed to the scene, pushing past the throng of people. Birstall doctors, Bridgeman and Field, were quickly summoned to tend to the injured.

By around 6.15pm news of fatalities reached those outside. The arrival of Ambrosine Fox (née Renshaw) must have been a signal, even before the names of the dead seeped out more generally. Married to miner Abraham Fox, the family lived at Chapel Lane in Birstall. Although Ambrosine has no occupation listed in the 1891 census, it seems she was one of the local go-to women for laying out the dead. Maybe she also helped bring local children into the world too, as these two tasks often went hand in hand.

Within the mill boundaries those who perished were taken to the burling shed. Here, illuminated by lamplight, Ambrosine Fox carried out the grim task of carefully laying out their bodies. This traditionally involved undressing and washing them, plugging the various orifices, possibly placing coins on their eyes and something (commonly a bandage) under their chins to keep the eyes and mouth closed. The body would be then dressed in its burial clothes, with bandages or ribbons tied around the body to hold it straight and ready for the coffin.

Four fatalities resulted from the accident, and they suffered horrific injuries caused by the falling debris. Those killed were:

  • Elizabeth Birbeck, the most badly injured. Although her face was unmarked, her body incurred severe crush trauma;
  • Edwin Blakey Day suffered mainly head injuries, but also a broken right leg;
  • Hilda North broke her right leg in two places, her left arm was severed at the elbow, her neck was put out and her head split open; and
  • Sarah Moon had a partially severed right leg, chest crush injuries and a fractured skull.

In terms of the injured, Edith Crossley suffered from shock; Ann Frankland had a broken foot; Walter Jones injured his left knee; Joshua Kellett sustained a broken left arm; Mary Alice Mann escaped with only a black eye; Henry Mitchell bruised his left thigh; and Ada Rymer had severe shock. Fortunately none had life-threatening injuries, and all were taken back to their homes to recuperate. It appears all others in the cage had no injuries of note. The belief was if the hoist gears and girders had remained intact, all inside the cage would have survived. It was the fact they came down which proved fatal.

Families were left mourning their loved ones. They also had the ordeal of the inquest, which opened at Birstall’s Coach and Six Inn within 24 hours of the accident. The current building is a 1950s replacement of the earlier structure. The inquest swiftness was down to the need to keep the bodies fresh. No conclusion was reached at this initial hearing, as a report on the condition of the hoist was deemed necessary. But at least funeral arrangements could now be made.

Later that day, Friday 21 October, Reverend Charles Gordon, the parish priest of St Mary’s, Batley, visited the distressed family of Hilda North to try offer some comfort, but presumably to also discuss these funeral arrangements. As was the custom (and for practical reasons with the majority of bodies still being kept at home between death and burial) funerals quickly followed death. So, on the afternoon of Sunday 23 October, less than 72 hours after the accident, all four interments took place.

A triple ceremony, for Edwin Day, Elizabeth Birbeck and Sarah Moon, was held at St Peter’s, Birstall. The coffins set off from their respective homes, and in a praiseworthy feat of co-ordination by Birstall undertakers Messrs. J Akeroyd and Sons, the processions met up as they journeyed to the church, timed to reach there at 4pm. In the procession were many of those in the hoist when the accident occurred. Crowds lined the route, tears staining the cheeks of bystanders. The numbers led one report to claim that:

…the multitude of people in the town on Sunday…was never exceeded at any time in the annals of the town on an occasion of that description… [10]

St Peter’s Parish Church, Birstall – Photograph by Jane Roberts

As the cortège approached the church, a muffled peal rang out from the church belfry. The three coffins were gently removed from the three hearses in absolute silence and carried into the crowded church for a service. Not all those present could fit in the building, forcing many more to assemble outside. The coffins were then borne to their final resting places in the churchyard, as the solemn, muffled peal of the bell pierced the silence. The sun shone brilliantly throughout, but a bitingly cold wind swept the graveside. There:

The children wailed continuously, the women were loud in their lamentations, and men were completely broken down…[11]

Once the service ended the trio of coffins were covered with earth. Mourners dispersed, offering words of sympathy to the bereaved families as they left. As darkness fell over the now-empty churchyard, the many wreaths laying on the three burial mounds stood silent witness to the tragic events.

That same afternoon Hilda North was committed to rest in Batley cemetery, in a similarly impressive service conducted by the Reverend Charles Gordon. Once more the approach to her final resting place was lined with a huge throng of people. The cemetery too brimmed with mourners, with a vast number of wreaths placed on her grave.

Batley Cemetery, Hilda North’s Damaged Headstone – Photograph by Jane Roberts

The adjourned inquest resumed at the Coach and Six on 28 October, with a report from Bradford engineer John Waugh into the state of the hoist. After establishing this did not contribute to the accident, the jury reached a verdict that:

…the deceased were killed by the falling of the cage of the hoist and the subsequent fall of the gear and supports of the said hoist, by the crowding into the cage of a greater number of persons than it was calculated to carry, and by the improper use of the gear ropes by some of the persons in the cage, that the overcrowding of the cage was in contravention of a warning which was conspicuously pasted up on the door of the hoist chamber…[12]

Britannia Mills in 2020 – Photograph by Jane Roberts

Finally, for those familiar with Birstall and wondering why Britannia Mills today does not bear any resemblance to the five-storey building of 1892, the answer is the all-too familiar fate which befell many mills: fire. In July 1905, when under the ownership of Batley mayor George Hirst and primarily occupied by the Extract Wool and Merino Company which he chaired, a fire took hold and ravaged the building. The reconstruction resulted in the smaller structure we are familiar with today. But as you pass, do pause and think. Over a century ago four local people lost their lives here, simply by going to work. Two of them would, by today’s standards, be still of school age. How times have (thankfully) changed.

Notes:
[1] Some reports say almost 40 yards. 1 yard = 3 feet. I suspect these reports may be an exaggeration, because an official report quoted in the Batley Reporter and Guardian of 29 October 1892 into the state of the hoist mentions the distance from the hoist girders to the floor was 67 feet;
[2] 6 feet off the ground according to Mary Alice Mann;
[3] Batley Reporter and Guardian, 22 October 1892;
[4] Batley News, 28 October 1892;
[5] Some reports say Low Lane. They also incorrectly give his father’s name as Edward;
[6] Some reports incorrectly state Eva;
[7] In the 1891 census she is recorded as Hannah May Grayson, and her mother is Mary Medcalf, TNA Reference RG12/3722/70/17. Her birth in the Dewsbury Registration District in the December quarter of 1863 is under Gration;
[8] Batley News, 28 October 1892;
[9] Newspaper reports give her age as 18;
[10] Batley Reporter and Guardian, 29 October 1892;
[11] Ibid;
[12] Yorkshire Evening Post, 28 October 1892.

Sources:
• 1861-1901 England and Wales censuses;
• Batley All Saints church marriage register;
• Batley Cemetery burial register;
• Batley News – 21 and 28 October 1892, and 21 July 1905;Batley News
– 21 and 28 October 1892, and 21 July 1905;
• Batley Reporter & Guardian
– 22 and 29 October 1892, and 21 July 1905;
• Birstall St Peter’s church parish registers (baptisms, marriages and burials);
• Funeral Practices, British Customs: https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/funeral-practices-british-customs
• Leeds Mercury – 24 October 1892;
Leeds Times – 22 October 1892;
• OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
• Tong St James parish register (marriages);
Yorkshire Evening Post – 21, 24 and 28 October 1892;

The Night the Luftwaffe Bombed Batley and Dewsbury

12 December 1940 had been a cold winter’s day. As darkness drew in, families across the Heavy Woollen District prepared to hunker down for their second wartime Christmas.

Money was tight – no change there for most. So no sacks full of Christmas presents for the children. Again no change for many. But people were making the best of it, continuing peacetime Christmas traditions. Like the Hartley family in Savile Town, making a Christmas cake with a neighbour that evening – a reminder of the ordinariness of preparations of past Christmases [1].

But this was far from a normal Christmas. The strangeness of separation from loved ones in this so-called season of goodwill, bundled up with anxiety for the safety of those absentees, bound lots of families together. Mrs Hill in Batley faced a difficult Christmas – her first as a young widow with four children under the age of six. Over in Dewsbury, the Callaghan family were getting ready to spend Christmas with their latest family addition, a seventh child born earlier that year. Their eldest, 15-year-old Jack, typical of many teenage lads, was caught up with the excitement of pretending to shoot German planes out of the Yorkshire skies from his open bedroom window, accompanied by his own ack-ack-ack sound effects. His Air Raid Protection (ARP) Warden father quickly dragged him away, ensuring the window was firmly shut and blacked out. Within four years Jack would be serving with the Royal Navy craft in the D-Day landings.

At around 7.30pm the blood-chilling wail of the air raid sirens sounded across the Batley and Dewsbury districts, ending that evening’s attempts to recreate the normal of Christmases past. This was their new wartime normal. The anti-aircraft guns, based in Caulms Wood and what is now hole number 2 of Hanging Heaton Golf Club, began firing.

View over Batley from Hanging Heaton going towards the golf course, site of the anti-aircraft Guns – Photo by Jane Roberts

Perhaps there was an air of calm as people made their way to various air raid shelters. After all, they’d experienced this before, and the alarms always proved thankfully false.

Various organisations had these bomb shelters – for example St Mary’s RC school’s log book notes shortly after the war declaration that air raid shelters were built. One was under construction at Batley hospital in March 1940 – I know because it cost my grandad his life. Some sheltered in the strongest part of their house – cellars, sculleries, or simply under kitchen tables.

Others had purpose-built Anderson shelters in their gardens, erected right from the early days of the war. My dad remembers his dad building one, which would’ve been in the very first months after war broke out. Many families kept theirs post-war, converted to garden storage. They were a common site for many a year after the war.

This Mortimer Street, Batley, Anderson shelter existed well into the 1980s – Photo by Pauline Hill

Communal shelters existed with wooden slatted seats inside, like the soil-covered brick built one at Staincliffe. There was also a communal shelter at Leeds Road, Dewsbury. The tunnel at the bottom of Primrose Hill, close to Lady Ann Road, was another example. Vera May recalls sheltering there as a child during the 12 December 1940 raid. Men who worked at Taylor’s mill were also there, and Vera remembers: ‘They were great with us children, singing with us so we would not be afraid[2]. For, unlike most nights, this was no false alarm. The Luftwaffe this time were not passing over Batley and Dewsbury on their way to/from bombing another unfortunate town or city. Tonight it was for real, the turn of the heart of the Heavy Woollen district with its rail lines and mills manufacturing cloth for the military to face Hitler’s wrath.

Following the failure of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe were now targeting Britain’s industrial and military centres. Sheffield was the focus for Operation Crucible, with bombing during the nights of the 12 and 15 December 1940. The targets of the raids were the multiple steel and iron works, collieries, and coke ovens along the Don Valley. One theory is that the bombing of Batley and Dewsbury was a mis-targeting from this attack, rather than these two towns being the specific objectives. Whatever, the results were disastrous for many of the townsfolk.

The night sky over Batley and Dewsbury lit up with parachute flares and tracer fire, as baskets of incendiary bombs and parachute mines rained down. Houses shook, window frames rattled, glass shattered, masonry and roof slates tumbled to the ground, water spurted out from fractured taps and pipes, and plaster fell from ceilings. As the bombs hurtled earthwards they made terrifying whistling and screaming sounds. Those sheltering braced themselves for the next ‘hit’, hunched over with hands protecting heads, then after each blast ensuring all others in the shelter were still OK.

It was not a constant bombardment. In the quieter periods, when the drone of the planes died away, people emerged troglodyte-like from their places of safety to check the damage, try extinguish any lights, and bale water onto house fires. Then they darted back in at the launch of the next attack wave.

Geoffrey Whitehead, an eight-year-old Batley schoolboy, vividly recalls that terrifying night. His grandparents, Charles and Harriet Whitehead, ran the off-licence at 1 Bunkers Lane. They also lived ‘over the shop’, along with Geoffrey and his parents. When the sirens sounded, Geoffrey’s father, Austin, set off towards Mayman Lane for his voluntary Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) work. Normally the rest of the family would go to the brick-built communal shelter at the bottom of Common Road. But the planes were upon them too quickly. With bombs already raining down, there was simply not time to risk walking the short distance to Common Road. Instead the family made their way down to the beer cellar and sheltered under the table there. The cellar roof was reinforced with plaster-covered wooden planks. So great were the shock-waves from the bombs, in particular one huge blast, that white plaster flecks came away from the ceiling [3].

As time passed, the air became ever more thick with smoke and dust, flames engulfed buildings, while the stench of sulphur from the high explosive bombs weighed heavy. Throughout it all, the Civil Defence Services, stretched to the limit, worked valiantly. They were assisted by brave and alert householders who had buckets of sand and water at the ready. These AFS personnel (Austin Whitehead possibly amongst them), soldiers, police and ARP Wardens checked on sheltering householders, went into homes to extinguish fires left in grates, smothered incendiary bombs with sand, operated stirrup pumps to douse flames, entered burning buildings to ensure no-one was inside, retrieved valuables and carried furniture from homes impossible to save. Delayed action fuse bombs and unexploded devices posed further threats to the rescuers. Yet they carried on regardless in the face of unimaginable danger.

Numerous incidents were reported across Batley. Joe Shepley, a fruiterer and ARP Warden, and David Woodcock were injured by flying splinters. One housewife caught an incendiary bomb in a bucket of water as it ripped through her ceiling – fortunately little damage was done. The home of Albert Stevenson and his bride of three weeks, Edith (née Thewlis), had a similarly lucky escape when soldiers quickly extinguished an incendiary bomb which landed in their bedroom. Private Rutter risked his life by entering a blazing building in which he thought someone was trapped. Luckily no-one was inside, but the soldier had the presence of mind to bring out furniture. Soldiers saved a laundry from flames, as well as the Well Lane mineral water works, despite knowing there was an unexploded bomb near the latter.

In the same area of Well Lane, Superintendent Horace Horne, an ambulance driver, had been instructing a class of ambulance cadets when the first bombs fell. They assisted in the operations to save the St John Ambulance headquarters and a storage building opposite, removing to safety the ambulances and most of the first aid stores.

Others reported the AFS and ARP personnel ‘carrying an adult invalid from a dilapidated house’ and ‘searching beneath a mass of overhanging slates and splintered rafters for someone who might be trapped in debris[4].

A cinema was hit, but again escaped relatively unscathed. Bombs landed in fields – I wonder if this was the one which my dad remembers landing in Carter’s field? My uncle can also remember a massive depression at the bottom of Healey Lane which he believed was a result of bomb damage. Was it from this raid?

And the major blast which shook the cellar in which Geoffrey Whitehead sheltered, was the result of a huge bomb which landed in fields near what is now Manor Way. He visited the crater site the following day and recalls the hole being so huge you could fit a double decker bus in it. He also remembers collecting shrapnel from it, now long since lost [5].

The Purlwell area of Batley was particularly badly affected. St Andrew’s church was the first in the Wakefield Diocese to be damaged by air raids. In the immediate aftermath repair costs were put at £1,000. The £400 East Window was pitted with splinters. One wall was so unsafe, with the organ visible through a gaping crack in the masonry, that rebuilding was thought necessary. The only door not blown out was the stout, oak entrance door.

St Andrew’s Church, Purlwell, Batley – Photo by Jane Roberts

Houses round and about the church suffered significant bomb and blast damage. It was in this locality that Batley’s first air-raid fatality lost his life. Private Herbert Courtney Channon of the Royal Army Service Corps was in Purlwell Hall Road when he was struck in the neck by shrapnel and killed instantly. Some say he was decapitated. His friends, standing either side of him, had lucky escapes being flung to the ground by the blast. Private Channon’s body was returned to his family for burial in Chard, Somerset later that month [6].

Even with the departure of the German raiders in the early hours of the 13 December, the danger did not pass. As the all-clear rang out at around 1am, amidst air thick with smoke and fumes, the rubble of smouldering buildings, the danger of unstable masonry and the risk posed by unexploded and delayed action bombs, the civil defence volunteers and demolition squads continued to work. The presence of ‘live’ devices meant the temporary evacuation of many houses, swelling the ranks of those bombed out of their homes.

Around 400 Batley residents slept that night in a school refuge centre. They were given meals in two Sunday schools. Most of the displaced were thankfully able to return to their homes by the following nightfall. One Batley man whose house suffered bomb appreciatively stated:

Kindly folk spontaneously brought food for us, invited us to their houses for meals. Tradesman offered us anything we needed, and young ladies served hot tea to us during the salvage. [7]

According to the official statistics compiled from Intelligence Reports into enemy activity on British domestic soil, that night Batley suffered five casualties comprising one killed and four injured. In fact two people in the town died as a result of the German raid. In addition to soldier Herbert Courtney Channon, local mill hand Percy Ingham also lost his life.

Percy was born in Birstall on 24 April 1894, the son of Harry and Sarah Ann Ingham. He married Annie Phillips on 7 February 1920 at St Mary of the Angels RC Church in Batley.

St Mary of the Angels, Batley – Photo by Jane Roberts

On the night of the raid, Percy sustained injuries at his home at 61 Purlwell Hall Road, the same street where Private Channon was cut down. Percy was taken to Staincliffe hospital where, despite all efforts, he died on 16 December 1940. Part of the old hospital buildings (previously Dewsbury Union Workhouse and the workhouse infirmary, as well as a military hospital in the First World War) exist today.

Staincliffe Hospital, now known as Dewsbury District Hospital and part of the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust – Photo by Jane Roberts

Percy’s funeral, conducted by Catholic priest John J Burns, took place on 20 December 1940. He is interred in Batley cemetery and his resting place is marked with a headstone. He is also commemorated in the roll of Wold War Two civilian dead held at Westminster Abbey, and on the Commonwealth War Grave’s Commission (CWGC) database.

Batley Cemetery, Headstone of Percy Ingham – Photo by Jane Roberts

Neighbouring Dewsbury also suffered in the 12 December raid, with five people losing their lives.

Brenda Hartley, her mother Hilda and neighbour Nellie Naylor, abandoned their Christmas cake baking at 13 North View, Savile Town. Initially they went into their cellar, but as Nellie’s husband, Harry, was due home they made a hair-raising dash to the cellar in the Naylor house next door but one. It was a decision which saved their lives. Harry arrived 15 minutes later. Shortly afterwards a bomb landed on the house they had vacated only a short time ago.

Initially unconscious, the group soon came round to find they were now buried alive. Their terrifying ordeal lasted several hours. Brenda’s mother sustained severe injuries, unable to move under the debris. There was a fear at one point that Hilda would drown, when water used to put out the fires above seeped steadily into the cellar. Harry, thankfully, managed to alert the firemen before it was too late. Rescuers eventually managed to dig a hole the size of an oven door into the cellar, through which a plank was inserted. Then, one by one, those entombed were pulled out to safety. However, the family at 14 North View were not so lucky as Brenda’s father, Dennis, soon learned.

Dennis cycled home immediately after hearing about the Savile Town bombing. He had been working the night shift at Newsome’s mill in Batley Carr. He did not know if his wife and daughter had survived. When he finally got through the cordon protecting devastated North View from the general public, he had a heart-stopping moment when:

…the A.R.P. Men told him they had just found two bodies. They had walked over them thinking they were pillows, but they turned out to be Mrs Scott and her daughter Enid who lived next door to us. Mr Scott was working at his shop, he was a cobbler in Thornhill Lees… [8]

Mary Ann Scott (née Platts) was originally from Carlinghow, Batley. Born in 1879 [9], her 61st birthday was only days away. She married boot and shoe repairer Harry Scott at Carlinghow St John’s on 16 April 1906 [10]. Before her marriage she worked as a weaver at Carlinghow mills (at that stage owned by Brooke Wilford & Co.,) and was a prominent member of the Carlinghow church, teaching in its Sunday school. After her marriage the family settled at 14 North View, and this was their home when Enid, their only child, was born on 7 August 1908. Enid attended Savile Town St Mary’s School, and Wheelwright Girls’ Grammar School. Her working life was spent in office and company secretary roles in Ossett. She also was a volunteer at the Dewsbury ARP Report Centre.

Harry was working at his boot repairing business at Brewery Lane, Thornhill Lees, when the attack occurred. That saved his life. On Tuesday 17 December, after a double funeral service at Carlinghow St John’s, it was Harry’s sad duty to walk behind the coffins of his wife and daughter as they were carried to Batley cemetery for interment. No headstone marks their final resting place. But, like Percy Ingham, their names live on in the Westminster Abbey roll of honour and on the CWGC database.

That day marked three more burials – this time all in Dewsbury cemetery. All three men were members of the Dewsbury Home Guard and were employed in Messrs. Crawshaw and Warburton’s Shaw Cross Colliery. The men were in the colliery offices at the former Ridings colliery on Wakefield Road [11], which was wrecked by a parachute mine. A row of terrace houses on Wakefield Road (Sunny Bank, numbers 72 to 82) were also destroyed in the attack. Fortunately the residents there had taken to the communal shelter and all survived. But the Home Guard men were not so fortunate.

Extract of Six-inch OS Map: Yorkshire CCXLVII.NE; Revised 1938; Published 1948. Shows Dewsbury and location of bombed Crawshaw and Warburton Colliery Offices and North View, Savile Town

Section Leader Sidney Burridge, of 351 Victoria Terrace, Leeds Road, Dewsbury, was a 46-year-old married man. Employed as a colliery deputy at Shaw Cross colliery, it was the same type of job undertaken by his father. Born on 5 July 1894, the son of James Hartley Burridge and wife Jane Elizabeth, he was baptised at St Philip’s church, Dewsbury [12]. It started his lifelong association with the church. It was here, on 8 September 1914, that he married Sophia Squires [13]. And it was the vicar at St Philip’s who conducted his funeral service, with a Union Jack-draped coffin and a Home Guard escort signifying his Local Defence Volunteer role. Outside work, Sidney was a member of Eastborough Working Men’s Club and Dewsbury Rugby League Football Club, both associations represented at his funeral. He left a widow and two children.

The Headstone of Sidney Burridge, Dewsbury Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

Section Commander Ernest Lodge was another of the Home Guard fatalities. He sold house coals and briquettes for Messrs. Crawshaw and Warbuton. Born on 15 November 1893, he was the son of weaver Harry Lodge of Lepton and his wife Elizabeth [14]. Ernest’s mother died around three years later, and on 29 September 1900 Harry re-married at Dewsbury, St Mark’s [15]. His new wife was Sarah Elizabeth Oddy.

Ernest married widow Alice Wilson (formerly Chatwood) at Moorlands Wesleyan Chapel, Dewsbury on 20 July 1929 [16]. The couple both sang with their choir and, at the time of Ernest’s death, lived at 12, Thirlmere Road, Dewsbury.

He too was accorded a funeral with the honour of a Union Jack-covered coffin. Members of the Home Guard lined the path to his grave, which Dewsbury cemetery staff had bordered with evergreen.

The Headstone of Ernest Lodge, Dewsbury Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

Section Commander Wilfred King was the third Home Guard casualty that night. Born on 31 May 1905 at Commonside, Hanging Heaton, he was the son of George and Martha Ann King. A coal hewer at the Shaw Cross pit, he lived with his parents at 457, Leeds Road, Dewsbury.

In a particularly cruel twist of fate, his 28-year-old bride-to-be Mary Glover, of Thornton Street, instead of preparing for her wedding scheduled for later that week, now found herself attending her fiancé’s funeral. She addressed her floral tribute ‘from his broken-hearted and sorrowing sweetheart’. Wilfred’s funeral service was held at the Boothroyd Lane Providence Independent, prior to interment at Dewsbury Cemetery.

The Headstone of Wilfred King, Dewsbury Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

But that did not mark the extent of local deaths in the bombing raid of the night of 12/13 December 1940. As I mentioned at the outset, the main focus of the bombing that night was the city of Sheffield with its vital steel and iron works. Arthur Brewer, a long-time resident of Ravensthorpe, was in Sheffield that night.

Arthur was born in Birstall on 30 July 1907. The son of Earl and Mary Brewer, he was baptised at the Mount Zion Chapel at White Lee on 1 September 1907 [17]. Some time after 1911 the family moved to Ravensthorpe, and after leaving school Arthur began a career as a musician, specialising in the drums.

He played regularly at the Town Hall in Mirfield and Dewsbury’s Majestic cinema. He then joined the renowned Paul Zaharoff in London, famed for his international band. Subsequently Arthur went on tour playing in numerous city hotels, including a 16-week stint in Jersey.

In 1935 Arthur married Mary Goddard. For the 18 months prior to his death Arthur was based in Sheffield playing with a band in hotels across the city. In down-times he supplemented his income with lorry driving. Initially Mary stayed with him: she is registered there in the 1939 register. But later she moved to the comparative safety of Dewsbury, and was living with her in-laws at Thornhill Street, in Savile Town. Also with her was her and Arthur’s two children, the youngest only three month’s old at the time of raid. Perhaps it was the birth of the baby which prompted the move.

It is a cruel irony that both Savile Town and Sheffield were simultaneously under a Luftwaffe siege: The security of both Mary and Arthur was at stake that December night.

At about 11.20pm Arthur was in the Marples Hotel in Sheffield with fellow-band member Donovan Russell. The seven-storey Marples Hotel and pub on Fitzalan Square had operated under several names since the 1870’s, initially starting out as the Wine and Spirit Commercial Hotel, and latterly the London Mart. But it was still known as The Marples. And it’s name was to be forever etched in history for the events of that night.

At 11.44pm, as over 70 people sheltered in its cellar, it took a direct hit from a 500lb German bomb. Arthur was believed to be amongst those sheltering. Donovan Russell had a lucky escape – he left Arthur there just 20 minutes before the bomb struck. The entire building collapsed.

It was not until 10am the following day that rescue attempts began, initial assessments being survival was impossible. Amazingly seven people were rescued. But that was all. It is estimated around seventy people died in the building, the biggest single loss of life during the Sheffield Blitz. Arthur was amongst that number. If there was any consolation, death was believed to be instantaneous.

Over the following weeks the site was cleared. 64 bodies were eventually recovered, and partial remains of a further six or seven people. Only 14 were visually identified. Personnal belongings were used in the process of formal identification for most of the others.

As of mid-January the only item belonging to Arthur which Mary recovered were the lenses of his glasses. When probate was granted on 12 March 1942, the entry confirmed identification of his body at the hotel. The entry read:

BREWER Arthur of 34 Thornhill-street Savile Town Dewsbury Yorkshire who is believed to have been killed through war operations on 12 December 1940 and whose dead body was found at Marples Hotel Fitzalan-square Sheffield Administration Wakefield 12 March to March Brewer widow.
Effects £161 5s [18]

I’ve planned this local history tale for some time. I wanted to publish it to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Unfortunately, because of the current battle the world faces against the invisible coronavirus enemy, my research was prematurely curtailed. However, I wanted to go ahead with publication as a tribute to our ancestors of 80 years ago. Once some kind of research normality resumes I hope to update this post.

Finally, the Bombing Britain website, which draws together intelligence reports of enemy action on British domestic soil, records only this one direct air raid on Dewsbury. Batley had two recorded air raids. The evening of 12 December into the early hours of 13 December, and one on the night of 15/16 December 1940. This latter raid had no recorded casualties. If anyone does have any memories of these events, or life on the Home Front in Batley and Dewsbury generally, please do contact me.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
It appears the Bombing Britain site covering enemy action over British soil may under-report the bombs which landed over the Batley and Dewsbury area. West Yorkshire Archives produced an ARP Bomb Map for the night of 14/15 March 1941. It can be found at here and includes an unexploded bomb almost opposite what is now Healey Community Centre.

Notes:
[1] WW2 People’s War archive of wartime memories, bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar, Brenda Hartley, now Haley, Reference A2843750;
[2] Vera May – Batley History Group Facebook Page, Jane Roberts post 19 April 2020;
[3] Geoffrey Whitehead, retired Batley Boy’s High School deputy headmaster, in conversation with Jane Roberts dated 27 April 2020;
[4] Batley News, 21 December 1940;
[5] Geoffrey Whitehead, Ibid;
[6] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 27 December 1940;
[7] Batley News, 21 December 1940;
[8] WW2 People’s War archive of wartime memories, bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar, Brenda Hartley, now Haley, Reference A2843750;
[9] Birstall St Peter’s baptism register, born on 23 December 1879 and baptised on 25 January 1880, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire Church of England births and baptisms 1813-1910, original record at West Yorkshire Archive Services, Reference WDP5/1/2/9;
[10] Carlinghow St John’s marriage register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935, original record at West Yorkshire Archive Services, Reference WDP132/1/2/2;
[11] England & Wales National Probate Calendar, Sidney Burridge, Probate Date 27 November 1941 gives the place of death. Accessed via Ancestry.co.uk;
[12] St Philip’s, Dewsbury, baptism register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire Church of England births and baptisms 1813-1910, original record at West Yorkshire Archive Services, Reference WDP9/439;
[13] St Philip’s, Dewsbury, marriage register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935, original record at West Yorkshire Archive Services, Reference WDP9/443;
[14] Baptism of Earnest [sic] Lodge, Huddersfield Northumberland Street Methodist Circuit, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, Non-Conformist Records, 1646-1985, original record at West Yorkshire Archives Service, Reference KC295/3;
[15] St Mark’s, Dewsbury, marriage register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935, original record at West Yorkshire Archive Services, Reference WDP228/1/2/2;
[16] Marriage register of Moorlands Wesleyan Chapel, Boothroyd Lane, Dewsbury, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, Non-Conformist Records, 1646-1985, original record at West Yorkshire Archives Service, Reference C111/207;
[17] Mount Zion, White Lee, Baptism register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, Non-Conformist Records, 1646-1985, original record at West Yorkshire Archives Service, Reference C10/15/1/1/1;
[18] England & Wales National Probate Calendar, Arthur Brewer, Probate Date 12 March 1942; Accessed via Ancestry.co.uk

Sources:
1939 Register, accessed via Findmypast and Ancestry.co.uk;
Batley Cemetery Burial Records;
• Batley News, 14 and 21 December 1940 and 18 January 1941
;
• BBC WW2 People’s War
, bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar ;
• Bombing Britain website, TNA file series HO203, intelligence reports of enemy action on British domestic soil http://www.warstateandsociety.com/Bombing-Britain ;
• Chariots of Wrath, Sam Whitworth, published 2016
;
• Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, https://www.cwgc.org/
;
• England and Wales Censuses 1881-1911 (various);
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 27 December 1940;
Farnham Maltings website, The Marples Tragedy (Sheffield Blitzm 1940), https://farnhammaltings.com/newsmarples-tragedy/ ;
Hanging Heaton Golf Club website, https://www.hhgc.org/about-hhgc/
National Probate Calendar, Herbert Courtney Channon, Sidney Burridge, Arthur Brewer, Enid Scott, Ernest Lodge;
• OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
Parish Registers – various;
Sheffield History website, The Marples, https://www.sheffieldhistory.co.uk/forums/topic/98-the-marples/ ;
• The Chris Hobbs website, Marples Hotel, https://www.chrishobbs.com/marples1940.htm ;
• The History of Batley 1800 – 1974, Malcolm H Haigh, published 1985;
Sheffield Libraries blogspot, Sheffield Blitz: lost eyewitness account from Marples Hotel survivor comes to light in archives, http://shefflibraries.blogspot.com/2017/07/sheffield-blitz-lost-eyewitness-account.html ;
Western Times, 27 December 1940;
WW2 People’s War archive of wartime memories, bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar, Brenda Hartley, now Haley, Reference A2843750; Edward Lomax (Dewsbury), Reference A2875782; Ronald Tolson Schofield (Dewsbury), Reference A2843886; and Derrick Sharp (Batley), Reference A2339291;

UPDATE:
This has generated many memories and comments. There are the fantastic ones which have been posted in the WordPress comments section for this post below.
In addition there have been lots posted elsewhere on social media and I have gathered them together here.
• Brian Howgate on Facebook page Batley Photos Old and New wrote: My grandparents lived exactly opposite St Andrews Church in purlwell Hall Road. There house got serverly damaged when the bomb dropped on the church.
• On the same site Lesley Dyer wrote: My grandfather not only worked during the day but was also did his bit as a warden who had to go out and watch out for any incendries dropping which started fires and had to put them out before the German bomber’s came over, it went on for weeks, until one night another warden had told my grandfather that St. Andrews had been hit taking its roof, as a man stood in a shop doorway and the blast/shock wave blew him back into the shop, luckily he survived, the church roof & windows had gone altogether, along with homes in the area had also been damaged too.
• Also on that page Kevin Mcguire wrote: Our next door neighbour had a[n] Anderson shelter which he kept all his gardening gear they did not look that safe to me as a kid there were air aid shelters every where great for exploring and playing Japs and commanders with wooden guns.
• Again on the Batley Photos site Joan Chappell recalled: As a child I went to St. Andrews church. We were told that the reason it had chairs and not pews like most other churches was because it was bombed during the war.
• Also on Batley Photos Jack Dane wrote: ….when we lived on Purwell Crescent I have always had this memory of my mother leaving me outside our gate crying because it was pitch black she ran back into the house to fetch something she had forgotten when we were on our way to our neighbours air raid shelter, the date of the bombing puts me at 3 year old which seems about right if it was that particular night.
On the Shoddy Matters Facebook Page Christine Lawton wrote: My husband is named after Wilfred king he was a friend of there family.
• On the same page Ian Sewell said: I remember the bunkers up Caulms Wood with the huge stones.
• Also on Shoddy Matters David Wilby wrote: ….growing up [I] remember seeing where the bomb had dropped, up by the farm on Staincliffe hall road, near the top of Deighton Lane.
• And in another Shoddy Matters post Chrissie Chapman wrote: I have lived up Carters fields all my life and was told that the house I own had the gable wall blown down due to a bomb from the war. The wall was rebuilt and I now think, after reading this, it must have been from the bombs that fell on Carters Field . We often played, as children, in the air raid shelter that was on waste land next to the Parochial Hall.
• Linked to Chrissie’s post, on Dewsbury Pictures Old and New Facebook page David Riley said: My aunt Dorie’s gable end was blown up by the bomb in Carters Field had to move into my mum and dads in Northbank Rd near Mullins farm. David also said they lived in the last block of four [houses] facing Healey, Northbank fields by the top of the football pitch. Looking at the 1939 Register, the address for Doris Boden was 173 North Bank Road, Batley.
• Also on the Dewsbury page John Riley wrote: My auntie who lived down Robin Lane, used to find large lumps of shrapnel in the garden which she said came off the exploding AA shells fired from Caulms Wood.
• On Twitter Ghulam Nabi wrote: I attended Birkdale High School in 1974 and top half which was formerly the Girls Grammar school had air raid shelters all around the grounds.. Some of the lads found them and used to skip lessons by hiding in there. As an aside, the Girls Grammar School was Wheelwright, the former school of one of the air raid victims, Enid Scott.

A Rifleman’s Crime of Passion

Murder! Murder! He’s murdering our Hannah in the house!’ The terrified screams of an old lady tore through the night silence of Batley’s Hume Street and New Street area. It was around 11pm on Saturday 19 August 1865.

Joseph Pease, a labourer living near to the Brook household, heard the cries for help, and rushed into the two-roomed cottage, home of 60-year-old widow Sarah Brook (also known as Sally). A horrific tableau met his eyes. The compact downstairs area, comprising a kitchen with stone stairs leading to the upper chamber, a fireplace directly facing the entrance door and to the right a cupboard bed, was blood splattered, from floor to furniture and walls. A young boy, the grandson of the old lady, cowered screaming on the far side of the bed, trying to evade danger. Plunging a bayonet repeatedly into his neck stood a youth, dressed in Rifle Corps uniform. Facing the youth, at the far side of the kitchen, was 18-year-old Hannah Brook, daughter of Sarah. Dressed in a black frock, blood was pouring from her neck and mouth. Another witness described how blood was ‘sponging from a hole in her side.’ [1]

Pease rushed at the man, 19-year-old Eli Sykes, and seized him, though he was stabbed in the thigh and slightly injured in the struggle. William Fawcett, a cabinet maker, who had been visiting his father-in-law in Hume Street, followed up and managed to wrench the bayonet, dripping with blood from assailant and victims, from Sykes. He removed it from the scene for safety.

Others swiftly appeared, alerted by the commotion. Someone carried Sarah Brook, her white nightdress now blood-soaked, to the bed where she died. Others gave Hannah water. She attempted to speak, but could not. Within minutes she too was dead. Both women had received multiple stab wounds (Sarah nine and Hannah seven), including fatal punctures to their hearts.

Meanwhile, the police arrived at the house, now surrounded by hundreds of people despite it being nearly midnight. Sykes was restrained in a chair. His rifle was on a table, the stock broken in two. Police Sergeant English, of the West Riding Constabulary, charged the silent Sykes with murder. At this point he finally opened his eyes and looked towards the bed where the two women lay.

Dr William Bayldon, amongst those officials summoned to the house, examined Sykes’ wounds and found them not to be serious. He declared hind sufficiently fit to be transferred to the Dewsbury lock-up. Here Dr W.H. Thornton re-examined the prisoner and agreed that, although the wounds were deep, they were not fatal.

On Tuesday 22 August 1865 the double funeral of Sarah and Hannah Brook took place at Batley Parish Church. People arrived at Batley railway station by the trainload. Many viewed the corpses, laid out in the very room where they met their brutal fate less than three days before. The faces of the deceased were bare, heads covered by skull-caps, countenances placid and at peace.

People from across the West Riding, including Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Halifax and Heckmondwike, lined the funeral route. Estimates put the numbers of spectators in the region of at least 20,000. The church was packed with people in their working clothes. Amongst those paying their final respects was a young man from Wakefield – James Henry Ashton.

Female acquaintances carried the coffins of the women to their burial place: older women carried the coffin of Sarah, whilst young mill girls carried Hannah’s. They were interred in a grave around 20 yards away from the church yard entrance gates, on the south east side of the church.

Batley Parish Church – Photo by Jane Roberts

The murders horrified not only those living in the growing, industrial mill town of Batley, but sent shockwaves across the country. The recurring question was why? What had caused a seemingly law-abiding young man to commit such a brutal crime?

Initial details began to appear through official channels in days after the murder. Two inquest hearings took place before the Coroner at the White Hart Hotel in Batley, a local pub which is now a residential property. A wilful murder verdict resulted .

© Copyright Betty Longbottom and licensed for reuse under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

Eli also appeared before the local magistrates. In his initial appearance, a seated Eli looked weak with a scarf round his neck, but with scarcely any evidence of his self-inflicted throat wounds. The main hearing took place at Dewsbury court house.

As a result of this magistrates hearing, Eli was committed to trial at the next Leeds Assizes on a murder charge. Here, at Leeds Town Hall on 19 December 1865, the full case was heard. It provided even more information and drama to an eager audience.

Hannah Brook was born in Batley in 1847, the daughter of weaver Mark Brook and his wife Sarah (née Darnbrook). Sarah was previously married to Robert Fearnley, who died in 1837, so Hannah had a number of half-siblings. By 1861 the family had moved from the Havercroft area of Batley to Hume Street, and in July 1864 Mark died. Thereafter Sarah lived upon the income derived from a small property near Batley [2]. Hannah, described as a cheerful girl, worked as a mill hand [3] at Alexandra Mill in Batley.

Eli Sykes was a cloth-finisher. Born in Ossett in 1846 he was the son of cordwainer John Sykes and his wife Sarah Ellis. The family moved to Dewsbury in around 1850/51, and by 1865 they lived at Batley Carr, almost opposite Holy Trinity Church. Although described as holding a humble position in society, they were a very respectable family.

After the events that fateful August night, a few isolated newspapers described Eli as a shady young man, with a wild, roving disposition who had caused much trouble for his parents since leaving Sunday School. But these are outliers. The overwhelming number of accounts testify to his good character. They paint a picture of a well-behaved, quiet, industrious young man. One work colleague, William Bentley Walton described him as straightforward and peaceable. He had worked with Sykes for three years and never had a quarrel with him. Robert Jones, a neighbour of the Brooks family, said he always appeared a quiet, well-conducted lad and his manner towards Hannah was invariably kind and affectionate. Hannah Hirst, a friend of Hannah Brook who had known Eli for three years, said they ‘always appeared to be very affectionate when together. He was very kind to Hannah…’ and she ‘…never heard any quarrel between them.’ [4]

For about two years prior to that August night, like many other young men Eli spent his free time with the local military unit. It was a social activity, away from the confines of home and work. In Eli’s case he was a Private in the No3 (Batley Carr) Company of the 29th (Dewsbury) West York Volunteer Corps. His fellow members there vouched for his steady nature, general civility and good behaviour.

Eli and Hannah met on 10 March 1863 during celebrations which took place countrywide marking the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest son Prince Albert Edward of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Their friendship developed to full-blown courtship, with Eli a frequent visitor to the Brook house. Despite a short break up in the early days of their relationship which they quickly patched up, the general assumption by all was the logical next step for the pair was marriage. They seemed well-suited. Eli had a reliable mill job to provide for a wife and, eventually, family. And by all accounts he was a steady young man. But they were young, possibly too young to commit for life. And emotions could quickly change.

And this proved the case for Hannah. For some reason in July 1865 her feelings towards Eli cooled. The indication was she had met someone else – a man from Wakefield named James Henry Ashton: the man mentioned amongst the mourners at her funeral the following month. Their meetings included a picnic at Howley Hall, where she was seen dancing with him. But whether he was the cause of the change in Hannah is unclear. Some sources suggest she took up with James whilst still seeing Eli. Others claim the relationship with Eli was already over by the time she became involved with James.

1881 Illustration of Howley Hall Ruins – published in 1881 (out of copyright)

Despite Hannah repeatedly telling Eli that their relationship was over, he would not accept it. As far as he was concerned she was the love of his life. He doggedly followed her trying to persuade her to change her mind, often turning up unannounced at her Hume Street home. Friends advised Eli to let it drop. One who cautioned thus was power loom weaver George Fearnley, who happened to be Hannah’s brother. Eli told George how grieved he was at Hannah’s refusal to see him, and he did not know what to do. George told Eli he was being a foolish lad, and that there were plenty other girls.

Hannah Hirst was another one who witnessed Eli’s continued pursuit of his former sweetheart. On 13 July Miss Brook took tea at Miss Hirst’s Batley Carr home, an occurrence noticed by Eli. Later that night, after Hannah Brook returned home, Eli called at the Hirst home. He told Miss Hirst that Hannah’s new love would be coming over the following week. Then, striking his hat violently against a chair, he declared ‘If I don’t have her, no one else shall.’ Hannah Hirst stated ‘Eli, I think you are going out of your mind.’ His ominous response was ‘You’ll see.

The day of the murder coincided with a large agricultural and flower show in neighbouring Drighlington. Three companies of the West Yorks Volunteer Corps, amongst them Eli, caught the train to Drighlington to join up with the Birstall contingent for drill. At 8pm they marched back to the railway station were they were served either a half pint of ale, or ginger beer, prior to catching the 9.30pm train back to Batley. Despite three carriages being reserved for the men, not all could entrain due to the vast numbers returning from the show. Eli, though, did have a place and, with about 90 comrades, arrived in Batley at 9.40pm. Some lingered at the station chatting, or waiting for the 10pm train to Dewsbury. Others set off to walk home, including Eli. When he and a friend reached Hick Lane, Eli suggested detouring into Batley. Due to the late hour the friend declined, leaving Eli to carry on alone.

William Bentley Walton was in The Commercial Inn at around 10.30pm, when he saw Eli dressed in his volunteer uniform, rifle in hand and bayonet sheathed at his side. Friends and workmates, Eli told him he was going to Hannah’s. William advised him against it, knowing from earlier conversations with Eli that she had told him to stay away. It was advice Eli chose to ignore. Perhaps it did not help that William told Eli he had seen Hannah go by about 15 minutes earlier. Instead of passing through Batley Eli made the fateful decision to turn off for the Brook’s cottage. All accounts agreed Eli was sober, so drink did not influence what happened next.

Extract of Six-inch OS Map: Yorkshire 232. Surveyed 1847 to 1851; Published 1854 – Shows Batley with some key locations marked up

Robert Jones, who lived next door but one to Sarah and Hannah, made his way to nearby New Street between 11-12pm. He noticed Eli and Hannah talking outside her Hume Street home. Robert politely asked the couple if they had been to the show. Both said no. He left them still talking, no indication of anything more serious going on. However, the situation rapidly deteriorated in the short time it took for Robert to quickly visit New Street and return to his Hume Street home.

Despite the seeming civility of the conversation witnessed by Robert, Eli’s visit was once more an unwelcome one. By now he was inside the house, again asking Hannah to go back out with him. Once more Hannah said no. Hannah’s mother became involved telling Eli to go away, they did not want him there. Meanwhile, according to Eli’s testimony, a now seated Hannah began singing a popular ballad ‘The Gay Cavalier’ about a man disappointed by the lady he loved. It contained the lyrics ‘She may go to Hong Kong for me’, with Hannah replacing the ‘She’ for ‘You’. Driven to a fury by the perceived taunts and rejection by his former love, he raised his rifle and struck Hannah across her head with the butt, a blow so hard it cracked the stock. The force knocked Hannah out of the chair. Eli then drew out his bayonet, and the stabbing frenzy on both Hannah and her mother commenced. And it was at this point Sarah raised the alarm call, drawing first Joseph Pease and William Fawcett, followed by a host of other neighbours and the police.

Once in custody, according to police statements, Eli reportedly said ‘I feel easier in my mind, and better satisfied now than before I did it.’ He also allegedly said ‘Although I murdered her I loved her – I have told her many a time I’d have my revenge, and I’ve got it now.[5] The police also reported his apparent indifference whilst in custody, Eli laughing and whistling as if nothing had happened. It was as if he failed to recognise the magnitude of his crime. His only display of real emotion appeared to be when his family visited him.

The trial at the Leeds Assizes on 19 December 1865 would bring home the enormity soon enough. Prior to the trial, on 8 December, he was transferred to the imposing Victorian edifice of Armley Gaol. Opened under 20 years earlier as Leeds Borough Gaol, it had only recently taken over from York Castle as the place where West Riding executions were carried out. The first two had taken place as recently as September 1864.

Leeds Town Hall – Published in 1862, out of copyright

From early morning of the trial at the court in Leeds Town Hall, the corridors teamed with people. Many came from the Batley and Dewsbury area, a high proportion of them gaily-dressed women, their frocks incongruous to a court setting. Perhaps the fact this magnificent building had been opened only in 1858 by Queen Victoria, as much as the trial, enticed the good folk of Batley and Dewsbury. It was a day out.

Those lucky enough to gain entry to the crowded courtroom listened intently to the parade of witnesses. Eli’s defence argued that jealousy drove him to commit the crime. In the heat of the moment he lost all sense of reason. His temporary insanity meant it was manslaughter not murder. Justice Shee, in his summing up, would have none of this. Within 30 minutes the jury announced its guilty verdict.

In a show of emotion which reduced many in the courtroom to tears, Eli made his impassioned address. Sobbing, tears almost blinding him and choking his every word, he stated:

My Lord, and gentlemen of the jury, – I never had it in my mind to do it before it was done. If these were my dying words, I could say in the presence of God that I never meant to kill Hannah. I never struck her with the rifle. God only knows what happened in that house that night. He only knows what she said to me – how she began singing, and said words that I never thought could have come out of a woman’s mouth. And yet I loved her; in my heart I loved her as never woman was loved before, if my doom is death, I hope I shall meet her in heaven. But I don’t think I shall be hanged; the Queen will be merciful to me. I never thought it would come to this. Many a time have I gone with her to Wakefield, but little did I think she was deceiving me and went to meet another sweetheart. If she had not jeered at me, I would not have hurt her for my life. I hope I shall meet her in heaven, and I can only pray that if my doom is to be death that God will take my sufferings from me. I hope that my prayers shall be answered, and that we shall meet in that glorious land where we shall never be parted. She has gone to that land, and I will die to get to her….. [6]

Although the statement deeply affected the Judge, it did not change the sentence. Eli was to be executed by hanging. With the Judge’s final words of ‘And may God, in his infinite mercy, have mercy on your soul’ ringing in his ears, Eli was removed to Armley Gaol to await his fate.

Eli’s trial address had a wider impact. Public opinion was divided as to the correctness of the sentence. Petitions sprang up requesting a commutation of it. George Armitage, one of the magistrates who committed Eli to trial at the Assizes, similarly expressed himself in favour of a reduced sentence. A piece in the Leeds Mercury on 21 December praised Eli’s character, spoke of his pure, honourable and ardent love for Hannah, pointedly saying little was known about her character. They also seemed to support Eli’s belief, expressed at the Assizes, that Hannah was deceiving him saying ‘we do not see that the correctness of his belief is called into question’. The conclusion they hinted at was Eli deserved a more lenient punishment than the death sentence. On the scale of murder, perhaps this was one which was not cold-blooded and calculated. It perhaps held some element of justification. How many times since has some apportionment of blame been attached to women victims of crime?

For Hannah and Sarah’s grieving family, this Leeds Mercury piece proved too much. George Fearnley felt compelled to write to the paper to set the record straight about the piece which ‘reflects in a most unjust and unwarrantable manner upon the conduct and character of my lamented sister…’. His letter, dated 28 December, featured in the Leeds Mercury on 30 December. In it he refuted allegations that Hannah deceived Eli by going with him to Wakefield to meet another lover. The only occasions they went to Wakefield together was to see friends there. In a lengthy missive he also asserted that Sykes:

…knew well … that before her feelings towards him had so far changed as to induce her to prefer another, my sister had insisted upon breaking off her connection with him and told him to stay away; and so far from her having encouraged his addresses after this time, she uniformly refused to see him, and did all she could to compel him to discontinue his visits…I presume, Gentlemen, that neither you nor any one else will deny that my sister had a perfect right, if she so wished it, to break off her connection with Sykes; and having done so, she had also a right to keep company with another if she chose, and that, too, without subjecting herself to annoyance, to threats, or to murder…I conclude by asking from the public a verdict that shall acquit her of all blame… [7]

Even as this letter was being read and digested by the public to which George appealed, the case had undergone a new, dramatic, and unexpected, twist.

Eli returned to Armley Gaol after his conviction and was placed under the day care of warder Charles Hampshire, a man with 17 years experience. Charles Jacups took over responsibility at night. The men were ordered to keep the prisoner under constant watch.

The Gaol had two cells for condemned prisoners. Initially Eli was placed in the cell on the ground floor, but subsequently was moved to the cell on the floor above due to concerns about the suicide risk posed by the other condemned man, Patrick Welsh. No such concerns were held for Eli, who spoke a good deal about religion and still appeared to entertain the hope that the Queen would commute his sentence to penal servitude. The prison chaplain, Rev Middleton, who visited Eli daily, also entertained no concerns about his state of mind.

On Saturday 23 December the chaplain visited Eli at 5.15pm and left at around 6pm. He failed to lock the door. Charles Hampshire also failed to check Eli was secure in his cell after the chaplain’s visit. Thomas Hampshire, brother of Charles, another experienced warder compounded the error. A trusted employee, he had worked at Armley Gaol since its opening, and prior to that he served five years at Wakefield prison. That evening it was his duty to call the roll and check the cell doors were double locked. He commenced the check at 5.45pm and finished at 6.20pm. Eli’s door appeared to be secure…but it was not. The mistake had huge consequences, including the suspension of Charles Hampshire and the dismissal of Thomas.

At about 6.40pm a large crash, like the firing of guns, echoed in the confines of the prison. Eli had escaped from his cell. Unhindered, he managed to get to the floor above, where he climbed on the balustrade and threw himself on to the flags around 20-25 feet below [8]. He landed on his feet, before falling over and banging his head, rendering himself unconscious for about half an hour. He did suffer convulsions in the initial aftermath, but his leg injuries were the main concern, in particular the compound fracture to his left ankle which haemorrhaged. William Nicholson Price, the prison surgeon, along with the Leeds Infirmary surgeon Mr Wheelhouse, stabilised him and he seemed to progress favourably. However, Eli did try to hinder his recovery throughout, attempting to remove his bandages and doing his utmost to prevent routine medical checks.

The opinion was Eli had attempted suicide to spare his mother, believing his hanging would be the death of her. But all in authority remained hopeful that hanging would be his just fate. In fact stringent attempts were made to ensure he remained alive for his appointed date with the hangman’s noose on 15 January 1866.

In the afternoon and evening of 3 January 1866 Eli suffered a couple of secondary haemorrhages. Both were staunched and, once again, although weakened he seemingly rallied. It proved a temporary recovery. On the evening of 6 January a further bleed occurred. Once again the flow was stemmed, and reduced to an ooze. Eli’s condition continued to deteriorate though, despite best efforts of those charged with his care. Conscious throughout this period, he died in his prison cell at about 9.20pm that night.

Old Gate Armley Gaol (edited Black & White) – Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons License 3.0 (Share Alike)

The inquest took place on 9 January. That day a letter appeared in the Leeds Mercury. Dated 8 January 1866, it was from Eli’s father. With remarkable restraint, John Sykes wrote to highlight the lack of compassion shown to both himself and his wife. They arrived at Armley Gaol that morning to view their son’s body and say a final goodbye. The Governor refused permission without a magistrate’s order. John left his wife at the prison whilst he went into Leeds to obtain the necessary documentation. Yet even with signed authority the Governor would not allow John and Sarah entry to see their son one last time.

John Sykes was present at the inquest though. Here the jury reached a verdict of Felo de Se (suicide). Eli’s burial was ordered to take place at midnight in the precincts of Armley Gaol, without any religious ceremony.

The sensational events captured public imagination to such an extent that enterprising publishers sold fly-sheets containing lurid (and often inaccurate) details about the case. The events in Batley were even immortalised in verse. It seems only fitting to end this post with one such example.

Miss Hannah Brooks [sic] was a factory maiden,
By every one she was well liked;
And long poor Hannah had been courted,
By the young cloth-worker, Eli Sykes,
Hannah Brook forsook her lover
Which caused him the maid to kill,
And her aged tender mother
By his hands their blood was spilled.

In Yorkshire, such a dreadful murder
Before we’re sure was never seen;
Committed was by Eli Sykes –
A youth, whose age is but nineteen.
He lov’d the maiden to distraction –
From drill he went straightway;
Hannah harshly with her mother
Ordered Eli Sykes away.

As he stood in his regimentals,
So frantically he gazed around;
And with the butt-end of his rifle,
Quickly knocked his true-love down.
Her mother strove to save her daughter –
He did in frenzy swear an oath,
And plunged his bayonet in each body
Many times and killed them both.

He strove then to commit self-murder,
But was prevented as we see;
The factory maiden and her mother,
Who was aged sixty-three, [9]
There in death’s cold arms was sleeping,
Weltering in their crimson gore;
Friends and neighbours round them weeping,
For them they’d see in life no more.

Notes:
[1] Leeds Mercury – 22 August 1865;
[2] Yorkshire Gazette – 26 August 1865;
[3] Some reports indicate she was a power loom weaver;
[4] Leeds Mercury – 20 December 1865;
[5] Leeds Mercury – 22 August 1865;
[6] Yorkshire Gazette – 23 December 1865;
[7] Leeds Mercury – 30 December 1865;
[8] A letter from Prison Surgeon William Nicholson Price which featured in the Leeds Mercury of 26 December 1865 said the drop was around 25-26 feet;
[9] Other records put Sarah’s age as 60, and her baptism at Birstall St Peter’s on 20 January 1805 (Sarah Darnbrough) suggests this is likely to be her correct age.

Sources (in addition to those mentioned in the notes):

  • 1841-1861 Censuses, England and Wales;
  • Annals of Yorkshire, 1862 and 1866;
  • Barnsley Chronicle – 2 September 1865;
  • Bradford Observer – 4 January 1866;
  • GRO Birth and Death registrations;
  • Home Office Correspondence and Warrants, HO13/108/236, 23 December 1865, accessed via Findmypast;
  • Home Office Correspondence and Warrants, HO13/108/245, 13 January 1866, accessed via Findmypast;
  • Home Office Criminal Registers, HO27 Piece 142, 13 December 1865, accessed via Findmypast;
  • Home Office and Prison Commission Prison Records, PCOM2/417/74, accessed via Findmypast
  • Illustrated Police News – 27 September 1934;
  • Leeds Mercury – 23 and 28 August 1865, 21 December 1865, 9 and 10 January 1866;
  • Leeds Times – 23 and 30 December 1865;
  • Old Yorkshire, 1881;
  • Parish registers – Batley, Birstall and St Paul’s Hanging Heaton, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk;
  • 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
  • Yorkshire Gazette – 28 August 1865

Newspapers accessed via The British Newspaper Archive and Findmypast

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.

Extract of Six-inch OS Map: CCXXXII.SE. Surveyed: 1888 to 1892. Published: 1895 – National Library of Scotland – Adapted

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 [1].

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.

Batley Market Hall (my own collection) – origin unknown

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.

Batley Town Hall (my own collection) – origin unknown

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:
[1] There are various spellings of this surname, depending on report.
[2] Plot M223

The White Lee Wartime Disaster: Devastation across Heckmondwike, Batley and the Spen Valley

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).

Healey Mini Market today, the former Healey Branch of the Batley Co-op
– Photo by Jane Roberts

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.

The Houses on Hollinbank Terrace (now Dale Road) which bore the brunt of the 1914 blast – Photo by Jane Roberts

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.

Extract of Six-inch OS Maps: CCXXXII.SW and SE, revised 1905, published 1908 – National Library of Scotland – Adapted

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.

Aftermath of the White Lee Explosion – Copyright of Kirklees Image Archive who granted permission for use in this blog post. Website http://www.kirkleesimages.org.uk/

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. 

Heckmondwike Cemetery, Percy Ashton’s Headstone – Photo by Jane Roberts

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.

Heckmondwike Upper Independent Chapel – Photo by Jane Roberts

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.

Commemorative Postcard from my Collection (note there is no image of James Arthur Morton who is wrongly named)

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.

White Lee Disaster Plaque – Photo by Jane Roberts

Sources:

  • Multiple sources were used, including newspaper reports, the official accident report, censuses, civil registration indexes and parish registers.
  • OS Map reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
  • 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.

For Some Their War Was Not Over

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.

Project Bugle Wreath-Laying Ceremony for Sgt Joseph Edward Munns – Photo by Jane Roberts

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 365987.

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 Delaney and Wife Ethel Rhodes

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 of Salford. 

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.

Sources:

  • 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;
  • Broughton House website https://www.broughtonhouse.com/
  • Burnley News – 9 November 1921;
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission;
  • GRO Death Certificate for James Delaney
  • Manchester Evening News – 30 September 1916;
  • The London Gazette 13 September 1918;
  • The Long, Long Trail website https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/
  • The Western Front Association Pension Record Index Card and Ledgers;
  • WO 363 War Office: Soldiers’ Documents, First World War ‘Burnt Documents.’

Batley’s Record-Breaking Rat-Catcher

On Christmas Eve 1933, after a fortnight’s illness, Batley’s nationally acclaimed rat-catcher Thomas Cassidy died.

During his working life his skills were in much demand by a cross-section of businesses and organisations: From local mill owners and town Corporations, including Batley and Dewsbury; to railway companies such as the London and North Western, North Eastern, Midland and Scottish Railways. This latter work took him throughout Britain and Ireland. 

A bit of a local legend, a thrilled journalist even reported of spending a most exciting four hours, with some lively experiences, under the Dark Arches in Leeds in the company of Thomas Cassidy, one of his sons and a fox terrier named Gipsy. The Dark Arches are the brick-built network of arches constructed in the 1860s to support the railway station.

Thomas Cassidy – Photo Supplied by a Descendant
Not to be re-published without permission of family

The two major records Thomas claimed were:

  • 1,227 rats caught alive and 446 killed in six hours for Ossett Corporation; and
  • 153 [out of 155] rats caught in thirteen minutes on the premises of a hide and skin merchant in Heckmondwike in 1908. This was unassisted by dog or ferret.

For the latter he is recognised by Spen Valley Civic Society with plaque number 18 on the Spen Fame Trail. This plaque is located on The Green in Heckmondwike. 

Spen Fame Trail Plaque Number 18, Thomas Cassidy – Photo by Jane Roberts

Well-known in the Batley area, he was not an unfamiliar sight in the local courts either. On at least one occasion he regaled the Bench with his rat-catching exploits including, in 1907, another tale of his expertise … and possibly the explanation for his appearances before the Batley magistrates. This time he boasted of capturing 154 rodents in 75 minutes which he sold for 4d. each – but the money went on drink. The newspapers prefaced this court report with a rather lurid description of one of Thomas’ more colourful claims to local notoriety, describing him as:

Batley’s professional rat-catcher, and the individual who, some time ago at a local polling booth, bit off the heads of a couple of live rats in the presence of disgusted voters [1].

Born in Batley’s New Street on 3 February 1870, he was the son of labourer John Cassidy, who hailed from County Clare, Ireland and his West Ardsley-born wife Emma (née Garlick). He was baptised at St Mary of the Angels RC church in Batley.

St Mary of the Angels RC Church, Batley – Photo by Jane Roberts

Thomas married Harriet Ann McDonagh [2] at the same church as he was baptised, on 13 February 1892. By this stage he worked as a coal miner. Their children included Johanna, Emma Jane (who died in infancy), Robert Ernest, Thomas, John Edward, Leo, Mary and Arthur.

His rat-catching exploits were inspired following a walk near Batley, when he saw a refuse tip ‘alive’ with rats. He explained:

I went home, took a pillow slip off my bed, and soon had it full of live rats from the tip. I sold these at 4d. each to people with dogs they wanted to train as ratters.
I had 10s. 6d. to take home, and I’m glad to say I gave my mother ten shillings. I’d never had so much before…I was only earning eighteen pence a day in the pit as a pumper” [3].

The refuse tip became a gold mine for him, as he progressively cleared it of all vermin. So lucrative did this new business line prove, in around 1904 he left the pit for good to become a full-time rat-catcher.

Rat-catching was a national obsession. In fact at the end of 1919 the Government passed a Rats and Mice (Destruction) Act, such was the concern about their capacity to spread disease, destroy property and contaminate food. A new war raged in this inter-war period, and during each November there was even a designated National Rat Week endorsed by the Ministry of Agriculture when a nationwide effort was made to destroy the creatures to control the population. Publicity for the campaign was widespread via the press, billboard posters and in the cinema. This included a specially commissioned government “Kill That Rat” Pathé film in 1919. Leeds Corporation produced its own rat killing promotional newsreel in 1920. Entitled “It’s Rough on the Rats” it demonstrated the launch of its asphyxiating gas offensive.

For Thomas business was booming and he became a minor celebrity. He held long-term contracts as official rat-catcher in two Leeds railway stations, and it was this work which the Leeds Mercury’s Special Correspondent shadowed (literally as the work was undertaken by candle light) in 1923.

A huge mound of refuse, sweepings from 10 railway station platforms of the London and North Eastern railway station above, accumulated in the Dark Arches. Here the rats thrived.

philld / Leeds dark arches from Little Neville street / CC BY-SA 2.0
Taken in 2008

As a preliminary to his clearance work Thomas, along with his son, turned over the refuse mound – a mixture of food, dust, cinders and even crockery – revealing holes big enough for rabbits. In the process they were cornering the creatures in preparation for their capture. The rats could be heard scurrying below – huge creatures sustained by all the railway detritus.

The Cassidy’s fox terrier Gipsy was tied to a drain pipe, becoming increasingly excited by the activity. 

Then the work began. 

With their bare hands Cassidy and his son began catching the rats, shoving them in an army kit bag. Other rats were strangled. Those trying to flee were caught in string netting strewn across a mesh barrier which fenced off the bay of the archway. They were forced back into the clutches of the Cassidys.  

Thomas was now bleeding profusely from a rat bite to his thumb knuckle, but undeterred he carried on. An occupational hazard, his hands bore the marks of his work over many years. Yet he had only sustained blood poisoning five times from rat bites in 30+ years’. 

Gipsy bit through her leash, eager to join in the killing spree. After four hours, exhausted by their exertions, they finished. The bag contained 36 live rats and 60 dead. Gipsy accounted for around a further 40. Only one rat managed to escape. At the end of their work Thomas told the reporter

I’ve a fox at home which will kill rats quicker’n’ that ‘ere dog [4].

Perhaps this was one of the foxes which he captured in 1921, for his snaring exploits extended beyond rats. The Yorkshire press reported on his fox-catching efforts, which extended over two days. The result was a haul of two foxes from a drain near Wilton Park. One was a four-feet-long dog fox weighing 17½lbs. The other was a 42-inch-long 13¾lbs vixen. Methods unsuccessfully employed in this star capture included cayenne pepper and a fox terrier. Finally he and his colleague hit on the ingenious idea of sweeping the drain with prickly brushes roped together. This did the trick.

As for his rat-catching methods, Thomas remained slightly coyer. Ferrets were commonly used by others to catch rats. New Street station in Leeds was the scene of some of Thomas’ heaviest slaughtering. Three different rat breeds could be found in its refreshment rooms. It was in this station he once lost a ferret for three days. When finally located it was in such a bad state after constant fighting with rats it had to be destroyed. By 1926 Thomas no longer used ferrets, preferring to use what he termed as ‘secret methods’. 

He was clearly keen to keep his tricks of the trade in-house, explaining his art in only general terms. He occasionally employed dogs, owning two fox terrier bitches by 1926. He preferred bitches to dogs because they were keener, fiercer and more easily controlled. He was not a general believer in poison. This he reserved for factories, where wholesale slaughter was required. He claimed to have killed thousands of rats using this technique at the Dewsbury mills of M. Oldroyd & Sons and Wormald & Walkers. But his favoured method was to catch his prey with his bare hands, delivering the killer blow by banging their heads on the floor.

And throughout his career he retained a great respect for the cunning, ferocity, thoroughness and perseverance of his enemy, the rat.

https://pixabay.com/photos/animal-rat-foraging-close-up-655308/ -Image by Oldiefan from Pixabay

Thomas, who died in the same street in which he was born, was buried in Batley cemetery on 28 December 1933.

Batley Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

Here are some rat-catching tips from the 1920s:

  • Don’t touch a dead rat – use a shovel;
  • Don’t leave the old homes of an exterminated rat colony intact as you will soon have another settlement. Fill the holes with cement, or failing that, a mixture of tar and broken glass;
  • Don’t touch bait with your fingers as rats won’t come near it. Use a spoon tied at the end of a two-foot pole;
  • Don’t forget to warn people and keep domestic animals away from baits;
  • Don’t forget that a change of bait – kipper instead of cheese for instance – works wonders; and
  • Don’t forget you are liable to a £20 fine if you allow your property to be rat-infested.

Notes:
[1] Bradford Daily Telegraph, 16 February 1907;
[2] The spelling of Harriet’s surname varies depending on record, including McDonegh, Donegh, Donagh and McDunach;
[3] The Leeds Mercury, 3 November 1926;
[4] The Leeds Mercury, 29 September 1923

Other Sources: