Category Archives: Batley

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.

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:

A Batley Boy’s Fatal Shooting

On the evening of Friday 24 April 1896 as the life ebbed from seven-year-old George Sharpe [1], he named the person responsible for shooting him – his playmate Alfred Brearey.

George was the son of rag grinder Jesse Sharpe and his wife Mary Wilson. The couple married at Batley Parish Church on 28 April 1877 [2]. It was Mary’s second marriage. Her first husband Fearnley Windle died in 1875, age 19 [3], just over a year after their marriage in the same church [4]

George was born on 27 April 1888. By the time of the 1891 census the family were living in the Healey area of Batley, at 41 Healey Street. In addition to George, their other children included Joseph (12), Rebecca (9), Letitia (6), Alice (5) and Lily (4 months) [5]. Ten years later they were at 5 Clark Green Street [6]. But at the time the incident took place their address was 4 Knowles Hill, otherwise known as Baines Street, off Dark Lane in Batley, with George attending Purlwell Board School.

Healey Street – Photo by Jane Roberts

Who was the boy accused of the fatal shooting? Many of the records, including the notes of Coroner Thomas Taylor, refer to him as Arthur. But clues exist that this is not the full story.  There are several other references naming him as Alfred or Alfy, many of these within the same documents which refer to him as Arthur. 

The report in The Batley News of 1 May 1896 provides the answer to this confusion. A footnote states:

It will be seen that the prisoner was referred to in almost every case as “Arthur.” His Christian name is Alfred. 

Accordingly, Alfred was the name by which he was summoned before this Court. His birth date was also helpfully confirmed in the Batley Borough Court evidence as reported in the same edition of The Batley News – Alfred was 11 on 8 April. 

Combining this information with General Register Office birth registrations, the fact he was the nephew of Benjamin Wilkinson Crossley, and his father was a carrier named Thomas all pinpoints him as being the son of Thomas and Martha Ann Brearey (née Crossley), who married in 1871. His baptism [7] at Batley Carr Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on 18 May 1885 confirms his 8 April 1885 birth date, and a Hanging Heaton residence [8].

Alfred was one of 14 children born in the marriage, but by 1911 only seven were still alive, with Alfred being the only surviving son. In 1891 the family lived at Mill Lane [9], and it was the Hanging Heaton Mill Lane Board School which Alfred attended. But, prior to the shooting, the family moved to Norfolk Street which was close to where the Sharpe family lived. It was once Alfred “flitted” here that he became friends with George.

Norfolk Street, opposite Baines Street – Photo by Jane Roberts

I have pieced together the events of the evening of George’s death from various reports on the two official hearings, including the inquest notes made personally by Coroner Thomas Taylor.

First came the inquest on 27 April 1896. With a bitter twist of fate this would have been George’s eighth birthday. Held at The Commercial, this piece of Batley history is no longer a public house and was ear-marked for demolition to make way for apartments. I’m not sure if that is still on the cards.

The Commercial at the bottom of Dark Lane – Photo by Jane Roberts

Two days later, on Wednesday 29 April, the boy accused of causing George’s death appeared before the Batley Magistrates in a special session of the Borough Court.

In my narrative, to avoid confusion, I will use his officially registered name, Alfred. Though do bear in mind if you are searching yourself many of the original references are actually in the name of Arthur.

This is my summary of events.

On the evening of his death George came home from school at about 4.30pm and, after having his tea, he asked if he could go with Alfred to Farfield Nursery. He set off at around 5pm. This was the final time his mother saw him alive. The nursery, located near the Lady Ann Railway Crossing in Batley, was owned by Alfred’s uncle, Benjamin Wilkinson Crossley – a gardener, seedsman and florist who lived at Park Farm on Grovesnor Road. The Kelly’s West Riding of Yorkshire Directory of 1893 describes Crossley’s multiple floristry services which included:

….ball & wedding bouquets made to order, cut flowers with ferns for table decoration, Memorial wreaths & crosses of white flowers at short notice & moderate prices.

In addition to the nursery, he had an establishment located on Branch Road, easily accessible to potential customers popping into the town centre. Presumably it was from these premises that orders for flowers could be placed.

The 1895 published map of Batley shows Farfield Nursery to be of such a significant size to feature. In 1929 when, after 48 years ownership by B.W. Crossley & Sons, the market garden and rhubarb forcing business was sold, it consisted of five acres with greenhouses, cold frames, two large forcing sheds and three dwelling houses [10]. Back in 1896 it was where Alfred’s father, Thomas, had employment as a carter. 

Extract of Six-inch OS Map Surveyed 1888 to 1892, Published 1895 showing location of Nursery, Hospital, Commercial (Inquest), and the streets where the boys lived – Adapted

Alfred was in the habit of going to the nursery most evenings to wait for his father to finish work. For the past month or so, whilst waiting, he had undertaken simple tasks such as pricking out and transplanting seedlings. George, at most, accompanied him to the nursery on only a handful of occasions.

This particular evening Alfred went into the potting shed to prick out seedlings, whilst George played, running about the nursery land. Head gardener George Benson left his office in the potting shed at around 6.10pm. He claimed to have locked the office door and put the key in its usual place, hanging by a nail outside the office at a height of about five feet. In the office was a single-barrelled shotgun. This was stored on a beam about seven or eight feet from the ground, but it was accessible to boys if they climbed on the office table. Used for scaring or shooting the pigeons, these birds posed a constant threat to seedlings and crops. In fact, only recently they had destroyed almost all the pea crop. However, it was debatable whether the birds should actually have been shot – many local men owned racing pigeons and some of these birds were quite valuable, as indicated in my blog post about the fate of some local Batley youths who stole pigeons to earn cash. Benson fired the gun on Thursday, and reloaded it with shot and powder on Friday morning. He placed a cap on the gun along with a label on the trigger indicating the weapon was loaded.

Within 20 minutes of Benson’s departure, at around 6.30pm, Benjamin Crossley was summoned by his nephew to the nursery. A boy had fallen in the gardens and was bleeding. Crossley could get no more information from Alfred, so he hurried to the nursery to investigate. He found George face-down on the cart road about eight yards or so from the potting shed, with a trail of blood leading back to it. Crossley turned the boy over and asked what was wrong. Cinders embedded in his face from his fall, George uttered the chilling words: Alfred had shot him.

George asked for some water, and the child took a sip. Crossley then went to get medical help and the police. On his way he saw Batley Councillor Rooke Garbutt in the garden of his Howley View home and informed him of the incident. Garbutt, the manager at John Jubb and Sons shoddy manufacturers at Batley’s Phoenix Mills, hurried to the nursery which quickly became a hive of activity. In the melee Arthur melted away. He went to the home of George’s parents. 

Jesse Sharpe was now home from work. Ironically, he worked in the same mills as Garbutt. He had eaten his tea and was smoking his pipe when Alfred turned up. It was around 6.45pm. Alfred seemed frightened and was trembling, which prompted Mary to ask where George was. Alfred spoke two words only – “He’s dead.” With that he left. Stunned by the news, Jesse went to find out what on earth was happening.

Back at the nursery Rooke Garbutt was doing his best to assist the boy, who had a wound the size of half a crown in his right side between his ribs. From the air being expelled from the hole, the shot had clearly entered his lung. Deep red blood flowed, which Garbutt tried to stem with his handkerchief. Garbutt judged by the jagged shape of the wound, and the absence of pellet marks, the lad had been shot at close range. He asked the child’s name and, on at least two occasions, he questioned who had shot him. The response never changed. Alfred Brearey. 

Dr Wilkinson arrived on the scene, and immediately judged nothing could be done. George was placed on an ambulance cart and Garbutt, assisted by others, started the journey to Batley Hospital. From the description provided, and with Garbutt said to be between the shafts, it appears this was a cart pulled by the men rather than one drawn by horses. There were various designs of these wheeled ambulance litters and carts throughout the country in this period. The example below is one of the models in use. Others, like the Bischoffsheim hand ambulance which was particularly favoured by London police in this era, were akin to wheeled stretchers. What is unclear is if the mode of transport used for George was an improvised ambulance cart, rather than an official one – especially given there appears to be no named official bearers.

An example of an ambulance, Wrington Cottage Hospital Ambulance, Horace Swete. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/act7mvnt Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

On their way to the hospital Mrs Dyson of Grosvenor Road came out to dab George’s lips with brandy. She gave the ambulance-carriers the bottle in case more should be required. George managed one final word “mother” and, as the ambulance neared the hospital on Carlinghow Field Hill, he breathed his last.

Garbutt passed him to the care of Miss Kanann, hospital Matron, who did her utmost to revive George, but to no avail. Drs Russell and Keighley arrived and pronounced death. 

George did not stand a chance. The gunshot had fractured his ribs, perforated the lower part of his right lung, and caused injuries to his liver and abdominal cavity. His body was carried back to his home. Catherine Smith of Thorn Bank Cottage on Dark Lane, who had seen George leave his house at 5pm, only around three hours later was laying out his body. She burned his blood-soaked vest and shirt to spare his mother further distress, an action which earned censure from the Coroner. Evidence should not be destroyed. George’s mother finally saw her son at home at around 11pm, once Catherine work was complete.

Meanwhile police brought in Alfred on suspicion of having caused the death of George Sharpe. Inspector Weightman interrogated him. He described Alfred as quite calm, but uncooperative. Alfred stuck to his story. He had found George on the ground; George had fallen; and Alfred had not seen a gun.

Weightman finally took him to the nursery at 9pm, where Crossley and Garbutt met them. The office gun had vanished from its stated place on the beam. Even then Alfred denied ever seeing a gun, but eventually said it had been in a corner of the building. A search ensued and, after around 10 minutes, the discharged weapon was found beneath a bench with the exploded cap still in place. When Alfred’s father arrived, the lad said Benson had told a story – the office door was unlocked and the gun was not hung up. The police decided to release George into his father’s custody whilst investigations continued.

On Sunday evening, Alfred, accompanied by his parents and a sister went to the Sharpe house. It was an act which demanded tremendous courage under the circumstances. One cannot imagine the reaction and emotions of the Sharpe family when the boy accused of killing their son turned up on their doorstep. At first Alfred denied having shot George, but when pressed by Jesse he finally admitted to it.

The Coroner’s inquest, headed by Thomas Taylor, was held the following morning, 27 April. Taylor was critical of the nursery’s gun practices. Firstly, he questioned the necessity for having one at all, suggesting they should employ a boy to scare the birds. He also criticised the way in which the nursery kept the gun, particularly the fact it was stored fully loaded.  

As for the shooting, he pointed out only George had provided evidence that Alfred was responsible, as the admission extracted by Jesse was inadmissible in Court.

In summary, Taylor stated the boys had no right to be in the office where the gun was kept, but they had got into boy-like mischief. It was impossible to say whether they were simply curiously examining the gun or playing with it. But it was unlikely Arthur would fetch the gun and deliberately shoot his friend. If a person over 14 years old killed another it was murder, unless the contrary could be proved. However, if the person was under seven it was no crime in law. Between the ages of seven and 14, as in Alfred’s case, the jury needed to consider whether the perpetrator had sufficient comprehension to know what he was doing. The jury must consider whether Alfred was playing, as boys would do, and this was an accident; or if he shot George wilfully and with knowledge and understanding. The jury deliberated for 15 minutes before returning a verdict of “Death from Misadventure.” 

That very day, on what should have been George’s eight birthday, he was laid to rest in Batley cemetery. 

The Borough Court hearing of 29 April initially did not reveal anything further, other than Alfred had never been in any trouble, and caused no problems at home. It was in Court that Alfred was finally interrogated publicly, this not being allowed at the inquest.  And it was here, in a dramatic turn, he finally revealed his version of events that fateful evening.

He stated George entered the potting shed asking to see the plants tended by Alfred. The office door was wide open. George went in, got the gun from behind the door and gave it to Alfred. Alfred was trying to put it back when it knocked something and went off. Both he and George were in close proximity in the office when it happened. Sharpe ran for about 10 yards then fell. 

The Mayor’s summing up and address to Alfred was recorded in The Batley News. He told Alfred that his:

….future might be a bright and successful one….but a cloud would hang over him. If he desired to get on in the world he should remember that it was only by being honourable and upright that he could hope to succeed, and he hoped the events of the past few days would be a lesson to him and to boys outside not to meddle with anything that did not belong to them. Had the gun not been touched except by those to whom it belonged a great deal of misery would have been spared. A liar was worse than a thief, for doors could be locked against a thief but the mouth of a liar could not be bolted. He trusted therefore that the prisoner would take warning. If he [took to heart all that has been said] he would find himself not merely a good lad but a good citizen, and (if he married) a good husband.[11]

The Bench duly agreed with the verdict of the Coroner’s Jury – George’s death was the result of misadventure. Alfred was discharged. 

Whether the full truth came out in Court when Alfred finally admitted responsibility, we will never know. But the scenario described by Coroner Thomas Taylor at the earlier inquest does seem plausible. This was a case of lads messing around. Whether George did get the gun, or whether it was Alfred wanting to show off to his younger friend, is unclear. What is obvious, reading through all the evidence, it does seem to have been a horrible accident. Alfred was only just 11, a child himself. He would have been traumatised by the events of that evening – in shock and extremely frightened. No wonder he did not dare admit what happened. But still he went to seek help.

As for Crossley, he unsurprisingly declined the option to take back his gun. The Coroner’s words of two days earlier clearly hit home. If the gun had been stored correctly none of this would have happened. A boy would still be alive to celebrate his birthday. A mother and father would still have their son.

But even though this was all clearly a tragic accident, Mary Sharpe’s reaction is one with which everyone will sympathise. On hearing the verdict, she burst into tears and said “he has got off scot free, whilst we have lost our George.” 

So, what became of Alfred Brearey? Did he heed the advice given by the Court? It seems he did. A warper at Taylor’s Blakeridge Mills, he married Florence Shephard on 2 September 1905 at Batley Parish Church [12]. He was an active member of St John’s Church, Carlinghow where he was Secretary for their football club. A sports enthusiast, he was a particularly good cyclist and member of the Yorkshire Road Club. They awarded him a medal in 1909 for his record-breaking ride to Goole and back in 4¾ hours. He went on to serve with the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) in World War One, and was killed in action on 27 August 1917. He has no know gave and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial. At home he is remembered on Batley War Memorial and is recognised in the Rev. W.E. Cleworth’s Soothill War Register and Record book [13].

Alfred Brearey – The Batley News, 15 September 1917

For more details about Alfred Brearey see Batley’s Roll of Honour website.

Footnotes:
[1] Other records have the spelling Sharp, but for consistency I will use the Sharpe variant;
[2] Jesse Sharp/Mary Windle Marriage, Batley Parish Church Marriage Register, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference WDP37/27;
[3] GRO Death Registration for Fearnley Windle, accessed via the GRO website, reference June Quarter 1875, Dewsbury District, Volume 9B, Page 388;
[4] Fearnley Windle/Mary Wilson marriage, Batley Parish Church Marriage Register, 19 September 1874, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference WDP37/26;
[5] Sharp family, 1891 census England & Wales, accessed via Ancestry.com. 1891 England Census [database on-line]. Original record The National Archives Class: RG12; Piece: 3721; Folio: 137; Page: 31
[6] Sharp family, 1901 census England & Wales, accessed via Ancestry.com. 1901 England Census [database on-line]. Original record The National Archives, Kew Class: RG13; Piece: 4258; Folio: 49; Page: 1;
[7] His name is entered as Brearley in the Baptism Register. The error is replicated for some of his siblings. Even the Coroner in his notes occasionally records his name as Brearley, and then this is amended. Baptisms for other of Thomas and Martha Ann’s children are recorded under the surnames of Brearey or Breary;
[8] Baptism of Arthur Brearley [sic], Batley Carr Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, Non-Conformist Records, 1646-1985 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference C7/1/2;
[9] Brearey family, 1891 census England & Wales, accessed via  Ancestry.com. 1891 England Census [database on-line], original record The National Archives RG12; Piece: 3736; Folio: 14; Page: 22;
[10] The Leeds Mercury, 11 September 1929, accessed via Findmypast;
[11] The Batley News & Advertiser – 1 May 1896;
[12] Alfred Brearey/Florence Shepherd marriage, Batley Parish Church marriage register, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference WDP37/36
[13] Cleworth, Rev. W.E. Urban District of Soothill Upper, Yorkshire, War Register and Records, 1914-1919. Batley: E.F. Roberts, n.d.

Other sources:

  • Inquest notes for George Sharpe, Coroner Thomas Taylor’s notes, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service Reference C493/K/2/1/198
  • Kelly’s West Riding Directory, 1893, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk
  • OS Map Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
  • The Batley News and Guardian – 2 May 1896
  • The Huddersfield Daily Examiner – 28 and 30 April 1896, accessed via Findmypast
  • The Leeds Mercury – 25 April 1896, accessed via Findmypast
  • The Leeds Times – 2 May 1896, accessed via Findmypast
  • The Yorkshire Evening Post – 25, 27 and 29 April 1896, accessed via Findmypast
  • Wellcome Collectionhttps://wellcomecollection.org/

Hidden History of Batley: A Mill Horror

No-one in Batley foresaw the consequences that the 1856 hanging of the infamous Rugeley Poisoner, Dr William Palmer [1], would have on the Yorkshire town. Consequences which led three local lads to end up in court in York on grave charges before the year was out.

The Staffordshire serial killer had no association with Batley, whose residents – along with those throughout the country – read with morbid fascination of the doctor’s lurid lifestyle and alleged killing spree. Yet the theatre and spectacle surrounding the murders, and subsequent enactment of justice, did strike an unfortunate chord with some in this developing Yorkshire mill town.

Such were the concerns surrounding a fair hearing for the case given its notoriety, a special Act of Parliament was rushed through to allow Palmer’s trial to take place at the Old Bailey rather than Stafford. The so-called ‘Trial of the Century’ gripped the country over 12 days in May 1856, with newspapers providing coverage of every twist and turn.

Palmer was eventually convicted of the murder of a friend John Parsons Cook who he poisoned, it was claimed, with strychnine. This was the first ever trial for murder by strychnine in this country. But he was also suspected of the poisoning of many more in a bid to clear his debts – including his wife, four children, brother and mother-in-law. 

He was publicly hanged on 14 June 1856 at Stafford prison before a crowd estimated to be in excess of 30,000, many of whom camped out all night in pouring rain to ensure their place at the grisly spectacle. On the morning of his execution Charles Dickens described him as “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey dock.[2].

The trial of William Palmer for the Rugeley poisonings. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

After death Palmer’s infamy lived on, spawning whole new mini-industries with the production of souvenir broadsheets, and ballads. Even the rope-maker who made the noose had a lucrative side-line selling extra sections of rope for a guinea a time. Up and down the country Palmer’s name was on the lips of men, women and children.

Back in Batley, on Friday 3 October 1856, 12-year-old John Harris set off to start work at 7am at Joseph Jubb and Brother’s mill. The son of Ann Harris, described as a widow in poor circumstances but of irreproachable character [3], John had been employed at the mill for only three weeks. At 8am he ate his breakfast in the top storey of the building. With him were three other boys, Joshua Firth (age 15), Benjamin Preston (age 14) and 13-year-old Abraham Sharp. John had known Joshua and Abraham for a couple of years, and Benjamin for a couple of months.

The area where the boys breakfasted contained a trap door, and nearby stood a steam-operated crane which was used to hoist wool etc. up from the lower stories of the mill. As John prepared to return to work the other lads were still larking around. Inspired by the recent trial they decided to play a game of ‘Hang Palmer’, with Joshua declaring that the new boy John would be Palmer. John cried “You shall not hang Palmer with me” and tried to run away. In his witness statement John went on to say:

Preston ran after me and caught me, then Sharp tied a rope under my arms and round my body, the others assisting him. Then Firth tied the rope to the crane. I tried to get loose, but I could not. I told them to let me go, but they never spoke…I am sure I did not play with the other boys, and they tied the rope round me against my wish. Firth has thrashed me many a time when I have gone for water, but the others have never thrashed me. [4]

Perhaps ‘Hang Palmer’ had been re-enacted before in the mill. Perhaps it was a prank played elsewhere by boys up and down the country, such was the impact of the deeds, trial and death of ‘Prince of Poisoners,’ William Palmer. This time though the game went badly wrong, with tragic results for all involved.

On another floor workmen set the crane in motion to pull up a sheet of wool. The chain caught the rope tied to John, he became entangled in the chain which squeezed his body, leaving him incapable of calling for help. He was drawn over the crane roller towards the ceiling beam around eight feet above at the top of the mill, where he mercifully lost consciousness as he was crushed. 

Benjamin ran down to the second story and alerted workman Robert Senior who raced up to the top. The crane lever was lowered and John released. Surgeon Mr Halbut was summoned. In addition to concussion, John sustained a fractured left arm and a spinal injury causing paralysis to his lower limbs. 

He was carried home, where leeches were applied to his head in a bid to treat him. It was not until 8 October, after unsurprisingly failing to recover from his severe injuries, that he was finally transferred to hospital, over at Leeds Infirmary. Here doctors kept authorities informed of the seriousness of the young victim’s wounds.

With John now conscious but perilously ill, in mid-October Joshua, Benjamin and Abraham were taken into custody, charged with causing him serious bodily harm. So critical was John’s condition, magistrates deemed it necessary to take his statement at his Infirmary bedside in the presence of the three accused. The younger two boys placed the prime responsibility on the elder boy casting him in the role of ringleader, saying they wanted him to untie John but Joshua refused to. The West Riding magistrates released the boys on bail.

Extract of six-inch OS map of Leeds, surveyed 1846-1847, published 1852 showing the old location of the Infirmary and Court House – Adapted

On 21 October they appeared again before the West Riding magistrate’s court in Leeds. As a result of evidence from Leeds Infirmary’s Dr Samuel Smith that John might not recover, the three boys this time were refused bail. They were taken to the Borough Gaol to await their next appearance a week later. At this subsequent hearing the Infirmary Medical Officer once more stated John was still dangerously ill. This time the case was adjourned for a month, and bail granted.

John died in Leeds Infirmary on the morning of Tuesday 25 November 1856. That afternoon the trio were brought before the West Riding magistrates at Leeds Court house once more where Mr Hardwick, house surgeon at Leeds Infirmary, stated John had died as a result of his spinal injuries. Joshua, Benjamin and Abraham were bailed, awaiting trial at the winter Gaol Delivery at York in December on a charge of manslaughter. 

The inquest, held the following afternoon, concurred with the cause of death. Mr Ferns, solicitor for the prisoners, presented a supportive letter from the Jubb brothers, mill owners and employers of the lads. The letter read;

Batley, near Dewsbury, Nov. 25th, 1856. Mr. Ferns, Sir, – We understand you are employed to defend the three boys charged with inflicting injury on the lad Harris, who has died in the Infirmary.
As owners of the factory where the accident happened, we are desirous to express to the coroner and jury our entire conviction of the innocence of the boys’ intentions towards the deceased, and that the boys were playing together without any evil design as boys usually do. 
We may mention, in case it might come in useful in any way, that we deposited £10 with the vicar of this parish to defray the expenses of Harris’s funeral, in case of death and that if he had lived we had arranged with the factory inspectors to pay down a further sum for his benefit.
Yours respectfully
JOSEPH JUBB AND BROTHERS [5].

The coroner, Mr Blackburn, did not allow it as evidence. Duly, the jury reached a verdict of manslaughter.

The following day John was buried in Beckett Street Cemetery, Leeds [6].

Around a fortnight later, on 12 December 1856, the three youths were in York facing the charge of manslaughter before Mr Commissioner Russell Gurney Esq QC. The prosecution case, presented by Mr Morley and Mr Hannay, hinged on the fact that although the affair was in sport, the refusal of John to join in made it manslaughter. Mr Middleton, for the defence, claimed John’s death was purely accidental arising from boyish sport. The crane was set in motion by a hand over which the prisoners had no control and, as a result, they could not be guilty of manslaughter. Summing up, his Lordship Commissioner Gurney in effect told the jury that if the facts presented were proved, the death of John was unintentional and did not spring from the acts of the accused. As such the jury must acquit the prisoners. The jury took this advice and passed a verdict of not guilty.

So, who were these boys? From preliminary searches of censuses, parish registers and civil registration information it appears that they all, along with John, lived in the Havercroft area of Batley. Joshua is most likely the son of Thomas and Mary Firth (née Ellis). Benjamin was most likely the son of Joseph and Ann Preston (née Preston). Abraham was the son of Joseph and Rebecca Sharp (née Marshall).

The three lads were discharged into the custody of their parents, free to return home.  One mother though, Ann Harris, would never have her son home again. By extension, and through a prank gone wrong, he too can be considered a collateral victim of Palmer.

One of the mills associated with the Jubb family. They took sole ownership of New Ing Mills in 1859 and most of the buildings on the site date from after this period, including this main 1863 construction – photo by Jane Roberts

As to which mill in Batley was the scene of this tragic event, none of the newspaper articles I have read identify it. The Jubbs owned several in town over the years. There is a possibility it was their [Old] Branch [Road] Mill which burned down at the beginning of September 1876 [7] and which they owned outright at the time of the John Harris tragedy. In fact, just over six months after the York trial they were fined for employing children under 13 years of age without schooling at that particular mill [8]. In the same period, they were also associated with New Ing Mills. Originally partners there, they eventually acquired sole possession by 1859, and commenced a building programme which significantly changed the premises in the 1860s. However, at the time of the incident New Ing Mills was in joint ownership, so this I believe is the less likely location.

But, as I hope this tale illustrates, it is amazing to contemplate the hidden history which took place in buildings long gone, and others still standing, in my hometown of Batley.

Notes:

[1] William Palmer website http://staffscc.net/wppalmer/ ;
[2] Household Words, A Weekly Journal, 14 June 1856;
[3] The Leeds Times, 29 November 1856;
[4] The Intelligencer Supplement, 18 October 1856;
[5] The Leeds Intelligencer, 29 November 1856;
[6] Leeds Beckett Street Cemetery Records, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, original records at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Ref LC/CEM (B)/1/1, Numbers 1-18747, 1845-1862;
[7] Coincidentally, another similarly named mill in the area, Branch Mill which was built by the Jubbs in around 1874 and latterly owned by Messrs. J., T., and J. Taylor, burned down in July 1915;
[8] The Leeds Times, 25 July 1857;

Sources:
(All newspapers accessed via the British Newspaper Archive on Findmypast)

  • Huddersfield and Holmfirth Examiner, 29 November and 13 December 1856
  • The Bradford Observer, 27 November 1856;
  • The Intelligencer Supplement, 18 and 25 October 1856;
  • The Leeds Intelligencer, 30 October, 1 and 29 November 1856;
  • The Leeds Mercury, 27 November 1856;
  • The Leeds Times, 1 and 29 November 1856, and 25 July 1857;
  • England and Wales Censuses 1841 to 1871 accessed via Ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast;
  • GRO Indexes, accessed via Findmypast and the GRO website;
  • West Yorkshire Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1835, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, original records at West Yorkshire Archive Service;
  • West Yorkshire Church of England Baptisms 1813 – 1910, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, original records at West Yorkshire Archive Service;
  • Wellcome Library Images: https://wellcomelibrary.org/
  • OS Map Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/index.html under a Creative Commons licence.

The Shame of a Workhouse – An Infant Down the Pit

The publication in 1842 of Children’s Employment Commission’s investigation into the condition and treatment of children in the mines and collieries of the United Kingdom made for particularly shameful reading in Batley. It shone a very unwelcome spotlight on the treatment of workhouse children across the whole of the Dewsbury Poor Law Union in general, with the Batley at the epicentre of the scandal.

To be fair, the investigation highlighted a catalogue of shocking examples countrywide with children, girls as well as boys, working in the pits from very early ages. So horrific were some examples that newspapers compared the practice of children employed underground to a form of slavery.

Sub-Commissioner Jelinger C. Symons, who investigated the West Riding mines (excluding Leeds, Bradford and Halifax) stated:

There are well attested instances of children being taken into coal-pits as early as five years of age. These are very extreme cases; but many begin as trapdoor-keepers, and even as hurriers, as early as seven. Eight is as nearly as I can ascertain the usual age at which children begin to work in coal-pits, except in thin seams when they often come earlier [1].

Trapdoor-keepers, otherwise known as trappers, were employed directly by mine owners. They opened the doors in the mine allowing the coal corves (the tubs used for transporting the coal) to pass through. They also ensured the doors closed afterwards removing any blockages, such as spilled coal, which would prevent this. Often a 12-hour day, it was a responsible job too. This process of opening and closing doors provided ventilation essential to prevent a build-up of dangerous methane gas. It was a lonely job, undertaken in damp, ill-ventilated, drafty conditions and often in total darkness, unless on the occasions when “a good-natured collier will bestow a little bit of candle on them as a treat.[2]

Hurriers, employed by miners themselves, conveyed the coal from where it was hewn to the shaft by means of corves. These oblong small-wheeled wagons were pushed or pulled through the low, narrow passages. Symons wrote:

There is something very oppressive at first sight in the employment of children hurrying all day in passages under 30 inches in height, and altogether not much above the size of an ordinary drain….. [3]

Hurriers and Thrusters with Corves full of Coal – 1842 [4]

The weights of the corves varied. Symons, in his West Riding report, stated that when full these vehicles carried between 2 to 10 cwt of coal, with the corves themselves weighing around 2 to 2.5 cwt. The number of journeys made and distance travelled also varied between pits. Examples cited in Symons’ report ranged from 16 to 24 full corves transported a day and anything between over two miles to nine miles travelled, depending on factors such as weight of the corves, distance to the shaft, the height and incline and whether the hurriers could hand over the final pull to horses, which some pits used. The very youngest hurriers could work in pairs, with those pushing also known as thrusters. The hurrier would also help the miner load the coal onto the corves, including riddling the coal. They were sometimes left alone to finish the task of loading if their hewer knocked off early.

The physical and moral conditions of the children and young persons employed in mines and manufactures. London: HMSO, John W. Parker, 1843. Folding plate showing children transporting coal in mines and collieries. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

It was noted that in mining communities, miners with large, young families had a tendency to take their children to work in the mine at an earlier age than better off miners who already had several older children working in the pits and contributing to the family income.

However, the case which was an embarrassment to the local authorities in the parishes which formed the Dewsbury Poor Law Union involved a pauper child, Thomas Townend [5].

In the care of the workhouse authorities, the youngster was ‘apprenticed’ out in contravention of the minimum age allowed for such children. This had been seven under the Parish Apprentices Act of 1698, but increased to not under nine in the Parish Apprentices Act of 1816. These pauper apprenticeships were usually not into skilled trades, but as farm labourers or servants. The industrial revolution opened up factories and mines as an option too. Apprenticeships for these children were largely seen as a form of cheap labour rather than teaching a skilled trade. They also provided an opportunity to offload the responsibility and, more importantly, cost of supporting a pauper child from the authorities. The child’s parents (if living) had no legal rights in the matter.

The example, involving a boy in Batley workhouse, was described by Symons as “A very gross case of the unduly early employment of a workhouse child….” apprenticed to a collier in Thornhill “before he was quite five years old”! [6]

The witness statements about the incident in the Appendix documents make for damning reading. I’ve reproduced the relevant passages in full.

No. 180. – Thomas Rayner, Esq., Surgeon, Birstall, wrote as follows. Dec. 26, 1840:
In mines where children are employed, in one coal-pit they will work perhaps 8 hours a-day, and in others 12 hours a-day. It is customary in some districts for miners to take six or seven apprentices; and I am now going to relate what has taken place in my own presence frequently during the past year.
I am guardian for the township of Gomersall [sic], in the Dewsbury Union. When I first attended the Board meetings, I was surprised to find so many applications from miners for apprentices from the Union Workhouse, the answer was, “Go to the house and select for yourself, and we will bind [7] you the one you select.” In some cases children (boys) have been selected at 7 and 8 years of age, because they were strong and healthy. Upon inquiry, I found no question had been asked as to age; and if in a few months the man found the boy was not strong enough (without reference to his age), he brings him back. One instance occurred only on the 24th December, last Thursday, and the boy is again in the Union Workhouse, only 7 years of age. I remonstrated with the other guardians on the enormity of binding a boy so young: they told me they had not bound him, nor should they do until he was 9 years of age; but is not this the same as binding? This boy’s master had five or six in the same way. I am the only surgeon who has ever been a member of the Dewsbury Board of Guardians and the other members do not like to be interfered with. Now, in such a case if the child must have had a certificate of fitness before being sent, he never would have been sent. I was astonished that such things could be…..[8]

No. 181. – Mrs. Lee, Matron of the Workhouse at Batley. Examined May 5, [1841] at Batley Poorhouse, near Birstall: –
The boy Thomas Townend, went on trial to a colliery at Thornhill, belonging to Mr. Ingham; he went on the 19th March, 1840, and came back again in the 6th April, 1840. He is entered in my book as being born in 1836. The reason he was sent back was, that he was pilfering into a neighbour’s house. He went to a collier, who employed him. It is the practice of the colliers or masters who want children to go to the Board-room, and they get an order to take a child, after they have picked them out at the workhouse. They inquire what the age is; they are not bound before 10, but they go on trial before that. Joseph Booth was born in 1833; he was discharged from here 12th March, 1840; he went to Robert Lumb, a collier, but an uncle interfered and took the child away, because he was not he thought, sufficiently fed. He went to his uncle, and remained at uncle’s till he was re-admitted on December 24th at this house. George Booth, a brother of Joseph Booth, is now at Dewsbury poorhouse. I am quite sure that Townend was not hurt in health by going to the pit. I believe there was a mistake made by the Board about his age. [9]

No. 182. – Joseph Booth, examined May 5, [1841] at the same workhouse, aged 8 years: –
I remember being in the pit; I used to hurry with another; I used to like being in the pit. Please they gave me plenty to eat. We used to go in at 5 in the morning, and they came out at 5. We had a bit of bread to eat in the pit, and stopped to eat it; we used to sit down to have it. There were four boys and six girls. The work did not tire me much. [10]

No. 183. – Thomas Townend (stated to be born in 1836). Examined at the said Workhouse: –
I remember being in the pit. I liked it; but they would not let me stay. [11]

No. 268. – Thomas Rayner, Esq., Surgeon, of Birstall. Examined May 26, 1841, at Birstall:-
….The Board of Guardians at Batley apprentice children without due care to ascertain their age. The boy Thomas Townend, aged 5 years, would not have been brought back to the workhouse had not the grandfather interfered and demanded it. We threatened to acquaint Mr. Chadwick and the Commissioners with it….. [12]

Another witness, Joseph Ellison, Esq., of Birkenshaw, a former Guardian , claimed it was notorious that when colliers needed hurriers they applied to Poor Law Guardians for pauper children because “They cannot get them elsewhere, on account of the severity of the labour and treatment hurriers experience; and which makes parents prefer any other sort of employment for their children.[13]

Essentially, the Dewsbury Poor Law Union was deliberately circumventing the rules around pauper apprentices by using such words as ‘trial’, thus claiming the children were not officially bound until they were of the correct age.

The case of Thomas Townend drew special attention from the Poor Law Commissioners. This was the national body providing Parliament with operational information around the Poor Law, and having responsibility for collating statistics and formulating regulations and procedures. As a result of the investigations of the Employment Commission, on 27 June 1842 a letter was sent from the Poor Law Commission to the Guardians of the Dewsbury Union [14] asking about the practice of sending children from the Union Workhouses to work in mines. They requested a return showing details of every child under the age of 16 apprenticed to work in a coal mine from 1840 to 1842. A similar missive went to the Halifax Union Board of Guardians, among others.

The Dewsbury Union return of 9 July 1842 is below. A bigger version can be found here.

In addition, William Carr, Clerk of Dewsbury Union, addressed specifically the case of Thomas Townend stating:

With regard to Thomas Townend, who was sent out of the workhouse to a coal miner on trial at five years old, I have to remark, that he, at that time, appeared by the workhouse books to be upwards of seven years of age. The child had been removed, along with other paupers, from one of the township workhouses to the union workhouse; and as the master of the township workhouse kept no account of the ages of the inmates, the union officers were obliged to get the ages of the paupers from the paupers themselves and their friends; and in this way Thomas Townend was put down seven instead of five. As soon as the error was discovered, which was in a few days after the child was sent out of the workhouse, he was sent back to the workhouse. [15]

Absolutely no mention that it was the intervention of his grandfather, and the threat of reporting the case to Edwin Chadwick and the Poor Law Commissioners that prompted his return to the workhouse, as indicated by Thomas Rayner in his deposition to Symons.

The Poor Law Commissioners were keen to have further information about the boy, writing to the Dewsbury Union Clerk on 14 July 1842 asking:

In reference to the case of one of the children, Thomas Townend, I am to request that the Commissioners may be informed what has become of the boy since he was returned to the workhouse, and whether he is in the workhouse still. [16]

Carr fired a reply back on 16 July 1842 informing the Poor Law Commission that since his return on trial (the Guardians still at pains to stress this was no apprenticeship) with William Bradshaw he had remained in the Union Workhouse at Batley. [17] The location of this workhouse is shown on the map below. Anyone familiar with the White Lee Road/Carlinghow Lane area of town will recognise the spot, which is now housing.

Extract of Six-inch OS Map Surveyed 1847 to 1851, Published 1854 Showing location of Batley Workhouse – Adapted

I have traced Thomas Townend in Batley workhouse in the 6 June 1841 census [18], but nothing definite subsequent to his mention in the July 1842 letter. Unfortunately, of the few remaining records left, the Board of Guardian Minutes, held by West Yorkshire Archive Services do not survive beyond 1842.

As a result of the report of the Children’s Employment Commission, the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 was passed. Crucially, from 1 March 1843, it was made illegal to employ women or girls of whatever age underground in any mine or colliery in Britain. Boys under the age of 10 were no longer permitted to work below ground either.

As for pauper apprentices, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1844 banned the binding of children under nine years of age, and of children who could not read or write their name.

This is the first in a series of four posts about the the evidence of the Sub-Commissioners who investigated the employment of children and young persons in mining, resulting in the 1842 Report. The other posts are:

Notes:

[1] Children’s Employment Commission: Appendix to the First Report of Commissioners, Mines: Part I: Reports and Evidence from Sub-Commissioners, Industrial Revolution Children’s Employment, Volume 7. 141 Thomas St., Dublin: Irish University Press, 1968.
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Children’s Employment Commission – First Report of the Commissioners: Mines. London: Printed by William Clowes for H.M.S.O., 1842 – out of copyright, accessed via The Internet Archive
[5] In most documents his name is Townend. However, in the Children’s Employment Commission – First Report of the Commissioners: Mines the spelling is Townsend.
[6] Children’s Employment Commission: Appendix to the First Report of Commissioners, Mines: Part I: Reports and Evidence from Sub-Commissioners, Industrial Revolution Children’s Employment, Volume 7. 141 Thomas St., Dublin: Irish University Press, 1968.
[7] Put out to apprenticeship.
[8] Children’s Employment Commission: Appendix to the First Report of Commissioners, Mines: Part I: Reports and Evidence from Sub-Commissioners, Industrial Revolution Children’s Employment, Volume 7. 141 Thomas St., Dublin: Irish University Press, 1968.
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid
[11] Ibid
[12] Ibid
[13] Children’s Employment Commission – First Report of the Commissioners: Mines. London: Printed by William Clowes for H.M.S.O., 1842
[14] The Board of Guardians oversaw the operations of the particular Poor Law Union, in this case Dewsbury Union. The Guardians were drawn from all the constituent parishes of the Union. At this stage Batley had two Guardians on the Board of 23. Other parishes represented were Heckmondwike, Lower Whitley and Thornhill (one each); Liversedge, Morley, Ossett and Soothill (two each); Gomersal and Mirfield (three each); and Dewsbury (four). Source http://www.workhouses.org.uk/
[15] Parliamentary Papers Volume 1842:v.35. London: H.M.S.O., 1842.
[16] Ibid
[17] Ibid
[18] Thomas Townend, 1841 Census. Accessed via Findmypast, Reference HO107/1267/67/2

Sources:

  • Children’s Employment Commission: Appendix to the First Report of Commissioners, Mines: Part I: Reports and Evidence from Sub-Commissioners, Industrial Revolution Children’s Employment, Volume 7. 141 Thomas St., Dublin: Irish University Press, 1968.
  • Children’s Employment Commission – First Report of the Commissioners: Mines. London: Printed by William Clowes for H.M.S.O., 1842. Accessed via Google Books
  • Parliamentary Papers Volume 1842:v.35. London: H.M.S.O., 1842. Accessed via Google Books
  • The Condition and Treatment of the Children Employed in the Mines and Collieries of the United Kingdom. London: W. Strange, 1842. Accessed via The Internet Archive
  • Higginbotham, Peter. “The History of the Workhouse by Peter Higginbotham.” Accessed July 31, 2019. http://www.workhouses.org.uk/.
  • Lake, Fiona, and Rosemary Preece. Voices from the Dark: Women and Children in Yorkshire Coal Mines. Place of Publication Not Identified: Overton, 1992.
  • Raymond, Stuart A. My Ancestor Was an Apprentice, How Can I Find out More about Him? London: Society of Genealogists Enterprises, 2010.
  • OS Map Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
  • Wellcome Library https://wellcomelibrary.org/

With special thanks to the staff at the Leeds Local and Family History library for their help in locating a copy of the Children’s Employment Commission: Appendix to the First Report of Commissioners, Mines: Part I: Reports and Evidence from Sub-Commissioners.

The Mystery of the Body Dumped in Batley

It was 4.30am on 30 May 1881. 14-year-old Peter Kelly, a hurrier at West End Colliery, was making his way to work. As he approached Mary Wrigglesworth’s [1] house and butcher’s shop, a short distance from his home, he noticed a shape crouched in the doorway. Curiosity piqued, he investigated further. A bare arm poked out from under a sack. This was tied loosely round the body with a clothes line. The feet were also bound. There was no movement from the figure, no response to Peter’s enquiries. Life was extinct.

Peter called the attention of another miner, Joss Lee, who was also on his way to work. Joss stood watch over the body whilst Peter returned home to fetch his father William, who untied the cord to reveal a semi-naked body. The police were hastily summoned. They bundled the corpse onto a handcart, and removed it to Joseph Kemp’s Victoria Hotel, Carlinghow.  Dr Myles William O’Reilly of Batley Carr, the district Medical Officer for the West Riding Constabulary, was called to examine the body.

The Victoria, Carlinghow – Photograph by Jane Roberts

The combined police and preliminary medical examination revealed the body was bound by its legs, arms and torso in a strange sitting position, and covered with a potato sack. Clothed in only trousers with braces hanging loose, elastic-side boots and grey stockings, around its neck was a paper collar with a button still attached and embedded in the swollen neck. This appeared to indicate a shirt had possibly been ripped or cut away. By the side of the body was a coat and vest, and on top of the sack was a billycock hat [2]

On checking the pockets no money was found, only some old letters from 1880, business cards for a Bradford Westgate eatery, keys, a knife, a purse containing spectacles and some old bills, the most recent dated 26 May 1881. There were also three cartes de visite style photographs taken some time ago. One was of two women, whilst another was of the victim with a woman. One of the images, according to reports in The York Herald, was identified as Miss Wrigglesworth [3], the person in whose doorstep the body had been dumped. All this documentation enabled quick identification of the body, despite the dark, swollen appearance of the face.

As Monday 30 May 1881 dawned, 43-year-old bachelor John Critchley, second son of prominent local Batley coal mine proprietor and J.P. James Critchley, became the centre of a potential murder enquiry. And it soon became clear the location where his body was discovered held particular significance – John Critchley and Mary Wrigglesworth had been on intimate terms, according to some reports, for almost 20 years, although his family objected to the relationship and she, it seemed, “had not regarded him with particular favour[4]. Nevertheless, he was well-known in the neighbourhood, with some sections of the press reporting him as being a frequent visitor to Mary’s shop.

When the police roused her to break the news that her former sweetheart had been found dead on her doorstep, she fainted. Revived with smelling salts, she informed them they had broken up some time ago, she had last seen John before Christmas and she had heard only vague rumours of his whereabouts and mode of life.

The Huddersfield Chronicle paints a vivid picture of High Street, where the body was found, describing it as a narrow street:

….partially filled with houses and small shops, built in a straggling manner; and directly opposite the butcher’s shop in question, where Miss Wrigglesworth resided and carried on business, there is a respectable-looking cottage house, one storey high. Nearly opposite is the Lord Nelson beerhouse [this, according to police evidence, had closed promptly at 10pm on Sunday night] and some cottages, evidently occupied by colliers or mill workers. Above the butcher’s shop are some newly-erected ones, used for various purposes. The main point of interest is a small shop which has been erected close to the gable of the house, which forms one of a row of three – two-storied old cottages – and in the one at the end nearest the road lived Miss Wrigglesworth…. [5] 

You can almost picture the narrow dirt road that night, no more than seven yards [6] at its widest, with its higgledy-piggledy houses, all quiet but for the occasional trot of horses and rumble of cart wheels. Unlit by street lights, somewhere in the vicinity are persons unknown, alert and watchful, awaiting the chance to dispose of the body of John Critchley.

Extract of Six-inch OS Map Surveyed 1888 -1892, Published 1895 Showing location of High Street and the Victoria Hotel – Adapted

The District Coroner Thomas Taylor Esq, who had three inquests over in Dewsbury that day, was hastily contacted. An early inquest and post mortem to determine the cause of death were deemed vital – decomposition was already well-advanced and a lid needed to be quickly put on the wild local and even national speculation, with theories that this was a brutal murder rapidly gaining ground. Large groups of people were already congregating around the Victoria Hotel to discuss the sensational situation and speculating about potential murder methods. The most popular theories included John Critchley had been shot or kicked to death [7] with his body immersed in water for several days after [8].

That very same evening, at 9pm, John Critchley’s inquest formally opened at the Victoria Hotel. The jury was sworn in and accountant Joseph Fenton elected foreman. This first meeting only covered the formalities of identification, and once these preliminaries were complete it adjourned.

Walter Critchley, coal proprietor of Grosvenor Terrace, confirmed the body downstairs was that of his brother. From his evidence it transpired his brother lived a somewhat unconventional life. 

Born on 4 August 1837 and baptised on 25 August that year at Dewsbury All Saints [9], John was the second son of James and Sarah Jane Critchley (née Illingworth). Their other children included Robert Illingworth (1835) Thomas (1840, died 1850), Charles James (1843), Jane Elizabeth (1848), Mary (born and died 1850), Walter (1853), William Henry (1855) and Mary Ellen (1857).

James and Sarah Jane married in Dewsbury All Saints church on 8 January 1835 [10]. James, born in Warley near Halifax, was described as a card maker [11], but he had his fingers in many business pies. In the 1841 census the family lived at Market Place in Dewsbury with James described as a publican [12]. In 1851 whilst John was at boarding school in Pontefract [13] his parents are recorded at 615 Market Place, Dewsbury with the multiplicity of James’ interests becoming obvious – coal dealer, card maker and inn keeper all listed in the census occupation column [14]. In 1861, and living at the Top of Batley Carr, James’ occupation had crystallised, now described as a coal owner employing 4 boys and 100 men. John was back with his family in this census, his occupation being a farmer of 130 acres employing six men, three smiths, three agents, six cart men and eight labourers [15]. In 1871 [16] and 1881 [17] James was a coal proprietor and now the Critchleys lived at the magnificently imposing Batley Hall. But in neither of these censuses can John be found. 

From the inquest evidence John’s failure to put down any roots came into sharp focus. Walter revealed at one point his brother worked as a cardmaker for older brother Robert Illingworth Critchley, but could not settle to business. As a result, at the time of his death, he had no fixed occupation. His base, when in the area, was his parents’ Batley Hall home. But he frequently left home for weeks at a time, with minimal contact with his family who often had no idea of his whereabouts. Walter revealed he last saw his brother in November and he had last been in touch via a letter at Christmas when John’s address was lodgings at 24 James Street, Bradford. After that, no contact with his family is recorded [18]. Neither is John at that location in the 1881 census.

However, despite his failure to keep in touch with his family since Christmas, he had visited the area relatively recently as the newspapers soon established. About a month prior to the discovery of his body, Miss Wrigglesworth’s sister had seen him in Batley Carr, but not to speak to. And an acquaintance had spoken to him in Dewsbury towards the end of March, when he had been very chatty [19].

The post-mortem was carried out at the Victoria Hotel at 4am on the morning of 31 May by Dr O’Reilly, assisted by the Critchley family doctor, Mr Stockwell. The early hour was chosen because of the rapidness of decomposition, but also no doubt in an effort to minimise the chance of large, excitable crowds gathering. Although the location, a public house, might seem odd to us today, post mortems could still be carried out in public houses and even private homes in this period. Only six years had passed since the 1875 Public Health Act which had legislated for local authorities to provide public mortuaries and dedicated suitable places to conduct post mortems. And only in January and February 1881 was the Victoria Hotel the location for a series of very high-profile inquests relating to a major boiler explosion at a Carlinghow mill, an explosion which resulted in the deaths of 16 workers. 

The post mortem results were not revealed until the inquest reopened on 2 June, but essentially no marks of violence were found on the body. There was no evidence of immersion in water. Decomposition was suggestive of death taking place at least 48 hours before O’Reilly first saw the body. The only visible cause which could account for death was fatty degeneration of the heart [20]. However, given the odd nature of the case, O’Reilly arranged for various organs and tissue samples to be sent for further analysis to Thomas Scattergood, eminent Leeds surgeon and lecturer on Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at the Leeds School of Medicine.

Post mortem formalities complete, Critchley’s body was placed in a leaden coffin and soldered firmly shut. It was then lowered in an oak cask and taken to Batley Hall, the family home.

Batley Hall – Photograph by Jane Roberts

Shortly after 11am the following morning, 1 June 1881, the hearse, three mourning coaches and a number of mostly empty private carriages left the Hall for the private burial ceremony in Batley Cemetery.

The massive wreath-strewn, polished oak coffin was adorned with brass fittings and the plate bore the inscription “In Memory of John Critchley, of Batley Hall, aged 43 years.” The coffin was carried by a number of Messrs. Critchley workmen, and many employees attended the service. Chief mourners were John’s parents Mr and Mrs James Critchley, brothers Robert Illingworth Critchley and his wife, Charles James Critchley, Walter Critchley and his wife, brother Willie Critchley, sister Mary Ellen and her husband Arthur Jubb, and aunt Ann Critchley. Rev. T. G. Davies, vicar of Batley, conducted the service, which was not without incident. Policemen were stationed around the cemetery perimeter to keep back the large crowds congregated outside. During the ceremony, an unseemly struggle broke out, which resulted in the storming of the cemetery gates and a considerable number of female factory workers gaining entry.

Critchley Family Headstone at Batley Cemetery – Photograph by Jane Roberts

Whispers from the post mortem now started to seep out, and the mood shifted slightly. Newspapers started to point out that the deceased was of medium height and very stout and “what the medical fraternity would regard as an apoplectic subject…[21]. Others stated:

The impression that the deceased has not been murdered appears to be gaining ground in the district….The supposition…that the unhappy man had probably died amongst the companions of his wretchedness, and that they, to clear themselves of possible odium, got rid of the body in the most ingenious manner they could hit upon, seems to be regarded as the most probable theory [22].

So, whilst maybe not murder, they believed his lifestyle and the company he kept materially contributed to his demise. 

All this speculation was proving extremely distressing to his family, a fact which the Critchley family solicitor, Mr Scholefield, was at pains to point out when the inquest reopened at the Victoria Hotel on 2 June. This undoubtedly influenced The Dewsbury Reporter’s assessment of John, in which they played down any hint of a debauched lifestyle:

…when he returned [home] he always came back healthy and in good condition, and seldom if ever appeared to have been drinking to excess. He was not a drunkard, though fond of what is called a social glass. He was a generous-hearted man, always ready to help a friend, full of good humour, chatty and agreeable, and not at all the man against whom a person might be supposed to cherish a grudge and desire to do him bodily harm.[23]

This second phase of the inquest, on 2 June 1881, saw a parade of witnesses [24]. These included Robert Hammerton, the proprietor of a Bradford eating house whose business cards were found on John Critchley’s body. The deceased was a regular visitor to Hammerton’s establishment, which was located just around the corner from his last known address. He confirmed Critchley last visited on the afternoon of 26 May and ate a meal of lamb, new potatoes, steeped peas and mint sauce. Hammerton described Critchley as being “merry” and apparently affected by drink, but also added this was the worse state of intoxication he had seen him in. Critchley had briefly fallen asleep, and finally left at around 3pm. This was the last recorded sighting of John Critchley alive. 

Other witnesses included Peter Kelly, William Kelly, William Jenkinson (a card fettler living at High Street), George Addy (a Sergeant with the West Riding Constabulary), Myles William O’Reilly, John Dyson (a West Riding Police Constable), and Zillah Susan Booth (wife of stonemason William Booth and another High Street resident). 

Of particular interest in these testimonies were the reports by William Jenkinson, John Dyson and Zillah Booth. The former, a close neighbour of Mary Wrigglesworth, had been out around midnight and noticed nothing. Around 1.45am he was awoken by a trap passing in the direction of his neighbour’s shop. His house was separated from Mary Wrigglesworth’s by an entrance to a Yard. Going at a quick trot, he was not aware of the trap stopping. 

Zillah Booth also reported hearing a trap going towards Miss Wrigglesworth’s shop at around 1.35am. She stated two people, one a woman, walked ahead of it. She heard no voices, only footsteps. Within five minutes the trap returned, at a quicker pace accompanied by the walkers. The female carried on down the road whilst the trap turned off down Beck Lane. The trap had a distinctive sound, as if the wheels had been muffled [25]. She had heard the same vehicle, a light cart, the previous night at 2.10am when it had travelled in the direction of Miss Wriggleswoth’s shop, a 100 yards from the Booth residence, again rapidly returning within minutes. 

John Dyson was the policeman whose beat covered High Street for the key period. A clear night, between 9pm on Sunday and 3am on Monday he patrolled the street five times. He last passed Miss Wrigglesworth’s shop at around 2.35am as day was breaking but noticed nothing unusual. Corroboration that he had not shirked his duty came from the watchman from Messrs. J and R Talbot’s Bullrush Mill, who accompanied PC Dyson on his last sweep of High Street. 

According to the notes made by Coroner Thomas Taylor, the only vehicle PC Dyson saw whilst on duty was a dogcart (a light horse-drawn vehicle) going towards Carlinghow, down High Street and through Cross Bank at 11pm, containing four people. However, newspaper reports of the inquest also note the policeman saw a conveyance used for carrying dead horses between 11.30pm and midnight. It was opposite Bullrush Mill and it passed Victoria Street going towards Dewsbury. He never saw or heard the trap just before 2am which the two High Street residents reported.

The inquest adjourned once more to await the results of tissue and organ tests, and allow for further police enquiries in Leeds and Bradford ad well as locally.  It resumed at the Victoria Hotel on Thursday 9 June 1881 [26]. The principal witness was Leeds Surgeon Thomas Scattergood who presented his findings: There was no evidence that John Critchley’s death was the result of poisoning. 

Superintendent Airton, of the West Riding Constabulary, offered no further evidence. Despite extensive enquiries there were no reported sightings of John Critchley between leaving Mr Hammerton’s refreshment room on the afternoon of Thursday 26 May and the estimated time of death at midnight on Friday 27 May. Airton did suggest presenting a further witness, a woman, who had seen John Critchley enter and shortly afterwards leave Mary Wrigglrsworth’s shop, this only two weeks prior to his death. The jury following guidance from the Coroner, who pointed out that as this was a fortnight before Critchley’s death it would probably not help determine cause of death, decided against calling her. 

After some deliberation, and with the overwhelming evidence of the two medical men that no poison was evident and that fatty degeneration of the heart was the cause of death, the jury delivered its verdict: “That John Critchley was found dead on a doorstep in Carlinghow on 30th May, 1881, and the jury are unanimous in their verdict, based on medical evidence, that the deceased died from natural causes.

The jury urged the police to continue their investigations as to the place of death and how the body ended up on a Carlinghow doorstep. But in effect that was it. Whether John Critchley’s body was clandestinely transported to Miss Wrigglesworth’s abode by persons wishing to avoid the unwelcome scrutiny his death might have caused them, or even his family, was not discovered. But it is clear they were not strangers to him, given the location they chose to dispose of his body. 

By the time of the 1891 census Mary Wrigglesworth, now described as a general shopkeeper, resided at Wood Hill, Dewsbury [27]. Her former butcher’s shop and house, street name now changed from High Street to Cross Bank Street, was listed on the 1891 census but annotated to say no-one “slept in the place[28]. Subsequent censuses, and it is the more familiar name of Cross Bank Road which appears. I wonder if it is possible the shop later became Millman butchers? The location, opposite the Nelson would fit. These buildings have long since gone in the Batley clearances.

The imposing Critchley family headstone marking their Batley cemetery burial plot, in its prestigious location in front of the twin chapels alongside the graves of other local dignitaries and businessmen, makes for interesting reading once you know the story of John. Exact dates mark the passing of his parents and other family members. John’s simply reads “Died May 1881” for a reason – the exact date is not known.

Inscriptions on the Critchley Headstone – Photograph by Jane Roberts

And next time you have a drink in the Victoria public house, pause and think. You are privileged to be drinking in a place steeped in Batley’s hidden and long-forgotten history! 

Notes:
[1] In many reports, including Thomas Taylor’s inquest notes, she is referred to as Mary Wrigglesworth. In census documents and her 16 April 1837 baptism entry in Birstall parish register she is Wigglesworth. For consistency I have used the Wrigglesworth spelling used by the Coroner.
[2] Bowler hat.
[3] The York Herald, 1 June 1881.
[4] The York Herald, 1 June 1881.
[5] The Huddersfield Chronicle, 4 June 1881
[6] Thomas Taylor’s inquest notes of PC John Dyson’s 2 June 1881 evidence states 7 yards wide, whilst The Dewsbury Reporter of 4 June 1881 states PC Dyson said 5 yards.
[7] The Manchester Evening News, 31 May 1881.
[8] The Manchester Evening News, 1 June 1881. 
[9] Dewsbury All Saints Baptism Register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archive Service Reference WDP9/11.
[10] Dewsbury All Saints Marriage Register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archive Service Reference WDP9/22.
[11] Manufacturing the combs and implements for combing (carding) wool.[12] 1841 Census, Reference HO107/1268/45/19, accessed via Findmypast.[13] 1851 Census, Reference HO107/2330/108/3, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk.
[14] 1851 Census, Reference HO107/2324/325/28, accessed via Findmypast.[15] 1861 Census, Reference RG09/3399/96/36, accessed via Findmypast.
[16] 1871 Census, Reference RG10/4583/22/37.
[17] 1881 Census, Reference RG11/4546/152/24.
[18] 30 May 1881 John Critchley Inquest, Thomas Taylor Esq (Coroner) Notes, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archives Service (Wakefield), Reference C493/K/2/1/142.
[19] The Dewsbury Reporter, 4 June 1881.
[20] 2 June 1881 John Critchley Inquest, Thomas Taylor Esq (Coroner) Notes, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archives Service (Wakefield), Reference C493/K/2/1/142.
[21] The Manchester Evening News, 31 May 1881.
[22] The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 1 June 1881.
[23] The Dewsbury Reporter, 4 June 1881.
[24] 2 June 1881 John Critchley Inquest, Thomas Taylor Esq (Coroner) Notes, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archives Service (Wakefield), Reference C493/K/2/1/142
[25] Huddersfield Chronicle, 4 June 1881.
[26] 9 June 1881 John Critchley Inquest, Thomas Taylor Esq (Coroner) Notes, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archives Service (Wakefield), Reference C493/K/2/1/142.
[27] 1891 Census, Reference RG12/3735/57/7, accessed via Findmypast.
[28] 1891 Census, Reference RG12/3721/30/28, accessed via Findmypast.

OS Map Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/index.html under a Creative Commons licence.

A Batley Murder: “I Have Done it For Love”

On 31 December 1895 Tom Morley received a final letter at his Batley home from his brother Pat. Written from Armley jail on the eve of Pat’s death it read:

My dear Tom, I am very sorry to part with ye, but I hope I will meet ye in heaven, I will soon be in a better place withe [sic] the help of God I am preparing to go home to-morrow at nine o’clock, and I am leaving ye all my kind love. Let ye all pray for me this night and let ye pray for poor Lizzie that is gone before me. Dear Tom, I was no disgrace to you this 20 years in England untill [sic] now. Tom, it is my foolishness that left me here. It is hard work to rite [sic] this letter. Tom, I must conclude, and I am bidding ye all a long farewell. God be with you for ever. [1]

Pat Morley’s last night on earth was fairly restful. In the morning he ate a light breakfast, and was joined from 7am until 8.50am by Father Hassing, the Catholic prison chaplain. Prayers were said until James Billington, the government hangman, came for him.

Arms strapped to his side Morley was led to the chalk-marked drop point by a number of warders. Father Hassing, in the procession, recited the service for the dead in Latin. On reaching the spot, his ankles were strapped together, his face covered with a white cap, Major Knox the Prison Governor gave the signal and Morley dropped 7′ 6″ to his death.

One hour later he was cut down, placed in a black-painted coffin and the perfunctory inquest held confirming the death sentence had been duly carried out. Two more formalities ensued. The Declaration of the Sheriff and Others read:

We, the undersigned, hereby declare that Judgment of Death was this Day executed on Patrick Morley in Her Majesty’s Prison of Leeds in our Presence.
Dated this 31st day of December 1895 E Gray Under Sheriff of Yorkshire. James Knox, Governor of the said Prison. Anthony J Hassing Chaplain of the said Prison. [2]

The Certificate of the Armley Prison Surgeon (at this time the word Surgeon was also used to refer to a doctor, rather than having our 21st century understanding), Berkeley Moynihan stated he had examined the body of Patrick Morley and death was confirmed. Later Berkeley Moynihan was elevated to the peerage as the 1st Baron Moynihan. More recent readers may be more familiar with the 4th Baron Colin Moynihan, a British Olympic coxswain and a former Conservative sports minister, who was the grandson of the Armley prison doctor.

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

It was all a far cry from Pat’s early life on a farm near Charlestown, County Mayo. In this countryside surrounds he was brought up with his three brothers and two sisters. But, as was the case with so many Irish, their homelands became but distant memories. By the 1890s one brother lived in Liverpool, another in Ripon and a third, Thomas, in Batley along with a sister, Bridget. Their father, however, remained in Ireland.

Standing at 5′ 7″ [3] Patrick was a thin, spare man, with sharp cast features and a somewhat ruddy appearance. Some went so far as to describe him as having an intellectual type of face. His most noteworthy features were his deep, brooding eyes – although Lucy Cooper, one of the witnesses giving evidence in front of the Magistrates in Batley Town Hall on 30 September, said to much laughter “Nay, he’s nowt in my line to look at.

In England Pat was said:

…to have been possessed of a good bit of pride, and, being able to command good wages, he has, to quote the words of one of his relatives, “not gone into the tap-rooms but into the best rooms, amongst the gents.” [4]

He met Elizabeth Stratton whilst working in Harrogate. She ran a lodging house in which he stayed. Born in Halifax in 1853 (so slightly older than the 35 years indicated at the time of her death), she was the daughter of John and Elizabeth Stratton (née Penny). She and her siblings, William, Mary, Joseph and James, grew up in Bradford with their father’s jobs including a labourer in a stone quarry and an earthenware dealer. Her parents died in late 1880 and, after initially working as a glass and China shopkeeper in Bradford, she moved to Harrogate. Described as a respectable, educated woman she was often seen in that town dressed in black, wearing a veil.

According to the same relative of Pat’s:

…seeing he had some good clothes and was a decent fellow who didn’t mix with the roughs, she married him. [5]

Their wedding took place in Harrogate at Christmas-time in 1893.

Within months though marital problems emerged. Although regarded as a quiet, steady, inoffensive man, it seemed Pat liked a drink. This caused him to became jealous of the lodgers. According to Tom “He was not a right drunkard but he spent his money in drink.” [6]

One jealous alcohol-fuelled incident saw Pat hitting a resident on the head with a poker.

When Lizzie arranged to remove her furniture from the house and leave, Pat barricaded himself inside and refused the removal men entry. She relented and returned to him, but as a result of his behaviour lodgers shunned Diamond Place, frightened away by the antics of the proprietor’s new husband.

The couple eventually left Harrogate, initially moving to Hunslet Lane, Leeds. It was here in July 1894 that Pat was bound over to keep the peace for 12 months after threatening his wife. A loaded revolver was found in his possession and taken from him – his brother Tom subsequently claimed in a statement to have thrown it into a river.

The couple came to Batley shortly afterwards (his brother reckoned about September 1894), living at Beaconsfield Villa. Here Pat worked for Batley Corporation as a labourer whilst Lizzie was employed as a power loom weaver at Sheard’s mill.

In July 1895, just before the expiration of his previous sentence, Pat appeared once again before the police court. It was a familiar charge: once more he’d made threats against his wife.

This time he was fined 40s and costs and bound over to keep the peace for six months.

He went to Harrogate to cool off and whilst he was away Lizzie, fearing for her safety, left the marital home. In early September she took lodgings at 1 Hirst Place, off Purlwell Lane, in the cottage belonging to Ellen Nutton and her married daughter Lucy Cooper.

Pat returned to Batley on 14 September for Batley Feast and immediately sought out his wife. In the following days he was a frequent visitor to Hirst Place, pleading with Lizzie to return to him. She refused, afraid he would harm her telling him “You know Pat, I daren’t live with you. You know you have threatened me so often.” [7]. At other times she said she would if he would “mend” and “if he would give over drinking.” [8]

After one rejection he briefly left Batley on 16 September and spent time in Harrogate then Ripon, where he purchased another bulldog-type revolver. He returned to Batley on 18 September and resumed his visits to Hirst Place, trying to persuade his estranged wife to come back. In one statement he said:

I kept begging her to change her mind, because I knew if she did not change her mind she would have to die for it… [9]

His final visit to Lizzie took place on Sunday 22 September. He arrived at around 1.15pm, whilst Lizzie was preparing dinner. Both Ellen and Lucy were in the room. He asked if she had been to church that morning, but she said not as she’d been too late.

Approaching 2pm, as Lizzie was snipping some parsley, he got up from his chair and moved towards her asking if she would lend him a shilling. It being Batley Feast time she too was short of money, having taken time off work to go to the jollities on the Saturday, Monday and Tuesday. As a consequence she had not finished the piece of cloth she was weaving (as a weaver she was paid by the piece).

Pat was now within an arms length of her. Saying “Get out Lizzie” he reached for his breast pocket, drew out the revolver and shot her once in the right temple. She fell to the ground at the feet of Ellen Nutton. She never spoke again.

British Bulldog Revolver – Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons License CCO 1.0

In his police statement later that afternoon he claimed if she had given him the shilling he would have gone away.

Pat then put the gun to his mouth and, with trembling hands, pulled the trigger once more. Despite the revolver firing, for some inexplicable reason it missed him. The bullet was subsequently found to have hit the wall behind him.

By now Lucy was shouting the alarm and banging on the window. Fred Ashton, a young miner who lived at 8 Hirst Place and who had heard the crack of two shots, came to see what was going on. He apprehended Pat on the doorstep of the cottage and led him back inside. Pat calmly handed the revolver to Fred.

The police and the Batley police surgeon were quickly summoned. PC William Robinson, who lived only 120 yards away, was the first Batley policeman on the scene. He was the constable who dealt with the domestic dispute only two months earlier.

Police surgeon Herbert Keighley was unable to save Lizzie who died at around 2.30pm. As she lay dying Pat muttered “I am sorry. I hope her soul is in heaven” and “I have done it for love.” [10]

Ellen, described as a matronly-looking woman, claimed at his trial in December that she felt if he had held out for just a couple more days Lizzie would have returned to him. Her evidence, as outlined in the Judge’s notes in that final December trial, appeared to indicate he and Lizzie had “slept together” during his Hirst Place visits. The Judge wrote the word “cohabiting” in the margins. [11] Whether this is true, what is not in doubt is during those few days after Pat’s return to Batley in September 1895 they spent several hours together, both at Hirst Place and around Batley visiting friends – for example Bridget Cafferty’s home on Spa Street.

Lizzie Morley’s inquest took place before Coroner Thomas Taylor in the late afternoon of 23 September. It was held at the New Inn, a public house on nearby Purlwell Lane.

Her funeral followed on Wednesday 25 September, officiated by Rev. Father Charles Gordon of St Mary of the Angels R.C. Church.

A large crowd gathered at Hirst Place ready to accompany her body to the cemetery, doubtless eager to hear the latest gossip about the tragedy. Work colleagues carried the flower-covered polished pitch pine coffin with brass furnishings from the house to the hearse. The procession, headed by around a dozen weavers from her workplace, then wound its way through those gathered along the Purlwell Lane, Clerk Green and Cemetery Road route.

Chief mourners were Lizzie’s brother Joseph and his wife, her aunt and uncle James and Louisa Naylor (her mother’s sister), sister-in-law Emily Stratton and cousin Elizabeth Penny. Some reports estimated around two thousand witnessed the ceremony.

In the meantime Pat appeared before Batley Magistrates on 23 and 30 September. On both occasions large crowds gathered outside the Town Hall with townsfolk hoping to catch a glimpse of the prisoner as he was brought to court.

Interior of Batley Town Hall – Photo by Chris Roberts (edited by Jane Roberts)

The first hearing held in the small Committee Room meant only limited public access.

At the second hearing even bigger crowds gathered outside the building two hours before proceedings commenced. Even after the doors opened people continued to arrive, and the crowd swelled to such an extent during the course of the hearing that traffic was obstructed. At the end of this hearing Pat was formally charged with the wilful murder of his wife and committed to trial at the next Leeds Assizes.

His brother Tom was a frequent visitor to his brother in Wakefield Gaol, where Pat remained in good spirits and had not despaired of being saved from the gallows. Tom wrote to a number of Pat’s former employers to get character references for him. Responses included one from Major Gorman of Smeaton Manor, Northallerton and Mr R Routledge of Hick House, Northallerton. The latter reply was typical:

I am very much grieved to hear of the dreadful act your brother has committed. I cannot imagine but that he was either really drunk or insane at the time he did it. When working for me he was always so cheerful and pleasant. I am afraid that anything I can say would avail him very little…If you are not able to employ counsel the judge will, no doubt, order someone to defend him… [12]

Another ploy was to try to prove Pat was mentally unstable. When the case came before Mr Justice William Grantham at the Assizes held at Leeds Town Hall on 9 December, evidence was produced to this effect. It included a family history of insanity. Pat’s brother Tom said “he had not been right in his head these ten years” and his condition worsened after his marriage. Tom went on to say they had an aunt similarly afflicted. Their brother Michael had “not been square in the head” since birth; neither was their cousin Mary who emigrated to America. Bridget Rowan, their sister, who lived at Woodwell, Batley gave similar evidence as to Pat’s mental state. She mentioned her brother had stayed with her in the three nights prior to the death of Lizzie. Whilst here his state of mind deteriorated to the point that he was incessantly talking to himself. [13]

Justice Grantham by “Spy” (Leslie Ward) Published in Vanity Fair 15 March 1890 – Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Image (Author Died in 1922)

The Judge sought the opinion of Berkeley Moynihan (spelled Barclay by the Judge), Armley Gaol surgeon, who rebuffed this. In his opinion he had ordinary control of his actions and was quite responsible for them. The Judge’s notations of the doctor’s evidence included:

He seemed to have ordinary memory and was quite like an ordinary individual. [14]

The jury was also unconvinced. After listening to evidence from a parade of other witnesses including Ellen Nutton, Lucy Cooper, Fred Ashton, Dr Herbert Keighley, Batley policemen PC William Robinson, Sergeant Smith Machell and PC William Craven, as well as Leeds City policemen involved in the 1894 Leeds domestic dispute, they found the prisoner guilty.

Pat now gave a long, disjointed statement in a strong Irish accent as follows:

I have your riverence, [sic] your lordship – I am here. No docther [sic] in Leeds to [sic] examine me. I am in a weak state of mind. Your riverence [sic] I hope you will give me a fair chance. I was more fit for the asylum at the time. I was away three weeks. She sold my home. I went away to Harrogate. I was drunk during the time. I had been sober for twelve months. I loved my wife. I did not want to shoot her. No, I was not the man. I told the doctor at Wakefield all the time I was there. I said my head was rising off me. I told the doctor in Armley Gaol that my head was bad, and it has been bad for a number of years, as my friends know. I hope you will give me a chance. I did not intend to shoot my wife. I only had this revolver to frighten her. She would not go back to live with me. I did not think the revolver would go off at the time. The revolver went. I thought I hadn’t it ready for going. I had no more mind to shoot her if I had to drop dead before ye gentleman. I am the wrongest. I am the innocentest man, though I did it. I have the best character of any man in the world. She sold my home. I went to Harrogate to take the waters. I was not drinking then. Gentlemen – your Lord, it is only a little revolver. I only did it to frighten her. [15]

The Judge, unmoved, donned his black cap, and passed a sentence of death. A woman in the gallery sobbed once, and Patrick Morley, staring blankly ahead, was hustled out of the court.

However, some did raise questions about the verdict, blaming the unprepared, inexperienced defence counsel. A piece in The Leeds Times of 14 December 1895 said Pat had:

…the appearance of mental derangement, of at least feebleness and abnormal stupidity, and I think there may be more in the statement of his having two near relations in Ireland insane than was disclosed…Patrick Morley may be an idiot or a brute or a combination of both, but he ought not be hanged if he is in a mental state that weakens his responsibility. I trust that full inquiry will be made into his history and into his condition of mind.

The Judge had no such concerns. His notes mention his belief that the prisoner displayed shrewdness. They also indicate one of the first questions Pat asked his Council was if he should pretend to be insane and what was the best way to do this. However, the Judge did request a post-trial medical report. Dated 17 December 1895, Henry Clarke – the doctor who had seen him regularly during his two-month sojourn at Wakefield Prison – stated that on his arrival there on 24 September there was no evidence of delusions or hallucinations. It was only on 1 October that he appeared dull, stupid and slow in answering questions. The following day he denied ever seeing the doctor previously, claimed he had never been married and could not answer even the simplest of questions. The doctor gave special instructions for his visits with family and friends to be monitored. In these he repeatedly spoke about his wife with regard to her ring and some property and suggested to his brother that he should get evidence as to some relative who had been in an asylum. Dr Clarke concluded:

In my opinion he was sane and responsible for his actions. I regarded his conduct under examination during the latter part of his stay here as assumed. [16]

The decision remained unchanged. Pat Morley, now in Armley Gaol, philosophically awaited his fate, the date for his hanging set for 31 December 1895. His penultimate letter to his brother Tom read:

My dear Brother, Sorry I am to write you this lonesome letter in my present state, and in the position in which I am placed as you perhaps have heard that I am to die in the last day of the year; and let ye all pray for me. I have the priest coming to see me every day. Dear Tom, if only I had taken your advice I should not be placed in the position I am. Poor Tom, you always advised me for the best, and I didn’t take it, but I thought, Tom, I would not come to this end. Dear brother Tom, I will tell you the truth now, I will. Poor Lizzie is now dead and in Heaven I hope, and the Lord have mercy on her soul, and I am here, as he know, waiting to die; I will tell you Lizzie has been the cause of all this. I am going to die for her now, Tom, and Lizzie has brought it all on me and to herself. I never intended to take her life. Dear Tom, I am very sorry for poor Lizzie. Let ye all pray for Lizzie, Tom. I did not think last Christmas I should be here this Christmas. Tom, if I had taken your advice I would not be here. My dear brother, I must now conclude with my kind love to you, Mary and family. May God bless you all, and let ye all pray for me, as ye know I shall soon be in another world, where there is no end, but everlasting life. Tom and Mary, I am bidding you all a long farewell. I am sending my kind love to Maggy and all the children, and I am leaving my blessing to all the friends and neighbours. Tom, don’t forget poor Pat. Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye. xxxxxxxxxx [17]

A few lines to his sister read:

You always told me to be kind to Lizzie, and I was good and kind to her, but she was bad to me and to herself. She was all the time trying to provoke me. I could tell you a lot of things she did to me, but I will tell you no more. All ye pray for Lizzie. [18]

And so the final day of 1895 dawned, with the chorus of sparrows chirruping from the eaves of houses near to Armley Gaol. It was unusually mild. It was the day 38-year-old Patrick Morley became the last man to be executed for a Batley murder.

Footnotes:

  1. Yorkshire Evening Post – 4 January 189
  2. Leeds Assizes, Patrick Morley, December 1895. Originals at TNA, Reference HO 144/266/A5749
  3. According to the Batley police statements used at the trial and held at The National Archives (TNA). Interestingly his HMP Wakefield records state 5′ 4½”
  4. Leeds Times – 12 October 1895
  5. Ibid
  6. Leeds Assizes, Patrick Morley, December 1895. Judge’s Notes of evidence of Thomas Morley, 9 December 1895. Originals at TNA, Reference HO 144/266/A57496
  7. Huddersfield Daily Examiner, Inquest evidence of Ellen Nutton – 24 September 1895
  8. Leeds Assizes, Patrick Morley, December 1895. Judge’s Notes of evidence of Ellen Nutton, 9 December 1895. Originals at TNA, Reference HO 144/266/A57496
  9. Leeds Assizes, Patrick Morley, December 1895. Patrick Morley’s statement to Sergt Machell and PC Craven at Batley Police Station, 22 September 1895. Originals at TNA, Reference HO 144/266/A57496
  10. Leeds Assizes, Patrick Morley, December 1895. Various witness depositions and in Judge’s Notes. Originals at TNA, Reference HO 144/266/A57496
  11. Leeds Assizes, Patrick Morley, December 1895. Judge’s Notes of evidence of Ellen Nutton, 9 December 1895. Originals at TNA, Reference HO 144/266/A57496
  12. Leeds Times – 26 October 1895
  13. Leeds Assizes, Patrick Morley, December 1895. Judge’s Notes of evidence of Thomas Morley and Bridget Rowan, 9 December 1895. Originals at TNA, Reference HO 144/266/A57496
  14. Leeds Assizes, Patrick Morley, December 1895. Judge’s Notes of evidence of Berkeley Moynihan, 9 December 1895. Originals at TNA, Reference HO 144/266/A57496
  15. Leeds Times – 14 December 1895
  16. Leeds Assizes, Patrick Morley, December 1895. Report of Henry Clarke, Medical Officer, Wakefield Prison, 17 December 1895. Originals at TNA, Reference HO 144/266/A57496
  17. Yorkshire Evening Post – 4 January 1896
  18. Ibid

Sources:

  • West Yorkshire Prison Records, Wakefield Prison. Accessed via Ancestry.co.uk. Originals at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield, England, Reference C118/151
  • Leeds Assizes, Patrick Morley, December 1895. Originals at TNA, Reference HO 144/266/A57496
  • Bradford Daily Telegraph, 24 September 1895
  • Huddersfield Chronicle, 10 and 14 December 1895
  • Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 24 and 26 September 1895
  • Leeds Mercury, 10 and 28 December 1895,
  • Leeds Times, 28 September 1895, 5, 12 and 26 October 1895, 14 and 21 December 1895, 4 January 1896
  • Lincolnshire Chronicle, 27 September 1895
  • Yorkshire Evening Post, 4 January 1896
  • Yorkshire Herald, 1 October 1895
  • GRO Indexes
  • 1861 to 1911 Censuses

Lessons from the Past: Infant Mortality in Batley 1900-1914

When looking at some Batley population statistics in relation to my family history, I was horrified to see the town’s infant mortality figures.

Infant mortality is the term applied to the deaths of children under one year of age. It is based on the proportion of the annual number of deaths at this age measured against births registered in the same area in that year. It is then extrapolated to represent a mortality figure per 1,000 births.

Batley’s figures were shocking, and acknowledged as such by the town’s various Medical Officers. For example in 1911 there were 852 births in Batley compared to 160 deaths of under 1s. This gives an infant mortality equivalent to a rate of 187.79 deaths per 1,000 births. And this was not the highest rate in this period, and it was at a time when things were improving.

I initially looked at Batley births and infant deaths from 1892 to 1971, plotting them in Table 1 below. The years from 1892 to 1914 make particularly sobering viewing. In four years the figures reached an infant mortality rate exceeding 200 per 1,000:

  • in 1893 it reached 260.55 per 1,000 births;
  • 1895 was 200.24;
  • 1901 saw a rate of 209.30 and
  • in 1904 it hit 235.94.

Table 1 (see Footnote 1)

In his 1914 Annual Report, Batley’s Medical Officer George Harper Pearce compared Batley’s infant mortality with the Great Town’s of England and Wales over a 25-year-period. Although in terms of population Batley was not one of the designated Great Towns, the Medical Officer felt by its urban nature and the fact it seamlessly flowed into its neighbouring population centres, it demonstrated all the characteristics of a Great Town. Therefore he felt its Public Health should be compared against this measure. It provided an unedifying comparison.

Although there was a commonality in the chief causes of infant mortality countrywide, namely premature birth, congenital deficiencies, hereditary illnesses, inexperience of mothers, unsatisfactory municipal sanitation, industrial conditions and improper food, Batley appeared to suffer the effects to a higher degree than its comparator towns. (Interestingly poverty was not mentioned as a factor). In 1914 Batley’s infant mortality figure of 149 compared to the corresponding Great Towns figure of 114. Looking at the earlier high rates I quoted for Batley in 1893, 1895, 1901, 1904 and 1911 and comparing with that of the Great Towns:

  • In 1893 and 1895 the Great Towns rates were in the low 180s;
  • In 1901 the Great Towns was 168;
  • In 1904 the Great Towns stood at 160;
  • 1911 the Great Towns figure was 140.

All therefore far below Batley’s rates, and sadly this was the general pattern.

I decided to focus on the years 1900 to 1914, the period marking the start of the 20th century leading up to the outbreak of the Great War. Both my paternal grandparents, and many of their siblings, were born in Batley in this period. My grandfather, born in 1906, was one of 10 children my great grandmother had between 1889 to 1910. My grandmother, born in 1908, had one other sibling, her senior by one year.

The total number of Batley infant deaths occurring in these years were:

  • 1900: 148;
  • 1901: 189;
  • 1902: 148;
  • 1903: 139;
  • 1904: 193;
  • 1905: 151;
  • 1906: 155;
  • 1907: 123;
  • 1908: 139;
  • 1909: 86;
  • 1910: 107;
  • 1911: 160;
  • 1912: 100;
  • 1913: 98;
  • 1914: 122.

Looking at the mortality statistics for this period I’m amazed, and thankful, that only two of these twelve children died before adulthood; and of them only one death was classed as infant mortality. I have written about these two children here and here.

The upshot of these dire turn-of-the-century figures led to Batley Borough Council, aided by voluntary services, embarking on a concerted effort to reduce the town’s shameful infant death rates, many of which they deemed preventable.

As part of this drive, from 1908 onwards we get ever greater detail regarding infant mortality in the Batley Medical Officer reports including more in-depth analysis of the causes of Batley infant deaths.

The causes attributed to these infant deaths are plotted on the graph in Table 2 below:

Table 2U1 1900-1914 Deaths Blog

The figures behind the graph are at Table 3, below.

Table 3U1 1900-1914 Chart Deaths Blog

Picking out some causes, we take for granted the impact of vaccinations today – perhaps some are even complacent about it. But looking at some of the death causes for infants – measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis – shows that for past generations these diseases were killers. And many more infants and children suffered life-changing disabilities arising from the complications of these illnesses. But beyond the direct deaths, bronchitis and pneumonia (illnesses in their own rights) could also be some of the secondary fatal complications of measles, whooping cough and even rickets.

Rickets does not feature in the prime Batley infant mortality causes in the years investigated. It is a condition affecting bone development in children which results in stunted growth and deformity. It affected a frighteningly large number of Batley children in this period. In 1909 64 cases of school-age Batley children suffering from rickets were investigated. The report discovered between them the 64 families involved had 340 children of which 119 were afflicted with the disease, 61 of these dying in infancy with their deaths attributed to bronchitis or convulsions. This is yet another demonstration that the causes of death in Tables 2 and 3 can mask much wider community health problems.

A particularly vague cause of death which features prominently throughout these years is described as atrophy, debility, marasmus. In 1908 Dr J. M. Clements, the then holder of the Batley Medical Officer post, said all the terms were more or less meaningless, failed to indicate a cause of death and should be avoided in death certification. Wasting was attributable to many things, including ante-natal issues and improper feeding. Until a more precise death cause was identified prevention would be difficult.

However by 1914 Dr Pearce, Batley’s Medical Officer since 1910, pinned it down to one particular cause above others – syphilis. In his 1914 Medical Officer Report he quoted from the Report for 1913-14 of the Medical Officer of the Local Government Board. In this the impact of syphilis was discussed, and the conclusion reached was direct deaths from it represented only a fraction of its effects.

It is a common cause of still births and premature birth; a considerable proportion of the deaths from marasmus and atrophy, as well as a large amount of disease in childhood and during school life, owe their origin to it.

Building on the Local Government Board report Dr Pearce stated in 1914 Batley 50 children had been born dead, 21 further deaths were a result of premature birth and an additional 13 had a cause of atrophy and marasmus:

It will be seen therefore that syphilis – a venereal disease – was more or less responsible (apart from dead born children) for thirty-four out of 122 deaths amongst infants or approximately more than 25 per cent.

Premature birth was a constant infant mortality theme. Besides the link to syphilis, the reports tried to make a connection with pregnant women working as rag sorters or weavers in the mills. In 1909 for example 18 instances of infant mortality occurred where mothers were in these occupations, and six of the deaths were attributed to premature birth with the mothers working in the mill until shortly before confinement. The tea, fried fish and chipped potato diet of pregnant mill-working mothers who had no time to cook were also blamed for childhood defects such as rickets. The solution put forward (but not adopted) was to prevent women working in the mill for a few months preceding childbirth.

One final cause identified in Tables 2 and 3 which may need explanation is overlaying. Basically suffocation of the infant from sharing a bed with an older person (usually the mother);

However in most of years the overwhelming proportion of deaths were attributed to diarrhoea, enteritis and gastritis. These diarrhoeal diseases were linked to seasonal weather, insanitary conditions and improper feeding. In his 1908 Medical Officer Report, Dr Clements looked at the 43 infant deaths attributed to this cause in this year. Only one infant was wholly breastfed. Of the others, 30 were wholly fed with cows milk, seven a mix of breast and cow’s milk, and five wholly on artificial foods. Dr Clements concluded:

…the only safe way of feeding the baby is by the mother’s breast. The mother’s milk is never once exposed to the air or to contamination, but passes direct from the site of manufacture in the gland to the baby’s stomach.

This also led to a link being made to this mortality cause and working mothers. It was said mothers quickly switched from breast feeding to partial of fully weaning infants in order to return to work as soon as possible. In his 1910 report Dr Pearce wrote:

Medical Officers of Health throughout the country would welcome a bill prohibiting women from working in the mills, or other places where female labour is employed, for several months previous to the birth of their infant, and for the whole period during which they are suckling the child. I would in fact go further and make it illegal for any mother to go out to work at all unless it could be shewn [sic] to be a case of dire necessity. A mother’s proper place is at home with her children.

Besides the danger of the infant ingesting contaminated food resulting in diarrhoea, the childcare itself left much to be desired. Mothers paid between 4s and 5s per week for their infants to be nursed whilst they worked. The surroundings were often deemed dirty and unsuitable, and it was not uncommon for this childcare to be provided by women with advanced TB.

The issue was illustrated in the March 1913 inquest into the death of a nine-week old baby girl, from the Batley Catholic community – the community associated with my family. It led the Coroner, Mr Maitland, to make some pointed comments about mothers leaving their children with neighbours and going out to work. In this case the mother returned to work when her baby was around six weeks old, leaving her and two older children with their grandmother, who told Nurse Musto she had brought up a family of the grandest lads in Batley, and knew quite well how to bring up children without her [Nurse Musto] interfering. 5s per week was paid for the baby’s care, out of which milk had to be provided, she being fed on a milk and water diet. The Coroner, on learning the father (a Collier) brought home 24s weekly asked why the mother felt the need to work. She responded “I would rather go to work than stop at home.” A verdict of “Death from pneumonia and also from want of proper attention and nursing” was reached with the Coroner observing:

…that there were many mothers who preferred to go out to work rather than bother with their children. It was simply selfishness

This, and other cases, led to the suggestion in the 1914 Medical Officer Report of the need for provision of crèche facilities staffed by skilled carers.

Other general findings noted by the series of Medical Officers included the fact first-born babies were more at risk, with the 1909 report identifying 32 of the 86 infant deaths that year being in this category. The same report also investigated the family histories of the 86 dead infants and, other than the first-born issue, noted a clear trend for the families affected to have a previous high rate of infant and child deaths. Ten family profiles were given including one mother of five children, all dead; Another mother of 13 had only three surviving children and of the 10 dead, eight had not survived their first year; similarly a mother of 10 had only three still living, with five of the seven deceased dying under one year of age. Based on this data the conclusion reached by Dr Clements was:

…it would appear that to a large extent the determining factor is the mother herself. Some women are “born mothers”; nature has endowed them with a knowledge of the care and attention needed by the baby; others are not gifted in this respect and they have not received any education to make up for the deficient.

1909 was a particularly interesting year. It can be seen from Table 1 that this year saw a dramatic decrease in Batley’s infant mortality rate. Its rate of 117 was actually lower than that of the Great Towns, which stood at 118. The drop was partly attributed to the cool, wet summer which reduced the severity of the seasonal diarrhoea outbreak – but this weather was not peculiar to Batley, and the number of deaths from diarrhoea in other similar weather years was far higher. The Medical Officer therefore believed 1909 was exceptional largely due to the preventative measures adopted in the preceding two years to combat the causes of infant mortality. There were two main factors behind these measures.

In 1906 a voluntary society was formed, the Batley Public Health and District Nursing Service. It took up the case of infant mortality, much of which was seen as preventable. Through voluntary subscriptions it appointed a Health Visitor, Miss Terry, to tackle the issue. So effective was the role, in July 1909 Batley Corporation agreed to fund this post and the Health Visitor became an official of the Council Health Department.

The other game-changer facilitating the work of the health visitor came in February 1908 when the Council formally implemented the Notification of Births Act. It meant that practically all births reached the notice of them within 36-48 hours, via either doctors, midwives or parents, enabling the Health Visitor to visit women quickly after birth.

By the time of the 1907 Report Dr J. A. Erskine Stuart, the town’s Medical Officer at this point, stated that although early it was days in the work of the Lady Health Visitor, he could vouch for one important fact: as a result of her labours the number of breastfeeding mothers had increased.

The duties of the fledgling Batley Health Visitor service included the schedule of first visits to mothers on receipt of a notification of birth. In these visits the Health Visitor gave advice about feeding, clothing and general baby care. By 1910 a printed pamphlet was left with mothers following this first visit. It contained a wealth of information about the nutrition and care of infants, including precise feeding and weaning instructions, washing guidance, advice on clothing and sleeping arrangements (every infant should sleep in a cot by itself) and information about eye care. It also advised against the use of dummies which it said caused mouth deformities. These comforters also increased the risk of sickness and diarrhoea as when dropped they were shoved back into the mouth, contaminated by dirt. One Batley Medical Officer believed dummies should be made illegal! If she deemed it necessary the Health Visitor would conduct follow-up visits.

Other duties included work around visiting mothers of stillborn children. Under the Notification of Births Act 1907 the Medical Officer was informed of the birth of any child “which has issued forth from its mother after the expiration of the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, whether alive or dead.” To identify those born prior to this stage, from 1910 the Batley Health Department obtained a weekly return of stillborn children buried in from Batley Cemetery from the Registrar of the Cemetery. There was also work around unnotified births, as some were still ignorant of the requirement. She also worked on epidemic diarrhoea and made visits to those Batley residents suffering from TB. Another duty included health talks with mothers at meetings held by organisations such as Mothers’ Unions or Women’s Cooperative Guilds. Additionally one afternoon weekly was set aside for the Health Visitor to see mothers and infants in her Town Hall office. One particularly interesting initiative was around the establishment of funded cookery classes for poor mothers to teach them how to prepare nutritious, cheap family meals.

By 1910 such was the value of the Health Visitor’s role that she provided a summary of her work for inclusion in the overall Medical Officer annual report.

Obstacles noted by various Batley Health Visitors in this period included the tendency for mothers to take more note of family and neighbours rather than the health professional. Workload was also a huge issue, and was cited as one of the reasons for Miss Terry (Batley’s first Health Visitor) resigning her post in 1910. She also felt incapable of going through another Diarrhoea Season. She was replaced by Margaret Evelyn Harris, who in turn was succeeded by Alice Musto in January 1912. Miss Musto left in October 1914 to become a Staff Nurse with the Territorial Force Nursing Service and in December 1914 temporary replacement Florence Ray commenced work.

One further obstacle to the Health Visitor and the state of infant health and mortality was said to be the incompetence of midwives. This is a recurrent theme in the Medical Officer reports. For example those of  1910 and 1911 indicated none of the 13 registered midwives in Batley were qualified by virtue of Maternity Hospital Training and having passed examinations of the Central Board.

Despite the Health Visitor highlighting regularly cases of midwife ignorance, she had no power to intervene. The majority of midwives could not read, write or use a clinical thermometer or take temperatures. They treated premature babies no differently than full term ones, causing death. Barbaric practices were undertaken by some midwives including squeezing the child’s head into shape after birth. Another cruel procedure carried out by some midwives was squeezing the baby’s nipples, which frequently resulted in the formation of abscesses. The tradition of squeezing the mammary secretions of newborn infants was partly rooted in folklore and superstition around witch’s milk, with midwives and grandmothers believing that if this milk was not expressed from the mammary glands of newborns it would be stolen by witches.

In her contributions to the 1914 report, by which time two of Batley’s midwives did have qualifications, the newly appointed Florence Ray did not hold back in new views about Batley’s cadre of midwives, stating:

Several of the practising midwives are most unsuitable both on account of their ignorance and dirty habits.

One was castigated for:

…urging the mother to adopt the disgusting practice of frequently spitting into her infant’s eyes.

The Health Visitor was playing an increasingly important role in infant and child health in the community by highlighting deficiencies, suggesting solutions and providing help and assistance to mothers. The value of the activities of the Batley Health Visitor spread beyond the town. One example was in the Bradford Daily Telegraph of 31 January 1908:

Babies “At Home” at Batley
The crusade against infantile mortality is being vigorously pursued in Batley. A lady health visitor has been appointed, and yesterday she gave an “at home” to 220 babies and their mothers. The children were all under six months old, but appeared remarkably healthy. The guests were received by the Mayor and Mayoress…The health visitor proposes to hold “at homes” periodically in cottage houses.

This event was continued, with the 1910 report by the Batley Medical Officer including details of another successful tea attended by the Mayor and Mayoress along with 500 mothers of babies in June that year. The Yorkshire Post of 8 June 1910 reported the event, and the overall impact of the Health Visitor on infant mortality in the town:

Bright Babies at Batley
Nearly five hundred of Batley’s brightest babies beamed on the Mayor and Mayoress yesterday at an “at home,” held at the Town Hall. The function, which is an annual affair, is a striking tribute to the work done by Nurse Terry, the Health Visitor, and the Batley and District Public Health Service. It is a remarkable fact that in the first year of Nurse Terry’s service with the Committee, which is a voluntary institution, there was an infant mortality of 180 per thousand births, and in the following year this number had decreased to 162 per thousand. Last year, however, when the Health Visitor was engaged by the Corporation, and was thus a Public Officer as well as interested in the private institution, the death rate was still further reduced to 117 per thousand, which is the lowest ever reached in the sanitary history of the borough.

I wonder if my paternal grandparents or their siblings attended these events? And I also wonder if my maternal great grandmother was one of the midwives who received so much criticism.

The role of Health Visitor was just one of the initiatives focused on improving infant mortality rates in the town. And there were blips in these rates even after the appointment. But things were finally moving in the right direction.

In conclusion, I found it surprising so many of the themes discussed in early 20th century Batley are echoed in topics currently debated: from vaccinations to Breast is Best campaigning; from post and ante natal care to maternity and childcare provision; from providing cheap nutritious family meals to the pressures facing working mums. Above all the series of reports provided a new insight into the lives of my ancestors and the times and community in which they lived.

 

Footnote:

  • Table 1 Note: In 1926 the number of deaths of under ones was reported as 44 in the main statistical notes of the annual Batley Medical Officer report. Elsewhere in that report it is given as 43 which equates to the mortality rate of 68.8 given in the report. I have revised the figure to equate to 44 deaths, giving a rate of 70.40

Sources:

  • Various Batley Medical Officer Reports 1892-1971
  • Bradford Daily Telegraph – 31 January 1908
  • The Yorkshire Post – 8 June 1910
  • The Leeds Mercury – 14 March 1913
  • Yorkshire Evening Post – 14 March 1913

I’d also like to thank Janet Few whose recent Pharos Tutors course about Discovering you British Family and Local Community in the early 20th Century prompted me to start looking in more depth at various local history statistics and using graphs and charts to illustrate findings.

The Confessions of a Blogger: Review of 2018

I’ll start with an admission: My 2018 blogging year was not as prolific as usual. In fact it was nowhere near the efforts of previous years. But I’m far from downhearted. In fact I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and I hope you have too.

Here are the details.

The Statistics. My blog saw a noticeable decline in output, with 25 posts during the year, down from 33 in 2017 and in excess of 60 in 2016. This was entirely due to other commitments such as completing my genealogy studies and publishing a book. Neither was it unexpected – I did forecast this in my 2017 blogging review post. And it is pretty much in line with what I promised: two posts a month.

However onto the positives. Despite the downturn in posts, my blog has grown from strength to strength numerically. Views increased from 20,649 in 2017 to well in excess of 21,000 in 2018. Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read my random family and local history outpourings.

My blog has now well and truly developed its character with core themes of my family history, interspersed with local history tales from Yorkshire, alongside news from – and my musings on – the genealogy world’s latest developments.

Most Popular Times? Monday proved my most popular blogging day, with 21% of views. And my golden hour shifted to the slightly earlier time of 6 pm. I suspect this shift is as much a result my blog posting times as anything more profound.

How Did They Find You? Search Engines took over as the key engagement route accounting for around 7,000 views.

Where Did They Come From? The global reach of WordPress never fails to amaze me. Going on for 100 countries are represented in my list of views. The UK accounted for well over 10,000 of these which was almost double the number of my next most popular country, the United States. Australia came third with over 1,000. But all corners of the globe feature with readers extending to Cambodia, Tonga, Peru and Tunisia. A huge thank you to you all! You’re what makes it worthwhile researching and writing these posts.

And it’s fantastic to receive so many comments either indirectly via Facebook and Twitter, or directly on my blog site. They’ve added new information, context and connections. Thank you for getting in touch.

Top Five Posts of 2018: Other than general home pages, archives and my ‘about’ page, these were:

General Register Office (GRO) Index – New & Free. This was actually posted in 2016 but, as in 2017, it continued to perform well in 2018 . This post was about a new free source for searching the GRO birth and death indexes (note not marriages) for certain years, one which gives additional search options. It also covered the initial £6 PDF trial, an alternative and cheaper source than buying a birth or death certificate. Note the PDF option, a copy of the register entry rather than a certificate, still continues. However the cost will rise to £7 on 16 February 2019. The cost of a certificate increases from £9.25 to £11.

Living DNA: I’m Not Who I Thought I Was. This was another 2017 post which continued to prove popular. It is testimony to the importance with which genetic genealogy is now seen. lt dealt with my shocking DNA results. I’m 100% from Great Britain and Ireland. No drama there. But it indicated that I’m not entirely the Yorkshire lass I thought – the ethnicity pointed to some genetic material from the dark side of the Pennines. I reckon this could be linked to a potential 5x great grandmother from Colne. I really do need to push on with my Abraham Marshall New Year’s Resolution.

Cold Case: The Huddersfield Tub Murder. Yet another 2017 offering, and in last year’s “one that got away” category as being one of my favourite posts which failed to reach the Top 5 that year. Well it proved immensely popular in 2018. It dealt with the unsolved murder in Huddersfield of a Dewsbury woman of ‘ill-repute’ whose tragic life and abusive relationships ultimately resulted in her death.

“Historical Vandalism” as more Archive Services Come Under Threat. Published in December 2018 its appearance in the Top 5 for the year shows the importance with which any threat to these vital services are seen. It covered some recent swingeing funding cuts to archives and corresponding proposed (and actual) major reductions to these services across the country. Some of the consultations, Surrey (4 January 2019) and Kent (29 January 2019), close imminently. So I would urge you to have your say.

Tripe Tales – Food Nostalgia. My childhood memories of food led me to focus on this particular northern ‘delicacy’, which was very popular when I was growing up. It covered some early 20th century local tripe stories including theft, death and prodigious eating feats, as well as recipes to try. I was also inundated via social media with suggestions of where I could still buy it. I’ve yet to confront once more this culinary challenge.

So yet again this was a mixed bag of popular posts, ranging from topical family history issues, to DNA and general history and local history tales – which sums up my blog perfectly.

The Ones that Got Away: These are a few of my favourite posts which didn’t make the top five:

Fur Coats Can Prevent Flu – The 1918/19 Pandemic looked at how to use various information sources to build up a picture of the impact of the Spanish Flu “plague” on local communities. In my example I focused on Batley.

How the Western Front Association WW1 Pension Ledgers May Have Solved another Family History Mystery. I used this newly available online record source to prove a family tale and discover more about my great uncle.

Irish DNA Breakthrough and Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue covered how DNA led to the demolition of one of my family history brick walls and helped me find out more about two of my Irish grandpa’s sisters who emigrated to the United States.

A Family Historian on Holiday: A Whitby Cemetery and WW1 Shipwreck was about the sinking of the Hospital Ship Rohilla off the Whitby coast in 1914. With links to the Titanic, heroic rescue attempts and a disputed will it illustrates how a family and local historian is never off duty, even on holiday!

Finally there was Published: The Greatest Sacrifice – Fallen Heroes of The Northern Union. This marked my greatest achievement of 2018 and the culmination of around two years’ work, the publication of my book co-authored with husband Chris. It has been described as the definitive book about those Rugby League players who fell in the Great War.

What Does 2019 Promise? Well, as in 2018, I aim to do two posts a month. These will be on the same type of themes as usual – family and local history tales, plus topical genealogy offerings when anything big hits the headlines. I will also be including some Aveyard One-Name Study stories.

I anticipate my major challenge this coming year, as ever, will be time. I also have the added concern of keeping things fresh and relevant. I now have two other writing roles to add to my blog. At the end of 2018 I took on the role of editor as the Huddersfield and District Family History Society quarterly Journal, the first edition of which came out in January. And I now write a regular family history column in Yorkshire nostalgia magazine “Down Your Way.” So clearly I want to ensure my blog posts are separate and distinct from my other writing commitments. However, my head is buzzing with ideas so I don’t think that will be too much of a creative dilemma.

But whatever direction my blogging year takes, thank you for reading, engaging and supporting.

Wishing you a happy, peaceful 2019 filled with family history fun!