Perhaps taphophilia and family history go hand in hand? I can spend ages wandering through a cemetery marvelling at the various headstone designs and reading the inscriptions. The architecture and symbolic imagery of some headstones is simply stunning. They contain so many stories, so much history and they silently speak volumes about attitudes towards death, culture, beliefs, religion, mourning and mortality over the ages.
Importantly, for family historians, they can contain clues about family sizes, family relationships, occupations, interests and causes of death. For example, Lottie Oddy’s headstone (above) in Batley Cemetery, details her unusual death cause – a tale I wrote about in an earlier blog. And only the other day in Masham I discovered several occupational graves, including that of Ralph Edon (below).
They may record deaths of family members buried elsewhere. For example, several headstones in Batley cemetery record deaths of Great War servicemen buried overseas, or with no known grave. On a personal level for my research, a Hallas headstone at Roberttown All Saints includes the name of a child buried at Mirfield St Mary’s.
Some clues may be very subtle. One headstone in Batley cemetery recorded death dates for all family members bar one. Further investigation revealed his body had been dumped on a doorstep, and the exact date of death was unknown.
And don’t forget to note wider details. The headstone, or burial location within the cemetery, could be an indication of the family’s wealth or standing in the community.
I’ve visited so many cemeteries over the years, hunting down the headstones of ancestors and those I’m researching. Here are five tips to get the most out of family history tombstone tourism.
Plan your visit. Make a note of names, dates and plot numbers. Check cemetery opening times – not all are open 24/7. There may be a useful cemetery website, a church or local authority contact point.
See if there’s a map of the cemetery showing plot sections and plot numbers. Are there separate sections for different religious denominations e.g. a consecrated section for Church of England burials, and an unconsecrated area for other denominations? Even within the unconsecrated sections, there may be a clear division between Catholic and nonconformist areas.
Some local authorities may, for a fee, be able to say who is buried in a particular plot and if there is a headstone. Many cemeteries have ‘Friends Of’ groups, or there may be a family history society who has made a note of Memorial Inscriptions. They too may have information databases.
Cemetery registers may be available. If possible, try to note details of other plots in the particular section you are seeking. Your plot of interest may not have a headstone, and grave markers can be obscured. But you may be able to pinpoint your ancestor’s unmarked burial place from the neighbouring headstones.
Another tip is to check sites such as Find A Grave or BillionGraves and download the Apps. Their images and GPS may help in pinpointing a specific grave.
When you get to the cemetery don’t rush in. Take a general look to get an overview, establish bearings and see if the cemetery has identifiable sections depending on burial time period.
Dress sensibly and come prepared. Cemeteries can be vast, and a visit can involve lots of walking. The ground is often uneven, and not all burial grounds are immaculately kept. They can be overgrown with long grass, thorns and tendrils whipping around your knee and ankles, all hiding lots of biting insects. In wet weather the long grass may soak through points of contact. So stout, comfortable walking shoes are the order of the day. No heels, canvas shoes or open toed-sandals. Long trousers too. If it’s hot weather slap on the sunscreen and fetch your water. Pack waterproofs in case of a sudden downpour. And take something to kneel on – your waterproofs (if you’re not using them!) Even something as simple as a plastic bag comes in handy here. Without an improvised kneeler, damp, muddy trouser knees can be an uncomfortable occupational hazard of headstone photography – I speak from experience!
Take a pencil and notebook to record findings (including negative) and to write out problematical inscriptions, indicating where the gaps or issues are. It’s like a transcription exercise! In fact it may be prudent to copy in full all important inscriptions in your notebook, in case there is a problem with photographs which goes unnoticed until your return home.
And, sad to say, do take sensible safety precautions. Cemeteries can be lonely places. So explore in daylight, accompanied if possible, and not carrying lots of expensive kit.
Photograph. I take multiple snaps on both my camera and phone camera. If there’s a sign indicating cemetery name, that’s the first image. It signposts where the subsequent headstone images were taken.
Next, I take images of the full headstone from various angles, followed by close-ups of the inscription. These close-ups can run into several images depending on the headstone size, and the number and length of inscriptions. I include images from both back, front and, if appropriate the sides of the headstone. And don’t ignore the base of the headstone, peaking out at ground level. All these areas may contain inscriptions or additional details. One good example of this was the headstone of the Hallas Family at Kirkburton All Hallows. The front of the grave includes details of my 5x great grandparents Amos and Ann Hallas. Low down it indicates the grave owner is George Hallas, my 4x great grandfather. The reverse of the headstone has a gem of an inscription about the bizarre and unexpected way their daughter Esther met her death in July 1817, which I wrote about in my first ever blog post.
Finally, I take wider shots to include neighbouring headstones. These too may have a connection, as family headstones may be grouped together.
Once back home I can play about with image settings and use various photo editor apps and programmes. Manipulating the images may help overcome inscription legibility issues.
Don’t be tempted to clean the headstone unless you know exactly what you’re doing, and you have permission. It can be frustrating if an inscription is obscured by algae or lichen, or if weathering has faded lettering. But irreparable damage can be done to the headstone by trying to clean it using inappropriate methods and products, or using remedies such as flour or shaving foam to make the engraving legible. And do remember some plants are actually protected by law. I personally stick to nothing more than a light dousing with water to see if that removes headstone dirt or improves legibility. For me, going beyond that is simply not worth the risk.
Record findings and check information. Do this as soon as possible after your trip, and include the visit date. Graveyards and headstones change over the years. It’s easy to put this mundane chore off, so it becomes caught up in a huge work backlog. Then you forget what you’ve done and where you’ve saved the information. It may even get damaged, erased or permanently lost. All of which could create more work in the long run – through trying to find your original photographs and notes, or even duplicating the work through unnecessary repeat visits.
Also, do not automatically accept any inscription as gospel. Headstones are not official records, and even official records are not immune from errors! Headstones may post-date an individual’s death by some years, and details may be mis-remembered. As a result, ages, dates and information may be incorrect. I’ve seen countless examples of this. As with any other source, headstone inscriptions should be not used in isolation. Their accuracy should be weighed up against other sources.
Hopefully these tips will help you plan your next family history cemetery expedition.
Footnote: Another trick is using a reflective surface, or torch, to light inscriptions from different angles, which can help deciphering them. With thanks to Sue Adams of Family Folk
It has also been suggested don’t take your children with you. After the initial spurt of enthusiasm they can easily get bored!
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  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 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 .
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 , 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” . 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.
Huddersfield Chronicle paints a vivid
picture of High Street, where the body was found, describing it as a narrow
….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….
You can almost picture the narrow dirt road that night, no more than seven yards  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.
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  with his body immersed in water for several days after .
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.
coal proprietor of Grosvenor Terrace, confirmed the body downstairs was that of
his brother. From his evidence it transpired his brother lived a somewhat
Born on 4 August 1837 and baptised on 25 August that year at Dewsbury All Saints , 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 . James, born in Warley near Halifax, was described as a card maker , 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 . In 1851 whilst John was at boarding school in Pontefract  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 . 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 . In 1871  and 1881  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 . 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 .
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 . 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.
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.
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…” . 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 .
So, whilst maybe
not murder, they believed his lifestyle and the company he kept materially
contributed to his demise.
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.” 
This second phase of the inquest, on 2 June 1881, saw a parade of witnesses . 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.
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
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 . 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 . 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.
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 . 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” . 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.
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
Notes:  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.  Bowler hat.  The York Herald, 1 June 1881.  The York Herald, 1 June 1881.  The Huddersfield Chronicle, 4 June 1881  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.  The Manchester Evening News, 31 May 1881.  The Manchester Evening News, 1 June 1881.  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.  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.  Manufacturing the combs and implements for combing (carding) wool. 1841 Census, Reference HO107/1268/45/19, accessed via Findmypast. 1851 Census, Reference HO107/2330/108/3, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk.  1851 Census, Reference HO107/2324/325/28, accessed via Findmypast. 1861 Census, Reference RG09/3399/96/36, accessed via Findmypast.  1871 Census, Reference RG10/4583/22/37.  1881 Census, Reference RG11/4546/152/24.  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.  The Dewsbury Reporter, 4 June 1881.  2 June 1881 JohnCritchley 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.  The Manchester Evening News, 31 May 1881.  The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 1 June 1881.  The Dewsbury Reporter, 4 June 1881.  2 June 1881 JohnCritchley 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  Huddersfield Chronicle, 4 June 1881.  9 June 1881 JohnCritchley 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.  1891 Census, Reference RG12/3735/57/7, accessed via Findmypast.  1891 Census, Reference RG12/3721/30/28, accessed via Findmypast.
What does a family historian with an obsession with the Great War and local history do on holiday? Take a break isn’t the answer, as my recent Whitby visit illustrates.
I’ve no Whitby ancestry to hunt, so I didn’t intend doing anything history-related other than a few evenings working on my neglected One-Name Study. But a walk to Saltwick Bay put a halt to that. A scramble down the steep and unforgiving cliff path to the isolated beach and I was hooked. Apparently there is the wreck of a trawler, the Admiral Von Tromp. However the tide was too high for it to be visible, so I decided to revisit at low tide.
Before returning I decided to pinpoint the wreck location. In doing so I discovered it wasn’t the only shipwreck on that stretch of coastline: at around 4.10am on 30 October 1914 the Hospital Ship Rohilla ran aground on an area of rocks by Saltwick Nab with 229 people on board. That was it. I had to find out more.
The Scar and Saltwick Nab – photo by Jane Roberts
The SS Rohilla, launched in 1906, was owned by the British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. Initially a passenger liner operating to India, by 1908 she was working as a troopship. Throughout, she was captained by David Landles Neilson, and he continued in post when, in August 1914, she was requisitioned by the government and converted to a hospital ship. Later that month she was on her way to the Scapa Flow to complete training in her new role. One of HMHS Rohilla’s first patients was Prince Albert, who developed appendicitis whilst on board the HMS Collingwood. At the end of the month the future King George VI was safely transported, along with around 43 other ill servicemen, to Aberdeen where he successfully underwent an appendectomy the following month.
Training complete, on Thursday 29 October 1914 the Rohilla left Leith on the Firth of Forth in late afternoon good weather tasked with her first France and Flanders hospital run, to pick up wounded soldiers from Dunkirk. Captain Neilson had to contend with an unfamiliar route and the threat of mines, using dead reckoning techniques because of the wartime restrictions around usual navigational aids: so no lighthouses, buoy lights and sounds, shore lights etc. As they reached St Abb’s Head, north of Berwick upon Tweed, the weather began to deteriorate. They passed the hazardous Farne Islands Longstones at a distance of seven miles according to the dead reckoning calculations. The ship’s course was altered at just after 10pm to clear minefields, and again at 1.50am. Depth soundings were taken at midnight showing the Rohilla was still on course. The next set were not taken until 4am, by which time the impending catastrophe was unfolding before the eyes of Albert James Jeffries in the Whitby Coastguard Station.
Coastline from Whitby to Saltwick Nab OS six inch to the mile, 1910-1911, Published 1919 – Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
It was filthy weather with squally rain, the wind ranging between near gale to strong gale and a heavy sea when, at around 3-40am on Friday 30 October Jeffries saw the Rohilla. He realised she was heading for the rocks near Saltwick Nab, with no alert from the buoy bell muffled due to war, and no lights to warn her. He tried to contact her via the Morse Lamp and sounded the foghorn, but received no reply.
Back on board the Rohilla, the Morse had been seen but not decoded, the assumption being made that it was from another ship as those on board still thought they were way out at sea. The 4am sounding revealed the ship was far nearer shore than thought, but before anything could be fully reported to Captain Neilson and acted upon, there was an almighty shock as the ship struck something. Officers afterwards reported a lifting sensation, and Captain Neilson’s automatic response was “Mine, by God”. He immediately ordered the vessel to be driven full speed towards shore in a bid to get closer to land and rescuers. She ran aground on the Scar rocks by Saltwick Nab at around 4.10am. She was stuck only 500 or so yards away from the shore.Despite the Rohilla’s proximity to land, the severe weather conspired against the would-be rescuers, whose heroic attempts to save those stranded on board spanned three days and over 50 hours. Some of these efforts were captured on film. The dramatic British Pathé footage can be viewed here. The aftermath is shown in British Film Institute footage here.
Only one of the Rohilla’s lifeboats was launchable but, due to conditions, it proved impossible for her to bring a line ashore. Neither could the shore-based rocket brigades establish a viable line to the ship, thus ending any hope of setting up a breeches buoy by which to bring those aboard to safety one-by-one.
Rescue by Breeches Buoy, Popular Science Monthly Volume 15, 1879 – Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
So what about shore-based lifeboats? This was still an era predominated by the rowing-boat lifeboat. Petrol-powered motor vessels only just started to make an appearance from 1905. Six lifeboats tried valiantly to battle the elements in what Coxswain Langlands of the Whitby Lifeboat described as the hardest job he’d experienced in almost 40 years’ service. It was impossible to launch the heavier Number 1 Whitby Lifeboat, the Robert and Mary Ellis, due to the severity of the weather. That left the lighter Number 2 boat, the John Fielden. Again the weather meant it could not be rowed out of the harbour, so an alternative plan was successfully undertaken to lift and lower the craft over the breakwater, carry her under the East Pier Spa ladder and then drag her across the Scar, the rocks which run from Whitby to Saltwick Nab.
John Fielden rescue attempt on 30 October 1914
She was badly damaged in the process, but still managed two trips to the Rohilla rescuing 35 people before it was decided conditions were no longer safe and she was abandoned on shore to be smashed to pieces by the ferocious storm, no longer seaworthy.
Whitby Lifeboat Museum Rohilla Exhibition – by Jane Roberts
Amongst the first batch of those rescued were the five women aboard the ship: four nurses and the stewardess. The Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Services (QARRNS) nurses were 38-year-old Margaret Muriel Benington who had been a QARNNS nursing sister since June 1910; Mary Barbara Bennet, from Glass in Aberdeenshire, age 36, who joined as nursing sister in November 1910; Margaret Brand Paterson, age 34 whose seniority date as a nursing sister was 1 August 1911. She was known as Daisy and from Terrona, Langholm in Dumfriesshire; and Devon-born vicar’s daughter Mary Louisa Hocking, age 26, who joined as a probationary nursing sister in December 1913, who was only promoted to nursing sister in June 1914. The older three joined the Rohilla on 18 August 1914, whereas Mary Louisa only joined the ship on 23 October. Letters from two of the nurses appeared in the Whitby Gazette on 13 November 1914, and give a flavour of the help they received. These are as follows:
Muriel Benington: Dear Sir, Please allow me to thank through you, all the people of Whitby who did so much for me and the other survivors of the wreck of the Rohilla. I simply cannot express my gratitude for the kindness which was shown to us from beginning to end by everyone with whom we came in contact. I shall write to thank specially some of the ladies who supplied us with clothes and other things, but I do not know the names of the men who helped me along the shore, or of many who did things for me. Again thanking you for the help and sympathy of your townspeople.
Mary B Bennet: Dear Sir, I shall be so glad if you will express my thanks and gratitude to the crew of the Whitby lifeboat. We sisters realise that they endangered their own lives to save ours, and we cannot be thankful enough to them for the excellent work they did. May I also thank you for the trouble you took over us? It was marvellous the prompt way in which we were fitted out with clothes. I shall never forget he kindness of the Whitby people during our short time there.
After their ordeal the nurses were granted 14 days leave, with Mary Hocking given an extension of seven days. The admirable conduct of all four was acknowledged. Sister Bennet received the Royal Red Cross, the decoration awarded to ladies for exceptional services in nursing the sick and wounded in the army and navy. She received her award from the King at Buckingham Palace in May 1915. That was not the only award she received in her nursing career. In 1920 she was presented with the O.B.E. by the Governor of Hong Kong.
Sister Mary Barbara Bennet
Of the others, Sister Paterson was granted the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class in 1918 (by this stage the decoration could be either 1st or 2nd class) in part for her Rohilla efforts; and Sister Hocking was awarded the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class in 1919.
The fifth woman was stewardess Mary Kezia Roberts. This was not her first shipwreck. In April 1912 she was one of those saved from the Titanic. She described her Rohilla experience as even more trying than when the great liner went down. Her trunk, which would have contained her belongings on the Rohilla, was discovered recently on eBay and is now on display at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) museum at Whitby. The museum is housed in Whitby’s former Number 2 lifeboat station.
Mary Kezia Roberts’ Trunk at Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts
In addition to the Whitby lifeboats, ones from other North East coast stations were asked to assist. In an echo of the John Fielden efforts, the Upgang lifeboat, the William Riley, over a mile away from Whitby, was brought overland and lowered more than 200 feet down the sheer cliffs on Friday afternoon. However, the ferocity of the weather prevented any launch until Saturday. Even then the weather was such that the rescue was aborted. The Scarborough lifeboat, towed by trawler to the vicinity, was similarly unable to get anywhere near. A trawler also assisted the Robert and Mary Ellis out of Whitby Harbour and to the wreck, but she too was unable to get close enough to affect a rescue. These were all rowing lifeboats.
Help from a couple of motor lifeboats further north was also sought. The Tees-mouth lifeboat, the Bradford, was prepared to set off on Friday, but the weather prevented her launch. She finally set off at around 7am on Saturday morning but broke down in the severe weather off the coast at Redcar shortly after departing her South Gare base. She had to be towed back to port by a fortuitously accompanying tug. That left the Tynemouth motor lifeboat, the Henry Vernon. She put to sea during the late afternoon of Saturday 31 October, arriving in Whitby around nine hours later. With a mind to safety, her rescue attempt was scheduled for daylight.
Throughout these various rescue attempts townsfolk were helping from shore, going into the freezing, swirling sea to assist the lifeboat crews and any survivors fortunate to be saved by them, or those souls attempting to swim from the stricken vessel. That Friday morning they had witnessed the horrific site of the stern breaking away from the Rohilla and disappearing under the waves, men still visible on it – some even strapped to the structure. This was followed by the bows being similarly swallowed by the merciless sea, leaving just the bridge section above water. By now bodies were washing ashore.
Hospital Ship Rohilla grounded at Whitby, Popular Mechanics Magazine January 1915 – Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
As time wore on conditions were becoming desperate for those left on what remained of the Rohilla, exposed to the elements with no food or water, and no immediate prospect of rescue. On Saturday morning, as the tide ebbed, Captain Neilson semaphored to prepare for swimmers. Men jumped – some made it, others were swept away and dashed on rocks. Makeshift rafts were also fashioned and men lashed themselves to them. By the evening of 1 November, 50 men remained on-board awaiting their fate. With the impending arrival of the Henry Vernon the signal went to them to hold fast, help was at hand.
At around 6.30am on Sunday 1 November the Henry Vernon, captained by 50-year-old Royal Engineer Herbert Edgar ‘Bert’ Burton, left Whitby harbour. As she approached the wreck she discharged oil on the swirling waves. It had the desired effect, temporarily calming the waters enabling the rescue of all 50 men in one journey. The last man off the Rohilla was its Captain, carrying the ship’s black cat, an action for which he was later awarded the Bronze Medal by the RSPCA. They returned to the haven of Whitby, wet, battered, bleeding, exhausted, bare-footed, ill-clad, some still in pyjamas given the timing of the wreck, but safe at last. In all they had endured over 50 hours of hell. The crew of the Henry Vernon returned home to a heroes’ welcome.
The inquest on the initial bodies of the victims concluded on 5 November 1914. As published in the Whitby Gazette the following day, the unanimous verdict of the jury was that:
“…..the steamship Rohilla undoubtedly struck something a little time before she grounded on the rock at Saltwick, and they think that in the stormy weather which prevailed, and in the absence of lights and all usual safeguards, and in view of the special risks of navigation in the North Sea since the war, the master navigated the ship with all reasonable care, and is entirely free from blame for her loss.”
Given the comparative ease with which the Henry Vernon completed the rescue, the inquest jury also recommended strongly that a motor-lifeboat be provided for Whitby. The Margaret Harker Smith was launched in June 1919.
The logical next step for me was to visit Whitby (Larpool) cemetery. What holiday for a family historian doesn’t include a sneaky cemetery visit? The ‘Rohilla Plot’ is a trench grave in which 33 victims, 19 of whom are unidentified, are buried.
One side of the ‘Rohilla Plot’ at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts
At the centre of the trench is the Memorial. Erected by the ship owners, it is dedicated to the 91 officers and men who lost their lives in the tragedy.
Rohilla Monument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts
RohillaMonument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts
RohillaMonument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts
Rohila Monument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts
There is actually some confusion around the total number lost on the wreck. It seems to range between 83 to 92. The Rohilla Monument lists 91 but the actual number of names on it total 92. The final name etched in the Monument image above is that of F. Randell. Frederick Randell (or Randall) was a coastguard boatman based at H.M. Coastguard Station, Whitby who was killed whilst on duty during the German Naval bombardment of the town on 16 December 1914. He too is buried in the ‘Rohilla Plot’. I have covered the naval bombardment in a couple of other blog posts. Shrapnel and Shelletta looks at war-associated baby names, including George Shrapnel Griffin born during the bombardment of Whitby. The events of 16 December 1914 are covered in more detail in another post as they prompted my great grandfather to lie about his age and enlist on my grandma’s 8th birthday.
’92 LIVES LOST’ is also etched into the ship’s bell from the Rohilla which is on display at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum.
Rohilla Ship’s Bell at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts
The loss impacted on communities from all corners of Britain. The then West Riding of Yorkshire (now Lancashire) town of Barnoldswick was particularly hard hit. 15 members of the Barnoldswick St John’s Ambulance Brigade were members of the Royal Naval Sick Berth Reserve on board the vessel. Only three survived. Amongst the dead were brothers Thomas and Walter Horsfield.
One name which struck me on the Rohilla monument was that of a Catholic priest. The Very Rev. Canon Robert Basil Gwydir O.S.B. was born on 20 January 1867 in County Longford, but of a family with Welsh origins. Educated at Douai and ordained in 1891 he began his ministry at St Augustine’s, Liverpool before transferring to St David’s, Swansea. There he was prominent in religious, social and educational circles in the city. His work included being a member of the old Swansea School Board and the Board of Managers at Swansea General Hospital. He had also been admitted to the circle of Welsh Bards.
Canon Gwydir volunteered for service with the Fleet at the outbreak of war and was appointed to the Rohilla only a short time before the disaster. When she struck the rocks he ran below deck, towards danger but also to the assistance of the only patient aboard the vessel, a naval gunner with a fractured thigh. This was in the stern portion of the ship which was soon overwhelmed by the sea and subsequently broke off. Canon Gwydir’s body was washed ashore and recovered, being one of those identified in the initial inquest. He is buried at Belmont Abbey Churchyard, Herefordshire. There is a stained glass memorial window dedicated to him at St David’s Priory Catholic Church, Swansea. He was the first Chaplain of any faith or denomination in all the Allied services to be killed in the Great War.
My final visit on the Rohilla trail was the RNLI museum at Whitby. I was thrilled to discover an exhibition devoted to shipwreck and rescue. As mentioned earlier, exhibits included Mary Kezia Roberts’ trunk and the ship’s bell. But there were so many other artefacts and lots of information about those involved, including the incredibly brave lifeboat men whose efforts I have not done justice to in this post. The pair of oars (below) are from one of the Rohilla’s lifeboats. The museum is well wort a visit, and rounded off my Whitby holiday perfectly.
Part of the Rohilla Exhibition at Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts
For far more information about the Rohilla than I can convey here, this is a link to an excellent website devoted to its history.
Newspapers via FindMyPast including: Burnley News 4 November 1914; Daily Record 31 August 1915; Dundee Evening Telegraph7 May 1915; Leeds Mercury 31 October 1914, 2 November 1913; Sheffield Daily Telegraph26 June 1919; Western Mail 7 May 1915; Whitby Gazette 6 and 13 November 1914; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 31 October 1914, 2 November 1914, 4 November 1914, 5 November 1914
One of my guilty pleasures is to wander round the local cemetery reading the inscriptions on headstones. I love a good old inscription. I can while away hours strolling along the pathways and across undulating ground, pausing to read the words or simply admire the beauty and variety of these monuments. The joy that discovering a family headstone can bring is a thrill that many family historians will relate to. But I’m not fussy. Even if the family is unrelated to me, if the inscription captures my attention, I will research the story behind it. For example, see my post about a young couple from Batley who died as a result of a wartime seaside cliff fall.
I naively always assumed some kind of permanency with a headstone. That centuries later it would still stand, somewhat weather-worn but erect, a relic of a past era, a witness to a life long gone. But this ideal is far from true. Close to home I’ve witnessed it.
The claustrophobic jumble of headstones at All Saints Parish Church in Batley have long since gone. Similarly Mirfield St Mary’s Churchyard lost many of its old headstones, including that of my 5x great grandparents. I only know of it’s existence from a 19th century handwritten transcript of Memorial Inscriptions (MIs), via the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society (YAHS) whose archives are now located in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. A local car business on Staincliffe Hall Road, Batley, on the site of a former Methodist Chapel, had the graveyard headstones in its driveway. I clearly remember seeing them as a child, when the Chapel was converted to a baby clinic. More recently they have vanished. I’m not quite sure when, but I would love to know what became of them. One small crumb of comfort is it appears MIs do exist for them, again via the YAHS. Even councils are not immune to headstone destruction. In 2011 Kirklees was criticised for a money-saving scheme whereby headstones, with inscriptions clearly visible, were recycled to build a wall in Netherton.
Weathered Headstones at Tynemouth Priory – Photo by Jane Roberts
Even if they remain in situ, exposure to the elements may take their toll over time, wearing inscriptions to illegibility. They may be laid flat by councils if they are deemed unstable and potentially dangerous. Batley Cemetery, for example, is undergoing a memorial safety programme. I spent 15 unsuccessful minutes on hold with Kirkless Bereavement Services trying to find out what this entailed. From my visit to the cemetery often this means the headstones are frequently placed face-down, so those carefully thought-through lasting tributes are hidden forevermore. And with burial plots decreasing in availability, particularly in urban areas, many local authorities are looking at alternative strategies for public cemeteries. Then there is deliberate vandalism.
Batley Cemetery Headstones – Photo by Jane Roberts
One thing I did not realise until arranging dad’s funeral is the terms under which burial plots are owned. I mistakenly believed if you bought a burial plot it belonged to the family for ever. Not so. You are merely leasing the plot. In the case of Kirklees Council the lease term is 50 years. Some local authorities have leases of as little as 25 years. The maximum is 100 years. In short you are purchasing the exclusive right to say who will be buried in that grave for a set period. The family can choose to renew the lease for a fee. For this reason it is important to keep address and contact details up-to-date with the relevant council bereavement services.
If the lease is not renewed, the headstone can be removed and collected by the owner – or destroyed by the local authority. Existing burials in the plot are not removed or disturbed, but remaining space in the plot may be resold. So, with space for burial plots running low, the permenancy of headstones faces an extra threat. Southwark Council, for example, face opposition to their cemetery plans with claims by Friends of Camberwell Cemeteries that they are a ‘Grave Reuse and Reclamation Burial Strategy‘.
All this means the work of Family History Society volunteers, cemetery friends groups, those conducting one-place studies, projects such as BillionGraves and individuals in recording MIs will become ever more valuable. For example the Mirfield St Mary’s ones I mentioned earlier in this piece are included on the Kirkheaton Info Archive Database.
So do not assume that headstone will be there for ever. Photograph it now and make a note of that inscription just in case. And check out various archives, one-place studies websites, cemetery groups and Family History Societies for MI transcripts.