A cemetery can tell you so much about a town’s past. It is a physical representation of the lives of many of its inhabitants – years, decades and even centuries after they departed its soil. Headstones provide a snapshot of their lives. The uniform layout of burial registers record the passing of the rich, the less well-off and the impoverished. And combined, their lives and deaths chart the history and development of a town over time.
Batley cemetery, and its register, is no exception. The first burial recorded in the register’s consecrated (Church of England) portion of the cemetery is on 19 January 1867 for nine-week-old William Henry Stockwell; in the unconsecrated section it is 25-year-old Mary Fox, on 10 November 1866. She, therefore, is the first registered burial in the cemetery. In this post I will focus on one grave in the consecrated section.
This grave has a headstone. It marks the loss of three young lives. The children are all from different families. One was buried in accordance with the rites of the Church of England. The other two were Catholic burials. All have unusual names for the area. Particularly striking is how, over a century after the occupants of the grave were buried, artificial flowers are still being placed at the foot of the cross.
So how did these three children come to be buried in Batley cemetery?
Their story starts in August 1914, the outbreak of the Great War and the German invasion of Belgium. These children were refugees, either driven directly from their home by war, or born in this country subsequently to parents forced to flee Belgium. Many came to Great Britain, and towns countrywide welcomed them. By the end of 1914 an estimated 110,000 Belgian refugees were in the country.1
The first Belgium refugees officially arrived in Batley on 17 October. A mixture of single people and family groups, they numbered 25 in total.2 They were accommodated at Shaftesbury House, Upper Batley. This was the residence of the late Alderman J. J. Parker, an ex-Mayor of the Borough. It was fitted out and furnished free of charge by Batley residents. The refugees were also provided with free medical care, and Batley Corporation waived any rates on the property.
In those first months Batley people showed an intense interest in the new arrivals, and the newspapers contained regular updates about the town’s Belgian guests. There were even set visiting days, so locals could turn up to show sympathy and solidarity with them. The generosity of the Batley public continued, with monetary donations and increasing offers of accommodation resulting in the ability to house even more Belgian refugees.
Eighteen more arrived on 21 November. Nine went to Woodhall, in a house provided by Henry Jessop. The others were housed in properties on Byron Street, Kelvin Grove and Primrose Hill. The continuing swell of housing offers meant that by February 1915 almost 70 Belgian refugees were based in Batley.3
Their new homes were supplied by a variety of locals. These included Staff Nurse Alice Musto, who offered up her home on the Warwick Road corner of Taylor Street whilst she was away serving with the Territorial Nursing Force.4 As experience built up, it was found that these separate family houses were best for homing the refugees. Though the larger multi-occupancy group houses still had an important role in that they helped the newly-arrived, providing company and support for them until they became familiar with the area, people and language.
Support facilities for the displaced foreigners grew. A special class for Belgian children was established at St Paulinus RC School in Dewsbury. Attended by 15 scholars, their Belgian teacher was Miss Callens, who herself had arrived in the country only recently. The Tramway Company provided free travel for those children living a distance from school. Meals were provided free by members of the St Paulinus congregation.5
English language classes were provided for adults. Entertainment was also laid on. Christmas parties and gifts were supplied. The area even had Catholic priests who themselves were refugees from Belgium. They were attached to the local churches to minister to the refugee flock. These included Father Julien Kestelyn at Birstall St Patrick’s, subsequently posted to St Mary’s; and Father Paul van de Pitte, initially at St Joseph’s, Batley Carr.
In regards to religious observance, one amusing incident occurred soon after the refugees’ arrival. An offer from a Batley resident to take a family group to church was enthusiastically accepted. The lady, not a Catholic, ascertained the times of Sunday mass at St Mary’s, based on the assumption that all from Belgium were Catholic. She even accompanied them to church, neglecting her own religious observances that day. Except it transpired after mass that the Belgian family were actually Protestants! It turned out the initial batch of Woodhall refugees were non-Catholics. So a girl living there had provision made for her to attend Staincliffe Church school.
Batley townsfolk continued to make regular contributions to the Belgian Relief Fund. For example, by June 1915 St Mary’s RC Church had made 17 separate donations to the fund following church collections.6
Tensions did exist though, for instance around the cost of maintaining these refugees. In January 1915, whilst dismissing public murmurings about them being treated too well, it was agreed that care was needed not to spoil them. By the beginning of October 1915, when the mutual decision was made that the refugees were to feed and clothe themselves wherever the man’s work permitted it, the town’s Belgian Refugees Fund donations stood at £914 5s.7 In simple purchasing power terms that equates to £74,900 at today’s values.8 Support remained though. For example, housing, coal and lighting would continue to be provided free of charge.
On 14 December 1914 a particularly unsavoury incident occurred. At 6.15am 19-year-old Woodhall resident Jean Joseph Soumagne was attacked going to work at J Blackburn and Co’s mill. Whilst making his way down the footpath to Healey Lane, a man sprang from behind a wall, stabbed him in the cheek and right thigh, then threw him down in the mud, before making his escape under cover of darkness. There is no mention of Joseph being targeted because of his nationality, but the implication is there, especially because nothing was taken.9 Jean Joseph subsequently applied to join the Belgian Army.10
And it was the youngest Soumagne child who was the first young refugee to be buried in the grave in Batley cemetery, in a plot purchased by the local Belgian Relief Committee. Forty-year-old Antwerp nickel-plater Lucien Soumagne, his 43-year-old wife Marie, and children Jean Joseph (19), Lucien (16) and Edgard Lucien (3) were amongst the original nine Woodhall residents who arrived at the house in November 1914.11 Mr and Mrs Soumagne had prominent roles within the Batley Belgian community, liaising with authorities and seemingly acting as spokespersons in particular for the Woodhall refugees. The family were non-Catholics, which may partly explain why this burial plot was purchased in the Consecrated Church of England portion of Batley cemetery.
Edgard died on 15 March 1915 as a result of diphtheria. Thankfully rare in this country now due to childhood vaccination, this highly-infectious, primarily respiratory-spread disease was a killer back in 1915. The sore throat, high temperature, headache and nausea rapidly led to difficulty in breathing and swallowing. It could also damage the heart, kidneys and liver, and affect the skin. The disease reached epidemic proportions in Batley in 1915. Ninety six cases were notified that year, the highest proportion since 1893. A particularly bad outbreak occurred in the last quarter of 1915, centred around youngsters over 14 who had left school. Almost all of these were in the Cobden Street area of town, and connected with Irish Roman Catholics. Because of its infectious nature, 87 of the year’s 96 sufferers were admitted to hospital.12 It was here, at the Oakwell Isolation Hospital, that Edgard died – just one of 18 diphtheria deaths in Batley that year.
He was interred in Batley cemetery on 18 March, in a service conducted amidst fleeting snow, by the Batley Parish Church curate, Rev. J. S. Walker. In addition to his parents, brothers, and local people closely involved with the refugees, his paternal aunt – herself a refugee – travelled up from Bedfordshire.
The next child to be laid to rest in this plot was an 11-week-old baby girl, Irene Josephine Lambertine Bovy. Her birth was registered in the Kings Norton district of Birmingham, the daughter of Mr and Mrs Phillipe D. J. Bovy. The family only arrived in Batley the month prior to Irene’s death, to live with relatives at Woodhall, which now included Catholics amongst its residents. She passed away on the morning of 23 September 1915. Like Edgard, she too died in hospital as a result of another childhood killer disease, whooping cough. All 16 deaths recorded in 1915 in Batley Borough for this disease related to children under the age of five.13 Again this is another disease today successfully combatted by childhood vaccination. Irene’s burial took place on 25 September, conducted by Catholic priest Paul van de Pitte.
The final child buried here is the six-month old daughter of Belgian soldier Leon Lemmens. Hortensia Leoni Lemmens’ birth was registered in Dewsbury in 1917. Latterly she and her mother had been staying at Rock Farm, Upper Batley, with another family of Belgian refugees. Prior to that they had been supported at Osborne Terrace (see first map) by members of Batley Conservative Club, who continued this support in paying for the child’s burial expenses. Hortensia died on the 2 February 1918, and her funeral – conducted by Batley St Mary’s Catholic priest Father Shea – took place on the 5 February.
The headstone which marks the grave notes they are the children of Belgian refugees. It reads:
IN MEMORY EDGARD LUCIEN FRANCOIS JOSEPH SOUMAGNE, DIED MARCH 15TH 1915, AGED 3 YEARS. IRENE JOSEPHINE LAMBERTINE BOVY, DIED AUGUST 23RD 1915, AGED 11 WEEKS. HORTENSIA LEONI LEMMENS DIED FEBRUARY 2ND 1918, AGED 6 MONTHS. CHILDREN OF BELGIAN REFUGEES
And, curiously, even a century after their deaths, someone is remembering their loss by regularly placing the artificial flowers on their grave.
Footnotes: 1. Batley News, 2 January 1915; 2. Batley News, 24 October 1914; 3. Batley News, 6 February 1915; 4. Batley News, 30 January 1915; 5. Batley News, 28 November 1915; 6. Batley News, 12 June 1915; 7. Batley News, 2 October 1915; 8. Measuring Worth website, https://www.measuringworth.com/index.php; 9. Batley News, 19 December 1915; 10. Batley News, 16 January 1915; 11. Batley News, 28 November 1915; 12. Pearce, G H. Borough of Batley Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health For the Year 1915. JS Newsome, Batley, 1916; and 13. Ibid.
Other Sources: • Batley Cemetery Burial Registers; • Batley News, 5 December 1914, 9 January 1915, 20 March 1915, 25 September 1915, 9 October 1915, and 9 February 1918; • GRO Indexes; and • National Library of Scotland website
It was 6pm on the evening of Thursday 20 October 1892. It had been an unsettled, breezy day with the constant threat of rain. As darkness descended, the signal was given for work to cease at Britannia Mills. Looms gradually abated, day-shift weavers turned off their lights, and those women not working overtime tied their handkerchiefs round their heads in preparation to leave the building and venture out into the chill, autumnal night.
The building on Geldard Road in Birstall, known locally as ‘Slopers’ Mill, was a five-storey structure. The lower two floors were occupied by Messrs. Charles Robinson and Company, Carlinghow woollen manufacturers. The upper storeys were tenanted by Leeds woollen manufacturers Messrs. Hartley Brothers. The top floor contained around 30 looms, with about two thirds operating that Thursday.
The distance from the ground to the fifth floor was around 30-35 yards . Whilst a long, winding staircase could be used, after a tough day’s work tired workers from the upper floors often preferred to use the mill hoist, commonly used to carry goods between floors. This hoist, located in the centre of the building, controlled a contraption which workers referred to as a cage. Essentially an open-sided box with a wooden roof and floor, it was supported by an iron rope, and worked by pulleys and gearing suspended from girders: in effect a primitive lift system.
For younger workers the journey in this cage no doubt was tremendous fun, adding a frisson of excitement at the end of their arduous workday.
It was set in motion by pulling one of the two guide ropes at the side. One of these ropes acted as a brake. There was no one person designated to operate the hoist. It was started and reversed by the person nearest the ropes, something which might have particularly appealed to teenage boys. Youngsters did not see any danger with it. In fact 15-year-old Hilda North, who had worked in the Hartley portion of the mill for around a week, told her father on the second day there she only got one foot on the hoist when it descended. And it was not unheard of for agile workers to jump into the cage as it passed the lower floors.
The hoist was so popular with the workers that around five weavers from the top floor regularly knocked off at 5.55pm in order to beat the rush, and avoid the inevitable overcrowding. Because overcrowding was commonplace. Reports state many as 20 workers crammed into it on occasions. They rushed to it at the end of their shift, like children racing to leave school. In fact many were only teenagers.
James Gray, the engineman at the mill for eight years and whose responsibilities included looking after the engine powering the mill machinery, had been unaware of any mechanical issues with the hoist in that time. However, it was not his responsibility to oversee and maintain it. And he couldn’t remember any official inspection or maintenance of it by an external official either. The only incident he recalled was around five or six years earlier, when too many people in it caused it to land with a bump.
As a result of that incident the maximum capacity was limited to eight, and pulling on the ropes whilst was in motion was prohibited. The penalty for contravening these instructions ranged from a severe 1s fine to instant dismissal – although it seems these punishments were never meted out. There was a warning note at the hoist entrance, a legacy of the earlier incident, put up by the previous mill owners.
Although prominent, it was perhaps too high for some even if they could read . Neither were new starters routinely informed about the restrictions; nor did it appear to be discussed generally, not even by those aware that the regulations were regularly being breached.
John Howitt, a warp dresser working at Hartleys for a fortnight, only used the hoist if it did not exceed maximum capacity even if it meant waiting. But he admitted he never thought to warn younger workers ignoring the rules . And 15-year-old Mary Alice Mann, a recently employed weaver at Hartleys stated “I saw other people go down in the hoist, and I went with them.”  No thought did she give to numbers.
That Thursday evening was no different. Eager workers, keen to quickly return home, rushed and pushed to make their way towards the exit. A crowd on the top floor jostled and jockeyed for position in the cage, with cries of “Let us get in.” Perhaps some on the lower floors had stolen a march, already in the cage before it reached the upper storey, similar to the tricks we use today at busy lifts: that was one rumour circulating later. According to at least one report one lad, Edwin Day, jumped in as it made its descent. In all, it appears around 16 people were now crammed in. It may have even been as many as 18, for collating names from various newspaper reports the occupants included:
Fred Beevers, Carlinghow. Born in July 1875, the son of Andrew and Sarah Ann Beevers, in 1891 the family lived on Coal Pit Lane with Fred working as a cloth presser;
Elizabeth Birbeck, 38-year-old wife of Turner Birbeck. They lived at Lambsfield Place, Geldard Road, Birstall. She only started work that week as weaver at Hartleys. Other information shows she was born on 7 May 1853, the daughter of John and Hannah Gooder, and she married Turner on 25 October 1873 at St Peter’s Church in Birstall;
Edwin Blakey Day, age 14. He was a piecer and the son of postman Ernest Day of Union Street, Birstall . He had worked six months for Robinsons, but was due to start work the following week at Carr Mill;
Edith Crossley , weaver, wife of James Crossley of Geldard Road. Other sources show she was born in Holmfirth on 8 February 1861, the daughter of Hugh and Mary Ramsden, and married James Booth Crossley on 23 July 1881 at St Saviour’s, Brownhill;
Jane Donnelly, Richmond Street, Batley. Looking at other sources it seems likely she was the Dublin-born wife of Richard Donnelly, maiden name Egan. Her age was 30 in the 1891 census and she worked as a woollen machine feeder;
Ann Frankland, wife of collier James Frankland, of Britannia Cottages, Geldard Road. Further investigation shows she was born on 18 March 1869 and was the sister of Elizabeth Birbeck. She married James on 1 February 1890 at Batley All Saints;
Gooder, sister of Mrs Birbeck. No Christian name is given in the reports, which only mention she is a girl. Although possible this may be the recently married Ann Frankland, it is equally possible this is another of the Gooder sisters. Weight is added to this because in some of the casualty lists both Ann Frankland and ‘a girl named Gooder’ appear. But there is nothing conclusive;
Hannah Mary Grayson, Birstall. Putting together other sources she is likely to be the daughter of Solomon and Mary Grayson (and its many surname variants) who was born on 26 November 1863. In the 1891 census she is living with her widowed mother at Cross Street in Birstall , and working as a wool cloth weaver. She married George Easby at St Peter’s, Birstall on 8 January 1897;
Walter Jones, age 13, piecer, son of tripe dresser Edward Jones and wife Sarah Ann of Low Lane, Birstall. He was born on 12 March 1879;
Joshua Kellett, age 15, piecer, son of John and Mary Kellett of White Lee Road, Batley;
Nellie Lee, Skelsey Row, Batley;
Mary Alice Mann, 15, daughter of Mark and Elizabeth Mann. She was born on 5 November 1876 and lived with her family at Geldard Road, Birstall. She had been employed as a weaver for one week in the Hartley-run portion of the mill;
Kate McGuire, a young woman living in Batley. Although unverified, this might have been the 23-year-old niece of Michael McGuire living at Parker Buildings, Whittaker Street in the 1891 census;
Henry Mitchell, the son of Annie Mitchell, of Geldard Road, Birstall. Not employed at the mill, he had been there to drop tea off for another worker. The newspaper reports put his age at 9 or 10. My research points he was likely to be 9-year-old Harry Mitchell born on 17 October 1883, the son of Annie and William Mitchell. In 1891 he was living at Geldard Road with his mother and his maternal grandmother Mary Ann Ramsden. He was the nephew of Edith Crossley;
Sarah Moon, age 53, weaver and wife of tobacco pipe maker Charles Moon. They lived at Boar Terrace, Geldard Road, Birstall. Sarah and widower Charles married at Tong St James on 9 May 1880 – it was her second marriage too. Sarah was born in Cleckheaton on 24 December 1839, the daughter of James and Sarah Haigh. She married her first husband William Firth in Halifax on 7 October 1860, but was widowed with two young sons, in early 1865. Sarah only started work at Hartley’s on the afternoon of 18 October, in place of Annie Williams who was ill;
Hilda North, the daughter of George and his Irish-born wife Ellen North. Born on 11 February 1877, her family home was 22 Carlinghow Lane. When the accident occurred she had worked as a weaver for only one week in the Hartley portion of Britannia Mills. Well-liked by all who knew her, Hilda and her family were long associated with St Mary’s RC Church in Batley. In fact some newspapers claimed Hilda was a member of the church choir, though this was disputed in a subsequent report .
A boy named Ramsden. There are no further details. It is possible that this might be a confusion with Henry Mitchell (above); and
Ada Rymer, age 17 . Born on 31 May 1875, she was the daughter of Thomas and Eliza Rymer. In 1891 the family address was Riding Street, White Lee, Batley;
Elizabeth Birbeck, holding one of the guide ropes, gave the signal and the cage began its descent. It quickly became apparent that things were not right: the cage was travelling faster than usual. Someone called out “Steady it!” Fred Beevers pulled one of the guide ropes which temporarily righted things. However, before it reached the halfway point, it hurtled out of control down the shaft. Shouting “Pull the rope! Pull the rope!” Elizabeth Birbeck grabbed the left hand side, whilst Fred Beevers took hold of the right. The pair desperately battled to steady the cage. Someone else screamed, and Edith Crossley cried out “Let’s jump up,” in a vain attempt to slow the cage’s descent. But in the words of Mary Alice Mann it “banged reight to t’bottom.” As the cage struck the floor Elizabeth Birbeck exclaimed “Lord, help me!” These were her final recorded words.
Some of the occupants were thrown out of the cage which, with the force of the impact, rebounded around three feet into the air. It smashed to the floor for a second time, and this ripped down the hoist’s gears and support girders. Weighing about a ton, these crashed on top of the cage.
The tremendous noise alerted those elsewhere in the mill, and workers rushed to the disaster site. James Gray immediately stopped the engine. Shocked and injured cage occupants emerged coughing and stunned from the dust-shrouded scene. The air gradually cleared, revealing the horrific sight of the crushed and splintered cage. Some mill workers were trapped under the wreckage.
Blocks were hastily assembled and the debris lifted off the badly mangled bodies, with Edwin Day first to be released. Those prominent in the rescue included John Leach, Joseph Wright, John Howitt and W. Lockwood.
News of the accident spread quickly beyond the mill. Crowds gathered at the gates, anxious to hear news of their loved ones. Wider in Birstall, and neighbouring areas, small knots of people gathered to speculate about events. Hushed voices and murmurs, rising to excited and expectant tones as they craned their necks to see the comings and goings at the mill. The local police rushed to the scene, pushing past the throng of people. Birstall doctors, Bridgeman and Field, were quickly summoned to tend to the injured.
By around 6.15pm news of fatalities reached those outside. The arrival of Ambrosine Fox (née Renshaw) must have been a signal, even before the names of the dead seeped out more generally. Married to miner Abraham Fox, the family lived at Chapel Lane in Birstall. Although Ambrosine has no occupation listed in the 1891 census, it seems she was one of the local go-to women for laying out the dead. Maybe she also helped bring local children into the world too, as these two tasks often went hand in hand.
Within the mill boundaries those who perished were taken to the burling shed. Here, illuminated by lamplight, Ambrosine Fox carried out the grim task of carefully laying out their bodies. This traditionally involved undressing and washing them, plugging the various orifices, possibly placing coins on their eyes and something (commonly a bandage) under their chins to keep the eyes and mouth closed. The body would be then dressed in its burial clothes, with bandages or ribbons tied around the body to hold it straight and ready for the coffin.
Four fatalities resulted from the accident, and they suffered horrific injuries caused by the falling debris. Those killed were:
Elizabeth Birbeck, the most badly injured. Although her face was unmarked, her body incurred severe crush trauma;
Edwin Blakey Day suffered mainly head injuries, but also a broken right leg;
Hilda North broke her right leg in two places, her left arm was severed at the elbow, her neck was put out and her head split open; and
Sarah Moon had a partially severed right leg, chest crush injuries and a fractured skull.
In terms of the injured, Edith Crossley suffered from shock; Ann Frankland had a broken foot; Walter Jones injured his left knee; Joshua Kellett sustained a broken left arm; Mary Alice Mann escaped with only a black eye; Henry Mitchell bruised his left thigh; and Ada Rymer had severe shock. Fortunately none had life-threatening injuries, and all were taken back to their homes to recuperate. It appears all others in the cage had no injuries of note. The belief was if the hoist gears and girders had remained intact, all inside the cage would have survived. It was the fact they came down which proved fatal.
Families were left mourning their loved ones. They also had the ordeal of the inquest, which opened at Birstall’s Coach and Six Inn within 24 hours of the accident. The current building is a 1950s replacement of the earlier structure. The inquest swiftness was down to the need to keep the bodies fresh. No conclusion was reached at this initial hearing, as a report on the condition of the hoist was deemed necessary. But at least funeral arrangements could now be made.
Later that day, Friday 21 October, Reverend Charles Gordon, the parish priest of St Mary’s, Batley, visited the distressed family of Hilda North to try offer some comfort, but presumably to also discuss these funeral arrangements. As was the custom (and for practical reasons with the majority of bodies still being kept at home between death and burial) funerals quickly followed death. So, on the afternoon of Sunday 23 October, less than 72 hours after the accident, all four interments took place.
A triple ceremony, for Edwin Day, Elizabeth Birbeck and Sarah Moon, was held at St Peter’s, Birstall. The coffins set off from their respective homes, and in a praiseworthy feat of co-ordination by Birstall undertakers Messrs. J Akeroyd and Sons, the processions met up as they journeyed to the church, timed to reach there at 4pm. In the procession were many of those in the hoist when the accident occurred. Crowds lined the route, tears staining the cheeks of bystanders. The numbers led one report to claim that:
…the multitude of people in the town on Sunday…was never exceeded at any time in the annals of the town on an occasion of that description… 
As the cortège approached the church, a muffled peal rang out from the church belfry. The three coffins were gently removed from the three hearses in absolute silence and carried into the crowded church for a service. Not all those present could fit in the building, forcing many more to assemble outside. The coffins were then borne to their final resting places in the churchyard, as the solemn, muffled peal of the bell pierced the silence. The sun shone brilliantly throughout, but a bitingly cold wind swept the graveside. There:
The children wailed continuously, the women were loud in their lamentations, and men were completely broken down…
Once the service ended the trio of coffins were covered with earth. Mourners dispersed, offering words of sympathy to the bereaved families as they left. As darkness fell over the now-empty churchyard, the many wreaths laying on the three burial mounds stood silent witness to the tragic events.
That same afternoon Hilda North was committed to rest in Batley cemetery, in a similarly impressive service conducted by the Reverend Charles Gordon. Once more the approach to her final resting place was lined with a huge throng of people. The cemetery too brimmed with mourners, with a vast number of wreaths placed on her grave.
The adjourned inquest resumed at the Coach and Six on 28 October, with a report from Bradford engineer John Waugh into the state of the hoist. After establishing this did not contribute to the accident, the jury reached a verdict that:
…the deceased were killed by the falling of the cage of the hoist and the subsequent fall of the gear and supports of the said hoist, by the crowding into the cage of a greater number of persons than it was calculated to carry, and by the improper use of the gear ropes by some of the persons in the cage, that the overcrowding of the cage was in contravention of a warning which was conspicuously pasted up on the door of the hoist chamber…
Finally, for those familiar with Birstall and wondering why Britannia Mills today does not bear any resemblance to the five-storey building of 1892, the answer is the all-too familiar fate which befell many mills: fire. In July 1905, when under the ownership of Batley mayor George Hirst and primarily occupied by the Extract Wool and Merino Company which he chaired, a fire took hold and ravaged the building. The reconstruction resulted in the smaller structure we are familiar with today. But as you pass, do pause and think. Over a century ago four local people lost their lives here, simply by going to work. Two of them would, by today’s standards, be still of school age. How times have (thankfully) changed.
Notes:  Some reports say almost 40 yards. 1 yard = 3 feet. I suspect these reports may be an exaggeration, because an official report quoted in the Batley Reporterand Guardian of 29 October 1892 into the state of the hoist mentions the distance from the hoist girders to the floor was 67 feet;  6 feet off the ground according to Mary Alice Mann;  Batley Reporter and Guardian, 22 October 1892;  Batley News, 28 October 1892;  Some reports say Low Lane. They also incorrectly give his father’s name as Edward;  Some reports incorrectly state Eva;  In the 1891 census she is recorded as Hannah May Grayson, and her mother is Mary Medcalf, TNA Reference RG12/3722/70/17. Her birth in the Dewsbury Registration District in the December quarter of 1863 is under Gration;  Batley News, 28 October 1892;  Newspaper reports give her age as 18;  Batley Reporter and Guardian, 29 October 1892;  Ibid;  Yorkshire Evening Post, 28 October 1892.
Sources: • 1861-1901 England and Wales censuses; • Batley All Saints church marriage register; • Batley Cemetery burial register; • Batley News – 21 and 28 October 1892, and 21 July 1905;Batley News – 21 and 28 October 1892, and 21 July 1905; • Batley Reporter & Guardian – 22 and 29 October 1892, and 21 July 1905; • Birstall St Peter’s church parish registers (baptisms, marriages and burials); • Funeral Practices, British Customs: https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/funeral-practices-british-customs • Leeds Mercury – 24 October 1892; • Leeds Times – 22 October 1892; • OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html • Tong St James parish register (marriages); • Yorkshire Evening Post – 21, 24 and 28 October 1892;
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.