No-one in Batley foresaw the consequences that the 1856 hanging of the infamous Rugeley Poisoner, Dr William Palmer , would have on the Yorkshire town. Consequences which led three local lads to end up in court in York on grave charges before the year was out.
The Staffordshire serial killer had no association with Batley, whose residents – along with those throughout the country – read with morbid fascination of the doctor’s lurid lifestyle and alleged killing spree. Yet the theatre and spectacle surrounding the murders, and subsequent enactment of justice, did strike an unfortunate chord with some in this developing Yorkshire mill town.
Such were the concerns surrounding a fair hearing for the case given its notoriety, a special Act of Parliament was rushed through to allow Palmer’s trial to take place at the Old Bailey rather than Stafford. The so-called ‘Trial of the Century’ gripped the country over 12 days in May 1856, with newspapers providing coverage of every twist and turn.
Palmer was eventually convicted of the murder of a friend John Parsons Cook who he poisoned, it was claimed, with strychnine. This was the first ever trial for murder by strychnine in this country. But he was also suspected of the poisoning of many more in a bid to clear his debts – including his wife, four children, brother and mother-in-law.
He was publicly hanged on 14 June 1856 at Stafford prison before a crowd estimated to be in excess of 30,000, many of whom camped out all night in pouring rain to ensure their place at the grisly spectacle. On the morning of his execution Charles Dickens described him as “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey dock.” .
After death Palmer’s infamy lived on, spawning whole new mini-industries with the production of souvenir broadsheets, and ballads. Even the rope-maker who made the noose had a lucrative side-line selling extra sections of rope for a guinea a time. Up and down the country Palmer’s name was on the lips of men, women and children.
Back in Batley, on Friday 3 October 1856, 12-year-old John Harris set off to start work at 7am at Joseph Jubb and Brother’s mill. The son of Ann Harris, described as a widow in poor circumstances but of irreproachable character , John had been employed at the mill for only three weeks. At 8am he ate his breakfast in the top storey of the building. With him were three other boys, Joshua Firth (age 15), Benjamin Preston (age 14) and 13-year-old Abraham Sharp. John had known Joshua and Abraham for a couple of years, and Benjamin for a couple of months.
The area where the boys breakfasted contained a trap door, and nearby stood a steam-operated crane which was used to hoist wool etc. up from the lower stories of the mill. As John prepared to return to work the other lads were still larking around. Inspired by the recent trial they decided to play a game of ‘Hang Palmer’, with Joshua declaring that the new boy John would be Palmer. John cried “You shall not hang Palmer with me” and tried to run away. In his witness statement John went on to say:
Preston ran after me and caught me, then Sharp tied a rope under my arms and round my body, the others assisting him. Then Firth tied the rope to the crane. I tried to get loose, but I could not. I told them to let me go, but they never spoke…I am sure I did not play with the other boys, and they tied the rope round me against my wish. Firth has thrashed me many a time when I have gone for water, but the others have never thrashed me. 
Perhaps ‘Hang Palmer’ had been re-enacted before in the mill. Perhaps it was a prank played elsewhere by boys up and down the country, such was the impact of the deeds, trial and death of ‘Prince of Poisoners,’ William Palmer. This time though the game went badly wrong, with tragic results for all involved.
On another floor workmen set the crane in motion to pull up a sheet of wool. The chain caught the rope tied to John, he became entangled in the chain which squeezed his body, leaving him incapable of calling for help. He was drawn over the crane roller towards the ceiling beam around eight feet above at the top of the mill, where he mercifully lost consciousness as he was crushed.
Benjamin ran down to the second story and alerted workman Robert Senior who raced up to the top. The crane lever was lowered and John released. Surgeon Mr Halbut was summoned. In addition to concussion, John sustained a fractured left arm and a spinal injury causing paralysis to his lower limbs.
He was carried home, where leeches were applied to his head in a bid to treat him. It was not until 8 October, after unsurprisingly failing to recover from his severe injuries, that he was finally transferred to hospital, over at Leeds Infirmary. Here doctors kept authorities informed of the seriousness of the young victim’s wounds.
With John now conscious but perilously ill, in mid-October Joshua, Benjamin and Abraham were taken into custody, charged with causing him serious bodily harm. So critical was John’s condition, magistrates deemed it necessary to take his statement at his Infirmary bedside in the presence of the three accused. The younger two boys placed the prime responsibility on the elder boy casting him in the role of ringleader, saying they wanted him to untie John but Joshua refused to. The West Riding magistrates released the boys on bail.
On 21 October they appeared again before the West Riding magistrate’s court in Leeds. As a result of evidence from Leeds Infirmary’s Dr Samuel Smith that John might not recover, the three boys this time were refused bail. They were taken to the Borough Gaol to await their next appearance a week later. At this subsequent hearing the Infirmary Medical Officer once more stated John was still dangerously ill. This time the case was adjourned for a month, and bail granted.
John died in Leeds Infirmary on the morning of Tuesday 25 November 1856. That afternoon the trio were brought before the West Riding magistrates at Leeds Court house once more where Mr Hardwick, house surgeon at Leeds Infirmary, stated John had died as a result of his spinal injuries. Joshua, Benjamin and Abraham were bailed, awaiting trial at the winter Gaol Delivery at York in December on a charge of manslaughter.
The inquest, held the following afternoon, concurred with the cause of death. Mr Ferns, solicitor for the prisoners, presented a supportive letter from the Jubb brothers, mill owners and employers of the lads. The letter read;
Batley, near Dewsbury, Nov. 25th, 1856. Mr. Ferns, Sir, – We understand you are employed to defend the three boys charged with inflicting injury on the lad Harris, who has died in the Infirmary.
As owners of the factory where the accident happened, we are desirous to express to the coroner and jury our entire conviction of the innocence of the boys’ intentions towards the deceased, and that the boys were playing together without any evil design as boys usually do.
We may mention, in case it might come in useful in any way, that we deposited £10 with the vicar of this parish to defray the expenses of Harris’s funeral, in case of death and that if he had lived we had arranged with the factory inspectors to pay down a further sum for his benefit.
JOSEPH JUBB AND BROTHERS .
The coroner, Mr Blackburn, did not allow it as evidence. Duly, the jury reached a verdict of manslaughter.
The following day John was buried in Beckett Street Cemetery, Leeds .
Around a fortnight later, on 12 December 1856, the three youths were in York facing the charge of manslaughter before Mr Commissioner Russell Gurney Esq QC. The prosecution case, presented by Mr Morley and Mr Hannay, hinged on the fact that although the affair was in sport, the refusal of John to join in made it manslaughter. Mr Middleton, for the defence, claimed John’s death was purely accidental arising from boyish sport. The crane was set in motion by a hand over which the prisoners had no control and, as a result, they could not be guilty of manslaughter. Summing up, his Lordship Commissioner Gurney in effect told the jury that if the facts presented were proved, the death of John was unintentional and did not spring from the acts of the accused. As such the jury must acquit the prisoners. The jury took this advice and passed a verdict of not guilty.
So, who were these boys? From preliminary searches of censuses, parish registers and civil registration information it appears that they all, along with John, lived in the Havercroft area of Batley. Joshua is most likely the son of Thomas and Mary Firth (née Ellis). Benjamin was most likely the son of Joseph and Ann Preston (née Preston). Abraham was the son of Joseph and Rebecca Sharp (née Marshall).
The three lads were discharged into the custody of their parents, free to return home. One mother though, Ann Harris, would never have her son home again. By extension, and through a prank gone wrong, he too can be considered a collateral victim of Palmer.
As to which mill in Batley was the scene of this tragic event, none of the newspaper articles I have read identify it. The Jubbs owned several in town over the years. There is a possibility it was their [Old] Branch [Road] Mill which burned down at the beginning of September 1876  and which they owned outright at the time of the John Harris tragedy. In fact, just over six months after the York trial they were fined for employing children under 13 years of age without schooling at that particular mill . In the same period, they were also associated with New Ing Mills. Originally partners there, they eventually acquired sole possession by 1859, and commenced a building programme which significantly changed the premises in the 1860s. However, at the time of the incident New Ing Mills was in joint ownership, so this I believe is the less likely location.
But, as I hope this tale illustrates, it is amazing to contemplate the hidden history which took place in buildings long gone, and others still standing, in my hometown of Batley.
 William Palmer website http://staffscc.net/wppalmer/ ;
 Household Words, A Weekly Journal, 14 June 1856;
 The Leeds Times, 29 November 1856;
 The Intelligencer Supplement, 18 October 1856;
 The Leeds Intelligencer, 29 November 1856;
 Leeds Beckett Street Cemetery Records, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, original records at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Ref LC/CEM (B)/1/1, Numbers 1-18747, 1845-1862;
 Coincidentally, another similarly named mill in the area, Branch Mill which was built by the Jubbs in around 1874 and latterly owned by Messrs. J., T., and J. Taylor, burned down in July 1915;
 The Leeds Times, 25 July 1857;
(All newspapers accessed via the British Newspaper Archive on Findmypast)
- Huddersfield and Holmfirth Examiner, 29 November and 13 December 1856
- The Bradford Observer, 27 November 1856;
- The Intelligencer Supplement, 18 and 25 October 1856;
- The Leeds Intelligencer, 30 October, 1 and 29 November 1856;
- The Leeds Mercury, 27 November 1856;
- The Leeds Times, 1 and 29 November 1856, and 25 July 1857;
- England and Wales Censuses 1841 to 1871 accessed via Ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast;
- GRO Indexes, accessed via Findmypast and the GRO website;
- West Yorkshire Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1835, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, original records at West Yorkshire Archive Service;
- West Yorkshire Church of England Baptisms 1813 – 1910, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, original records at West Yorkshire Archive Service;
- Wellcome Library Images: https://wellcomelibrary.org/
- OS Map Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/index.html under a Creative Commons licence.