Category Archives: History

A Workplace With a Deadly History

The White Lee explosion at Henry Ellison’s chemical factory on Hollinbank Lane, Heckmondwike, which killed 10 men on 2 December 1914, does not tell the entire story of the chequered history of these works. Even before this catastrophic event it was the scene of multiple fires. Additionally there was a series of bizarre, and unassociated, deaths involving men who worked there between 1870 and 1885. All occurred during the tenure of the previous owners of the works, the Heaton family. And the Heatons themselves were not untouched.


James Heaton, who started the family’s involvement with chemical manufacturing, was originally a spinner by trade. From Little Gomersal, he married Jane Popplewell at Birstall St Peter’s on 28 December 1834. The newly married Heatons subsequently moved to Leicester to raise their family. Children included Joseph (born 1836), George (born circa 1838), Martha (born in 1839, and died in 1840), Mary (born in 1840), John (born 1841), Susannah (birth registered in 1841), and Jane (born 1847, and died in 1848).

I have not pinned down precisely the family’s move back up north, but it is likely to have taken place in the mid to late 1850s. Certainly, by the time of the 1861 census, the Heaton’s were in the Dale Lane area of Heckmondwike, with James and his three sons described as manufacturing chemists – a total shift away from James’ lambs wool spinning days.

Other clues around timing of the manufacturing chemist move come in Ordnance Survey maps and Directories. The 1854 Ordnance Survey map of the area (surveyed 1847-1851) does not feature the chemical works. Neither is the Heaton Chemical Works mentioned in White’s 1858 Directory of Leeds, Halifax, Huddersfield etc. However one set of inquest notes indicate that one of the Heaton brothers, Joseph, had been involved in chemistry since around 1854. The accuracy of this statement though is uncertain – the same notes give the incorrect month and year of death for James.1

The newness of the concern is also indicated in newspapers, which also provide further details of the type of processes Messrs. James Heaton and Sons undertook. Besides chemical manufacturing, they were also involved in oil extraction by means of the pressing process, and grease production.2 A newspaper report from March 1863, describing a fire at the premises, states how a newly erected, and uninsured, shed used for the purposes of extracting oil etc was destroyed, damage estimated at £200. The adjoining shed, where several tons of oil and other flammable spirits were stored, was saved due to the assistance of neighbours.3 In addition to offices, warehouses and storage facilities, from newspaper reports over the years the extensive buildings included a rag storage area, a blacksmiths and a coopers.

A later map showing the location of the Chemical Works – Ordnance Survey Maps – Six-inch England and Wales, 1841-1952, Yorkshire CCXXXII.SW (includes Cleckheaton, Gomersal, Heckmondwike), Surveyed: 1889 to 1892, Published: 1894 – National Library of Scotland, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence

The family had fingers in pies other than the White Lee chemical and oil refining concern. They owned a farm, and had a growing property portfolio. In July 1874 they bought the old-established copperas and prussiate works in Roberttown, producing black dye and sulphuric acid. One member of the family even had a ship named after him: In 1882 an iron screw steamer, intended for the Indian and Atlantic trades, was launched up in Tyneside. The steamer, christened by Mary Heaton (wife of middle brother George), was named the George Heaton.


The Heatons, though, were not immune to local controversy. A Healey resident, writing to the local paper in 1879, accused the Heaton chemical works of being a public nuisance, responsible for “constantly bringing the most noxious gases and vilest smells into our homes; our sitting rooms and bedrooms, too, being frequently filled with them.4

Then there were the Local Board and Town Council water meter disputes, planning controversies, and accusations of providing cottages unfit for habitation.

On a personal level, court cases included the ill-treatment of a horse (John), and the assault on a letter carrier in 1874 (Joseph). In this incident Joseph refused to hand over 2d to Heckmondwike Post Master employee Frank Richmond. Joseph then pushed the mail deliverer against a wall and pulled his ears because he felt the youth had behaved in a “saucy and taunting manner.5 Joseph escaped punishment because the assault was deemed of a trivial character.

The letter incident occurred days after another fire at the Heaton Chemical Works, and perhaps the stress Joseph was under affected his reaction that day. The previous year, in June 1873, a fire broke out in the uninsured works, but was quickly subdued with minimal damage. The fire which broke out on 2 February 1874, at about 5.30pm, was far more serious. Believed to have been caused by oil overflowing from one of the tanks, it took several local fire brigades until 10pm to extinguish the blaze, by which time it had caused damage estimated £20,000.6 Fortunately by now the Heaton’s business was partly insured, although it did mean they suffered losses of around £10,000.7 However the consequences were felt far beyond this date. Messrs. Heaton became embroiled in a dispute about charges for the fire brigade services that night. Legal proceedings followed to recover these costs.

The dispute rumbled on, and failure to settle payment from previous fires was the reason why all local fire brigades refused to attend yet another blaze at the works. Believed to have been caused by the ignition of overheated grease, this fire broke out in the early hours of 28 August 1879. One brigade did set off, but turned back round when they found out the location of the fire. It was left to local people to confine the conflagration to the originating building, extinguish the blaze and save the rest of the extensive works which were filled with combustible chemicals. Again only partly insured, damage was estimated at between £1,000 to £1,500.8


The above-mentioned controversies took place after the death of James Heaton on 27 April 1867, when sons Joseph, George and John took over the running of the business. John was the brother best described as the business’s superintending manager; Joseph and George travelled, and mainly did outside works, though Joseph was also the brother who conducted chemical experiments. And it was on their watch that the random sequence of deaths involving those connected to the chemical works occurred. Two were fire related, and both these incidents directly touched the Heaton family.


The first death occurred in 1870. 20-year-old carter George Miller had only worked at Heatons for three weeks when he met his death. Born in Kirkby Overblow in 1849, he was the son of farm labourer David Miller and his wife Ann. David died in 1862 and Ann, after being widowed for a second time, moved with her children to the Birstall area.9 George however lodged elsewhere. Ann, crucially for the turn of events, described her son as sober and very steady.

On 9 March 1870 George, along with Lister Kaye, another carter employed by the Heatons, took some charcoal to Heckmondwike then went to Ravens Wharf to collect two loads of sand. On the way back, at around 5.50pm they stopped off at the Prospect Beerhouse, Dewsbury Moor, where they stayed for about 1½ hours drinking ale with several other men before making their way back to the chemical works. Lister Kaye described George as “very lively10 – the implication being he had perhaps drunk a little too much.

At about 8.10pm, Catherine Droghan was walking up Staincliffe Hall Road. Almost at the top she saw George, walking unsteadily with his horse and cart loaded with sand.11 He spoke thickly to Catherine as if he had been drinking, then sat on the cart shafts until he reached the top of the hill. At this point he jumped down to pick up the reins of the horse which were trailing on the ground. As he tried to get back onto the shafts he fell to the ground on his face, and the cart wheel ran over him. His final words before he was carried to the Crown Hotel were “Oh dear let me lie still.12 He died 20 minutes later.

The Crown Hotel with Christ Church, Staincliffe (baptism place of some of the Heaton children) and Staincliffe Hall Road to the right – Photo by Jane Roberts

The inquest on 11 March 1870, incidentally also held at the Crown Hotel, ruled he had been accidentally run over. Perhaps it was a case of a new boy not used to drinking trying to fit in with the men. But it appears this stop off at the Prospect Beerhouse cost him his life.


The next employee’s death was of an entirely different nature. This was 21-year-old Thomas Dawson, who worked as a book-keeper at the Heaton chemical works. It was around a two-mile walk away from his home in Gomersal, where he lived with his mill engine operator father John, mother Ann, and younger brother William.

Thomas was born in Gildersome and, before his move to Gomersal, he spent his early years in Batley and Birstall, where he was a member of the Birstall Wesleyan Society. A hard working and studious young man, the fact he was learning French as an adult in this period supports his scholarly nature.

Described by his mother as “well and hearty,”13 he was working up until Saturday 1 November 1873. That day he complained of a pain in his head, and despite a visit from the doctor who diagnosed a mild attack of low fever, he did not improve.

At around 5am on the morning of 5 November his mother went to his room and found his bed empty. Downstairs, the house door was unlocked. The alarm was raised and search parties sent out.

Later that afternoon Nelson Oldroyd saw a walking stick floating in one of the Gomersal mill dams of Messrs. Thomas Burnley and Sons, the employers of Thomas’ father. The dam was within 50 yards of what had been the Dawson family home around three weeks earlier. Nelson then saw Thomas’ body lying face down in the 37 inch deep water. He called for help and the body was retrieved.

The inquest, held at the White Horse Inn in Gomersal, (a place mentioned in connection with John Heaton later on in this piece), reached a verdict that Thomas had drowned himself when of unsound mind.


The third death occurred on Monday, 17 May 1880. The victim was 20-year-old blacksmith’s striker James Flanagan.

James was the son of Irish farmer Andrew Flanagan. He lodged with his cousin Catherine, and her husband Michael Fallon, at Carr Street, Heckmondwike. He had been employed by Heaton and Sons for around 18 months, working alongside Staincliffe blacksmith Paul Perkin.

That Monday morning, at around 6am, James left home for work. A couple of hours later he was helping Perkin with the removal of a one-ton seak press. This was a type of press used to extract oil. Joseph Heaton arrived on the scene and took over the supervision of proceedings.

The machine was put on an 18 inch high horse-drawn cart, called a bogey. It proved a difficult operation, due to the slippery surface, the downward incline, and the fact there was only limited room for the horses to work. Various permutations were tried, one horse, then two, then back to one, with more men called to help push, then sent away again. Eventually it was left to Joseph Heaton to take the horse, with Paul Perkin on one side of the bogey and James on the other. According to Perkin, Joseph told the pair to try to keep in front of the bogey, but for some reason James continued alongside the back wheel.

Initially the bogey moved slowly and steadily. As they neared the crane Joseph Heaton pulled the horse to one side to avoid some casks. He then stopped. At this point the press began to wobble, before it, and the bogey, overturned. There was a scream.

Joseph ran towards James who was on the ground, pinned down by the press. Men were quickly summoned to prize the press off James, who was then placed on a trap sent for by Joseph, and taken to the old Batley Cottage Hospital where he was admitted at about 9.40am. This was the original cottage hospital which opened at Hillfield House, Knowles Hill, in August 1878, prior to the opening of the purpose-build Carlinghow Hill hospital on 27 March 1883.

A map showing the location of the old Batley Cottage Hospital which was in operation between 1878 and 1883 – Ordnance Survey Maps – 25 inch England and Wales, 1841-1952, Yorkshire CCXXXII.11 (Batley; Morley), Surveyed: 1889 to 1892, Published: 1894 – National Library of Scotland, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence

James remained conscious almost to the end, but in great pain. He died just before noon. The inquest, which was held in the hospital on 19 May 1880, reached a verdict of “accidentally crushed.” James is buried in Heckmondwike cemetery.


The next fatality occurred six months later in very peculiar circumstances, and this time it was Joseph Heaton. Joseph was the brother who conducted most of the firm’s chemical experiments, to establish their properties for grease extraction. He had been involved in chemistry for around 26 years.14

At 11am on 22 November 1880, Joseph was in the inner office busy conducting some experiments with bisulphide of carbon. Used as a solvent, this was a toxic, volatile and highly flammable liquid. The fumes could act as an irritant and an anaesthetic. It was a liquid though that Joseph was accustomed to working with. However this Monday morning things went dramatically wrong.

At around 11.15am, somehow the liquid ignited and the copper vessel containing it dropped to the floor. Eliza Coleman, who was at the sewing machine in the inner office, became aware of a commotion and saw Joseph blowing on a small flame in the pan on the floor. Joseph would have been fully aware of the danger a fire posed – after all, the chemical works had suffered significant damage and financial losses before. He attempted to pick up the copper container but dropped it, burning his hand.

At this point Eliza, fearing a fire was inevitable, broke the office window and climbed out. Luckily in the process she avoided inhaling any fumes.

Joseph made another attempt to get the blazing pan out of the building. This time he successfully reached the office yard, where other workers quickly extinguished the flames. The office itself incurred minimal damage, but Joseph had inhaled the fumes.

Joseph took some castor oil before lunch, and remained at work that day. His brother John said he seemed perfectly composed and rational when he left him just before 4pm. However, when his other brother, George, enquired after him that afternoon he told him “I feel it on my stomach and I have burnt my hand in carrying it out when on fire.15

Joseph returned to his Hollinbank Terrace home as usual that evening. John, who lived next door but one, on hearing George’s account, went round to see how Joseph was and found him in bed conscious, but breathing very heavily. Charles Eyre Counsellor, a Heckmondwike surgeon and apothecary, arrived just after 1am and prescribed some remedies. John left at around 2.20am, but called back at just gone 7am, around the same time as Counsellor returned. By now Joseph was unconscious. Joseph died at around 8.30am that Tuesday morning, 23 November 1880.

The inquest was held at the Junction Inn, Heckmondwike, with the jury viewing Joseph’s body at his Hollinbank Terrace home. Their verdict was Jospeh died from inhaling bisulphide of carbon.

The copyright on this image is owned by Betty Longbottom and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Joseph left a widow, Ann (née Oliver) who he had married on 15 June 1871 at Barnby Dun, near Doncaster. The couple had two young daughters, Frances Jane, born in 1872, and Annie Elizabeth, born in 1874. Joseph was buried in Heckmondwike Cemetery on 26 November 1885.


The fifth death took place five years later in horrific circumstances. This time John Heaton was the victim.

John married Elizabeth Swalwell on 31 March 1870 at St Mary’s parish church, Scarborough. Children followed regularly, including Lizzie Maud (born in 1871), Bertha (born in 1872), Laura (born 1873), May (born 1874), Walter Leonard (born and died in 1875, age 3 weeks), Isabel (born 1876) and Jane Harriet (born in 1879, and died age 6 months in 1880).

On 14 August 1876 he was fortunate to escape serious injury. Returning from the White Horse Inn in Gomersal (the inquest location for former employee Thomas Dawson a shade under three years earlier) that Monday evening, the dog cart in which he travelled lurched violently as it turned into Muffitt Lane, throwing him out of the carriage seat and into the wall of a house. The driverless horse and trap safely made its way back to White Lee, whilst John lay unconscious. He did make a full recovery, but it was a narrow escape. In November 1885 his luck ran out.

At around 7pm on Saturday 7 November 1885 a huge fire broke out in the refining and oil press parts of the Heaton Brothers works. Fuelled by the combustible materials – the estimate was between 200 to 300 tons of oil went up that night – flames illuminated the skyline for miles around. Thousands of people from Heckmondwike and Batley congregated to witness the scene of destruction. Fire brigades from the Crystal and Union Mills (Messrs Kelley and Sons, Heckmondwike), the Liverpool, London and Globe Insurance Society, Birstall, Spen Valley Millowners and Staincliffe Mills all converged on the scene. When the flames were finally extinguished damage was estimated to be between £10,000 to £15,000.16

George Heaton was in Scarborough at the time, so was well out of the way. Only an hour or so before the fire broke out John had gone to Leeds for an evening out. His wife though sent a wire through to his destination and he returned home as quickly as possible by train and then cab from Batley railway station. It was a fateful decision. One only wonders how much his wife regretted her contacting him as events played out.

John dashed to the works to join in with the firefighting efforts. Despite having a sup of gin, he was described as excited, rather than the worse for liquor. With flames in the refining part now abating, the press area became the focus of these efforts. John formed the head of the chain along which buckets of water were passed, and it was he who took responsibility for throwing the water to douse the flames. He stood near a disused tank, the top of which was level with the floor – yet this was never considered dangerous. Ordinarily the tank contained cold water, but the fire caused pans of oil to boil over, and 18 inches of this boiling liquid now formed a layer on the water. By this stage John had thrown between 30-40 buckets of water. In the process of throwing yet another he slipped on a piece of zinc roofing and fell sideways into the tank. Quickly men pulled him out, but he was covered in hot oil with the majority of the scalds being to his arms, legs and face.

Despite his injuries John managed to walk back to his Hollinbank Terrace home. Dr Lee attended him, but John died in his home at about 3pm on Sunday 8 November. He was 44 years old, the same age as his brother Joseph was when he died.

The houses where all three Heaton brothers lived and died – Photo by Jane Roberts

Another inquest, another hostelry – this time the Cricketers’ Arms Hotel, Heckmondwike. The jury returned a verdict of “accidentally scalded.

John was interred in Heckmondwike Cemetery on 9 November 1885. His wife, Elizabeth, was in the early months of pregnancy. She gave birth to a daughter, Georgina, on 28 May 1886. On 18 September that year the family were back in Heckmondwike Cemetery once more – this time for Georgina’s burial.


The surviving Heaton brother, George, did not carry on with the family business. In 1887 the chemical and oil refining works, along with other ventures including the farm, the Copperas Works in Roberttown, and several properties, were all put up for sale.17 In the 1891 census he is described as a retired manufacturing chemist. In his retirement George split his time between Heckmondwike and Scarborough.

The Heaton headstone in Heckmondwike cemetery, pictured in detail below, gives clues to one of George’s major interests – Freemasonry. Both he and his brother Joseph, right up until their deaths, were members of the Amphibious Lodge in Heckmondwike. In 1896 George became Grand Master of the Lodge.

George died suddenly on 22 January 1898. He left a widow Mary (née Akeroyd) who he married at St Paul’s in Huddersfield on 25 November 1868. The couple’s two sons predeceased George. James William died, age 8, on 24 June 1878; Albert Edward died on 13 July 1879 just short of his fourth birthday. Both were buried in Heckmondwike cemetery and are commemorated on the family headstone.

George’s obituary appeared in The Freemason. It read:

Obituary.
BRO. GEORGE HEATON.

Bro. George Heaton, of Hollinbank-terrace, Heckmondwike, died somewhat suddenly on Saturday morning, the 22nd instant. He was 60 years of age, and was formerly in business as a manufacturing chemist and oil extractor. Bro. Heaton, who leaves a widow but no family, was formerly a member of the Board of Health,18 and for a while took an active interest in the Chamber of Commerce.19 It was in connection with Freemasonry, however, that he was best known. He joined the Amphibious Lodge, No. 258, Heckmondwike a quarter of a century ago, and has been a munificent patron of Masonic Charities. A few years ago he contributed 1200 guineas to the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution, and quite recently he gave 1300 guineas to the Royal Masonic Institution for Girls. He was a P[ast] M[aster] of his lodge, and had also held a prominent position in the Provincial Grand Lodge of West Yorkshire. Although his death was unexpected, he has not enjoyed good health for some time.20

Shortly after his death an oil portrait of George was completed. Commissioned during his lifetime, he was depicted in full regalia with decorations and seals of office as Provincial Grand Deacon of West Yorkshire. The full sized figure, measuring 7 feet 6 inches by 5 feet 6 inches, was hung in the Heckmondwike Masonic Hall. If this portrait still exists, and if there is an image of it, I would love to know. It would be great to include it as part of this blog.


Not including that final catastrophic 1914 explosion, the above sequence of events with numerous fires at the chemical works, and four of the five deaths being work-related but all in entirely different ways, shows the dangers our ancestors faced in days before health and safety. And this sequence was nothing out of the ordinary, as the newspaper accounts of accidents across factories, mills, mines and other workplaces in this period testify. Perhaps what is noteworthy about the Heaton Chemical Works story is the fact that it cost two of the three brothers their lives. Perhaps George made the correct decision in quitting when he did.


I will leave you with one final series of images for the Heaton family: the two family headstones with their inscriptions for James and his sons Joseph, George and John. These lie in the shadow of the now derelict Twin Chapels in Heckmondwike cemetery.


Notes:
1. Inquest notes, West Riding Coroner’s Notebook, West Yorkshire Archives, Ref: C493/K/2/1/86;
2. It is unclear if grease is a separate substance, or if it is a local word for oil;
3. Leeds Mercury, 9 March 1863;
4. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 15 February 1879;
5. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 21 February 1874;
6. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 7 February 1874;
7. Using the MeasuringWorth website at https://www.measuringworth.com/index.php, this equates to a real price today of £935,300;
8. £1,500 is equates to a real price today of £153,600 using the above MeasuringWorth website;
9. Sources from the time give her name as Ann Gill, widow from Birstall. After David Miller’s death, Ann remarried in April 1866 at Weeton. Her husband was Samuel Gill. He died in 1868. In 1871 Ann is living with Edward Gill at Hightown, described as his wife. They actually married in August 1873 at St Peter’s, Birstall;
10. Inquest notes, West Yorkshire Archives, Ref: C493/K/2/1/36;
11. It’s not clear from the reports, but given George was coming from Dewsbury Moor it is likely he was approaching the Butcher’s Arms crossroads from the Dewsbury Gate Road side, directly opposite Staincliffe Hall Road;
12. Inquest notes, West Riding Coroner’s Notebook, West Yorkshire Archives, Ref: C493/K/2/1/36;
13. Inquest notes, West Riding Coroner’s Notebook, West Yorkshire Archives, Ref: C493/K/2/1/53;
14. Inquest notes, West Riding Coroner’s Notebook, West Yorkshire Archives, Ref: C493/K/2/1/86;
15. Ibid;
16. Using the top-end estimate of £15,000, this equates to an eye-watering real price today of £1,632,000 using the above MeasuringWorth website;
17. Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 1 and 5 February 1887;
18. Heckmondwike, where he served one term of three years;
19. Again in Heckmondwike;
20. The Freemason, 28 January 1898.

Other Sources:
1841 – 1891 Censuses;
Baptism Registers – Birstall St Peter’s, Leicester All Saints and Staincliffe Christ Church;
Directories;
• Freemasonry Membership Registers
;
GRO Indexes;
Heckmondwike Cemetery Burial Registers;
Marriage Registers – Barnby Dun Parish Church, Birstall St Peter’s, Huddersfield St Pauls and Scarborough St Mary’s;
National Library of Scotland Maps;
• National Probate Calendar
;
• Newspapers, various dates – including Batley News, Batley Reporter and Guardian, Bradford Observer, Dewsbury Reporter, Huddersfield Chronicle, Huddersfield Daily Examiner, Leeds Mercury, Leeds Times, Wakefield Free Press, and Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer;
• West Riding Coroner’s Notebook;
• Wikimedia Commons;

St Mary of the Angels, Batley: One-Place Study Update – 2 to 31 January 2021 Additions

St Mary of the Angels Church, Photo by Jane Roberts

This is the latest update of the pages relating to my Batley St Mary’s one-place study, the details of which I announced here

During the past month I have added eight pages. These include seven weekly newspaper summaries. There is also one biography, that of William Frederick Townsend. This was one of several name and name variants used by this mystery Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve man with theatre connections, who is buried beneath a CWGC headstone in Batley cemetery.

I have also identified more men who served and survived, and have accordingly updated that page.

Below is the full list of pages to date. I have annotated the *NEW* ones, plus the *UPDATED* page, so you can easily pick these out.

1. About my St Mary of the Angels Catholic Church War Memorial One-Place Study;

Batley Descriptions – Directories etc.
2. 1914: Borough of Batley – Town Information from the Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health.

Biographies: Men Associated with St Mary’s Who Died but Who are Not on the Memorial
3. Reginald Roberts
4. William Frederick Townsend *NEW*

Biographies: The War Memorial Men
5. Austin Nolan
6. Michael Brannan
7. Michael Horan
8. Patrick Naifsey
9. Thomas Curley

Biographies: Those who Served and Survived (this includes a list of those identified to date and who will later have dedicated biographical pages) *UPDATED*
10. James Delaney

Burials, Cemeteries, Headstones and MIs
11. Cemetery and Memorial Details
12. War Memorial Chronology of Deaths

During This Week
13. 1914, 8 August – Batley News
14. 1914, 15 August – Batley News
15. 1914, 22 August – Batley News
16. 1914, 29 August – Batley News
17. 1914, 5 September – Batley News
18. 1914, 12 September – Batley News
19. 1914, 19 September – Batley News
20. 1914, 26 September – Batley News
21. 1914, 3 October – Batley News *NEW*
22. 1914, 10 October – Batley News *NEW*
23. 1914, 17 October – Batley News
24. 1914, 24 October – Batley News
25. 1914, 31 October – Batley News
26. 1914, 7 November – Batley News
27. 1914, 14 November – Batley News
28. 1914, 21 November – Batley News
29. 1914, 28 November – Batley News
30. 1914, 5 December – Batley News
31. 1914, 12 December – Batley News
32. 1914, 19 December – Batley News
33. 1914, 24 December – Batley News
34. 1915, 2 January – Batley News *NEW*
35. 1915, 9 January – Batley News *NEW*
36. 1915, 16 January – Batley News *NEW*
37. 1915, 23 January – Batley News *NEW*
38. 1915, 30 January – Batley News *NEW*

Miscellany of Information
39. The Controversial Role Played by St Mary’s Schoolchildren in the 1907 Batley Pageant
40. The Great War: A Brief Overview of What Led Britain into the War
41. Willie and Edward Barber – Poems

St Mary of the Angels, Batley: One-Place Study Update – 6 December 2020 to 1 January 2021 Additions

St Mary of the Angels Church, Photo by Jane Roberts

This is the latest update of the pages relating to my Batley St Mary’s one-place study, the details of which I announced here.

During the last few week I have added seven pages. These include six weekly newspaper summaries. There is also one biography, that of Patrick Naifsey, which encompasses apparitions, miracles, evictions, Kipling and an Irish Great War poet, as well as the County Mayo/Batley connection.

I have also identified more men who served and survived, and have accordingly updated that page.

Below is the full list of pages to date. I have annotated the *NEW* ones, plus the *UPDATED* page, so you can easily pick these out.

1. About my St Mary of the Angels Catholic Church War Memorial One-Place Study;

Batley Descriptions – Directories etc.
2. 1914: Borough of Batley – Town Information from the Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health.

Biographies: Men Associated with St Mary’s Who Died but Who are Not on the Memorial
3. Reginald Roberts

Biographies: The War Memorial Men
4. Austin Nolan
5. Michael Brannan
6. Michael Horan
7. Patrick Naifsey *NEW*
8. Thomas Curley

Biographies: Those who Served and Survived (this includes a list of those identified to date and who will later have dedicated biographical pages) *UPDATED*
9. James Delaney

Burials, Cemeteries, Headstones and MIs
10. Cemetery and Memorial Details
11. War Memorial Chronology of Deaths

During This Week
12. 1914, 8 August – Batley News
13. 1914, 15 August – Batley News
14. 1914, 22 August – Batley News
15. 1914, 29 August – Batley News
16. 1914, 5 September – Batley News
17. 1914, 12 September – Batley News
18. 1914, 19 September – Batley News *NEW*
19. 1914, 26 September – Batley News *NEW*
20. 1914, 17 October – Batley News
21. 1914, 24 October – Batley News
22. 1914, 31 October – Batley News
23. 1914, 7 November – Batley News
24. 1914, 14 November – Batley News
25. 1914, 21 November – Batley News
26. 1914, 28 November – Batley News
27. 1914, 5 December – Batley News *NEW*
28. 1914, 12 December – Batley News *NEW*
29. 1914, 19 December – Batley News *NEW*
30. 1914, 24 December – Batley News *NEW*

Miscellany of Information
31. The Controversial Role Played by St Mary’s Schoolchildren in the 1907 Batley Pageant
32. The Great War: A Brief Overview of What Led Britain into the War
33. Willie and Edward Barber – Poems

St Mary of the Angels, Batley: One-Place Study Update – 16 October 2020 to 5 December 2020 Additions

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

Although you may think my blog posts appear to have been thin on the ground of late, the pages relating to my one-place study, as announced here, have more than made up for it. Since its official launch on 15 October 2020 there have been 22 additions.

These are the pages to date. I have indicated the 22 additions.

1. About my St Mary of the Angels Catholic Church War Memorial One-Place Study;

Batley Descriptions – Directories etc.
2. 1914: Borough of Batley – Town Information from the Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health. *NEW*

Biographies: Men Associated with St Mary’s Who Died but Who are Not on the Memorial
3. Reginald Roberts *NEW*

Biographies: The War Memorial Men
4. Austin Nolan *NEW*
5. Michael Brannan *NEW*
6. Michael Horan
7. Thomas Curley

Biographies: Those who Served and Survived (this includes a list of those identified to date and who will later have dedicated biographical pages) *NEW*
8. James Delaney *NEW*

Burials, Cemeteries, Headstones and MIs
9. Cemetery and Memorial Details *NEW*
10. War Memorial Chronology of Deaths *NEW*

During This Week
11. 1914, 8 August – Batley News *NEW*
12. 1914, 15 August – Batley News *NEW*
13. 1914, 22 August – Batley News *NEW*
14. 1914, 29 August – Batley News *NEW*
15. 1914, 5 September – Batley News *NEW*
16. 1914, 12 September – Batley News *NEW*
17. 1914, 17 October – Batley News *NEW*
18. 1914, 24 October – Batley News *NEW*
19. 1914, 31 October – Batley News *NEW*
20. 1914, 7 November – Batley News *NEW*
21. 1914, 14 November – Batley News *NEW*
22. 1914, 21 November – Batley News *NEW*
23. 1914, 28 November – Batley News *NEW*

Miscellany of Information
24. The Controversial Role Played by St Mary’s Schoolchildren in the 1907 Batley Pageant
25. The Great War: A Brief Overview of What Led Britain into the War *NEW*
26. Willie and Edward Barber – Poems

Healey’s Peace Festival of 1919

As a lifelong Healey, Batley resident, a treasured piece of the village’s history which I own is a commemorative mug. It is linked to Healey’s peace celebrations, which marked the end of the Great War.

Healey Peace Celebrations Commemorative Beaker

Given it is the Remembrance period, it seems a fitting time to share the history behind the commemorative mug, or beaker as it was termed at the time.

If you have Healey, or Batley, links you may recognise some of the names or the streets mentioned in the Healey Peace Festival story. I certainly do. Many of the surnames were familiar ones to me growing up in the area over half a century later. And the procession passed along the streets of my childhood and youth, and by my current home.

First of all to set the scene. Even before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919, the Treaty which was to officially end the war with Germany, the country was gearing up to celebrate. The government was keen that any local festivities should be put on hold for a collective celebration of peace by the entire country. Their initial plans were for national celebrations over four days at the beginning of August, to coincide with the summer Bank Holiday on 4 August. But this was reduced to one day of simultaneous celebrations across the Empire on 19 July, with King George V proclaiming the day would be a Bank Holiday and Public Holiday throughout the United Kingdom.

But even though 19 July 1919 was the official national ‘Peace Day’ this did not put a stop to the extension of local celebrations, in line with initial plans, over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

And this was the case in Healey, Batley, which held its Peace Festival on Saturday 2 August 1919

The Batley News of 9 August 1919 reported Healey’s celebrations as follows. Note spelling and punctuation is as per the article, and some of the print is not legible:

HEALEY’S PEACE FESTIVAL
Brilliant and Entertaining Spectacle.
Glorious Feast for the Children.
Fancy Costumes and Sports Results.

There was an atmosphere of joy in Healey on Saturday, when the little village threw itself heart and soul into Peace rejoicing. The streets were gaily decorated with flags and bunting, and several of the residents had transformed the appearance of their houses into that of fairy dwellings. Flags were flying from the windows, and the fronts of the houses were a mass of red, white and blue.

When the procession assembled in White Lee Road at two o’clock the weather was somewhat undecided, and it looked, indeed, as if the workers’ splendid efforts were going to be spoiled. Luckily, however, there were only one or two showers, and everything passed on beautifully. By 2.30 the procession was organised, and proceeded along White Lee Road, Healey Lane, Deighton Lane, Trafalgar Street, West Park Road, Healey Lane, to Mr. A. Oldroyd’s field (kindly lent for the occasion), where the children sang the National Anthem and “O God, our Help in ages past,” under the conductorship of Mr. J. H. Wagner.

Mr. W. T. Exley (President) walked at the head of a picturesque procession, and he was accompanied by a little girl dressed as Red Riding Hood, and a boy dressed as Boy Blue. Decorated bicycles and tricycles followed, some gaily attired in patriotic colours, and others covered with charming flowers, A [?]der in khaki was heartily applauded. He had built his machine to represent a tank, and with the guns projecting from the framework, the machine looked very warlike.

There was a blaze of colour amongst the boys and girls, who represented various Allied nations, including Japan, India, Spain and China. Several boys and girls were also attired in Scotch costumes. Britannia followed, and behind her was a decorated wagon containing young children. A novel and interesting group of children with dolls’ perambulators presented a pretty appearance. The little carriages were tastefully adorned with flowers and ribands. One of the turnouts was decorated as a Red Cross carrier.

Humorous characters followed, and after them came boys and girls in historical dresses, including courtiers, etc. John Bull was a striking figure, and succeeding a motor wagon load of children who seemed to enjoy the fun, was Liversedge Parish Church Boys’ Brigade drum and fife band, who were followed by pierrots and humorous characters, conspicuous amongst whom was an impersonator of Charlie Chaplin. One member of the procession represented the Kaiser. A competitor who caused much merriment wore a fireman’s hat and coat and a Scotch kilt, with khaki puttees. A woman dressed in red, white and blue material, and wheeling two rag dolls in a carriage, also raised roars of merriment.

The Prize-Winners.

Prizes were awarded for the three best competitors in all the classes, and the following were the awards:-
Decorated bicycle or tricycle, for boys under 16. – 1, Albert Oldfield; 2, Fred Wadsworth; 3, Jos. Preston.
Best dressed Allied girl, under 16. – 1, Dorothy Tattersfield; 2, Grace Auty; 3, Kathleen Blackburn.
Best dressed Allied boy, under 16. – 1, Walter Senior; 2, Wm. J. Newsome; 3, Harold Tattersfield.
Best child’s doll turnout, girls under 11. – 1, Kathleen Armitage; 2, F. M. Walker; 3, Florence Senior.
Basket of flowers. – 1, Floris Robinson; 2, Esther Blackburn; 3, Kathleen Raine.
Best dressed humorous boy under 16. – 1, Harold Boocock; 2, Herbert Auty; 3, James A. Illingworth.
Best dressed historical boy under 16. – 1, Lawrence Smith; 2, Clifford Newsome; 3, Willie Sykes.
Best dressed novel boy, under 16. – 1, Wilfred Bald[w]in; 2, Ernest Riley; 3, G. Tattersfield.
Best dressed humorous girl under 16. – 1, Ivy Bailey. [No other names].
Best dressed historical girl under 16. – 1, Madge Barber; 2, Edna Bruce; 3, Barbara Tattersfield.
Best dressed novel girl under 16. – 1, May King; 2, Lilian Trott; 3, May Swallow.
Best dressed humorous gentleman. – 1, Mrs. Illingworth; [yes, it does say Mrs.] 2, Smith Senior; 3, Percy Riley.
Best dressed humorous ladies. 1, Mr. Illingworth; [yes, it does say Mr.] 2, Mrs. Swallow; 3, Mary Fisher.

The judges, Messrs. J. F. Whitaker, A. Jowett and F. W. Gaunt, had a very difficult task to perform in selecting the winners owing to the keen competition, and both winners and losers merited high praise. The prizes in each class were of the value of 10s., 5s. And 2s. 6d.

After the judging, tea was provided in a large marquee for boys and girls under 16 who had taken part in the procession. Children who were unable to attend owing to sickness or employment will receive due consideration if their cases have been notified to the officials.

Interesting Sports.

In the evening sports, including flat races, sack races, skipping and three-legged races, were held, and suitable prizes given.

The winners were:-

60 Yards Flat Race, girls under 9. – 1 Olive Gibson, 2 Elsie Barber, 3 [?]y Sykes.
60 Yards Flat Race, boys under 9. – 1 Geo. Atkinson, 2 Fred Wadsworth, 3 Frank Pyatt.
80 Yards Flat Race, girls under 12. – 1 Alice Sykes, 2 Edna Bruce, 3 Elsie Lee.
80 Yards Flat Race, boys under 12. – 1 John Rhodes, 2 Laurence Blackburn, 3 Ronald Kershaw.
Wheelbarrow Race, boys over 12. – 1 W. Parker and C. Preston, 2 [Blank] Flowers and Frank Scott, 3 [Blank] Gibson and J. Robinson.
Potato Race, girls under 12. – 1 Gerty Parker, 2 Dorothy Wilkinson, 3 Elsie Lee.
Three-legged Race, boys under 12. – 1 J. Rhodes and N. Scott, 2 Horace Greenald and R. Wharton, 3 Lawrence Blackburn and [Blank] Boocock.
80 Yards Skipping Race, girls under 12. – 1 Edna Bruce, 2 Elsie Lee, 3 Alice Sykes.
60 Yards Sack Race, boys under 12. – 1 Ralph Ward, 2 W. Baldwin, 3 John Rhodes.
100 Yards Flat Race, boys over 12. – 1 Geo. Tattersfield, 2 Clifford Preston, 3 M. Gibson.
100 Yards Skipping Race, girls over 12. – 1 Marion Barker, 2 Ivy Bailey, 3 Dorothy Tattersfield.
60 Yards Sack Race, boys over 12. – 1 Willie Parker, 2 Clifford Preston, 3 M. Gibson.
100 Yards Flat Race, girls over 12. – 1 Lilian Sykes, 2 Louise Robinson, 3 Marion Barker.
Three-legged race, girls over 12. – 1 Muriel Pyatt and Lilian Trott, 2 Dorothy Sykes and Annie Autie, 3 May King and Rene Redfearn.

The children hugely enjoyed Professor Candler’s famous punch-and-judy show. There was also dancing round the Maypole by a number of children. Batley Old Band played for dancing. To complete an excellent day’s enjoyment there was a grand firework display after ten o’clock.

A beaker souvenir will be presented to each child under 16 resident in Healey, at an early date.

Hard-Working Officials.

The following are the officers of the committee, who worked hard for the success of the proceedings, along with others:- Messers. W. T. Exley (president), C. P. Tattersfield and J. A. Oldroyd (joint treasurers), and E. Bruce and H. G. Auty (joint secretaries). The officials on Saturday were: Chief marshall, Mr J. A. Blackburn; assistant marshall, Mr. Saml. Brearley; band, Mr. J. H. Wagner; decorated cycles, Mr. P. Ward; Allied girls (Mr. J. A. Blackburn (D.L); Allied boys, Mr. A. Newsome; child’s turnout, Mr. W. Whiteley; flower girls, Mr. Pinder; decorated wagon, Mr. F. Jowett; humorous boys, Mr. G. H. Wilson; historical boys, Mr. H. Haley; novel boys, Mr. G. Naylor; humorous girls, Mr. Colbeck, B. Barber; historical girls, Mr. H. Sykes; novel girls, Mr. A. Gaunt; motor waggon (children), Mr. F. Jowett; drum and Fife band, Messrs. Parkinson and W. T. Stone; adult gentlemen, Mr. J. Stone; adult ladies, Mr. C. H. Preston; stewards, Messrs. J. A. Tattersfield and J. W. Haigh; competitors’ stewards, Messrs. Battye, Pinder and Preston; bell men, Messrs. Cordingley and Bennett; prize stewards, Rev. Geo. Trippett and Mr. A, Oldroyd; handicappers, Messrs. E. Robinson and C. Buckley; starter, Mr. J. A. Blackburn (D.L.).

I must admit reading the article gave me an immense sense of pride in the Healey of my childhood. It even reminded me of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Celebrations in 1977 at the now gone Harrison’s Social Club and fields on Healey Lane. Us children were given commemorative mugs then. Sadly I’m not sure what happened to mine.

But it is one of these antique 1919 Peace beakers that I have, presented to one of the Healey under 16s over a century ago. I’m not sure who owned it originally. But I will treasure it. And it will be handed on to future generations with Healey village links.

Healey Peace Celebrations Commemorative Beaker

Announcing a New Family and Local History Venture

If you regularly read my blog, you may have noticed I’ve been quiet on the posting front of late. There is a reason for it.

My blog does regularly contain stories relating to the Batley Irish community in the late 19th and early 20th century. Well, in future I’ve decided to consolidate this research and these stories into a formal one-place study. I’ve decided to chose St Mary’s War Memorial as the focus. It’s in the parish I most associate with my family – in effect since the parish’s inception. I see the study as a way to examine the life and times of the Catholic community in which my ancestors lived.

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

The study though will not be totally devoted to the Great War. I see the War Memorial as a way to investigate the history of a community not normally the focus of history – even within my home town. And the study will not be centred around those who normally feature in books – the civic leaders, the mill and mine owners. It will primarily be looking at ordinary, working-class people living in extraordinary times – both in terms of wider national and international events, as well as against the backdrop of the rapid expansion of the town.

Yes, it will look at the part played in the Great War by this Catholic community. But that is only one strand. In addition to biographies of the men, I will be researching their wider families. I will be mapping where they lived, investigating their occupations, and looking at the wider parish history and community – including that all-important migration from Ireland. In the process of my research I hope to identify those from the parish who served and survived, and weave their stories into the study. And I will be conducting a wide range of data analysis to build up a picture of the Catholic community in Batley.

If you look at the top of my website (possibly in the Menu section, depending on how you are viewing) you will see there is a tab entitled St Mary of the Angels Catholic Church War Memorial, Batley – One-Place Study. Click on that and you will find a number of sub-pages relating to the study. It is still early days and there is much work to be done. But so far there are the following pieces under these various sub-pages:

I will be adding more in the coming months.

The downside is because they are not classed as blog posts (although that’s in effect what they are) they will not feature in the blog section of my website, so you will not automatically see them in chronological posting order at the front end of my website. To read them you need to click on the one-place study page.

The good news is that I will regularly write a blog post signposting this new material (along the lines of this one). I will also index the posts as usual, under the Blog Index page (again, for this, see the top menu of my website).

And I will be continuing to blog regularly on other topics as usual. So really the one-place study is bonus material.

Hidden History of Batley: A Festive Fireworks Fatality

Festive fireworks on days other than bonfire night are not a modern phenomenon. And if you thought events to promote Batley and boost town trade, such as Batley Festival and Batley Vintage Day, were a 21st century invention, think again.

In the late 19th century, backed by an ambitious and forward-thinking Council, local tradesmen regularly promoted events to draw visitors into town. But the 1886 annual event is memorable for its tragic consequences, ones which would cast a shadow over the town for years to come.

On the 23 and 24 December 1886, the latest town promotional event was in full flow. The shops were decorated, two local brass bands paraded the streets and Commercial Street was partly illuminated by the marvellous innovation of electric lights. The culmination of the two days of festivities, drawing everything to a sensational close, was to be a grand firework display, scheduled for 8pm in the market place on Christmas Eve.

An established family firm of pyrotechnists from Dalton, Huddersfield, were engaged to provide this visual delight. Joseph Womersley Potter had been in the firework business for 15 years. His son Charles Henry Potter, assisted by another son Thomas and a third man, Joseph Pinder, were responsible for Batley’s entertainment. It promised to be an unmissable display, packed with rockets, mortars and spinning wheels.

The blaze of glory to round everything off, and send all home happy, was a volley of around 40 rockets ascending into the night sky, centred around triumphal arch with the motto ‘The Town and Trade of Batley.’ At the back and front of the rocket display stood two mortars which, when ignited by the sparks from the rockets, would each fire towards the heavens a massive shell, exploding to provide a final meteoric shower of lights. This was to be the unforgettable climax of the evening. Unforgettable, as it turned out, for the wrong reasons.

The rain of the day cleared, heralding a clear, crisp winter’s evening, with frost quickly hardening the ground. There was no moonlight, but thousands of stars twinkled in the night sky. A crowd numbering several thousand assembled to watch the spectacle. The focal point was the area around the firework display. A special enclosure was made to encircle this area, on ground between the Hanover Street Congregational Church and the Market and Town Halls. But such was the crush of eager spectators that barriers were pulled down, and some intrepid folk even climbed over railings and entered the Congregational Church grounds to get a better view.

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

Among the crowds congregated by the now-demolished Market Hall were six local lads, whose emotions within minutes would switch from curiosity, laughter, and eyes-wide-open wonderment to unimaginable horror.

They included two youngsters from Wards Hill: 9-year-old Schofield Senior, the son of Hannah Senior; and John William Tatham, age 10, the son of County Mayo-born couple Michael and Margaret Tatham [1].

Two of the other boys lived at Woodwell: George Bates, age 14, was son of Mary Jackson and her coal mining husband Henry; and 10-year-old Robert Cassidy, the son of John and Emma, was the brother of Thomas Patrick Cassidy, the man destined to become Batley’s famous rat-catcher.

14-year-old Charles Henry Pinder, the son of coal miner Andrew Pinder, lived at Woodkirk. His mother Hannah Jane had died over six years earlier.

The sixth lad, 13-year-old Liversedge-born Frank Fearnley Sykes, lived at Spring Gardens with his mother, Ellen, and siblings. These included his younger brother Herbert. His father, a leather currier named George, died only the previous month. As a result, Frank quit school to help his mother earn money by delivering the bread and tea cakes which she baked. He left home at about 8pm that evening, bound for the market place, no doubt looking forward to an evening with his friends and a temporary diversion from everyday life.

At just before 9pm, Charles Henry Potter lit the rockets for the grand finale. Thousands of pairs of eyes turned heavenwards to watch the dazzling spectacle. However, in a matter of seconds, a few of the more eagle-eyed in the crowd spotted things had not gone to plan. One of the mortar shells, instead of rising into the air, fired out horizontally, spiralling towards the crowd near the Market Hall, sparks emitting in all directions. Hoards rushed backwards in panic. John Bruce of Clay Fold in the Clark Green area of town, was one of the lucky ones. Standing in the area by the Market Hall, the missile passed to the left of him.

Batley Market Hall (my own collection) – origin unknown

Then the screams and cries of pain rang out in the clear night air, centred around several boys now lying on the ground. Frank Fearnley Sykes clutched at John Bruce pleading “O master, will you take me home?” Bruce asked him “Whose bairn are you lad?” Before fainting, Frank managed to say “I’m George Sykes’s, of Spring Gardens.

West Riding Police Constable George Edward Horner was in the crowd. He assisted several of the injured boys, four being conveyed to their homes on stretchers for treatment. He then went up to the relatively recently opened Batley Cottage Hospital, on Carlinghow Hill, where the two most seriously injured boys were taken. 

By far the worse of these was Frank Fearnley Sykes. In extreme shock, and complaining of only sickness but no pain, he had suffered several burns including severe ones to the inner and upper parts of his thighs. And beneath the sheets of his hospital bed, his shattered, gunpowder-blackened legs were a mangled mess of tissue. Nothing could be done.

Dr Robert Dex Keighley (a former Mayor of Batley) stayed with him till around 11 o’clock on Christmas Eve, until Frank finally slipped from life. After he had left home only three hours earlier, a strong, healthy lad, his mother never saw him alive again. 

In an odd aside, it was noted a policeman brought home one of Frank’s badly damaged boots later that night, and a girl fetched the other one to Ellen the following morning. Was this as much a commentary on the value of boots in this period, as a show of compassion and thoughtfulness towards a grieving mother? Boots were not disposable commodities. They were expensive, and essential for work and school. I’ve seen a local school log book in this period full of entries about children unable to attend school in winter due to a lack of boots. They were handed down, repaired time upon time, and passed on after death.

And, in addition to the overwhelming sense of grief, death could drive a family into desperate poverty. In the space of a month, Ellen had lost her husband and son. Besides the loss of income resulting from the death of two main breadwinners, the cost of the actual funeral could be financially crippling. And this was a period of high mortality. So Ellen, like many other families, had taken out life insurance for her son to provide for a decent burial if the unimaginable should happen. Her 44-year-old husband was buried in Batley cemetery on 27 November 1886 and her 13-year-old son was buried in the same plot on 28 December 1886.

The inquest opened on Monday 27 December 1886, at the Wilton Arms and Bridge Hotel. No longer a pub, it still exists as a burger joint – ironically named Frankie’s. Because Frank’s death was a result of a gunpowder accident, a Home Office Inspector of Explosives needed to attend. The Christmas period delayed Royal Artillery Major J.P. Cundill’s appearance and, after hearing from Dr Keighley and Frank’s mother, the inquest was adjourned. It resumed on 31 December, and shifted to the more imposing surroundings of the Town Hall.

Batley Town Hall (my own collection) – origin unknown

The jury reached a verdict that Frank was accidentally injured by fireworks. They expressed the opinion that Charles Henry Potter had not used sufficient care in regard to the mortar. They also said that the fence around the enclosure had not offered sufficient protection to the public. The Jury Foreman, Councillor Isaac Barker, did not make any recommendations for future years as the jury hoped that this would be the last display of fireworks in Batley for some time.

So what happened to the other injured boys? 

Of those treated in hospital, Schofield Senior’s right leg was shattered from the knee downwards. On Christmas Day, in a critical condition, the limb was amputated. Thankfully, he did pull through. He earned his living as a tailor, went on to have a family and died in Huddersfield in January 1956.

George Bates was initially taken home suffering burns to his head, face and left leg, but then it was found he needed hospital treatment. He recovered, went on to work as a coal miner and married Sarah Ann Almond at Batley Parish Church in 1895. By 1911 the couple had six surviving children.

John William Tatham was one of the boys treated at home. His injuries were burns to his face and lower limbs.

Robert Cassidy also suffered burns to his head, arms, body and legs. He married Mary Jane Speight in Hunslet in 1907. He emigrated to Australia in 1910 and died in Queensland in February 1954.

Charles Henry Pinder suffered burns to his arms, head and face. He emigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he became a naturalised American citizen, was employed as a mill worker, married and raised a family. He died in May 1950.

And Frank Fearnley Sykes’ name lived on. His brother Herbert named his son, born on 17 February 1907, after him.

Sources:
These include various newspapers, the Coroner’s Notebook, censuses, GRO indexes, as well as parish, cemetery, migration, citizenship and burial records.
The OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

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

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

Just before 2pm on Wednesday 2 December 1914, a tremendous explosion occurred. It centred on the Hollinbank Lane area of Heckmondwike. The ferocity was so great it was felt 50 miles away. A yellow mist and smoke enveloped the area, and an awful stench permeated everywhere. It was the early months of the War and people feared a Zeppelin attack, or some form of enemy sabotage. Madame Personne, a refugee who had escaped war-torn Belgium, now living in the comparative safety of a White Lee cottage, fainted from shock.

Close to the epicentre of the blast, homes and workplaces suffered major damage: roofs and doors were blown off, crockery smashed, furniture was damaged, wooden partitions in buildings were torn down, gas street lamp lanterns broke and, within a three-mile radius, thousands of glass panes shattered. Many homes were rendered uninhabitable. The scene represented a war zone, more familiar in Belgium and France.

Arthur Barber described the damage to his home:

Our houses were wrecked, all the windows being out and the roofs broken through, and much damage done inside also….The kitchen door was blown straight off, and the pantry blown down, and the staircase was riven off the walls. The cellars are practically tumbling in. All the hen-pens were blown in pieces. And where all the hens are we don’t know it is impossible to sleep there, and we are staying with relatives.

Collections were raised to help those whose homes were destroyed. The thousands of sightseers who visited in the aftermath helped swell the coffers.

Whole swathes of Heckmondwike, Cleckheaton, Healey and Batley were affected, with stories coming in from across the area. A tram car travelling between Batley and Heckmondwike temporarily lifted off its tracks. A man was thrown out of his sick-bed. Some workers at Messrs. J & F Popplewell’s rag works on Hollinbank Lane were forced to leap for safety from the top window of the mill, as the roof tumbled in. Scores of windows in Belle Vue Street, Healey were blown out. The pupils at Healey school were showered with glass as the windows shattered. As a result, several children were injured, with one boy, John William Stone, requiring treatment in Batley Hospital. The school was forced to close temporarily for repairs. Even Batley hospital did not escape damage, with an operating theatre window breaking during an operation.

Shoddy manufacturer Joseph Fox was particularly involved. Driving his car in the Healey area, it lifted off the ground with the strength of the blast. He witnessed the plate glass window of Healey Co-op stores fall out (known today as Healey Mini Market).

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

Fox was one of those involved in ferrying the scores of injured for treatment. And, returning to his Hollinbank Terrace home, he discovered his house was one of those buildings to have taken the brunt of the explosion’s impact. His wife’s maid May Thompson was in Batley Hospital with an eye injury caused by flying glass. The house, one of three in a terrace built originally for the Heaton brothers, still stands – now on Dale Lane.

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

But all this was overshadowed by the total devastation and carnage at the seat of the explosion, the Henry Ellison-operated White Lee chemical works. Situated on high ground off Hollinbank Lane, the firm moved in as tenants of the former Heaton family-owned chemical factory in 1900. Ellison’s were an established chemical manufacturer. They quickly obtained a Government licence to make picric acid, a major component of lyddite used for the manufacture of shells, in their newly acquired White Lee premises. They undertook this work for a couple of years until the end of the Boer War in 1902, when demand for the product slumped. They briefly re-opened the factory in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War, selling the picric acid to brokers. After this, demand tailed off once more and the works closed until August 1914.

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

The outbreak of the First World War proved a game-changer, with the Government’s need for picric acid for shell manufacture rocketing again. It was now a race to get the works ready to resume full-scale production, with buildings tarred inside and out, wooden floors covered with linoleum, and separating brick walls and rudimentary sprinkler systems in place. In total, the works comprised of five buildings in which the wet processes of picric acid manufacture were carried out. Four other buildings were used for drying, sifting/grinding, packing and storing the chemical.

Picric acid was regarded as safe in its pure state, but if it came into other substances, such as metals, it could form sensitive picrates which were dangerous. For this reason, production licences were required. Regulations limited the quantity of picric acid in any one area, ensured it was not confined and precautions had to be taken to ensure no foreign bodies were introduced to the production process. In order to avoid any ignition risk, no matches could be taken into the most dangerous areas, such as the sifting and grinding shed – so pockets were checked and sewn up before entry. Additionally, protective rubber overshoes had to be worn in these areas to prevent possible contamination by stones and nails. Commonly worn hobnail boots could be a particular issue, as they could cause sparks and, theoretically, the nails could be loosened by acid present on site. These objects could then contaminate the acid production, and potentially enter the grinding machines. The overshoes placed outside the doors to these areas, in theory, minimised the risk.

With all these precautions in place fire, not explosion, was believed to be the most immediate danger. If the fire was quickly put out to prevent the acid overheating, an explosion would be avoided.

On 2 November 1914 production recommenced at Ellison’s White Lee Works. On 19 November a government inspection found everything in good order, with only a few minor points identified due to the long period of building disuse. These were quickly rectified.

Labour was in short supply due to men enlisting, but picric acid production was not regarded as a skilled job. The company recruited a good, young analytical chemist from Cleckheaton, 22-year-old Bradford Grammar School and Leeds University educated Fred Wright. He had previously worked at the Barugh Benzol Works near Barnsley and, more recently, at the Benzol Works at Low Moor. However he had no previous experience with picric acid. He started work at White Lee only two weeks before the explosion.

Ellison’s also brought in a well-regarded employee from the Low Moor Chemical Works to act as foreman. 37-year-old James Nicholas had considerable experience of picric acid manufacturing.

The rest of the workers were recently recruited unskilled labourers, some starting on the day of the explosion. Because of the shortage of labour, these men worked across a number of areas of the production process, as required.

On 2 December, when the explosion occurred, 11 employees were on site. There were also several workmen engaged in construction, as the facilities were being extended to cope with the demands of the war. Unfortunately, these men were also caught up in the tragedy.

The afternoon shift started and production work was proceeding as usual. Wright and Nicholas worked in the packing shed, whilst three men were employed in the sifting and grinding room. At just before 2pm a massive blast occurred, centred on the sifting and grinding areas.

Buildings crumbled, a huge flash of flame soared into the sky, followed by dense clouds of yellow smoke. All that remained of the sifting and grinding shed area was a deep hole where the structure once stood. Peripheral works buildings were severely damaged, with any walls still standing being dangerously cracked. Surrounding fields were littered with masonry, smashed timber, pieces of machinery and roofing. Body parts were found for days afterwards. Containers holding liquid acid split, the corrosive liquid tracking down the hillside, which all added to the horrific scene.

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

One eyewitness, Leeds man James William Bellhouse working with a colleague on the roof of Robert Bruce’s William Royd cotton mill, stated:

The explosion made a tremendous row and blew us off the building. I saw a mass of flame, and the sky seemed to be lit up by a blazing red. A lot of debris were flying all up and around….

Bellhouse and his workmate were unharmed.

Some others had equally lucky escapes. A couple of men employed in the grinding area had not returned to work there for the afternoon shift. They had struggled to cope with the dust, despite covering their noses and mouths, and frequently opening the door. They survived.

Former Batley rugby league player Jim Gath of Wilton Street, Batley was on site to undertake work on the boiler. Minutes before the blast he decided to leave the boiler house to do some outside work. He had just climbed scaffolding when the explosion occurred. Covered by debris, only by sheer strength did he extricate himself, injuring his arm in the process. He remembered walking, then crawling, then nothing until he awoke in Dewsbury hospital.

William Sykes of Healey Street, Batley was working in the boiler house, which was demolished. According to reports at the time, concussed and dyed yellow by the fumes, he escaped too. However, this was not the whole story, and it did not end happily. Subsequent reports indicated he also sustained injuries to his legs and eyes. His health deteriorated and he died in July 1915. Coincidentally, his daughter Lizzie, working in the nearby Robert Bruce-owned mill, suffered a compound fracture of her right arm.

The blast killed nine men outright. Another died in Dewsbury hospital later that day. The men were as follows.

Percy Ashton, born on 26 October 1892 was the son of Willie and Elizabeth Ashton (née Barker) of Tidswell Street, Heckmondwike. He was a joiner working on construction of the new buildings. A popular member of Dewsbury AFC, he was buried in Heckmondwike cemetery. 

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

Arthur Cooper, was born in Leeds on 19 February 1863. He married Martha Ann Wheelhouse in Leeds in 1885. A boot finisher for most of his working life, by 1893 he and his family were living in Lobley Street, Heckmondwike. He now had employment in the boot department at Heckmondwike Co-op. Sometime after the 1911 census he switched work to become a mason’s labourer for his neighbours, the Firth brothers. Initially amongst the missing, his body was found under rubble two days after the blast.

Albert Laycock Firth was a 51-year-old living at Lobley Street in Heckmondwike. He and his brothers Nimrod and Ralph were the stone masons erecting the new drying building. Ralph nipped back to their own Work’s yard prior to the blast, and heard the explosion. He identified his brother. Albert left a widow Elizabeth (née Briggs) who he married in 1893. The couple had three children in the 1911 census – Aked, James Albert and George.

Nimrod Firth the brother of Albert was 34 years of age. He also lived at Lobley Street. The son of James Firth and his wife Sarah Laycock, Nimrod married Lucy Wright in April 1913. He was identified through keys in his pocket. His funeral, along with that of his brother, took place at Heckmondwike Upper Independent Chapel.

James Nicholas was the works foreman. The 37-year-old was born in Herefordshire, but the family eventually settled in Cleckheaton. The 1901 census shows him employed as a picric acid labourer, so by 1914 he’d had at least 13 years experience of working with the chemical. Later that year he married Edith Emma Strickland. The couple went on to have four children – Harold Cookson, Eric, Edith Gladys and Laura. His brother John formally identified him. He was buried in Cleckheaton.

Clifford Thornton, a joiner from Boundary Street, Liversedge, only started building work at Ellison’s on the day of the explosion. Like Percy Ashton he was employed by Messrs. R Senior and Sons.  A 25-year-old single man, he was the only living child of John Marsden Thornton and his wife Betty (née Cordingley). He survived the blast, but died as a result of his injuries at 4.05pm in Dewsbury Infirmary. An active member of Heckmondwike Upper Independent Chapel and Sunday School, this was where his funeral took place.

Heckmondwike Upper Independent Chapel – Photo by Jane Roberts

Fred Wright, worked as the establishment’s analytical chemist. From Cleckheaton, he was the 22-year-old son of Walter Henry Wright and his wife Elizabeth Savoury. Walter Wright was well known in local musical circles, being the organist at Providence Place Chapel, Cleckheaton and a former conductor of Cleckheaton Philharmonic Society. His son was so badly mutilated he was identified by the contents of his pockets (including a gold watch, purse, and visiting card) and a distinguishing mark. Fred was buried in Whitcliffe cemetery.

The three men working in the grinding room were William Berry, George Terry and James Alfred Morton (some sources mistakenly name him as John Edward Morton). Only identified amongst the dead from various items of clothing discovered in the days after the explosion, the partial human remains found which possibly belonged to them were buried in a single coffin in Heckmondwike cemetery. Father O’Connor, the parish priest at Heckmondwike Catholic Church (now the Holy Spirit Parish) conducted the service for Morton. Father O’Connor later became the inspiration for G.K. Chesterton’s fictional detective Father Brown.

William Berry transferred from Ellison’s Cleckheaton works two months prior to the blast. A labourer, he supervised the drying shed activities. 36 years of age, his widow Clara identified his overcoat. There was also his return railway ticket to Low Moor where he lived. Born in Halifax, he married Clara Hargreaves at All Saints, Salterhebble in July 1910. The couple had two children, Annie (b. 1911) and Arthur (b. 1913).

James Alfred Morton (38) was separated from his wife May, and living at Staincliffe. The  son of Cornelius and Bridget Morton, he was a miner by trade. However, in recent years he worked as a casual labourer, most recently for a gardener in Batley Carr. He only started at the chemical works on Tuesday. His brother, Joseph, could only identify scraps of his clothing – parts of his trousers, shirt, coat and red, white and blue striped tie. 

George Terry (22) of White Lee only started at Ellison’s on the Monday, previously working as a rag grinder in Batley. Initially his father wrongly identified one of the original bodies as his son, so badly mutilated was it. He was led away in a distressed state, only for others to realise the mistake. Days later, small strips of waistcoat and corduroy trousers belonging to George were identified by his widow Lilian. They had been married less than six months. She had left him at the gates of his work after lunch at 1.25pm on her way to visit her mother, and heard the explosion.

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

The official Home Office inquiry headed by Major Cooper-Key, Chief Inspector of Explosives, reported in January 1915. Although Cooper-Key found the wearing of protective overshoes was not strictly adhered to in the designated danger areas, crucially it was enforced in the sifting and grinding shed where the explosion occurred. He went on to conclude that Ellison’s complied with all the necessary regulations for picric acid manufacture, and could not be held responsible. Sabotage was also effectively ruled out.

He attributed the disaster to two factors. The ignition occurred in the sifting and grinding room, probably due to the accidental presence of a nail, stone or similar hard foreign body entering the grinding mill. Under normal circumstances this would have resulted in a spark and fire which would have been extinguished before the picric acid had chance to heat to explosion point. But the shed was extremely dusty, a situation exacerbated by the strong wind that day which constantly fanned the particles as the door opened and closed to try to let fresh air in. The initial ignition resulted in the explosion of this carbonaceous dust.

Although the White Lee explosion led to a review of picric acid manufacturing guidelines, it did not mark the end of accidents resulting from its manufacture during the war.

And the ten men who died on the day of the explosion, as well as William Sykes who died seven months later, are yet more local casualties of the First World War.

A plaque has been laid by the Spen Valley Civic Society to commemorate the event and those affected.

White Lee Disaster Plaque – Photo by Jane Roberts

Sources:

  • Multiple sources were used, including newspaper reports, the official accident report, censuses, civil registration indexes and parish registers.
  • OS Map reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
  • Special thanks to Kirklees Image Archive for permission to reproduce their image of the aftermath of the explosion. http://www.kirkleesimages.org.uk/ This is a fabulous local pictorial archive. The images are subject to copyright restrictions.

Hidden History of Batley: A Mill Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

The Shame of a Workhouse – An Infant Down the Pit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

Sources:

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

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