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.
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:
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.
Posted onDecember 23, 2019|Comments Off on 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.
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 .
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.
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.
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:  There are various spellings of this surname, depending on report.  Plot M223
Comments Off on Hidden History of Batley: A Festive Fireworks Fatality
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Multiple sources were used, including newspaper reports, the official accident report, censuses, civil registration indexes and parish registers.
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.
No-one in Batley foresaw the consequences that the 1856 hanging of the infamous Rugeley Poisoner, Dr William Palmer , would have on the Yorkshire town. Consequences which led three local lads to end up in court in York on grave charges before the year was out.
The Staffordshire serial killer had no association with Batley, whose residents – along with those throughout the country – read with morbid fascination of the doctor’s lurid lifestyle and alleged killing spree. Yet the theatre and spectacle surrounding the murders, and subsequent enactment of justice, did strike an unfortunate chord with some in this developing Yorkshire mill town.
Such were the concerns surrounding a fair hearing for the case given its notoriety, a special Act of Parliament was rushed through to allow Palmer’s trial to take place at the Old Bailey rather than Stafford. The so-called ‘Trial of the Century’ gripped the country over 12 days in May 1856, with newspapers providing coverage of every twist and turn.
Palmer was eventually convicted of the murder of a
friend John Parsons Cook who he poisoned, it was claimed, with strychnine. This
was the first ever trial for murder by strychnine in this country. But he was
also suspected of the poisoning of many more in a bid to clear his debts –
including his wife, four children, brother and mother-in-law.
He was publicly hanged on 14 June 1856 at Stafford prison before a crowd estimated to be in excess of 30,000, many of whom camped out all night in pouring rain to ensure their place at the grisly spectacle. On the morning of his execution Charles Dickens described him as “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey dock.” .
After death Palmer’s infamy lived on, spawning whole new mini-industries with the production of souvenir broadsheets, and ballads. Even the rope-maker who made the noose had a lucrative side-line selling extra sections of rope for a guinea a time. Up and down the country Palmer’s name was on the lips of men, women and children.
Back in Batley, on Friday 3 October 1856, 12-year-old John Harris set off to start work at 7am at Joseph Jubb and Brother’s mill. The son of Ann Harris, described as a widow in poor circumstances but of irreproachable character , John had been employed at the mill for only three weeks. At 8am he ate his breakfast in the top storey of the building. With him were three other boys, Joshua Firth (age 15), Benjamin Preston (age 14) and 13-year-old Abraham Sharp. John had known Joshua and Abraham for a couple of years, and Benjamin for a couple of months.
The area where the boys breakfasted contained a trap door, and nearby stood a steam-operated crane which was used to hoist wool etc. up from the lower stories of the mill. As John prepared to return to work the other lads were still larking around. Inspired by the recent trial they decided to play a game of ‘Hang Palmer’, with Joshua declaring that the new boy John would be Palmer. John cried “You shall not hang Palmer with me” and tried to run away. In his witness statement John went on to say:
Preston ran after me and caught me, then Sharp tied a rope under my arms and round my body, the others assisting him. Then Firth tied the rope to the crane. I tried to get loose, but I could not. I told them to let me go, but they never spoke…I am sure I did not play with the other boys, and they tied the rope round me against my wish. Firth has thrashed me many a time when I have gone for water, but the others have never thrashed me.
Perhaps ‘Hang Palmer’ had been re-enacted before in the mill. Perhaps it was a prank played elsewhere by boys up and down the country, such was the impact of the deeds, trial and death of ‘Prince of Poisoners,’ William Palmer. This time though the game went badly wrong, with tragic results for all involved.
On another floor workmen set the crane in motion to
pull up a sheet of wool. The chain caught the rope tied to John, he became
entangled in the chain which squeezed his body, leaving him incapable of
calling for help. He was drawn over the crane roller towards the ceiling beam around
eight feet above at the top of the mill, where he mercifully lost consciousness
as he was crushed.
Benjamin ran down to the second story and alerted
workman Robert Senior who raced up to the top. The crane lever was lowered and
John released. Surgeon Mr Halbut was summoned. In addition to concussion,
John sustained a fractured left arm and a spinal injury causing paralysis to
his lower limbs.
He was carried home, where leeches were applied to his head in a bid to treat him. It was not until 8 October, after unsurprisingly failing to recover from his severe injuries, that he was finally transferred to hospital, over at Leeds Infirmary. Here doctors kept authorities informed of the seriousness of the young victim’s wounds.
With John now conscious but perilously ill, in mid-October Joshua, Benjamin and Abraham were taken into custody, charged with causing him serious bodily harm. So critical was John’s condition, magistrates deemed it necessary to take his statement at his Infirmary bedside in the presence of the three accused. The younger two boys placed the prime responsibility on the elder boy casting him in the role of ringleader, saying they wanted him to untie John but Joshua refused to. The West Riding magistrates released the boys on bail.
On 21 October they appeared again before the West Riding magistrate’s court in Leeds. As a result of evidence from Leeds Infirmary’s Dr Samuel Smith that John might not recover, the three boys this time were refused bail. They were taken to the Borough Gaol to await their next appearance a week later. At this subsequent hearing the Infirmary Medical Officer once more stated John was still dangerously ill. This time the case was adjourned for a month, and bail granted.
John died in Leeds Infirmary on the morning of
Tuesday 25 November 1856. That afternoon the trio were brought before the West
Riding magistrates at Leeds Court house once more where Mr Hardwick, house
surgeon at Leeds Infirmary, stated John had died as a result of his spinal
injuries. Joshua, Benjamin and Abraham were bailed, awaiting trial at the
winter Gaol Delivery at York in December on a charge of manslaughter.
The inquest, held the following afternoon, concurred with the cause of death. Mr Ferns, solicitor for the prisoners, presented a supportive letter from the Jubb brothers, mill owners and employers of the lads. The letter read;
Batley, near Dewsbury, Nov. 25th, 1856. Mr. Ferns, Sir, – We understand you are employed to defend the three boys charged with inflicting injury on the lad Harris, who has died in the Infirmary. As owners of the factory where the accident happened, we are desirous to express to the coroner and jury our entire conviction of the innocence of the boys’ intentions towards the deceased, and that the boys were playing together without any evil design as boys usually do. We may mention, in case it might come in useful in any way, that we deposited £10 with the vicar of this parish to defray the expenses of Harris’s funeral, in case of death and that if he had lived we had arranged with the factory inspectors to pay down a further sum for his benefit. Yours respectfully JOSEPH JUBB AND BROTHERS.
The coroner, Mr Blackburn, did not allow it as evidence. Duly, the jury reached a verdict of manslaughter.
The following day John was buried in Beckett Street
Cemetery, Leeds .
Around a fortnight later, on 12 December 1856, the three youths were in York facing the charge of manslaughter before Mr Commissioner Russell Gurney Esq QC. The prosecution case, presented by Mr Morley and Mr Hannay, hinged on the fact that although the affair was in sport, the refusal of John to join in made it manslaughter. Mr Middleton, for the defence, claimed John’s death was purely accidental arising from boyish sport. The crane was set in motion by a hand over which the prisoners had no control and, as a result, they could not be guilty of manslaughter. Summing up, his Lordship Commissioner Gurney in effect told the jury that if the facts presented were proved, the death of John was unintentional and did not spring from the acts of the accused. As such the jury must acquit the prisoners. The jury took this advice and passed a verdict of not guilty.
So, who were these boys? From preliminary searches of censuses, parish registers and civil registration information it appears that they all, along with John, lived in the Havercroft area of Batley. Joshua is most likely the son of Thomas and Mary Firth (née Ellis). Benjamin was most likely the son of Joseph and Ann Preston (née Preston). Abraham was the son of Joseph and Rebecca Sharp (née Marshall).
The three lads were discharged into the custody of their parents, free to return home. One mother though, Ann Harris, would never have her son home again. By extension, and through a prank gone wrong, he too can be considered a collateral victim of Palmer.
As to which mill in Batley was the scene of this tragic event, none of the newspaper articles I have read identify it. The Jubbs owned several in town over the years. There is a possibility it was their [Old] Branch [Road] Mill which burned down at the beginning of September 1876  and which they owned outright at the time of the John Harris tragedy. In fact, just over six months after the York trial they were fined for employing children under 13 years of age without schooling at that particular mill . In the same period, they were also associated with New Ing Mills. Originally partners there, they eventually acquired sole possession by 1859, and commenced a building programme which significantly changed the premises in the 1860s. However, at the time of the incident New Ing Mills was in joint ownership, so this I believe is the less likely location.
But, as I hope this tale illustrates, it is amazing to contemplate the hidden history which took place in buildings long gone, and others still standing, in my hometown of Batley.
 William Palmer website http://staffscc.net/wppalmer/ ;  Household Words, A Weekly Journal, 14 June 1856;  The Leeds Times, 29 November 1856;  The Intelligencer Supplement, 18 October 1856;  The Leeds Intelligencer, 29 November 1856;  Leeds Beckett Street Cemetery Records, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, original records at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Ref LC/CEM (B)/1/1, Numbers 1-18747, 1845-1862;  Coincidentally, another similarly named mill in the area, Branch Mill which was built by the Jubbs in around 1874 and latterly owned by Messrs. J., T., and J. Taylor, burned down in July 1915;  The Leeds Times, 25 July 1857;
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;
Posted onAugust 1, 2019|Comments Off on 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 .
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 willbestow a little bit of candle on them as a treat.” 
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.
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….. 
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.
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 .
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”! 
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  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…..
No. 181. – Mrs. Lee, Matron of the Workhouse at Batley. Examined May 5,  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. 
No. 182. – Joseph Booth, examined May 5,  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. 
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. 
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….. 
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.” 
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  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. 
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. 
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.  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.
I have traced Thomas Townend in Batley workhouse in the 6 June 1841 census , 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:
 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.  Ibid  Ibid  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  In most documents his name is Townend. However, in the Children’s Employment Commission – First Report of the Commissioners: Mines the spelling is Townsend.  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.  Put out to apprenticeship.  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.  Ibid  Ibid  Ibid  Ibid  Children’s Employment Commission – First Report of the Commissioners: Mines. London: Printed by William Clowes for H.M.S.O., 1842  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/  Parliamentary Papers Volume 1842:v.35. London: H.M.S.O., 1842.  Ibid  Ibid  Thomas Townend, 1841 Census. Accessed via Findmypast, Reference HO107/1267/67/2
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
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.
Comments Off on The Shame of a Workhouse – An Infant Down the Pit
It was 4.30am on 30 May 1881. 14-year-old Peter Kelly, a hurrier at West End Colliery, was making his way to work. As he approached Mary Wrigglesworth’s  house and butcher’s shop, a short distance from his home, he noticed a shape crouched in the doorway. Curiosity piqued, he investigated further. A bare arm poked out from under a sack. This was tied loosely round the body with a clothes line. The feet were also bound. There was no movement from the figure, no response to Peter’s enquiries. Life was extinct.
Peter called the attention of another miner, Joss Lee, who was also on his way to work. Joss stood watch over the body whilst Peter returned home to fetch his father William, who untied the cord to reveal a semi-naked body. The police were hastily summoned. They bundled the corpse onto a handcart, and removed it to Joseph Kemp’s Victoria Hotel, Carlinghow. Dr Myles William O’Reilly of Batley Carr, the district Medical Officer for the West Riding Constabulary, was called to examine the body.
The combined police and preliminary medical examination revealed the body was bound by its legs, arms and torso in a strange sitting position, and covered with a potato sack. Clothed in only trousers with braces hanging loose, elastic-side boots and grey stockings, around its neck was a paper collar with a button still attached and embedded in the swollen neck. This appeared to indicate a shirt had possibly been ripped or cut away. By the side of the body was a coat and vest, and on top of the sack was a billycock hat .
On checking the pockets no money was found, only some old letters from 1880, business cards for a Bradford Westgate eatery, keys, a knife, a purse containing spectacles and some old bills, the most recent dated 26 May 1881. There were also three cartes de visite style photographs taken some time ago. One was of two women, whilst another was of the victim with a woman. One of the images, according to reports in The York Herald, was identified as Miss Wrigglesworth , the person in whose doorstep the body had been dumped. All this documentation enabled quick identification of the body, despite the dark, swollen appearance of the face.
As Monday 30 May 1881 dawned, 43-year-old bachelor John Critchley, second son of prominent local Batley coal mine proprietor and J.P. James Critchley, became the centre of a potential murder enquiry. And it soon became clear the location where his body was discovered held particular significance – John Critchley and Mary Wrigglesworth had been on intimate terms, according to some reports, for almost 20 years, although his family objected to the relationship and she, it seemed, “had not regarded him with particular favour” . Nevertheless, he was well-known in the neighbourhood, with some sections of the press reporting him as being a frequent visitor to Mary’s shop.
When the police roused her to break the news that her former sweetheart had been found dead on her doorstep, she fainted. Revived with smelling salts, she informed them they had broken up some time ago, she had last seen John before Christmas and she had heard only vague rumours of his whereabouts and mode of life.
Huddersfield Chronicle paints a vivid
picture of High Street, where the body was found, describing it as a narrow
….partially filled with houses and small shops, built in a straggling manner; and directly opposite the butcher’s shop in question, where Miss Wrigglesworth resided and carried on business, there is a respectable-looking cottage house, one storey high. Nearly opposite is the Lord Nelson beerhouse [this, according to police evidence, had closed promptly at 10pm on Sunday night] and some cottages, evidently occupied by colliers or mill workers. Above the butcher’s shop are some newly-erected ones, used for various purposes. The main point of interest is a small shop which has been erected close to the gable of the house, which forms one of a row of three – two-storied old cottages – and in the one at the end nearest the road lived Miss Wrigglesworth….
You can almost picture the narrow dirt road that night, no more than seven yards  at its widest, with its higgledy-piggledy houses, all quiet but for the occasional trot of horses and rumble of cart wheels. Unlit by street lights, somewhere in the vicinity are persons unknown, alert and watchful, awaiting the chance to dispose of the body of John Critchley.
The District Coroner Thomas Taylor Esq, who had three inquests over in Dewsbury that day, was hastily contacted. An early inquest and post mortem to determine the cause of death were deemed vital – decomposition was already well-advanced and a lid needed to be quickly put on the wild local and even national speculation, with theories that this was a brutal murder rapidly gaining ground. Large groups of people were already congregating around the Victoria Hotel to discuss the sensational situation and speculating about potential murder methods. The most popular theories included John Critchley had been shot or kicked to death  with his body immersed in water for several days after .
That very same
evening, at 9pm, John Critchley’s inquest formally opened at the Victoria Hotel.
The jury was sworn in and accountant Joseph Fenton elected foreman. This first
meeting only covered the formalities of identification, and once these
preliminaries were complete it adjourned.
coal proprietor of Grosvenor Terrace, confirmed the body downstairs was that of
his brother. From his evidence it transpired his brother lived a somewhat
Born on 4 August 1837 and baptised on 25 August that year at Dewsbury All Saints , John was the second son of James and Sarah Jane Critchley (née Illingworth). Their other children included Robert Illingworth (1835) Thomas (1840, died 1850), Charles James (1843), Jane Elizabeth (1848), Mary (born and died 1850), Walter (1853), William Henry (1855) and Mary Ellen (1857).
James and Sarah Jane married in Dewsbury All Saints church on 8 January 1835 . James, born in Warley near Halifax, was described as a card maker , but he had his fingers in many business pies. In the 1841 census the family lived at Market Place in Dewsbury with James described as a publican . In 1851 whilst John was at boarding school in Pontefract  his parents are recorded at 615 Market Place, Dewsbury with the multiplicity of James’ interests becoming obvious – coal dealer, card maker and inn keeper all listed in the census occupation column . In 1861, and living at the Top of Batley Carr, James’ occupation had crystallised, now described as a coal owner employing 4 boys and 100 men. John was back with his family in this census, his occupation being a farmer of 130 acres employing six men, three smiths, three agents, six cart men and eight labourers . In 1871  and 1881  James was a coal proprietor and now the Critchleys lived at the magnificently imposing Batley Hall. But in neither of these censuses can John be found.
From the inquest evidence John’s failure to put down any roots came into sharp focus. Walter revealed at one point his brother worked as a cardmaker for older brother Robert Illingworth Critchley, but could not settle to business. As a result, at the time of his death, he had no fixed occupation. His base, when in the area, was his parents’ Batley Hall home. But he frequently left home for weeks at a time, with minimal contact with his family who often had no idea of his whereabouts. Walter revealed he last saw his brother in November and he had last been in touch via a letter at Christmas when John’s address was lodgings at 24 James Street, Bradford. After that, no contact with his family is recorded . Neither is John at that location in the 1881 census.
However, despite his failure to keep in touch with his family since Christmas, he had visited the area relatively recently as the newspapers soon established. About a month prior to the discovery of his body, Miss Wrigglesworth’s sister had seen him in Batley Carr, but not to speak to. And an acquaintance had spoken to him in Dewsbury towards the end of March, when he had been very chatty .
The post-mortem was
carried out at the Victoria Hotel at 4am on the morning of 31 May by Dr
O’Reilly, assisted by the Critchley family doctor, Mr Stockwell. The early hour
was chosen because of the rapidness of decomposition, but also no doubt in an
effort to minimise the chance of large, excitable crowds gathering. Although
the location, a public house, might seem odd to us today, post mortems could
still be carried out in public houses and even private homes in this period.
Only six years had passed since the 1875 Public Health Act which had legislated
for local authorities to provide public mortuaries and dedicated suitable
places to conduct post mortems. And only in January and February 1881 was the
Victoria Hotel the location for a series of very high-profile inquests relating
to a major boiler explosion at a Carlinghow mill, an explosion which resulted
in the deaths of 16 workers.
The post mortem results were not revealed until the inquest reopened on 2 June, but essentially no marks of violence were found on the body. There was no evidence of immersion in water. Decomposition was suggestive of death taking place at least 48 hours before O’Reilly first saw the body. The only visible cause which could account for death was fatty degeneration of the heart . However, given the odd nature of the case, O’Reilly arranged for various organs and tissue samples to be sent for further analysis to Thomas Scattergood, eminent Leeds surgeon and lecturer on Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at the Leeds School of Medicine.
Post mortem formalities complete, Critchley’s body was placed in a leaden coffin and soldered firmly shut. It was then lowered in an oak cask and taken to Batley Hall, the family home.
Shortly after 11am
the following morning, 1 June 1881, the hearse, three mourning coaches and a
number of mostly empty private carriages left the Hall for the private burial
ceremony in Batley Cemetery.
The massive wreath-strewn, polished oak coffin was adorned with brass fittings and the plate bore the inscription “In Memory of John Critchley, of Batley Hall, aged 43 years.” The coffin was carried by a number of Messrs. Critchley workmen, and many employees attended the service. Chief mourners were John’s parents Mr and Mrs James Critchley, brothers Robert Illingworth Critchley and his wife, Charles James Critchley, Walter Critchley and his wife, brother Willie Critchley, sister Mary Ellen and her husband Arthur Jubb, and aunt Ann Critchley. Rev. T. G. Davies, vicar of Batley, conducted the service, which was not without incident. Policemen were stationed around the cemetery perimeter to keep back the large crowds congregated outside. During the ceremony, an unseemly struggle broke out, which resulted in the storming of the cemetery gates and a considerable number of female factory workers gaining entry.
Whispers from the post mortem now started to seep out, and the mood shifted slightly. Newspapers started to point out that the deceased was of medium height and very stout and “what the medical fraternity would regard as an apoplectic subject…” . Others stated:
The impression that the deceased has not been murdered appears to be gaining ground in the district….The supposition…that the unhappy man had probably died amongst the companions of his wretchedness, and that they, to clear themselves of possible odium, got rid of the body in the most ingenious manner they could hit upon, seems to be regarded as the most probable theory .
So, whilst maybe
not murder, they believed his lifestyle and the company he kept materially
contributed to his demise.
speculation was proving extremely distressing to his family, a fact which the
Critchley family solicitor, Mr Scholefield, was at pains to point out when the
inquest reopened at the Victoria Hotel on 2 June. This undoubtedly influenced The
Dewsbury Reporter’s assessment of John, in which they played down any hint
of a debauched lifestyle:
“ …when he returned [home] he always came back healthy and in good condition, and seldom if ever appeared to have been drinking to excess. He was not a drunkard, though fond of what is called a social glass. He was a generous-hearted man, always ready to help a friend, full of good humour, chatty and agreeable, and not at all the man against whom a person might be supposed to cherish a grudge and desire to do him bodily harm.” 
This second phase of the inquest, on 2 June 1881, saw a parade of witnesses . These included Robert Hammerton, the proprietor of a Bradford eating house whose business cards were found on John Critchley’s body. The deceased was a regular visitor to Hammerton’s establishment, which was located just around the corner from his last known address. He confirmed Critchley last visited on the afternoon of 26 May and ate a meal of lamb, new potatoes, steeped peas and mint sauce. Hammerton described Critchley as being “merry” and apparently affected by drink, but also added this was the worse state of intoxication he had seen him in. Critchley had briefly fallen asleep, and finally left at around 3pm. This was the last recorded sighting of John Critchley alive.
included Peter Kelly, William Kelly, William Jenkinson (a card fettler living
at High Street), George Addy (a Sergeant with the West Riding Constabulary),
Myles William O’Reilly, John Dyson (a West Riding Police Constable), and Zillah
Susan Booth (wife of stonemason William Booth and another High Street
interest in these testimonies were the reports by William Jenkinson, John Dyson
and Zillah Booth. The former, a close neighbour of Mary Wrigglesworth, had been
out around midnight and noticed nothing. Around 1.45am he was awoken by a
trap passing in the direction of his neighbour’s shop. His house was separated
from Mary Wrigglesworth’s by an entrance to a Yard. Going at a quick trot, he
was not aware of the trap stopping.
Zillah Booth also reported hearing a trap going towards Miss Wrigglesworth’s shop at around 1.35am. She stated two people, one a woman, walked ahead of it. She heard no voices, only footsteps. Within five minutes the trap returned, at a quicker pace accompanied by the walkers. The female carried on down the road whilst the trap turned off down Beck Lane. The trap had a distinctive sound, as if the wheels had been muffled . She had heard the same vehicle, a light cart, the previous night at 2.10am when it had travelled in the direction of Miss Wriggleswoth’s shop, a 100 yards from the Booth residence, again rapidly returning within minutes.
John Dyson was the
policeman whose beat covered High Street for the key period. A clear night,
between 9pm on Sunday and 3am on Monday he patrolled the street five times. He
last passed Miss Wrigglesworth’s shop at around 2.35am as day was breaking but
noticed nothing unusual. Corroboration that he had not shirked his duty came from
the watchman from Messrs. J and R Talbot’s Bullrush Mill, who accompanied PC
Dyson on his last sweep of High Street.
According to the
notes made by Coroner Thomas Taylor, the only vehicle PC Dyson saw whilst on
duty was a dogcart (a light horse-drawn vehicle) going towards Carlinghow, down
High Street and through Cross Bank at 11pm, containing four people. However,
newspaper reports of the inquest also note the policeman saw a conveyance used
for carrying dead horses between 11.30pm and midnight. It was opposite Bullrush
Mill and it passed Victoria Street going towards Dewsbury. He never saw or
heard the trap just before 2am which the two High Street residents reported.
The inquest adjourned once more to await the results of tissue and organ tests, and allow for further police enquiries in Leeds and Bradford ad well as locally. It resumed at the Victoria Hotel on Thursday 9 June 1881 . The principal witness was Leeds Surgeon Thomas Scattergood who presented his findings: There was no evidence that John Critchley’s death was the result of poisoning.
Airton, of the West Riding Constabulary, offered no further evidence. Despite
extensive enquiries there were no reported sightings of John Critchley between
leaving Mr Hammerton’s refreshment room on the afternoon of Thursday 26 May and
the estimated time of death at midnight on Friday 27 May. Airton did suggest
presenting a further witness, a woman, who had seen John Critchley enter and
shortly afterwards leave Mary Wrigglrsworth’s shop, this only two weeks prior
to his death. The jury following guidance from the Coroner, who pointed out
that as this was a fortnight before Critchley’s death it would probably not
help determine cause of death, decided against calling her.
After some deliberation, and with the overwhelming evidence of the two medical men that no poison was evident and that fatty degeneration of the heart was the cause of death, the jury delivered its verdict: “That John Critchley was found dead on a doorstep in Carlinghow on 30th May, 1881, and the jury are unanimous in their verdict, based on medical evidence, that the deceased died from natural causes.“
The jury urged the
police to continue their investigations as to the place of death and how the
body ended up on a Carlinghow doorstep. But in effect that was it. Whether John
Critchley’s body was clandestinely transported to Miss Wrigglesworth’s abode by
persons wishing to avoid the unwelcome scrutiny his death might have caused
them, or even his family, was not discovered. But it is clear they were not
strangers to him, given the location they chose to dispose of his body.
By the time of the 1891 census Mary Wrigglesworth, now described as a general shopkeeper, resided at Wood Hill, Dewsbury . Her former butcher’s shop and house, street name now changed from High Street to Cross Bank Street, was listed on the 1891 census but annotated to say no-one “slept in the place” . Subsequent censuses, and it is the more familiar name of Cross Bank Road which appears. I wonder if it is possible the shop later became Millman butchers? The location, opposite the Nelson would fit. These buildings have long since gone in the Batley clearances.
The imposing Critchley family headstone marking their Batley cemetery burial plot, in its prestigious location in front of the twin chapels alongside the graves of other local dignitaries and businessmen, makes for interesting reading once you know the story of John. Exact dates mark the passing of his parents and other family members. John’s simply reads “Died May 1881” for a reason – the exact date is not known.
And next time you
have a drink in the Victoria public house, pause and think. You are privileged
to be drinking in a place steeped in Batley’s hidden and long-forgotten
Notes:  In many reports, including Thomas Taylor’s inquest notes, she is referred to as Mary Wrigglesworth. In census documents and her 16 April 1837 baptism entry in Birstall parish register she is Wigglesworth. For consistency I have used the Wrigglesworth spelling used by the Coroner.  Bowler hat.  The York Herald, 1 June 1881.  The York Herald, 1 June 1881.  The Huddersfield Chronicle, 4 June 1881  Thomas Taylor’s inquest notes of PC John Dyson’s 2 June 1881 evidence states 7 yards wide, whilst The Dewsbury Reporter of 4 June 1881 states PC Dyson said 5 yards.  The Manchester Evening News, 31 May 1881.  The Manchester Evening News, 1 June 1881.  Dewsbury All Saints Baptism Register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archive Service Reference WDP9/11.  Dewsbury All Saints Marriage Register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archive Service Reference WDP9/22.  Manufacturing the combs and implements for combing (carding) wool. 1841 Census, Reference HO107/1268/45/19, accessed via Findmypast. 1851 Census, Reference HO107/2330/108/3, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk.  1851 Census, Reference HO107/2324/325/28, accessed via Findmypast. 1861 Census, Reference RG09/3399/96/36, accessed via Findmypast.  1871 Census, Reference RG10/4583/22/37.  1881 Census, Reference RG11/4546/152/24.  30 May 1881 John Critchley Inquest, Thomas Taylor Esq (Coroner) Notes, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archives Service (Wakefield), Reference C493/K/2/1/142.  The Dewsbury Reporter, 4 June 1881.  2 June 1881 JohnCritchley Inquest, Thomas Taylor Esq (Coroner) Notes, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archives Service (Wakefield), Reference C493/K/2/1/142.  The Manchester Evening News, 31 May 1881.  The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 1 June 1881.  The Dewsbury Reporter, 4 June 1881.  2 June 1881 JohnCritchley Inquest, Thomas Taylor Esq (Coroner) Notes, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archives Service (Wakefield), Reference C493/K/2/1/142  Huddersfield Chronicle, 4 June 1881.  9 June 1881 JohnCritchley Inquest, Thomas Taylor Esq (Coroner) Notes, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archives Service (Wakefield), Reference C493/K/2/1/142.  1891 Census, Reference RG12/3735/57/7, accessed via Findmypast.  1891 Census, Reference RG12/3721/30/28, accessed via Findmypast.
I’ll start with an admission: My 2018 blogging year was not as prolific as usual. In fact it was nowhere near the efforts of previous years. But I’m far from downhearted. In fact I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and I hope you have too.
Here are the details.
The Statistics. My blog saw a noticeable decline in output, with 25 posts during the year, down from 33 in 2017 and in excess of 60 in 2016. This was entirely due to other commitments such as completing my genealogy studies and publishing a book. Neither was it unexpected – I did forecast this in my 2017 blogging review post. And it is pretty much in line with what I promised: two posts a month.
However onto the positives. Despite the downturn in posts, my blog has grown from strength to strength numerically. Views increased from 20,649 in 2017 to well in excess of 21,000 in 2018. Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read my random family and local history outpourings.
My blog has now well and truly developed its character with core themes of my family history, interspersed with local history tales from Yorkshire, alongside news from – and my musings on – the genealogy world’s latest developments.
Most Popular Times? Monday proved my most popular blogging day, with 21% of views. And my golden hour shifted to the slightly earlier time of 6 pm. I suspect this shift is as much a result my blog posting times as anything more profound.
How Did They Find You? Search Engines took over as the key engagement route accounting for around 7,000 views.
Where Did They Come From? The global reach of WordPress never fails to amaze me. Going on for 100 countries are represented in my list of views. The UK accounted for well over 10,000 of these which was almost double the number of my next most popular country, the United States. Australia came third with over 1,000. But all corners of the globe feature with readers extending to Cambodia, Tonga, Peru and Tunisia. A huge thank you to you all! You’re what makes it worthwhile researching and writing these posts.
And it’s fantastic to receive so many comments either indirectly via Facebook and Twitter, or directly on my blog site. They’ve added new information, context and connections. Thank you for getting in touch.
Top Five Posts of 2018: Other than general home pages, archives and my ‘about’ page, these were:
General Register Office (GRO) Index – New & Free. This was actually posted in 2016 but, as in 2017, it continued to perform well in 2018 . This post was about a new free source for searching the GRO birth and death indexes (note not marriages) for certain years, one which gives additional search options. It also covered the initial £6 PDF trial, an alternative and cheaper source than buying a birth or death certificate. Note the PDF option, a copy of the register entry rather than a certificate, still continues. However the cost will rise to £7 on 16 February 2019. The cost of a certificate increases from £9.25 to £11.
Living DNA: I’m Not Who I Thought I Was. This was another 2017 post which continued to prove popular. It is testimony to the importance with which genetic genealogy is now seen. lt dealt with my shocking DNA results. I’m 100% from Great Britain and Ireland. No drama there. But it indicated that I’m not entirely the Yorkshire lass I thought – the ethnicity pointed to some genetic material from the dark side of the Pennines. I reckon this could be linked to a potential 5x great grandmother from Colne. I really do need to push on with my Abraham Marshall New Year’s Resolution.
Cold Case: The Huddersfield Tub Murder. Yet another 2017 offering, and in last year’s “one that got away” category as being one of my favourite posts which failed to reach the Top 5 that year. Well it proved immensely popular in 2018. It dealt with the unsolved murder in Huddersfield of a Dewsbury woman of ‘ill-repute’ whose tragic life and abusive relationships ultimately resulted in her death.
“Historical Vandalism” as more Archive Services Come Under Threat. Published in December 2018 its appearance in the Top 5 for the year shows the importance with which any threat to these vital services are seen. It covered some recent swingeing funding cuts to archives and corresponding proposed (and actual) major reductions to these services across the country. Some of the consultations, Surrey (4 January 2019) and Kent (29 January 2019), close imminently. So I would urge you to have your say.
Tripe Tales – Food Nostalgia. My childhood memories of food led me to focus on this particular northern ‘delicacy’, which was very popular when I was growing up. It covered some early 20th century local tripe stories including theft, death and prodigious eating feats, as well as recipes to try. I was also inundated via social media with suggestions of where I could still buy it. I’ve yet to confront once more this culinary challenge.
So yet again this was a mixed bag of popular posts, ranging from topical family history issues, to DNA and general history and local history tales – which sums up my blog perfectly.
The Ones that Got Away: These are a few of my favourite posts which didn’t make the top five:
What Does 2019 Promise? Well, as in 2018, I aim to do two posts a month. These will be on the same type of themes as usual – family and local history tales, plus topical genealogy offerings when anything big hits the headlines. I will also be including some Aveyard One-Name Study stories.
I anticipate my major challenge this coming year, as ever, will be time. I also have the added concern of keeping things fresh and relevant. I now have two other writing roles to add to my blog. At the end of 2018 I took on the role of editor as the Huddersfield and District Family History Society quarterly Journal, the first edition of which came out in January. And I now write a regular family history column in Yorkshire nostalgia magazine “Down Your Way.” So clearly I want to ensure my blog posts are separate and distinct from my other writing commitments. However, my head is buzzing with ideas so I don’t think that will be too much of a creative dilemma.
But whatever direction my blogging year takes, thank you for reading, engaging and supporting.
Wishing you a happy, peaceful 2019 filled with family history fun!
A century ago England, along with most of the world, was gripped by the flu pandemic. As far as I’m aware none of my immediate ancestors, or their families, died as a result of it. But the mortality rate was the tip of the iceberg as whole communities struggled to cope with the infection and its effects.
In this blog post I will give a national overview, before looking at its effects locally on Batley to try give a feel for the impact on the day to day lives of my ancestors. The sources I will use can be adapted to look at the effect of the pandemic on other localities in England.
In 1920 the government published a Supplement to the Registrar-General’s 81st Annual Report on Births, Deaths and Marriages in England and Wales. It covered mortality from influenza during the 1918/19 epidemic in these two countries. Its severity is starkly conveyed in the myriad of statistics contained within the report. It stated in 1918 influenza accounted for 112,329 deaths split between 53,883 males and 58,446 females. 7,591 of the male deaths were non-civilians. So, in total, 104,738 influenza deaths were amongst the civilian population. This corresponded to a death rate of 3,129 per million civilian population. The report continued:
No such mortality as this has ever before been recorded for any epidemic in this country since registration commenced, except in the case of the cholera epidemic of 1849, when the mortality from that cause rose to 3,033 per million population.
It was recognised this was not representative of total mortality as a result of influenza, as other causes of death could also have an underlying influenza link. These causes included other respiratory diseases, chiefly pneumonia and bronchitis. Phthisis and heart disease were also cited as other possibilities where influenza may have impacted. Attempts to quantify influenza-linked mortality from these were made, but the results varied depending on methodology and were acknowledged to be unsatisfactory. One estimate put it at around 200,000 deaths from influenza and influenza-linked illnesses. As many as a quarter of the population caught the disease.
One other factor which skewed results when looking at the influenza statistics was the depletion of the male population due to war service. One way to deal with it was to look at the female population in isolation. This methodology was notably used to examine the age distribution of mortality due influenza and comparing it to the age distribution normally expected of influenza. It was here the difference between the 1918/19 flu strain and previous epidemics was most notable.
Deaths at [ages] 0-15 and especially at [ages] 15-35, which had formed since 1889 a fairly uniform proportion of the whole number, with a tendency of late years to decrease in relative importance, suddenly increased from 7-11 per cent. at [ages] 0-15 to 25 per cent., and from 8-10 per cent. at [ages] 15-35 to 45 per cent. In middle age, [ages] 35-55, the proportion was comparatively little affected, but shows some increase over the years immediately preceding. At [ages] 55-75 and at ages over 75, which together had for many years provided 60-70 per cent. of the total deaths registered, the proportion fell to 10 per cent. at [ages] 55-75, and 2 per cent. at 75 and upwards.
The report then went on to look at the course and local distribution of the epidemic in England and Wales. Three definite waves were identified:
Wave 1: Week ending 29 June 1918 to week ending 17 August 1918;
Wave 2: Week ending 12 October 1918 to week ending 14 December 1918; and
Wave 3: Week ending 1 February 1919 to week ending 12 April 1919.
The weekly death rate was examined in various localities, including regions, county boroughs, and other towns with populations greater than 20,000. This was extrapolated to give a corresponding annual death rate per 1,000 of the living population using the 1911 census as a population baseline. Batley fell into the category of towns with a population over 20,000. The peak mortality weeks for Batley in each wave were:
Wave 1: Week ending 13 July 1918 – 19.3 annual mortality per 1,000 living;
Wave 2: Week ending 23 November 1918 – 33.7 annual mortality per 1,000 living; and
Wave 3: Week ending 8 March 1919 – 33.7 annual mortality per 1,000 living.
Other statistics included ranking areas according to numbers of deaths. There were 161 towns who were not county boroughs falling into the over 20,000 population category. Batley over the complete period of the epidemic was ranked the 18th most affected. In terms of the individual waves it was 27th in Wave 1, 71st in Wave 2 and 8th in Wave 3.
Looking at county boroughs close to Batley, Dewsbury ranked the 11th most affected of the 82 county boroughs (in terms of the individual waves it was 15th in the first, 17th in the second and 15th in the third). Huddersfield was 65th, (2nd, 82nd and 21st in the respective waves).
The West Riding of Yorkshire was over the course of the epidemic the 5th worse affected of the 61 counties (position in the respective waves 4th, 11th and 8th).
Local level reports were also compiled. In Batley the Medical Officer, G.H. Pearce, submitted a full report to the Town Council in January 1919 about the incidence of the disease locally and the steps taken to combat it. His 1919 Annual Report also covered the epidemic locally.
These Annual Reports by the Medical Officer give a useful overview of the town. The 1919 report includes the following description:
PHYSICAL FEATURES AND GENERAL CHARACTER OF THR DISTRICT. – Batley is a municipal borough constituted by Royal Charter, December 8th, 1868, consisting of four wards and governed by a Mayor, seven Aldermen and twenty Councillors. The borough has a separate Commission of the Peace. Geologically Batley is situated mostly upon clay, under which is sandstone through which is various beds of coal. The situation is hilly, the highest point being 475 feet above sea level and the lowest 150. Batley is entirely an industrial town the chief occupation of the inhabitants being the manufacture of heavy woollen goods, shoddy and mungo. The Rag trade also employs a large proportion of the inhabitants. The majority of the population not working in the numerous mills earn their living in the coal mines, at ironworks, on the railway, as teamers, general labourers, etc. More females than males are employed in the textile mills…..As rags from all parts of the world are brought into the town it would be reasonable to expect that risk of infection would be likely to arise therefrom, but practical experience does not prove such to be the case. Apart from the dust in connection with this and similar trades, also the risk of contracting anthrax, run by workers in wool, there appears to be no particular occupation in Batley exercising an exceptionally adverse influence on the public health.
Batley’s population growth from 1851 is illustrated in Table 1 below. The 1911 population of 36,395 compared to the 3,227 acres for the town gives a population per square mile of 7,218. Mortality in any district is adversely affected when there are more than 400 people to each square mile.
The Registrar-General also made an estimate of Batley’s 1919 population, which was included in the Medical Officer’s report. Based on the birth rate he put it at 36,593 and death rate resulted in a figure of 35,128. An analysis of mortality and the annual death rate per 1,000 of civilian population for 1919 gave a figure of 16.1 for Batley, higher than the national England and Wales figure of 13.8.
Table 2 shows the causes of death in Batley between 1912 and 1919 attributed to influenza, as identified in Batley’s Medical Officer’s report. I have also included those causes which may have influenza as an underlying issue, as identified in the Registrar-General’s Supplementary Report.
Influenza was the direct cause of 104 deaths in Batley during 1918, with a further 83 deaths in 1919 attributed to it. In 1920, according to the following year’s Batley Medical Officer’s report, influenza was certified as the cause of 7 deaths.
So how did all this impact on everyday life in Batley? I decided to focus on the newspapers for the period. From July onwards the Batley News began to carry local reports, including Council updates. Batley Borough Council minutes are therefore an alternative source of information. Bound yearbook copies are at Batley Library (as are the Medical Officer reports), with original Batley Borough documentation held at West Yorkshire Archives (Kirklees Office) in collection Reference KMT1.
One huge factor in reporting the epidemic was censorship. When flu struck Britain, the Great War was still far from won and censorship was in full force. Reporting of anything which may impact on morale and signify any form of weakness to the enemy or difficulties in pursuing the conflict was banned. Reporting restrictions similarly applied in other combatant nations. This was why the pandemic was incorrectly attributed to Spain. As a neutral country the same press restrictions did not apply and news of the epidemic there was freely reported from May 1918. It meant that this country was wrongly assumed to be the origin of the illness – not the likely source country, the United States. The first reference to the ‘Spanish disease’ was in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in August 1918, and ‘Spanish Flu’ was what it became commonly known as. The same reporting restrictions therefore mean that newspaper reports may have underplayed the full impact of the illness.
First mentions of influenza locally noticeably began to appear in early July 1918 with the 6 July edition of the Batley News reporting a Council exchange that it was hoped the schools would remain open as although a number of teachers were ‘down’ with influenza there had been no serious report from any one school.
The 13 July edition of the newspaper, when reporting the death of Harry Boyes, Royal Field Artillery, at Staincliffe Hospital indicated that Colonel Russell believed the pneumonia which has stricken him after his initial injury had been caused by influenza “of which the Hospital is full.”
This edition of the newspaper coincided with the peak week for the first wave of the flu epidemic in Batley. The newspaper reflected this. Despite the optimism of the previous week, Batley schools were closed on 10 and 11 July; with 1,900 absences on reopening on the 12 July they were once more shut on the 13 July. The paper published the advice of Dr. Pearce, Batley’s Medical Officer as follows:
Influenza is caused by a minute bacillus found in the sputum and nasal discharge of persons suffering from the disease. It is conveyed by the breath. The disease is highly contagious. One attack does not confer immunity from another. The onset, after exposure to infection, may be as short as a few hours, and is characterised by a sudden rise of temperature, severe headache, pains in the back of the eyes, muscular aching and pains in muscles of both arms, legs, back, and other parts of the body, rapid pulse, much thirst, furred tongue, redness of inside of throat, which may or may not be sore. The skin is generally dry, but sometimes there is perspiration. The temperature generally falls in 24, 36, or even 48 hours as rapidly as it rose. The pains in the limbs continue longer, together with a sense of prostration for several days. There may be a relapse.
Influenza is rarely fatal, excepting through one of its inflammatory complications such as pneumonia.
The Medical Officer went on to advise that those stricken should at once have a hot bath, go straight to bed and send for the doctor. They should be isolated to prevent, as far as possible, the spread of the disease. The best way to escape infection was to avoid badly ventilated places such as picture palaces and theatres, and public meetings. Those displaying symptoms of bad colds should similarly be avoided.
Regular life, with the avoidance of all excess, plenty of fresh air and sunlight, with free ventilation of rooms, together with open air exercise and a proper number of hours in bed, is advised.
Despite the Medical Officer’s assertion that the disease was rarely fatal, the number of deaths reported in that week’s newspaper must have given readers pause for thought. These deaths included what was believed to be the first one locally from “the mysterious influenza epidemic,” that of 34-year-old Sarah Elizabeth Driver, wife of Sam Wiloughby Driver, a warehouseman, of 12 Calder Bank Road, Dewsbury. She died on Sunday 8 July 1918, after being taken ill suddenly the day before. By Sunday, when spitting what appeared to be blood, her husband went to see Dr. Pritchard who refused to visit the patient on a Sunday, saying he had hundreds of cases of this complaint [influenza] lately, and not one had caused him anxiety or worry. Despite Mr Driver saying he would not have come had he thought it not serious, Dr. Pritchard sent him away with some medicine. By 6pm that evening Sam Driver returned to Dr. Pritchard’s, but the doctor was out. Before he was able to call another doctor, Sarah Elizabeth died. Dr. R. Beattie, who undertook the post mortem, thought Mrs Driver may have recovered if she had received prompt medical aid. But he also added doctors were so busy at the moment with the influenza outbreak they did not “know which way to turn.” The inquest verdict was she “Died from acute influenza and heart failure.”
By 20 July 1918 the town was still dealing with the effects of influenza, with interments in Batley cemetery for the week numbering around 20, double the normal average. However the illness itself was on the decline with far fewer local death reports featuring in that week’s edition of the paper, which quoted:
…..a prominent local practitioner yesterday stated that so far as his experience goes the disease is rapidly declining. Where he used to have a score of patients he has now about two.
The 27 July 1918 paper declared the influenza epidemic practically over, although the occasional death report continued to appear, including that of Mr George Richard Whiteley or Purlwell, age 30, described as a champion Batley swimmer. His death on 29 July, from double pneumonia and pleurisy following influenza, was reported in the 3 August edition of the paper.
The respite was short-lived. By the end of October 1918 flu was once more hitting the local headlines. The 26 October 1918 edition of the Batley News, whilst admitting not too many local victims as yet, was not complacent:
Influenza, which in some parts of the country is raging in virulent epidemic form, has not many victims in this locality. In view, however, of the remarkable rapidity with which whole districts are affected, and of the large percentage of deaths reported from pneumonia following influenza, it is wise that everybody should take simple precautions against contracting the disease and to avoid communicating it to others. These precautions are precisely the same as against catching cold, and the most important are warm clothing and plenty of fresh air. “Weak persons and those suffering from colds should,” says one of the Medical Officers of the Local Government Board, “avoid badly ventilated buildings and overcrowded assemblies. A person who has contracted a severe cold should keep away from work, if he is employed with others, for the first three or four days, as it is during this stage that the complaint is most infectious. If people did that and were less neglectful of personal hygiene and more careful not to cough or sneeze without covering the mouth, there would be far fewer colds and far less spread of influenza.”
The warning about how quickly the illness could assume epidemic proportions was proved correct. By 2 November 1918 it had returned once more to the town with the Batley News reporting four deaths, many school children affected and the Medical Officer deeming it necessary to close all but four schools. Those shut included Purlwell, St Mary’s R.C., Carlinghow (all deparments); Gregory Street (both departments); Mill Lane Mixed, Warwick Road Girls’ and Infants’, Park Road Girls’ and Infants, Hanging Heaton C.E. Mixed and Infants’ and Field Lane Infants’.
At the same time notices were issued to all places of amusement in Batley that, until the 11 November, the period during which the majority of schools were to be closed, no children under fourteen must be allowed to attend. Parents were warned about “gossiping from house to house” and told not to let their children go to households were members were stricken by the illness. With the 11 November Armistice, it was particularly difficult to heed this advice about public gatherings and gossiping with neighbours. The crowds celebrating the Armistice clearly exacerbated the spread of the disease by bringing large groups of people into close proximity.
And whilst mentioning the Armistice it is worth noting the effects of influenza on the local men serving in the military. I know from my St Mary of the Angels, Batley, War Memorial research five of the 76 men (6.5 per cent) died as a result of influenza-related illnesses. Tony Dunlop of Project Bugle, the Batley and Birstall First World War Commemoration Project, estimates around 75 per cent of those who died and were buried locally in the last three months of 1918 were flu or pneumonia related deaths; of the others overseas, flu and pneumonia accounted for possibly around 30 per cent. These epidemic victims included Gunner Edward Chadwick, Sergeant Fred Greenwood and Deck Hand Harold Gaunt.
Centenary Wreath Laying Ceremony for Harold Gaunt – Photo by Jane Roberts
But back to the education situation. The school closures continued, despite attempts to re-open. On the days when schools did open, attendances proved thin because some children were themselves stricken with the illness, or their parents kept well children at home for fear of contagion. At the end of November Batley’s Medical Officer once more decreed schools would remain shut until 9 December.
At the end of November 1918 the Local Government Board, the national body which oversaw Local Authorities who at this time were largely responsible for health care, issued a special regulation. It meant if any public elementary school was temporarily shut because of influenza, no children were to be allowed to visit cinemas or places of public entertainment. Another regulation stipulated that no public entertainment was to be carried on for more than four hours consecutively, and an interval of not less than thirty minutes between entertainments must be observed during which time the venue was to be effectively ventilated. The penalty for any breach was £100.
But, seemingly at odds with the general discouragement of public gatherings, the 30 November Batley News announced that Batley’s Medical Officer had arranged for the showing in local picture halls of “Dr. Wise on Influenza” telling people what to do, or avoid, in the current epidemic! The film, commissioned by the Local Government Board and described as hard-hitting, can be viewed here.
Bored children not occupied by school did find other ways to amuse themselves, some not entirely legal. In February 1919 three boys appeared in court for stealing indiarubber piping from heating apparatus at St John’s Sunday School, as well as six cart lamps. Described as being from respectable families, a mother of one of the boys voiced the opinion that the lads got into mischief whilst the schools were closed for influenza. Courts were affected in other ways too with cases adjourned due to illness . For example in March 1919 a case about alleged breaches of the Rationing Order was halted as two of the defendants, Robert Spedding senior (butcher, of Clark Green) and Grace Reid (milk dealer of Purlwell), were unable to attend Batley Police Court
School closures also had a financial impact. Around 890 schools governed by the West Riding County Council (so not Batley Borough) were closed on average three times during 1918 as a result of the influenza epidemic, involving a loss of grants of around £16,000. The Council also paid over £100,000 to teachers when they were not teaching because of school closures.
It also impacted on those wishing to leave school to take up employment – in March 1919 it was reported that 147 children in Batley failed to attend school the requisite number of days to obtain Labour Certificates. Some Councillors felt that these children were entitled to special consideration given the circumstances. However, the Board of Education forbade them to take into consideration any possible attendances the children may have made if the schools had not been closed on account of the influenza epidemic. This was particularly vexing for some because at this point in time when a child reached the age of 13 and had made 350 attendances for each of five years they could apply for a Labour Certificate, allowing them total or partial exemption from school in order to work. The 1918 Education Act changed the law – from 1 April 1919 all children remained in school until the next holiday after their 14th birthday and Labour Certificates for leaving school before this age were abolished.
The week ending 23 November 1918 saw the peak of the second wave in Batley. By now the illness was impacting on medical services, and the end of the war provided a possible solution. In view of its prevalence in Batley at the end of November, the local Council made an application for the return of two local doctors serving in the Forces. However, the problems with doctors unable to meet the demands placed on them was still evident well into February 1919, as indicated in another inquest where two doctors failed to attend the victim, Mrs. Ann Elizabeth Senior (46) of Earlsheaton. Again this was in the neighbouring town of Dewsbury, and it was Dr. Beattie who once more conducted the post-mortem, saying if she had been seen her life may have been saved.
Proposals to treat influenza patients in isolation hospitals such as the one at Oakwell proved tricky due to the difficult staffing situation – by the end of January the hospital only had six nurses to keep five wards operational, and obtaining extra staff was proving impossible. The pressure on Oakwell to change policy increased though when, from 1 March 1919, the Local Government Board made primary pneumonia and pneumonia following influenza notifiable diseases. The aim was now to treat such cases in isolation hospitals if arrangements could be made, as this would save lives. Finally Oakwell was made available for pneumonia cases at the end of March 1919 for those patients where suitable nursing and accommodation was not available at home. These suitable cases were decided by the Medical Officer.
Remedies for influenza proliferated and included gargling morning and night with a solution of potassium permanganate and salt in water. It was also recommended that the solution be inhaled. Adverts appeared in the papers too, including for Crosby’s Cough Elixir, Lifebuoy Soap and, in March 1919, the claim from Ward’s (a clothing store) that you could protect yourself against flu by wearing a fur coat! This presumably based on the wear warm clothing advice.
Because of the heavy death toll throughout November 1918, (54 due to influenza and 13 to pneumonia) gravediggers were in short supply. In the five weeks to 30 November there were 95 funerals at Batley Cemetery, compared to 39 in the same period in 1917. The Registrar and cemetery staff came under particular pressure, resulting in distressing delays to burials. As a consequence the Council secured the services of four privates from a Labour Battalion to work in Batley Cemetery to try alleviate the problems.
By the end of December the second wave was over. The Medical Officer reported of the 62 Batley deaths that month, 16 were from influenza, seven were from bronchitis and four due to pneumonia. But once more it was only a temporary lull.
By the end of February the influenza scourge was back again in Batley – the third wave of the disease. That month Dr. Pearce, the Medical Officer for Batley, reported 26 deaths from influenza, 20 from bronchitis and 8 from pneumonia. The Batley News of 1 March 1919 reported its comeback, but stated it was of a milder type with elementary school closures unnecessary and only six deaths attributed to it the previous week.
That same edition shone a spotlight on Batley’s housing conditions. Dr. J H Wood, J.P., whilst giving a talk to the Batley District Nursing Service ‘musical’ afternoon, touched on the three severe influenza epidemics over the previous eight months. Describing the disease as a plague, he claimed that although fresh air and face masks were all well and good, the problem was people attempting to fight the disease instead of going to bed and making the best of things. He then turned to the acute housing problem in Batley. He knew of one house consisting of one room downstairs and two bedrooms occupied by 12 people, one of whom was a chronic invalid. This was not an isolated case. Some of the housing conditions were a menace to public health, yet the health authorities were helpless to resolve them.
It was certainly true that overcrowding posed a public health problem. Influenza affected multiple family members during the epidemic, and true isolation from the rest of the household proved impossible when space was so limited. The newspapers are full of examples of multiple stricken family members – the same edition as reported overcrowding also mentioned five members of a Mount Top family in Birstall affected by influenza. Other examples included Mrs Senior, referred to earlier, who was one of six in her household to be laid low by the flu. The inquest into the death of Lewis Gomersall (47), a coal miner from Hanging Heaton who died on 21 February 1919, heard that four or five other members of his family were afflicted. One report which struck me was in the 30 November 1918 Batley News as follows:
Two Deaths in One Family from Influenza
Deep sympathy will be felt for Mr. John Edward Barber, rag merchant, 6, Mortimer Avenue, Healey, whose wife and daughter [Cecilia (60) died on 24 November and Nellie (26) died on 28 November]…..have this week died from influenza. Five members of the family have been attacked by the complaint, and Alice, another daughter, has been at death’s door and has not yet heard of the loss of her mother and sister. A double funeral takes place at Batley Cemetery tomorrow.
It is the street on which I grew up.
However, arguably the most ‘famous’ family in the town to be affected by the flu, and one that did not come into the class of overcrowded households, was that of Mr Theodore Cooke Taylor, J.P., of Sunny Bank, Batley. He was the head of the woollen manufacturing and profit-sharing firm of Messrs. J. T. and J. Taylor Ltd. He too suffered a double blow, but at a time when the epidemic was finally waning. He contracted flu along with his wife and daughter in early April 1919. Whilst he recovered, his daughter, Evelyn Sara Taylor (43), died on 27 April 1919 from bronchial pneumonia complications; his wife Sara Jane (67) died two days later on 29 April 1919. Their burial took place in Batley Cemetery on 1 May 1919.
By the end of May 1919 Batley and District Insurance Committee were able to declare that the pneumonia plague, arising from influenza, was finally subsiding. But it was at a cost of almost 200 lives directly attributed to influenza, not to mention those who succumbed to the subsequent respiratory complications.
Supplement to the Eighty-First Annual Report of the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages in England and Wales, Report on the Mortality from Influenza in England and Wales During the Epidemic of 1918-1919
Borough of Batley Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health 1919 – G.H. Pearce M.D. (Durh.), D.P.H. (Camb.) Of the Inner Temple, Barrister-at-Law
Borough of Batley Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health 1920 – G.H. Pearce M.D. (Durh.), D.P.H. (Camb.) Of the Inner Temple, Barrister-at-Law
Various editions of the Batley News, June1918 to June 1919
It has been a hectic week or so since the publication of The Greatest Sacrifice – Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union about those professional rugby league players killed in the Great War. It has also been far more tiring and emotionally draining than anticipated. I’m more used to being closeted away in archives or working on my laptop at home ferreting through records and writing research reports with only my trusty four-legged friend to keep me company.
Dealing with media interviews and attending high-profile launch events isn’t normally on my to-do list. So I’ve found it exhausting.
Imperial War Museum North, Poppy Wave – by Jane Roberts
But it was a huge honour and privilege to go to The Imperial War Museum North to attend the unveiling of the England Rugby League commemorative jersey. This shirt will be worn on 11 November 2018 in the Third Test in the series against New Zealand. It will also raise funds for the Royal British Legion as part of their ‘Thank You’ movement, recognising all the First World War generation who served, sacrificed and changed our world, be it those lost their lives, those who returned and those on the Home Front.
More details of the shirt launch, including where to buy one, can be found here. Details of the ‘Thank You‘ campaign are here.
Chris and I with Tom and George Burgess in the England Commemorative Shirt
As part of the launch Jamie Peacock, former England and Great Britain captain, along with Yorkshire-born South Sydney players Tom and George Burgess were presented with copies of our book. The book will also be used to provide context to the England Rugby League team’s visit to the Western Front on 20 October 2018.
Chris presenting Tom and George Burgess with copies of The Greatest Sacrifice
In between there have been media interviews with national and local radio, plus TV and press.
I have copies of The Greatest Sacrifice, which can be signed and dedicated if required. I can also drop off locally around Batley and Dewsbury areas. If so the cost is £13.50. Post within the UK increases the cost to £14.50. Payment can either be via cheque (UK) or bank transfer. My contact email is email@example.com.
On Saturday I saw my book for the first time. The finished product looks amazing.
As the publisher said:
What began as an idea in the press box at Huddersfield is now one of the definitive history books about rugby league. Scratching Shed Publishing is honoured to publish a tribute to the 69 men who fell in WWI by Chris & Jane Roberts….
Chris and I echo these sentiments. It has been a real privilege to be able to research the lives of these men.
The publishers have done a fantastic job, supporting us throughout the process of writing this long overdue and important rugby league history book. But above all this is more than a rugby league book, a sporting history book, or a World War One book. It is the story of the impact of war on individual men and their families from across Great Britain.
I also have copies for sale, which can be signed if required. I can also drop off locally. If so the cost is £13.50. Post within the UK increases the cost to £14.50. Payment can either be via cheque (UK) or bank transfer. My contact email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The book will also shortly be available from the usual book retailers.
If any family history, rugby league or local history groups would like Chris and I to do a talk, please contact me on the above email address.