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.
The following is based on some research I did for the Family and Community Historical Research Society (FACHRS) gardeners mini project last year. The aim was to research a specific gardener from your locality. I was allocated Job Kenwood, who is recorded as living in Batley in the 1881 census.
This local connection element to research is one of the key things which attracted me to FACHRS. The benefit of this was certainly borne out with Job Kenwood, for I discovered the subject of my mini project had a surprising personal connection. And, as I investigated him, it transpired that gardening formed only a small portion of his life. He was well known in Batley, as well as throughout East Devon, not purely for his horticultural skills.
Job Kenwood was born in Buckerell, Devon, in around 1855 , the son of Whimple-born cordwainer Robert Kenwood and his wife Maria (née Goldsworthy). Buckerell described as ‘a pleasant village and parish, in the Otter valley, 3½miles W. by S. of Honiton…’  had 343 inhabitants in the 1851 census , the year prior to Robert and Maria’s marriage. Job was baptised in Buckerell parish church on 25 February 1855 .
The 1861 census found the family living at Butts Cottage in Buckerell. The household comprised of 32-year-old boot maker Robert, 31-year-old Maria, six-year-old Job and his older sister, Rhoda, age seven .
By 1871 Job had left his parent’s home and was working as an apprentice gardener. He was one of five other single men employed as gardeners or apprentices, and lodging in the household of another unmarried gardener Thomas Shingles in Bicton, Devon .
Bicton was a small village of 181 inhabitants in 1871 . But, as hinted by the occupations of those men Job shared a house with, the village had a renowned feature. A feature which made it a true horticultural mecca, with Victorian railways transporting admiring visitors from far and wide. It was the location of Bicton manor which boasted some impressive, well-established botanical gardens, described as one of the most impressive gardens in Devon and the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century . Bicton Gardens remain a popular Devon attraction to this date, open to explore even in these difficult COVID-19 times.
Dating from the 18th century, an 1893 description gives some idea of the impressive nature of these gardens:
Bicton House…stands in a fine park of 74 acres, well filled with timber, and containing a small lake; the gardens are tastefully laid out, and have acquired much celebrity from the completeness and rarity of the trees, shrubs and flowers here collected, and the systematic character of their arrangement; in the park is a fine avenue of oak, beech and the Chili pine (araucaria imbricata); the arboretum contains the finest collection of trees in Europe… 
It is unlikely that Job spent much, if any, time working under the tutelage of the James Barnes. Barnes was the widely-known director and manager of Bicton Gardens, working in that capacity for almost 30 years until his retirement in 1869. Given Job would only have been around 14 then, any overlap would only have been very brief. But Barnes’ influence and legacy, right down to his strict behavioural rules (no pipe smoking, and no coming to work in a dirty shirt and with unlaced shoes), would still have been strongly felt in 1871. This despite a landmark Queen’s Bench libel case against his former employer Lady Rolle following his departure. A case which Barnes famously won.
Novice gardeners, and those serving apprenticeships, would learn by example initially, and through helping more experienced gardeners. They would start off with basic tasks such as soil sieving, washing pots or cleaning the greenhouse. They would learn to recognise plants, and differentiate between weeds. As they improved they would move onto the different gardening departments. The kitchen garden was often the first port of call, then the flower garden, and from there glasshouses with their hothouse fruit and early vegetables, as well as exotic ferns and orchids. Here heating, ventilating, shading and watering were amongst the early skills learned. From there it would be the plant department, then fruit. Knowledge of breeding a wide range of plants through hybridasiton and propagation were other important skills. In moving through the various departments, the developing gardener would become familiar with the various tools of the trade.
Commercial gardening, in market gardens or nurseries, was yet another angle; as was building up relationships with specialists in the various fields, and learning about the new exotic plants being introduced to Victorian Britain through far-flung exploration and widening travel horizons. All this would take several years, with a genuine apprenticeship lasting until the age of 21.
Whilst it might be possible to do much of the required learning in one location, especially at large gardens such as Bicton, some exponents recommended annual moves. And moving from county to county was definitely the way to gain experience of different climatic conditions. Therefore, gardeners tended to move regularly whilst learning, to acquire a range of work experience, training in different settings and experiencing different aspects of the craft .
Job, whilst not moving annually, did move to a number of locations to build up his experience and expertise. Leaving Bicton, he continued his formative gardening years with the renowned Victorian horticultural Veitch dynasty at their prestigious Royal Nurseries, Chelsea . The Veitch family, who had links to Devon and indeed Lady Rolle of Bicton, sought plants worldwide. As a result, their nurseries became specialists in ferns, orchids, tropical species and new, rare plants. This would have provided a unique and enviable horticultural masterclass for the budding gardener.
1876 proved a memorable year for the Kenwood family. The changing seasons, the drum which beat the rhythm of Job’s working life, also counted out the huge changes on his family life. The progressing year marked a Kenwood marriage, re-location, birth and death.
At the beginning of that year Job’s residence was Studley Royal, near Ripon in North Yorkshire. The main garden here is the Studley Royal water garden. Today this is a UNESCO World Heritage site, managed by the National Trust. Historic England’s description reads:
A park of the late C17 probably with earlier origins, a water garden and pleasure grounds of c 1718-30 laid out by owner John Aislabie which were extended to include the ruins of Fountains Abbey by his son William Aislabie from 1768 onwards. The site has been described as ‘one of the most spectacular scenic compositions in England’ (Hussey 1967) and ‘the finest formal water-garden in the country’ (Jellicoe et al 1986) .
Perhaps this is where Job now honed his craft. But it was at Nocton Parish Church in Lincolnshire on 11 January 1876 that 22-year-old Devonian, now described as a gardener, married shepherd’s daughter, 21-year-old Eleanor (Ellen) Pask . It cannot have escaped the attention of those witnessing the wedding that there was a pressing need for the couple’s marriage. The bride was entering the third trimester of pregnancy.
The winter of 1876 scarcely over, and early spring heralded the arrival of the couple’s firstborn. Daughter Ellen Maria arrived in April 1876 , with the family now living in Batley . The West Yorkshire town’s 19th century growth, and wealth, was based on its burgeoning woollen mills: in particular the production of its invention of shoddy and mungo, whereby rags were sorted, ground and recycled into new cloth. In 1801 Batley’s population stood at 2,574. By 1871 this had risen to 20,871 and ten years later stood at 27,505. The town must have seemed a world away, let alone over 260 miles, from Job’s childhood home of Buckerell. No more so than on 6 October 1876 when the burial of Job’s father, Robert, took place at Buckerell parish church .
The Kenwood’s Yorkshire life continued. In January 1878 son Robert Henry Kenwood was born at Healey, Batley, completing Job and Ellen’s family . Healey was a hamlet in Batley township, whose population was chiefly engaged in the rag trade and blanket manufacture.
Yet, even though he lived in this industrial town, he retained links with Studley Royal. He is recorded on a number of occasions as amongst the prize winners at Studley Royal Flower Show. For example, in 1879 he won prizes for the ‘best arranged stand or vase for the drawing room’ and the heaviest bunch of grapes .
These shows were clearly keenly competitive, for ten years later Job featured in several Yorkshire papers following a controversy at the 1889 Studley Royal Flower Show. One paper reported it as follows:
Mr. W. Alves, Borrage Nurseries, was first for best arranged stand or vase, a most artistic and choice collection. J. Kenwood, of Batley, who was second, lodged an objection on the ground that Mr. Alves was neither an amateur nor a gentleman’s gardener… 
Clearly his objection was not upheld, as results confirm Mr Alves as the victor in this class. But it shows the importance attached by the gardening fraternity to the winning of these prizes. Presumably these wins boosted their gardening credentials, and potentially their job prospects.
The Kenwood family address in the 1881 census was Healey, Batley. This census shows the family income earned from Job’s gardening was supplemented by a lodger. George Kemp, originally from Lincolnshire, worked as a police constable .
In 1891 Job, his wife and son were living in a recently built terraced property at Prospect Terrace in Batley . Again, this is in the Healey area. Daughter Ellen Maria was in Lincoln visiting her aunt and uncle. Job was now described as a domestic servant (gardener).
There were several large houses in the Healey area belonging to prominent Batley townsfolk which may have provided his employment. The nearest house, literally a stone’s throw from Prospect Terrace, was Healey House. This was the home of widow Martha Taylor, and her five children, plus three servants. Martha’s deceased husband was Joshua Taylor, who died in July 1879. A prominent local mill owner, Joshua along with brothers John and Thomas, founded the firm of J., T. and J. Taylor. Of all the woollen manufacturers in town, Taylors were arguably the most notable. And it was for the family of Joshua, in the 2½ acre grounds of 18th century Healey House, that Job’s horticultural skills were employed.
And this was where my personal connection comes in. Over a century after Job Kenwood left Batley, my husband and I posed for our wedding photographs in the gardens he once tended. Who knows – he may have laid his gardening gloves and secateurs upon some of the shrubs and trees we stood amongst on our wedding day?
Circumstantial evidence points to his links to the family from the mid-1880s. For example, in March 1885 the Kenwoods were listed amongst the gift-givers at the marriage of Joshua’s daughter Julia – appropriately their present was a flower stand . The following year Job and his wife gifted a glass strawberry dish and jug, whilst their children’s presents were flower vases, for the marriage of another Taylor girl, Alice Jane . But conclusive employment proof is in a newspaper report of a talk Job gave about ‘The Vine’ to a gathering of fifty at the Batley and District Chrysanthemum and Paxton Society – no doubt drawing on his knowledge from his heaviest bunch of grapes prize-winning exploits of over a decade earlier! The report crucially describes him as a gardener to Mrs Taylor, of Healey .
These gardening talks, combined with his competitive streak – as evidenced in the Studley Royal Flower Show incident – give hints that Job was not lacking in confidence and had cerebral leanings. The strong, confident penmanship, with a flourish on the ‘K’, when signing his name in the Nocton marriage register perhaps offers another clue to Job’s intellectual pursuits. This aspect is something which can be overlooked, given the physical, hands-on characteristics of gardening. But gardening could also embrace a broad range of more academic elements, including landscape surveying, design, a knowledge of Greek and Latin, botany and mathematical calculations. All were important for any gardener who wanted to “get on”. And the ethos of moral and self improvement through education was an important Victorian doctrine. Job embraced this doctrine, as is demonstrated from his time in Batley onwards.
Besides giving gardening talks, Job was involved in other aspects of community life in Batley. Sharing his employer’s political and religious persuasions, he was heavily involved in both Liberal politics and the Congregational Church at Hanover Street. He is frequently noted in local newspapers participating in Liberal meetings. For example, in 1886 at a meeting of Liberals at Carlinghow, Job was elected as one of the association’s West Ward Healey and Staincliffe representatives . He often chaired meetings of the Batley Congregational Young Men’s Literary Society. He also had a keen interest in education locally. The role he played here, and the esteem in which he was held, is evidenced by a presentation made to him when he finally left Batley in 1891.
PRESENTATION TO A SECRETARY. – A meeting of the Sunday School Union was held on Tuesday evening in the Town Mission Hall, under the presidency of Mr. Wesley Lodge, for the purpose of presenting Mr. J. Kenwood, secretary, who is removing to Honiton, South Devon, a copy of the “Oxford Teacher’s Bible,” as a small acknowledgment for his services. – Mr. J. Gladwin, in making the presentation, spoke of Mr. Kenwood’s connection with the Union, which had extended over a period of six years, as representative of the Hanover-street school…Mr. Kenwood said he received the present of a Bible…with as much heart pleasure as any man could receive a more costly prize. He spoke of the good which he had received at the Union, and encouragement given to him in many a trial by the meetings he had had with them. He thanked the Committee heartily for the token of respect. 
It appears once in Honiton he switched from domestic service to commercial horticulture. Job Kenwood became the proprietor of a shop, operating as a seedsman . The 1901 census confirms this occupational gear-change with Job Kenwood residing at New Street, and working as a seedsman, a shopkeeper on his own account. Also, in the household is wife Ellen and son Robert Henry. Robert is a boot cutter, following the trade of his grandfather and great grandfather rather than his green-fingered dad. The family were prosperous enough to employ a general domestic servant . The business is pictured in a postcard dating from 1904 .
Job’s political, religious and educational activities continued apace once in Honiton. An ardent Congregationalist, a life Deacon and Treasurer of the Honiton Congregational Church (the latter role he held for almost 40 years), he was one of those summoned for refusing to pay the sectarian proportion of the Education Rate on conscientious grounds . Other roles included President of the local YMCA Debating Society. Then a huge forward step politically when, in the autumn 1905 Municipal Elections, he was elected to Honiton Town Council, representing St Paul’s Ward. It was a position he held until 1924. He was also appointed as a manager of Honiton National Schools by Devon County Council, and was still attending meetings a fortnight before his death in 1937 .
The 1911 census saw a more radical occupational switch for Job. Now living at Meadow View in Honiton with wife Ellen, he worked as a bookkeeper for a boot manufacturer . One presumes this was linked to the business of his son Robert Henry, and brother-in-law William Doble (husband of Job’s sister Rhoda). Both the Kenwood children were now married with families of their own – Ellen Maria’s marriage to farmer Walter John Collins was registered in 1901. The following year Robert Henry married Florence Katie Otton.
On 11 January 1936 Job and Ellen Kenwood celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary. The occasion was marked with a presentation of a blue Morocco handbag to Ellen and a seat walking stick to Job. They also received a telegram of congratulations from the King and Queen. And their Batley connections remembered them too, in the form of an autograph card signed by thirty-two Batley friends, and a telegram from former Batley mayor, Elsie Taylor . She happened to be one of the daughters of Joshua Taylor, growing up at Healey House whilst Job worked there.
A little over three months later, on 14 April, Ellen was dead . She too had shared her husband’s devotion and dedication to the Congregational Church at Honiton, where she had been a member for 45 years. Her well-attended funeral took place at that church . It was the second family blow to Job in a matter of weeks, with his sister Rhoda’s funeral taking place at the beginning of April.
Job died in the early morning of 1 February 1937, age 82, after a very short illness. He was active up until a week before his death, even attending a meeting of the Honiton National Schools Board in mid-January. His funeral took place at his beloved Honiton Congregational Church on 4 February .
Probate was granted in London on 15 March 1937 to his son Robert Henry Kenwood, and son-in-law Walter John Collins. Effects totalled £1417 12s 6d .
FACHRS previous mini projects have included a range of occupations from governesses to station masters and bank managers. The current one is parlour maids. If you want to get involved check out their website at http://www.fachrs.com/
Footnotes  GRO Birth Reference, Honiton, March Quarter 1855, Volume 5B, Page 23, accessed via Findmypast  White, William. History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Devonshire, and the City and County of the City of Exeter: Comprising a General Survey of the County of Devon, and the Diocese of Exeter: with Separate Historical, Statistical, & Topographical Descriptions of All the Boroughs, Towns, Ports … Sheffield: Printed for the author, by Robert Leader, and sold by Wm. White, Sheffield by his agents, and Simpkin, Marshall, London, 1850., accessed via Ancestry;  https://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/place/4803 accessed 3 April 2020, Buckerell 1851 census data;  Baptism Register, Buckerell parish church, accessed via Findmypast, original record South West Heritage Trust, Reference 1091A/PR/1/3;  1861 census of England and Wales, accessed via Findmypast, original record at The National Archives (TNA), Kew, Reference RG09/1377/88/4;  1871 census of England and Wales, accessed via Findmypast, original record at TNA, Kew, Reference RG10/2046/-/8;  White, William. … Directory of … Devon … (1878-9). Sheffield: William White, 1878., accessed via Ancestry;  Greener, Rosemary Clare. The Rise of the Professional Gardener in Nineteenth-Century Devon ; A Social and Economic History. University of Exeter, 2009;  Kelly’s Directory of Devonshire. London: Kelly & Co., 1893;  Greener, Rosemary Clare. The Rise of the Professional Gardener in Nineteenth-Century Devon ; A Social and Economic History. University of Exeter, 2009;  Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 5 February 1937;  https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000410, accessed 3 April 2020, Studley Royal, Historic England;  Marriage Register, Nocton parish church, accessed via Findmypast, original record at Lincolnshire Archives, Reference Nocton Parish 1/10;  The 1939 Registergives Ellen’s date of birth as 21 April 1875 (incorrect year), accessed via Findmypast, original record at TNA, Reference RG101/6821D/014/2 Letter Code WFND;  GRO Birth Index, June Quarter 1876, Dewsbury, Volume 9B, Page 684, accessed via the GRO Website;  Buckerell parish church burial register, accessed via Findmypast, original record at South West Heritage Trust, Reference 1091A/PR/1/7;  GRO Birth Index, January Quarter 1878, Dewsbury, Volume 9B, Page 631, accessed via Findmypast GRO Indexes. The 1939 Register gives Robert’s date of birth as 18 January 1878, Reference RG101/6821A/017/34, Letter Code WFNA;  Pateley Bridge and Nidderdale Herald, 23 August 1879;  Ibid, 17 August 1889;  1881 census of England and Wales, accessed via Findmypast; original record at TNA, Kew, Reference RG11/4549/74/38;  1891 census of England and Wales, accessed via Findmypast, original record at TNA, Kew, Reference RG12/3721/16/1;  Batley Reporter and Guardian, 28 March 1885;  Batley News, 14 April 1886;  Batley News, 26 April 1890;  Batley News, 3 April 1886;  Batley News, 13 November 1891;  Kelly’s Directory of Devonshire. London: Kelly & Co., 1893;  1901 census of England and Wales, accessed via Findmypast, original record at TNA, Kew, Reference RG13/2022/29/11;  Francis Frith Postcard, Joe (sic) Kenwood Seedsman, New Street, Honiton, 1904, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk UK, City, Town and Village Photos, 1857-2015. Unfortunately, copyright restrictions prevent reproduction;  Western Times, 1 December 1903 and 14 June 1904;  Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 5 February 1937;  1911 census of England and Wales, accessed via Findmypast, original record at TNA, Kew, Reference RG14/12538;  Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 January 1936;  Western Times, 17 April 1936;  Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 24 April 1936;  Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 5 February 1937;  England and Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, original data Principal Probate Registry, Calendar of the Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration made in the Probate Registries of the High Court of Justice in England.
It was 6pm on the evening of Thursday 20 October 1892. It had been an unsettled, breezy day with the constant threat of rain. As darkness descended, the signal was given for work to cease at Britannia Mills. Looms gradually abated, day-shift weavers turned off their lights, and those women not working overtime tied their handkerchiefs round their heads in preparation to leave the building and venture out into the chill, autumnal night.
The building on Geldard Road in Birstall, known locally as ‘Slopers’ Mill, was a five-storey structure. The lower two floors were occupied by Messrs. Charles Robinson and Company, Carlinghow woollen manufacturers. The upper storeys were tenanted by Leeds woollen manufacturers Messrs. Hartley Brothers. The top floor contained around 30 looms, with about two thirds operating that Thursday.
The distance from the ground to the fifth floor was around 30-35 yards . Whilst a long, winding staircase could be used, after a tough day’s work tired workers from the upper floors often preferred to use the mill hoist, commonly used to carry goods between floors. This hoist, located in the centre of the building, controlled a contraption which workers referred to as a cage. Essentially an open-sided box with a wooden roof and floor, it was supported by an iron rope, and worked by pulleys and gearing suspended from girders: in effect a primitive lift system.
For younger workers the journey in this cage no doubt was tremendous fun, adding a frisson of excitement at the end of their arduous workday.
It was set in motion by pulling one of the two guide ropes at the side. One of these ropes acted as a brake. There was no one person designated to operate the hoist. It was started and reversed by the person nearest the ropes, something which might have particularly appealed to teenage boys. Youngsters did not see any danger with it. In fact 15-year-old Hilda North, who had worked in the Hartley portion of the mill for around a week, told her father on the second day there she only got one foot on the hoist when it descended. And it was not unheard of for agile workers to jump into the cage as it passed the lower floors.
The hoist was so popular with the workers that around five weavers from the top floor regularly knocked off at 5.55pm in order to beat the rush, and avoid the inevitable overcrowding. Because overcrowding was commonplace. Reports state many as 20 workers crammed into it on occasions. They rushed to it at the end of their shift, like children racing to leave school. In fact many were only teenagers.
James Gray, the engineman at the mill for eight years and whose responsibilities included looking after the engine powering the mill machinery, had been unaware of any mechanical issues with the hoist in that time. However, it was not his responsibility to oversee and maintain it. And he couldn’t remember any official inspection or maintenance of it by an external official either. The only incident he recalled was around five or six years earlier, when too many people in it caused it to land with a bump.
As a result of that incident the maximum capacity was limited to eight, and pulling on the ropes whilst was in motion was prohibited. The penalty for contravening these instructions ranged from a severe 1s fine to instant dismissal – although it seems these punishments were never meted out. There was a warning note at the hoist entrance, a legacy of the earlier incident, put up by the previous mill owners.
Although prominent, it was perhaps too high for some even if they could read . Neither were new starters routinely informed about the restrictions; nor did it appear to be discussed generally, not even by those aware that the regulations were regularly being breached.
John Howitt, a warp dresser working at Hartleys for a fortnight, only used the hoist if it did not exceed maximum capacity even if it meant waiting. But he admitted he never thought to warn younger workers ignoring the rules . And 15-year-old Mary Alice Mann, a recently employed weaver at Hartleys stated “I saw other people go down in the hoist, and I went with them.”  No thought did she give to numbers.
That Thursday evening was no different. Eager workers, keen to quickly return home, rushed and pushed to make their way towards the exit. A crowd on the top floor jostled and jockeyed for position in the cage, with cries of “Let us get in.” Perhaps some on the lower floors had stolen a march, already in the cage before it reached the upper storey, similar to the tricks we use today at busy lifts: that was one rumour circulating later. According to at least one report one lad, Edwin Day, jumped in as it made its descent. In all, it appears around 16 people were now crammed in. It may have even been as many as 18, for collating names from various newspaper reports the occupants included:
Fred Beevers, Carlinghow. Born in July 1875, the son of Andrew and Sarah Ann Beevers, in 1891 the family lived on Coal Pit Lane with Fred working as a cloth presser;
Elizabeth Birbeck, 38-year-old wife of Turner Birbeck. They lived at Lambsfield Place, Geldard Road, Birstall. She only started work that week as weaver at Hartleys. Other information shows she was born on 7 May 1853, the daughter of John and Hannah Gooder, and she married Turner on 25 October 1873 at St Peter’s Church in Birstall;
Edwin Blakey Day, age 14. He was a piecer and the son of postman Ernest Day of Union Street, Birstall . He had worked six months for Robinsons, but was due to start work the following week at Carr Mill;
Edith Crossley , weaver, wife of James Crossley of Geldard Road. Other sources show she was born in Holmfirth on 8 February 1861, the daughter of Hugh and Mary Ramsden, and married James Booth Crossley on 23 July 1881 at St Saviour’s, Brownhill;
Jane Donnelly, Richmond Street, Batley. Looking at other sources it seems likely she was the Dublin-born wife of Richard Donnelly, maiden name Egan. Her age was 30 in the 1891 census and she worked as a woollen machine feeder;
Ann Frankland, wife of collier James Frankland, of Britannia Cottages, Geldard Road. Further investigation shows she was born on 18 March 1869 and was the sister of Elizabeth Birbeck. She married James on 1 February 1890 at Batley All Saints;
Gooder, sister of Mrs Birbeck. No Christian name is given in the reports, which only mention she is a girl. Although possible this may be the recently married Ann Frankland, it is equally possible this is another of the Gooder sisters. Weight is added to this because in some of the casualty lists both Ann Frankland and ‘a girl named Gooder’ appear. But there is nothing conclusive;
Hannah Mary Grayson, Birstall. Putting together other sources she is likely to be the daughter of Solomon and Mary Grayson (and its many surname variants) who was born on 26 November 1863. In the 1891 census she is living with her widowed mother at Cross Street in Birstall , and working as a wool cloth weaver. She married George Easby at St Peter’s, Birstall on 8 January 1897;
Walter Jones, age 13, piecer, son of tripe dresser Edward Jones and wife Sarah Ann of Low Lane, Birstall. He was born on 12 March 1879;
Joshua Kellett, age 15, piecer, son of John and Mary Kellett of White Lee Road, Batley;
Nellie Lee, Skelsey Row, Batley;
Mary Alice Mann, 15, daughter of Mark and Elizabeth Mann. She was born on 5 November 1876 and lived with her family at Geldard Road, Birstall. She had been employed as a weaver for one week in the Hartley-run portion of the mill;
Kate McGuire, a young woman living in Batley. Although unverified, this might have been the 23-year-old niece of Michael McGuire living at Parker Buildings, Whittaker Street in the 1891 census;
Henry Mitchell, the son of Annie Mitchell, of Geldard Road, Birstall. Not employed at the mill, he had been there to drop tea off for another worker. The newspaper reports put his age at 9 or 10. My research points he was likely to be 9-year-old Harry Mitchell born on 17 October 1883, the son of Annie and William Mitchell. In 1891 he was living at Geldard Road with his mother and his maternal grandmother Mary Ann Ramsden. He was the nephew of Edith Crossley;
Sarah Moon, age 53, weaver and wife of tobacco pipe maker Charles Moon. They lived at Boar Terrace, Geldard Road, Birstall. Sarah and widower Charles married at Tong St James on 9 May 1880 – it was her second marriage too. Sarah was born in Cleckheaton on 24 December 1839, the daughter of James and Sarah Haigh. She married her first husband William Firth in Halifax on 7 October 1860, but was widowed with two young sons, in early 1865. Sarah only started work at Hartley’s on the afternoon of 18 October, in place of Annie Williams who was ill;
Hilda North, the daughter of George and his Irish-born wife Ellen North. Born on 11 February 1877, her family home was 22 Carlinghow Lane. When the accident occurred she had worked as a weaver for only one week in the Hartley portion of Britannia Mills. Well-liked by all who knew her, Hilda and her family were long associated with St Mary’s RC Church in Batley. In fact some newspapers claimed Hilda was a member of the church choir, though this was disputed in a subsequent report .
A boy named Ramsden. There are no further details. It is possible that this might be a confusion with Henry Mitchell (above); and
Ada Rymer, age 17 . Born on 31 May 1875, she was the daughter of Thomas and Eliza Rymer. In 1891 the family address was Riding Street, White Lee, Batley;
Elizabeth Birbeck, holding one of the guide ropes, gave the signal and the cage began its descent. It quickly became apparent that things were not right: the cage was travelling faster than usual. Someone called out “Steady it!” Fred Beevers pulled one of the guide ropes which temporarily righted things. However, before it reached the halfway point, it hurtled out of control down the shaft. Shouting “Pull the rope! Pull the rope!” Elizabeth Birbeck grabbed the left hand side, whilst Fred Beevers took hold of the right. The pair desperately battled to steady the cage. Someone else screamed, and Edith Crossley cried out “Let’s jump up,” in a vain attempt to slow the cage’s descent. But in the words of Mary Alice Mann it “banged reight to t’bottom.” As the cage struck the floor Elizabeth Birbeck exclaimed “Lord, help me!” These were her final recorded words.
Some of the occupants were thrown out of the cage which, with the force of the impact, rebounded around three feet into the air. It smashed to the floor for a second time, and this ripped down the hoist’s gears and support girders. Weighing about a ton, these crashed on top of the cage.
The tremendous noise alerted those elsewhere in the mill, and workers rushed to the disaster site. James Gray immediately stopped the engine. Shocked and injured cage occupants emerged coughing and stunned from the dust-shrouded scene. The air gradually cleared, revealing the horrific sight of the crushed and splintered cage. Some mill workers were trapped under the wreckage.
Blocks were hastily assembled and the debris lifted off the badly mangled bodies, with Edwin Day first to be released. Those prominent in the rescue included John Leach, Joseph Wright, John Howitt and W. Lockwood.
News of the accident spread quickly beyond the mill. Crowds gathered at the gates, anxious to hear news of their loved ones. Wider in Birstall, and neighbouring areas, small knots of people gathered to speculate about events. Hushed voices and murmurs, rising to excited and expectant tones as they craned their necks to see the comings and goings at the mill. The local police rushed to the scene, pushing past the throng of people. Birstall doctors, Bridgeman and Field, were quickly summoned to tend to the injured.
By around 6.15pm news of fatalities reached those outside. The arrival of Ambrosine Fox (née Renshaw) must have been a signal, even before the names of the dead seeped out more generally. Married to miner Abraham Fox, the family lived at Chapel Lane in Birstall. Although Ambrosine has no occupation listed in the 1891 census, it seems she was one of the local go-to women for laying out the dead. Maybe she also helped bring local children into the world too, as these two tasks often went hand in hand.
Within the mill boundaries those who perished were taken to the burling shed. Here, illuminated by lamplight, Ambrosine Fox carried out the grim task of carefully laying out their bodies. This traditionally involved undressing and washing them, plugging the various orifices, possibly placing coins on their eyes and something (commonly a bandage) under their chins to keep the eyes and mouth closed. The body would be then dressed in its burial clothes, with bandages or ribbons tied around the body to hold it straight and ready for the coffin.
Four fatalities resulted from the accident, and they suffered horrific injuries caused by the falling debris. Those killed were:
Elizabeth Birbeck, the most badly injured. Although her face was unmarked, her body incurred severe crush trauma;
Edwin Blakey Day suffered mainly head injuries, but also a broken right leg;
Hilda North broke her right leg in two places, her left arm was severed at the elbow, her neck was put out and her head split open; and
Sarah Moon had a partially severed right leg, chest crush injuries and a fractured skull.
In terms of the injured, Edith Crossley suffered from shock; Ann Frankland had a broken foot; Walter Jones injured his left knee; Joshua Kellett sustained a broken left arm; Mary Alice Mann escaped with only a black eye; Henry Mitchell bruised his left thigh; and Ada Rymer had severe shock. Fortunately none had life-threatening injuries, and all were taken back to their homes to recuperate. It appears all others in the cage had no injuries of note. The belief was if the hoist gears and girders had remained intact, all inside the cage would have survived. It was the fact they came down which proved fatal.
Families were left mourning their loved ones. They also had the ordeal of the inquest, which opened at Birstall’s Coach and Six Inn within 24 hours of the accident. The current building is a 1950s replacement of the earlier structure. The inquest swiftness was down to the need to keep the bodies fresh. No conclusion was reached at this initial hearing, as a report on the condition of the hoist was deemed necessary. But at least funeral arrangements could now be made.
Later that day, Friday 21 October, Reverend Charles Gordon, the parish priest of St Mary’s, Batley, visited the distressed family of Hilda North to try offer some comfort, but presumably to also discuss these funeral arrangements. As was the custom (and for practical reasons with the majority of bodies still being kept at home between death and burial) funerals quickly followed death. So, on the afternoon of Sunday 23 October, less than 72 hours after the accident, all four interments took place.
A triple ceremony, for Edwin Day, Elizabeth Birbeck and Sarah Moon, was held at St Peter’s, Birstall. The coffins set off from their respective homes, and in a praiseworthy feat of co-ordination by Birstall undertakers Messrs. J Akeroyd and Sons, the processions met up as they journeyed to the church, timed to reach there at 4pm. In the procession were many of those in the hoist when the accident occurred. Crowds lined the route, tears staining the cheeks of bystanders. The numbers led one report to claim that:
…the multitude of people in the town on Sunday…was never exceeded at any time in the annals of the town on an occasion of that description… 
As the cortège approached the church, a muffled peal rang out from the church belfry. The three coffins were gently removed from the three hearses in absolute silence and carried into the crowded church for a service. Not all those present could fit in the building, forcing many more to assemble outside. The coffins were then borne to their final resting places in the churchyard, as the solemn, muffled peal of the bell pierced the silence. The sun shone brilliantly throughout, but a bitingly cold wind swept the graveside. There:
The children wailed continuously, the women were loud in their lamentations, and men were completely broken down…
Once the service ended the trio of coffins were covered with earth. Mourners dispersed, offering words of sympathy to the bereaved families as they left. As darkness fell over the now-empty churchyard, the many wreaths laying on the three burial mounds stood silent witness to the tragic events.
That same afternoon Hilda North was committed to rest in Batley cemetery, in a similarly impressive service conducted by the Reverend Charles Gordon. Once more the approach to her final resting place was lined with a huge throng of people. The cemetery too brimmed with mourners, with a vast number of wreaths placed on her grave.
The adjourned inquest resumed at the Coach and Six on 28 October, with a report from Bradford engineer John Waugh into the state of the hoist. After establishing this did not contribute to the accident, the jury reached a verdict that:
…the deceased were killed by the falling of the cage of the hoist and the subsequent fall of the gear and supports of the said hoist, by the crowding into the cage of a greater number of persons than it was calculated to carry, and by the improper use of the gear ropes by some of the persons in the cage, that the overcrowding of the cage was in contravention of a warning which was conspicuously pasted up on the door of the hoist chamber…
Finally, for those familiar with Birstall and wondering why Britannia Mills today does not bear any resemblance to the five-storey building of 1892, the answer is the all-too familiar fate which befell many mills: fire. In July 1905, when under the ownership of Batley mayor George Hirst and primarily occupied by the Extract Wool and Merino Company which he chaired, a fire took hold and ravaged the building. The reconstruction resulted in the smaller structure we are familiar with today. But as you pass, do pause and think. Over a century ago four local people lost their lives here, simply by going to work. Two of them would, by today’s standards, be still of school age. How times have (thankfully) changed.
Notes:  Some reports say almost 40 yards. 1 yard = 3 feet. I suspect these reports may be an exaggeration, because an official report quoted in the Batley Reporterand Guardian of 29 October 1892 into the state of the hoist mentions the distance from the hoist girders to the floor was 67 feet;  6 feet off the ground according to Mary Alice Mann;  Batley Reporter and Guardian, 22 October 1892;  Batley News, 28 October 1892;  Some reports say Low Lane. They also incorrectly give his father’s name as Edward;  Some reports incorrectly state Eva;  In the 1891 census she is recorded as Hannah May Grayson, and her mother is Mary Medcalf, TNA Reference RG12/3722/70/17. Her birth in the Dewsbury Registration District in the December quarter of 1863 is under Gration;  Batley News, 28 October 1892;  Newspaper reports give her age as 18;  Batley Reporter and Guardian, 29 October 1892;  Ibid;  Yorkshire Evening Post, 28 October 1892.
Sources: • 1861-1901 England and Wales censuses; • Batley All Saints church marriage register; • Batley Cemetery burial register; • Batley News – 21 and 28 October 1892, and 21 July 1905;Batley News – 21 and 28 October 1892, and 21 July 1905; • Batley Reporter & Guardian – 22 and 29 October 1892, and 21 July 1905; • Birstall St Peter’s church parish registers (baptisms, marriages and burials); • Funeral Practices, British Customs: https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/funeral-practices-british-customs • Leeds Mercury – 24 October 1892; • Leeds Times – 22 October 1892; • OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html • Tong St James parish register (marriages); • Yorkshire Evening Post – 21, 24 and 28 October 1892;
12 December 1940 had been a cold winter’s day. As darkness drew in, families across the Heavy Woollen District prepared to hunker down for their second wartime Christmas.
Money was tight – no change there for most. So no sacks full of Christmas presents for the children. Again no change for many. But people were making the best of it, continuing peacetime Christmas traditions. Like the Hartley family in Savile Town, making a Christmas cake with a neighbour that evening – a reminder of the ordinariness of preparations of past Christmases .
But this was far from a normal Christmas. The strangeness of separation from loved ones in this so-called season of goodwill, bundled up with anxiety for the safety of those absentees, bound lots of families together. Mrs Hill in Batley faced a difficult Christmas – her first as a young widow with four children under the age of six. Over in Dewsbury, the Callaghan family were getting ready to spend Christmas with their latest family addition, a seventh child born earlier that year. Their eldest, 15-year-old Jack, typical of many teenage lads, was caught up with the excitement of pretending to shoot German planes out of the Yorkshire skies from his open bedroom window, accompanied by his own ack-ack-ack sound effects. His Air Raid Protection (ARP) Warden father quickly dragged him away, ensuring the window was firmly shut and blacked out. Within four years Jack would be serving with the Royal Navy craft in the D-Day landings.
At around 7.30pm the blood-chilling wail of the air raid sirens sounded across the Batley and Dewsbury districts, ending that evening’s attempts to recreate the normal of Christmases past. This was their new wartime normal. The anti-aircraft guns, based in Caulms Wood and what is now hole number 2 of Hanging Heaton Golf Club, began firing.
Perhaps there was an air of calm as people made their way to various air raid shelters. After all, they’d experienced this before, and the alarms always proved thankfully false.
Various organisations had these bomb shelters – for example St Mary’s RC school’s log book notes shortly after the war declaration that air raid shelters were built. One was under construction at Batley hospital in March 1940 – I know because it cost my grandad his life. Some sheltered in the strongest part of their house – cellars, sculleries, or simply under kitchen tables.
Others had purpose-built Anderson shelters in their gardens, erected right from the early days of the war. My dad remembers his dad building one, which would’ve been in the very first months after war broke out. Many families kept theirs post-war, converted to garden storage. They were a common site for many a year after the war.
Communal shelters existed with wooden slatted seats inside, like the soil-covered brick built one at Staincliffe. There was also a communal shelter at Leeds Road, Dewsbury. The tunnel at the bottom of Primrose Hill, close to Lady Ann Road, was another example. Vera May recalls sheltering there as a child during the 12 December 1940 raid. Men who worked at Taylor’s mill were also there, and Vera remembers: ‘They were great with us children, singing with us so we would not be afraid’ . For, unlike most nights, this was no false alarm. The Luftwaffe this time were not passing over Batley and Dewsbury on their way to/from bombing another unfortunate town or city. Tonight it was for real, the turn of the heart of the Heavy Woollen district with its rail lines and mills manufacturing cloth for the military to face Hitler’s wrath.
Following the failure of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe were now targeting Britain’s industrial and military centres. Sheffield was the focus for Operation Crucible, with bombing during the nights of the 12 and 15 December 1940. The targets of the raids were the multiple steel and iron works, collieries, and coke ovens along the Don Valley. One theory is that the bombing of Batley and Dewsbury was a mis-targeting from this attack, rather than these two towns being the specific objectives. Whatever, the results were disastrous for many of the townsfolk.
The night sky over Batley and Dewsbury lit up with parachute flares and tracer fire, as baskets of incendiary bombs and parachute mines rained down. Houses shook, window frames rattled, glass shattered, masonry and roof slates tumbled to the ground, water spurted out from fractured taps and pipes, and plaster fell from ceilings. As the bombs hurtled earthwards they made terrifying whistling and screaming sounds. Those sheltering braced themselves for the next ‘hit’, hunched over with hands protecting heads, then after each blast ensuring all others in the shelter were still OK.
It was not a constant bombardment. In the quieter periods, when the drone of the planes died away, people emerged troglodyte-like from their places of safety to check the damage, try extinguish any lights, and bale water onto house fires. Then they darted back in at the launch of the next attack wave.
Geoffrey Whitehead, an eight-year-old Batley schoolboy, vividly recalls that terrifying night. His grandparents, Charles and Harriet Whitehead, ran the off-licence at 1 Bunkers Lane. They also lived ‘over the shop’, along with Geoffrey and his parents. When the sirens sounded, Geoffrey’s father, Austin, set off towards Mayman Lane for his voluntary Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) work. Normally the rest of the family would go to the brick-built communal shelter at the bottom of Common Road. But the planes were upon them too quickly. With bombs already raining down, there was simply not time to risk walking the short distance to Common Road. Instead the family made their way down to the beer cellar and sheltered under the table there. The cellar roof was reinforced with plaster-covered wooden planks. So great were the shock-waves from the bombs, in particular one huge blast, that white plaster flecks came away from the ceiling .
As time passed, the air became ever more thick with smoke and dust, flames engulfed buildings, while the stench of sulphur from the high explosive bombs weighed heavy. Throughout it all, the Civil Defence Services, stretched to the limit, worked valiantly. They were assisted by brave and alert householders who had buckets of sand and water at the ready. These AFS personnel (Austin Whitehead possibly amongst them), soldiers, police and ARP Wardens checked on sheltering householders, went into homes to extinguish fires left in grates, smothered incendiary bombs with sand, operated stirrup pumps to douse flames, entered burning buildings to ensure no-one was inside, retrieved valuables and carried furniture from homes impossible to save. Delayed action fuse bombs and unexploded devices posed further threats to the rescuers. Yet they carried on regardless in the face of unimaginable danger.
Numerous incidents were reported across Batley. Joe Shepley, a fruiterer and ARP Warden, and David Woodcock were injured by flying splinters. One housewife caught an incendiary bomb in a bucket of water as it ripped through her ceiling – fortunately little damage was done. The home of Albert Stevenson and his bride of three weeks, Edith (née Thewlis), had a similarly lucky escape when soldiers quickly extinguished an incendiary bomb which landed in their bedroom. Private Rutter risked his life by entering a blazing building in which he thought someone was trapped. Luckily no-one was inside, but the soldier had the presence of mind to bring out furniture. Soldiers saved a laundry from flames, as well as the Well Lane mineral water works, despite knowing there was an unexploded bomb near the latter.
In the same area of Well Lane, Superintendent Horace Horne, an ambulance driver, had been instructing a class of ambulance cadets when the first bombs fell. They assisted in the operations to save the St John Ambulance headquarters and a storage building opposite, removing to safety the ambulances and most of the first aid stores.
Others reported the AFS and ARP personnel ‘carrying an adult invalid from a dilapidated house’ and ‘searching beneath a mass of overhanging slates and splintered rafters for someone who might be trapped in debris’ .
A cinema was hit, but again escaped relatively unscathed. Bombs landed in fields – I wonder if this was the one which my dad remembers landing in Carter’s field? My uncle can also remember a massive depression at the bottom of Healey Lane which he believed was a result of bomb damage. Was it from this raid?
And the major blast which shook the cellar in which Geoffrey Whitehead sheltered, was the result of a huge bomb which landed in fields near what is now Manor Way. He visited the crater site the following day and recalls the hole being so huge you could fit a double decker bus in it. He also remembers collecting shrapnel from it, now long since lost .
The Purlwell area of Batley was particularly badly affected. St Andrew’s church was the first in the Wakefield Diocese to be damaged by air raids. In the immediate aftermath repair costs were put at £1,000. The £400 East Window was pitted with splinters. One wall was so unsafe, with the organ visible through a gaping crack in the masonry, that rebuilding was thought necessary. The only door not blown out was the stout, oak entrance door.
Houses round and about the church suffered significant bomb and blast damage. It was in this locality that Batley’s first air-raid fatality lost his life. Private Herbert Courtney Channon of the Royal Army Service Corps was in Purlwell Hall Road when he was struck in the neck by shrapnel and killed instantly. Some say he was decapitated. His friends, standing either side of him, had lucky escapes being flung to the ground by the blast. Private Channon’s body was returned to his family for burial in Chard, Somerset later that month .
Even with the departure of the German raiders in the early hours of the 13 December, the danger did not pass. As the all-clear rang out at around 1am, amidst air thick with smoke and fumes, the rubble of smouldering buildings, the danger of unstable masonry and the risk posed by unexploded and delayed action bombs, the civil defence volunteers and demolition squads continued to work. The presence of ‘live’ devices meant the temporary evacuation of many houses, swelling the ranks of those bombed out of their homes.
Around 400 Batley residents slept that night in a school refuge centre. They were given meals in two Sunday schools. Most of the displaced were thankfully able to return to their homes by the following nightfall. One Batley man whose house suffered bomb appreciatively stated:
Kindly folk spontaneously brought food for us, invited us to their houses for meals. Tradesman offered us anything we needed, and young ladies served hot tea to us during the salvage. 
According to the official statistics compiled from Intelligence Reports into enemy activity on British domestic soil, that night Batley suffered five casualties comprising one killed and four injured. In fact two people in the town died as a result of the German raid. In addition to soldier Herbert Courtney Channon, local mill hand Percy Ingham also lost his life.
Percy was born in Birstall on 24 April 1894, the son of Harry and Sarah Ann Ingham. He married Annie Phillips on 7 February 1920 at St Mary of the Angels RC Church in Batley.
On the night of the raid, Percy sustained injuries at his home at 61 Purlwell Hall Road, the same street where Private Channon was cut down. Percy was taken to Staincliffe hospital where, despite all efforts, he died on 16 December 1940. Part of the old hospital buildings (previously Dewsbury Union Workhouse and the workhouse infirmary, as well as a military hospital in the First World War) exist today.
Percy’s funeral, conducted by Catholic priest John J Burns, took place on 20 December 1940. He is interred in Batley cemetery and his resting place is marked with a headstone. He is also commemorated in the roll of Wold War Two civilian dead held at Westminster Abbey, and on the Commonwealth War Grave’s Commission (CWGC) database.
Neighbouring Dewsbury also suffered in the 12 December raid, with five people losing their lives.
Brenda Hartley, her mother Hilda and neighbour Nellie Naylor, abandoned their Christmas cake baking at 13 North View, Savile Town. Initially they went into their cellar, but as Nellie’s husband, Harry, was due home they made a hair-raising dash to the cellar in the Naylor house next door but one. It was a decision which saved their lives. Harry arrived 15 minutes later. Shortly afterwards a bomb landed on the house they had vacated only a short time ago.
Initially unconscious, the group soon came round to find they were now buried alive. Their terrifying ordeal lasted several hours. Brenda’s mother sustained severe injuries, unable to move under the debris. There was a fear at one point that Hilda would drown, when water used to put out the fires above seeped steadily into the cellar. Harry, thankfully, managed to alert the firemen before it was too late. Rescuers eventually managed to dig a hole the size of an oven door into the cellar, through which a plank was inserted. Then, one by one, those entombed were pulled out to safety. However, the family at 14 North View were not so lucky as Brenda’s father, Dennis, soon learned.
Dennis cycled home immediately after hearing about the Savile Town bombing. He had been working the night shift at Newsome’s mill in Batley Carr. He did not know if his wife and daughter had survived. When he finally got through the cordon protecting devastated North View from the general public, he had a heart-stopping moment when:
…the A.R.P. Men told him they had just found two bodies. They had walked over them thinking they were pillows, but they turned out to be Mrs Scott and her daughter Enid who lived next door to us. Mr Scott was working at his shop, he was a cobbler in Thornhill Lees… 
Mary Ann Scott (née Platts) was originally from Carlinghow, Batley. Born in 1879 , her 61st birthday was only days away. She married boot and shoe repairer Harry Scott at Carlinghow St John’s on 16 April 1906 . Before her marriage she worked as a weaver at Carlinghow mills (at that stage owned by Brooke Wilford & Co.,) and was a prominent member of the Carlinghow church, teaching in its Sunday school. After her marriage the family settled at 14 North View, and this was their home when Enid, their only child, was born on 7 August 1908. Enid attended Savile Town St Mary’s School, and Wheelwright Girls’ Grammar School. Her working life was spent in office and company secretary roles in Ossett. She also was a volunteer at the Dewsbury ARP Report Centre.
Harry was working at his boot repairing business at Brewery Lane, Thornhill Lees, when the attack occurred. That saved his life. On Tuesday 17 December, after a double funeral service at Carlinghow St John’s, it was Harry’s sad duty to walk behind the coffins of his wife and daughter as they were carried to Batley cemetery for interment. No headstone marks their final resting place. But, like Percy Ingham, their names live on in the Westminster Abbey roll of honour and on the CWGC database.
That day marked three more burials – this time all in Dewsbury cemetery. All three men were members of the Dewsbury Home Guard and were employed in Messrs. Crawshaw and Warburton’s Shaw Cross Colliery. The men were in the colliery offices at the former Ridings colliery on Wakefield Road , which was wrecked by a parachute mine. A row of terrace houses on Wakefield Road (Sunny Bank, numbers 72 to 82) were also destroyed in the attack. Fortunately the residents there had taken to the communal shelter and all survived. But the Home Guard men were not so fortunate.
Section Leader Sidney Burridge, of 351 Victoria Terrace, Leeds Road, Dewsbury, was a 46-year-old married man. Employed as a colliery deputy at Shaw Cross colliery, it was the same type of job undertaken by his father. Born on 5 July 1894, the son of James Hartley Burridge and wife Jane Elizabeth, he was baptised at St Philip’s church, Dewsbury . It started his lifelong association with the church. It was here, on 8 September 1914, that he married Sophia Squires . And it was the vicar at St Philip’s who conducted his funeral service, with a Union Jack-draped coffin and a Home Guard escort signifying his Local Defence Volunteer role. Outside work, Sidney was a member of Eastborough Working Men’s Club and Dewsbury Rugby League Football Club, both associations represented at his funeral. He left a widow and two children.
Section Commander Ernest Lodge was another of the Home Guard fatalities. He sold house coals and briquettes for Messrs. Crawshaw and Warbuton. Born on 15 November 1893, he was the son of weaver Harry Lodge of Lepton and his wife Elizabeth . Ernest’s mother died around three years later, and on 29 September 1900 Harry re-married at Dewsbury, St Mark’s . His new wife was Sarah Elizabeth Oddy.
Ernest married widow Alice Wilson (formerly Chatwood) at Moorlands Wesleyan Chapel, Dewsbury on 20 July 1929 . The couple both sang with their choir and, at the time of Ernest’s death, lived at 12, Thirlmere Road, Dewsbury.
He too was accorded a funeral with the honour of a Union Jack-covered coffin. Members of the Home Guard lined the path to his grave, which Dewsbury cemetery staff had bordered with evergreen.
Section Commander Wilfred King was the third Home Guard casualty that night. Born on 31 May 1905 at Commonside, Hanging Heaton, he was the son of George and Martha Ann King. A coal hewer at the Shaw Cross pit, he lived with his parents at 457, Leeds Road, Dewsbury.
In a particularly cruel twist of fate, his 28-year-old bride-to-be Mary Glover, of Thornton Street, instead of preparing for her wedding scheduled for later that week, now found herself attending her fiancé’s funeral. She addressed her floral tribute ‘from his broken-hearted and sorrowing sweetheart’. Wilfred’s funeral service was held at the Boothroyd Lane Providence Independent, prior to interment at Dewsbury Cemetery.
But that did not mark the extent of local deaths in the bombing raid of the night of 12/13 December 1940. As I mentioned at the outset, the main focus of the bombing that night was the city of Sheffield with its vital steel and iron works. Arthur Brewer, a long-time resident of Ravensthorpe, was in Sheffield that night.
Arthur was born in Birstall on 30 July 1907. The son of Earl and Mary Brewer, he was baptised at the Mount Zion Chapel at White Lee on 1 September 1907 . Some time after 1911 the family moved to Ravensthorpe, and after leaving school Arthur began a career as a musician, specialising in the drums.
He played regularly at the Town Hall in Mirfield and Dewsbury’s Majestic cinema. He then joined the renowned Paul Zaharoff in London, famed for his international band. Subsequently Arthur went on tour playing in numerous city hotels, including a 16-week stint in Jersey.
In 1935 Arthur married Mary Goddard. For the 18 months prior to his death Arthur was based in Sheffield playing with a band in hotels across the city. In down-times he supplemented his income with lorry driving. Initially Mary stayed with him: she is registered there in the 1939 register. But later she moved to the comparative safety of Dewsbury, and was living with her in-laws at Thornhill Street, in Savile Town. Also with her was her and Arthur’s two children, the youngest only three month’s old at the time of raid. Perhaps it was the birth of the baby which prompted the move.
It is a cruel irony that both Savile Town and Sheffield were simultaneously under a Luftwaffe siege: The security of both Mary and Arthur was at stake that December night.
At about 11.20pm Arthur was in the Marples Hotel in Sheffield with fellow-band member Donovan Russell. The seven-storey Marples Hotel and pub on Fitzalan Square had operated under several names since the 1870’s, initially starting out as the Wine and Spirit Commercial Hotel, and latterly the London Mart. But it was still known as The Marples. And it’s name was to be forever etched in history for the events of that night.
At 11.44pm, as over 70 people sheltered in its cellar, it took a direct hit from a 500lb German bomb. Arthur was believed to be amongst those sheltering. Donovan Russell had a lucky escape – he left Arthur there just 20 minutes before the bomb struck. The entire building collapsed.
It was not until 10am the following day that rescue attempts began, initial assessments being survival was impossible. Amazingly seven people were rescued. But that was all. It is estimated around seventy people died in the building, the biggest single loss of life during the Sheffield Blitz. Arthur was amongst that number. If there was any consolation, death was believed to be instantaneous.
Over the following weeks the site was cleared. 64 bodies were eventually recovered, and partial remains of a further six or seven people. Only 14 were visually identified. Personnal belongings were used in the process of formal identification for most of the others.
As of mid-January the only item belonging to Arthur which Mary recovered were the lenses of his glasses. When probate was granted on 12 March 1942, the entry confirmed identification of his body at the hotel. The entry read:
BREWER Arthur of 34 Thornhill-street Savile Town Dewsbury Yorkshire who is believed to have been killed through war operations on 12 December 1940 and whose dead body was found at Marples Hotel Fitzalan-square Sheffield Administration Wakefield 12 March to March Brewer widow. Effects £161 5s 
I’ve planned this local history tale for some time. I wanted to publish it to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Unfortunately, because of the current battle the world faces against the invisible coronavirus enemy, my research was prematurely curtailed. However, I wanted to go ahead with publication as a tribute to our ancestors of 80 years ago. Once some kind of research normality resumes I hope to update this post.
Finally, the Bombing Britain website, which draws together intelligence reports of enemy action on British domestic soil, records only this one direct air raid on Dewsbury. Batley had two recorded air raids. The evening of 12 December into the early hours of 13 December, and one on the night of 15/16 December 1940. This latter raid had no recorded casualties. If anyone does have any memories of these events, or life on the Home Front in Batley and Dewsbury generally, please do contact me.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION It appears the Bombing Britain site covering enemy action over British soil may under-report the bombs which landed over the Batley and Dewsbury area. West Yorkshire Archives produced an ARP Bomb Map for the night of 14/15 March 1941. It can be found at here and includes an unexploded bomb almost opposite what is now Healey Community Centre.
Notes:  WW2 People’s War archive of wartime memories, bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar, Brenda Hartley, now Haley, Reference A2843750;  Vera May – Batley History Group Facebook Page, Jane Roberts post 19 April 2020;  Geoffrey Whitehead, retired Batley Boy’s High School deputy headmaster, in conversation with Jane Roberts dated 27 April 2020;  Batley News, 21 December 1940;  Geoffrey Whitehead, Ibid;  Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 27 December 1940;  Batley News, 21 December 1940;  WW2 People’s War archive of wartime memories, bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar, Brenda Hartley, now Haley, Reference A2843750;  Birstall St Peter’s baptism register, born on 23 December 1879 and baptised on 25 January 1880, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire Church of England births and baptisms 1813-1910, original record at West Yorkshire Archive Services, Reference WDP5/1/2/9;  Carlinghow St John’s marriage register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935, original record at West Yorkshire Archive Services, Reference WDP132/1/2/2;  England & Wales National Probate Calendar, Sidney Burridge, Probate Date 27 November 1941 gives the place of death. Accessed via Ancestry.co.uk;  St Philip’s, Dewsbury, baptism register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire Church of England births and baptisms 1813-1910, original record at West Yorkshire Archive Services, Reference WDP9/439;  St Philip’s, Dewsbury, marriage register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935, original record at West Yorkshire Archive Services, Reference WDP9/443;  Baptism of Earnest [sic] Lodge, Huddersfield Northumberland Street Methodist Circuit, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, Non-Conformist Records, 1646-1985, original record at West Yorkshire Archives Service, Reference KC295/3;  St Mark’s, Dewsbury, marriage register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935, original record at West Yorkshire Archive Services, Reference WDP228/1/2/2;  Marriage register of Moorlands Wesleyan Chapel, Boothroyd Lane, Dewsbury, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, Non-Conformist Records, 1646-1985, original record at West Yorkshire Archives Service, Reference C111/207;  Mount Zion, White Lee, Baptism register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, Non-Conformist Records, 1646-1985, original record at West Yorkshire Archives Service, Reference C10/15/1/1/1;  England & Wales National Probate Calendar, Arthur Brewer, Probate Date 12 March 1942; Accessed via Ancestry.co.uk
UPDATE: This has generated many memories and comments. There are the fantastic ones which have been posted in the WordPress comments section for this post below. In addition there have been lots posted elsewhere on social media and I have gathered them together here. • Brian Howgate on Facebook page Batley Photos Old and New wrote: My grandparents lived exactly opposite St Andrews Church in purlwell Hall Road. There house got serverly damaged when the bomb dropped on the church. • On the same site Lesley Dyer wrote: My grandfather not only worked during the day but was also did his bit as a warden who had to go out and watch out for any incendries dropping which started fires and had to put them out before the German bomber’s came over, it went on for weeks, until one night another warden had told my grandfather that St. Andrews had been hit taking its roof, as a man stood in a shop doorway and the blast/shock wave blew him back into the shop, luckily he survived, the church roof & windows had gone altogether, along with homes in the area had also been damaged too. • Also on that page Kevin Mcguire wrote: Our next door neighbour had a[n] Anderson shelter which he kept all his gardening gear they did not look that safe to me as a kid there were air aid shelters every where great for exploring and playing Japs and commanders with wooden guns. • Again on the Batley Photos site Joan Chappell recalled: As a child I went to St. Andrews church. We were told that the reason it had chairs and not pews like most other churches was because it was bombed during the war. • Also on Batley Photos Jack Dane wrote: ….when we lived on Purwell Crescent I have always had this memory of my mother leaving me outside our gate crying because it was pitch black she ran back into the house to fetch something she had forgotten when we were on our way to our neighbours air raid shelter, the date of the bombing puts me at 3 year old which seems about right if it was that particular night. • On the Shoddy Matters Facebook Page Christine Lawton wrote: My husband is named after Wilfred king he was a friend of there family. • On the same page Ian Sewell said: I remember the bunkers up Caulms Wood with the huge stones. • Also on Shoddy Matters David Wilby wrote: ….growing up [I] remember seeing where the bomb had dropped, up by the farm on Staincliffe hall road, near the top of Deighton Lane. • And in another Shoddy Matters post Chrissie Chapman wrote: I have lived up Carters fields all my life and was told that the house I own had the gable wall blown down due to a bomb from the war. The wall was rebuilt and I now think, after reading this, it must have been from the bombs that fell on Carters Field . We often played, as children, in the air raid shelter that was on waste land next to the Parochial Hall. • Linked to Chrissie’s post, on Dewsbury Pictures Old and New Facebook page David Riley said: My aunt Dorie’s gable end was blown up by the bomb in Carters Field had to move into my mum and dads in Northbank Rd near Mullins farm. David also said they lived in the last block of four [houses] facing Healey, Northbank fields by the top of the football pitch. Looking at the 1939 Register, the address for Doris Boden was 173 North Bank Road, Batley. • Also on the Dewsbury page John Riley wrote: My auntie who lived down Robin Lane, used to find large lumps of shrapnel in the garden which she said came off the exploding AA shells fired from Caulms Wood. • On Twitter Ghulam Nabi wrote: I attended Birkdale High School in 1974 and top half which was formerly the Girls Grammar school had air raid shelters all around the grounds.. Some of the lads found them and used to skip lessons by hiding in there. As an aside, the Girls Grammar School was Wheelwright, the former school of one of the air raid victims, Enid Scott.
‘Murder! Murder! He’s murdering our Hannah in the house!’ The terrified screams of an old lady tore through the night silence of Batley’s Hume Street and New Street area. It was around 11pm on Saturday 19 August 1865.
Joseph Pease, a labourer living near to the Brook household, heard the cries for help, and rushed into the two-roomed cottage, home of 60-year-old widow Sarah Brook (also known as Sally). A horrific tableau met his eyes. The compact downstairs area, comprising a kitchen with stone stairs leading to the upper chamber, a fireplace directly facing the entrance door and to the right a cupboard bed, was blood splattered, from floor to furniture and walls. A young boy, the grandson of the old lady, cowered screaming on the far side of the bed, trying to evade danger. Plunging a bayonet repeatedly into his neck stood a youth, dressed in Rifle Corps uniform. Facing the youth, at the far side of the kitchen, was 18-year-old Hannah Brook, daughter of Sarah. Dressed in a black frock, blood was pouring from her neck and mouth. Another witness described how blood was ‘sponging from a hole in her side.’ 
Pease rushed at the man, 19-year-old Eli Sykes, and seized him, though he was stabbed in the thigh and slightly injured in the struggle. William Fawcett, a cabinet maker, who had been visiting his father-in-law in Hume Street, followed up and managed to wrench the bayonet, dripping with blood from assailant and victims, from Sykes. He removed it from the scene for safety.
Others swiftly appeared, alerted by the commotion. Someone carried Sarah Brook, her white nightdress now blood-soaked, to the bed where she died. Others gave Hannah water. She attempted to speak, but could not. Within minutes she too was dead. Both women had received multiple stab wounds (Sarah nine and Hannah seven), including fatal punctures to their hearts.
Meanwhile, the police arrived at the house, now surrounded by hundreds of people despite it being nearly midnight. Sykes was restrained in a chair. His rifle was on a table, the stock broken in two. Police Sergeant English, of the West Riding Constabulary, charged the silent Sykes with murder. At this point he finally opened his eyes and looked towards the bed where the two women lay.
Dr William Bayldon, amongst those officials summoned to the house, examined Sykes’ wounds and found them not to be serious. He declared hind sufficiently fit to be transferred to the Dewsbury lock-up. Here Dr W.H. Thornton re-examined the prisoner and agreed that, although the wounds were deep, they were not fatal.
On Tuesday 22 August 1865 the double funeral of Sarah and Hannah Brook took place at Batley Parish Church. People arrived at Batley railway station by the trainload. Many viewed the corpses, laid out in the very room where they met their brutal fate less than three days before. The faces of the deceased were bare, heads covered by skull-caps, countenances placid and at peace.
People from across the West Riding, including Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Halifax and Heckmondwike, lined the funeral route. Estimates put the numbers of spectators in the region of at least 20,000. The church was packed with people in their working clothes. Amongst those paying their final respects was a young man from Wakefield – James Henry Ashton.
Female acquaintances carried the coffins of the women to their burial place: older women carried the coffin of Sarah, whilst young mill girls carried Hannah’s. They were interred in a grave around 20 yards away from the church yard entrance gates, on the south east side of the church.
The murders horrified not only those living in the growing, industrial mill town of Batley, but sent shockwaves across the country. The recurring question was why? What had caused a seemingly law-abiding young man to commit such a brutal crime?
Initial details began to appear through official channels in days after the murder. Two inquest hearings took place before the Coroner at the White Hart Hotel in Batley, a local pub which is now a residential property. A wilful murder verdict resulted .
Eli also appeared before the local magistrates. In his initial appearance, a seated Eli looked weak with a scarf round his neck, but with scarcely any evidence of his self-inflicted throat wounds. The main hearing took place at Dewsbury court house.
As a result of this magistrates hearing, Eli was committed to trial at the next Leeds Assizes on a murder charge. Here, at Leeds Town Hall on 19 December 1865, the full case was heard. It provided even more information and drama to an eager audience.
Hannah Brook was born in Batley in 1847, the daughter of weaver Mark Brook and his wife Sarah (née Darnbrook). Sarah was previously married to Robert Fearnley, who died in 1837, so Hannah had a number of half-siblings. By 1861 the family had moved from the Havercroft area of Batley to Hume Street, and in July 1864 Mark died. Thereafter Sarah lived upon the income derived from a small property near Batley . Hannah, described as a cheerful girl, worked as a mill hand  at Alexandra Mill in Batley.
Eli Sykes was a cloth-finisher. Born in Ossett in 1846 he was the son of cordwainer John Sykes and his wife Sarah Ellis. The family moved to Dewsbury in around 1850/51, and by 1865 they lived at Batley Carr, almost opposite Holy Trinity Church. Although described as holding a humble position in society, they were a very respectable family.
After the events that fateful August night, a few isolated newspapers described Eli as a shady young man, with a wild, roving disposition who had caused much trouble for his parents since leaving Sunday School. But these are outliers. The overwhelming number of accounts testify to his good character. They paint a picture of a well-behaved, quiet, industrious young man. One work colleague, William Bentley Walton described him as straightforward and peaceable. He had worked with Sykes for three years and never had a quarrel with him. Robert Jones, a neighbour of the Brooks family, said he always appeared a quiet, well-conducted lad and his manner towards Hannah was invariably kind and affectionate. Hannah Hirst, a friend of Hannah Brook who had known Eli for three years, said they ‘always appeared to be very affectionate when together. He was very kind to Hannah…’ and she ‘…never heard any quarrel between them.’ 
For about two years prior to that August night, like many other young men Eli spent his free time with the local military unit. It was a social activity, away from the confines of home and work. In Eli’s case he was a Private in the No3 (Batley Carr) Company of the 29th (Dewsbury) West York Volunteer Corps. His fellow members there vouched for his steady nature, general civility and good behaviour.
Eli and Hannah met on 10 March 1863 during celebrations which took place countrywide marking the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest son Prince Albert Edward of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Their friendship developed to full-blown courtship, with Eli a frequent visitor to the Brook house. Despite a short break up in the early days of their relationship which they quickly patched up, the general assumption by all was the logical next step for the pair was marriage. They seemed well-suited. Eli had a reliable mill job to provide for a wife and, eventually, family. And by all accounts he was a steady young man. But they were young, possibly too young to commit for life. And emotions could quickly change.
And this proved the case for Hannah. For some reason in July 1865 her feelings towards Eli cooled. The indication was she had met someone else – a man from Wakefield named James Henry Ashton: the man mentioned amongst the mourners at her funeral the following month. Their meetings included a picnic at Howley Hall, where she was seen dancing with him. But whether he was the cause of the change in Hannah is unclear. Some sources suggest she took up with James whilst still seeing Eli. Others claim the relationship with Eli was already over by the time she became involved with James.
Despite Hannah repeatedly telling Eli that their relationship was over, he would not accept it. As far as he was concerned she was the love of his life. He doggedly followed her trying to persuade her to change her mind, often turning up unannounced at her Hume Street home. Friends advised Eli to let it drop. One who cautioned thus was power loom weaver George Fearnley, who happened to be Hannah’s brother. Eli told George how grieved he was at Hannah’s refusal to see him, and he did not know what to do. George told Eli he was being a foolish lad, and that there were plenty other girls.
Hannah Hirst was another one who witnessed Eli’s continued pursuit of his former sweetheart. On 13 July Miss Brook took tea at Miss Hirst’s Batley Carr home, an occurrence noticed by Eli. Later that night, after Hannah Brook returned home, Eli called at the Hirst home. He told Miss Hirst that Hannah’s new love would be coming over the following week. Then, striking his hat violently against a chair, he declared ‘If I don’t have her, no one else shall.’ Hannah Hirst stated ‘Eli, I think you are going out of your mind.’ His ominous response was ‘You’ll see.’
The day of the murder coincided with a large agricultural and flower show in neighbouring Drighlington. Three companies of the West Yorks Volunteer Corps, amongst them Eli, caught the train to Drighlington to join up with the Birstall contingent for drill. At 8pm they marched back to the railway station were they were served either a half pint of ale, or ginger beer, prior to catching the 9.30pm train back to Batley. Despite three carriages being reserved for the men, not all could entrain due to the vast numbers returning from the show. Eli, though, did have a place and, with about 90 comrades, arrived in Batley at 9.40pm. Some lingered at the station chatting, or waiting for the 10pm train to Dewsbury. Others set off to walk home, including Eli. When he and a friend reached Hick Lane, Eli suggested detouring into Batley. Due to the late hour the friend declined, leaving Eli to carry on alone.
William Bentley Walton was in The Commercial Inn at around 10.30pm, when he saw Eli dressed in his volunteer uniform, rifle in hand and bayonet sheathed at his side. Friends and workmates, Eli told him he was going to Hannah’s. William advised him against it, knowing from earlier conversations with Eli that she had told him to stay away. It was advice Eli chose to ignore. Perhaps it did not help that William told Eli he had seen Hannah go by about 15 minutes earlier. Instead of passing through Batley Eli made the fateful decision to turn off for the Brook’s cottage. All accounts agreed Eli was sober, so drink did not influence what happened next.
Robert Jones, who lived next door but one to Sarah and Hannah, made his way to nearby New Street between 11-12pm. He noticed Eli and Hannah talking outside her Hume Street home. Robert politely asked the couple if they had been to the show. Both said no. He left them still talking, no indication of anything more serious going on. However, the situation rapidly deteriorated in the short time it took for Robert to quickly visit New Street and return to his Hume Street home.
Despite the seeming civility of the conversation witnessed by Robert, Eli’s visit was once more an unwelcome one. By now he was inside the house, again asking Hannah to go back out with him. Once more Hannah said no. Hannah’s mother became involved telling Eli to go away, they did not want him there. Meanwhile, according to Eli’s testimony, a now seated Hannah began singing a popular ballad ‘The Gay Cavalier’ about a man disappointed by the lady he loved. It contained the lyrics ‘She may go to Hong Kong for me’, with Hannah replacing the ‘She’ for ‘You’. Driven to a fury by the perceived taunts and rejection by his former love, he raised his rifle and struck Hannah across her head with the butt, a blow so hard it cracked the stock. The force knocked Hannah out of the chair. Eli then drew out his bayonet, and the stabbing frenzy on both Hannah and her mother commenced. And it was at this point Sarah raised the alarm call, drawing first Joseph Pease and William Fawcett, followed by a host of other neighbours and the police.
Once in custody, according to police statements, Eli reportedly said ‘I feel easier in my mind, and better satisfied now than before I did it.’ He also allegedly said ‘Although I murdered her I loved her – I have told her many a time I’d have my revenge, and I’ve got it now.’  The police also reported his apparent indifference whilst in custody, Eli laughing and whistling as if nothing had happened. It was as if he failed to recognise the magnitude of his crime. His only display of real emotion appeared to be when his family visited him.
The trial at the Leeds Assizes on 19 December 1865 would bring home the enormity soon enough. Prior to the trial, on 8 December, he was transferred to the imposing Victorian edifice of Armley Gaol. Opened under 20 years earlier as Leeds Borough Gaol, it had only recently taken over from York Castle as the place where West Riding executions were carried out. The first two had taken place as recently as September 1864.
From early morning of the trial at the court in Leeds Town Hall, the corridors teamed with people. Many came from the Batley and Dewsbury area, a high proportion of them gaily-dressed women, their frocks incongruous to a court setting. Perhaps the fact this magnificent building had been opened only in 1858 by Queen Victoria, as much as the trial, enticed the good folk of Batley and Dewsbury. It was a day out.
Those lucky enough to gain entry to the crowded courtroom listened intently to the parade of witnesses. Eli’s defence argued that jealousy drove him to commit the crime. In the heat of the moment he lost all sense of reason. His temporary insanity meant it was manslaughter not murder. Justice Shee, in his summing up, would have none of this. Within 30 minutes the jury announced its guilty verdict.
In a show of emotion which reduced many in the courtroom to tears, Eli made his impassioned address. Sobbing, tears almost blinding him and choking his every word, he stated:
My Lord, and gentlemen of the jury, – I never had it in my mind to do it before it was done. If these were my dying words, I could say in the presence of God that I never meant to kill Hannah. I never struck her with the rifle. God only knows what happened in that house that night. He only knows what she said to me – how she began singing, and said words that I never thought could have come out of a woman’s mouth. And yet I loved her; in my heart I loved her as never woman was loved before, if my doom is death, I hope I shall meet her in heaven. But I don’t think I shall be hanged; the Queen will be merciful to me. I never thought it would come to this. Many a time have I gone with her to Wakefield, but little did I think she was deceiving me and went to meet another sweetheart. If she had not jeered at me, I would not have hurt her for my life. I hope I shall meet her in heaven, and I can only pray that if my doom is to be death that God will take my sufferings from me. I hope that my prayers shall be answered, and that we shall meet in that glorious land where we shall never be parted. She has gone to that land, and I will die to get to her….. 
Although the statement deeply affected the Judge, it did not change the sentence. Eli was to be executed by hanging. With the Judge’s final words of ‘And may God, in his infinite mercy, have mercy on your soul’ ringing in his ears, Eli was removed to Armley Gaol to await his fate.
Eli’s trial address had a wider impact. Public opinion was divided as to the correctness of the sentence. Petitions sprang up requesting a commutation of it. George Armitage, one of the magistrates who committed Eli to trial at the Assizes, similarly expressed himself in favour of a reduced sentence. A piece in the Leeds Mercury on 21 December praised Eli’s character, spoke of his pure, honourable and ardent love for Hannah, pointedly saying little was known about her character. They also seemed to support Eli’s belief, expressed at the Assizes, that Hannah was deceiving him saying ‘we do not see that the correctness of his belief is called into question’. The conclusion they hinted at was Eli deserved a more lenient punishment than the death sentence. On the scale of murder, perhaps this was one which was not cold-blooded and calculated. It perhaps held some element of justification. How many times since has some apportionment of blame been attached to women victims of crime?
For Hannah and Sarah’s grieving family, this Leeds Mercury piece proved too much. George Fearnley felt compelled to write to the paper to set the record straight about the piece which ‘reflects in a most unjust and unwarrantable manner upon the conduct and character of my lamented sister…’. His letter, dated 28 December, featured in the Leeds Mercury on 30 December. In it he refuted allegations that Hannah deceived Eli by going with him to Wakefield to meet another lover. The only occasions they went to Wakefield together was to see friends there. In a lengthy missive he also asserted that Sykes:
…knew well … that before her feelings towards him had so far changed as to induce her to prefer another, my sister had insisted upon breaking off her connection with him and told him to stay away; and so far from her having encouraged his addresses after this time, she uniformly refused to see him, and did all she could to compel him to discontinue his visits…I presume, Gentlemen, that neither you nor any one else will deny that my sister had a perfect right, if she so wished it, to break off her connection with Sykes; and having done so, she had also a right to keep company with another if she chose, and that, too, without subjecting herself to annoyance, to threats, or to murder…I conclude by asking from the public a verdict that shall acquit her of all blame… 
Even as this letter was being read and digested by the public to which George appealed, the case had undergone a new, dramatic, and unexpected, twist.
Eli returned to Armley Gaol after his conviction and was placed under the day care of warder Charles Hampshire, a man with 17 years experience. Charles Jacups took over responsibility at night. The men were ordered to keep the prisoner under constant watch.
The Gaol had two cells for condemned prisoners. Initially Eli was placed in the cell on the ground floor, but subsequently was moved to the cell on the floor above due to concerns about the suicide risk posed by the other condemned man, Patrick Welsh. No such concerns were held for Eli, who spoke a good deal about religion and still appeared to entertain the hope that the Queen would commute his sentence to penal servitude. The prison chaplain, Rev Middleton, who visited Eli daily, also entertained no concerns about his state of mind.
On Saturday 23 December the chaplain visited Eli at 5.15pm and left at around 6pm. He failed to lock the door. Charles Hampshire also failed to check Eli was secure in his cell after the chaplain’s visit. Thomas Hampshire, brother of Charles, another experienced warder compounded the error. A trusted employee, he had worked at Armley Gaol since its opening, and prior to that he served five years at Wakefield prison. That evening it was his duty to call the roll and check the cell doors were double locked. He commenced the check at 5.45pm and finished at 6.20pm. Eli’s door appeared to be secure…but it was not. The mistake had huge consequences, including the suspension of Charles Hampshire and the dismissal of Thomas.
At about 6.40pm a large crash, like the firing of guns, echoed in the confines of the prison. Eli had escaped from his cell. Unhindered, he managed to get to the floor above, where he climbed on the balustrade and threw himself on to the flags around 20-25 feet below . He landed on his feet, before falling over and banging his head, rendering himself unconscious for about half an hour. He did suffer convulsions in the initial aftermath, but his leg injuries were the main concern, in particular the compound fracture to his left ankle which haemorrhaged. William Nicholson Price, the prison surgeon, along with the Leeds Infirmary surgeon Mr Wheelhouse, stabilised him and he seemed to progress favourably. However, Eli did try to hinder his recovery throughout, attempting to remove his bandages and doing his utmost to prevent routine medical checks.
The opinion was Eli had attempted suicide to spare his mother, believing his hanging would be the death of her. But all in authority remained hopeful that hanging would be his just fate. In fact stringent attempts were made to ensure he remained alive for his appointed date with the hangman’s noose on 15 January 1866.
In the afternoon and evening of 3 January 1866 Eli suffered a couple of secondary haemorrhages. Both were staunched and, once again, although weakened he seemingly rallied. It proved a temporary recovery. On the evening of 6 January a further bleed occurred. Once again the flow was stemmed, and reduced to an ooze. Eli’s condition continued to deteriorate though, despite best efforts of those charged with his care. Conscious throughout this period, he died in his prison cell at about 9.20pm that night.
The inquest took place on 9 January. That day a letter appeared in the Leeds Mercury. Dated 8 January 1866, it was from Eli’s father. With remarkable restraint, John Sykes wrote to highlight the lack of compassion shown to both himself and his wife. They arrived at Armley Gaol that morning to view their son’s body and say a final goodbye. The Governor refused permission without a magistrate’s order. John left his wife at the prison whilst he went into Leeds to obtain the necessary documentation. Yet even with signed authority the Governor would not allow John and Sarah entry to see their son one last time.
John Sykes was present at the inquest though. Here the jury reached a verdict of Felo de Se (suicide). Eli’s burial was ordered to take place at midnight in the precincts of Armley Gaol, without any religious ceremony.
The sensational events captured public imagination to such an extent that enterprising publishers sold fly-sheets containing lurid (and often inaccurate) details about the case. The events in Batley were even immortalised in verse. It seems only fitting to end this post with one such example.
Miss Hannah Brooks [sic] was a factory maiden, By every one she was well liked; And long poor Hannah had been courted, By the young cloth-worker, Eli Sykes, Hannah Brook forsook her lover Which caused him the maid to kill, And her aged tender mother By his hands their blood was spilled.
In Yorkshire, such a dreadful murder Before we’re sure was never seen; Committed was by Eli Sykes – A youth, whose age is but nineteen. He lov’d the maiden to distraction – From drill he went straightway; Hannah harshly with her mother Ordered Eli Sykes away.
As he stood in his regimentals, So frantically he gazed around; And with the butt-end of his rifle, Quickly knocked his true-love down. Her mother strove to save her daughter – He did in frenzy swear an oath, And plunged his bayonet in each body Many times and killed them both.
He strove then to commit self-murder, But was prevented as we see; The factory maiden and her mother, Who was aged sixty-three,  There in death’s cold arms was sleeping, Weltering in their crimson gore; Friends and neighbours round them weeping, For them they’d see in life no more.
Notes:  Leeds Mercury – 22 August 1865;  Yorkshire Gazette – 26 August 1865;  Some reports indicate she was a power loom weaver;  Leeds Mercury – 20 December 1865;  Leeds Mercury – 22 August 1865;  Yorkshire Gazette – 23 December 1865;  Leeds Mercury – 30 December 1865;  A letter from Prison Surgeon William Nicholson Price which featured in the Leeds Mercury of 26 December 1865 said the drop was around 25-26 feet;  Other records put Sarah’s age as 60, and her baptism at Birstall St Peter’s on 20 January 1805 (Sarah Darnbrough) suggests this is likely to be her correct age.
Sources (in addition to those mentioned in the notes):
1841-1861 Censuses, England and Wales;
Annals of Yorkshire, 1862 and 1866;
Barnsley Chronicle – 2 September 1865;
Bradford Observer – 4 January 1866;
GRO Birth and Death registrations;
Home Office Correspondence and Warrants, HO13/108/236, 23 December 1865, accessed via Findmypast;
Home Office Correspondence and Warrants, HO13/108/245, 13 January 1866, accessed via Findmypast;
Home Office Criminal Registers, HO27 Piece 142, 13 December 1865, accessed via Findmypast;
Home Office and Prison Commission Prison Records, PCOM2/417/74, accessed via Findmypast
Illustrated Police News – 27 September 1934;
Leeds Mercury – 23 and 28 August 1865, 21 December 1865, 9 and 10 January 1866;
Leeds Times – 23 and 30 December 1865;
Old Yorkshire, 1881;
Parish registers – Batley, Birstall and St Paul’s Hanging Heaton, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk;
Heads up about my forthcoming talk on 4 March at Leeds Central Library.
Based on my groundbreaking book The Greatest Sacrifice: Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union about rugby league players who died in World War 1, the talk investigates the stories behind some of the men. It will also be packed with tips for researching your own Great War Army ancestors.
The book, co-authored with Rugby League writer Chris Roberts, has received widespread acclaim, locally and nationally, in print and on radio. The reviews include:
The talk will take place in the Leodis Room, starting at 1pm. It will last for one hour, with opportunity to ask questions. Tickets are free and available through Ticket Source. You can also contact the library direct on 0113 378 5005.
This is one of a series of talks I give. The others scheduled for 2020 are:
That’s also the contact if you would like to buy a copy of the book. The price, including p&p within the U.K., is £14.99. It is also available direct from the publisher, Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd. It is also stocked at independent Leeds bookshop, Philip Howard Books. And it’s also available from the normal retail outlets.
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
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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.
On the evening of Friday 24 April 1896 as the life ebbed from seven-year-old George Sharpe ,he named the person responsible for shooting him – his playmate Alfred Brearey.
George was the son of rag grinder Jesse Sharpe and his wife Mary Wilson.
The couple married at Batley Parish Church on 28 April 1877 . It was
Mary’s second marriage. Her first husband Fearnley Windle died in 1875, age
19 , just over a year after their marriage in the same church .
George was born on 27 April 1888. By the time of the 1891 census the family were living in the Healey area of Batley, at 41 Healey Street. In addition to George, their other children included Joseph (12), Rebecca (9), Letitia (6), Alice (5) and Lily (4 months) . Ten years later they were at 5 Clark Green Street . But at the time the incident took place their address was 4 Knowles Hill, otherwise known as Baines Street, off Dark Lane in Batley, with George attending Purlwell Board School.
Who was the boy accused of the fatal shooting? Many of the records,
including the notes of Coroner Thomas Taylor, refer to him as Arthur. But clues
exist that this is not the full story. There are several other references
naming him as Alfred or Alfy, many of these within the same documents which
refer to him as Arthur.
The report in The Batley News of 1 May 1896 provides the answer
to this confusion. A footnote states:
It will be seen that the prisoner was referred to in almost every case as “Arthur.” His Christian name is Alfred.
Accordingly, Alfred was the name by which he was summoned before this
Court. His birth date was also helpfully confirmed in the Batley Borough Court
evidence as reported in the same edition of The Batley News – Alfred was
11 on 8 April.
Combining this information with General Register Office birth registrations, the fact he was the nephew of Benjamin Wilkinson Crossley, and his father was a carrier named Thomas all pinpoints him as being the son of Thomas and Martha Ann Brearey (née Crossley), who married in 1871. His baptism  at Batley Carr Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on 18 May 1885 confirms his 8 April 1885 birth date, and a Hanging Heaton residence .
Alfred was one of 14 children born in the marriage, but by 1911 only seven were still alive, with Alfred being the only surviving son. In 1891 the family lived at Mill Lane , and it was the Hanging Heaton Mill Lane Board School which Alfred attended. But, prior to the shooting, the family moved to Norfolk Street which was close to where the Sharpe family lived. It was once Alfred “flitted” here that he became friends with George.
I have pieced together the events of the evening of George’s death from various reports on the two official hearings, including the inquest notes made personally by Coroner Thomas Taylor.
First came the inquest on 27 April 1896. With a bitter twist of fate this would have been George’s eighth birthday. Held at The Commercial, this piece of Batley history is no longer a public house and was ear-marked for demolition to make way for apartments. I’m not sure if that is still on the cards.
Two days later, on Wednesday 29 April, the boy accused of causing
George’s death appeared before the Batley Magistrates in a special session of
the Borough Court.
In my narrative, to avoid confusion, I will use his officially
registered name, Alfred. Though do bear in mind if you are searching yourself
many of the original references are actually in the name of Arthur.
This is my summary of events.
On the evening of his death George came home from school at about 4.30pm and, after having his tea, he asked if he could go with Alfred to Farfield Nursery. He set off at around 5pm. This was the final time his mother saw him alive. The nursery, located near the Lady Ann Railway Crossing in Batley, was owned by Alfred’s uncle, Benjamin Wilkinson Crossley – a gardener, seedsman and florist who lived at Park Farm on Grovesnor Road. The Kelly’s West Riding of Yorkshire Directory of 1893 describes Crossley’s multiple floristry services which included:
….ball & wedding bouquets made to order, cut flowers with ferns for table decoration, Memorial wreaths & crosses of white flowers at short notice & moderate prices.
In addition to the nursery, he had an establishment located on Branch Road, easily accessible to potential customers popping into the town centre. Presumably it was from these premises that orders for flowers could be placed.
The 1895 published map of Batley shows Farfield Nursery to be of such a significant size to feature. In 1929 when, after 48 years ownership by B.W. Crossley & Sons, the market garden and rhubarb forcing business was sold, it consisted of five acres with greenhouses, cold frames, two large forcing sheds and three dwelling houses . Back in 1896 it was where Alfred’s father, Thomas, had employment as a carter.
Alfred was in the habit of going to the nursery most evenings to wait
for his father to finish work. For the past month or so, whilst waiting, he had
undertaken simple tasks such as pricking out and transplanting seedlings.
George, at most, accompanied him to the nursery on only a handful of occasions.
This particular evening Alfred went into the potting shed to prick out seedlings, whilst George played, running about the nursery land. Head gardener George Benson left his office in the potting shed at around 6.10pm. He claimed to have locked the office door and put the key in its usual place, hanging by a nail outside the office at a height of about five feet. In the office was a single-barrelled shotgun. This was stored on a beam about seven or eight feet from the ground, but it was accessible to boys if they climbed on the office table. Used for scaring or shooting the pigeons, these birds posed a constant threat to seedlings and crops. In fact, only recently they had destroyed almost all the pea crop. However, it was debatable whether the birds should actually have been shot – many local men owned racing pigeons and some of these birds were quite valuable, as indicated in my blog post about the fate of some local Batley youths who stole pigeons to earn cash. Benson fired the gun on Thursday, and reloaded it with shot and powder on Friday morning. He placed a cap on the gun along with a label on the trigger indicating the weapon was loaded.
Within 20 minutes of Benson’s departure, at around 6.30pm, Benjamin Crossley was summoned by his nephew to the nursery. A boy had fallen in the gardens and was bleeding. Crossley could get no more information from Alfred, so he hurried to the nursery to investigate. He found George face-down on the cart road about eight yards or so from the potting shed, with a trail of blood leading back to it. Crossley turned the boy over and asked what was wrong. Cinders embedded in his face from his fall, George uttered the chilling words: Alfred had shot him.
George asked for some water, and the child took a sip. Crossley then
went to get medical help and the police. On his way he saw Batley Councillor
Rooke Garbutt in the garden of his Howley View home and informed him of the
incident. Garbutt, the manager at John Jubb and Sons shoddy manufacturers at Batley’s
Phoenix Mills, hurried to the nursery which quickly became a hive of activity.
In the melee Arthur melted away. He went to the home of George’s parents.
Jesse Sharpe was now home from work. Ironically, he worked in the same mills as Garbutt. He had eaten his tea and was smoking his pipe when Alfred turned up. It was around 6.45pm. Alfred seemed frightened and was trembling, which prompted Mary to ask where George was. Alfred spoke two words only – “He’s dead.” With that he left. Stunned by the news, Jesse went to find out what on earth was happening.
Back at the nursery Rooke Garbutt was doing his best to assist the boy,
who had a wound the size of half a crown in his right side between his ribs.
From the air being expelled from the hole, the shot had clearly entered his
lung. Deep red blood flowed, which Garbutt tried to stem with his handkerchief.
Garbutt judged by the jagged shape of the wound, and the absence of pellet
marks, the lad had been shot at close range. He asked the child’s name and, on
at least two occasions, he questioned who had shot him. The response never
changed. Alfred Brearey.
Dr Wilkinson arrived on the scene, and immediately judged nothing could be done. George was placed on an ambulance cart and Garbutt, assisted by others, started the journey to Batley Hospital. From the description provided, and with Garbutt said to be between the shafts, it appears this was a cart pulled by the men rather than one drawn by horses. There were various designs of these wheeled ambulance litters and carts throughout the country in this period. The example below is one of the models in use. Others, like the Bischoffsheim hand ambulance which was particularly favoured by London police in this era, were akin to wheeled stretchers. What is unclear is if the mode of transport used for George was an improvised ambulance cart, rather than an official one – especially given there appears to be no named official bearers.
On their way to the hospital Mrs Dyson of Grosvenor Road came out to dab George’s lips with brandy. She gave the ambulance-carriers the bottle in case more should be required. George managed one final word “mother” and, as the ambulance neared the hospital on Carlinghow Field Hill, he breathed his last.
Garbutt passed him to the care of Miss Kanann, hospital Matron, who did
her utmost to revive George, but to no avail. Drs Russell and Keighley arrived
and pronounced death.
George did not stand a chance. The gunshot had fractured his ribs,
perforated the lower part of his right lung, and caused injuries to his liver
and abdominal cavity. His body was carried back to his home. Catherine Smith of
Thorn Bank Cottage on Dark Lane, who had seen George leave his house at 5pm, only
around three hours later was laying out his body. She burned his blood-soaked
vest and shirt to spare his mother further distress, an action which earned
censure from the Coroner. Evidence should not be destroyed. George’s mother
finally saw her son at home at around 11pm, once Catherine work was
Meanwhile police brought in Alfred on suspicion of having caused the
death of George Sharpe. Inspector Weightman interrogated him. He described
Alfred as quite calm, but uncooperative. Alfred stuck to his story. He had
found George on the ground; George had fallen; and Alfred had not seen a gun.
Weightman finally took him to the nursery at 9pm, where Crossley and
Garbutt met them. The office gun had vanished from its stated place on the
beam. Even then Alfred denied ever seeing a gun, but eventually said it had
been in a corner of the building. A search ensued and, after around 10 minutes,
the discharged weapon was found beneath a bench with the exploded cap still in
place. When Alfred’s father arrived, the lad said Benson had told a story – the
office door was unlocked and the gun was not hung up. The police decided to
release George into his father’s custody whilst investigations continued.
On Sunday evening, Alfred, accompanied by his parents and a sister went to the Sharpe house. It was an act which demanded tremendous courage under the circumstances. One cannot imagine the reaction and emotions of the Sharpe family when the boy accused of killing their son turned up on their doorstep. At first Alfred denied having shot George, but when pressed by Jesse he finally admitted to it.
The Coroner’s inquest, headed by Thomas Taylor, was held the following
morning, 27 April. Taylor was critical of the nursery’s gun practices. Firstly,
he questioned the necessity for having one at all, suggesting they should
employ a boy to scare the birds. He also criticised the way in which the nursery
kept the gun, particularly the fact it was stored fully loaded.
As for the shooting, he pointed out only George had provided evidence
that Alfred was responsible, as the admission extracted by Jesse was
inadmissible in Court.
In summary, Taylor stated the boys had no right to be in the office where the gun was kept, but they had got into boy-like mischief. It was impossible to say whether they were simply curiously examining the gun or playing with it. But it was unlikely Arthur would fetch the gun and deliberately shoot his friend. If a person over 14 years old killed another it was murder, unless the contrary could be proved. However, if the person was under seven it was no crime in law. Between the ages of seven and 14, as in Alfred’s case, the jury needed to consider whether the perpetrator had sufficient comprehension to know what he was doing. The jury must consider whether Alfred was playing, as boys would do, and this was an accident; or if he shot George wilfully and with knowledge and understanding. The jury deliberated for 15 minutes before returning a verdict of “Death from Misadventure.”
That very day, on what should have been George’s eight birthday, he was
laid to rest in Batley cemetery.
The Borough Court hearing of 29 April initially did not reveal anything
further, other than Alfred had never been in any trouble, and caused no
problems at home. It was in Court that Alfred was finally interrogated publicly,
this not being allowed at the inquest. And it was here, in a dramatic turn, he
finally revealed his version of events that fateful evening.
He stated George entered the potting shed asking to see the plants
tended by Alfred. The office door was wide open. George went in, got the gun
from behind the door and gave it to Alfred. Alfred was trying to put it back
when it knocked something and went off. Both he and George were in close
proximity in the office when it happened. Sharpe ran for about 10 yards then
The Mayor’s summing up and address to Alfred was recorded in The Batley News. He told Alfred that his:
….future might be a bright and successful one….but a cloud would hang over him. If he desired to get on in the world he should remember that it was only by being honourable and upright that he could hope to succeed, and he hoped the events of the past few days would be a lesson to him and to boys outside not to meddle with anything that did not belong to them. Had the gun not been touched except by those to whom it belonged a great deal of misery would have been spared. A liar was worse than a thief, for doors could be locked against a thief but the mouth of a liar could not be bolted. He trusted therefore that the prisoner would take warning. If he [took to heart all that has been said] he would find himself not merely a good lad but a good citizen, and (if he married) a good husband.
The Bench duly agreed with the verdict of the Coroner’s Jury – George’s
death was the result of misadventure. Alfred was discharged.
Whether the full truth came out in Court when Alfred finally admitted responsibility, we will never know. But the scenario described by Coroner Thomas Taylor at the earlier inquest does seem plausible. This was a case of lads messing around. Whether George did get the gun, or whether it was Alfred wanting to show off to his younger friend, is unclear. What is obvious, reading through all the evidence, it does seem to have been a horrible accident. Alfred was only just 11, a child himself. He would have been traumatised by the events of that evening – in shock and extremely frightened. No wonder he did not dare admit what happened. But still he went to seek help.
As for Crossley, he unsurprisingly declined the option to take back his gun. The Coroner’s words of two days earlier clearly hit home. If the gun had been stored correctly none of this would have happened. A boy would still be alive to celebrate his birthday. A mother and father would still have their son.
But even though this was all clearly a tragic accident, Mary Sharpe’s reaction is one with which everyone will sympathise. On hearing the verdict, she burst into tears and said “he has got off scot free, whilst we have lost our George.”
So, what became of Alfred Brearey? Did he heed the advice given by the Court? It seems he did. A warper at Taylor’s Blakeridge Mills, he married Florence Shephard on 2 September 1905 at Batley Parish Church . He was an active member of St John’s Church, Carlinghow where he was Secretary for their football club. A sports enthusiast, he was a particularly good cyclist and member of the Yorkshire Road Club. They awarded him a medal in 1909 for his record-breaking ride to Goole and back in 4¾ hours. He went on to serve with the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) in World War One, and was killed in action on 27 August 1917. He has no know gave and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial. At home he is remembered on Batley War Memorial and is recognised in the Rev. W.E. Cleworth’s Soothill War Register and Record book .
Footnotes:  Other records have the spelling Sharp, but for consistency I will use the Sharpe variant;  Jesse Sharp/Mary Windle Marriage, Batley Parish Church Marriage Register, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference WDP37/27;  GRO Death Registration for Fearnley Windle, accessed via the GRO website, reference June Quarter 1875, Dewsbury District, Volume 9B, Page 388;  Fearnley Windle/Mary Wilson marriage, Batley Parish Church Marriage Register, 19 September 1874, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference WDP37/26;  Sharp family, 1891 census England & Wales, accessed via Ancestry.com. 1891 England Census [database on-line]. Original record The National Archives Class: RG12; Piece: 3721; Folio: 137; Page: 31  Sharp family, 1901 census England & Wales, accessed via Ancestry.com. 1901 England Census [database on-line]. Original record The National Archives, Kew Class: RG13; Piece: 4258; Folio: 49; Page: 1;  His name is entered as Brearley in the Baptism Register. The error is replicated for some of his siblings. Even the Coroner in his notes occasionally records his name as Brearley, and then this is amended. Baptisms for other of Thomas and Martha Ann’s children are recorded under the surnames of Brearey or Breary;  Baptism of Arthur Brearley [sic], Batley Carr Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, Non-Conformist Records, 1646-1985 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference C7/1/2;  Brearey family, 1891 census England & Wales, accessed via Ancestry.com. 1891 England Census [database on-line], original record The National Archives RG12; Piece: 3736; Folio: 14; Page: 22;  The Leeds Mercury, 11 September 1929, accessed via Findmypast;  The Batley News & Advertiser – 1 May 1896;  Alfred Brearey/Florence Shepherd marriage, Batley Parish Church marriage register, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference WDP37/36  Cleworth, Rev. W.E. Urban District of Soothill Upper, Yorkshire, War Register and Records, 1914-1919. Batley: E.F. Roberts, n.d.
Inquest notes for George Sharpe, Coroner Thomas Taylor’s notes, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service Reference C493/K/2/1/198
Kelly’s West Riding Directory, 1893, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk
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;