Category Archives: Mills

The Britannia Mills Tragedy – ‘Lord Help Me!’

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.

Extract of OS Six-inch map, Yorkshire CCXXXII.NE, Surveyed 1888-1892, Published 1894

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.

Britannia Mills photographed after the July 1905 fire – source unknown

The distance from the ground to the fifth floor was around 30-35 yards [1]. 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.

Wording on the Hoist Warning Notice

Although prominent, it was perhaps too high for some even if they could read [2]. 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 [3]. 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.[4] 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 [5]. He had worked six months for Robinsons, but was due to start work the following week at Carr Mill;
  • Edith Crossley [6], 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 [7], 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 [8].
  • 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 [9]. 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 Hoist Gear and Accident Aftermath

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… [10]

St Peter’s Parish Church, Birstall – Photograph by Jane Roberts

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…[11]

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.

Batley Cemetery, Hilda North’s Damaged Headstone – Photograph by Jane Roberts

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…[12]

Britannia Mills in 2020 – Photograph by Jane Roberts

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:
[1] 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 Reporter and Guardian of 29 October 1892 into the state of the hoist mentions the distance from the hoist girders to the floor was 67 feet;
[2] 6 feet off the ground according to Mary Alice Mann;
[3] Batley Reporter and Guardian, 22 October 1892;
[4] Batley News, 28 October 1892;
[5] Some reports say Low Lane. They also incorrectly give his father’s name as Edward;
[6] Some reports incorrectly state Eva;
[7] 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;
[8] Batley News, 28 October 1892;
[9] Newspaper reports give her age as 18;
[10] Batley Reporter and Guardian, 29 October 1892;
[11] Ibid;
[12] 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;

Batley’s Record-Breaking Rat-Catcher

On Christmas Eve 1933, after a fortnight’s illness, Batley’s nationally acclaimed rat-catcher Thomas Cassidy died.

During his working life his skills were in much demand by a cross-section of businesses and organisations: From local mill owners and town Corporations, including Batley and Dewsbury; to railway companies such as the London and North Western, North Eastern, Midland and Scottish Railways. This latter work took him throughout Britain and Ireland. 

A bit of a local legend, a thrilled journalist even reported of spending a most exciting four hours, with some lively experiences, under the Dark Arches in Leeds in the company of Thomas Cassidy, one of his sons and a fox terrier named Gipsy. The Dark Arches are the brick-built network of arches constructed in the 1860s to support the railway station.

Thomas Cassidy – Photo Supplied by a Descendant
Not to be re-published without permission of family

The two major records Thomas claimed were:

  • 1,227 rats caught alive and 446 killed in six hours for Ossett Corporation; and
  • 153 [out of 155] rats caught in thirteen minutes on the premises of a hide and skin merchant in Heckmondwike in 1908. This was unassisted by dog or ferret.

For the latter he is recognised by Spen Valley Civic Society with plaque number 18 on the Spen Fame Trail. This plaque is located on The Green in Heckmondwike. 

Spen Fame Trail Plaque Number 18, Thomas Cassidy – Photo by Jane Roberts

Well-known in the Batley area, he was not an unfamiliar sight in the local courts either. On at least one occasion he regaled the Bench with his rat-catching exploits including, in 1907, another tale of his expertise … and possibly the explanation for his appearances before the Batley magistrates. This time he boasted of capturing 154 rodents in 75 minutes which he sold for 4d. each – but the money went on drink. The newspapers prefaced this court report with a rather lurid description of one of Thomas’ more colourful claims to local notoriety, describing him as:

Batley’s professional rat-catcher, and the individual who, some time ago at a local polling booth, bit off the heads of a couple of live rats in the presence of disgusted voters [1].

Born in Batley’s New Street on 3 February 1870, he was the son of labourer John Cassidy, who hailed from County Clare, Ireland and his West Ardsley-born wife Emma (née Garlick). He was baptised at St Mary of the Angels RC church in Batley.

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

Thomas married Harriet Ann McDonagh [2] at the same church as he was baptised, on 13 February 1892. By this stage he worked as a coal miner. Their children included Johanna, Emma Jane (who died in infancy), Robert Ernest, Thomas, John Edward, Leo, Mary and Arthur.

His rat-catching exploits were inspired following a walk near Batley, when he saw a refuse tip ‘alive’ with rats. He explained:

I went home, took a pillow slip off my bed, and soon had it full of live rats from the tip. I sold these at 4d. each to people with dogs they wanted to train as ratters.
I had 10s. 6d. to take home, and I’m glad to say I gave my mother ten shillings. I’d never had so much before…I was only earning eighteen pence a day in the pit as a pumper” [3].

The refuse tip became a gold mine for him, as he progressively cleared it of all vermin. So lucrative did this new business line prove, in around 1904 he left the pit for good to become a full-time rat-catcher.

Rat-catching was a national obsession. In fact at the end of 1919 the Government passed a Rats and Mice (Destruction) Act, such was the concern about their capacity to spread disease, destroy property and contaminate food. A new war raged in this inter-war period, and during each November there was even a designated National Rat Week endorsed by the Ministry of Agriculture when a nationwide effort was made to destroy the creatures to control the population. Publicity for the campaign was widespread via the press, billboard posters and in the cinema. This included a specially commissioned government “Kill That Rat” Pathé film in 1919. Leeds Corporation produced its own rat killing promotional newsreel in 1920. Entitled “It’s Rough on the Rats” it demonstrated the launch of its asphyxiating gas offensive.

For Thomas business was booming and he became a minor celebrity. He held long-term contracts as official rat-catcher in two Leeds railway stations, and it was this work which the Leeds Mercury’s Special Correspondent shadowed (literally as the work was undertaken by candle light) in 1923.

A huge mound of refuse, sweepings from 10 railway station platforms of the London and North Eastern railway station above, accumulated in the Dark Arches. Here the rats thrived.

philld / Leeds dark arches from Little Neville street / CC BY-SA 2.0
Taken in 2008

As a preliminary to his clearance work Thomas, along with his son, turned over the refuse mound – a mixture of food, dust, cinders and even crockery – revealing holes big enough for rabbits. In the process they were cornering the creatures in preparation for their capture. The rats could be heard scurrying below – huge creatures sustained by all the railway detritus.

The Cassidy’s fox terrier Gipsy was tied to a drain pipe, becoming increasingly excited by the activity. 

Then the work began. 

With their bare hands Cassidy and his son began catching the rats, shoving them in an army kit bag. Other rats were strangled. Those trying to flee were caught in string netting strewn across a mesh barrier which fenced off the bay of the archway. They were forced back into the clutches of the Cassidys.  

Thomas was now bleeding profusely from a rat bite to his thumb knuckle, but undeterred he carried on. An occupational hazard, his hands bore the marks of his work over many years. Yet he had only sustained blood poisoning five times from rat bites in 30+ years’. 

Gipsy bit through her leash, eager to join in the killing spree. After four hours, exhausted by their exertions, they finished. The bag contained 36 live rats and 60 dead. Gipsy accounted for around a further 40. Only one rat managed to escape. At the end of their work Thomas told the reporter

I’ve a fox at home which will kill rats quicker’n’ that ‘ere dog [4].

Perhaps this was one of the foxes which he captured in 1921, for his snaring exploits extended beyond rats. The Yorkshire press reported on his fox-catching efforts, which extended over two days. The result was a haul of two foxes from a drain near Wilton Park. One was a four-feet-long dog fox weighing 17½lbs. The other was a 42-inch-long 13¾lbs vixen. Methods unsuccessfully employed in this star capture included cayenne pepper and a fox terrier. Finally he and his colleague hit on the ingenious idea of sweeping the drain with prickly brushes roped together. This did the trick.

As for his rat-catching methods, Thomas remained slightly coyer. Ferrets were commonly used by others to catch rats. New Street station in Leeds was the scene of some of Thomas’ heaviest slaughtering. Three different rat breeds could be found in its refreshment rooms. It was in this station he once lost a ferret for three days. When finally located it was in such a bad state after constant fighting with rats it had to be destroyed. By 1926 Thomas no longer used ferrets, preferring to use what he termed as ‘secret methods’. 

He was clearly keen to keep his tricks of the trade in-house, explaining his art in only general terms. He occasionally employed dogs, owning two fox terrier bitches by 1926. He preferred bitches to dogs because they were keener, fiercer and more easily controlled. He was not a general believer in poison. This he reserved for factories, where wholesale slaughter was required. He claimed to have killed thousands of rats using this technique at the Dewsbury mills of M. Oldroyd & Sons and Wormald & Walkers. But his favoured method was to catch his prey with his bare hands, delivering the killer blow by banging their heads on the floor.

And throughout his career he retained a great respect for the cunning, ferocity, thoroughness and perseverance of his enemy, the rat.

https://pixabay.com/photos/animal-rat-foraging-close-up-655308/ -Image by Oldiefan from Pixabay

Thomas, who died in the same street in which he was born, was buried in Batley cemetery on 28 December 1933.

Batley Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

Here are some rat-catching tips from the 1920s:

  • Don’t touch a dead rat – use a shovel;
  • Don’t leave the old homes of an exterminated rat colony intact as you will soon have another settlement. Fill the holes with cement, or failing that, a mixture of tar and broken glass;
  • Don’t touch bait with your fingers as rats won’t come near it. Use a spoon tied at the end of a two-foot pole;
  • Don’t forget to warn people and keep domestic animals away from baits;
  • Don’t forget that a change of bait – kipper instead of cheese for instance – works wonders; and
  • Don’t forget you are liable to a £20 fine if you allow your property to be rat-infested.

Notes:
[1] Bradford Daily Telegraph, 16 February 1907;
[2] The spelling of Harriet’s surname varies depending on record, including McDonegh, Donegh, Donagh and McDunach;
[3] The Leeds Mercury, 3 November 1926;
[4] The Leeds Mercury, 29 September 1923

Other Sources:

Hidden History of Batley: A Mill Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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