A St Mary’s School Sensation

As October 1916 drew to a close, St Mary’s, like most of the country, was still reeling from the ongoing losses on the Somme. Many parishioners had suffered family bereavements as a result of the offensive. The most recent death was that of Thomas Curley on 28 October. But even as news perhaps began to filter home about his loss, rumours were swirling in the parish about the sensational events surrounding the death of a St Mary’s schoolboy. And the Curley family were at the centre of these rumours, which culminated with an interrogation by the Coroner on Monday 30 October.

On Friday 27 October, the day before Thomas Curley died of his wounds in France, 12-year-old John Woodhead passed away at his Melton Street home.1 The gossip running rampant locally was his death was the result of a classroom blow to the head from a St Mary’s teacher. One key source of evidence to the event appeared to be John’s classmate, 12 year-old Willie Curley, brother of Thomas.

John Woodhead was the eldest child of Henry and Ann Woodhead (née Monaghan). The couple married in late 1903, and John was born shortly afterwards.2 Four more children followed: Mary Ellen born in May 1905; Frederick in May 1907; Ann in May 1910; and William in March 1913. The 1911 census records the family living at 4, Melton Street, Batley, with Henry working as a coal hewer and Ann as a cloth refiner. This remained their address in 1916.

John suffered previous bouts of ill health. In June 1915 Dr Walker treated him for pneumonia, one of many occasions the doctor attended him. He was prone to headaches, and had received medical treatment at Bradford Infirmary for eyesight problems. However, over the past couple of years he attended school regularly, and his headaches were only occasional.

On Thursday morning, the 26 October 1916, John went to school as usual. However, at lunchtime, when his mother came home from work she found John ill in bed. She gave his some powders, but he became sick. At some point later that day, Martin Brannan called round to inform Ann that another boy had told him that John had been struck on the head at school by a master, for not getting his answers right.

There is no other information given to identify Martin Brannan. However, the only fit identified in this period is the son of Michael and Annie Brannan.3 The family were back in Batley and living on Ambler Street by 1915. Michael Brannan is one of the men commemorated on the St Mary’s War Memorial. Son Martin, born in December 1904, would be just short of his 12th birthday by the time of this incident, so roughly the same age as John Woodhead and Willie Curley. The Curley family lived on Villiers Street, so all three families were within a very short walking distance of each other. The map below highlights where they all lived, along with the the location of St Mary’s school and church.

Extract of OS 25 Inch England and Wales, Yorkshire CCXXXII.11 (Batley; Morley)
Revised: 1915, Published: 1922

Armed with this new information Ann asked John if anyone had struck him. He confirmed a teacher had hit him on the head. Inspecting her son, Ann could find no mark, and she did not think much more about the incident. She assumed it could have been no more than a tap which, given his well-known weakness in that area, triggered his bad head, but all would quickly settle down again.

This acceptance that a teacher could physically chastise a pupil may seem strange today, but I can remember from my schooldays, around 60 years after this event, children receiving punishments such as a clip across the head, and anecdotal evidence of well-aimed blackboard erasers; or for more serious offences the ruler or slipper. One teacher at St Mary’s infant school (who shall remain unnamed) was notorious. I was fortunate enough to skip her class.

In the case of John Woodhead, the teacher was the temporary headmaster of St Mary’s, John Healey. Although he did not remember specifically hitting John, he did recall giving “one or two a little touch on the neck” because:

…I set them some arithmetic and they didn’t do anything, but were taking it very easily. I really don’t remember touching this boy at all. It was not really by way of punishment but for inattention. You do it mechanically just to make them more alert…

On Friday John’s condition deteriorated. Ann sent for two doctors, but he died at 5pm on Friday afternoon before either could attend.

Now the rumours reached the attention of the police. Sergeant John Hebden, an experienced and well-regarded officer employed by the West Riding Constabulary for over 20 years, interviewed first Ann Woodhead, and then Martin Brannan. The latter confirmed:

It was not me that saw him struck; it was Willie Curley, who is in the same class.

In effect Martin claimed he was only relaying what he had been told.

As a result of this information Sergeant Hebden made repeated attempts to interview Willie Curley at the family home on Villiers Street. Willie’s father, Anthony, refused to even let Sergeant Hebden see him. He point blank forbade the police officer to take any statement from him even in Anthony’s presence. The only way Anthony would allow anyone to interview his son about the incident was if he was compelled. On Sunday Sergeant Hebden told him that Willie would have to appear as an inquest witness the following day, Monday 30 October. If he failed to do so the consequences would be serious.

Willie did appear at the inquest but his evidence was, to say the least, uninformative. He basically denied all knowledge. The questioning went as follows:

The Coroner: Did you see anything happen in school last Thursday morning? — No.
You didn’t see anyone strike him? — No.
Did you tell anyone you had seen him struck? — No.
Did you tell his mother? — No.
The Coroner (after a pause): Who told you to say “No.”?
The Boy: Nobody…
The Coroner: Did you attend the same class as this boy? — Yes.
Didn’t you see the boy struck by the teacher? — No.
Why did you tell other boys that you had? — I didn’t tell them…
The Coroner (to the boy Curley): You see although you haven’t told us we know all about it. You know quite well you told Brannan, another boy, about this boy being struck on the head. Just tell me all about it now.
Curley: I didn’t tell him.
Who did you tell? —No one.
It’s all a lie then? — Yes.
Did your father tell you not to tell me? — No.
The Coroner: When you get a little older you will find it best to stick to the truth. It pays in the long run.

That was essentially all the evidence Willie could be persuaded to give. And perhaps it is understandable. This was a scared young boy. Both Anthony and Mary Curley, Willie’s parents, were from County Mayo. The Irish community had long learned to distrust the British authorities. There was also the Catholic school and church angle. The Curley children attended St Mary’s. What would the consequences be of accusing the headmaster of essentially being responsible for the death of a pupil? Added to this was the immense emotional strain the family were under. Remember, all this coincided with the period when the eldest Curley boy was lying seriously wounded in hospital over in France. Given the efficiency of communications, it is distinctly possible that by the time of the inquest they already knew of his death. It was best to say nothing, not to get embroiled. It is also perhaps worth noting no other boys, from what would surely have been a full classroom, appear to have come forward either. Yet there was some kind of incident, with Mr Healey himself admitting to physically chastising some pupils that day.

Dr Walker then gave his post-mortem evidence, which would prove key in the case. There was no sign of any mark caused by a blow on John’s body. No injury to his skull or brain. However there was evidence of early double pneumonia. This always commenced with the headache symptoms John had experienced. John’s death was a result of heart failure due to double pneumonia.

The jury returned its unanimous verdict accordingly. They found no evidence of any striking by the teacher, who was totally exonerated. John Woodhead died of natural causes.

John Healey was called in to be addressed by the Coroner:

We are quite satisfied from the evidence that this boy died from what we call a natural death. He died from double pneumonia, and we are also satisfied that there was no assault on this poor lad by you.

John Woodhead was interred in Batley cemetery the following day, 31 October 1916.

1. The Batley News Death Notices of 4 November 1916 indicate John’s date of death was 28 October. However, the newspaper inquest report clearly indicates he died on the Friday afternoon, which was 27 October;
2. John Woodhead’s birth was registered in the March Quarter of 1904, Dewsbury, Volume 9B, Page 606
3. There was also a Martin Brannan, born in 1909, son of Peter and Brigid Brannan. They are living at Cobden Street in the 1911 census. However he was buried in Batley Cemetery on 11 April 191.

• 1922 OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html;
St Mary’s One-Place Study Biographies of Michael Brannan and Thomas Curley;
• Batley Cemetery Burial Registers;
• England and Wales Censuses;
• GRO Indexes;
• West Riding Police Records;