A Death in the Church

December 1916, and even at this early stage the winter threatened to be a severe one. By mid-December bitterly cold weather was already being experienced in Yorkshire.

The gloom of the weather matched the country’s mood. 1916 had proved a terrible year for so many families across Britain. The Brooks1 family in Batley were no exception. They had lost their eldest son, John, that summer – a casualty of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was now approaching the family’s first Christmas without him.

John’s father, Lawrence Brooks, was well-known locally.2 A man of steady habits, since his son’s death he had become prone to worry and anxiety.

Lawrence was one of St Mary’s Irish-born parishioners. Unlike many of the Batley Irish, though, he hailed not from County Mayo, but (according to the 1881 and 1911 censuses) Dublin.

His parents, John and Catherine (née Nolan), married at Dublin’s St Catherine’s parish in November 1852.3 After their marriage they moved out of the city itself, being associated with the outlying parish of Clondalkin, located around five miles south west of Dublin city. Samuel Lewis, in his 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland described the parish as consisting predominantly of fertile arable land. It also had limestone quarries and an oil mill, with one of the former gunpowder mills being converted into a thrashing and cleaning mill, capable of producing 100 barrels daily.

The Brooks family initially lived in the Bluebell area of the parish. This was the abode recorded for the baptism of Lawrence’s older siblings, Anna Maria (baptised in 1855) and Mary Ellen (born in 1856).4 However, Lawrence (or Laurence John to give him his full baptismal name entry), was baptised on 13 February 1859 in the parish of Beauparc, County Meath.5 This is around 30 miles northwest of Bluebell.

Their stay in this area proved relatively brief, which is possibly why Dublin is cited as Lawrence’s birthplace. By July 1861 the family had returned to Bluebell, with daughter Johanna being baptised back in Clondalkin parish that month. Her birth was followed by Joseph (born in 1863), Agnes (born in 1865), John Michael (born in 1867), and James (born in 1869).6

By the time the youngest Brooks child, Catherine, was born in 1872 the family had moved further out of Dublin, to the fashionable spa town of Lucan, where in the summer months visitors flocked to take the waters.7

It was not the waters attracting the Brooks to Lucan. It is probable that work provided the impetus to this family move. John’s occupation for the registration of Agnes and James’ births was given in only general terms as an engineer. In between, the birth of John Michael provided more detail, with John working in the textile industry as a slubber. When Catherine’s birth was registered in 1872, John was employed as a foreman at a woollen factory.8 It is possible that he worked at Hill’s Woollen Mill, which was established in Lucan in the early 1860s, on the site of a former iron works.

Shortly after Catherine’s birth the Brooks family moved across the Irish Sea to Batley, with one of their early addresses being Avison’s Yard, Commercial Street.9 They already had family in the area, and John’s occupation was well-suited to Batley’s growing woollen textile industries. John, however, did not get the chance to establish himself locally. He died, aged 49, on 30 May 1876. His burial service, conducted by St Mary’s priest Charles Gordon, took place in Batley Cemetery on 1 June.

The 1881 census found the now-widowed Catherine Brooks living with her sons Lawrence, Joseph, John, James and daughters Agnes and Catherine at Balk Street, Batley. Only Lawrence and Joseph were working, both employed as mill hands.10

Tragedy struck the family in April 1885. By now they were living at 6 Carlton Street. This road ran off Commercial Street, the main thoroughfare in town. No longer there, its location was roughly where the Batley Way Shopping Centre, Alfred’s Way is today.

Ordnance Survey Maps – 25 inch England and Wales, 1841-1952, Yorkshire CCXXXII.11 (Batley; Morley), Surveyed: 1889-1892, Published: 1894 – National Library of Scotland, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence

At 6am on Saturday 11 April 21-year-old Joseph set off as normal to his work as a condenser feeder in a woollen mill, taking his breakfast with him. A slim youth, a neighbour described him as a healthy, active and cheerful lad.

He arrived back home at one o’clock for lunch with his family, before putting on his best suit of clothes and setting off out for the afternoon with friends. When he returned home at around 10pm that night, perfectly sober, he ate an egg-filled teacake. Shortly afterwards though he began complaining about a pain in his stomach. He was soon doubled over in agony. Catherine sent one of her daughters out to buy two pen’orth of whisky. This failed to settle his stomach. It only induced vomiting, with Joseph throwing up the bread and egg he had eaten earlier. He finally went to bed at about half-past eleven, feeling too ill to get undressed. A cousin sat with him all night.

There was no improvement when he came downstairs on Sunday morning. In fact things were worse, with the stomach pains now extending to his left side. A cup of tea failed to relieve his symptoms, and he vomited yet again. His mother made up a downstairs bed from chairs, on which he laid for most of the day. She wrapped hot flannels round him. She also dosed him with standard Victorian home medicine chest remedies of magnesia, tincture of rhubarb and senna – common treatments for stomach and bowel complaints. All to no avail. He could not eat and was unable to keep any liquid down, not even the medicine his mother obtained following a visit to Dr Bayldon that evening. That too came straight back up.

Just after 11pm Catherine asked if Joseph would like his bed making up. He got up from the makeshift downstairs bed, sat on the chair by the hearth, and laid his head and hands on the table. As Catherine straightened the clothes on the chairs, Joseph suddenly lifted his head and raised his hands. As Lawrence helped support his younger brother, Joseph opened his eyes for the last time. They remained fixed, there was a final rattle in his throat, and he died.

The family’s distressed cries alerted neighbour Sarah Elizabeth Pyrah Senior at number 4. She knew Joseph had been unwell, and rushed to her neighbours to help. She found he had been placed once more on the bed of chairs, and she washed and laid out his body.

At the inquest at the Crown Hotel on 14 April the jury returned a verdict of “death from natural causes.” It appears his death was attributed to inflammation of the bowel.11

Joseph’s Batley cemetery burial took place the following day. He was laid to rest in the same plot as his father.

The Brooks family remained in their three-roomed Carlton Street home for the 1891 census, but it was a far smaller household.12 Catherine now only had three of her children at home – Lawrence, James and Catherine. 25-year-old Kearn Ryan lodged with them supplementing the family income.

The textile industry provided jobs for the Brooks children and Ryan, with Lawrence undertaking the tough, dusty, arduous and pivotal industry role of a rag grinder. This involved feeding the oil-covered sorted rags into a machine – aptly named a devil. This tore into them, breaking them down as part of the process to produce shoddy yarn and cloth. The oil was supposed to damp down the volumes of dust produced, but the choking material still found its way into the nose and mouth, shrouding the workers from head to toe by the end of the day. It also caused health issues, irritating the respiratory passages and causing an illness known locally as ‘shoddy fever’. Symptoms of this included high fever, nasal and bronchial catarrh and headache. A break from the work relieved these symptoms. Other illness associated with rag-grinding included bronchitis, emphysema of the lungs, hearing issues and inflammation of the eyelids. The pay did not compensate for these health issues. In fact, at around a pound a week, it would be a struggle for married men to support young families on. At the turn of the twentieth century these issues came to a head, with an increasingly unionised textile industry campaigning locally to raise the wages of rag grinders, and other similarly low-paid textile workers, to 25s a week. More information about rag grinding can be found here.

A worker adds a woollen sock to rags being shredded on a grinding machine. The resulting ‘shoddy’ will be added to new wool to produce new cloth. April 1942. © IWM D 7445, IWM Non Commercial Licence

This campaign to raise wages would have been particularly welcome to Lawrence. He became one of the married men trying to support his young family on a low wage. For in St Mary’s church, on the freezing Monday of 9 January 1893, he wed parishioner Susannah Farrar.13 The ceremony took place during a long spell of severely cold weather, so cold that those undertaking outdoor jobs were unable to work, causing significant financial hardship. The week of the wedding Corporations locally had to employ men to clear the streets of snow and ice.14

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

By now Lawrence lived in the well-known Irish Catholic area of Batley, Skelsey Row. Susannah was born in Batley in October 1864, the daughter of textile worker Matthew Farrar and his wife Mary. Prior to her marriage she worked as a woollen weaver, though no occupation is listed on her marriage certificate. The certificate also shows both bride and groom shaved a couple of years from their ages. Interestingly, one of the marriage witnesses was Kearn Ryan, the Brooks family lodger from 1891.

The couple had six children, all with familiar family names. Daughter Mary Ellen came first in April 1894. She was followed under 12 months later by John (March 1895). Agnes came next in 1898. Twins Annie and Catherine/Kitty were born in 1900, although Annie died in May 1902 and was buried in Batley cemetery on 23 May. Following this loss, youngest child, Joseph, was born in 1903.

Lawrence and Susannah spent some of their early married life living at New Street, Batley. This was the street in which Susannah and her family lived before her marriage. This was where the Brooks are in the 1901 census with their, at this stage, five children.15 22-year-old boarder Harry Parr is also registered in the household, providing welcome additional income for the family given the issues around rag-grinders pay issues in this period. No occupation is listed for Susannah. It may be she was (unsurprisingly) totally occupied with her house and young family of five children aged seven and under, including the nine-month-old twins. But it could also be a case of omission, with women’s occupations not always routinely included in census entries.

By 1911 they had moved to Peel Street.16 Lawrence still worked as a rag-grinder. The difference in this census is the family finances were in a better state, with the two eldest children working. Mary Ellen had employment as a rag sorter, and John worked as a piecer in the woollen industry. Susannah too had a formally-entered occupation on this census form. Like her daughter she now worked as a rag sorter.

Life therefore was following a routine pattern for the Brooks family, with employment for them all in the town’s crucial textile industry. That routine all came to a halt with the war. Besides bringing a textile boom and plentiful overtime for those in the industry, it also brought the enlistment of eldest son John in June 1915. Serving overseas with the 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers, he was killed on 1 July 1916 – the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. More details about John’s life and service can be found here.

Up until just before John’s death Lawrence had been a fairly healthy man, despite his long years as a rag grinder. However in around June 1916 a bout of bronchitis proved bad enough to call in a doctor – something avoided if at all possible because of the cost. He seemingly recovered well, regained full health and returned to his work at J., T. and J Taylor’s. But this illness and recovery coincided at around the period Lawrence was dealing with the news first that John was missing, and then the confirmation of his death.

Lawrence had suffered two particularly deep losses before. That of a younger brother who died in his arms when Lawrence was only 26. Then the loss of an infant daughter. The death of John though had a noticeable effect on him, with anxiety and worry now besetting him.17

On Sunday 17 December 1916 Lawrence got up as normal. He had a drink of tea and left his Cobden Street house at 7.40am to attend early morning mass at St Mary’s. It appears to have been a rush to get to church in time. Susannah sat in the pew in front of her husband. Perhaps this was because of available space. The church was popular with the large local Catholic community, and Sunday masses were packed. Any last-minute arrivals would have limited seating options.

Also sitting in the pew immediately in front of Lawrence was 29-year-old cloth scourer John Edward Berry. He heard Lawrence suddenly groan, and turned round to see him slipping sideways to the floor. The situation moved quickly and there is some confusion in witness statements. However it appears John Edward’s account carried most weight in the subsequent inquest.

He left his seat, took hold of the now unconscious Lawrence and loosened his collar. Initially those present, including Susannah, believed it was only faintness, and if they laid him flat he would recover. It proved far more serious.

With the help of two other men John Edward carried Lawrence across the passage to the school and laid him on some coats. Those old enough to remember the old St Mary’s school can recall the connecting door and passage between church and school.

A nurse in the congregation told them to fetch a doctor, and at around 8am Dr Campbell arrived. But it was too late. Lawrence was already dead. John Edward Berry believed death occurred before they got to the school, as whilst carrying him he suddenly went very limp and became a dead weight in their arms.

Tuesday 19 December coincided with the arrival of the winter’s first heavy fall of snow across the north of England. In Yorkshire, although the north of the county bore the brunt, snow began to steadily fall in Leeds and Bradford and surrounding areas too, with the ground soon covered with several inches. The snow quickly turned to frozen slush. It was the start of a long, cold winter. It was also the date of Lawrence’s inquest at Batley Town Hall.

In the grand, austere surroundings the post-mortem findings showed Lawrence had a diseased and greatly enlarged heart. Death was attributed to syncope (or fainting) due to fatty degeneration of the heart. Hastening to church might have accelerated the attack. A verdict of “death from natural causes” was returned.18

20th December marked the day of Lawrence’s funeral. In a ceremony conducted by Father McBride, the bleak weather seemed fitting for the occasion. Lawrence was laid to rest in Section L of Batley cemetery.

Batley Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

Probate records show Lawrence left effects of £96 17s. 1d., granted to widow Susannah.19 She did not long remain a widow. For, just after the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, she too died. Her body was laid to rest beside her husband on 21 November.

1. The family name has various spellings in records, including Brooke, Brookes, Brook and Brooks. I will use the most common variant of Brooks.
2. His name is also recorded as Laurence.
3. St Catherine’s, Dublin marriage register, National Library of Ireland.
4. Clondalkin baptism register, National Library of Ireland.
5. Beauparc baptism register, National Library of Ireland.
6. Clondalkin baptism register, National Library of Ireland; and, from 1864, civil registration of births. Note in the Clondalkin parish baptism register Agnes’s name is recorded as Anne. Civil Registration confirms it as Agnes, and this is the version used in subsequent census entries.
7. Clondalkin baptism register, National Library of Ireland; and Irish civil registration birth record.
8. Irish civil registration – birth.
9. Batley cemetery register.
10. 1881 England and Wales census, The National Archives (TNA), Ref RG11/4247/126/37.
11. West Yorkshire Coroner Notebooks, West Yorkshire Archives Service, Ref C493/K/2/1/171; Batley News, 18 April 1885 (which incorrectly names Catherine as Elizabeth; and Batley Reporter and Guardian, 18 April 1885.
12. 1891 England and Wales census, TNA, Ref RG12/3718/4/2.
13. GRO marriage certificate.
14. Batley News, 13 January 1893; and Batley Reporter and Guardian, 14 January 1893.
15. 1901 England and Wales census, TNA, Ref RG13/4255/78/21.
16. 1911 England and Wales census, The National Archives (TNA), Ref RG14/27243.
17. Leeds Mercury, 18 December 1916.
18. Batley News, 23 December 1916.
19. National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations).

Other Sources:
• “A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, by Samuel Lewis, 1837.” Accessed August 15, 2021. https://www.libraryireland.com/topog/.
Batley Cemetery Register.
Batley News and Batley Reporter and Guardian, various dates.
• Beeton. Beeton’s Housewife’s Treasury of Domestic Information: COMPRISING Complete and Practical Instructions on the House and ITS FURNITURE, Artistic DECORATION … and All Other Household Matters. with Every Requisite Direction to Secure the COMFORT, Elegance, and Prosperity of the Home. a Companion Volume TO “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of HOUSEHOLD Management”. Ward, Lock and co., 1883.
England and Wales censuses, 1881-1911;
• National Library of Scotland maps;