Five Tips for a Family History Cemetery Visit

Perhaps taphophilia and family history go hand in hand? I can spend ages wandering through a cemetery marvelling at the various headstone designs and reading the inscriptions. The architecture and symbolic imagery of some headstones is simply stunning. They contain so many stories, so much history and they silently speak volumes about attitudes towards death, culture, beliefs, religion, mourning and mortality over the ages.

Lottie Oddy’s Batley Cemetery Headstone – “who met her death by the fall of the cliffs at Bridlington” – Photo by Jane Roberts

Importantly, for family historians, they can contain clues about family sizes, family relationships, occupations, interests and causes of death. For example, Lottie Oddy’s headstone (above) in Batley Cemetery, details her unusual death cause – a tale I wrote about in an earlier blog. And only the other day in Masham I discovered several occupational graves, including that of Ralph Edon (below).

Ralph Edon’s Headstone Inscription at Masham Giving Some Occupational Information (Late Surgeon, 35th Regiment) – Photo by Jane Roberts

They may record deaths of family members buried elsewhere. For example, several headstones in Batley cemetery record deaths of Great War servicemen buried overseas, or with no known grave. On a personal level for my research, a Hallas headstone at Roberttown All Saints includes the name of a child buried at Mirfield St Mary’s.

Some clues may be very subtle. One headstone in Batley cemetery recorded death dates for all family members bar one. Further investigation revealed his body had been dumped on a doorstep, and the exact date of death was unknown.

And don’t forget to note wider details. The headstone, or burial location within the cemetery, could be an indication of the family’s wealth or standing in the community.

I’ve visited so many cemeteries over the years, hunting down the headstones of ancestors and those I’m researching. Here are five tips to get the most out of family history tombstone tourism. 

Plan your visit. Make a note of names, dates and plot numbers. Check cemetery opening times – not all are open 24/7. There may be a useful cemetery website, a church or local authority contact point. 

See if there’s a map of the cemetery showing plot sections and plot numbers. Are there separate sections for different religious denominations e.g. a consecrated section for Church of England burials, and an unconsecrated area for other denominations? Even within the unconsecrated sections, there may be a clear division between Catholic and nonconformist areas. 

Some local authorities may, for a fee, be able to say who is buried in a particular plot and if there is a headstone. Many cemeteries have ‘Friends Of’ groups, or there may be a family history society who has made a note of Memorial Inscriptions. They too may have information databases.

Cemetery registers may be available. If possible, try to note details of other plots in the particular section you are seeking. Your plot of interest may not have a headstone, and grave markers can be obscured. But you may be able to pinpoint your ancestor’s unmarked burial place from the neighbouring headstones. 

Another tip is to check sites such as Find A Grave or BillionGraves and download the Apps. Their images and GPS may help in pinpointing a specific grave.

When you get to the cemetery don’t rush in. Take a general look to get an overview, establish bearings and see if the cemetery has identifiable sections depending on burial time period. 

Dress sensibly and come prepared. Cemeteries can be vast, and a visit can involve lots of walking. The ground is often uneven, and not all burial grounds are immaculately kept. They can be overgrown with long grass, thorns and tendrils whipping around your knee and ankles, all hiding lots of biting insects. In wet weather the long grass may soak through points of contact. So stout, comfortable walking shoes are the order of the day. No heels, canvas shoes or open toed-sandals. Long trousers too. If it’s hot weather slap on the sunscreen and fetch your water. Pack waterproofs in case of a sudden downpour. And take something to kneel on – your waterproofs (if you’re not using them!) Even something as simple as a plastic bag comes in handy here. Without an improvised kneeler, damp, muddy trouser knees can be an uncomfortable occupational hazard of headstone photography – I speak from experience!

Take a pencil and notebook to record findings (including negative) and to write out problematical inscriptions, indicating where the gaps or issues are. It’s like a transcription exercise! In fact it may be prudent to copy in full all important inscriptions in your notebook, in case there is a problem with photographs which goes unnoticed until your return home.

And, sad to say, do take sensible safety precautions. Cemeteries can be lonely places. So explore in daylight, accompanied if possible, and not carrying lots of expensive kit.

Photograph. I take multiple snaps on both my camera and phone camera.  If there’s a sign indicating cemetery name, that’s the first image. It signposts where the subsequent headstone images were taken. 

Next, I take images of the full headstone from various angles, followed by close-ups of the inscription. These close-ups can run into several images depending on the headstone size, and the number and length of inscriptions. I include images from both back, front and, if appropriate the sides of the headstone. And don’t ignore the base of the headstone, peaking out at ground level. All these areas may contain inscriptions or additional details. One good example of this was the headstone of the Hallas Family at Kirkburton All Hallows. The front of the grave includes details of my 5x great grandparents Amos and Ann Hallas. Low down it indicates the grave owner is George Hallas, my 4x great grandfather. The reverse of the headstone has a gem of an inscription about the bizarre and unexpected way their daughter Esther met her death in July 1817, which I wrote about in my first ever blog post.

Front and Back of the Hallas Headstone at Kirkburton All Hallows – Photo by Jane Roberts

Finally, I take wider shots to include neighbouring headstones. These too may have a connection, as family headstones may be grouped together.

Once back home I can play about with image settings and use various photo editor apps and programmes. Manipulating the images may help overcome inscription legibility issues. 

Don’t be tempted to clean the headstone unless you know exactly what you’re doing, and you have permission. It can be frustrating if an inscription is obscured by algae or lichen, or if weathering has faded lettering. But irreparable damage can be done to the headstone by trying to clean it using inappropriate methods and products, or using remedies such as flour or shaving foam to make the engraving legible. And do remember some plants are actually protected by law. I personally stick to nothing more than a light dousing with water to see if that removes headstone dirt or improves legibility. For me, going beyond that is simply not worth the risk.

Record findings and check information. Do this as soon as possible after your trip, and include the visit date. Graveyards and headstones change over the years. It’s easy to put this mundane chore off, so it becomes caught up in a huge work backlog. Then you forget what you’ve done and where you’ve saved the information. It may even get damaged, erased or permanently lost. All of which could create more work in the long run – through trying to find your original photographs and notes, or even duplicating the work through unnecessary repeat visits.

Also, do not automatically accept any inscription as gospel. Headstones are not official records, and even official records are not immune from errors! Headstones may post-date an individual’s death by some years, and details may be mis-remembered. As a result, ages, dates and information may be incorrect. I’ve seen countless examples of this. As with any other source, headstone inscriptions should be not used in isolation. Their accuracy should be weighed up against other sources.

Hopefully these tips will help you plan your next family history cemetery expedition.

Footnote: Another trick is using a reflective surface, or torch, to light inscriptions from different angles, which can help deciphering them. With thanks to Sue Adams of Family Folk

It has also been suggested don’t take your children with you. After the initial spurt of enthusiasm they can easily get bored!

Ten Things You Wish You’d Known Before Starting Your Family History

Many will be starting their family history research in the New Year. That’s the time of year I embarked on my quest many moons ago, when my brother bought me some books as a Christmas present.

The other day I got to thinking about the mistakes I made in those early days, and the advice I wish I’d been given at the outset. Here are 10 tips I wish my younger genie had been given.

A selection of my research record books (see Goal 6)
  1. Talk to relatives…but only if they want to. Don’t push it. Not all relatives will be comfortable with this, particularly if there are skeletons in the family history cupboard. If they do agree to talk, bear in mind the memory isn’t infallible. Names, dates and events may not be recalled with total accuracy. And there may be some air-brushing to glass over uncomfortable truths.
  2. Make a note of all the sources and references for your findings. That includes the document description, location and reference number. If it was accessed via an online search, note the website address, document dataset and search date. Basically anything and everything you will need to locate it again.
  3. Make a note of all searches – negative as well as positive. It avoids unnecessary repeat searches. Note the search date. This helps with online searches. You only need to repeat when the dataset is updated.
  4. Tempting as it is, avoid the scattergun approach. Plan your research strategy. If you plan, you focus. Don’t try do everything in one go. Concentrate on one person, issue, family at a time. Define the problem, and look at which records may help. Work through methodically.
  5. Don’t accept online family trees as gospel. It’s all too easy if you’re new to family history to accept the research of others without question. Do so at your peril – you could find yourself barking up the wrong tree. Do your own research.
  6. Record your findings as soon as possible. Don’t build up a backlog. I started with a card index system which I still continue. I also now record on a family history software programme. But it could also as easily be an ancestral notebook, or downloading forms such as those available on the FamilySearch Wiki. It’s whatever works for you. The key point is you do it, so your research is up to date. you can quickly evaluate it and spot the gaps.
  7. Don’t get hung up on spellings. Literacy levels and accents all impacted. Be open-minded. Some of my family surnames have upwards of 20 spelling variations. Even Christian names could vary.
  8. By the same token be aware that your ancestors were not necessarily consistent with facts. They may have not known their exact birthday. They may have wished to bend the truth. My great grandmother lied about her age to make it appear she was closer to the age of her husband. She and my great grandfather lied in the 1911 census about the number of years they had been married, to cover illegitimacy of children. Your ancestors were human. And humans don’t always tell the truth. So when searching, build up in parameters either side of dates. Question, question, question. And refer back constantly to previous findings,
  9. Join a family history society. Consider courses. Read to expand your knowledge. Ask if you’re not sure. And accept help. We’ve all been there. And genealogists are a friendly bunch.
  10. Finally be aware – family history research could end up taking over your life. You’re never finished.

I do hope these tips help you start your research on the right track!

My Family History Goals for 2020

2020 promises to be another busy and exciting family history year, both professionally and personally. Away from my professional research, I’m continuing with my monthly family history column in ‘Down Your Way’ magazine. I’m also starting my second year as editor of the Huddersfield & District Family History Society Journal.

But, as ever, I want to set myself some personal family history and general research targets. I’m aiming for a variety of tasks which will be mentally stimulating and stretching, as well as emotionally rewarding. Setting them down in writing will, I hope, focus my mind on these specific pieces of work. If I formally write them down, I can’t ignore them.

Keep on Blogging: If you’d have said back in 2016 how many would read my blog in 2019 I’d be gobsmacked. Due to other time-pressures, blogging is becoming increasingly difficult. The local history pieces are particularly labour-intensive. However, because the mix of local history, family history tales, genealogy tips and one-name studies posts is proving of interest I want to continue with the variety.  I am formally committing to continuing writing a minimum of two posts per month. 

Conference Commitment: In 2020 I aim to attend one national event, as well as a mixture of courses, talks and local family history fairs. I do feel formalising this is a signal that family history is not only looking backwards. It is pushing forwards, equipped with new skills and strategies.

Tree Review: My family tree has been developing for over 15 years. In 2020 I want to revisit this early research. This is important because my skills today are so much more advanced than my 2004 research abilities. Looking at everything with fresh eyes, using the knowledge I’ve gained over these years, may help me spot gaps and provide a wrecking-ball to earlier brick walls. I also want to re-visit my earlier research to include full source citations. When I started out I was more concerned with the thrill of the hunt, rather than establishing fully documented proof. Now I realise the importance of the latter, not only for me and the need to record the sources for hypothesis and their results, but also for the future generations to whom I will pass on the family history baton. They need to see exactly how I built my proof case.

A New Book Beckons: After completing ‘The Greatest Sacrifice: Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union‘ I said never again to researching and writing another book. The whole experience of authorship was akin to having a baby. The anxiety, doubts and pain of researching, writing, re-writing and proofing took over my life for months. My daily existence revolved around producing a perfect book which would do full justice to those in it. In the final weeks my entire being seemed to be totally devoted to creating this entity. It was my first thought in the morning, my last at night … it even haunted my sleep. And even then, once I’d given birth to it, the nurturing continued. I wanted to ensure others loved it the way I did. Seeing the fruits of all my labour was an overwhelming experience. And now, over a year on from publication, it is out there with a life of its own. I’m there guiding it and watching over it.

But it’s gained its independence. And I’m now ready to create once more. So 2020 will be the start of my new book’s research and development phase. Publication won’t be until 2021 at the earliest. I won’t say too much for now. But it will be based around giving voices to those not normally heard. And it will use my family history research skills. Watch this space for further updates.

It’s Good to Talk: I have already delivered several talks locally. However, I’m expanding on this in 2020. I am rolling out three talks aimed at family and local history audiences. They are about my Rugby League WW1 book, and more generally researching Great War Army ancestors; a Batley and Spen Valley local history talk; and, based on my experience as a genealogy blogger, I have one talk dedicated to blogging for family and local history.

For more details about these talks, including fees, please contact me at: pasttopresentgenealogy@btinternet.com

All that remains is for me to thank you for reading my blog in 2019, and to wish you a very Happy New Year. May it be all that you hope.

My Family History Year Reviewed (2019)

2019 has been a busy year on the family history front, but not quite in the way anticipated when setting my New Year’s Resolutions. Part of the issue has been time spent on my two regular writing commitments: my monthly family history column in Yorkshire nostalgia magazine ‘Down Your Way’; and my role as the editor of the Huddersfield and District Family History Society Quarterly Journal. I will be continuing with both in 2020.

In addition to the above-mentioned responsibilities, research work has taken off. And in the last couple of months family illness had a significant impact on my spare time, and ultimately 2019 resolution performance.  

So, how did I do?

My 4x great grandfather Abraham Marshall is still on hold…and he was a hang-over from 2018. Which goes to show how neglected my personal research is at the moment because it’s a low priority compared to my work for others.

I also committed to some continuing professional development goals involving a mix of courses, talks and lectures. Happily, I more than achieved here. As a general observation, I was disappointed I could not make Family Tree Live, The Genealogy Show or RootsTech London due to prior engagements. I hope to remedy this in 2020 by attending a minimum of one national event.

Data extraction for my Aveyard One-Name Study went well in the early half of the year, but tailed off in the second part. But it does continue. I keep telling myself it’s a marathon, not a sprint. As for Aveyard blog posts, I committed to six in 2019. I only wrote five, that tailing off too in correlation to my data collection. But on a positive, I’m further ahead than 12 months ago; and I am now beginning to receive, and answer, inquiries.

As for sewing, my family tree project is underway. Time permitting, it will be completed in 2020. 

Not a formal 2019 resolution, but my blog continued to grow. I aimed to do two posts per month, which I more than achieved with a final yearly tally of 33 (including this post). I’m not going to do my usual annual statistical analysis, as the time I would devote to this is probably best spent researching other blog posts. But my 2019 numbers are significantly higher than 2018. Thank you for all your support. I’m thrilled that my family and local history musings and tips continue to be relevant and engaging. I aim to continue the output in 2020, with the same mixture of themes.

No year-end firework spectacular for my 2019 New Year’s Resolution performance, but by no means a damp squib. On balance I’m content with how it panned out.

In my next post I will set out in more detail my family history goals for 2020…including some interesting developments,

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.

Extract of Six-inch OS Map: CCXXXII.SE. Surveyed: 1888 to 1892. Published: 1895 – National Library of Scotland – Adapted

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 [1].

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.

Batley Market Hall (my own collection) – origin unknown

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.

Batley Town Hall (my own collection) – origin unknown

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:
[1] There are various spellings of this surname, depending on report.
[2] Plot M223

The White Lee Wartime Disaster: Devastation across Heckmondwike, Batley and the Spen Valley

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).

Healey Mini Market today, the former Healey Branch of the Batley Co-op
– Photo by Jane Roberts

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.

The Houses on Hollinbank Terrace (now Dale Road) which bore the brunt of the 1914 blast – Photo by Jane Roberts

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.

Extract of Six-inch OS Maps: CCXXXII.SW and SE, revised 1905, published 1908 – National Library of Scotland – Adapted

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.

Aftermath of the White Lee Explosion – Copyright of Kirklees Image Archive who granted permission for use in this blog post. Website http://www.kirkleesimages.org.uk/

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. 

Heckmondwike Cemetery, Percy Ashton’s Headstone – Photo by Jane Roberts

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.

Heckmondwike Upper Independent Chapel – Photo by Jane Roberts

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.

Commemorative Postcard from my Collection (note there is no image of James Arthur Morton who is wrongly named)

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.

White Lee Disaster Plaque – Photo by Jane Roberts

Sources:

  • Multiple sources were used, including newspaper reports, the official accident report, censuses, civil registration indexes and parish registers.
  • OS Map reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
  • 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.

For Some Their War Was Not Over

Armistice Day 2019, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, marked the centenary of the first two-minute silence. The tradition of holding a silence to remember the dead began a year after World War One ended. But for many wounded ex-servicemen their personal battle was not over when the guns ceased firing. Not even a year on as the country paused to reflect.

As the country fell silent at 11am on Monday, I attended a Project Bugle graveside wreath-laying ceremony for St Mary of the Angel’s man Sergeant Joseph Edward Munns of the 12th King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry). He was awarded the Military Medal (formally announced in The London Gazette of 13 September 1918) for saving the life of an officer trapped under the debris of a burning building whilst seriously wounded himself – wounds which resulted in a badly damaged right arm and the amputation of his right foot. He died at Prescot Hospital on 7 January 1921, age 32, and is buried in Batley Cemetery. Because he died before the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cut-off point of 31 August 1921 he has a CWGC headstone and is commemorated on their Debt of Honour database.

Project Bugle Wreath-Laying Ceremony for Sgt Joseph Edward Munns – Photo by Jane Roberts

Whilst in the cemetery I also visited the grave of another St Mary’s man, Gunner James Delaney. He was my mum’s uncle, married to my nana’s sister. My mum never knew him, but according to her family he was a lovely man. I have a photograph of him and on the back is written the fact that he died of injuries he received during the Great War. He died on 27 January 1928 so was not eligible for an official CWGC headstone. He features on no database of the dead. He is not recalled on any War Memorial. He is but one of so many others whose deaths occurred years after the end of the War, but whose lives were cut short as a result of the injuries and health issues directly attributable to it. They are casualties as much as those who died whilst the war raged. They are the forgotten casualties.

James’ headstone reflects his sacrifice, bearing his rank and Regimental details.

Here is his story.

James Delaney was born in Batley on 9 July 1895, the son of Dublin-born John Delaney and his wife Ann McLouglin, who hailed from Dumfries in Scotland. The family were associated with St Mary of the Angels RC church in Batley, where James was baptised. His older siblings included Sarah Ann, William, John Edward and Charles Emmett. From the 1881 to 1911 censuses the family lived in the Courts off Taylor Street in Batley. In the 1911 census it was 4 Court, 2 Taylor Street, with James now working as a cloth finisher. This was his abode and occupation when he attested in Batley on 9 December 1915, age 20.

He was mobilised on 28 December 1915 and the following day posted to 1B Reserve Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (RFA) at Forest Row Camp in East Sussex, assigned Service Number 111921. His Company Conduct Sheet whilst at Forest Row shows only two offences. He was absent from 6.30pm parade on 9 May 1916. Then he overstayed his leave from midnight on 28 May 1916 until 4pm on 30 May 1916. For this latter offence he was deprived two day’s pay and sentenced to the humiliation of Field Punishment No.2., shackled in irons and liable to undertake menial and heavy labour. But these were relatively minor misdemeanours and overall his military character was described as very good.

On 15 July 1916 Gunner Delaney was posted to France, joining the ‘A’ Battery of the 80th Brigade RFA on 24 July, part of the 17th Divisional Artillery. Their Unit War Diary refers to reinforcements of men and horses being allotted that day, whilst in camp at Dernancourt. The RFA operated the army’s medium calibre guns and howitzers. These mobile guns were horse-drawn, and deployed close to the front line. 

James joined his unit in the midst of the Battle of the Somme. The Unit War Diary notes total casualties for July, (killed, wounded and from sickness) was 5 officers, 124 other ranks, and 32 horses. These rates explain the need for reinforcements.

On 1 August 1916 they moved to the Montauban area, where James saw action until the 20 August when the Brigade was withdrawn. Days later the news came through the Brigade was being broken up to supply guns and personnel to other Brigades in the Division. James was deployed to ‘A’ Battery in the 78th Brigade. His first full month in action had seen much lower losses than in July, with only two other ranks killed and 16 wounded.

September was spent with his new unit. His final days at the beginning of October 1916 saw them operating in the Hebuterne area, with the guns primarily employed in wire cutting. However, James was back on home soil on 11 October 1916, with 5C Reserve Brigade. 

His Casualty sheet and Medical History forms are not among his surviving service records, so the specific reason for his return home is unclear. However, he was back on the Western Front on 30 May 1917, joining the 24th Divisional Ammunition Column (DAC) on 12 June 1917 in Belgium. DACs were responsible for transporting all ammunition and artillery as well as small arms for the Division, taking it as far forward as possible for collection by batteries and infantry brigades. This made them targets for enemy guns and aircraft. They also provided reinforcements of men for the RFA. James was once more in action in another infamous battle – 3rd Ypres, better known as Passchendaele. 

But yet again his stint did not last long and he was once more back in England on 21 July 1917. From notes on his service records it is clear this was as a result of injury or illness as he now spent time in 3rd Northern General Hospital, Sheffield. There are no more details as to the specific problem at this point in time.

Following his discharge from hospital he re-joined 5C Reserve Brigade at Charlton Park on 8 September 1917. But it is clear he never re-gained his health. He was compulsorily transferred to the Royal Engineers in June 1918, serving with the Tyne Electrical Engineers at Haslar Barracks, Gosport. His new rank was Pioneer, and new Service Number 365987.

Suffering from the painful condition of neuritis, this disorder is defined as inflammation of the nerves. It can be caused by injury, infection or autoimmune disease. In addition to pain, symptoms include tenderness, impaired sensation, numbness or hypersensitivity, weakened strength and diminished reflexes. Maybe this was the legacy of the injuries which necessitated his earlier hospital stay. His resulting health category of B3 meant he was only fit for sedentary work. As a result, he was only capable of undertaking HQ Fatigues work.

James’ condition was serious enough to lead to his discharge on 1 October 1918. After serving for two years and 278 days he was no longer deemed fit for military service. He was awarded a conditional pension of 11s per week, to be reviewed after 52 weeks. This pension continued beyond this date, over the years mainly set at 12s per week with his disability estimated at 30 per cent. 

He returned home to Batley and towards the end of 1919 married 19-year-old Ethel Rhodes. The couple settled at 18 Brearley Street, Mount Pleasant, Batley, with James back at his old job as a worsted cloth finisher. The couple had no children. In brittle health after the tolls of the war, Ethel became his carer as well as his wife. It was a role she made her job for others after James’ death.

James Delaney and Wife Ethel Rhodes

James died on 27 January 1928 as a result of cardiac failure, myocardial disease and rheumatoid arthritis. He was only 32. He died with Ethel by his bedside not at home in Batley, but in the East Lancashire Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home, Park Lane, in the Higher Broughton area of Salford. 

This was an establishment for disabled servicemen opened under the auspices of the East Lancashire Branch of the British Red Cross Society. With a massive influx of wounded men returning home to ad-hoc care facilities, in the summer of 1916 the organisation – along with the Mayor of Manchester and the Earl of Derby – was involved in the launch of a public appeal to raise money to provide suitable accommodation in which they could be cared for. By the end of September 1916, and after only one month, £22,841 was raised. The fund hit the £75,000 mark by February 1917, an amazing amount for a cash-strapped war-torn society. The appeal was so successful it enabled the provision of not one but five homes which, by 1921, provided in excess of 100 beds. One of these still provides care for ex-service personnel today.

Two of the private houses purchased to provide these facilities were on Park Lane, and both were still in operation in 1929. Miss A.E. Tasker was the sister in charge of Palm House, whilst Miss M. Tracy was the matron at Broughton House. Neither James’ death certificate or the newspaper notices by his wife, parents and siblings indicate in which home he died. He was buried in Batley cemetery on 31 January 1928.

Ethel was understandably devastated after her husband’s death. Her mother, Edith, was instrumental in helping her through this intensely difficult period, when at one period in particular Ethel felt she had no reason to carry on. She did eventually re-build her life and married Fred Armitage in 1931. Ethel never had children. She died on 8 November 1958 and chose to be buried alongside James.

As a footnote to this story, the one surviving former East Lancashire home for Disabled Servicemen is Broughton House. More details about its history, current work and future plans are here. It includes information about how you can help support the continuing work of the charity, because funds are needed throughout the year, not just in the period leading up to Armistice Day.

Sources:

  • 24th Divisional Ammunition Column (DAC) Unit War Diary WO 95/2198/3;
  • 78th Brigade Royal Field Artillery Unit War Diary WO 95/1991/3;
  • 80th Brigade Royal Field Artillery Unit War Diary WO 95/1991/5;
  • 1929 Kelly’s Directory of Manchester, Salford and Suburbs;
  • 1881 to 1911 England and Wales censuses;
  • Batley Cemetery burial records;
  • Batley News – 13 July 1918 and 4 February 1928;
  • Batley Reporter and Guardian – 12 July 1918 and 4 February 1928;
  • Broughton House website https://www.broughtonhouse.com/
  • Burnley News – 9 November 1921;
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission;
  • GRO Death Certificate for James Delaney
  • Manchester Evening News – 30 September 1916;
  • The London Gazette 13 September 1918;
  • The Long, Long Trail website https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/
  • The Western Front Association Pension Record Index Card and Ledgers;
  • WO 363 War Office: Soldiers’ Documents, First World War ‘Burnt Documents.’

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:

A Batley Boy’s Fatal Shooting

On the evening of Friday 24 April 1896 as the life ebbed from seven-year-old George Sharpe [1], 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 [2]. It was Mary’s second marriage. Her first husband Fearnley Windle died in 1875, age 19 [3], just over a year after their marriage in the same church [4]

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) [5]. Ten years later they were at 5 Clark Green Street [6]. 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.

Healey Street – Photo by Jane Roberts

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 [7] at Batley Carr Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on 18 May 1885 confirms his 8 April 1885 birth date, and a Hanging Heaton residence [8].

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 [9], 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.

Norfolk Street, opposite Baines Street – Photo by Jane Roberts

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.

The Commercial at the bottom of Dark Lane – Photo by Jane Roberts

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 [10]. Back in 1896 it was where Alfred’s father, Thomas, had employment as a carter. 

Extract of Six-inch OS Map Surveyed 1888 to 1892, Published 1895 showing location of Nursery, Hospital, Commercial (Inquest), and the streets where the boys lived – Adapted

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.

An example of an ambulance, Wrington Cottage Hospital Ambulance, Horace Swete. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/act7mvnt Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

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 complete.

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 fell. 

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.[11]

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 [12]. 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 [13].

Alfred Brearey – The Batley News, 15 September 1917

For more details about Alfred Brearey see Batley’s Roll of Honour website.

Footnotes:
[1] Other records have the spelling Sharp, but for consistency I will use the Sharpe variant;
[2] 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;
[3] GRO Death Registration for Fearnley Windle, accessed via the GRO website, reference June Quarter 1875, Dewsbury District, Volume 9B, Page 388;
[4] 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;
[5] 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
[6] 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;
[7] 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;
[8] 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;
[9] 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;
[10] The Leeds Mercury, 11 September 1929, accessed via Findmypast;
[11] The Batley News & Advertiser – 1 May 1896;
[12] 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
[13] Cleworth, Rev. W.E. Urban District of Soothill Upper, Yorkshire, War Register and Records, 1914-1919. Batley: E.F. Roberts, n.d.

Other sources:

  • 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
  • OS Map Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
  • The Batley News and Guardian – 2 May 1896
  • The Huddersfield Daily Examiner – 28 and 30 April 1896, accessed via Findmypast
  • The Leeds Mercury – 25 April 1896, accessed via Findmypast
  • The Leeds Times – 2 May 1896, accessed via Findmypast
  • The Yorkshire Evening Post – 25, 27 and 29 April 1896, accessed via Findmypast
  • Wellcome Collectionhttps://wellcomecollection.org/

Mining Genealogy Gold – A Hidden Gem in Leeds Central Library

As a family historian, I’m always on the look-out for sources which flesh out the lives of my ancestors. Leeds Central Library has one particular gem which deserves a spotlight. For those of us with early Victorian mining ancestry it is a must.

The Children’s Employment Commission looking at children and young persons working in mines published its findings in 1842 [1]. This report is only a fraction of the evidence gathered. It draws on the masses of summaries, information and interviews produced by its Sub-Commissioners countrywide. These far more detailed Sub-Commissioners’ reports formed separate publications, reprinted by the Irish University Press in 1968 as part of its Industrial Revolution Parliamentary papers series [2]. Leeds Library holds two volumes of this evidence, containing a wealth of information which did not make the cut for the main report.

Appointed from late 1840 onwards, the remits of these Sub-Commissioners encompassed all fields of mining – from coal, to copper, tin, lead, zinc and ironstone. It covers those toiling underground, as well as those engaged in surface work and smelting. All corners of the country are represented – including Scotland, Wales and Southern Ireland. So it would be a mistake to think it is only relevant for those with Yorkshire or coal mining ancestry.

Yorkshire coal mining, though, is my particular interest, and the focus of this summary. However, this summary will give you a taster for the information available for other regions and sectors of mining.

Three Sub-Commissioners reported on the West Riding coal mining areas. Their evidence spans both volumes, and the amount of name-rich genealogical information they produced is staggering. We owe tremendous thanks to the trio.

  • William Raynor Wood examined the employment of children and young persons in the collieries and iron works of the towns of Bradford and Leeds;
  • Samuel S. Scriven investigated those employed in the collieries around the Halifax and Bradford districts; and
  • Jelinger C. Symons looked at the remainder of the Yorkshire coal field.

They considered a range of issues including ages, numbers of children, the employment of girls and women, how the children were hired, the jobs they undertook, their wages, their working hours including night shifts, their workplace conditions including accidents, meals both in and outside the workplace, holidays, how they were treated, their educational standards and the impact the work took on their physical, religious and moral condition. These findings are illustrated with sketches of children and youths at work, diagrams showing pit layouts and illustrations of machinery.

The physical and moral conditions of the children and young persons employed in mines and manufactures. London: HMSO, John W. Parker, 1843. Folding plate showing children transporting coal in mines and collieries. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Tables and appendices collate an array of information, some of which is unexpected material. Fatal pit accidents in a 3½ year period in Bradford and Halifax District feature, with the names and many ages of the victims. There are lists of child workers in particular pits. These include details of in excess of 200 named Bradford and Halifax hurriers with their ages, height, physical condition, whether they could read and write, along with their employment details. There is a tabulated medical examination of children in Dewsbury Colliery. There are also tables showing the names, ages and wages of the three youngest children and three oldest young people working at selected collieries. Beyond this, for comparison purposes, similar wage, age, physical and educational information is collated for children in other industries such as worsted workers in Halifax, or scribblers, carders, spinners and card setters. So, don’t rule out evidence relating to mines if you have ancestors working in other industries.

Crucially, these findings were based on interviews with a cross section of people directly involved in, or with an interest, in mining. You get the usual suspects – coal mine proprietors, doctors, workhouse staff and vicars. But you also have statements from coal miners, mothers and fathers of children employed in the industry, as well as the children themselves. Working class folk whose voices are not ordinarily heard. Here are the real treasures of these reports. You can almost hear the accents and regional phraseology of these long-gone people in the written statements. And yes, there is an explanation of terms generally in use among colliers of the West Riding. Addle, agate, leet, lake and mashed up are my favourites [3].

Each interview is prefaced by the deponent’s name and gives location, age and employment details. And because the interviews were conducted at around the time of the 1841 census, it is easy to cross match them to your ancestors. From this you can find out precisely where they worked, what they did, wider family information, their health, their educational standard, what they ate, even where they lived and their previous abodes.

My 4x great grandfather Jonathan Ibbetson, a widower, and three of his children, are interviewed by Symons. These include his 11½-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. From the interviews I learned that two out of his three daughters worked below ground, one having done so since the age of six. The girls were hurriers, employed by their brother. This was common practice – the colliers, not the mine proprietors, generally employed, and paid, hurriers themselves. The hurrier’s job was to convey the empty corves (wagons, usually with small wheels) to the miner, help fill them with coal, then push the laden corves by dragging, pushing, or ‘thrusting’ them with their heads in readiness for them to be taken to the surface. In this case the two girls worked together, thrusting the corves a distance of 160 yards, and back, which Elizabeth says hurt and made her head sore. On average they conveyed 16 full corves daily. We learn the family moved from Queenshead (Queensbury) to the Birkenshaw area, and worked in Mr Harrison’s pit in Gomersal. We also learn of their poverty, with John (a hurrier, aged 13½) saying:

I have been to Sunday-school. I stop at home now, I’ve no clothes to go in; I stop in because I’ve no clothes to go and lake with other little lads.

One particularly shameful practice, the plight of pauper apprentices, is highlighted in the evidence. Poor Law Unions were in effect binding out workhouse children to miners to work as hurriers. Dewsbury Poor Law Union were singled out for particular censure for putting out a Batley workhouse boy, Thomas Townend, to work for a Thornhill collier. Symons described it as:

A very gross case of the unduly early employment of a workhouse child…before he was quite five years old.

Thomas is interviewed saying:

I remember being in the pit. I liked it; but they would not let me stay.

For those of you who watched the BBC TV series ‘Gentleman Jack’ there is evidence from children working at the Rawson-owned Swan Bank and Bank Bottom collieries, as well as ones employed at the late Miss Anne Lister’s Listerwick Pit [4]. There are also details about the ages and wages of some hurriers at Listerwick.

And where else would you get an entire section devoted to the families of six colliers in Flockton? Not only do you get the names, ages, relationships, occupations and wages of every household member, you get a summary of their weekly food and fuel consumption, along with a description of their house, garden, and furniture right down to the books they owned.  There is even a pen piece for each family. Samuel and Martha Taylor’s reads:

The parents of this man were ignorant, being totally uneducated, and their moral character not good; yet, notwithstanding, he has turned out a very respectable man; and having married an industrious, worthy young woman, he is likely to become a good member of society. His wife has taught him to read and write; and though brought up amidst dirt and disorder his cottage presents a pleasing picture of comfort.

Pure genealogy gold!

Even if your ancestor is not interviewed or mentioned by name, the evidence is well worth consulting for the incredible overview of all aspects of the everyday lives and work of those employed in the mines in this period.

As a result of the investigation, the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 was passed. Crucially, from 1 March 1843, it was made illegal to employ women or girls of whatever age underground in any mine or colliery in Britain. Boys under the age of 10 were no longer permitted to work below ground either.

This blog pulls together my three previous posts on this subject. These are:

With special thanks to the staff at the Leeds Local and Family History library for their help in locating a copy of the Children’s Employment Commission: Appendix to the First Report of Commissioners, Mines: Part I: Reports and Evidence from Sub-Commissioners, Industrial Revolution Children’s Employment, Volumes 7 and 8.

Notes:
[1] Children’s Employment Commission – First Report of the Commissioners: Mines. London: Printed by William Clowes for H.M.S.O., 1842
[2] Children’s Employment Commission: Appendix to the First Report of Commissioners, Mines: Part I: Reports and Evidence from Sub-Commissioners, Industrial Revolution Children’s Employment, Volumes 7 and 8. 141 Thomas St., Dublin: Irish University Press, 1968.
[3] To earn; to be employed; as it happens; to be idling/passing time; and disabled/worn out.
[4] Anne Lister died in September 1840 and the evidence was taken in May 1841, but the boys had worked there for around three years.