Tag Archives: 19th Century

The Britannia Mills Tragedy – ‘Lord Help Me!’

It was 6pm on the evening of Thursday 20 October 1892. It had been an unsettled, breezy day with the constant threat of rain. As darkness descended, the signal was given for work to cease at Britannia Mills. Looms gradually abated, day-shift weavers turned off their lights, and those women not working overtime tied their handkerchiefs round their heads in preparation to leave the building and venture out into the chill, autumnal night.

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

The building on Geldard Road in Birstall, known locally as ‘Slopers’ Mill, was a five-storey structure. The lower two floors were occupied by Messrs. Charles Robinson and Company, Carlinghow woollen manufacturers. The upper storeys were tenanted by Leeds woollen manufacturers Messrs. Hartley Brothers. The top floor contained around 30 looms, with about two thirds operating that Thursday.

Britannia Mills photographed after the July 1905 fire – source unknown

The distance from the ground to the fifth floor was around 30-35 yards [1]. Whilst a long, winding staircase could be used, after a tough day’s work tired workers from the upper floors often preferred to use the mill hoist, commonly used to carry goods between floors. This hoist, located in the centre of the building, controlled a contraption which workers referred to as a cage. Essentially an open-sided box with a wooden roof and floor, it was supported by an iron rope, and worked by pulleys and gearing suspended from girders: in effect a primitive lift system.

For younger workers the journey in this cage no doubt was tremendous fun, adding a frisson of excitement at the end of their arduous workday.

It was set in motion by pulling one of the two guide ropes at the side. One of these ropes acted as a brake. There was no one person designated to operate the hoist. It was started and reversed by the person nearest the ropes, something which might have particularly appealed to teenage boys. Youngsters did not see any danger with it. In fact 15-year-old Hilda North, who had worked in the Hartley portion of the mill for around a week, told her father on the second day there she only got one foot on the hoist when it descended. And it was not unheard of for agile workers to jump into the cage as it passed the lower floors.

The hoist was so popular with the workers that around five weavers from the top floor regularly knocked off at 5.55pm in order to beat the rush, and avoid the inevitable overcrowding. Because overcrowding was commonplace. Reports state many as 20 workers crammed into it on occasions. They rushed to it at the end of their shift, like children racing to leave school. In fact many were only teenagers.

James Gray, the engineman at the mill for eight years and whose responsibilities included looking after the engine powering the mill machinery, had been unaware of any mechanical issues with the hoist in that time. However, it was not his responsibility to oversee and maintain it. And he couldn’t remember any official inspection or maintenance of it by an external official either. The only incident he recalled was around five or six years earlier, when too many people in it caused it to land with a bump.

As a result of that incident the maximum capacity was limited to eight, and pulling on the ropes whilst was in motion was prohibited. The penalty for contravening these instructions ranged from a severe 1s fine to instant dismissal – although it seems these punishments were never meted out. There was a warning note at the hoist entrance, a legacy of the earlier incident, put up by the previous mill owners.

Wording on the Hoist Warning Notice

Although prominent, it was perhaps too high for some even if they could read [2]. Neither were new starters routinely informed about the restrictions; nor did it appear to be discussed generally, not even by those aware that the regulations were regularly being breached.

John Howitt, a warp dresser working at Hartleys for a fortnight, only used the hoist if it did not exceed maximum capacity even if it meant waiting. But he admitted he never thought to warn younger workers ignoring the rules [3]. And 15-year-old Mary Alice Mann, a recently employed weaver at Hartleys stated “I saw other people go down in the hoist, and I went with them.[4] No thought did she give to numbers.

That Thursday evening was no different. Eager workers, keen to quickly return home, rushed and pushed to make their way towards the exit. A crowd on the top floor jostled and jockeyed for position in the cage, with cries of “Let us get in.” Perhaps some on the lower floors had stolen a march, already in the cage before it reached the upper storey, similar to the tricks we use today at busy lifts: that was one rumour circulating later. According to at least one report one lad, Edwin Day, jumped in as it made its descent. In all, it appears around 16 people were now crammed in. It may have even been as many as 18, for collating names from various newspaper reports the occupants included:

  • Fred Beevers, Carlinghow. Born in July 1875, the son of Andrew and Sarah Ann Beevers, in 1891 the family lived on Coal Pit Lane with Fred working as a cloth presser;
  • Elizabeth Birbeck, 38-year-old wife of Turner Birbeck. They lived at Lambsfield Place, Geldard Road, Birstall. She only started work that week as weaver at Hartleys. Other information shows she was born on 7 May 1853, the daughter of John and Hannah Gooder, and she married Turner on 25 October 1873 at St Peter’s Church in Birstall;
  • Edwin Blakey Day, age 14. He was a piecer and the son of postman Ernest Day of Union Street, Birstall [5]. He had worked six months for Robinsons, but was due to start work the following week at Carr Mill;
  • Edith Crossley [6], weaver, wife of James Crossley of Geldard Road. Other sources show she was born in Holmfirth on 8 February 1861, the daughter of Hugh and Mary Ramsden, and married James Booth Crossley on 23 July 1881 at St Saviour’s, Brownhill;
  • Jane Donnelly, Richmond Street, Batley. Looking at other sources it seems likely she was the Dublin-born wife of Richard Donnelly, maiden name Egan. Her age was 30 in the 1891 census and she worked as a woollen machine feeder;
  • Ann Frankland, wife of collier James Frankland, of Britannia Cottages, Geldard Road. Further investigation shows she was born on 18 March 1869 and was the sister of Elizabeth Birbeck. She married James on 1 February 1890 at Batley All Saints;
  • Gooder, sister of Mrs Birbeck. No Christian name is given in the reports, which only mention she is a girl. Although possible this may be the recently married Ann Frankland, it is equally possible this is another of the Gooder sisters. Weight is added to this because in some of the casualty lists both Ann Frankland and ‘a girl named Gooder’ appear. But there is nothing conclusive;
  • Hannah Mary Grayson, Birstall. Putting together other sources she is likely to be the daughter of Solomon and Mary Grayson (and its many surname variants) who was born on 26 November 1863. In the 1891 census she is living with her widowed mother at Cross Street in Birstall [7], and working as a wool cloth weaver. She married George Easby at St Peter’s, Birstall on 8 January 1897;
  • Walter Jones, age 13, piecer, son of tripe dresser Edward Jones and wife Sarah Ann of Low Lane, Birstall. He was born on 12 March 1879;
  • Joshua Kellett, age 15, piecer, son of John and Mary Kellett of White Lee Road, Batley;
  • Nellie Lee, Skelsey Row, Batley;
  • Mary Alice Mann, 15, daughter of Mark and Elizabeth Mann. She was born on 5 November 1876 and lived with her family at Geldard Road, Birstall. She had been employed as a weaver for one week in the Hartley-run portion of the mill;
  • Kate McGuire, a young woman living in Batley. Although unverified, this might have been the 23-year-old niece of Michael McGuire living at Parker Buildings, Whittaker Street in the 1891 census;
  • Henry Mitchell, the son of Annie Mitchell, of Geldard Road, Birstall. Not employed at the mill, he had been there to drop tea off for another worker. The newspaper reports put his age at 9 or 10. My research points he was likely to be 9-year-old Harry Mitchell born on 17 October 1883, the son of Annie and William Mitchell. In 1891 he was living at Geldard Road with his mother and his maternal grandmother Mary Ann Ramsden. He was the nephew of Edith Crossley;
  • Sarah Moon, age 53, weaver and wife of tobacco pipe maker Charles Moon. They lived at Boar Terrace, Geldard Road, Birstall. Sarah and widower Charles married at Tong St James on 9 May 1880 – it was her second marriage too. Sarah was born in Cleckheaton on 24 December 1839, the daughter of James and Sarah Haigh. She married her first husband William Firth in Halifax on 7 October 1860, but was widowed with two young sons, in early 1865. Sarah only started work at Hartley’s on the afternoon of 18 October, in place of Annie Williams who was ill;
  • Hilda North, the daughter of George and his Irish-born wife Ellen North. Born on 11 February 1877, her family home was 22 Carlinghow Lane. When the accident occurred she had worked as a weaver for only one week in the Hartley portion of Britannia Mills. Well-liked by all who knew her, Hilda and her family were long associated with St Mary’s RC Church in Batley. In fact some newspapers claimed Hilda was a member of the church choir, though this was disputed in a subsequent report [8].
  • A boy named Ramsden. There are no further details. It is possible that this might be a confusion with Henry Mitchell (above); and
  • Ada Rymer, age 17 [9]. Born on 31 May 1875, she was the daughter of Thomas and Eliza Rymer. In 1891 the family address was Riding Street, White Lee, Batley;

Elizabeth Birbeck, holding one of the guide ropes, gave the signal and the cage began its descent. It quickly became apparent that things were not right: the cage was travelling faster than usual. Someone called out “Steady it!” Fred Beevers pulled one of the guide ropes which temporarily righted things. However, before it reached the halfway point, it hurtled out of control down the shaft. Shouting “Pull the rope! Pull the rope!” Elizabeth Birbeck grabbed the left hand side, whilst Fred Beevers took hold of the right. The pair desperately battled to steady the cage. Someone else screamed, and Edith Crossley cried out “Let’s jump up,” in a vain attempt to slow the cage’s descent. But in the words of Mary Alice Mann it “banged reight to t’bottom.” As the cage struck the floor Elizabeth Birbeck exclaimed “Lord, help me!” These were her final recorded words.

Some of the occupants were thrown out of the cage which, with the force of the impact, rebounded around three feet into the air. It smashed to the floor for a second time, and this ripped down the hoist’s gears and support girders. Weighing about a ton, these crashed on top of the cage.

The Hoist Gear and Accident Aftermath

The tremendous noise alerted those elsewhere in the mill, and workers rushed to the disaster site. James Gray immediately stopped the engine. Shocked and injured cage occupants emerged coughing and stunned from the dust-shrouded scene. The air gradually cleared, revealing the horrific sight of the crushed and splintered cage. Some mill workers were trapped under the wreckage.

Blocks were hastily assembled and the debris lifted off the badly mangled bodies, with Edwin Day first to be released. Those prominent in the rescue included John Leach, Joseph Wright, John Howitt and W. Lockwood.

News of the accident spread quickly beyond the mill. Crowds gathered at the gates, anxious to hear news of their loved ones. Wider in Birstall, and neighbouring areas, small knots of people gathered to speculate about events. Hushed voices and murmurs, rising to excited and expectant tones as they craned their necks to see the comings and goings at the mill. The local police rushed to the scene, pushing past the throng of people. Birstall doctors, Bridgeman and Field, were quickly summoned to tend to the injured.

By around 6.15pm news of fatalities reached those outside. The arrival of Ambrosine Fox (née Renshaw) must have been a signal, even before the names of the dead seeped out more generally. Married to miner Abraham Fox, the family lived at Chapel Lane in Birstall. Although Ambrosine has no occupation listed in the 1891 census, it seems she was one of the local go-to women for laying out the dead. Maybe she also helped bring local children into the world too, as these two tasks often went hand in hand.

Within the mill boundaries those who perished were taken to the burling shed. Here, illuminated by lamplight, Ambrosine Fox carried out the grim task of carefully laying out their bodies. This traditionally involved undressing and washing them, plugging the various orifices, possibly placing coins on their eyes and something (commonly a bandage) under their chins to keep the eyes and mouth closed. The body would be then dressed in its burial clothes, with bandages or ribbons tied around the body to hold it straight and ready for the coffin.

Four fatalities resulted from the accident, and they suffered horrific injuries caused by the falling debris. Those killed were:

  • Elizabeth Birbeck, the most badly injured. Although her face was unmarked, her body incurred severe crush trauma;
  • Edwin Blakey Day suffered mainly head injuries, but also a broken right leg;
  • Hilda North broke her right leg in two places, her left arm was severed at the elbow, her neck was put out and her head split open; and
  • Sarah Moon had a partially severed right leg, chest crush injuries and a fractured skull.

In terms of the injured, Edith Crossley suffered from shock; Ann Frankland had a broken foot; Walter Jones injured his left knee; Joshua Kellett sustained a broken left arm; Mary Alice Mann escaped with only a black eye; Henry Mitchell bruised his left thigh; and Ada Rymer had severe shock. Fortunately none had life-threatening injuries, and all were taken back to their homes to recuperate. It appears all others in the cage had no injuries of note. The belief was if the hoist gears and girders had remained intact, all inside the cage would have survived. It was the fact they came down which proved fatal.

Families were left mourning their loved ones. They also had the ordeal of the inquest, which opened at Birstall’s Coach and Six Inn within 24 hours of the accident. The current building is a 1950s replacement of the earlier structure. The inquest swiftness was down to the need to keep the bodies fresh. No conclusion was reached at this initial hearing, as a report on the condition of the hoist was deemed necessary. But at least funeral arrangements could now be made.

Later that day, Friday 21 October, Reverend Charles Gordon, the parish priest of St Mary’s, Batley, visited the distressed family of Hilda North to try offer some comfort, but presumably to also discuss these funeral arrangements. As was the custom (and for practical reasons with the majority of bodies still being kept at home between death and burial) funerals quickly followed death. So, on the afternoon of Sunday 23 October, less than 72 hours after the accident, all four interments took place.

A triple ceremony, for Edwin Day, Elizabeth Birbeck and Sarah Moon, was held at St Peter’s, Birstall. The coffins set off from their respective homes, and in a praiseworthy feat of co-ordination by Birstall undertakers Messrs. J Akeroyd and Sons, the processions met up as they journeyed to the church, timed to reach there at 4pm. In the procession were many of those in the hoist when the accident occurred. Crowds lined the route, tears staining the cheeks of bystanders. The numbers led one report to claim that:

…the multitude of people in the town on Sunday…was never exceeded at any time in the annals of the town on an occasion of that description… [10]

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

As the cortège approached the church, a muffled peal rang out from the church belfry. The three coffins were gently removed from the three hearses in absolute silence and carried into the crowded church for a service. Not all those present could fit in the building, forcing many more to assemble outside. The coffins were then borne to their final resting places in the churchyard, as the solemn, muffled peal of the bell pierced the silence. The sun shone brilliantly throughout, but a bitingly cold wind swept the graveside. There:

The children wailed continuously, the women were loud in their lamentations, and men were completely broken down…[11]

Once the service ended the trio of coffins were covered with earth. Mourners dispersed, offering words of sympathy to the bereaved families as they left. As darkness fell over the now-empty churchyard, the many wreaths laying on the three burial mounds stood silent witness to the tragic events.

That same afternoon Hilda North was committed to rest in Batley cemetery, in a similarly impressive service conducted by the Reverend Charles Gordon. Once more the approach to her final resting place was lined with a huge throng of people. The cemetery too brimmed with mourners, with a vast number of wreaths placed on her grave.

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

The adjourned inquest resumed at the Coach and Six on 28 October, with a report from Bradford engineer John Waugh into the state of the hoist. After establishing this did not contribute to the accident, the jury reached a verdict that:

…the deceased were killed by the falling of the cage of the hoist and the subsequent fall of the gear and supports of the said hoist, by the crowding into the cage of a greater number of persons than it was calculated to carry, and by the improper use of the gear ropes by some of the persons in the cage, that the overcrowding of the cage was in contravention of a warning which was conspicuously pasted up on the door of the hoist chamber…[12]

Britannia Mills in 2020 – Photograph by Jane Roberts

Finally, for those familiar with Birstall and wondering why Britannia Mills today does not bear any resemblance to the five-storey building of 1892, the answer is the all-too familiar fate which befell many mills: fire. In July 1905, when under the ownership of Batley mayor George Hirst and primarily occupied by the Extract Wool and Merino Company which he chaired, a fire took hold and ravaged the building. The reconstruction resulted in the smaller structure we are familiar with today. But as you pass, do pause and think. Over a century ago four local people lost their lives here, simply by going to work. Two of them would, by today’s standards, be still of school age. How times have (thankfully) changed.

Notes:
[1] Some reports say almost 40 yards. 1 yard = 3 feet. I suspect these reports may be an exaggeration, because an official report quoted in the Batley Reporter and Guardian of 29 October 1892 into the state of the hoist mentions the distance from the hoist girders to the floor was 67 feet;
[2] 6 feet off the ground according to Mary Alice Mann;
[3] Batley Reporter and Guardian, 22 October 1892;
[4] Batley News, 28 October 1892;
[5] Some reports say Low Lane. They also incorrectly give his father’s name as Edward;
[6] Some reports incorrectly state Eva;
[7] In the 1891 census she is recorded as Hannah May Grayson, and her mother is Mary Medcalf, TNA Reference RG12/3722/70/17. Her birth in the Dewsbury Registration District in the December quarter of 1863 is under Gration;
[8] Batley News, 28 October 1892;
[9] Newspaper reports give her age as 18;
[10] Batley Reporter and Guardian, 29 October 1892;
[11] Ibid;
[12] Yorkshire Evening Post, 28 October 1892.

Sources:
• 1861-1901 England and Wales censuses;
• Batley All Saints church marriage register;
• Batley Cemetery burial register;
• Batley News – 21 and 28 October 1892, and 21 July 1905;Batley News
– 21 and 28 October 1892, and 21 July 1905;
• Batley Reporter & Guardian
– 22 and 29 October 1892, and 21 July 1905;
• Birstall St Peter’s church parish registers (baptisms, marriages and burials);
• Funeral Practices, British Customs: https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/funeral-practices-british-customs
• Leeds Mercury – 24 October 1892;
Leeds Times – 22 October 1892;
• OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
• Tong St James parish register (marriages);
Yorkshire Evening Post – 21, 24 and 28 October 1892;

Coal Mining Children: “I’ve Heard I Shall Go to Heaven If I’m A Good Girl”

Have you ever stumbled across what could be the words of your ordinary, working-class ancestors? The type who never usually feature in records beyond those associated with births, marriages and deaths? Words which well over 150 years later hit you like a hammer blow? You can imagine them speaking those words, and through them have a totally unique and unexpected window into their lives. Here is my experience.

Several years ago, when reading extracts of depositions contained within the First Report to the Children’s Employment Commission [1] looking at mines, a series of familiar names featured. Brief extracts were published in various parts of the 1842 Report.

The names were:

  • J. Ibbetson, collier in poor health, age 53, Birkenshaw;
  • John Ibbetson, 13½-years-old. No further details;
  • James Ibbetson, aged about twenty, Collier at Mr Harrison’s Pit, Gomersal whose two sisters aged twelve and a half and between eight and nine worked as his hurriers; and
  • Elizabeth Ibbetson, a hurrier at Mr Harrison’s Pit, Gomersal. Age not stated.

Because they appeared in distinctly separate parts of the Report, there was nothing to indicate if this was one or more families. But the names stood out because my 4x great grandfather, Jonathan Ibbetson (and variant spellings [2]), was a coal miner. Born in around 1788 in Halifax, by the 1841 census (name recorded as Hibbeson) [3] he was living at Tong More Side, Birkenshaw cum Hunsworth. The household comprised of Jonathan Hibbeson (50), a coal miner; William (20); Martha (15); John (14); Bettey (11); and Mary (9) [4]. Jonathan’s wife, Elizabeth Rushworth, who he married on 25 February 1811 in Halifax Parish Church, which is dedicated to St John the Baptist [5], is not in the census household. I have not traced her burial yet, but the possibility is she was dead by 1841. In the 1851 census, which provides more family relationship details, Jonathan is described as a widower.

At the time of Jonathan and Elizabeth’s marriage their abode was Ovenden. They subsequently lived in Queensbury, and possibly the Thornton area, before Jonathan ended up in Birkenshaw. A family with non-Conformist leanings their children included:

  • Hannah, baptised 20 August 1811 at Mount Zion Chapel, Ovenden. Other information includes she was the daughter of Jonathan and Betty Ibbitson of Swilhill [6];
  • John, son of Jonathan and Betty Ibbeson of Swilhill. Baptised 28 August 1814 at Mount Zion Chapel, Ovenden [7]. Possible burial 7 March 1815, age 9 months at the Parish Church of St Mary’s Illingworth. Abode Ovenden [8];
  • James, baptised 16 June 1816 at Mount Zion Chapel, Ovenden. The son of Jonathan and Betty Ibbetson of Skylark Hall [9];
  • William, born on 4 August 1821 and baptised at Mount Zion Chapel, Ovenden on 5 September 1821, son of Jonathan and Betty Ibbotson of Bradshaw Row in Ovenden [10]. Points to note, if being precise he was two months shy of 20 in the 1841 census, so technically his age should have been rounded down to 15; Also, although his earlier census birthplaces are given as Thornton and, bizarrely, Birstall, by 1871 and 1881 it is corrected to Ovenden;
  • Martha, my 3x great grandmother. I’ve not traced her baptism, but other sources indicate she was born in around 1824/25 in either Bradford, Thornton or Queensbury, depending on the three censuses where her birthplace is given. Why, oh why aren’t ancestors consistent with information?
  • John was born in around 1827 and his burial is in the parish register of St Paul’s, Birkenshaw on 15 February 1844, age 17. He is recorded as being the son of collier Jonathan Ibbetson [11];
  • Elizabeth (Bettey in the 1841 census) was born in around 1830 likely in Queensbury, although again the censuses for her vary [12]. She was baptised at St Paul’s, Birkenshaw on 25 December 1844. Her parents are named as Jonathan and Elizabeth Ibbotson [13]; and
  • Mary was born in around 1832 in Queensbury or Thornton [14]. She was baptised at the same time as sister Elizabeth [15].

There was possibly another son named Joseph, born circa 1820. More of him, and why I believe he is linked to the family, is perhaps the subject for a later post.

St Paul’s Church, Birkenshaw – Photo by Jane Roberts

I never have much opportunity to research my family history to the extent I would wish nowadays. It was only earlier in July 2019 that I finally got around to investigating the Children’s Commission Report further. This meant a visit to Leeds Central Library’s Local and Family History section where the volumes containing appendices to the Report are held [16]. These contain the statements of the various witnesses who gave evidence to the Sub-Commissioners, extracts of which were used in the Report.

They make powerful, and emotionally challenging, reading. In order not to dilute their impact I’ve published in full the Ibbetson statements, and that of the Gomersal pit owner in whose mine they worked. These statements were given to Sub-Commissioner Jelinger C. Symons in 1841. He investigated the West Riding coal mines (excluding those in the Leeds, Bradford and Halifax areas).

No. 263. – James Ibbetson, aged about 20. Examined at Mr. Harrison’s Pit, Gomersal, May 26, 1841: –
I am a collier. There are three hurriers [17] in the pit; two are girls; they are my sisters. They hurry for me. None hurry here with belt and chain [18]. The oldest is 12½. The youngest is between 8 and 9. She has been working ever since she was 6 years old. They have both hurried together since she was 6 years old. Sometimes when I have got my stint I come out as I have done to-day, and leave them to fill and hurry. I have gone down at 4 and 5 and 6, and the lasses come at 8, and they get out about 5. They stop at 12, and if the men have some feeling they let them stop pit an hour, but there are not many but what keep them tugging at it. The girls hurry to dip [19]. The distance is 160 yards. The corves weigh 3½cwt. each, and they hurry 22 on average. I don’t think it proper for girls to be in pit. I know I could get boys, but my sisters are more to be depended on; they are capital hurriers. Some hurriers are kept to work with sharp speaking, and sometimes paid with pick-shaft, and anything else the men can lay their hands on. I saw two people killed at Queen’s Head, where they are less civilized than here; and the rope slipped off the gin and jerked and broke, and they were killed. At Harrison’s other pit there are eight boys.

No. 264. – John Ibbetson. Examined May 26, 1841, at Mr. Harrison’s Pit, Gomersal: –
I am 13½. I hurry alone. I go down at 7, and sometimes at 8. Sometimes we work a whole day, and then it’s 5 when we come out. I stop at 12, and my sisters too, for an hour and a half. I like being in pit. I’ve been down 6 year or better. I thrust with my head [20] where the coals touch the top of the gates and then we have to push. In all the bank-gates they don’t cut it down enough. 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 [21] with other little lads. I read spelling-book. I don’t know who Jesus Christ was; I never saw him but I’ve seen Foster who prays about him. I’ve heard something about him, but I never heard that he was put to death.

A Hurrier Pushing a Full Corve with his Head – Newspaper Image Over 100 Years Old

No. 265. – Mr Joseph Harrison. Examined May 26, 1841, at Gomersal:-
I don’t employ the hurriers; they are entirely under the control of the men, but when they quarrel I interfere to prevent it. I don’t approve of girls coming. I allow two as a favour. I have four pits and 18 children. They thrust two together when they are little. In the bank-gates the coal will catch the roofs sometimes, because we leave seven or eight inches inferior. We don’t require children younger than 10 years, as far as our experience. They can do very little before they are at that age, and I would as lief be without them. We could do if they were to allow us to draw coals for eight hours, with an additional hour for meals. If they could thus make colliers work regular it would be a good thing. They will sometimes work for 12 or 13 hours, and then they will lake perhaps. The getters don’t leave the children to fill and hurry here after they come out of pit, except it be a corf or two. If hurriers are prohibited from working till they are 10, I don’t know whether we could get enough or not.

No. 266. – Elizabeth Ibbetson. Examined at Mr Harrison’s Pit, Gomersal, May 26, 1841:-
I am 11 ½ years old. I don’t like being at pit so weel [sic]; it’s too hard work for us. My sister hurries with me. I’ve been two year and a half in this pit. It tires my legs and arms; not much in my back. I get my feet wet. I come down at 7 and 8. I come out at 4, and sometimes at 2, and sometimes stay till 6. I laked on Saturday, for I had gotten cold. I am wet in the feet now; they are often wet. We rest an hour one day with another, but we stop none at Saturdays. I push the corf with my head, and it hurts me, and is sore. I go to Sunday-school to Methodists every Sunday. I read A B C. I’ve heard I shall go to heaven if I’m a good girl, and to hell if I’m bad; but I never heard nought at all about Jesus Christ. We are used very well, but sometimes the hurriers fall out, and then they pay us. My father works at pit.

No. 267. – John Ibbetson, aged 53. Examined at Birkenshaw, near Birstall [undated]: – 
I have been 45 years in the pits. I am the father of the children you have examined at Mr. Harrison’s pit. I have had three ribs on one side and two on the other broken, and my collar-bone, and my leg skinned. My reason for taking these girls into the pit is that I can get nought else for them to do. I can’t get enough wages to dress the boys for going to school. I get 5s. 6d. For the girls, and I and my two sons earn 17s. 6d. on average a-week. I am done up. I cannot addle [22] much. The eldest girl does nothing at all. We get potatoes and a bit of meat or bacon when they come out of the pit. I knew a man called Joseph Cawthrey, who sent a child in at 4 years old; and there are many who go to thrust behind at that time, and many go at 5 and 6; but it is soon enough for them to go at 9 or 10; the sooner they go in the sooner their constitution is mashed up [23], I have been 13 hours in a pit since I have been here, but 8 hours is plenty. The children went with us and came back with us; they worked as long as we did. The colliers and the children about here will be 12 hours from the time they go away till they come home. They could not addle a living if they were stinted to work to 8 hours at present ages. The children don’t get schooling as they ought to have. I cannot deny it. I cannot get the means. I have suffered from asthma, and am regularly knocked up. A collier cannot stand the work regularly. We must stop now and then, or he would be mashed up before any time. We cannot afford to keep Collier-Monday [24] as we used to do.

The statements are far more detailed than the brief extracts in the published Report, which is a synthesis of masses of evidence. In fact not all statements made the final cut, so if your ancestor is not mentioned in the final Report it is still worth checking the appendices.

The full statements now confirm that a 53-year-old miner John Ibbetson along with sons James (aged about 20) and John (13½), and daughter Elizabeth (11½ or 12½ depending on deposition) plus another unnamed daughter aged between 8 and 9, worked at Mr Harrison’s pit in Gomersal. They confirm the absence of a mother. They also confirm an older, unnamed, daughter who “does nothing at all.” This older daughter would fit with Martha, my 3x great grandmother. Presumably she is taking care of the household chores, in place of her mother. Methodism is indicated, in terms of religion, but the children only have a sketchy concept of the Bible. There is a Birkenshaw link – which is where John Ibbetson provided his testimony. Gomersal to Birkenshaw is about two miles, so perfectly feasible for a work commute. It is also clear John is in poor health and the family is struggling to make ends meet.

The desperation in the statement of the father is palpable. The family managed as best they could. It appears the girls were given priority for clothes, with Elizabeth rather than John being sufficiently well-dressed to attend Sunday School, and their father admitting as much.

There is also the acknowledgement that sending the girls (and even young boys) to work down in the coal mines was not something their father would do through choice – but the income was needed for them to keep going, to keep the family together. There was, I guess, always the dreaded spectre of the workhouse with its associated stigma that somehow you had failed your kith and kin, alongside the threat of family separation. You did all you could to avoid it. If it meant children working, so be it.

It must also be said it was believed that in order to get children accustomed to mine work, and to be able to progress, they needed to be introduced to it at an early age. And, in this pre-compulsory education era, work (even in mines) also offered some measure of childcare – especially if there was no mother, or a working mother.

There is the sense of pride by James in the work his sisters undertook. It is to be hoped that he was a miner who looked kindly on them whilst they toiled, because this attitude could have a huge impact on the lot of the young hurrier. For instance, did he notice when they were tired and, if so, did he let them rest for a little while when they arrived at his bank, and in doing so did he fill the corve himself? Did he help push off the laden corves? His sister Elizabeth indicates she was treated well. And still there remains the image in my mind of the tired, wet Elizabeth with aching limbs and head sore from pushing the corve, yet wanting to be a good girl so she could go to heaven.

And then there is young John, accepting his lot, taking simple pleasures from ‘laking ’, and enjoying his work despite its hardships. His innocent words about never having seen Jesus Christ are echoing in my ears.

But is this my family? The ages for children John, Elizabeth and Mary given in the Commission evidence correspond with the ages ascertained from my family history research for my Ibbetson ancestors. The age of their father John roughly matches that of my 4x great grandfather Jonathan, with 53 equating to a year of birth circa 1788. It also is distinctly possible that John could have been used in the witness statement rather than Jonathan. I’ve reviewed details for a sample of witnesses elsewhere and cross-matched against the 1841 census. From this there is evidence that names do not always match up exactly with this census; and ages do not in all cases match precisely with those given in the 1841 census for under 15’s. [25].

The 1841 census, taken on 6 June, was only a couple of weeks after the Ibbetsons gave evidence to the Commission. As illustrated earlier, at that time the census household comprised of Jonathan, William, Martha, John, Bettey and Mary. I have gone through the 1841 census for the Birkenshaw and Gomersal areas page by page and can find no other Ibbetson (and variant) family who would fit as a unit with the names of those giving evidence. I suppose there is always a remote possibility the family giving evidence left the area in between their Commission interviews and the census date; or even that they were for some reason missing from the census. But, taken with other evidence, I think this is unlikely.

But there remains one major anomaly which makes me hesitate from saying with absolute certainty this is my family giving evidence to the Children’s Commission. It is the discrepancy with an approximately 20-year-old son named James. Although Jonathan did have a son named James, he is not present in the 1841 census household. In any case he would be around 25, not 20. The implication from the Commission statement is the son who gave evidence is still at home and contributing to the family income. Yet it seems a big stretch though to think the name James might be recorded as William. This is the one piece of conflicting evidence I have been unable to resolve.

Neither have I definitively discovered what happened to James. I have traced no death and, so far, I have two living candidates for him – but neither are totally satisfactory. One is married to Ann (née Binns) [26] and living in Birkenshaw in 1841 and 1861 (Thornton in 1851). At the moment he is seeming the most likely, although I’ve yet to find his marriage. My hope was it would be in the Civil Registration era and name his father. But I am still searching. This James died in a mining accident in November 1870 [27], with his age given as 56 [28 and 29], so not quite a fit. His census birthplace is Thornton [30], so not a match for the baptism details. His children included Margaret, Hannah, Ellen, Emma, John, Sophia, Mary, Betsy and Annice.

The other James Ibbetson married Priscilla Robinson in Bradford Parish Church in December 1833 [31] and is living in Thornton in 1841. I have some issues with this one. These include that whilst his bride’s entry in the parish register notes she is a minor and marries with consent, his details do not. If he was baptised shortly after his birth he too would be a minor. I suppose he may not have been baptised as a baby, but it is a niggle. As is the fact the likely death for him, registered in the December Quarter of 1847 gives his age as 35 [32], equating to a year of birth circa 1812. On the plus side is the naming pattern for his children which include some familiar ones – William, Martha, Mary and Betty, alongside the less familiar Joshua and Nancy.

It is here I have one final piece of evidence to throw into the mix, and one which I feel tilts the balance towards it being my family. It comes in the 26 May 1841 Commission statement of ‘James’ Ibbetson when he says “I saw two people killed at Queen’s Head…

Queensbury, midway between Halifax and Bradford, and a location which in censuses is intermittently cited as the birthplace of various younger Ibbetsons, was not known as such until 1863. Prior to that it was Queenshead. In fact, in the 1861 census Elizabeth’s birthplace is given as Queenshead, Halifax [33]. And it is this which provides yet another link to my Ibbetson family and makes me believe, on balance, it is them who provided statements to the Commission.

This combination of locational links along with the similarity in names, ages, religion, motherlessness, plus my exhaustive search of the 1841 census for any alternatives in the Birkenshaw/Gomersal areas, all add to the weight of evidence supporting this being my family.

So, what happened to my Ibbetson ancestors?

Jonathan’s health was “mashed up”. Whereas for the burial of his son John in 1844 he is still a collier, by the baptism of daughters Elizabeth and Mary at the end of the year he is a labourer. The 1851 census states he was ‘formerly a miner’. He died on 21 February 1857 at Dewsbury Union Workhouse of bronchitis. His occupation recorded on his death certificate is ‘blacking hawker[34].

Advert for Nubian Blacking, Chem & Drg.1879. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Blacking was used for cleaning, polishing and – crucially – waterproofing boots and shoes. Such footwear was not the disposable item of today. These were precious, valuable essentials for everyday life which had to last. If you didn’t have them you couldn’t work. If you couldn’t work, you didn’t have money to support the family. To my mind 19th century blacking is like petrol and diesel of today. Essential for getting to and from work, as well as actually doing the job. So often boots feature amongst stolen items in court reports. Reading school log books and countless children are unable to attend school, particularly in winter weather, through lack of suitable footwear. They were costly and had to be cared for. Blacking was part of their regular maintenance regime. In 1824 the 11-year-old Charles Dickens was sent out to work in Warren’s Blacking Factory, pasting labels onto individual pots of boot blacking polish, a job which had a significant impact on his life. Blacking was also used widely around the Victorian home for polishing the kitchen range and grates in fireplaces. Jonathan, no longer fit for strenuous mining work, was now selling this essential commodity.

Jonathan’s burial is recorded in the register of Dewsbury Parish Church on 25 February 1857 [35].

Of the children at home in 1841:

  • William married twice, and died in 1890. His burial is recorded in the register of Birkenshaw St Paul’s on 5 March 1890 [36];
  • John died in 1844, as mentioned earlier. He was only 17;
  • Martha married Joseph Hill at Hartshead Parish Church on 21 November 1842 [37] and died 4 February 1881 [38]. Her burial is in the Drighlington St Paul’s register on 7 February 1881 [39];
  • Elizabeth married Joseph Haigh on 1 April 1850 at St James, Tong [40] and died in 1883. Her burial is entered in the Birkenshaw St Paul’s Register on 31 March 1883 [41]; and
  • Mary married James Noble at St Peter’s Bradford parish church on 25 December 1850 [42]. The newly married couple are living in Birkenshaw with her father in the 1851 census. She died in 1893, with the Allerton Bywater Parish Church burial register noting the burial date as 19 January 1893 [43].

This tale also goes to show family history research is often not neat and simple with all loose ends tied up. It can be a messy affair, with partial and contradictory information and many negative of eliminatory searches in order to try achieve the genealogical proof standard. It can be a long, ongoing process. And, as such, I do not discount at a later date unearthing more information which might conclusively prove (or demolish) my case.

I would like to conclude by saying a special thank you to the staff at 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, Volume 7. This work was key to my research, and illustrates once more why we should love, use and cherish our local libraries as a unique, integral, and ‘accessible for all’ resource.

This is one of a series of four posts on the evidence of the Sub-Commissioners. The others are:

Notes:
[1] Children’s Employment Commission – First Report of the Commissioners: Mines. London: Printed by William Clowes for H.M.S.O., 1842.
[2] The possibilities are endless. Examples include Ibbetson, Ibbotson, Ibotson, Ibbitson, Ibberson, Ibbeson, Hibbison, Hibetson, Hibberson etc.
[3] Hibbeson household, 1841 Census; accessed via Findmypast; original record at The National Archives, UK, Kew (TNA), Reference HO107/1291/4/12/17.
[4] Note this census rounded down to the nearest five years those aged 15 and over.
[5] Jonathan Ibbotson and Elizabeth Rushworth’s marriage entry, parish register of St John the Baptist, Halifax; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1512-1812 [database on-line]; original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, New Reference Number: WDP53/1/3/13.
[6] Hannah Ibbitston’s baptism, Mount Zion Chapel, Ovenden; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, England & Wales, Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers, 1567-1970 [database on-line]; original record at TNA, General Register Office (GRO): Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non-parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857; Class Number: RG 4; Piece Number: 3408.
[7] John Ibbeson’s baptism, Mount Zion Chapel, Ovenden; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, England & Wales, Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers, 1567-1970 [database on-line]; original record at TNA, GRO: Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non-parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857; Class Number: RG 4; Piece Number: 3408.
[8] John Ibbotson’s burial entry, burial register of Illingworth St Mary; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, 1813-1985 [database on-line]; original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, New Reference Number: WDP73/1/4/1.
[9] James Ibbetson’s baptism, Mount Zion Chapel, Ovenden; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, England & Wales, Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers, 1567-1970 [database on-line]; original record at TNA, GRO: Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non-parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857; Class Number: RG 4; Piece Number: 3408.
[10] William Ibbotson’s baptism, Mount Zion Chapel, Ovenden; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, England & Wales, Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers, 1567-1970 [database on-line]; original record at TNA, GRO: Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non-parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857; Class Number: RG 4; Piece Number: 3409.
[11] John Ibbetson’s burial entry, burial register St Paul’s, Birkenshaw; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, 1813-1985 [database on-line]; original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield, Yorkshire, England; New Reference Number: WDP90/1/3/1.
[12] Bradford, Queenshead – Halifax, Thornhill, and Queensbury in the censuses between 1851-1881.
[13] Elizabeth Ibbotson’s baptism entry, baptism register St Paul’s, Birkenshaw; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910 [database on-line]; original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP90/1/1/1.[14] 1861 and 1871 censuses indicate Thornton; 1881 and 1891 Queensbury. The 1851 states Halifax.
[15] For Mary Ibbotson’s baptism, see [13].
[16] 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, Volume 7. 141 Thomas St., Dublin: Irish University Press, 1968.
[17] Locally, hurriers conveyed coal from where it was hewn to the shaft by means of corves (wagons, usually small-wheeled), either dragging or pushing their loads. Often it meant running as quickly as possible up an incline with a full load.
[18] The hurrier wears a belt around their waist and a chain, attached to the corve (the wagon for transporting the coal). In the thinner seams this chain would runs between the child’s legs and, on all fours, they pull the coal corves like an animal.
[19] Coal lies at an inclined plane with the downward inclination known as the dip in Yorkshire.
[20] To push the coal corves with your head.
[21] To idle, or pass the time away.
[22] To earn.
[23] Disabled or worn out.
[24] Collier-Monday was the tradition of an unofficial, customary holiday which long existed in the coal mining industry. The Bolton Evening News of 23 February 1905 stated “It is the custom of miners to have one day’s play a week, which has gained for it the name of “Colliers’ Monday,” and that this is recognised is shown by the fact that notices placed at some pit heads state that men absenting themselves for two days are liable for dismissal…”
[25] I have used under 15s as the benchmark as the convention typically (but not exclusively) used in the 1841 census is to round down those aged over 14 to the nearest 5 years.
[26] Ann’s maiden name has been identified via the GRO indexes for the births of the couple’s children.
[27] Bradford Observer, 21 September 1870.
[28] James Ibbotson, GRO Death Registration, Bradford, September Quarter 1870, Volume 9b, Page 13; accessed via FreeBMD.
[29] Death of James Ibbotson, 17 September 1870; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk Web: UK, Coal Mining Accidents and Deaths Index, 1878-1935 [database on-line]; original data Coalmining Accidents and Deaths. The Coalmining History Resource Centre. http://www.cmhrc.co.uk/site/disasters/index.html
[30] 1851 census for James Ibitson; accessed via Findmypast; original record at TNA; Reference HO107/2311/165/16 and 1861 census for James Ibbitson, TNA Reference RG09/3403/127/3.
[31] James Ibbiston and Priscilla Robinson marriage entry, marriage register of Bradford St Peter Parish Church; accessed via West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]; original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: BDP14.
[32] James Ibbotson GRO Death Registration, Bradford, December Quarter 1847, Volume 23, Page 135; accessed via the GRO website.
[33] 1861 census entry for Elizabeth Haigh; accessed via Findmypast; original record at TNA, Reference RG09/3403/114/11.
[34] Jonathan Ibbitson’s Death Certificate; GRO Reference Dewsbury, March Quarter 1857, Volume 9B, Page 322, age 70.
[35] Jonathan Ibbotson’s burial entry, burial register of All Saints Parish Church, Dewsbury, age 70; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, 1813-1985 [database on-line]; original record West Yorkshire Archive Service, New Reference Number: WDP9/52.
[36] William Ibbotson’s burial entry, burial register of St Paul’s, Birkenshaw, age given as 65; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, 1813-1985 [database on-line]; original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, New Reference Number: WDP90/1/3/2.
[37] Joseph Hill and Martha Ibbotson, Marriage Certificate; GRO Reference Halifax, December Quarter 1842, Volume 22, Page 197.
[38] Martha Hill, Death Certificate; GRO Reference Leeds, March Quarter 1881, Volume 9B, Page 355, age 57.
[39] Martha Hill’s burial entry, burial register of St Paul’s, Drighlington; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, 1813-1985 [database on-line]; original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, New Reference Number: WDP124/1/4/3.
[40] Joseph Haigh and Elizabeth Ibbeson’s marriage entry, marriage register of Tong, St James Parish Church; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]; original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, no reference provided online.
[41] Elizabeth Haigh’s burial entry, burial register of St Paul’s, Birkenshaw, age given as 56; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, 1813-1985 [database on-line]; original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, New Reference Number: WDP90/1/3/2.
[42] James Noble and Mary Ibbotson’s marriage entry, marriage register of St Peter’s, Bradford Parish Church; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]; original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: BDP14.
[43] Mary Noble’s burial entry, burial register of Allerton Bywater Parish Church, age recorded as 59; accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, 1813-1985 [database on-line]; original record West Yorkshire Archive Service, New Reference Number: RDP3/3/1.