Tag Archives: Birstall

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.

[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.

• 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;

An Aveyard Mining Death

In my last Aveyard post I wrote about the horrific death in August 1858 of toddler George Aveyard, the son of Daniel and Sophia Aveyard. In it I mentioned his older brother Simeon, who was sent to seek his missing young brother. At the time Gildersome-born Simeon, whose birth was registered in the March Quarter of 1853 [1], was only four.  

In a tragic twist of fate Simeon’s life was also cut far too short through an accident in 1873, when only 20 years old. In another cruel parallel, his death also resulted in an inquest before Thomas Taylor, the very same Coroner who headed George’s inquest over 15 years earlier.

The Aveyard family moved to Howden Clough shortly after George’s death. A coal mining family, Simeon followed that traditional occupation. It is here his history is  abruptly halted.

At about 5.30am on 3 September 1873 he and his father Daniel set off to work at Messrs. Haigh and Greaves Howden Clough Colliery Company’s Middleton Main Pit.  Long since gone, it was in the Pheasant Drive, Geldard Road and Nab Lane area of present day Birstall. 

Simeon worked there for several years, but for the past couple he’d achieved the pinnacle status of hewer. He worked his own bank around seven yards wide, with a yard-thick seam of coal. The roof was considered generally good, consisting of 9-12-inch-thick clod [2] or black bind [3]. 

However, Simeon had told his father there had been some slips in his place the previous day. As a consequence, Daniel, a seasoned miner, strongly cautioned his son to keep his wood up to the coal face to support it. 

Admit it. How many sons ignore their father’s advice? Youth is always right? It’s an age-old dilemma. In this case the carefree invincibility of youth proved wrong, with fatal results. 

John Woffenden, the pit Deputy, had known Simeon from his infancy. Doing his round of the pit he arrived at Simeon’s bank at around 7.20am. He could hear groaning and he found the young man doubled over with his head between his knees and two pieces of clod on his back. These had fallen between two wooden props which had lids [4] whilst he was apparently cutting down coal close to the face. Several other props were lying around ready to be put up when required. Despite his father’s warnings it appears Simeon had failed to ensure the area was adequately shored up.

After attempting to make him more comfortable Woffenden fetched two other men. Between them they freed Simeon, but his spinal injuries were so severe he could not straighten himself and was unable to move his legs. He also sustained several cuts to his head. Despite his injuries he was fully conscious. 

It was around 8am when Daniel learned of the accident, meeting the men bringing his son to the pit bottom.  Simeon was carried home where Robert Rayner, a Gomersal General Practitioner/Surgeon, [5] attended him. Rayner was familiar with mining injuries and his name crops up in connection with ones received at Howden Clough colliery.

However, Simeon failed to recover, gradually wasting away over the next few days. As his life ebbed away, he admitted to his father that the sole blame for the accident was his. He died between 2-3 o’clock in the afternoon of 15 September. 

The inquest, held the following day at Gomersal’s White Horse Hotel, reached the verdict that Simeon had been accidentally crushed [6].

Birstall St Peter’s Graveyard – Photo by Jane Roberts

Simeon’s body was interred in St Peter’s churchyard, Birstall on 17 September 1873 [7].


[1] GRO Birth Registration of Simeon Aveyard, accessed via the GRO website, GRO Reference March Quarter 1853, Hunslet, Vol 9B, Page 219.
[2] Indurated clay.
[3] Indurated argillaceous shale or clay, very commonly forming the roof of a coal seam and frequently containing clay ironstone. 
[4] A short piece of timber about two feet long placed on top of a prop to support the roof.
[5] 1871 & 1881 Censuses accessed via Fimdmypast, Original at TNA, Reference: RG10/4588/27/11 and RG11/4551/31/10
[6] West Yorkshire Coroner’s Notebook, Thomas Taylor’s Notes of Inquest of Simeon Aveyard, 16 September 1873, Accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, Original at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP5/1/4/4
[7] Burial of Simeon Aveyard, St Peter’s Birstall Burial Register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, Original West Yorkshire Archive Service – Reference Number: WDP5/1/4/4

Other Sources:

  • Bradford Observer, 17 September 1873
  • Dewsbury Reporter, 20 September 1873
  • Healey Hero Website http://www.healeyhero.co.uk/
  • Leeds Times, 20 September 1873
  • National Library of Scotland, Maps https://maps.nls.uk/

WW1 Remembrance in Verse: “In Memoriam” and “Roll of Honour” Newspaper Columns

This is the last of my three blog posts in this period of Remembrance. It focuses on the WW1 period.

Batley War Memorial

Batley War Memorial

As the Great War progressed and the anniversaries of the Fallen came and went, the local newspaper “In Memoriam” and, later, dedicated “Roll of Honour” columns were increasingly filled with moving tributes to lost husbands, sons, fathers, brothers and fiancées. Although less frequent in late 1915 and throughout 1916, this phenomenon became particularly notable from 1917 onwards and endured in the years beyond the end of the conflict.

Many were recurrent standard verses, or variations on standard themes: grief; absence; young lives cut short; a mother’s pain; religious sentiments; Remembrance; doing one’s duty; sacrifice; wooden crosses; graves overseas far from home, or no known grave; not being present in their loved one’s dying moments; occasionally the difficulty of seeing others return; and even reproach for those who caused the war.

Although not war poetry, they are powerful representations of family grief and loss which echo across the ages.

My mother’s brother died in Aden whilst on National Service in 1955. These family tributes from another era are the ones which, in all my St Mary’s War Memorial research, left the greatest impression on her, resonating with her emotions 60 years later.

These “In Memoriam” and “Roll of Honour” notices provide an accessible window into this aspect of the War, the emotions of those left behind. They are also a continuing legacy for family historians. They can provide service details, place and even circumstances of death, names and addresses of family members (including married sisters) and details of fiancées all of which can aid research.

Here is a selection from the local Batley newspapers[1].

Remembrance 1

Remembrance 2

Remembrance 3

Remembrance 4

Remembrance 5

Remembrance 6

Remembrance 7

Remembrance 8


  • Batley News – various dates
  • Batley War Memorial photo by Jane Roberts

[1] These are not confined to those servicemen on the St Mary’s War Memorial

The Battle of Bellewaarde, 16 June 1915: A Batley woman’s efforts to discover her Royal Scots Fusilier husband’s fate

This blog posting is the story of two people: Michael Rourke and his wife Margaret Duffy. Michael died during World War 1.  The story is as much about him as it is about his wife and the extraordinary efforts she made to discover his fate.

Both were parishioners of Batley St Mary’s RC Church, ordinary working class Yorkshire folk, with the County Mayo background typical of the parish.  Margaret did not have the money and contacts of some who found themselves in similar desperate positions during the war.  But she had persistence, ingenuity and determination.  Her story is the story of many other families up and down the country trying to find out what had happened to missing husbands, fathers and sons.

Michael and Margaret do not have any link to my family. This work is based on research I did for my charity booklet about the men named on the Batley St Mary’s War Memorial.

Michael was born in West Town, Dewsbury in 1877. He was the eldest child of Irish-born parents, Patrick and Bridget Groark (neé Mullany) who married in 1876.

At this point it is worth mentioning the complexity of certain Irish surnames which, even in the late 19th/early 20th century, continued to have various versions.  Groark was one of these, and the family can be found using a number of variants including Groark, Rourke and even Groak. I have referred to Michael as “Rourke” throughout, as this was then name he used when enlisting in the Army in the 1890s, and indeed the family seemed to use this version initially.  But by around 1900, at the time of the birth of their youngest child Agnes, the family were transitioning from Rourke to Groark, and this version became the commonly used one as the 20th century progressed.

Michael was one of ten children. His siblings included Mary Ann (1879), James (born in 1881 but who died the following year), Maggie (1883), Lizzie (1887), James (1889), Henry (1892), Francis (1894), Nellie (1896) and Agnes (1900).

Initially the family lived in the Dewsbury RC parish of St Paulinus.  In 1881 they resided on Ingham Road, Dewsbury with Patrick described as a cart driver.   By 1889, as is shown in the baptism for their second son bearing the name James, the family had moved to neighbouring Batley.  James was their first child to be baptised in St Mary’s parish.

In 1891 they were recorded as living at North Street, Cross Bank, one of many streets of houses in the vicinity of St Mary’s church; then in Wooller Houses, in nearby Carlinghow in 1901.  By 1911 they were back in North Street.  During this period Patrick worked in agriculture as a farm labourer, and the 1911 census gave more detail specifying that he was a cowman.  Bridget worked in the woollen industry in 1881 as a weaver and in the following census as a rag sorter.

13-year-old Michael is recorded in the 1891 census as working as a coal miner.  In April 1897 he enlisted in the Militia with the 3rd Battalion, The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry).  As mentioned earlier his attestation papers were under the name “Rourke” and indicate that he was employed as a hurrier at Critchley’s colliery. It is in this name that all his military records can be found.

“Hurrier” was the Yorkshire term for the person who moved the coal tubs from the coal face where it had been hewed to the shaft at the pit bottom. They might be known as a waggoner in some parts of the country, a drawer in Lancashire, a putter in Northumberland or a haulage-man in Scotland.  Hurriers in this period were usually youths as this was one of the early stages in a normal career progression pattern through underground pit roles.

The same attestation papers also provide a physical description. Michael was 5’3” and 104lbs, fresh complexioned with light grey eyes and dark hair.  However within a week of signing up, he purchased his discharge for £1.

In July 1897, still employed by Critchley’s  but this time as a collier, he changed his mind and re-enlisted  in the Militia serving once more with the 3rd KOYLI for just over 12 months before transferring to the Regular Army with the Royal Scots Fusiliers in July 1898.  His Regular Army attestation papers describe him as 5’3¾” and 111lbs, fresh complexioned with light grey eyes and brown hair.  He had a small, round scar over the outer end of his right brow and a scar on the back of his right middle finger.

However a pattern was emerging as, yet again, Michael had a change of heart and in November 1898 was discharged on payment of £10, half of which was refunded in May 1899. He returned once more to work for his former employer at Critchley’s colliery.

The reason for the refund is not mentioned. But the probable cause is because, true to his previous form, Michael had once again signed Militia attestation papers in January 1899 with the 3rd KOYLI and by April 1899 was back with the Royal Scots Fusiliers[1]. The 1901 census shows him at home with his family, but his occupation is a soldier.

I have not tracked Michael’s life in the next 10 years, but according to newspaper reports he did serve in South Africa in the 2nd Boer War.

By 1911, Michael had returned home to Batley. Weeks prior to the 1911 census Michael’s mother Bridget died.  She was buried in Batley Cemetery at the beginning of March.  Michael was now once more out of the Army and living with his family.   He had changed career totally and now worked in the woollen industry as a mill hand willier[2].  This was his occupation immediately before the war at Messers Chas Robinson and Company’s mill.

On 7 June 1913 Michael married at St Mary of the Angels Church. His bride was Margaret Haley (neé Duffy), a widow with three children.

Margaret was born on 11 December 1876, the daughter of County Mayo-born coal miner Patrick Duffy and his wife Mary (neé Regan). The Duffy’s have two other younger daughters recorded in censuses – Mary and Catherine.  A fourth daughter, Bridget, died infancy. The family lived in Birstall[3] with Margaret, when reaching working age, being employed in the local woollen industry as a weaver.

Margaret married general labourer John William Haley in late 1899 and the couple settled in Whitwood, Castleford.  The marriage was short for John died in 1903, age 34. At the time Margaret had two children, Thomas (1900) and Patrick (1902). She was also heavily pregnant.  She returned home to Birstall and her family.  Daughter Margaret Kathleen was born in late 1903. By 1911 Margaret and her three children were residing with her widowed father in the town, but she moved to Batley after her marriage.

According to the baptismal register at St Mary’s, Michael and Margaret’s only child, a son named Michael, was born on 11 April 1914. The family lived at North Street, Cross Bank and this was the family address when war was declared.

Michael and his three brothers all joined the Army.  Michael was immediately called up as a National Reservist, going out to France with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Scots Fusiliers in early September 1914[4]. James enlisted with the York and Lancaster Regiment; whilst Henry and Francis served with The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry).

Michael Rourke

Pte Michael Rourke, 6093, 1st Bn Royal Scots Fusiliers

In early November 1914 Margaret received an official communication from the Infantry Record Office at Hamilton informing her that her husband had been admitted to hospital at Port-le-Grand, suffering from bronchitis.  She had not received a letter from him since the middle of October and was naturally very anxious about his condition, although the communiqué did give her  some small measure of reassurance that any news about his health would be immediately passed on to her.  Shortly afterwards, that same month, he was invalided home with rheumatism.  After a spell in England he returned to the Front for a second time.

In May 1915 a letter from him was published in the “Batley News”.  He said he was well and the weather very hot.  He also mentioned that the men got a bath and change of clothing when out of the trenches.  He also enclosed a copy of an address to his Battalion by his Brigade Commander, highly complementing them on their part in an action in which Michael participated.  This read:

“In order to cover the right flank of troops on our left, your battalion was ordered to take up a very bad and exposed position on a forward slope and sure enough on the morning after you were exposed to a very heavy shell fire, followed by an infantry attack by vastly superior numbers.  The Germans came pouring through, and it soon became obvious that your position was untenable, and we were ordered to take up a position further back. 

The Colonel, gallant soldier that he was, decided, and rightly to hold his ground, and the Royal Scots Fusiliers fought, and fought until the Germans absolutely surrounded and swarmed into the trenches.  I think it was perfectly splendid.  Mind you, it was not a case of “hands up” or any nonsense of that sort.  It was a fight to a finish.  What more do you want?  Why, even a German General came to the Colonel afterwards and congratulated him and said he could not understand how his men had held out so long.  You may well be proud to belong to such a regiment, and, I am proud to have you in my brigade. 

General Sir Smith Dorrien also praised the RSF for their fine work after Neuve Chappelle.  He visited them in billets and addressed them in terms of high praise.  “None but the best troops could do the work, and so I sent you, and you have done it”

 Michael’s last letter home was dated 14 June 1915.  By early July his family were becoming increasingly uneasy as to his wellbeing, but there was still no definite information.  The first disquieting news had arrived from a fellow-Batley soldier in late June. Pte C King of the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers wrote to Margaret on 21 June as follows:

“Mick and I were together on June 15th and promised that if anything happened to either of us on the 16th we would write to his home.  I hope you will not take this too seriously but live in hope; I went round his regiment and could not find any Mick.  Some of his pals told me he was wounded”.

Writing to Mr. A Baines of Upton Street, Cross Bank, Batley on 30 June Pte King wrote further about the fate of his friend:

“I am very sorry for Mrs Rourke.  His regiment was in the charge with us on the day I will never forget – the 16th of June.  I saw for myself that he was amongst the missing, but there is hope yet.  It was a bloody sight but a grand charge.  We had a lot of casualties and they lay all over.  My deepest sympathy goes to Mrs Rourke, for I am very much afraid that poor Mick is gone.  The Germans shelled us for 27½ hours after we made the charge and the men were blown to bits; it was hell”.

There then followed months of uncertainty interspersed with inconclusive, sometimes conflicting, information, as Margaret desperately tried to find any information as to what had become of Michael.

Around the same time as she received news from Pte King, she also received information that her husband had been wounded and taken into a Chelsea Hospital.  She asked the Record Office for information but they told her that her husband’s name had not yet appeared on any casualty list, and no report had been received that he had been admitted to any hospital.

But Margaret did not give up this line of inquiry; instead, using her church contacts, she followed it up by contacting Father F Kerr McClement of St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, Chelsea[5] to see if he could be of assistance.  Unfortunately he was unable to provide any positive news, writing to her:

“I am sorry you have had so much anxiety as to your husband and I have done my best to find his whereabouts.  He is not in St Mark’s College, Chelsea (which is generally known as Chelsea Hospital) nor in St Georges Hyde Park Corner, Victoria, Tite Street, or in any of the private hospitals visited by us”.  

On Saturday 17 July, Mrs Rourke finally received a communication from the War Office stating that they were sorry to inform her that her husband had been missing since the 16 June. At the time he was serving with the 1st Battalion’s “A” Company.

Margaret’s next recorded steps were to contact two organisations with expertise in tracing the whereabouts of missing soldiers – the British Red Cross and Order of St John Inquiry Department for Wounded and Missing Men.  The former organisation responded with the following news:

“Pte Pilgrim, of this regiment (the Royal Scots Fusiliers), who is now in No 2 Canadian General Hospital, Le Treport, tells us that there are two men named Rourke in his regiment.  The man whom he knows something about is a slim man, slightly built dark, with a moustache, about 38 years of age.  This man was wounded at Hooge on June 16th, and could not be brought in, as the Germans had retaken trenches which they had lost.  We do not know if this refers to the man for whom you are inquiring; perhaps from the description you could tell us if it is so.  But you must remember that it is not at all certain from this report what happened to Pte Rourke.  We hope to obtain more information which will make the matter clearer.”

The description given matched Michael’s. The records of the International Committee of the Red Cross do show that Margaret made enquiries about Michael, but sadly only the card noting this and Margaret’s address exist.

As more and more news filtered through, it appeared that Michael had taken part in an attack at Hooge where the Allies captured four lines of German trenches.  The Germans counter-attacked re-capturing the last two trenches.  Michael lay wounded in the third line of trenches, but so severe was the action that when the retreat came and the Germans re-captured that line, his comrades were unable to take their wounded colleagues back with them.

Margaret still did not give up, continuing to write to authorities in an attempt to establish any firm news of her husband’s fate, clinging to the hope that if not lying injured in an Allied hospital, perhaps he was being held as a prisoner of war.  With this in mind her next step was to write to the King of Spain.

Spain was a neutral country and King Alfonso XIII contributed a great deal to improving the treatment of prisoners throughout the conflict.  At his own expense he maintained a staff of 40 who helped him serve as an intermediary between prisoners and their families, using the Spanish diplomatic network in his endeavours.  In response to her plea for assistance she received the following reply:

“Palacio Real de Madrid,
October 30 1915

Madam, – I am ordered by His Majesty the King, my august sovereign, to answer your letter petitioning His Majesty to cause enquiries to be made in Berlin with regard to Mr Michael Rourke, you husband.  Although His Majesty’s Embassy in Berlin is charged only with the interests of France and Russia, His Majesty being desirous nevertheless of demonstrating his interests in British subjects, has graciously acceded to your request, and has commanded the Spanish Ambassador in Berlin to communicate with Great Britain’s representative there – the United States Ambassador – in order that in conjunction with the latter the necessary investigations may be made.  His Majesty earnestly hopes that these enquiries may be the means of procuring satisfactory information for you – E de Swire”.

Satisfactory information sadly was not forthcoming and Margaret continued in her quest.

Many other women were also tirelessly pursuing word about their missing menfolk, with advertisements for information appearing in newspapers.  It was in one of the Sunday papers that Margaret saw an advert from Elizabeth Morton from Chesterfield seeking news about her husband Lance Corpl Thomas Morton, 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers, reported missing on 16 June 1915 at Hooge.   Noting that this soldier was in the same Battalion as her husband and had been missing since the same date, Margaret wrote to Mrs Morton expressing sympathy with her and pointing out that she was in the same predicament.

Mrs Morton had received a response to her advert from a Pte Harry Thomson of the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers, who was in a military hospital in Newcastle on Tyne.  He communicated the news of her husband’s death.  Mrs Morton passed Pte Thomson’s address to Margaret in the hope that he would be able to shed some light as to the fate of Michael.  Margaret wrote to him and received the following response:

“I am sorry to tell you that your husband, Pte Michael Rourke, was killed on the 16th June 1915.  He was slightly wounded with myself and Lance Corporal Morton.  I wanted him to go back to the dressing station and get looked after there, but he would not hear of it.  He wanted to go on and have it out with the Germans as he called it.  We went on together for about 20 yards when he fell with a bullet through the head.  He never spoke after it.  We managed to get him and some more of our men back later on and bury them behind our firing line.  I am sorry to have to tell you the sad news Mrs. Rourke, but it is best to know the truth.  The regiment lost very heavily that morning. The Royal Scots Fusiliers did their work very well.  I am glad to say that I am keeping a little better.  This is the second time I have been wounded.  I hope you are keeping well, yourself and all your family.  Anything also that you want to know about “Mick”, as we used to call him, I shall be pleased to tell you if I can.  I must close now as the doctor is on the rounds”.

Margaret forwarded the letter onto the War Office.  Towards the end of May 1916, eleven months after initially being posted missing, she received a letter in reply which confirmed that her husband was dead.  The letter read:

“Madame, with reference enquiry concerning Pte Rourke 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers I am directed to inform you that no further news having been received relative to this soldier, who has been missing since the 16th June 1915, the Army Council have been regretfully constrained to conclude that he is dead and that his death took place on the 16th June 1915 or since.  I am to express the sympathy of the Army Council with the relatives of the deceased:-your obedient servant C.F. Waitherton[6].

Michael died in what was known as the Battle of Bellewaarde. His body was never identified.  According to the website[7] dedicated to remembering the Battle, more than 1,000 men lost their lives within a 12 hour period on 16 June 1915, in an area of approximately ½ mile square.

Menin Gate Inscription

Menin Gate Inscription

Michael is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) memorial, alongside the names of more than 54,000 other officers and men whose graves are not known. These include Lance Corporal Thomas Morton, husband of Elizabeth, with whom Margaret had corresponded during her search.

Of Michael’s other brothers only the youngest, Francis, survived the war.

From cemetery and BMD records it appears Margaret never remarried. There is a burial in Batley Cemetery in April 1957 for Margaret Groark, aged 80.

The Menin Gate

The Menin Gate



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[1] I have traced six sets of attestation papers for Michael.
[2] A wilier/willeyer was someone who fed the willeying machine  which was used to break down the rag and wool, thus separating and cleaning the fibres
[3] Birstall adjoins Batley. Up until 1905 when St Patrick’s parish was established in its own right, Birstall fell within the Catholic parish of St Mary’s, Batley.
[4] Service Number 6093
[5] One of the oldest Roman Catholic parishes in central London
[6]  This featured in two newspapers, the “Batley Reporter and Guardian” and the “Batley News”. The latter indicates the letter was signed C F Watherston.
[7] http://www.bellewaarde1915.co.uk/ Website includes extracts of the 1st Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers Unit War Diary.