A heads up that I will be giving a talk via Zoom at 7.30 p.m. on 10 May 2022 about the Lusitania sinking of 7 May 1915.
Huddersfield and District Family History Society are hosting the talk and more details are in the advert below. Essentially it is free for Society members, and a minimum £2 donation for non-members. Registering is by sending an email with ‘Local Lusitania Links’ in the subject box to firstname.lastname@example.org
As well as background details, I will be exploring some of the local links from around the family history society area to illustrate why the sinking had such a huge impact on our community.
It should be a fascinating talk packed with information and some amazing tales of loss and survival.
On the afternoon of Friday 7 May 1915, the Cunard liner the Lusitania was on the final leg of her crossing from New York to Liverpool. The morning fog had lifted, and it was now a fine, clear, calm day. At 2.10pm, around 14 miles off the Irish coast and the Old Head of Kinsale, she was struck by a torpedo fired by the German submarine U20. It took about 18 minutes for the ship to sink. Of the almost 2,000 on board, 1,198 men, women and children perished.1
It was a momentous international event, leading to anti-German riots across British cities and handing a huge wartime propaganda tool to the authorities. It was, in the initial aftermath, hoped by some that the USA would be drawn into the war. The circumstances surrounding the sinking is a huge topic in its own right which has merited many books, and one I am not covering in this post. Instead I am focussing on the local angle.
As a child I remember my grandma telling me about the Lusitania. She was only six years old when the ship went down. For her to recount her childhood memories around sixty years later shows the impact the sinking had on her.
What I failed to realise from my vague recollection of her tale of the ship was this event was not something that affected only the rich, famous and wealthy – the likes of American millionaire sportsman Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, American theatre producer Charles Frohman, world-famous Welsh tenor Gwynn Parry Jones, French-American stage and screen star Rita Jolivet, English-born playwright Charles Klein, and American artist and philanthropist Theodate Pope Riddle. Or even ‘ordinary’ crew and passengers from other areas of Britain.
It also had a massive local impact, with several of those on board having connections with the Batley, Dewsbury, Heckmondwike and Mirfield areas. Locally people would have known personally some of those on board, or at least known of them, making it an even bigger talking point in streets and homes across the area. That children were also involved would bring it to the attention of a younger audience. This, more so than anything, is why the sinking would have made a lasting imprint on my grandma’s mind.
This post covers a selection of local men, women and children caught up in the tragedy, people often overshadowed by the more famous on board.2 Some survived, one in particularly miraculous circumstances. Others though never made it home, including an entire family. Then there is the mystery man. Researchers to date have failed to uncover his origins. I believe he was a local man, and I include the progress I have made in identifying him.
Miss Olive North
Olive and her twin brother Roy Henderson North were born on 11 April 1889 in the Yorkshire village of Melbourne, near Pocklington.3 Their parents, James and Marion (née Barber) were schoolteachers whose work had taken them to Norfolk and Lincolnshire, as well as North Yorkshire.
By 1891 Marion, born in the Barnsley area, was living in Heckmondwike with her children Alice Lilian, George Garnett, Bernard Baines, Joseph Lambert, May and the twins. Another son, Frank Gordon, was with his maternal grandparents, also living in Heckmondwike. Even with this brood of seven youngsters at home in 1891, aged nine and under, Marion continued working as a teacher. It was no mean feat. James, who hailed from Heckmondwike, taught and lived elsewhere, in Skelton, North Yorkshire. This remained the arrangement up to and including the 1911 census, although at census-time in 1901 and 1911 some of the children are staying with him.
It was therefore not one of the town’s typical working class families that Olive grew up in.
At the time of the Lusitania sinking Marion North lived at Cambridge Street, off Cawley Lane, in Heckmondwike and taught at Battye Street Council School. Olive though had been away from the family home for some time, clearly having an adventuring spirit.
In the summer of 1913 the young milliner left her job. On 10 June, accompanied by her brother Frank, she departed from Liverpool on board the Megantic. The siblings sailed to Montreal, to visit their elder married sister, Alice, in Western Canada.4 Frank, a former soldier, was recalled on the outbreak of war. Olive, though, stayed on far longer than originally intended, finally leaving for New York in late April 1915 to sail back home 2nd class on the Lusitania. The ability to afford this standard of travel also serves to illustrate the social status of the North family.
Olive was aware of rumours that some disaster was going to befall the ship, writing home to that effect. But she added “if anything does happen to the boat I shall not be afraid to go into the unknown.”5 She also subsequently wrote:
When embarking on the “LUSITANIA” on May 1st 1915, some excitement was apparent, because of the rumour going around that the “LUSITANIA” would be sunk – and that this was to be her last voyage.6
Indeed, an Imperial German Embassy-placed advert had appeared in the New York Tribune on the morning of sailing, next to Cunard’s advertisement for the Lusitania’s departure, warning about the dangers of Atlantic voyages.
The rumours did prompt Olive to plan what action she would take in case of any incident, scoping out the best place to make for. She later attributed this foresight as the means of saving her life. Nevertheless, until the fateful day, she described the voyage as “pleasant and un-eventful” with “the wartime regulations of “Darkened ship” at night being the only different feature from a normal sailing.”7
On that 7 May afternoon, when the torpedo tore into the Lusitania, Olive and her party were just finishing lunch in the second class dining room. She described the impact as a terrible thud which seemed to be almost underneath their table. She also referred to a second explosion. One of the females in the party entreated Olive to stay with her in the state room so they could die together. But Olive told her “No, I am going to fight for my life”.8 This response must have given the woman renewed courage for she too was saved. In fact, one report states that all but two young men from the 11 passengers seated at Olive’s dining table survived.9
Olive described how the ship listed so badly it was difficult to climb the stair-ways. Furniture and crockery crashed to the floor in the dining room. Olive then realised she did not have her life-belt with her, so began to make her way to her cabin to collect it. On her way she met a ship’s steward who gallantly gave her his own life-belt, fixing it securely around her. It is not known if this selfless act cost the man his life.
Terrible scenes met Olive’s eyes when she finally reached the boat-deck, including the ghastly sight of a lifeboat full of people tipping into the sea as it could not be lowered properly. This prompted Olive to get out of the lifeboat she was in. People were swimming and floating in the sea below. Others were crushed to death on the boat deck. Some passengers jumped into the ocean clinging to chairs.
Olive remained standing there, and she remembered going down with the ship before finally losing consciousness on hitting the water. The next thing she recalled was fighting for breath as she surfaced, fortuitously finding herself near an upturned lifeboat to which she managed to cling. Hundreds of people were floating amongst the wreckage, clamouring for help. Many were jammed between pieces of wood. Olive’s heavy clothes kept her down in the water, which at first seemed warm.
After what seemed like ages she noticed a young red-haired man, possessing great strength, swimming in the water and dragging people towards a life raft for them to be hauled aboard by others. Some though were beyond his help, the ones wedged in the wreckage. But he managed to save Olive, along with over 20 others. At this point Olive began to feel the intense cold.
Another upturned nearby raft capsized totally, tossing its human cargo into the water. But the raft Olive was on was full, and could take on no more. They could only watch in horror as their former ship’s passengers disappeared beneath the waves.
Olive kept going and helped to row the raft she was on. It drifted for hours before they were finally picked up by the Steam Trawler, Brock. Here she was provided with dry men’s clothing (all that was available) and a cup of tea. One man climbing aboard became temporarily insane, believing the trawler was the Lusitania. The Brock finally reached Queenstown at about 10.30pm that night.
Olive’s mother heard about the fate of the Lusitania on Friday night. It was on Saturday morning that the North family received a telegram from Queenstown (today known as Cobh) with the terse, but emotive, words “Olive safe.” She arrived home in Heckmondwike on Monday night, haunted by her experience and thoughts of “the beautiful babies and the beautiful people” lost. She mournfully recalled that “the band was playing and the children were playing just before, and they are lost.”10
But Olive was amongst the fortunate ones. Other than the loss of all her onboard possessions, the emotional trauma, and bruising, she had survived.
In fact, she was well enough to travel down to Aldershot for the marriage of her twin brother Staff Sergeant Roy Henderson North ASC, which took place in the parish church on 12 May 1915. Olive was bridesmaid and witness to the marriage.11
In mid-August 1918 Olive married a man from her Heckmondwike home town, Percy Hanson. The marriage took place at Heckmondwike’s George Street Chapel. Percy was a Royal Naval Reserve wireless operator.12 Some accounts state that Olive met him whilst being rescued from the Lusitania by the Royal Navy cruiser the Juno, or have implied that Percy was on the Juno at the time. This is not true. The Juno did not take part in the rescue, being essentially ordered to remain in Queenstown for fear that the U-boat was still lurking and awaiting an opportunity to sink any RN rescue vessel that ventured out to help.13 Also, although Percy did serve on the Juno in 1914, at the time of the Lusitania sinking he was serving aboard the armed merchant cruiser Marmora.14 By a strange quirk of fate, and good fortune, he left the Marmora on 17 July 1918, weeks before his marriage. Days after his transfer, on 23 July 1918, the ship was sunk by a U-boat off the south coast of Ireland. Thus both Olive and her husband-to-be had cheated death at the hands of marauding German U-boats off Ireland.
Olive and Percy settled in Heckmondwike and were still living at Cawley Lane in 1939, with Percy working as a postmaster. The couple subsequently moved to Blackpool, and this was their residence at the time of Olive’s death on 4 July 1976.15
Mrs Florence Lockwood (née Robshaw) and children Clifford and Lily
Florence Robshaw (also known by the diminutive name of Florrie) was born on 13 June 1879 and baptised at St Philip’s parish church in Dewsbury in October 1880. Her parents were shoemaker William Robshaw and wife Mary Ann (née Auty).16 The family are recorded on the 1881 and 1891 censuses at Leeds Road, in the Soothill Upper area of Hanging Heaton, Dewsbury. As a child Florence attended the Eastborough Board School.
Florence, a weaver, married cloth finisher Dick Lockwood at Batley parish church on 15 September 1900.17 The parish register entry incorrectly notes Dick’s father as Charles. Dick was in fact born in Batley on 8 September 1875, the son of cloth finisher George and Sarah Lockwood (née Illingworth).18
In 1901 the newly married couple lived at Warwick Cottages in the Warwick Road area of Batley. Florence still worked as a woollen weaver and Dick as a woollen cloth finisher. Dick’s employers included Messrs. Wormald and Walker’s Dewsbury mills.
By the time son Clifford was born on 6 March 1904, and baptised at Dewsbury Wesleyan Chapel on 28 March 1904, the couple had moved to Armitage Street in Ravensthorpe.19
In 1906 the Lockwood family took the huge decision to relocate to the USA. Florence’s uncle George Robshaw had emigrated there in the early 1880s, married, settled and raised a family, so it was not unchartered territory for them. Dick sailed on ahead of his wife and son. He is recorded departing Liverpool on 18 April 1906 on board the SS Friesland bound for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.20 On the US immigration manifest Dick gave his occupation as a miner, and stated his destination was Alto[o]na, Pennsylvania.
The move was a success. Weeks later Florence and Clifford followed Dick out, sailing from Liverpool on board the White Star Line ship Teutonic on 11 July 1906. They arrived at Ellis New York on 18 July 1906. Florence gave her final destination as Frugality, Pennsylvania (around 14 miles away from Altoona), joining her husband. Perhaps Florence was displaying a little of that famous Yorkshire thrift and frugality of her own to get a cheaper infant fare. Clifford’s age on the passenger manifest is stated to be 11 months, rather than his correct age of over two years.21
By the time of the 1910 US Federal Census the Lockwoods were settled at Kearny Avenue, Kearny, in the Hudson District of New Jersey. Dick worked as a mill labourer. And the family had a new addition, two-year-old daughter Lily.
Florence, who had been socially active in Dewsbury as an enthusiastic worker for the Dewsbury Temperance Society, continued her community involvement in the USA. Some sources state she was the president of the New Jersey chapter of the Daughters of St. George, an organisation for women immigrants of British descent.22 She was certainly involved with the Kearny Star of Hope Lodge part of the organisation, holding the role of Financial Secretary for them in July 1912.23
In May 1911 Florence and her children made a summer visit home to family in England, sailing on the Arabic from New York to Liverpool. The catalyst for this homecoming appears to have been her mother’s possible ill-health and death.24 Her return journey to America was made on board the Campania, which docked at New York on 12 August 1911. She was accompanied on this return leg by her husband’s niece Beatrice Goodall (née Lockwood), Beatrice’s husband Willie, and their young son Leonard.25 The Goodall family had decided to make the move to the USA, with their destination being Kearny and their kinsfolk. I will return to the Goodalls later.
One poignant set of details we get from these sailing records are physical descriptions of the family. Florence was a tiny woman, standing a mere five foot tall. She had a dark complexion, black hair and brown eyes. The children took after her in colouring. Lily was too tiny to merit a height measurement. Clifford was three feet tall.
Two reasons were put forward for the fateful decision for Florence to make the 1915 wartime crossing to England with her children. US-based Robshaw relatives, with whom she spent the previous summer in Middletown, stated that her widowed father wanted her back home. These American Robshaws unsuccessfully tried to dissuade her from making the journey.26
However, this version of events was contradicted by her father, William. He believed the reason for her return was more to do with a shortage of work in America. As such Florence had decided to make the permanent journey back to England, with her husband due to follow a couple of months later once family affairs had been tied up overseas.
William wrote to Florence asking her to delay her journey because of the submarine threat, but she wrote back the week before the crossing to tell him she had booked her 3rd class passage, along with Clifford and Lily, on the Lusitania. Also returning would be her cousin Edith Robshaw, along with Dick’s niece Beatrice Goodall and her children.
Rather than having her frail, elderly father meet her at Liverpool, Florence informed him she would make her own way by train to Dewsbury, and would telegraph him details so he could meet her at Dewsbury railway station.
Florence never made it home. She, along with her two young children, and cousin Edith all perished. Her father learned of the ship’s fate from the calls of newspaper sellers, whilst waiting at home for the telegram from his daughter notifying him of her return train time.
One of the most disturbing set of images from the Lusitania tragedy are the photos of corpses recovered. These were used to try to identify the deceased. Body 69 is that of Lily Lockwood. Of all the local victims in this post she is the only one to be formally identified. She is buried in Common Grave B, at the Old Church Cemetery, Cobh, County Cork.
Dick Lockwood remained in America after his family’s deaths. In the 1915 New Jersey State Census he is living in Kearny, New Jersey, in the household of Florence’s uncle George Robshaw, working as a machinist. The 1920 US Federal Census expands on this, stating he was employed as a machinist in a steel works. He married Louise Ernestine Meyer in 1916 and went on to have a daughter, Ruth Victoria. He was widowed for a second time in February 1926.
One final postscript to the Lockwood story. Florence’s uncle,27 George Robshaw, submitted a compensation claim to the U.S.–German Mixed Claims Commission for the loss of Florence, Clifford and Lily. This commission adjudicated on losses arising from the sinking of the Lusitania. George made the claim rather than Dick, because he was an American citizen. His intention was to give any award to Dick. The claim was rejected because George personally suffered no damage which could be measured by pecuniary standards.28
The Goodall family – Willie and Beatrice (née Lockwood), and children Leonard and Jack
When names were being sought for inclusion on Batley’s town War Memorial in 1923, Willie Goodall’s mother put her son’s name forward. She explained he was Batley-born and went to America prior to the war. On his journey home with his wife and children he drowned in the Lusitania. The Borough Council rejected the claim. He is not on Batley War Memorial. However, his name does appear on Staincliffe Church of England School’s Roll of Honour.
In fact Willie Goodall was not even supposed to be sailing on the Lusitania that day. Only his wife, Beatrice, and children, Leonard and Jack, had initially booked passages. They were travelling back to England along with Beatrice’s Lockwood family relatives (see the section above).
Willie Goodall was born in Batley on 26 October 1881 and baptised at Staincliffe Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on 20 December that year.29 He was the second son of Staincliffe couple Fairfax and Emma Goodall (née Broadhead). In both the 1891 and 1901 censuses Willie, and his elder brother George Arthur, are not in the home of their parents and younger siblings at Tichbourne Street (1891) and Halifax Road (1901). They are recorded as living with their maternal grandparents, George and Elizabeth Broadhead, in the Staincliffe area of Batley, first at Bunkers Lane (1891), then (after George’s death) at Yard 5, 3 Halifax Road (1901). In the latter census Willie worked in the woollen textile industry as a woollen piecer.
By the time of his Batley All Saints marriage on 16 February 1907 he had progressed to follow his father’s textile career path, employed as a rag grinder. Companies he worked for included John Brooke and the Co-op’s Livingstone Mill, both based in Batley Carr. His wife, Beatrice, worked in the textile industry as a weaver, at the time of her marriage, also at the Co-operative Mills.30 Although some passenger sources record her as older than Willie, she was in fact his junior, her birth being registered in the September quarter of 1882.31 This is supported by census documents and the parish register marriage entry.
Willie’s bride, Batley-born Beatrice Lockwood, was the daughter of cloth finisher William Lockwood and his wife Adeline (née Haigh). William was the younger brother of Dick Lockwood, husband of Florence Robshaw. In fact, in the 1891 census the eight-year-old Beatrice Lockwood is living with her uncle Dick and her Lockwood grandparents at Cross Mount Street in Batley.
Later in 1907 the newly-wed Goodalls welcomed their first child into the world, a son named Leonard. Of a non-conformist religious persuasion, the family had their son duly baptised at Batley’s Taylor Street Chapel on 26 September that year.32
In April 1911 the young family are recorded living in the Staincliffe area of Batley, at 93, Halifax Road. Willie was still employed as a rag grinder, and Beatrice as a weaver. It was that year they took the plunge and moved to Kearny, New Jersey. As mentioned earlier, the family sailed from Liverpool to New York with Florence Lockwood and her children on board the Campania in August that year.
Once more the list of passengers for this voyage provides a physical description of the family. Willie stood at five feet two inches tall, with a dark complexion, brown hair and blue eyes. His wife was two inches taller with a fair complexion, blond hair and grey eyes. Leonard is incorrectly described as an infant, aged one year eleven months. No further details are provided for him.33 But once again is a Yorkshire family playing it crafty to sneak a cheaper fare for their child by knocking years off his age? Leonard was actually nearer to four years old.
The family settled in Kearny, New Jersey and this was where son Jack was born in 1914. However, life was tough, with Willie finding work hard to obtain. He switched jobs regularly, and the difficulty he had in securing satisfactory, lasting work is demonstrated by the range of unconnected industries these involved – from work in a cotton mill, to employment at a motor works and in a linoleum shop.
The employment situation further deteriorated after the outbreak of war, and this prompted the family decision to return home. However, only a week or so before the family planned to travel, Willie obtained what looked like a promising new post. He decided to stay on for two to three months longer to see how it went, leaving his wife and children to return to England on the Lusitania, in third class accommodation with her relatives.
This remained the belief of Willie’s family back home in England, even in the initial aftermath of the sinking. They did not realise Willie had changed his mind the day before the sailing, as the new job did not fulfil expectations. He made a last-minute decision to come home to England and surprise his parents. Grieving for the feared loss of Beatrice and the children, they now learned the crushing news of Willie’s fate in a remarkable way.
Early on in the voyage home, the Goodalls made friends with the Eddie and Annie Riley from Great Horton, Bradford. They were amongst the lucky ones, being saved along with their four-year-old twins Sutcliffe and Edith. Almost as remarkably, photos of the Riley family, taken in Queenstown in the days after their rescue, survive.
Once the Rileys got back to England, they voraciously read the newspaper accounts for any updates. These updates included one from the parents of Willie, stating he had remained in America whilst his family sailed home. Knowing this not to be true, the Rileys travelled to Staincliffe on the 15 September to break the news of Willie’s death to his parents in person.
When the Lusitania was torpedoed Willie was in the smoke-room and Leonard was running about playing on deck. Beatrice was also on deck, with baby Jack, talking to the Riley family. When the explosion occurred Beatrice ran off to seek her husband and eldest child, whilst the Rileys made for the lifeboats. They did not see the Goodalls again.
The Riley family, before returning to England, did make the grisly visit to the mortuary in Queenstown to see if they could recognise any members of the Staincliffe family, but failed to do so. Subsequently Cunard wrote to Willie’s parents stating, in what today seems like a remarkably insensitive manner:
We have now received some photographs of the unidentified bodies recovered and other photographs will be taken as the bodies are brought in, and will be sent here (Liverpool), and displayed for identification. We shall be very pleased to show you these photos, should you care to come to Liverpool….34
These are the sets of photos from which the body of Lily Lockwoood were identified. Unfortunately none of the Goodall family were recognised from them. They have no known graves.
Rev Herbert Linford Gwyer and wife Margaret Inglis Adams (née Cairns)
One of the most iconic incidents in the sinking involved newly-wed Margaret Inglis Adams Gwyer, and her husband the Rev. Herbert Linford Gwyer. The couple were on their way from Canada to Mirfield, for the Rev. Gwyer to resume his association with Yorkshire, taking up his appointment as curate at the parish church of the ancient Mirfield church of St Mary the Virgin.
Herbert Gwyer was born in London on 19 March 1883,35 the son of stockbroker36 John Edward Gwyer and wife Edith, née Linford. The family lived at Dorchester Place, Regents Park at the time of Herbert’s birth, and this was where his mother died the same day.37 Herbert’s baptism was swiftly arranged at St Paul’s, Lisson Grove on 20 March 1883.38
Educated at Uppingham public school, and Magdalene College Cambridge, Herbert was ordained a Deacon by the Bishop of Wakefield on 23 September 1906.39 His first appointment, as curate at All Hallows parish church, Kirkburton, lasted from 1906 to 1911.
Early in 1911 he left Yorkshire, to take up his new appointment as a missioner to the Railway Mission in Western Canada. In July 1914 he also took charge of the Empress Parish, on the west side of the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. Described as “indefatigable in his efforts for the betterment of the local society”40 it was through his endeavours that in the autumn of 1914 a new church edifice was erected.
Margaret Inglis Adams Cairns was born in Dunbar, Scotland on 1 July 1888.41 She was the daughter of local potato merchant William Cairns and his wife Alice. Latterly the family lived in the Warrender Park area of Edinburgh.
The Cairns family, comprising of William, and offspring Thomas, Margaret and Alice, left Glasgow on 2 April 1910 to settle in Canada. Son Norman followed them out later that year. The Cairns family became wealthy farmers with ranches in the Cochrane district, south of Calgary. Meanwhile Margaret made her home in the southern Saskatchewan town of Fort Qu’Appelle.42
It was whilst working in Canada the couple met. Herbert preached for the last time at St Mary’s Anglican Church, Empress, on 11 April 1915 and his resignation from the Railway Mission Society took effect from 12 April 1915. Three days later, in the Empress Church, he and Margaret married.43 They were to sail for England, and to Herbert’s new appointment in Mirfield, on 1 May 1915.
Like Olive North, the Gwyers travelled second class and were in the dining room when the torpedo struck. Writing to an Empress barrister later in May 1915, Herbert recounted the events of that day.
Unlike Olive, the Gwyers opted not to return to their cabin for lifebelts. But, in similarities to Olive’s account, Herbert told of the boat listing badly which prevented any safe lowering of the port side lifeboats – the one attempt he saw resulted in the craft being smashed against the liner’s side killing many. His other recollections were of crockery crashing; people rushing about on deck; and some jumping off the deck to the water below, which by now was full of wreckage and bodies.
Herbert and Margaret moved to the first class deck where the final lifeboat was being loaded. Margaret got one of the last places in it. Herbert remained a solitary figure on deck, many passengers having gone down to their cabins to retrieve valuables.
For a while Herbert stood quite alone waving and calling messages to his wife as the Lusitania went down. Then he made his bid for survival:
I shut my eyes and jumped, and by a merciful providence landed right into a boat in the water. Just then the Lusitania sank and her funnel came right over us. How we were not sucked down I cannot imagine. We all thought the end had come, and when I looked around Margaret was no longer in the boat.44 [From this written account by the clergyman it appears that, by some miracle, the Rev. Gwyer may have landed in the same boat as his wife.]
Herbert would never forget that awful moment. He went on to write:
It had been bad enough seeing her into the boat, but the sea was calm and I thought that with wreckage, etc., even if I wasn’t picked up I should be able to get on something till rescue came. The idea of being drowned never seemed near at all, but when she was washed overboard, I never thought I should see her again.45
Margaret’s ordeal now took on a whole new level of terror. As she was washed overboard, the rush of water sucked her down one of the Lusitania’s great funnels. As the tons of sea water poured on the furnaces below, enormous quantities of steam were generated. This forced a reaction, with jets of water, clouds of steam, oily black water and soot shooting forcefully back out of the funnel and into the sea. And in the midst of all this was an unrecognisable Margaret Gwyer, severely bruised, with injured ribs, clothes stripped away from her, and blackened with layers of soot and oil.
But, unbeknownst to her husband, she was alive, fished out of the water and saved. It was an extraordinary escape from death. And she was described as thoroughly cheerful despite her ordeal.
Herbert Gwyer met his wife again on a fishing boat. Initially, due to a combination of her dramatically changed appearance and his shock, he did not recognise her. But when he did, he could not begin to describe his sheer relief.
The Gwyers left Ireland and landed at Fishguard on Sunday morning, 9 May, with the waiting press eager to hear Margaret’s amazing escape – although many early newspaper reports described her as Herbert’s sister-in-law. They then travelled to Oxfordshire to recuperate with relatives before Herbert took up his appointment at Mirfield St Mary’s in July 1915. He remained in that post until late 1916. His last funeral is noted in the parish register in November of that year.
Between late 1916 and early 1919 Herbert served as a Temporary Chaplain to the Forces at the Royds Hall Huddersfield War Hospital. Margaret undertook V.A.D. work there. And then, with another of those strange coincidences life often throws, in March 1919 he was appointed Vicar of Christ Church, Staincliffe – the school of which houses the War Memorial inscribed with the name of Lusitania victim Willie Goodall.
His subsequent religious appointments included Bishop of George in South Africa from February 1937. In 1952 he returned to England, becoming the Vicar of Amberley, in Sussex, serving there for five years before his retirement to Chichester in January 1957.
The experiences of Herbert Gwyer and his wife did not deter them from sailing. They appear on numerous passenger lists over the years. On 17 November 1960 the retired clergyman embarked on his final sea crossing. It was a last ironic twist of fate. Two days into the voyage from Southampton to South Africa, on board the Athlone Castle, his life ended, the primary cause being a cardiac arrest.46 45 years after the sinking of the Lusitania he did ultimately die at sea. Margaret survived him by almost 15 years, her death occurring on 16 April 1975.47
The final Lusitania victim in this tale is mystery man Arthur Taylor. Numerous theories as to his identity have been put forward by researchers, but none are conclusive. And, so far, I have come across none who have reached my interpretation.
I believe the mysterious Arthur Taylor was a Thornhill Lees resident.
Official information about him is sparse. Other than his name, nationality (English), that he was travelling 3rd class, his occupation as a sand polisher and his last place of abode being Canada, there is little to go on. One newspaper lists him amongst those from Toronto feared lost, giving his address as Amsterdam Avenue.48
My lead came in the form of a newspaper snippet which reads:
There is unfortunately only too good a reason to believe that a Thornhill Lees young man, Arthur Taylor (30), of 17, Beatson Street, is one of the lost. Up till about three years ago, Taylor was a bottle-hand at the local works, but he then went out to Canada, and he has recently worked for a silver-plate company in Toronto. He is the youngest son of Mr. and Mrs. John Taylor, of Brewery Lane, and it was not known at the time of the disaster that he was coming home, though he had recently written to the effect that he would return shortly. On Monday his friends received a telegram from Toronto (but from whom is not known, presumably a friend of the young man), saying that he had sailed on the “Lusitania.” Inquiries were at once set afoot, and his name was found on a passenger list, but not in that of the survivors. On Thursday morning a letter was received from an official source at Liverpool that he was a survivor, but telegraphic communication with Queenstown, the same day, elicited the fact that this was incorrect. Mr. Arthur Taylor was amongst the third-class passengers. He has a wife and a little boy.49
Disentangling this mystery has not proved straightforward because of anomalies with the information provided in the report and with corroborating records.
However, based on my research, it appears the most likely candidate for the Lusitania’s victim is Arthur Taylor, son of Thornhill Lees-born glass bottle maker John Sykes Taylor and his wife Ann Elizabeth Kershaw.
The couple married at Thornhill Lees Holy Innocents church in 1876, but they did not stay local, eventually ending up in Shirehampton, which is located in the Bristol area of Gloucestershire. It was here their younger children were born, with Arthur being the youngest son. According to the baptism register of Shirehampton parish church, he was born on 27 November 1884.50
The move to the south west did not prove permanent, and the 1891 census found the family back in the Thornhill area. Their address in 1901 and 1911 was Chestnut Terrace, Thornhill Lees, and by this latter census John Sykes Taylor had switched from glass bottle making work to become a greengrocer and fruiterer.
Arthur though, followed his father’s old trade. In 1901 the 16-year-old worked as a glass bottle maker. This was almost inevitable given the area in which they lived, with the glass bottle works providing major local employment. The Kilner glassworks, producing bottles, jars and apothecary items, began at Thornhill Lees in 1842. By 1894 the firm employed as many as 400 hands (men, women and boys), and were making up to 300,000 bottles of all types per week.
20-year-old Arthur married Amy Booth on 28 October 1905 at the Thornhill church of St Michael and All Angels. She was the 21-year-old daughter of Sam and Clara Brook.51 Arthur and Amy’s son, John, was born on 19 April 1907, and baptised at the Thornhill Lees Holy Innocents church the following month.52
In the 1911 census the family abode was Thomas Street, Thornhill Lees, with Arthur (26) working as a glass blower and Amy as a cloth weaver in a woollen mill.
It was later that year when Arthur left home, unaccompanied by his wife and child, bound for America. He sailed from Liverpool on the RMS Baltic, and arrived at New York on 9 December 1911. The final destination given for the 27-year old bottle hand, whose last residence was Dewsbury, was Wallingford, Connecticut. This was to the farm of his uncle George Kershaw, the elder brother of Arthur’s mother.53
From the records we have a physical description of Arthur. Standing at five feet nine inches tall, with a medium complexion, brown hair and eyes, he was said to be in good health.54
The first anomaly in this record is place of birth, given as Newport, England – not Shirehampton. There is a village called Newport in Gloucestershire, which is around 19 miles north from Shirehampton – but it is a point to note.
Also, curiously, though married, he names his nearest relative in England as his father John, rather than his wife, Amy. The address given for John though is not Chestnut Terrace, but Brewery Lane, Thornhill Lees. This is the second anomaly. However the map below shows the proximity of the two locations.
There is a further travel record for the now 29-year-old Arthur Taylor which adds more complications to the mix. This is in the form of a US Border Crossing card, when he left his new home in Toronto, Canada to travel to Buffalo, New York on 14 June 1913. By now he is working as a silver polisher, and again this record gives his birth place as Newport, England – not Shirehampton.55
The first discrepancy on the Border Crossing card was quickly resolved. He declared he had arrived in New York on the Baltic in December 1910, and had lived in Connecticut between 1910 and 1912. This would have meant he could not have been in England for the 1911 census. From migration records it was easy to show he simply got his dates mixed up by one year – his arrival was December 1911 as the passenger and crew lists I mentioned earlier show.
The next point of note is this record names his nearest relative as wife Emma, of 17 Beatson Street, Dewsbury. Whilst the address is a match for the 1915 newspaper report naming Arthur as a Lusitania victim, the name of his wife is incorrect – it should be Amy. However I have seen such name confusion between Amy and Emma in other genealogical records. And the 17 Beatson Street address does indeed link with Amy’s family. This is where her widowed mother Clara lived in 1911.
The final anomaly with the details on this card relate to physical description. There is a height discrepancy of a little over one inch. But, more glaringly, in this record his eyes are said to be blue, not brown. But once again this is not a unique error. For more details on an identical case see my post Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.
I have found no newspaper follow-up piece confirming Arthur’s fate. But, despite the anomalies, I believe the weight of evidence to date overwhelmingly points to Arthur Taylor of Thornhill Lees being a Lusitania casualty for the following reasons:
The newspaper report as a whole;
The occupational correlation – he worked in the silver plate industry according to the newspaper report, and is variously described as a silver polisher and sand polisher in other records from the period;
The Toronto abode;
The links between the man who emigrated in 1911 and the Thornhill Lees family; and
Crucially, despite exhaustive searches, there is no other candidate from the Thornhill/Thornhill Lees/Dewsbury area who would fit.
I may return to Arthur at a later date, if more evidence comes to light – including what became of his wife and child.
This small sample of 11 local Heavy Woollen District Lusitania connections give some idea of the impact of the ship’s sinking on communities up and down the country. It illustrates how the First World War touched the lives of people beyond those serving in the military. These people, too, became casualties as a direct result of the conflict. It seems fitting, therefore, that Staincliffe school remembered Willie Goodall as such.
Appeal for Help with Photographs: Sourcing copyright free photos of images for posts such as these is always problematic. I located several brilliant online images of those involved in this local history piece which I simply could not use. In the past I have been fortunate that, as a result of my research, families have subsequently shared photos and allowed me to publish them. If anyone does have any such photos I could add to this piece, I would be most grateful.
The searching, sourcing and referencing, including those equally important negative searches, for this post was huge. These references won’t be of interest to many readers. As such I’ve only included an abbreviated form below (and that is lengthy enough). If anyone does want more detailed references please contact me direct.
Notes: 1. Numbers range from 1,191 to 1,201. 1,198 was the number from the Cunard official lists; 2. I have not covered all of those with a local connection as the piece would be too long. Depending on interest I may do it at a later date; 3. 1939 Register and GRO Death Registration. As an aside, Roy is registered as Thomas in the GRO birth indexes; 4. UK Outwards Passenger Lists, The National Archives (TNA), Reference BT27 and the Dewsbury Reporter, 15 May 1915. Note the 1914 date given in the National Maritime Museum papers referred to at  is incorrect; 5. Dewsbury Reporter, 15 May 1915; 6. Various accounts of Olive North’s survival and rescue from the sinking or the RMS LUSITANIA, National Maritime Museum, Reference NRT/1; 7. Ibid; 8. Dewsbury Reporter, 15 May 1915; 9. Batley News, 15 May 1915; 10. Dewsbury Reporter, 15 May 1915; 11. Marriage Register of St Michael the Archangel parish church, Aldershot, Surrey History Centre, Reference 6927/1/21; 12. Leeds Mercury, 14 August 1918; 13. The catalogue description of the Olive North National Maritime Museum papers state she was returning to England aboard the Lusitania ostensibly to marry her fiancé Percy Hanson. The wedding was postponed until August 1918; 14. Percy Hanson, Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Royal Naval Reserve Ratings’ Records of Service, TNA, Reference BT 377/7/127199; 15. Olive North, England and Wales National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), Probate date 8 September 1976 16. Baptism Register, St Philip’s, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire Archives, Reference WDP9/439; 17. Marriage Register, Batley All Saints parish church, West Yorkshire Archives, Reference WDP37/34; 18. GRO birth registration December Quarter 1875, Dewsbury, 9b, Vol 618, mother’s maiden name Illingworth. Date of birth from U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, New Jersey, Hudson County; 19. Dewsbury Wesleyan Chapel Baptism Register, West Yorkshire Archives, Reference WC21; 20. Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, TNA, Washington D.C., Record Group Number 85, Series T840; 21. Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957, TNA, Washington D.C., Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Line: 7; Page Number: 28; 22. Gare Maritime website, https://www.garemaritime.com/lusitania-part-12-gone-forever-dead-missing/; 23. The Paterson Morning Call, 1 July 1912; 24. Mary A Robshaw, GRO death indexes, Reference September Quarter 1911, Dewsbury, volume 9b, page 899; 25. Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957, TNA, Washington D.C., Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Line: 18-23; Page Number: 167; 26. Middletown Daily Argus, 17 May 1915; 27. The Commission incorrectly states he was the brother of Florence; 28. Claim by the USA on behalf of George Robshaw, Docket No 2202, 7 January 1925, taken from Opinions in Individual Lusitania Claims and Other Cases: To May 27, 1925. Washington: G.P.O., 1925; 29. Staincliffe Wesleyan Methodist Chapel Baptism Register, West Yorkshire Archives, Reference C10/21/1; 30. Batley All Saints parish church Marriage Register, West Yorkshire Archives, Reference WDP37/36; and Batley News, 22 May 1915; 31. GRO birth registration September Quarter 1882, Dewsbury, 9b, Vol 586, mother’s maiden name Haigh; 32. England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, FamilySearch, FHL Film Number 1657189; 33. Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957, TNA, Washington D.C., Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Line: 21-23; Page Number: 167; 34. Dewsbury Reporter, 22 May 1915; 35. South African Biographical Index 1825-2005 (various dates); UK and Ireland Incoming Passenger List, arrival 2 April 1955, TNA, Reference BT26/1330; Sea Departure Card for his trip to the Cape in November 1960, TNA Reference BT27/1906Pt1/1/294 36. Subsequently he was secretary of the Provident Clerks Mutual Life Insurance Association, based at Moorgate, London; 37. Edith Gwyer, England and Wales National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), Probate date 10 October 1884 38. Baptism Register of St Paul’s, Lisson Grove, Westminster, accessed via Ancestry, misindexed as Groger, London Metropolitan Archives, no reference supplied 39. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 24 September 1906 40. The Saskatoon Phoenix, 31 March 1915 41. Her GRO Death Registration gives 1 July 1888 as her date of birth, but some passenger lists state 5 July 1888. I have not obtained her birth certificate to confirm. However her Sea Departure Card for her trip to the Cape in November 1960 has the 1 July 1888 date, so this is likely to be the accurate one. TNA, Reference BT27/1906Pt1/1/565 42. The Saskatoon Phoenix, 31 March 1915; 43. Ibid; 44. The Saskatoon Phoenix, 14 June 1915; 45. Ibid; 46. Deaths at Sea, TNA Reference BT334/0114; 47. Margaret Inglis Adams Gwyer, England and Wales National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), Probate date 15 January 1976; 48. Toronto World, 10 May 1915; 49. Dewsbury Reporter, 15 May 1915; 50. Shirehampton parish church Baptism Register, Bristol Archives, Reference P/St MS/R/2/c; 51. St Michael and All Angels Thornhill Marriage Register, West Yorkshire Archives, ReferenceWDP14/1/3/12; 52. Holy Innocents Church, Thornhill Lees, Baptism Register, West Yorkshire Archives, Reference WDP169/1/1/2; 53. Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957, TNA, Washington D.C., Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Line: 1; Page Number: 102; 54. Ibid; 55. Manifests of Alien Arrivals at Buffalo, Lewiston, Niagara Falls, and Rochester, New York, 1902-1954; TNA Washington DC, Record Group Number: 85; Series Number: M1480; Roll Number: 146
Other Sources (not the complete list): • 1861 to 1911 Censuses, England and Wales (various references); • 1891 and 1901 Censuses, Scotland; • 1910, 1920 and 1930 US Federal Census (various references); • 1915 New Jersey State Census; • 1939 Register (various references); • Amory, P. The Death of the Lusitania. Toronto?, 1917; • Batley News, 15 May 1915; • Crockford’s Clerical Directory, 1932; • Deaths at Sea Lists, (various); • Dewsbury Reporter, 15 and 22 May 1915; • England and Wales National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), (various); • Hoehling, A. A., and Mary Duprey Hoehling. The Last Voyage of the Lusitania. Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1996; • Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 10 May 1915; • Imperial War Museum; • King, Greg, and Penny Wilson. Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016; • Labour, Ministry of. Dictionary of Occupational Terms: Based on the Classification of Occupations Used in the Census of Population, 1921; London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1927; • Larson, Erik. Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 2015; • Lusitania Online Website: http://www.lusitania.net/ • New Jersey, U.S., Death Index, New Jersey State Archives; • New Jersey Marriage Index, New Jersey State Archives; • Passenger Lists, (various); • Peeke, Mitch, Steven Jones, and Kevin Walsh-Johnson. The Lusitania Story: the Atrocity That Shocked the World. Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword, 2015; • Preston, Diana. Wilful Murder: the Sinking of the Lusitania. London: Doubleday, 2015; • The Berwick Advertiser, 14 May 1915; • The Berwickshire News, 18 May 1915; • The Daily Mirror, 10 May 1915; • The National Library of Scotland Maps; • Wikimedia Commons.
The White Lee explosion at Henry Ellison’s chemical factory on Hollinbank Lane, Heckmondwike, which killed 10 men on 2 December 1914, does not tell the entire story of the chequered history of these works. Even before this catastrophic event it was the scene of multiple fires. Additionally there was a series of bizarre, and unassociated, deaths involving men who worked there between 1870 and 1885. All occurred during the tenure of the previous owners of the works, the Heaton family. And the Heatons themselves were not untouched.
James Heaton, who started the family’s involvement with chemical manufacturing, was originally a spinner by trade. From Little Gomersal, he married Jane Popplewell at Birstall St Peter’s on 28 December 1834. The newly married Heatons subsequently moved to Leicester to raise their family. Children included Joseph (born 1836), George (born circa 1838), Martha (born in 1839, and died in 1840), Mary (born in 1840), John (born 1841), Susannah (birth registered in 1841), and Jane (born 1847, and died in 1848).
I have not pinned down precisely the family’s move back up north, but it is likely to have taken place in the mid to late 1850s. Certainly, by the time of the 1861 census, the Heaton’s were in the Dale Lane area of Heckmondwike, with James and his three sons described as manufacturing chemists – a total shift away from James’ lambs wool spinning days.
Other clues around timing of the manufacturing chemist move come in Ordnance Survey maps and Directories. The 1854 Ordnance Survey map of the area (surveyed 1847-1851) does not feature the chemical works. Neither is the Heaton Chemical Works mentioned in White’s 1858 Directory of Leeds, Halifax, Huddersfield etc. However one set of inquest notes indicate that one of the Heaton brothers, Joseph, had been involved in chemistry since around 1854. The accuracy of this statement though is uncertain – the same notes give the incorrect month and year of death for James.1
The newness of the concern is also indicated in newspapers, which also provide further details of the type of processes Messrs. James Heaton and Sons undertook. Besides chemical manufacturing, they were also involved in oil extraction by means of the pressing process, and grease production.2 A newspaper report from March 1863, describing a fire at the premises, states how a newly erected, and uninsured, shed used for the purposes of extracting oil etc was destroyed, damage estimated at £200. The adjoining shed, where several tons of oil and other flammable spirits were stored, was saved due to the assistance of neighbours.3 In addition to offices, warehouses and storage facilities, from newspaper reports over the years the extensive buildings included a rag storage area, a blacksmiths and a coopers.
The family had fingers in pies other than the White Lee chemical and oil refining concern. They owned a farm, and had a growing property portfolio. In July 1874 they bought the old-established copperas and prussiate works in Roberttown, producing black dye and sulphuric acid. One member of the family even had a ship named after him: In 1882 an iron screw steamer, intended for the Indian and Atlantic trades, was launched up in Tyneside. The steamer, christened by Mary Heaton (wife of middle brother George), was named the George Heaton.
The Heatons, though, were not immune to local controversy. A Healey resident, writing to the local paper in 1879, accused the Heaton chemical works of being a public nuisance, responsible for “constantly bringing the most noxious gases and vilest smells into our homes; our sitting rooms and bedrooms, too, being frequently filled with them.”4
Then there were the Local Board and Town Council water meter disputes, planning controversies, and accusations of providing cottages unfit for habitation.
On a personal level, court cases included the ill-treatment of a horse (John), and the assault on a letter carrier in 1874 (Joseph). In this incident Joseph refused to hand over 2d to Heckmondwike Post Master employee Frank Richmond. Joseph then pushed the mail deliverer against a wall and pulled his ears because he felt the youth had behaved in a “saucy and taunting manner.”5 Joseph escaped punishment because the assault was deemed of a trivial character.
The letter incident occurred days after another fire at the Heaton Chemical Works, and perhaps the stress Joseph was under affected his reaction that day. The previous year, in June 1873, a fire broke out in the uninsured works, but was quickly subdued with minimal damage. The fire which broke out on 2 February 1874, at about 5.30pm, was far more serious. Believed to have been caused by oil overflowing from one of the tanks, it took several local fire brigades until 10pm to extinguish the blaze, by which time it had caused damage estimated £20,000.6 Fortunately by now the Heaton’s business was partly insured, although it did mean they suffered losses of around £10,000.7 However the consequences were felt far beyond this date. Messrs. Heaton became embroiled in a dispute about charges for the fire brigade services that night. Legal proceedings followed to recover these costs.
The dispute rumbled on, and failure to settle payment from previous fires was the reason why all local fire brigades refused to attend yet another blaze at the works. Believed to have been caused by the ignition of overheated grease, this fire broke out in the early hours of 28 August 1879. One brigade did set off, but turned back round when they found out the location of the fire. It was left to local people to confine the conflagration to the originating building, extinguish the blaze and save the rest of the extensive works which were filled with combustible chemicals. Again only partly insured, damage was estimated at between £1,000 to £1,500.8
The above-mentioned controversies took place after the death of James Heaton on 27 April 1867, when sons Joseph, George and John took over the running of the business. John was the brother best described as the business’s superintending manager; Joseph and George travelled, and mainly did outside works, though Joseph was also the brother who conducted chemical experiments. And it was on their watch that the random sequence of deaths involving those connected to the chemical works occurred. Two were fire related, and both these incidents directly touched the Heaton family.
The first death occurred in 1870. 20-year-old carter George Miller had only worked at Heatons for three weeks when he met his death. Born in Kirkby Overblow in 1849, he was the son of farm labourer David Miller and his wife Ann. David died in 1862 and Ann, after being widowed for a second time, moved with her children to the Birstall area.9 George however lodged elsewhere. Ann, crucially for the turn of events, described her son as sober and very steady.
On 9 March 1870 George, along with Lister Kaye, another carter employed by the Heatons, took some charcoal to Heckmondwike then went to Ravens Wharf to collect two loads of sand. On the way back, at around 5.50pm they stopped off at the Prospect Beerhouse, Dewsbury Moor, where they stayed for about 1½ hours drinking ale with several other men before making their way back to the chemical works. Lister Kaye described George as “verylively”10 – the implication being he had perhaps drunk a little too much.
At about 8.10pm, Catherine Droghan was walking up Staincliffe Hall Road. Almost at the top she saw George, walking unsteadily with his horse and cart loaded with sand.11 He spoke thickly to Catherine as if he had been drinking, then sat on the cart shafts until he reached the top of the hill. At this point he jumped down to pick up the reins of the horse which were trailing on the ground. As he tried to get back onto the shafts he fell to the ground on his face, and the cart wheel ran over him. His final words before he was carried to the Crown Hotel were “Oh dear let me lie still.”12 He died 20 minutes later.
The inquest on 11 March 1870, incidentally also held at the Crown Hotel, ruled he had been accidentally run over. Perhaps it was a case of a new boy not used to drinking trying to fit in with the men. But it appears this stop off at the Prospect Beerhouse cost him his life.
The next employee’s death was of an entirely different nature. This was 21-year-old Thomas Dawson, who worked as a book-keeper at the Heaton chemical works. It was around a two-mile walk away from his home in Gomersal, where he lived with his mill engine operator father John, mother Ann, and younger brother William.
Thomas was born in Gildersome and, before his move to Gomersal, he spent his early years in Batley and Birstall, where he was a member of the Birstall Wesleyan Society. A hard working and studious young man, the fact he was learning French as an adult in this period supports his scholarly nature.
Described by his mother as “well and hearty,”13 he was working up until Saturday 1 November 1873. That day he complained of a pain in his head, and despite a visit from the doctor who diagnosed a mild attack of low fever, he did not improve.
At around 5am on the morning of 5 November his mother went to his room and found his bed empty. Downstairs, the house door was unlocked. The alarm was raised and search parties sent out.
Later that afternoon Nelson Oldroyd saw a walking stick floating in one of the Gomersal mill dams of Messrs. Thomas Burnley and Sons, the employers of Thomas’ father. The dam was within 50 yards of what had been the Dawson family home around three weeks earlier. Nelson then saw Thomas’ body lying face down in the 37 inch deep water. He called for help and the body was retrieved.
The inquest, held at the White Horse Inn in Gomersal, (a place mentioned in connection with John Heaton later on in this piece), reached a verdict that Thomas had drowned himself when of unsound mind.
The third death occurred on Monday, 17 May 1880. The victim was 20-year-old blacksmith’s striker James Flanagan.
James was the son of Irish farmer Andrew Flanagan. He lodged with his cousin Catherine, and her husband Michael Fallon, at Carr Street, Heckmondwike. He had been employed by Heaton and Sons for around 18 months, working alongside Staincliffe blacksmith Paul Perkin.
That Monday morning, at around 6am, James left home for work. A couple of hours later he was helping Perkin with the removal of a one-ton seak press. This was a type of press used to extract oil. Joseph Heaton arrived on the scene and took over the supervision of proceedings.
The machine was put on an 18 inch high horse-drawn cart, called a bogey. It proved a difficult operation, due to the slippery surface, the downward incline, and the fact there was only limited room for the horses to work. Various permutations were tried, one horse, then two, then back to one, with more men called to help push, then sent away again. Eventually it was left to Joseph Heaton to take the horse, with Paul Perkin on one side of the bogey and James on the other. According to Perkin, Joseph told the pair to try to keep in front of the bogey, but for some reason James continued alongside the back wheel.
Initially the bogey moved slowly and steadily. As they neared the crane Joseph Heaton pulled the horse to one side to avoid some casks. He then stopped. At this point the press began to wobble, before it, and the bogey, overturned. There was a scream.
Joseph ran towards James who was on the ground, pinned down by the press. Men were quickly summoned to prize the press off James, who was then placed on a trap sent for by Joseph, and taken to the old Batley Cottage Hospital where he was admitted at about 9.40am. This was the original cottage hospital which opened at Hillfield House, Knowles Hill, in August 1878, prior to the opening of the purpose-build Carlinghow Hill hospital on 27 March 1883.
James remained conscious almost to the end, but in great pain. He died just before noon. The inquest, which was held in the hospital on 19 May 1880, reached a verdict of “accidentally crushed.” James is buried in Heckmondwike cemetery.
The next fatality occurred six months later in very peculiar circumstances, and this time it was Joseph Heaton. Joseph was the brother who conducted most of the firm’s chemical experiments, to establish their properties for grease extraction. He had been involved in chemistry for around 26 years.14
At 11am on 22 November 1880, Joseph was in the inner office busy conducting some experiments with bisulphide of carbon. Used as a solvent, this was a toxic, volatile and highly flammable liquid. The fumes could act as an irritant and an anaesthetic. It was a liquid though that Joseph was accustomed to working with. However this Monday morning things went dramatically wrong.
At around 11.15am, somehow the liquid ignited and the copper vessel containing it dropped to the floor. Eliza Coleman, who was at the sewing machine in the inner office, became aware of a commotion and saw Joseph blowing on a small flame in the pan on the floor. Joseph would have been fully aware of the danger a fire posed – after all, the chemical works had suffered significant damage and financial losses before. He attempted to pick up the copper container but dropped it, burning his hand.
At this point Eliza, fearing a fire was inevitable, broke the office window and climbed out. Luckily in the process she avoided inhaling any fumes.
Joseph made another attempt to get the blazing pan out of the building. This time he successfully reached the office yard, where other workers quickly extinguished the flames. The office itself incurred minimal damage, but Joseph had inhaled the fumes.
Joseph took some castor oil before lunch, and remained at work that day. His brother John said he seemed perfectly composed and rational when he left him just before 4pm. However, when his other brother, George, enquired after him that afternoon he told him “I feel it on my stomach and I have burnt my hand in carrying it out when on fire.”15
Joseph returned to his Hollinbank Terrace home as usual that evening. John, who lived next door but one, on hearing George’s account, went round to see how Joseph was and found him in bed conscious, but breathing very heavily. Charles Eyre Counsellor, a Heckmondwike surgeon and apothecary, arrived just after 1am and prescribed some remedies. John left at around 2.20am, but called back at just gone 7am, around the same time as Counsellor returned. By now Joseph was unconscious. Joseph died at around 8.30am that Tuesday morning, 23 November 1880.
The inquest was held at the Junction Inn, Heckmondwike, with the jury viewing Joseph’s body at his Hollinbank Terrace home. Their verdict was Jospeh died from inhaling bisulphide of carbon.
Joseph left a widow, Ann (née Oliver) who he had married on 15 June 1871 at Barnby Dun, near Doncaster. The couple had two young daughters, Frances Jane, born in 1872, and Annie Elizabeth, born in 1874. Joseph was buried in Heckmondwike Cemetery on 26 November 1885.
The fifth death took place five years later in horrific circumstances. This time John Heaton was the victim.
John married Elizabeth Swalwell on 31 March 1870 at St Mary’s parish church, Scarborough. Children followed regularly, including Lizzie Maud (born in 1871), Bertha (born in 1872), Laura (born 1873), May (born 1874), Walter Leonard (born and died in 1875, age 3 weeks), Isabel (born 1876) and Jane Harriet (born in 1879, and died age 6 months in 1880).
On 14 August 1876 he was fortunate to escape serious injury. Returning from the White Horse Inn in Gomersal (the inquest location for former employee Thomas Dawson a shade under three years earlier) that Monday evening, the dog cart in which he travelled lurched violently as it turned into Muffitt Lane, throwing him out of the carriage seat and into the wall of a house. The driverless horse and trap safely made its way back to White Lee, whilst John lay unconscious. He did make a full recovery, but it was a narrow escape. In November 1885 his luck ran out.
At around 7pm on Saturday 7 November 1885 a huge fire broke out in the refining and oil press parts of the Heaton Brothers works. Fuelled by the combustible materials – the estimate was between 200 to 300 tons of oil went up that night – flames illuminated the skyline for miles around. Thousands of people from Heckmondwike and Batley congregated to witness the scene of destruction. Fire brigades from the Crystal and Union Mills (Messrs Kelley and Sons, Heckmondwike), the Liverpool, London and Globe Insurance Society, Birstall, Spen Valley Millowners and Staincliffe Mills all converged on the scene. When the flames were finally extinguished damage was estimated to be between £10,000 to £15,000.16
George Heaton was in Scarborough at the time, so was well out of the way. Only an hour or so before the fire broke out John had gone to Leeds for an evening out. His wife though sent a wire through to his destination and he returned home as quickly as possible by train and then cab from Batley railway station. It was a fateful decision. One only wonders how much his wife regretted her contacting him as events played out.
John dashed to the works to join in with the firefighting efforts. Despite having a sup of gin, he was described as excited, rather than the worse for liquor. With flames in the refining part now abating, the press area became the focus of these efforts. John formed the head of the chain along which buckets of water were passed, and it was he who took responsibility for throwing the water to douse the flames. He stood near a disused tank, the top of which was level with the floor – yet this was never considered dangerous. Ordinarily the tank contained cold water, but the fire caused pans of oil to boil over, and 18 inches of this boiling liquid now formed a layer on the water. By this stage John had thrown between 30-40 buckets of water. In the process of throwing yet another he slipped on a piece of zinc roofing and fell sideways into the tank. Quickly men pulled him out, but he was covered in hot oil with the majority of the scalds being to his arms, legs and face.
Despite his injuries John managed to walk back to his Hollinbank Terrace home. Dr Lee attended him, but John died in his home at about 3pm on Sunday 8 November. He was 44 years old, the same age as his brother Joseph was when he died.
Another inquest, another hostelry – this time the Cricketers’ Arms Hotel, Heckmondwike. The jury returned a verdict of “accidentally scalded.”
John was interred in Heckmondwike Cemetery on 9 November 1885. His wife, Elizabeth, was in the early months of pregnancy. She gave birth to a daughter, Georgina, on 28 May 1886. On 18 September that year the family were back in Heckmondwike Cemetery once more – this time for Georgina’s burial.
The surviving Heaton brother, George, did not carry on with the family business. In 1887 the chemical and oil refining works, along with other ventures including the farm, the Copperas Works in Roberttown, and several properties, were all put up for sale.17 In the 1891 census he is described as a retired manufacturing chemist. In his retirement George split his time between Heckmondwike and Scarborough.
The Heaton headstone in Heckmondwike cemetery, pictured in detail below, gives clues to one of George’s major interests – Freemasonry. Both he and his brother Joseph, right up until their deaths, were members of the Amphibious Lodge in Heckmondwike. In 1896 George became Grand Master of the Lodge.
George died suddenly on 22 January 1898. He left a widow Mary (née Akeroyd) who he married at St Paul’s in Huddersfield on 25 November 1868. The couple’s two sons predeceased George. James William died, age 8, on 24 June 1878; Albert Edward died on 13 July 1879 just short of his fourth birthday. Both were buried in Heckmondwike cemetery and are commemorated on the family headstone.
George’s obituary appeared in The Freemason. It read:
Obituary. BRO. GEORGE HEATON.
Bro. George Heaton, of Hollinbank-terrace, Heckmondwike, died somewhat suddenly on Saturday morning, the 22nd instant. He was 60 years of age, and was formerly in business as a manufacturing chemist and oil extractor. Bro. Heaton, who leaves a widow but no family, was formerly a member of the Board of Health,18 and for a while took an active interest in the Chamber of Commerce.19 It was in connection with Freemasonry, however, that he was best known. He joined the Amphibious Lodge, No. 258, Heckmondwike a quarter of a century ago, and has been a munificent patron of Masonic Charities. A few years ago he contributed 1200 guineas to the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution, and quite recently he gave 1300 guineas to the Royal Masonic Institution for Girls. He was a P[ast] M[aster] of his lodge, and had also held a prominent position in the Provincial Grand Lodge of West Yorkshire. Although his death was unexpected, he has not enjoyed good health for some time.20
Shortly after his death an oil portrait of George was completed. Commissioned during his lifetime, he was depicted in full regalia with decorations and seals of office as Provincial Grand Deacon of West Yorkshire. The full sized figure, measuring 7 feet 6 inches by 5 feet 6 inches, was hung in the Heckmondwike Masonic Hall. If this portrait still exists, and if there is an image of it, I would love to know. It would be great to include it as part of this blog.
Not including that final catastrophic 1914 explosion, the above sequence of events with numerous fires at the chemical works, and four of the five deaths being work-related but all in entirely different ways, shows the dangers our ancestors faced in days before health and safety. And this sequence was nothing out of the ordinary, as the newspaper accounts of accidents across factories, mills, mines and other workplaces in this period testify. Perhaps what is noteworthy about the Heaton Chemical Works story is the fact that it cost two of the three brothers their lives. Perhaps George made the correct decision in quitting when he did.
I will leave you with one final series of images for the Heaton family: the two family headstones with their inscriptions for James and his sons Joseph, George and John. These lie in the shadow of the now derelict Twin Chapels in Heckmondwike cemetery.
Notes: 1. Inquest notes, West Riding Coroner’s Notebook, West Yorkshire Archives, Ref: C493/K/2/1/86; 2.It is unclear if grease is a separate substance, or if it is a local word for oil; 3. Leeds Mercury, 9 March 1863; 4. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 15 February 1879; 5. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 21 February 1874; 6. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 7 February 1874; 7. Using the MeasuringWorth website at https://www.measuringworth.com/index.php, this equates to a real price today of £935,300; 8. £1,500 is equates to a real price today of £153,600 using the above MeasuringWorth website; 9. Sources from the time give her name as Ann Gill, widow from Birstall. After David Miller’s death, Ann remarried in April 1866 at Weeton. Her husband was Samuel Gill. He died in 1868. In 1871 Ann is living with Edward Gill at Hightown, described as his wife. They actually married in August 1873 at St Peter’s, Birstall; 10. Inquest notes, West Yorkshire Archives, Ref: C493/K/2/1/36; 11. It’s not clear from the reports, but given George was coming from Dewsbury Moor it is likely he was approaching the Butcher’s Arms crossroads from the Dewsbury Gate Road side, directly opposite Staincliffe Hall Road; 12. Inquest notes, West Riding Coroner’s Notebook, West Yorkshire Archives, Ref: C493/K/2/1/36; 13. Inquest notes, West Riding Coroner’s Notebook, West Yorkshire Archives, Ref: C493/K/2/1/53; 14. Inquest notes, West Riding Coroner’s Notebook, West Yorkshire Archives, Ref: C493/K/2/1/86; 15. Ibid; 16.Using the top-end estimate of £15,000, this equates to an eye-watering real price today of £1,632,000 using the above MeasuringWorth website; 17. Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 1 and 5 February 1887; 18. Heckmondwike, where he served one term of three years; 19. Again in Heckmondwike; 20. The Freemason, 28 January 1898.
Other Sources: • 1841 – 1891 Censuses; • Baptism Registers – Birstall St Peter’s, Leicester All Saints and Staincliffe Christ Church; • Directories; • Freemasonry Membership Registers; • GRO Indexes; • Heckmondwike Cemetery Burial Registers; • Marriage Registers – Barnby Dun Parish Church, Birstall St Peter’s, Huddersfield St Pauls and Scarborough St Mary’s; • National Library of Scotland Maps; • National Probate Calendar; • Newspapers, various dates – including Batley News, Batley Reporter and Guardian, Bradford Observer, Dewsbury Reporter, Huddersfield Chronicle, Huddersfield Daily Examiner, Leeds Mercury, Leeds Times, Wakefield Free Press, and Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer; • West Riding Coroner’s Notebook; • Wikimedia Commons;
Just before 2pm on Wednesday 2 December 1914, a tremendous explosion occurred. It centred on the Hollinbank Lane area of Heckmondwike. The ferocity was so great it was felt 50 miles away. A yellow mist and smoke enveloped the area, and an awful stench permeated everywhere. It was the early months of the War and people feared a Zeppelin attack, or some form of enemy sabotage. Madame Personne, a refugee who had escaped war-torn Belgium, now living in the comparative safety of a White Lee cottage, fainted from shock.
Close to the epicentre of the blast, homes and workplaces suffered major damage: roofs and doors were blown off, crockery smashed, furniture was damaged, wooden partitions in buildings were torn down, gas street lamp lanterns broke and, within a three-mile radius, thousands of glass panes shattered. Many homes were rendered uninhabitable. The scene represented a war zone, more familiar in Belgium and France.
Arthur Barber described the damage to his home:
Our houses were wrecked, all the windows being out and the roofs broken through, and much damage done inside also….The kitchen door was blown straight off, and the pantry blown down, and the staircase was riven off the walls. The cellars are practically tumbling in. All the hen-pens were blown in pieces. And where all the hens are we don’t know it is impossible to sleep there, and we are staying with relatives.
Collections were raised to help those whose homes were destroyed. The thousands of sightseers who visited in the aftermath helped swell the coffers.
Whole swathes of Heckmondwike, Cleckheaton, Healey and Batley were affected, with stories coming in from across the area. A tram car travelling between Batley and Heckmondwike temporarily lifted off its tracks. A man was thrown out of his sick-bed. Some workers at Messrs. J & F Popplewell’s rag works on Hollinbank Lane were forced to leap for safety from the top window of the mill, as the roof tumbled in. Scores of windows in Belle Vue Street, Healey were blown out. The pupils at Healey school were showered with glass as the windows shattered. As a result, several children were injured, with one boy, John William Stone, requiring treatment in Batley Hospital. The school was forced to close temporarily for repairs. Even Batley hospital did not escape damage, with an operating theatre window breaking during an operation.
Shoddy manufacturer Joseph Fox was particularly involved. Driving his car in the Healey area, it lifted off the ground with the strength of the blast. He witnessed the plate glass window of Healey Co-op stores fall out (known today as Healey Mini Market).
Fox was one of those involved in ferrying the scores of injured for treatment. And, returning to his Hollinbank Terrace home, he discovered his house was one of those buildings to have taken the brunt of the explosion’s impact. His wife’s maid May Thompson was in Batley Hospital with an eye injury caused by flying glass. The house, one of three in a terrace built originally for the Heaton brothers, still stands – now on Dale Lane.
But all this was overshadowed by the total devastation and carnage at the seat of the explosion, the Henry Ellison-operated White Lee chemical works. Situated on high ground off Hollinbank Lane, the firm moved in as tenants of the former Heaton family-owned chemical factory in 1900. Ellison’s were an established chemical manufacturer. They quickly obtained a Government licence to make picric acid, a major component of lyddite used for the manufacture of shells, in their newly acquired White Lee premises. They undertook this work for a couple of years until the end of the Boer War in 1902, when demand for the product slumped. They briefly re-opened the factory in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War, selling the picric acid to brokers. After this, demand tailed off once more and the works closed until August 1914.
The outbreak of the First World War proved a game-changer, with the Government’s need for picric acid for shell manufacture rocketing again. It was now a race to get the works ready to resume full-scale production, with buildings tarred inside and out, wooden floors covered with linoleum, and separating brick walls and rudimentary sprinkler systems in place. In total, the works comprised of five buildings in which the wet processes of picric acid manufacture were carried out. Four other buildings were used for drying, sifting/grinding, packing and storing the chemical.
Picric acid was regarded as safe in its pure state, but if it came into other substances, such as metals, it could form sensitive picrates which were dangerous. For this reason, production licences were required. Regulations limited the quantity of picric acid in any one area, ensured it was not confined and precautions had to be taken to ensure no foreign bodies were introduced to the production process. In order to avoid any ignition risk, no matches could be taken into the most dangerous areas, such as the sifting and grinding shed – so pockets were checked and sewn up before entry. Additionally, protective rubber overshoes had to be worn in these areas to prevent possible contamination by stones and nails. Commonly worn hobnail boots could be a particular issue, as they could cause sparks and, theoretically, the nails could be loosened by acid present on site. These objects could then contaminate the acid production, and potentially enter the grinding machines. The overshoes placed outside the doors to these areas, in theory, minimised the risk.
With all these precautions in place fire, not explosion, was believed to be the most immediate danger. If the fire was quickly put out to prevent the acid overheating, an explosion would be avoided.
On 2 November 1914 production recommenced at Ellison’s White Lee Works. On 19 November a government inspection found everything in good order, with only a few minor points identified due to the long period of building disuse. These were quickly rectified.
Labour was in short supply due to men enlisting, but picric acid production was not regarded as a skilled job. The company recruited a good, young analytical chemist from Cleckheaton, 22-year-old Bradford Grammar School and Leeds University educated Fred Wright. He had previously worked at the Barugh Benzol Works near Barnsley and, more recently, at the Benzol Works at Low Moor. However he had no previous experience with picric acid. He started work at White Lee only two weeks before the explosion.
Ellison’s also brought in a well-regarded employee from the Low Moor Chemical Works to act as foreman. 37-year-old James Nicholas had considerable experience of picric acid manufacturing.
The rest of the workers were recently recruited unskilled labourers, some starting on the day of the explosion. Because of the shortage of labour, these men worked across a number of areas of the production process, as required.
On 2 December, when the explosion occurred, 11 employees were on site. There were also several workmen engaged in construction, as the facilities were being extended to cope with the demands of the war. Unfortunately, these men were also caught up in the tragedy.
The afternoon shift started and production work was proceeding as usual. Wright and Nicholas worked in the packing shed, whilst three men were employed in the sifting and grinding room. At just before 2pm a massive blast occurred, centred on the sifting and grinding areas.
Buildings crumbled, a huge flash of flame soared into the sky, followed by dense clouds of yellow smoke. All that remained of the sifting and grinding shed area was a deep hole where the structure once stood. Peripheral works buildings were severely damaged, with any walls still standing being dangerously cracked. Surrounding fields were littered with masonry, smashed timber, pieces of machinery and roofing. Body parts were found for days afterwards. Containers holding liquid acid split, the corrosive liquid tracking down the hillside, which all added to the horrific scene.
One eyewitness, Leeds man James William Bellhouse working with a colleague on the roof of Robert Bruce’s William Royd cotton mill, stated:
The explosion made a tremendous row and blew us off the building. I saw a mass of flame, and the sky seemed to be lit up by a blazing red. A lot of debris were flying all up and around….
Bellhouse and his workmate were unharmed.
Some others had equally lucky escapes. A couple of men employed in the grinding area had not returned to work there for the afternoon shift. They had struggled to cope with the dust, despite covering their noses and mouths, and frequently opening the door. They survived.
Former Batley rugby league player Jim Gath of Wilton Street, Batley was on site to undertake work on the boiler. Minutes before the blast he decided to leave the boiler house to do some outside work. He had just climbed scaffolding when the explosion occurred. Covered by debris, only by sheer strength did he extricate himself, injuring his arm in the process. He remembered walking, then crawling, then nothing until he awoke in Dewsbury hospital.
William Sykes of Healey Street, Batley was working in the boiler house, which was demolished. According to reports at the time, concussed and dyed yellow by the fumes, he escaped too. However, this was not the whole story, and it did not end happily. Subsequent reports indicated he also sustained injuries to his legs and eyes. His health deteriorated and he died in July 1915. Coincidentally, his daughter Elizabeth, working in the nearby Robert Bruce-owned mill, suffered a compound fracture of her right arm.
The blast killed nine men outright. Another died in Dewsbury hospital later that day. The men were as follows.
Percy Ashton, born on 26 October 1892 was the son of Willie and Elizabeth Ashton (née Barker) of Tidswell Street, Heckmondwike. He was a joiner working on construction of the new buildings. A popular member of Dewsbury AFC, he was buried in Heckmondwike cemetery.
Arthur Cooper, was born in Leeds on 19 February 1863. He married Martha Ann Wheelhouse in Leeds in 1885. A boot finisher for most of his working life, by 1893 he and his family were living in Lobley Street, Heckmondwike. He now had employment in the boot department at Heckmondwike Co-op. Sometime after the 1911 census he switched work to become a mason’s labourer for his neighbours, the Firth brothers. Initially amongst the missing, his body was found under rubble two days after the blast.
Albert Laycock Firth was a 51-year-old living at Lobley Street in Heckmondwike. He and his brothers Nimrod and Ralph were the stone masons erecting the new drying building. Ralph nipped back to their own Work’s yard prior to the blast, and heard the explosion. He identified his brother. Albert left a widow Elizabeth (née Briggs) who he married in 1893. The couple had three children in the 1911 census – Aked, James Albert and George.
Nimrod Firth the brother of Albert was 34 years of age. He also lived at Lobley Street. The son of James Firth and his wife Sarah Laycock, Nimrod married Lucy Wright in April 1913. He was identified through keys in his pocket. His funeral, along with that of his brother, took place at Heckmondwike Upper Independent Chapel.
James Nicholas was the works foreman. The 37-year-old was born in Herefordshire, but the family eventually settled in Cleckheaton. The 1901 census shows him employed as a picric acid labourer, so by 1914 he’d had at least 13 years experience of working with the chemical. Later that year he married Edith Emma Strickland. The couple went on to have four children – Harold Cookson, Eric, Edith Gladys and Laura. His brother John formally identified him. He was buried in Cleckheaton.
Clifford Thornton, a joiner from Boundary Street, Liversedge, only started building work at Ellison’s on the day of the explosion. Like Percy Ashton he was employed by Messrs. R Senior and Sons. A 25-year-old single man, he was the only living child of John Marsden Thornton and his wife Betty (née Cordingley). He survived the blast, but died as a result of his injuries at 4.05pm in Dewsbury Infirmary. An active member of Heckmondwike Upper Independent Chapel and Sunday School, this was where his funeral took place.
Fred Wright, worked as the establishment’s analytical chemist. From Cleckheaton, he was the 22-year-old son of Walter Henry Wright and his wife Elizabeth Savoury. Walter Wright was well known in local musical circles, being the organist at Providence Place Chapel, Cleckheaton and a former conductor of Cleckheaton Philharmonic Society. His son was so badly mutilated he was identified by the contents of his pockets (including a gold watch, purse, and visiting card) and a distinguishing mark. Fred was buried in Whitcliffe cemetery.
The three men working in the grinding room were William Berry, George Terry and James Alfred Morton (some sources mistakenly name him as John Edward Morton). Only identified amongst the dead from various items of clothing discovered in the days after the explosion, the partial human remains found which possibly belonged to them were buried in a single coffin in Heckmondwike cemetery. Father O’Connor, the parish priest at Heckmondwike Catholic Church (now the Holy Spirit Parish) conducted the service for Morton. Father O’Connor later became the inspiration for G.K. Chesterton’s fictional detective Father Brown.
William Berry transferred from Ellison’s Cleckheaton works two months prior to the blast. A labourer, he supervised the drying shed activities. 36 years of age, his widow Clara identified his overcoat. There was also his return railway ticket to Low Moor where he lived. Born in Halifax, he married Clara Hargreaves at All Saints, Salterhebble in July 1910. The couple had two children, Annie (b. 1911) and Arthur (b. 1913).
James Alfred Morton (38) was separated from his wife May, and living at Staincliffe. The son of Cornelius and Bridget Morton, he was a miner by trade. However, in recent years he worked as a casual labourer, most recently for a gardener in Batley Carr. He only started at the chemical works on Tuesday. His brother, Joseph, could only identify scraps of his clothing – parts of his trousers, shirt, coat and red, white and blue striped tie.
George Terry (22) of White Lee only started at Ellison’s on the Monday, previously working as a rag grinder in Batley. Initially his father wrongly identified one of the original bodies as his son, so badly mutilated was it. He was led away in a distressed state, only for others to realise the mistake. Days later, small strips of waistcoat and corduroy trousers belonging to George were identified by his widow Lilian. They had been married less than six months. She had left him at the gates of his work after lunch at 1.25pm on her way to visit her mother, and heard the explosion.
The official Home Office inquiry headed by Major Cooper-Key, Chief Inspector of Explosives, reported in January 1915. Although Cooper-Key found the wearing of protective overshoes was not strictly adhered to in the designated danger areas, crucially it was enforced in the sifting and grinding shed where the explosion occurred. He went on to conclude that Ellison’s complied with all the necessary regulations for picric acid manufacture, and could not be held responsible. Sabotage was also effectively ruled out.
He attributed the disaster to two factors. The ignition occurred in the sifting and grinding room, probably due to the accidental presence of a nail, stone or similar hard foreign body entering the grinding mill. Under normal circumstances this would have resulted in a spark and fire which would have been extinguished before the picric acid had chance to heat to explosion point. But the shed was extremely dusty, a situation exacerbated by the strong wind that day which constantly fanned the particles as the door opened and closed to try to let fresh air in. The initial ignition resulted in the explosion of this carbonaceous dust.
Although the White Lee explosion led to a review of picric acid manufacturing guidelines, it did not mark the end of accidents resulting from its manufacture during the war.
And the ten men who died on the day of the explosion, as well as William Sykes who died seven months later, are yet more local casualties of the First World War.
A plaque has been laid by the Spen Valley Civic Society to commemorate the event and those affected.
Multiple sources were used, including newspaper reports, the official accident report, censuses, civil registration indexes and parish registers.
Special thanks to Kirklees Image Archive for permission to reproduce their image of the aftermath of the explosion. http://www.kirkleesimages.org.uk/ This is a fabulous local pictorial archive. The images are subject to copyright restrictions.
On Christmas Eve 1933, after a fortnight’s illness, Batley’s nationally acclaimed rat-catcher Thomas Cassidy died.
During his working life his skills were in much demand by a cross-section of businesses and organisations: From local mill owners and town Corporations, including Batley and Dewsbury; to railway companies such as the London and North Western, North Eastern, Midland and Scottish Railways. This latter work took him throughout Britain and Ireland.
A bit of a local legend, a thrilled journalist even reported of spending a most exciting four hours, with some lively experiences, under the Dark Arches in Leeds in the company of Thomas Cassidy, one of his sons and a fox terrier named Gipsy. The Dark Arches are the brick-built network of arches constructed in the 1860s to support the railway station.
The two major records Thomas claimed were:
1,227 rats caught alive and 446 killed in six hours for Ossett Corporation; and
153 [out of 155] rats caught in thirteen minutes on the premises of a hide and skin merchant in Heckmondwike in 1908. This was unassisted by dog or ferret.
For the latter he is recognised by Spen Valley Civic Society with plaque number 18 on the Spen Fame Trail. This plaque is located on The Green in Heckmondwike.
Well-known in the Batley area, he was not an unfamiliar sight in the local courts either. On at least one occasion he regaled the Bench with his rat-catching exploits including, in 1907, another tale of his expertise … and possibly the explanation for his appearances before the Batley magistrates. This time he boasted of capturing 154 rodents in 75 minutes which he sold for 4d. each – but the money went on drink. The newspapers prefaced this court report with a rather lurid description of one of Thomas’ more colourful claims to local notoriety, describing him as:
Batley’s professional rat-catcher, and the individual who, some time ago at a local polling booth, bit off the heads of a couple of live rats in the presence of disgusted voters .
Born in Batley’s New Street on 3 February 1870, he was the son of labourer John Cassidy, who hailed from County Clare, Ireland and his West Ardsley-born wife Emma (née Garlick). He was baptised at St Mary of the Angels RC church in Batley.
Thomas married Harriet Ann McDonagh  at the same church as he was baptised, on 13 February 1892. By this stage he worked as a coal miner. Their children included Johanna, Emma Jane (who died in infancy), Robert Ernest, Thomas, John Edward, Leo, Mary and Arthur.
His rat-catching exploits were inspired following a walk near Batley, when he saw a refuse tip ‘alive’ with rats. He explained:
I went home, took a pillow slip off my bed, and soon had it full of live rats from the tip. I sold these at 4d. each to people with dogs they wanted to train as ratters. I had 10s. 6d. to take home, and I’m glad to say I gave my mother ten shillings. I’d never had so much before…I was only earning eighteen pence a day in the pit as a pumper” .
The refuse tip became a gold mine for him, as he progressively cleared it of all vermin. So lucrative did this new business line prove, in around 1904 he left the pit for good to become a full-time rat-catcher.
Rat-catching was a national obsession. In fact at the end of 1919 the Government passed a Rats and Mice (Destruction) Act, such was the concern about their capacity to spread disease, destroy property and contaminate food. A new war raged in this inter-war period, and during each November there was even a designated National Rat Week endorsed by the Ministry of Agriculture when a nationwide effort was made to destroy the creatures to control the population. Publicity for the campaign was widespread via the press, billboard posters and in the cinema. This included a specially commissioned government “Kill That Rat” Pathé film in 1919. Leeds Corporation produced its own rat killing promotional newsreel in 1920. Entitled “It’s Rough on the Rats” it demonstrated the launch of its asphyxiating gas offensive.
For Thomas business was booming and he became a minor celebrity. He held long-term contracts as official rat-catcher in two Leeds railway stations, and it was this work which the Leeds Mercury’s Special Correspondent shadowed (literally as the work was undertaken by candle light) in 1923.
A huge mound of refuse, sweepings from 10 railway station platforms of the London and North Eastern railway station above, accumulated in the Dark Arches. Here the rats thrived.
As a preliminary to his clearance work Thomas, along with his son, turned over the refuse mound – a mixture of food, dust, cinders and even crockery – revealing holes big enough for rabbits. In the process they were cornering the creatures in preparation for their capture. The rats could be heard scurrying below – huge creatures sustained by all the railway detritus.
The Cassidy’s fox terrier Gipsy was tied to a drain pipe, becoming increasingly excited by the activity.
Then the work began.
With their bare hands Cassidy and his son began catching the rats, shoving them in an army kit bag. Other rats were strangled. Those trying to flee were caught in string netting strewn across a mesh barrier which fenced off the bay of the archway. They were forced back into the clutches of the Cassidys.
Thomas was now bleeding profusely from a rat bite to his thumb knuckle, but undeterred he carried on. An occupational hazard, his hands bore the marks of his work over many years. Yet he had only sustained blood poisoning five times from rat bites in 30+ years’.
Gipsy bit through her leash, eager to join in the killing spree. After four hours, exhausted by their exertions, they finished. The bag contained 36 live rats and 60 dead. Gipsy accounted for around a further 40. Only one rat managed to escape. At the end of their work Thomas told the reporter
I’ve a fox at home which will kill rats quicker’n’ that ‘ere dog .
Perhaps this was one of the foxes which he captured in 1921, for his snaring exploits extended beyond rats. The Yorkshire press reported on his fox-catching efforts, which extended over two days. The result was a haul of two foxes from a drain near Wilton Park. One was a four-feet-long dog fox weighing 17½lbs. The other was a 42-inch-long 13¾lbs vixen. Methods unsuccessfully employed in this star capture included cayenne pepper and a fox terrier. Finally he and his colleague hit on the ingenious idea of sweeping the drain with prickly brushes roped together. This did the trick.
As for his rat-catching methods, Thomas remained slightly coyer. Ferrets were commonly used by others to catch rats. New Street station in Leeds was the scene of some of Thomas’ heaviest slaughtering. Three different rat breeds could be found in its refreshment rooms. It was in this station he once lost a ferret for three days. When finally located it was in such a bad state after constant fighting with rats it had to be destroyed. By 1926 Thomas no longer used ferrets, preferring to use what he termed as ‘secret methods’.
He was clearly keen to keep his tricks of the trade in-house, explaining his art in only general terms. He occasionally employed dogs, owning two fox terrier bitches by 1926. He preferred bitches to dogs because they were keener, fiercer and more easily controlled. He was not a general believer in poison. This he reserved for factories, where wholesale slaughter was required. He claimed to have killed thousands of rats using this technique at the Dewsbury mills of M. Oldroyd & Sons and Wormald & Walkers. But his favoured method was to catch his prey with his bare hands, delivering the killer blow by banging their heads on the floor.
And throughout his career he retained a great respect for the cunning, ferocity, thoroughness and perseverance of his enemy, the rat.
Thomas, who died in the same street in which he was born, was buried in Batley cemetery on 28 December 1933.
Here are some rat-catching tips from the 1920s:
Don’t touch a dead
rat – use a shovel;
Don’t leave the old
homes of an exterminated rat colony intact as you will soon have another
settlement. Fill the holes with cement, or failing that, a mixture of tar and
Don’t touch bait
with your fingers as rats won’t come near it. Use a spoon tied at the end of a
Don’t forget to
warn people and keep domestic animals away from baits;
Don’t forget that a
change of bait – kipper instead of cheese for instance – works wonders; and
Don’t forget you
are liable to a £20 fine if you allow your property to be rat-infested.
Notes: Bradford Daily Telegraph, 16 February 1907;  The spelling of Harriet’s surname varies depending on record, including McDonegh, Donegh, Donagh and McDunach; The Leeds Mercury, 3 November 1926; The Leeds Mercury, 29 September 1923
1871- 1911 censuses
Batley Cemetery Burial Records
General Register Office birth, marriage and death records