Posted onDecember 23, 2019|Comments Off on Hidden History of Batley: A Festive Fireworks Fatality
Festive fireworks on days other than bonfire night are not a modern phenomenon. And if you thought events to promote Batley and boost town trade, such as Batley Festival and Batley Vintage Day, were a 21st century invention, think again.
In the late 19th century, backed by an ambitious and forward-thinking Council, local tradesmen regularly promoted events to draw visitors into town. But the 1886 annual event is memorable for its tragic consequences, ones which would cast a shadow over the town for years to come.
On the 23 and 24 December 1886, the latest town promotional event was in full flow. The shops were decorated, two local brass bands paraded the streets and Commercial Street was partly illuminated by the marvellous innovation of electric lights. The culmination of the two days of festivities, drawing everything to a sensational close, was to be a grand firework display, scheduled for 8pm in the market place on Christmas Eve.
An established family firm of pyrotechnists from Dalton, Huddersfield, were engaged to provide this visual delight. Joseph Womersley Potter had been in the firework business for 15 years. His son Charles Henry Potter, assisted by another son Thomas and a third man, Joseph Pinder, were responsible for Batley’s entertainment. It promised to be an unmissable display, packed with rockets, mortars and spinning wheels.
The blaze of glory to round everything off, and send all home happy, was a volley of around 40 rockets ascending into the night sky, centred around triumphal arch with the motto ‘The Town and Trade of Batley.’ At the back and front of the rocket display stood two mortars which, when ignited by the sparks from the rockets, would each fire towards the heavens a massive shell, exploding to provide a final meteoric shower of lights. This was to be the unforgettable climax of the evening. Unforgettable, as it turned out, for the wrong reasons.
The rain of the day cleared, heralding a clear, crisp winter’s evening, with frost quickly hardening the ground. There was no moonlight, but thousands of stars twinkled in the night sky. A crowd numbering several thousand assembled to watch the spectacle. The focal point was the area around the firework display. A special enclosure was made to encircle this area, on ground between the Hanover Street Congregational Church and the Market and Town Halls. But such was the crush of eager spectators that barriers were pulled down, and some intrepid folk even climbed over railings and entered the Congregational Church grounds to get a better view.
Among the crowds congregated by the now-demolished Market Hall were six local lads, whose emotions within minutes would switch from curiosity, laughter, and eyes-wide-open wonderment to unimaginable horror.
They included two youngsters from Wards Hill: 9-year-old Schofield Senior, the son of Hannah Senior; and John William Tatham, age 10, the son of County Mayo-born couple Michael and Margaret Tatham .
Two of the other boys lived at Woodwell: George Bates, age 14, was son of Mary Jackson and her coal mining husband Henry; and 10-year-old Robert Cassidy, the son of John and Emma, was the brother of Thomas Patrick Cassidy, the man destined to become Batley’s famous rat-catcher.
14-year-old Charles Henry Pinder, the son of coal miner Andrew Pinder, lived at Woodkirk. His mother Hannah Jane had died over six years earlier.
The sixth lad, 13-year-old Liversedge-born Frank Fearnley Sykes, lived at Spring Gardens with his mother, Ellen, and siblings. These included his younger brother Herbert. His father, a leather currier named George, died only the previous month. As a result, Frank quit school to help his mother earn money by delivering the bread and tea cakes which she baked. He left home at about 8pm that evening, bound for the market place, no doubt looking forward to an evening with his friends and a temporary diversion from everyday life.
At just before 9pm, Charles Henry Potter lit the rockets for the grand finale. Thousands of pairs of eyes turned heavenwards to watch the dazzling spectacle. However, in a matter of seconds, a few of the more eagle-eyed in the crowd spotted things had not gone to plan. One of the mortar shells, instead of rising into the air, fired out horizontally, spiralling towards the crowd near the Market Hall, sparks emitting in all directions. Hoards rushed backwards in panic. John Bruce of Clay Fold in the Clark Green area of town, was one of the lucky ones. Standing in the area by the Market Hall, the missile passed to the left of him.
Then the screams and cries of pain rang out in the clear night air, centred around several boys now lying on the ground. Frank Fearnley Sykes clutched at John Bruce pleading “O master, will you take me home?” Bruce asked him “Whose bairn are you lad?” Before fainting, Frank managed to say “I’m George Sykes’s, of Spring Gardens.”
West Riding Police Constable George Edward Horner was in the crowd. He assisted several of the injured boys, four being conveyed to their homes on stretchers for treatment. He then went up to the relatively recently opened Batley Cottage Hospital, on Carlinghow Hill, where the two most seriously injured boys were taken.
By far the worse of these was Frank Fearnley Sykes. In extreme shock, and complaining of only sickness but no pain, he had suffered several burns including severe ones to the inner and upper parts of his thighs. And beneath the sheets of his hospital bed, his shattered, gunpowder-blackened legs were a mangled mess of tissue. Nothing could be done.
Dr Robert Dex Keighley (a former Mayor of Batley) stayed with him till around 11 o’clock on Christmas Eve, until Frank finally slipped from life. After he had left home only three hours earlier, a strong, healthy lad, his mother never saw him alive again.
In an odd aside, it was noted a policeman brought home one of Frank’s badly damaged boots later that night, and a girl fetched the other one to Ellen the following morning. Was this as much a commentary on the value of boots in this period, as a show of compassion and thoughtfulness towards a grieving mother? Boots were not disposable commodities. They were expensive, and essential for work and school. I’ve seen a local school log book in this period full of entries about children unable to attend school in winter due to a lack of boots. They were handed down, repaired time upon time, and passed on after death.
And, in addition to the overwhelming sense of grief, death could drive a family into desperate poverty. In the space of a month, Ellen had lost her husband and son. Besides the loss of income resulting from the death of two main breadwinners, the cost of the actual funeral could be financially crippling. And this was a period of high mortality. So Ellen, like many other families, had taken out life insurance for her son to provide for a decent burial if the unimaginable should happen. Her 44-year-old husband was buried in Batley cemetery on 27 November 1886 and her 13-year-old son was buried in the same plot on 28 December 1886.
The inquest opened on Monday 27 December 1886, at the Wilton Arms and Bridge Hotel. No longer a pub, it still exists as a burger joint – ironically named Frankie’s. Because Frank’s death was a result of a gunpowder accident, a Home Office Inspector of Explosives needed to attend. The Christmas period delayed Royal Artillery Major J.P. Cundill’s appearance and, after hearing from Dr Keighley and Frank’s mother, the inquest was adjourned. It resumed on 31 December, and shifted to the more imposing surroundings of the Town Hall.
The jury reached a verdict that Frank was accidentally injured by fireworks. They expressed the opinion that Charles Henry Potter had not used sufficient care in regard to the mortar. They also said that the fence around the enclosure had not offered sufficient protection to the public. The Jury Foreman, Councillor Isaac Barker, did not make any recommendations for future years as the jury hoped that this would be the last display of fireworks in Batley for some time.
So what happened to the other injured boys?
Of those treated in hospital, Schofield Senior’s right leg was shattered from the knee downwards. On Christmas Day, in a critical condition, the limb was amputated. Thankfully, he did pull through. He earned his living as a tailor, went on to have a family and died in Huddersfield in January 1956.
George Bates was initially taken home suffering burns to his head, face and left leg, but then it was found he needed hospital treatment. He recovered, went on to work as a coal miner and married Sarah Ann Almond at Batley Parish Church in 1895. By 1911 the couple had six surviving children.
John William Tatham was one of the boys treated at home. His injuries were burns to his face and lower limbs.
Robert Cassidy also suffered burns to his head, arms, body and legs. He married Mary Jane Speight in Hunslet in 1907. He emigrated to Australia in 1910 and died in Queensland in February 1954.
Charles Henry Pinder suffered burns to his arms, head and face. He emigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he became a naturalised American citizen, was employed as a mill worker, married and raised a family. He died in May 1950.
And Frank Fearnley Sykes’ name lived on. His brother Herbert named his son, born on 17 February 1907, after him.
Sources: These include various newspapers, the Coroner’s Notebook, censuses, GRO indexes, as well as parish, cemetery, migration, citizenship and burial records. The OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
Notes:  There are various spellings of this surname, depending on report.  Plot M223
Comments Off on Hidden History of Batley: A Festive Fireworks Fatality
On the evening of Friday 24 April 1896 as the life ebbed from seven-year-old George Sharpe ,he named the person responsible for shooting him – his playmate Alfred Brearey.
George was the son of rag grinder Jesse Sharpe and his wife Mary Wilson.
The couple married at Batley Parish Church on 28 April 1877 . It was
Mary’s second marriage. Her first husband Fearnley Windle died in 1875, age
19 , just over a year after their marriage in the same church .
George was born on 27 April 1888. By the time of the 1891 census the family were living in the Healey area of Batley, at 41 Healey Street. In addition to George, their other children included Joseph (12), Rebecca (9), Letitia (6), Alice (5) and Lily (4 months) . Ten years later they were at 5 Clark Green Street . But at the time the incident took place their address was 4 Knowles Hill, otherwise known as Baines Street, off Dark Lane in Batley, with George attending Purlwell Board School.
Who was the boy accused of the fatal shooting? Many of the records,
including the notes of Coroner Thomas Taylor, refer to him as Arthur. But clues
exist that this is not the full story. There are several other references
naming him as Alfred or Alfy, many of these within the same documents which
refer to him as Arthur.
The report in The Batley News of 1 May 1896 provides the answer
to this confusion. A footnote states:
It will be seen that the prisoner was referred to in almost every case as “Arthur.” His Christian name is Alfred.
Accordingly, Alfred was the name by which he was summoned before this
Court. His birth date was also helpfully confirmed in the Batley Borough Court
evidence as reported in the same edition of The Batley News – Alfred was
11 on 8 April.
Combining this information with General Register Office birth registrations, the fact he was the nephew of Benjamin Wilkinson Crossley, and his father was a carrier named Thomas all pinpoints him as being the son of Thomas and Martha Ann Brearey (née Crossley), who married in 1871. His baptism  at Batley Carr Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on 18 May 1885 confirms his 8 April 1885 birth date, and a Hanging Heaton residence .
Alfred was one of 14 children born in the marriage, but by 1911 only seven were still alive, with Alfred being the only surviving son. In 1891 the family lived at Mill Lane , and it was the Hanging Heaton Mill Lane Board School which Alfred attended. But, prior to the shooting, the family moved to Norfolk Street which was close to where the Sharpe family lived. It was once Alfred “flitted” here that he became friends with George.
I have pieced together the events of the evening of George’s death from various reports on the two official hearings, including the inquest notes made personally by Coroner Thomas Taylor.
First came the inquest on 27 April 1896. With a bitter twist of fate this would have been George’s eighth birthday. Held at The Commercial, this piece of Batley history is no longer a public house and was ear-marked for demolition to make way for apartments. I’m not sure if that is still on the cards.
Two days later, on Wednesday 29 April, the boy accused of causing
George’s death appeared before the Batley Magistrates in a special session of
the Borough Court.
In my narrative, to avoid confusion, I will use his officially
registered name, Alfred. Though do bear in mind if you are searching yourself
many of the original references are actually in the name of Arthur.
This is my summary of events.
On the evening of his death George came home from school at about 4.30pm and, after having his tea, he asked if he could go with Alfred to Farfield Nursery. He set off at around 5pm. This was the final time his mother saw him alive. The nursery, located near the Lady Ann Railway Crossing in Batley, was owned by Alfred’s uncle, Benjamin Wilkinson Crossley – a gardener, seedsman and florist who lived at Park Farm on Grovesnor Road. The Kelly’s West Riding of Yorkshire Directory of 1893 describes Crossley’s multiple floristry services which included:
….ball & wedding bouquets made to order, cut flowers with ferns for table decoration, Memorial wreaths & crosses of white flowers at short notice & moderate prices.
In addition to the nursery, he had an establishment located on Branch Road, easily accessible to potential customers popping into the town centre. Presumably it was from these premises that orders for flowers could be placed.
The 1895 published map of Batley shows Farfield Nursery to be of such a significant size to feature. In 1929 when, after 48 years ownership by B.W. Crossley & Sons, the market garden and rhubarb forcing business was sold, it consisted of five acres with greenhouses, cold frames, two large forcing sheds and three dwelling houses . Back in 1896 it was where Alfred’s father, Thomas, had employment as a carter.
Alfred was in the habit of going to the nursery most evenings to wait
for his father to finish work. For the past month or so, whilst waiting, he had
undertaken simple tasks such as pricking out and transplanting seedlings.
George, at most, accompanied him to the nursery on only a handful of occasions.
This particular evening Alfred went into the potting shed to prick out seedlings, whilst George played, running about the nursery land. Head gardener George Benson left his office in the potting shed at around 6.10pm. He claimed to have locked the office door and put the key in its usual place, hanging by a nail outside the office at a height of about five feet. In the office was a single-barrelled shotgun. This was stored on a beam about seven or eight feet from the ground, but it was accessible to boys if they climbed on the office table. Used for scaring or shooting the pigeons, these birds posed a constant threat to seedlings and crops. In fact, only recently they had destroyed almost all the pea crop. However, it was debatable whether the birds should actually have been shot – many local men owned racing pigeons and some of these birds were quite valuable, as indicated in my blog post about the fate of some local Batley youths who stole pigeons to earn cash. Benson fired the gun on Thursday, and reloaded it with shot and powder on Friday morning. He placed a cap on the gun along with a label on the trigger indicating the weapon was loaded.
Within 20 minutes of Benson’s departure, at around 6.30pm, Benjamin Crossley was summoned by his nephew to the nursery. A boy had fallen in the gardens and was bleeding. Crossley could get no more information from Alfred, so he hurried to the nursery to investigate. He found George face-down on the cart road about eight yards or so from the potting shed, with a trail of blood leading back to it. Crossley turned the boy over and asked what was wrong. Cinders embedded in his face from his fall, George uttered the chilling words: Alfred had shot him.
George asked for some water, and the child took a sip. Crossley then
went to get medical help and the police. On his way he saw Batley Councillor
Rooke Garbutt in the garden of his Howley View home and informed him of the
incident. Garbutt, the manager at John Jubb and Sons shoddy manufacturers at Batley’s
Phoenix Mills, hurried to the nursery which quickly became a hive of activity.
In the melee Arthur melted away. He went to the home of George’s parents.
Jesse Sharpe was now home from work. Ironically, he worked in the same mills as Garbutt. He had eaten his tea and was smoking his pipe when Alfred turned up. It was around 6.45pm. Alfred seemed frightened and was trembling, which prompted Mary to ask where George was. Alfred spoke two words only – “He’s dead.” With that he left. Stunned by the news, Jesse went to find out what on earth was happening.
Back at the nursery Rooke Garbutt was doing his best to assist the boy,
who had a wound the size of half a crown in his right side between his ribs.
From the air being expelled from the hole, the shot had clearly entered his
lung. Deep red blood flowed, which Garbutt tried to stem with his handkerchief.
Garbutt judged by the jagged shape of the wound, and the absence of pellet
marks, the lad had been shot at close range. He asked the child’s name and, on
at least two occasions, he questioned who had shot him. The response never
changed. Alfred Brearey.
Dr Wilkinson arrived on the scene, and immediately judged nothing could be done. George was placed on an ambulance cart and Garbutt, assisted by others, started the journey to Batley Hospital. From the description provided, and with Garbutt said to be between the shafts, it appears this was a cart pulled by the men rather than one drawn by horses. There were various designs of these wheeled ambulance litters and carts throughout the country in this period. The example below is one of the models in use. Others, like the Bischoffsheim hand ambulance which was particularly favoured by London police in this era, were akin to wheeled stretchers. What is unclear is if the mode of transport used for George was an improvised ambulance cart, rather than an official one – especially given there appears to be no named official bearers.
On their way to the hospital Mrs Dyson of Grosvenor Road came out to dab George’s lips with brandy. She gave the ambulance-carriers the bottle in case more should be required. George managed one final word “mother” and, as the ambulance neared the hospital on Carlinghow Field Hill, he breathed his last.
Garbutt passed him to the care of Miss Kanann, hospital Matron, who did
her utmost to revive George, but to no avail. Drs Russell and Keighley arrived
and pronounced death.
George did not stand a chance. The gunshot had fractured his ribs,
perforated the lower part of his right lung, and caused injuries to his liver
and abdominal cavity. His body was carried back to his home. Catherine Smith of
Thorn Bank Cottage on Dark Lane, who had seen George leave his house at 5pm, only
around three hours later was laying out his body. She burned his blood-soaked
vest and shirt to spare his mother further distress, an action which earned
censure from the Coroner. Evidence should not be destroyed. George’s mother
finally saw her son at home at around 11pm, once Catherine work was
Meanwhile police brought in Alfred on suspicion of having caused the
death of George Sharpe. Inspector Weightman interrogated him. He described
Alfred as quite calm, but uncooperative. Alfred stuck to his story. He had
found George on the ground; George had fallen; and Alfred had not seen a gun.
Weightman finally took him to the nursery at 9pm, where Crossley and
Garbutt met them. The office gun had vanished from its stated place on the
beam. Even then Alfred denied ever seeing a gun, but eventually said it had
been in a corner of the building. A search ensued and, after around 10 minutes,
the discharged weapon was found beneath a bench with the exploded cap still in
place. When Alfred’s father arrived, the lad said Benson had told a story – the
office door was unlocked and the gun was not hung up. The police decided to
release George into his father’s custody whilst investigations continued.
On Sunday evening, Alfred, accompanied by his parents and a sister went to the Sharpe house. It was an act which demanded tremendous courage under the circumstances. One cannot imagine the reaction and emotions of the Sharpe family when the boy accused of killing their son turned up on their doorstep. At first Alfred denied having shot George, but when pressed by Jesse he finally admitted to it.
The Coroner’s inquest, headed by Thomas Taylor, was held the following
morning, 27 April. Taylor was critical of the nursery’s gun practices. Firstly,
he questioned the necessity for having one at all, suggesting they should
employ a boy to scare the birds. He also criticised the way in which the nursery
kept the gun, particularly the fact it was stored fully loaded.
As for the shooting, he pointed out only George had provided evidence
that Alfred was responsible, as the admission extracted by Jesse was
inadmissible in Court.
In summary, Taylor stated the boys had no right to be in the office where the gun was kept, but they had got into boy-like mischief. It was impossible to say whether they were simply curiously examining the gun or playing with it. But it was unlikely Arthur would fetch the gun and deliberately shoot his friend. If a person over 14 years old killed another it was murder, unless the contrary could be proved. However, if the person was under seven it was no crime in law. Between the ages of seven and 14, as in Alfred’s case, the jury needed to consider whether the perpetrator had sufficient comprehension to know what he was doing. The jury must consider whether Alfred was playing, as boys would do, and this was an accident; or if he shot George wilfully and with knowledge and understanding. The jury deliberated for 15 minutes before returning a verdict of “Death from Misadventure.”
That very day, on what should have been George’s eight birthday, he was
laid to rest in Batley cemetery.
The Borough Court hearing of 29 April initially did not reveal anything
further, other than Alfred had never been in any trouble, and caused no
problems at home. It was in Court that Alfred was finally interrogated publicly,
this not being allowed at the inquest. And it was here, in a dramatic turn, he
finally revealed his version of events that fateful evening.
He stated George entered the potting shed asking to see the plants
tended by Alfred. The office door was wide open. George went in, got the gun
from behind the door and gave it to Alfred. Alfred was trying to put it back
when it knocked something and went off. Both he and George were in close
proximity in the office when it happened. Sharpe ran for about 10 yards then
The Mayor’s summing up and address to Alfred was recorded in The Batley News. He told Alfred that his:
….future might be a bright and successful one….but a cloud would hang over him. If he desired to get on in the world he should remember that it was only by being honourable and upright that he could hope to succeed, and he hoped the events of the past few days would be a lesson to him and to boys outside not to meddle with anything that did not belong to them. Had the gun not been touched except by those to whom it belonged a great deal of misery would have been spared. A liar was worse than a thief, for doors could be locked against a thief but the mouth of a liar could not be bolted. He trusted therefore that the prisoner would take warning. If he [took to heart all that has been said] he would find himself not merely a good lad but a good citizen, and (if he married) a good husband.
The Bench duly agreed with the verdict of the Coroner’s Jury – George’s
death was the result of misadventure. Alfred was discharged.
Whether the full truth came out in Court when Alfred finally admitted responsibility, we will never know. But the scenario described by Coroner Thomas Taylor at the earlier inquest does seem plausible. This was a case of lads messing around. Whether George did get the gun, or whether it was Alfred wanting to show off to his younger friend, is unclear. What is obvious, reading through all the evidence, it does seem to have been a horrible accident. Alfred was only just 11, a child himself. He would have been traumatised by the events of that evening – in shock and extremely frightened. No wonder he did not dare admit what happened. But still he went to seek help.
As for Crossley, he unsurprisingly declined the option to take back his gun. The Coroner’s words of two days earlier clearly hit home. If the gun had been stored correctly none of this would have happened. A boy would still be alive to celebrate his birthday. A mother and father would still have their son.
But even though this was all clearly a tragic accident, Mary Sharpe’s reaction is one with which everyone will sympathise. On hearing the verdict, she burst into tears and said “he has got off scot free, whilst we have lost our George.”
So, what became of Alfred Brearey? Did he heed the advice given by the Court? It seems he did. A warper at Taylor’s Blakeridge Mills, he married Florence Shephard on 2 September 1905 at Batley Parish Church . He was an active member of St John’s Church, Carlinghow where he was Secretary for their football club. A sports enthusiast, he was a particularly good cyclist and member of the Yorkshire Road Club. They awarded him a medal in 1909 for his record-breaking ride to Goole and back in 4¾ hours. He went on to serve with the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) in World War One, and was killed in action on 27 August 1917. He has no know gave and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial. At home he is remembered on Batley War Memorial and is recognised in the Rev. W.E. Cleworth’s Soothill War Register and Record book .
Footnotes:  Other records have the spelling Sharp, but for consistency I will use the Sharpe variant;  Jesse Sharp/Mary Windle Marriage, Batley Parish Church Marriage Register, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference WDP37/27;  GRO Death Registration for Fearnley Windle, accessed via the GRO website, reference June Quarter 1875, Dewsbury District, Volume 9B, Page 388;  Fearnley Windle/Mary Wilson marriage, Batley Parish Church Marriage Register, 19 September 1874, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference WDP37/26;  Sharp family, 1891 census England & Wales, accessed via Ancestry.com. 1891 England Census [database on-line]. Original record The National Archives Class: RG12; Piece: 3721; Folio: 137; Page: 31  Sharp family, 1901 census England & Wales, accessed via Ancestry.com. 1901 England Census [database on-line]. Original record The National Archives, Kew Class: RG13; Piece: 4258; Folio: 49; Page: 1;  His name is entered as Brearley in the Baptism Register. The error is replicated for some of his siblings. Even the Coroner in his notes occasionally records his name as Brearley, and then this is amended. Baptisms for other of Thomas and Martha Ann’s children are recorded under the surnames of Brearey or Breary;  Baptism of Arthur Brearley [sic], Batley Carr Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, Non-Conformist Records, 1646-1985 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference C7/1/2;  Brearey family, 1891 census England & Wales, accessed via Ancestry.com. 1891 England Census [database on-line], original record The National Archives RG12; Piece: 3736; Folio: 14; Page: 22;  The Leeds Mercury, 11 September 1929, accessed via Findmypast;  The Batley News & Advertiser – 1 May 1896;  Alfred Brearey/Florence Shepherd marriage, Batley Parish Church marriage register, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference WDP37/36  Cleworth, Rev. W.E. Urban District of Soothill Upper, Yorkshire, War Register and Records, 1914-1919. Batley: E.F. Roberts, n.d.
Inquest notes for George Sharpe, Coroner Thomas Taylor’s notes, accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original record at West Yorkshire Archive Service Reference C493/K/2/1/198
Kelly’s West Riding Directory, 1893, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk
No-one in Batley foresaw the consequences that the 1856 hanging of the infamous Rugeley Poisoner, Dr William Palmer , would have on the Yorkshire town. Consequences which led three local lads to end up in court in York on grave charges before the year was out.
The Staffordshire serial killer had no association with Batley, whose residents – along with those throughout the country – read with morbid fascination of the doctor’s lurid lifestyle and alleged killing spree. Yet the theatre and spectacle surrounding the murders, and subsequent enactment of justice, did strike an unfortunate chord with some in this developing Yorkshire mill town.
Such were the concerns surrounding a fair hearing for the case given its notoriety, a special Act of Parliament was rushed through to allow Palmer’s trial to take place at the Old Bailey rather than Stafford. The so-called ‘Trial of the Century’ gripped the country over 12 days in May 1856, with newspapers providing coverage of every twist and turn.
Palmer was eventually convicted of the murder of a
friend John Parsons Cook who he poisoned, it was claimed, with strychnine. This
was the first ever trial for murder by strychnine in this country. But he was
also suspected of the poisoning of many more in a bid to clear his debts –
including his wife, four children, brother and mother-in-law.
He was publicly hanged on 14 June 1856 at Stafford prison before a crowd estimated to be in excess of 30,000, many of whom camped out all night in pouring rain to ensure their place at the grisly spectacle. On the morning of his execution Charles Dickens described him as “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey dock.” .
After death Palmer’s infamy lived on, spawning whole new mini-industries with the production of souvenir broadsheets, and ballads. Even the rope-maker who made the noose had a lucrative side-line selling extra sections of rope for a guinea a time. Up and down the country Palmer’s name was on the lips of men, women and children.
Back in Batley, on Friday 3 October 1856, 12-year-old John Harris set off to start work at 7am at Joseph Jubb and Brother’s mill. The son of Ann Harris, described as a widow in poor circumstances but of irreproachable character , John had been employed at the mill for only three weeks. At 8am he ate his breakfast in the top storey of the building. With him were three other boys, Joshua Firth (age 15), Benjamin Preston (age 14) and 13-year-old Abraham Sharp. John had known Joshua and Abraham for a couple of years, and Benjamin for a couple of months.
The area where the boys breakfasted contained a trap door, and nearby stood a steam-operated crane which was used to hoist wool etc. up from the lower stories of the mill. As John prepared to return to work the other lads were still larking around. Inspired by the recent trial they decided to play a game of ‘Hang Palmer’, with Joshua declaring that the new boy John would be Palmer. John cried “You shall not hang Palmer with me” and tried to run away. In his witness statement John went on to say:
Preston ran after me and caught me, then Sharp tied a rope under my arms and round my body, the others assisting him. Then Firth tied the rope to the crane. I tried to get loose, but I could not. I told them to let me go, but they never spoke…I am sure I did not play with the other boys, and they tied the rope round me against my wish. Firth has thrashed me many a time when I have gone for water, but the others have never thrashed me.
Perhaps ‘Hang Palmer’ had been re-enacted before in the mill. Perhaps it was a prank played elsewhere by boys up and down the country, such was the impact of the deeds, trial and death of ‘Prince of Poisoners,’ William Palmer. This time though the game went badly wrong, with tragic results for all involved.
On another floor workmen set the crane in motion to
pull up a sheet of wool. The chain caught the rope tied to John, he became
entangled in the chain which squeezed his body, leaving him incapable of
calling for help. He was drawn over the crane roller towards the ceiling beam around
eight feet above at the top of the mill, where he mercifully lost consciousness
as he was crushed.
Benjamin ran down to the second story and alerted
workman Robert Senior who raced up to the top. The crane lever was lowered and
John released. Surgeon Mr Halbut was summoned. In addition to concussion,
John sustained a fractured left arm and a spinal injury causing paralysis to
his lower limbs.
He was carried home, where leeches were applied to his head in a bid to treat him. It was not until 8 October, after unsurprisingly failing to recover from his severe injuries, that he was finally transferred to hospital, over at Leeds Infirmary. Here doctors kept authorities informed of the seriousness of the young victim’s wounds.
With John now conscious but perilously ill, in mid-October Joshua, Benjamin and Abraham were taken into custody, charged with causing him serious bodily harm. So critical was John’s condition, magistrates deemed it necessary to take his statement at his Infirmary bedside in the presence of the three accused. The younger two boys placed the prime responsibility on the elder boy casting him in the role of ringleader, saying they wanted him to untie John but Joshua refused to. The West Riding magistrates released the boys on bail.
On 21 October they appeared again before the West Riding magistrate’s court in Leeds. As a result of evidence from Leeds Infirmary’s Dr Samuel Smith that John might not recover, the three boys this time were refused bail. They were taken to the Borough Gaol to await their next appearance a week later. At this subsequent hearing the Infirmary Medical Officer once more stated John was still dangerously ill. This time the case was adjourned for a month, and bail granted.
John died in Leeds Infirmary on the morning of
Tuesday 25 November 1856. That afternoon the trio were brought before the West
Riding magistrates at Leeds Court house once more where Mr Hardwick, house
surgeon at Leeds Infirmary, stated John had died as a result of his spinal
injuries. Joshua, Benjamin and Abraham were bailed, awaiting trial at the
winter Gaol Delivery at York in December on a charge of manslaughter.
The inquest, held the following afternoon, concurred with the cause of death. Mr Ferns, solicitor for the prisoners, presented a supportive letter from the Jubb brothers, mill owners and employers of the lads. The letter read;
Batley, near Dewsbury, Nov. 25th, 1856. Mr. Ferns, Sir, – We understand you are employed to defend the three boys charged with inflicting injury on the lad Harris, who has died in the Infirmary. As owners of the factory where the accident happened, we are desirous to express to the coroner and jury our entire conviction of the innocence of the boys’ intentions towards the deceased, and that the boys were playing together without any evil design as boys usually do. We may mention, in case it might come in useful in any way, that we deposited £10 with the vicar of this parish to defray the expenses of Harris’s funeral, in case of death and that if he had lived we had arranged with the factory inspectors to pay down a further sum for his benefit. Yours respectfully JOSEPH JUBB AND BROTHERS.
The coroner, Mr Blackburn, did not allow it as evidence. Duly, the jury reached a verdict of manslaughter.
The following day John was buried in Beckett Street
Cemetery, Leeds .
Around a fortnight later, on 12 December 1856, the three youths were in York facing the charge of manslaughter before Mr Commissioner Russell Gurney Esq QC. The prosecution case, presented by Mr Morley and Mr Hannay, hinged on the fact that although the affair was in sport, the refusal of John to join in made it manslaughter. Mr Middleton, for the defence, claimed John’s death was purely accidental arising from boyish sport. The crane was set in motion by a hand over which the prisoners had no control and, as a result, they could not be guilty of manslaughter. Summing up, his Lordship Commissioner Gurney in effect told the jury that if the facts presented were proved, the death of John was unintentional and did not spring from the acts of the accused. As such the jury must acquit the prisoners. The jury took this advice and passed a verdict of not guilty.
So, who were these boys? From preliminary searches of censuses, parish registers and civil registration information it appears that they all, along with John, lived in the Havercroft area of Batley. Joshua is most likely the son of Thomas and Mary Firth (née Ellis). Benjamin was most likely the son of Joseph and Ann Preston (née Preston). Abraham was the son of Joseph and Rebecca Sharp (née Marshall).
The three lads were discharged into the custody of their parents, free to return home. One mother though, Ann Harris, would never have her son home again. By extension, and through a prank gone wrong, he too can be considered a collateral victim of Palmer.
As to which mill in Batley was the scene of this tragic event, none of the newspaper articles I have read identify it. The Jubbs owned several in town over the years. There is a possibility it was their [Old] Branch [Road] Mill which burned down at the beginning of September 1876  and which they owned outright at the time of the John Harris tragedy. In fact, just over six months after the York trial they were fined for employing children under 13 years of age without schooling at that particular mill . In the same period, they were also associated with New Ing Mills. Originally partners there, they eventually acquired sole possession by 1859, and commenced a building programme which significantly changed the premises in the 1860s. However, at the time of the incident New Ing Mills was in joint ownership, so this I believe is the less likely location.
But, as I hope this tale illustrates, it is amazing to contemplate the hidden history which took place in buildings long gone, and others still standing, in my hometown of Batley.
 William Palmer website http://staffscc.net/wppalmer/ ;  Household Words, A Weekly Journal, 14 June 1856;  The Leeds Times, 29 November 1856;  The Intelligencer Supplement, 18 October 1856;  The Leeds Intelligencer, 29 November 1856;  Leeds Beckett Street Cemetery Records, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, original records at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Ref LC/CEM (B)/1/1, Numbers 1-18747, 1845-1862;  Coincidentally, another similarly named mill in the area, Branch Mill which was built by the Jubbs in around 1874 and latterly owned by Messrs. J., T., and J. Taylor, burned down in July 1915;  The Leeds Times, 25 July 1857;
Sources: (All newspapers accessed via the British Newspaper Archive on Findmypast)
Huddersfield and Holmfirth Examiner, 29 November and 13 December 1856
The Bradford Observer, 27 November 1856;
The Intelligencer Supplement, 18 and 25 October 1856;
The Leeds Intelligencer, 30 October, 1 and 29 November 1856;
The Leeds Mercury, 27 November 1856;
The Leeds Times, 1 and 29 November 1856, and 25 July 1857;
England and Wales Censuses 1841 to 1871 accessed via Ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast;
GRO Indexes, accessed via Findmypast and the GRO website;
West Yorkshire Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1835, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, original records at West Yorkshire Archive Service;
West Yorkshire Church of England Baptisms 1813 – 1910, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, original records at West Yorkshire Archive Service;
It was 4.30am on 30 May 1881. 14-year-old Peter Kelly, a hurrier at West End Colliery, was making his way to work. As he approached Mary Wrigglesworth’s  house and butcher’s shop, a short distance from his home, he noticed a shape crouched in the doorway. Curiosity piqued, he investigated further. A bare arm poked out from under a sack. This was tied loosely round the body with a clothes line. The feet were also bound. There was no movement from the figure, no response to Peter’s enquiries. Life was extinct.
Peter called the attention of another miner, Joss Lee, who was also on his way to work. Joss stood watch over the body whilst Peter returned home to fetch his father William, who untied the cord to reveal a semi-naked body. The police were hastily summoned. They bundled the corpse onto a handcart, and removed it to Joseph Kemp’s Victoria Hotel, Carlinghow. Dr Myles William O’Reilly of Batley Carr, the district Medical Officer for the West Riding Constabulary, was called to examine the body.
The combined police and preliminary medical examination revealed the body was bound by its legs, arms and torso in a strange sitting position, and covered with a potato sack. Clothed in only trousers with braces hanging loose, elastic-side boots and grey stockings, around its neck was a paper collar with a button still attached and embedded in the swollen neck. This appeared to indicate a shirt had possibly been ripped or cut away. By the side of the body was a coat and vest, and on top of the sack was a billycock hat .
On checking the pockets no money was found, only some old letters from 1880, business cards for a Bradford Westgate eatery, keys, a knife, a purse containing spectacles and some old bills, the most recent dated 26 May 1881. There were also three cartes de visite style photographs taken some time ago. One was of two women, whilst another was of the victim with a woman. One of the images, according to reports in The York Herald, was identified as Miss Wrigglesworth , the person in whose doorstep the body had been dumped. All this documentation enabled quick identification of the body, despite the dark, swollen appearance of the face.
As Monday 30 May 1881 dawned, 43-year-old bachelor John Critchley, second son of prominent local Batley coal mine proprietor and J.P. James Critchley, became the centre of a potential murder enquiry. And it soon became clear the location where his body was discovered held particular significance – John Critchley and Mary Wrigglesworth had been on intimate terms, according to some reports, for almost 20 years, although his family objected to the relationship and she, it seemed, “had not regarded him with particular favour” . Nevertheless, he was well-known in the neighbourhood, with some sections of the press reporting him as being a frequent visitor to Mary’s shop.
When the police roused her to break the news that her former sweetheart had been found dead on her doorstep, she fainted. Revived with smelling salts, she informed them they had broken up some time ago, she had last seen John before Christmas and she had heard only vague rumours of his whereabouts and mode of life.
Huddersfield Chronicle paints a vivid
picture of High Street, where the body was found, describing it as a narrow
….partially filled with houses and small shops, built in a straggling manner; and directly opposite the butcher’s shop in question, where Miss Wrigglesworth resided and carried on business, there is a respectable-looking cottage house, one storey high. Nearly opposite is the Lord Nelson beerhouse [this, according to police evidence, had closed promptly at 10pm on Sunday night] and some cottages, evidently occupied by colliers or mill workers. Above the butcher’s shop are some newly-erected ones, used for various purposes. The main point of interest is a small shop which has been erected close to the gable of the house, which forms one of a row of three – two-storied old cottages – and in the one at the end nearest the road lived Miss Wrigglesworth….
You can almost picture the narrow dirt road that night, no more than seven yards  at its widest, with its higgledy-piggledy houses, all quiet but for the occasional trot of horses and rumble of cart wheels. Unlit by street lights, somewhere in the vicinity are persons unknown, alert and watchful, awaiting the chance to dispose of the body of John Critchley.
The District Coroner Thomas Taylor Esq, who had three inquests over in Dewsbury that day, was hastily contacted. An early inquest and post mortem to determine the cause of death were deemed vital – decomposition was already well-advanced and a lid needed to be quickly put on the wild local and even national speculation, with theories that this was a brutal murder rapidly gaining ground. Large groups of people were already congregating around the Victoria Hotel to discuss the sensational situation and speculating about potential murder methods. The most popular theories included John Critchley had been shot or kicked to death  with his body immersed in water for several days after .
That very same
evening, at 9pm, John Critchley’s inquest formally opened at the Victoria Hotel.
The jury was sworn in and accountant Joseph Fenton elected foreman. This first
meeting only covered the formalities of identification, and once these
preliminaries were complete it adjourned.
coal proprietor of Grosvenor Terrace, confirmed the body downstairs was that of
his brother. From his evidence it transpired his brother lived a somewhat
Born on 4 August 1837 and baptised on 25 August that year at Dewsbury All Saints , John was the second son of James and Sarah Jane Critchley (née Illingworth). Their other children included Robert Illingworth (1835) Thomas (1840, died 1850), Charles James (1843), Jane Elizabeth (1848), Mary (born and died 1850), Walter (1853), William Henry (1855) and Mary Ellen (1857).
James and Sarah Jane married in Dewsbury All Saints church on 8 January 1835 . James, born in Warley near Halifax, was described as a card maker , but he had his fingers in many business pies. In the 1841 census the family lived at Market Place in Dewsbury with James described as a publican . In 1851 whilst John was at boarding school in Pontefract  his parents are recorded at 615 Market Place, Dewsbury with the multiplicity of James’ interests becoming obvious – coal dealer, card maker and inn keeper all listed in the census occupation column . In 1861, and living at the Top of Batley Carr, James’ occupation had crystallised, now described as a coal owner employing 4 boys and 100 men. John was back with his family in this census, his occupation being a farmer of 130 acres employing six men, three smiths, three agents, six cart men and eight labourers . In 1871  and 1881  James was a coal proprietor and now the Critchleys lived at the magnificently imposing Batley Hall. But in neither of these censuses can John be found.
From the inquest evidence John’s failure to put down any roots came into sharp focus. Walter revealed at one point his brother worked as a cardmaker for older brother Robert Illingworth Critchley, but could not settle to business. As a result, at the time of his death, he had no fixed occupation. His base, when in the area, was his parents’ Batley Hall home. But he frequently left home for weeks at a time, with minimal contact with his family who often had no idea of his whereabouts. Walter revealed he last saw his brother in November and he had last been in touch via a letter at Christmas when John’s address was lodgings at 24 James Street, Bradford. After that, no contact with his family is recorded . Neither is John at that location in the 1881 census.
However, despite his failure to keep in touch with his family since Christmas, he had visited the area relatively recently as the newspapers soon established. About a month prior to the discovery of his body, Miss Wrigglesworth’s sister had seen him in Batley Carr, but not to speak to. And an acquaintance had spoken to him in Dewsbury towards the end of March, when he had been very chatty .
The post-mortem was
carried out at the Victoria Hotel at 4am on the morning of 31 May by Dr
O’Reilly, assisted by the Critchley family doctor, Mr Stockwell. The early hour
was chosen because of the rapidness of decomposition, but also no doubt in an
effort to minimise the chance of large, excitable crowds gathering. Although
the location, a public house, might seem odd to us today, post mortems could
still be carried out in public houses and even private homes in this period.
Only six years had passed since the 1875 Public Health Act which had legislated
for local authorities to provide public mortuaries and dedicated suitable
places to conduct post mortems. And only in January and February 1881 was the
Victoria Hotel the location for a series of very high-profile inquests relating
to a major boiler explosion at a Carlinghow mill, an explosion which resulted
in the deaths of 16 workers.
The post mortem results were not revealed until the inquest reopened on 2 June, but essentially no marks of violence were found on the body. There was no evidence of immersion in water. Decomposition was suggestive of death taking place at least 48 hours before O’Reilly first saw the body. The only visible cause which could account for death was fatty degeneration of the heart . However, given the odd nature of the case, O’Reilly arranged for various organs and tissue samples to be sent for further analysis to Thomas Scattergood, eminent Leeds surgeon and lecturer on Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at the Leeds School of Medicine.
Post mortem formalities complete, Critchley’s body was placed in a leaden coffin and soldered firmly shut. It was then lowered in an oak cask and taken to Batley Hall, the family home.
Shortly after 11am
the following morning, 1 June 1881, the hearse, three mourning coaches and a
number of mostly empty private carriages left the Hall for the private burial
ceremony in Batley Cemetery.
The massive wreath-strewn, polished oak coffin was adorned with brass fittings and the plate bore the inscription “In Memory of John Critchley, of Batley Hall, aged 43 years.” The coffin was carried by a number of Messrs. Critchley workmen, and many employees attended the service. Chief mourners were John’s parents Mr and Mrs James Critchley, brothers Robert Illingworth Critchley and his wife, Charles James Critchley, Walter Critchley and his wife, brother Willie Critchley, sister Mary Ellen and her husband Arthur Jubb, and aunt Ann Critchley. Rev. T. G. Davies, vicar of Batley, conducted the service, which was not without incident. Policemen were stationed around the cemetery perimeter to keep back the large crowds congregated outside. During the ceremony, an unseemly struggle broke out, which resulted in the storming of the cemetery gates and a considerable number of female factory workers gaining entry.
Whispers from the post mortem now started to seep out, and the mood shifted slightly. Newspapers started to point out that the deceased was of medium height and very stout and “what the medical fraternity would regard as an apoplectic subject…” . Others stated:
The impression that the deceased has not been murdered appears to be gaining ground in the district….The supposition…that the unhappy man had probably died amongst the companions of his wretchedness, and that they, to clear themselves of possible odium, got rid of the body in the most ingenious manner they could hit upon, seems to be regarded as the most probable theory .
So, whilst maybe
not murder, they believed his lifestyle and the company he kept materially
contributed to his demise.
speculation was proving extremely distressing to his family, a fact which the
Critchley family solicitor, Mr Scholefield, was at pains to point out when the
inquest reopened at the Victoria Hotel on 2 June. This undoubtedly influenced The
Dewsbury Reporter’s assessment of John, in which they played down any hint
of a debauched lifestyle:
“ …when he returned [home] he always came back healthy and in good condition, and seldom if ever appeared to have been drinking to excess. He was not a drunkard, though fond of what is called a social glass. He was a generous-hearted man, always ready to help a friend, full of good humour, chatty and agreeable, and not at all the man against whom a person might be supposed to cherish a grudge and desire to do him bodily harm.” 
This second phase of the inquest, on 2 June 1881, saw a parade of witnesses . These included Robert Hammerton, the proprietor of a Bradford eating house whose business cards were found on John Critchley’s body. The deceased was a regular visitor to Hammerton’s establishment, which was located just around the corner from his last known address. He confirmed Critchley last visited on the afternoon of 26 May and ate a meal of lamb, new potatoes, steeped peas and mint sauce. Hammerton described Critchley as being “merry” and apparently affected by drink, but also added this was the worse state of intoxication he had seen him in. Critchley had briefly fallen asleep, and finally left at around 3pm. This was the last recorded sighting of John Critchley alive.
included Peter Kelly, William Kelly, William Jenkinson (a card fettler living
at High Street), George Addy (a Sergeant with the West Riding Constabulary),
Myles William O’Reilly, John Dyson (a West Riding Police Constable), and Zillah
Susan Booth (wife of stonemason William Booth and another High Street
interest in these testimonies were the reports by William Jenkinson, John Dyson
and Zillah Booth. The former, a close neighbour of Mary Wrigglesworth, had been
out around midnight and noticed nothing. Around 1.45am he was awoken by a
trap passing in the direction of his neighbour’s shop. His house was separated
from Mary Wrigglesworth’s by an entrance to a Yard. Going at a quick trot, he
was not aware of the trap stopping.
Zillah Booth also reported hearing a trap going towards Miss Wrigglesworth’s shop at around 1.35am. She stated two people, one a woman, walked ahead of it. She heard no voices, only footsteps. Within five minutes the trap returned, at a quicker pace accompanied by the walkers. The female carried on down the road whilst the trap turned off down Beck Lane. The trap had a distinctive sound, as if the wheels had been muffled . She had heard the same vehicle, a light cart, the previous night at 2.10am when it had travelled in the direction of Miss Wriggleswoth’s shop, a 100 yards from the Booth residence, again rapidly returning within minutes.
John Dyson was the
policeman whose beat covered High Street for the key period. A clear night,
between 9pm on Sunday and 3am on Monday he patrolled the street five times. He
last passed Miss Wrigglesworth’s shop at around 2.35am as day was breaking but
noticed nothing unusual. Corroboration that he had not shirked his duty came from
the watchman from Messrs. J and R Talbot’s Bullrush Mill, who accompanied PC
Dyson on his last sweep of High Street.
According to the
notes made by Coroner Thomas Taylor, the only vehicle PC Dyson saw whilst on
duty was a dogcart (a light horse-drawn vehicle) going towards Carlinghow, down
High Street and through Cross Bank at 11pm, containing four people. However,
newspaper reports of the inquest also note the policeman saw a conveyance used
for carrying dead horses between 11.30pm and midnight. It was opposite Bullrush
Mill and it passed Victoria Street going towards Dewsbury. He never saw or
heard the trap just before 2am which the two High Street residents reported.
The inquest adjourned once more to await the results of tissue and organ tests, and allow for further police enquiries in Leeds and Bradford ad well as locally. It resumed at the Victoria Hotel on Thursday 9 June 1881 . The principal witness was Leeds Surgeon Thomas Scattergood who presented his findings: There was no evidence that John Critchley’s death was the result of poisoning.
Airton, of the West Riding Constabulary, offered no further evidence. Despite
extensive enquiries there were no reported sightings of John Critchley between
leaving Mr Hammerton’s refreshment room on the afternoon of Thursday 26 May and
the estimated time of death at midnight on Friday 27 May. Airton did suggest
presenting a further witness, a woman, who had seen John Critchley enter and
shortly afterwards leave Mary Wrigglrsworth’s shop, this only two weeks prior
to his death. The jury following guidance from the Coroner, who pointed out
that as this was a fortnight before Critchley’s death it would probably not
help determine cause of death, decided against calling her.
After some deliberation, and with the overwhelming evidence of the two medical men that no poison was evident and that fatty degeneration of the heart was the cause of death, the jury delivered its verdict: “That John Critchley was found dead on a doorstep in Carlinghow on 30th May, 1881, and the jury are unanimous in their verdict, based on medical evidence, that the deceased died from natural causes.“
The jury urged the
police to continue their investigations as to the place of death and how the
body ended up on a Carlinghow doorstep. But in effect that was it. Whether John
Critchley’s body was clandestinely transported to Miss Wrigglesworth’s abode by
persons wishing to avoid the unwelcome scrutiny his death might have caused
them, or even his family, was not discovered. But it is clear they were not
strangers to him, given the location they chose to dispose of his body.
By the time of the 1891 census Mary Wrigglesworth, now described as a general shopkeeper, resided at Wood Hill, Dewsbury . Her former butcher’s shop and house, street name now changed from High Street to Cross Bank Street, was listed on the 1891 census but annotated to say no-one “slept in the place” . Subsequent censuses, and it is the more familiar name of Cross Bank Road which appears. I wonder if it is possible the shop later became Millman butchers? The location, opposite the Nelson would fit. These buildings have long since gone in the Batley clearances.
The imposing Critchley family headstone marking their Batley cemetery burial plot, in its prestigious location in front of the twin chapels alongside the graves of other local dignitaries and businessmen, makes for interesting reading once you know the story of John. Exact dates mark the passing of his parents and other family members. John’s simply reads “Died May 1881” for a reason – the exact date is not known.
And next time you
have a drink in the Victoria public house, pause and think. You are privileged
to be drinking in a place steeped in Batley’s hidden and long-forgotten
Notes:  In many reports, including Thomas Taylor’s inquest notes, she is referred to as Mary Wrigglesworth. In census documents and her 16 April 1837 baptism entry in Birstall parish register she is Wigglesworth. For consistency I have used the Wrigglesworth spelling used by the Coroner.  Bowler hat.  The York Herald, 1 June 1881.  The York Herald, 1 June 1881.  The Huddersfield Chronicle, 4 June 1881  Thomas Taylor’s inquest notes of PC John Dyson’s 2 June 1881 evidence states 7 yards wide, whilst The Dewsbury Reporter of 4 June 1881 states PC Dyson said 5 yards.  The Manchester Evening News, 31 May 1881.  The Manchester Evening News, 1 June 1881.  Dewsbury All Saints Baptism Register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archive Service Reference WDP9/11.  Dewsbury All Saints Marriage Register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archive Service Reference WDP9/22.  Manufacturing the combs and implements for combing (carding) wool. 1841 Census, Reference HO107/1268/45/19, accessed via Findmypast. 1851 Census, Reference HO107/2330/108/3, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk.  1851 Census, Reference HO107/2324/325/28, accessed via Findmypast. 1861 Census, Reference RG09/3399/96/36, accessed via Findmypast.  1871 Census, Reference RG10/4583/22/37.  1881 Census, Reference RG11/4546/152/24.  30 May 1881 John Critchley Inquest, Thomas Taylor Esq (Coroner) Notes, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archives Service (Wakefield), Reference C493/K/2/1/142.  The Dewsbury Reporter, 4 June 1881.  2 June 1881 JohnCritchley Inquest, Thomas Taylor Esq (Coroner) Notes, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archives Service (Wakefield), Reference C493/K/2/1/142.  The Manchester Evening News, 31 May 1881.  The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 1 June 1881.  The Dewsbury Reporter, 4 June 1881.  2 June 1881 JohnCritchley Inquest, Thomas Taylor Esq (Coroner) Notes, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archives Service (Wakefield), Reference C493/K/2/1/142  Huddersfield Chronicle, 4 June 1881.  9 June 1881 JohnCritchley Inquest, Thomas Taylor Esq (Coroner) Notes, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909 [database on-line]. Original at West Yorkshire Archives Service (Wakefield), Reference C493/K/2/1/142.  1891 Census, Reference RG12/3735/57/7, accessed via Findmypast.  1891 Census, Reference RG12/3721/30/28, accessed via Findmypast.
In my last Aveyard post I wrote about the horrific death in August 1858 of toddler George Aveyard, the son of Daniel and Sophia Aveyard. In it I mentioned his older brother Simeon, who was sent to seek his missing young brother. At the time Gildersome-born Simeon, whose birth was registered in the March Quarter of 1853 , was only four.
In a tragic twist
of fate Simeon’s life was also cut far too short through an accident in 1873,
when only 20 years old. In another cruel parallel, his death also resulted in
an inquest before Thomas Taylor, the very same Coroner who headed George’s
inquest over 15 years earlier.
The Aveyard family
moved to Howden Clough shortly after George’s death. A coal mining family,
Simeon followed that traditional occupation. It is here his history is
At about 5.30am on 3 September 1873 he and his father Daniel set off to work at Messrs. Haigh and Greaves Howden Clough Colliery Company’s Middleton Main Pit. Long since gone, it was in the Pheasant Drive, Geldard Road and Nab Lane area of present day Birstall.
Simeon worked there
for several years, but for the past couple he’d achieved the pinnacle status of
hewer. He worked his own bank around seven yards wide, with a yard-thick seam
of coal. The roof was considered generally good, consisting of 9-12-inch-thick
clod  or black bind .
However, Simeon had
told his father there had been some slips in his place the previous day. As a
consequence, Daniel, a seasoned miner, strongly cautioned his son to keep his
wood up to the coal face to support it.
Admit it. How many
sons ignore their father’s advice? Youth is always right? It’s an age-old
dilemma. In this case the carefree invincibility of youth proved wrong, with
John Woffenden, the
pit Deputy, had known Simeon from his infancy. Doing his round of the pit he
arrived at Simeon’s bank at around 7.20am. He could hear groaning and he found
the young man doubled over with his head between his knees and two pieces of
clod on his back. These had fallen between two wooden props which had lids 
whilst he was apparently cutting down coal close to the face. Several other
props were lying around ready to be put up when required. Despite his father’s
warnings it appears Simeon had failed to ensure the area was adequately shored
After attempting to
make him more comfortable Woffenden fetched two other men. Between them they
freed Simeon, but his spinal injuries were so severe he could not straighten
himself and was unable to move his legs. He also sustained several cuts to his
head. Despite his injuries he was fully conscious.
It was around 8am when Daniel learned of the accident, meeting the men bringing his son to the pit bottom. Simeon was carried home where Robert Rayner, a Gomersal General Practitioner/Surgeon,  attended him. Rayner was familiar with mining injuries and his name crops up in connection with ones received at Howden Clough colliery.
However, Simeon failed to recover, gradually wasting away over the next few days. As his life ebbed away, he admitted to his father that the sole blame for the accident was his. He died between 2-3 o’clock in the afternoon of 15 September.
The inquest, held the following day at Gomersal’s White Horse Hotel, reached the verdict that Simeon had been accidentally crushed .
Simeon’s body was interred in St Peter’s churchyard, Birstall on 17 September 1873 .
 GRO Birth Registration of Simeon Aveyard, accessed via the GRO website, GRO Reference March Quarter 1853, Hunslet, Vol 9B, Page 219.  Indurated clay.  Indurated argillaceous shale or clay, very commonly forming the roof of a coal seam and frequently containing clay ironstone.  A short piece of timber about two feet long placed on top of a prop to support the roof.  1871 & 1881 Censuses accessed via Fimdmypast, Original at TNA, Reference: RG10/4588/27/11 and RG11/4551/31/10  West Yorkshire Coroner’s Notebook, Thomas Taylor’s Notes of Inquest of Simeon Aveyard, 16 September 1873, Accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, Original at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP5/1/4/4  Burial of Simeon Aveyard, St Peter’s Birstall Burial Register, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, Original West Yorkshire Archive Service – Reference Number: WDP5/1/4/4
Observer, 17 September 1873
Reporter, 20 September 1873
GRESLEY, WILLIAM STUKELEY. GLOSSARY OF TERMS USED IN COAL MINING. London, New York, E & F.N. Spon 1883.
As a general rule I don’t normally ‘do’ recent family history blog posts. But I’m making an exception for this event in 1968. It concerns the death of my great uncle, Andrew Callaghan. The brother of my grandpa, Andrew never married and he has no direct descendants, so no-one is closely affected. I wanted to write this blog as otherwise he may never be remembered.
To set the scene, the Callaghan family were originally from the Townland of Carrabeg (Carrow Beg) in the District Electoral Division of Urlaur, in County Mayo. They were a farming family. Their two-roomed house housing eight in 1911 (two less than the decade before) was roofed not with slate, but with a perishable material such as wood or thatch. Their outbuildings consisted of a cow house and a piggery . A typical rural family living from day to day.
My great grandfather, Michael, and some of his sons came over to England seasonally (East Yorkshire according to my uncle Brian) for farming work to supplement the family income. It was a lifestyle Andrew continued with, even when he took up permanent residence in England. He never really put down roots.
Mum only has vague memories of her uncle Andrew. One was a family anecdote about a cow. To pay for the passage to America for his eldest sister Bridget, Andrew was tasked with the responsibility of taking a fattened cow for sale at market. The cow was sold, but the family never saw the money. It all sounds slightly Jack and the Beanstalk-ish minus the beans and giant. Despite it all, Bridget did leave Ireland for a new life in North America in September 1909.
Another memory mum has is that of a gift her uncle Andrew gave her, a pen. It is something which stuck in her mind because presents in the family were rare, typically reserved for Christmas and birthdays. Maybe this was typical of growing up in the 1940s and 1950s.
Andrew led an itinerant lifestyle when he left County Mayo for England, moving where farm labouring work took him. He occasionally turned up at my grandparents house when he happened to be in the area, and short of cash! Grandpa usually fell soft but with a wife and eight children to support, this intermittent and unpredictable financial support was difficult.
As for his demise, mum recalls her dad being informed about the possible death of his brother following local media appeals for relatives of an Andrew Callaghan. It was mum’s brother-in-law – my dad’s sister’s husband Denis – who alerted the family. He worked in the local media industry and put two and two together.
Mum recalls her dad identified the body and, along with another brother Martin, he paid for the funeral. It was over in Wakefield. She also remembers whilst other family members viewed Andrew’s body she wasn’t allowed to, being advised it was bad luck because she was pregnant.
So I sort of knew about Andrew’s back-story. But you know the adage “A builder’s house is never finished?” Well I reckon the same applies to genealogists. I’m that busy doing family history for others, my own research is sadly neglected. In fact most of the writing for this blog post was done in the wee small hours!
Andrew’s death certificate  was something I never got round to ordering. The final push came with the impending General Register Office (GRO) price increases earlier this year (2019). This was a death certificate not covered by the cheaper PDF option, so I was especially determined to beat the price rise.
The certificate duly arrived in early February 2019, and it was an intriguing one. It states Andrew was 76, a farm labourer of no fixed abode. He died at Pinderfields Hospital, Wakefield on 7 February 1968. The copy certificate I have is dated 7 February 2019, so exactly 51 years to the date of his death. His death was not registered until some six weeks later, on 21 March 1968. This followed the 20 March inquest. Cause of death was pretty gruesome, as indicated in the certificate snapshot, below.
I was left with lots of questions. I don’t know why, but the hospital death threw me. But the big questions were around why was there a delay between death and inquest which consequently held up registration? Why “insufficient evidence” around the cause of such horrific-sounding injuries? Where had he sustained these injuries? What investigations were carried out to discover the cause of them?
Yet despite these questions, once more my quest to find the answers had to wait.
Five months later I finally squeezed in an opportunity to pick up Andrew’s story. I had a small window of time to look at the Wakefield Express. It’s a paper which is not online, so it meant a special visit to Wakefield Local Studies Library.
The series of reports spanning six weeks and three editions sums up the tale perfectly. I’ve reproduced the reports in full here.
Wakefield Express – 10 February 1968
A 77-year-old Leeds man, Mr Andrew Callaghan, of Wharf Street, who was found lying with severe head injuries in the middle of Aberford Road, Stanley, on Tuesday, died in Pinderfields Hospital on Wednesday.
He is thought to have been struck by a vehicle.
Wakefield Express – 17 February 1968
‘Mystery man’s death appeal’
When an inquest opened on Tuesday on a 76-year-old man found lying injured in Aberford Road, Stanley, last week, the Coroner (Mr P. S. Gill) appealed for witnesses and relatives of the dead man to come forward.
He adjourned until March [?] the inquest on Andrew Callaghan, of no fixed address, who died in Pinderfields Hospital on February 7.
D.C. G. Browne (Coroner’s Officer) said Mr Callaghan was found lying in the road at the Leeds side of the Ne[w?]mark[et?] crossroads at about 12.[?] a.m. on February 6. It was snowing at the time.
He was suffering from injuries which suggested that he had been struck by a motor vehicle. He was taken to Clayton Hospital where he died next day.
No witnesses of the accident had come forward and efforts to trace relatives had failed. Investigations by the West Riding Police were continuing.
D.C. Browne said he had found in the man’s possession official documents, including a birth certificate and pension book, giving his name and an address in Wharfe Street, Leeds. Inquiries had been made at the address, which was a type of lodging house, but he was not known there.
“From his clothing, I think he was of the labouring type, travelling the country,” he added.
Adjourning the inquest, the Coroner said: “I hope that someone [is] able to tell us something about the accident will come forward. I include in the appeal anyone who was travelling along the Aberford Road about midnight or late at night in February 5.”
Wakefield Express – 23 March 1968
Open verdict on man (76) found in road
A Wakefield inquest jury on Wednesday returned an Open verdict on Andrew Callaghan, aged 76, who died in Pinderfields Hospital on February 7 after being found lying injured in Aberford Road, Stanley.
The Coroner (Mr P. S. Gill) told the jury: “It would appear that he must have been struck by a motor vehicle, although there is no evidence that he was.”
He recalled that the inquest was adjourned on February 13, when an appeal was made for witnesses of the accident to come forward.
On that occasion the Coroner’s Officer (D.C. G Browne) said that Mr Callaghan was found lying in the road on the Leeds side of Newmarket crossroads at about 12.30 a.m. on February 6.
Documents in his possession gave his address as a lodging house in Leeds, but inquiries showed that he was not known there.
FIVE YEARS AGO
On Wednesday Mr John Callaghan , a retired trainer  of Moorside Avenue,  Dewsbury Moor, said that he had not seen his brother for five years. He was then a farm labourer. He did not know where he had been living.
John H. Kenward, of Queen Elizabeth Road, Eastmoor, said he was driving a car in Aberford Road when he saw Mr Callaghan lying in the road. He went to telephone for help and waited with another motorist, Mr David Lloyd Gladwin, of Grove Road, Wakefield, until the ambulance arrived.
“When I first arrived on the scene the body was covered with snow,” he added.
P.C. D. Parker said he searched the area and found nothing to indicate how the accident occurred. No witnesses had been found who could give assistance.
Dr Joseph Adler, pathologist said Mr Callaghan seemed to have been struck about chest height and had received a fractured skull, a broken neck and broken arms.
At the close of the inquest, the Coroner expressed appreciation of the help given by Mr Kenward and Mr Gladwin.
Six things struck me:
The inaccuracy of newspaper reports which reinforces the need to check against other sources. For example the first report said Andrew was 77; there are discrepancies in the spelling of Wharf(e) Street; and my grandpa’s occupation and address are incorrect. So corroborate and don’t take at face-value;
These newspapers were chock-a-block with road traffic accidents and offences, a sign of the times maybe with less stringent driving laws, including ones around drink driving? It was only the year before Andrew’s death that the drink driving limit was introduced, but attitudes weren’t the same towards the offence as they are today. Or maybe more a comment about the changes in the local newspaper industry – far much more local news back then so stories that would never make it today with limited space and far fewer papers, were actually covered. Also maybe more incidents were routinely reported to the authorities, with driving and car-ownership on the increase yet still more of a rarity in the late 1960s than today. This is an interesting insight into the history of driving and road safety;
The low-tech investigations of the time which seemed to be limited to visiting a Leeds address, putting out an appeal for witnesses and undertaking a search of the area. Also, as a lay person looking at the brief press reports, it seems incredible that they did not know whether or not the injuries were sustained by a motor vehicle. More to the point there seemed little impetus to find out;
The total whitewash of an inquest. Someone was responsible. Yet was homeless Irishman Andrew so low down in the social pecking order that investigating his death really wasn’t worth pursuing beyond the preliminaries? This was the era of “No dogs, No Blacks, No Irish.” Within a couple of months of his death that was that, case wrapped up;
The lonely, awfulness of Andrew’s life. To be out on a clearly bitterly cold late night in the depths of winter with no place to go. Maybe it was his choice, but a 76-year-old man who had lost touch with his family, with no place to call home, and whose essential travelling documents included his birth certificate because, let’s face it, there was no other place to keep it than on his person; and
That today, with increasing level of social dislocation and homelessness, this situation will be one which continues with people dying alone in their homes or on the streets with no immediately identifiable next of kin.
At least I’ve now managed to find out more about my great uncle. But it’s an unsettling tale which has left me feeling incredibly disconcerted.
Footnote: Although it may not have impacted in this case, a delayed inquest may result in a death registration not falling within the expected Quarter, of even year.
Update via Twitter from Chalfont Research (@ChalfontR):
From the details in the blog entry, it looks like a classic example of knowing what happened, i.e. a hit & run road accident but having found no actual evidence or witnesses to be able to prove it, hence the open verdict.
Callaghan Household, Ireland – 1911 Census, 15 Carrow Beg, Urlaur. Accessed via The National Archives, Ireland
GRO Death Registration for Andrew Callaghan, age 76, March Quarter 1968, Wakefield, Volume 2D, Page 797. Accessed via Findmypast. Original Record, GRO England & Wales
John Callaghan is my grandpa
Occupation is incorrect. John Callaghan was a retired coal miner