Tag Archives: Whitkirk

Grim Times for an 18th Century Coal Mining Family 

The most common occupation in my family tree is “coal miner”. Unsurprising given my paternal and maternal West Riding roots. As a result I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching the history of coal mining: the social and political aspects as well as the general occupation and its development through time.

This research could form the basis of many posts. The aspect I’m focusing on this time is the perilous nature of the work. “Poldark” brought this to mind. Different type of mining, but the death of Francis highlighted the dangers of underground work in the late 18th century and made me think once again about my coal mining forefathers. However grim I think my job is, I only have to think about my ancestors, men, women and children, who worked down the coal mine to realise how lucky I am. 

Even in more recent times coal mining was a hazardous, unhealthy occupation. But in terms of my 18th and 19th century family history, these were days before today’s stringent health and safety regulations. Indeed in the early days of my ancestors the working was totally unregulated. 

The cramped, damp conditions and physical exertion led to chronic muscular-skeletal problems and back pain as well as rheumatism and inflammation of the joints. Many suffered from loss of appetite, stomach pains, nausea, vomiting and liver troubles. Most colliers became asthmatic by the time they reached 30, and many had tuberculosis. And all this would have led to days off sick without income to support the family. 

Then there were the accidents. No-one knows how many deaths there were in the first half of the 19th century, let alone earlier. An unreliable estimate in 1834-5 of the number of lives lost in coal mines in the previous 25 years gave the number of deaths in the West Riding as 346 and the evidence is the high proportion were children. According to the appendices of the Mines Inspectors Report’s 1850-1914 some 70,700 miners died or sustained injures in the mines of Great Britain from 1850 to 1908. However even this is not reliable, because the number of non-fatal accidents taking place between 1850-1881 is unknown. It was no-ones job to collect the information. 

It is true that miners themselves took risks, failing to set timber supports, propping air doors open and working with candles when it was dangerous to do so even after the invention of the Davy lamp. But colliery officials and managers also cut corners and costs leading to dangerous conditions, for example failing to replace candles with lamps, not supplying sufficient timbers, not ensuring adequate ventilation, using defective colliery shafts which were not bricked or boarded and contained no guide rods, as well as drawing uncaged corves (the small tubs/baskets for carrying hewn coal from the pit face) direct from the pits which resulted in falls of coal and people down the shaft. It was not until 1872 that every mine manager was required to hold a certificate of competence. 

Whilst explosions exacted a heavy toll and made headlines, it was the individual deaths and injuries sustained over weeks, months and years by falls of coal and roof which were responsible for most accidents, fatal or otherwise. 

One of the earliest mining ancestors I’ve traced is my 6x great grandfather Joseph Womack, born in around 1738. And his is the earliest family mining fatality. 

Joseph married Grace Hartley on 11 February 1760 in the parish church of St Mary’s Whitkirk. It is the oldest medieval church in Leeds and a church probably existed on the site at the time of the Domesday Book. The name “Whitkirk” or “Whitechurch” is first recorded in the 12th Century in a charter of Henry de Lacey, founder of Kirkstall Abbey, confirming the land of Newsam, Colton and the “Witechurche” to the Knights Templars. The present building dates from 1448-9 but underwent substantial restoration in 1856. So it is essentially the building in which my 6x great grandparents married. 

Whitkirk Parish Church

The man known as the father of civil engineering, John Smeaton, is buried just behind the main altar. Perhaps Smeaton’s most famous work is the 3rd Eddystone Lighthouse, completed in 1759 just the year before Joseph and Grace’s marriage. His other works included the Forth & Clyde Canal, Ramsgate Harbour, Perth Bridge, over 60 mills and more than 10 steam engines. 

Joseph signed the register in a wonderfully neat hand. It’s always a thrill when I see the signatures of my ancestors. And especially those who worked in manual jobs not associated with literacy.  

The marriage entry indicated Joseph and Grace were both residents of the parish. The location was pinpointed to Halton with the baptism of their first child, Joseph, on 22 October 1760. This location was confirmed in each of their subsequent children’s baptismal entries. Halton was about three miles east of Leeds in Temple Newsam township with Whitkirk parish. 

Another son, Richard, was baptised on 27 June 1762 followed by their first daughter Mary, my 5x great grandmother, on 12 February 1765. Four other Womack children’s baptisms are subsequently recorded – William on 21 January 1770; Henry on 24 September 1772; Thomas on 6 August 1775; and Grace on 14 February 1779. This final baptism is more detailed, giving Grace’s date of birth as 31 December 1778 and stating that her father, Joseph, worked as a collier. 

The Womacks, Joseph and his sons, were a coal mining family working at the local Seacroft colliery. Joseph and his eldest sons Joseph and Richard were there one day in May 1781 when tragedy struck in the form of an explosion. The events reached papers nationally as well as locally. The coverage is typified by this paragraph in the “Leeds Intelligencer” of Tuesday 22 May 1781. According to the newspaper the explosion took place on a Thursday, which would make it 17 May. However this may be inaccurate. I will return to this later. Typically for the time no names are given. 

In the era before the 1815 invention of the Davy Lamp, candles were the only form of light in the mine. But the risk of explosions with naked flames from these candles igniting methane gas was high, even in well ventilated pits. Firedamp was the name given to an inflammable gas, whose chief component was methane. This was released from the seam and roof during working. And on this fateful May day the Womack father and sons were caught in its ignition. 
We turn to the Whitkirk burial register for the details of how this newspaper snippet linked to the Womacks. The register gives the following burial details on 18 May 1781: 

Joseph Womack collier slain by the firedamp at Seacroft also his son Richard Womack who was slain at the same time. The father was aged 43 the son 19 years”  

Slightly later era, but illustration of a pit top after an explosion

Joseph (junior) was one of those hurt in the incident. This is shown by an entry in the same register, dated 2 June 1781: sadly another burial. It is Joseph’s. He lingered for several days before succumbing to his injuries, described as “bruises”. The entry states that his injuries were the result of the same incident in which his father and brother were killed.

Besides being emotionally devastating for the family, with the death of two members on the same day and a third receiving injuries in the same incident leading to his protracted death two weeks later, it would have been economically crippling. The three main breadwinners wiped out in a single stroke. Grace was left to bring up several children – the eldest 16 years old, the youngest just two. 

Less than two years after the death of his father and brothers Thomas died, aged eight, as a result of a fever. This is a notoriously vague catch-all description for the period indicating, yet again, that in these times the precise source of illnesses were often not known but which clearly suggests some kind of infection. There are no other clues or hints. Checking the burial register for the period around Thomas’ death reveals nothing, for example an epidemic or outbreak of common illnesses in the area. He was buried on 25 April 1783 in the parish. 

Surprisingly the family do not appear in the list of recipients receiving parish dole money. Neither are they mentioned in the parish churchwardens and overseers accounts or vestry minutes, but there is very little poor law related material in these specific Whitkirk documents. It is very possible that they were supported by the parish via this mechanism, but these records have not survived, or else I’ve not yet discovered them in my visit to the Leeds branch of West Yorkshire Archives.  

But the two information sources, newspaper and parish register, give an indication of the devastating effect a pit explosion could have on a family at a time when fathers, brothers and sons (and prior to the 1842 Mines Act women plus girls and boys under 10) worked side by side underground. 

A sad footnote to this post concerns the anonymity of those killed. In addition to Joseph senior and Richard, there were two others who lost their lives in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, as reported in the “Leeds Intelligencer” 0f 22 May. Given the date of the article, Joseph junior couldn’t have been one. Their names didn’t appear in any reports I found. I do wonder who they were though, these people who worked and died with my ancestors.

There is nothing to indicate any other Whitkirk burials of the period applied to these victims. Parishes adjoining Whitkirk were Leeds, Swillington, Rothwell and Barwick in Elmet.  Leeds St Peter’s parish church provides a cause of death for all burial entries for the period. Sadly I drew a blank in this search. Likewise for Swillington St Mary’s and Holy Trinity at Rothwell. However, Barwick in Elmet All Saints register records the burial on 17 May 1781 of 33 year old Christopher Dickinson from Lowmoor. He died on 16 May 1781, “kild in Seacroft coalpitts“. So was this the same incident? If so it indicates the inaccuracy of the newspaper date which implied a 17 May accident date. 

Providing the newspaper got the numbers right, the other individual remains a mystery. The only possibility so far is a cryptic and inconclusive 17 May 1781 entry in the nearby parish of Garforth St Mary’s “Thos son of Mathew Limbord colier aged 23 years” No cause of death. And really it’s not clear if it was Thomas or his father who worked as a collier.

The “UK Coal Mining Accidents and Death Index 1700-1950” doesn’t offer a solution either. This was on the now obsolete “Coal Mining History and Resource Centre” website, which I wrote about in my previous post. As indicated in that post, the index is now available on Ancestry.co.uk – but this accident is not recorded. I may never know who the fourth person was. And it makes me think how many other mining deaths are similarly lost.

 Sources:

  • St Mary’s Whitkirk Parish Register and records 
  • Leeds Intelligencer” 
  • National Coal Mining Museum: http://www.ncm.org.uk
  • The North of England Mining Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers: http://www.mininginstitute.org.uk
  • The Durham Mining Museum: http://www.dmm.org.uk
  • Voices from the Dark – Women and Children in Yorkshire Coal Mines” – Fiona Lake and Rosemary Preece 
  • “Working Conditions in Collieries around Huddersfield 1800-1870” – Alan Brooke 
  • My Ancestor was a Coalminer” – David Tonks 
  • British Coalminers in the 19th Century” – John Benson 
  • The Yorkshire Miners: A History – Volume I” – Frank Machin 
  • The history of the Yorkshire Miners 1881-1918” – Carolyn Baylies 
  • Tracing your Coalmining Ancestors” – Brian A Elliott 

Parish Registers: Brick Wall Breakers and Mystery Creators

I can immerse myself for hours in Parish Registers, tracking my ancestors and their communities. They can often lead to research breakthroughs. Conversely they can result in further knotty puzzles. Other than the normal but frustrating non-appearance in a register, or the ones containing multiple difficult to untangle options, here is a brief selection from my family tree.

Brick wall

Brick Wall Breakers
1) The baptism on 7 March 1779 at All Saints, Batley for Benjamin Rynder. This is the brother of my 5x great grandmother, Sarah, and his entry is in a Dade style register. So not only does it provide his birth date, his parent’s names and residence and father’s occupation, it also provides his grandparent’s names. It makes tracing the family back a whole lot easier. It also helps with linking to similarly Dade-style recorded siblings and cousins. Sarah’s baptism in 1777 does not contain this level of detail. Maternal Line

2)  All Hallows Kirkburton Burial Register gave a cause of death for my 4x great grandfather George’s sister, Esther Hallas. The entry on 13 July 1817 states a cause of death: “Killed by Lightning”. This entry led to further research breakthroughs feeding into Esther’s story, my first blog post.[1] Maternal Line

3) Robert Hudson, the brother of my 4x great grandfather David. His St Michael’s East Ardsley burial entry of 1 November 1831 gives a cause of death “Hung himself in the Coal Pit Cabin”. In following this up I unearthed a rather unsavoury tale which I will return to in the autumn. Maternal Line

4) The burial of George Hallas, my 4x great grandfather, solved the mystery of his father. I had, until this point, a number of possible options. George died aged 69. Nevertheless his burial entry on 12 May 1864 in the Mirfield St Mary’s burial register provided his father’s name, Amos. This information enabled me to go back two further generations. Maternal Line

5) This could easily have fallen into the “Mystery Creator” category. According to his birth certificate John Callaghan, my grandfather, was born on 16 June 1895. However, the transcript of the County Mayo Kilmovee baptism[2] register states his baptism took place on 30 May 1895 in Glan Chapel. One possible explanation is the family could not get to Castlebar to register the birth within the prescribed time-limits, so were creative with his date of birth to avoid a fine. He used to claim he had two birthdays – so this corroborates the tale. Maternal Line

Mystery Creators
6) My great grandmother’s first daughter was born in 1893 out of wedlock. The Parish Register of St Mary of the Angels, Batley has a bizarre entry which indicates otherwise. According to this daughter’s baptismal entry my great grandmother was married to Charles Regan. I have traced no record of this “phantom” marriage, or of Charles Regan. My great grandmother’s eventual Registry Office 1897 marriage certificate indicates she was a spinster. So was Charles her daughter’s real father? Paternal Line (I have anonymised this as it is comparatively recent).

7) The mystifying John Loftus. Another one from Ireland, this time from the County Mayo Kilbeagh Parish baptisms. The entry clearly indicates the baptism on 3 October 1869 of a son, John (Joannes), to John Loftus and Ann Barrett. John and Ann are my 2x great grandparents. I have been unable to trace a birth certificate for their son John. What I have discovered is the birth certificate for a daughter, Ellen, born on 30 September 1869. So have I a missing child of John Loftus and Ann Barrett, or is entry a red herring? Paternal Line

8) Sushanna Hill, my 4x great grandfather’s sister has a perplexing baptism entry in the wonderful Dade-style Sherburn in Elmet Parish Register. Usually Dade Registers are an absolute genealogical god-send. This one has led to a brick wall. Sushanna is the first-born child of Francis and Sarah Hill, so the Dade entry provides a wealth of family history information. The entry for Sushanna reads:

“1st Daughter of Francis of Sherburn, taylor. Son of Francis of Sherburn, wheel carpenter by Esther his wife, daughter of John Simpson of Brayton, yeoman. Mother – Sarah, daughter of Philip Gibson of Little Fenton, farmer, by Sushanna his wife daughter of [blank]. Born Monday 29th August 1785 and baptised the same day”.

I cannot find concrete evidence to support Francis’ parentage as recorded in the entry. As a result I have been unable to trace this line any further back. I have a suspicion that it is a false lead. I think I do know Francis’ parentage. This is one of the nuts I am hoping genealogical DNA tests will ultimately crack. Paternal Line

9) William Hill’s baptism at St Mary’s, Whitkirk on 14 July 1816 is another strange one. William is the brother of my 3x great grandfather. Joseph. According to the Parish Register he is the illegitimate son of Grace Pennington. No mention of “Hill” in the entry whatsoever. In fact Grace Pennington married Francis Hill by licence in that Parish in September 1811. There is however a footnote at the bottom of the page as follows:

“It was discovered when this child was brought to church September 1st having been privately baptized July 14th that this was an erroneous entry, Grace Pennington being lawfully married, and that the entry should have been William son of Francis & Grace Hill, Halton, Butcher. Signed this second of September 1816”

Signatories were the vicar and “Francis Hill, the father of the said child”. I would love to know the story behind this error and its subsequent discovery.[3] Paternal Line

10) My 4x great grandmother Zilla(h)[4] Rhodes, baptised at All Saints, Batley on 29 September 1780. The Dade Register does not help as she is described as a bastard. Neither are there any details provided of her mother Sarah’s parentage. From further entries in the register it appears Sarah went onto have another illegitimate daughter, Mary, in 1784. There are also possibly a further two illegitimate daughters in the 1790s. In turn Zillah had three, possibly four, illegitimate children. So far I have been unable to trace any further details, including through using Poor Law or Bastardy records, because of the paucity of surviving material. But to have so many illegitimate children does seem a tad unusual. Maternal line

Confused

Image from Pixabay.com

There are many other examples, but this is my starter for ten. 

Sources:

  • All Hallows, Kirkburton – Burials
  • All Saints, Batley – Baptisms
  • All Saints, Sherburn in Elmet – Baptisms
  • National Library of Ireland Catholic Parish Registers – Kilbeagh Parish baptisms, Microfilm 04224 / 17 http://registers.nli.ie/
  • Pixabay.com: https://pixabay.com/
  • St Mary of the Angels, Batley – Baptisms
  • St Mary’s, Mirfield – Burials
  • St Mary’s, Whitkirk – Baptisms
  • St Michael’s, East Ardsley – Burials
  • Transcript of the Kilmovee Baptisms from the former East Mayo.org website

[1] See my first blog post, “Death by Lightning”
[2] This is too late a date for the National Library of Ireland Parish Registers website. Some time ago there was a fantastic East Mayo website which had transcripts of the parish registers. Sadly this has long since gone. But it can be found using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine
[3] William and Francis feature in my blog post entitled “Attempted Murder in Halton? The Perverse Joy of Old Newspapers”
[4] Syllah in the baptism entry

Copyright

© Jane Roberts and PastToPresentGenealogy, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jane Roberts and PastToPresentGenealogy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Attempted Murder in Halton? The Peverse Joy of Old Newspapers

I make no apologies to returning to newspapers again. They are a fantastic family history resource. This is another fabulous FindmyPast newspaper find[1] which relates to my family. It concerns my 4x great grandfather Francis Hill and his son William. Without newspapers I would have struggled to discover this story.

Francis Hill was born in Sherburn in Elmet in 1789. In 1811 he married Grace Pennington, from Halton in the parish of Whitkirk. This is where they settled and raised their family. By the late winter of 1841/2 William, aged around 27, was the couple’s eldest son.

It is the unpleasant confrontation between father and son which the newspapers sensationally reported. The only witness to the events that dark February night was Grace. It appears the whole affair may have remained hidden if it had not come to the attention of the vicar of Whitkirk, Reverend Martineau, who passed the information on to the appropriate authorities. Thank goodness for Reverend Martineau, I say! Though I doubt that sentiment was shared by my ancestors. 

Contradictory statements were given by father and son as to the cause of the quarrel. William, an unmarried coal miner, claimed he arrived home on the night of 16 February 1842 at about 11.30pm to find his father the worse for liquor, eating some bacon and bread with a pocket knife. Francis, a labourer, had been unemployed for some time and William remonstrated with him for dissipating his money in such a manner. On the other hand Francis claims William came home in an intoxicated state and he chastised his son for arriving home at such an hour and in that condition.

William’s account was during the course of the argument he struck his father with, what the reports described as “a violent blow”. This knocked Francis off his chair and onto the floor. Francis got up and William was about to hit him again when he slipped and fell onto the knife which his father was still holding. The blade plunged into William’s left side resulting in the protrusion of a portion of his intestines.

Pocket Knife

William’s account, provided the following day, corresponds in most details with the one given by his mother. She stated her son struck his father, knocking him out of the chair. He was about to continue the assault when Francis, in self-defence, struck out with his knife penetrating the left side of William’s stomach, just below his heart.

This sounds more credible than the tale William told about slipping and falling onto a knife which his father had, rather improbably, retained hold of during the attack.

The statement of Mr Nunneley, the surgeon who attended William, concurs with Grace. He said it was impossible that falling onto the knife could have caused the wound. It was caused by a blow. The surgeon was doubtful whether William would ever recover.

Amusingly to 21st century readers Francis, who would have been aged 52 at the time, was described by the newspapers as “an old man”. He was remanded to prison to await the result of his son’s injury, charged with stabbing William in so serious a manner as to endanger his life.

He remained there for around a month. Not until 29 March 1842 was William recovered sufficiently to appear in front of the West Riding Magistrates. He refused to press charges against his father who was therefore discharged from custody.

William survived the injury and he married in April 1843. He continued to work as a coal miner.

So although not overjoyed at this unedifying depiction of my ancestors, I am thankful for the controversy because of the details it adds to my family history.

Sources:

[1] As OCR is not always the most accurate I also searched on the British Newspaper Archive site. Although I am not a subscriber, you can identify the paper and page number and then go back to FindMyPast armed with the newspaper details to check it out. Even this did not find all the results, including crucially the outcome of the case. I read through the papers to fill in the gaps.

Copyright

© Jane Roberts and PastToPresentGenealogy, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jane Roberts and PastToPresentGenealogy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.