Two years volunteering in a Cemetery?

When I tell people that I volunteer at Liversedge Cemetery and also Morley, I typically get similar responses – raised eyebrows and a look of confusion. That is not unjustified as it can, at first glance, seem strange to someone who doesn’t understand what we do and why we do it. I would like to dispel some of these thoughts and perceptions I have encountered and try, if it is possible, to explain to you why volunteering has been so positive to myself whilst also illustrating how critical voluntary work is in any form in protecting our collective local heritage.

Liversedge Cemetery in May 2021

Off the bat, you certainly don’t have to be a taphophile (a person who is interested in cemeteries and gravestones), interested in the history of death, nor do you have to be a macabre or gothic person. Some, including myself, are genealogists and interested in all forms of history – local or otherwise – but even that isn’t necessary. Nor do you even have to have family buried in the cemetery. At the Friends of Liversedge Cemetery, for example, we have a range array of people who either fit some of the prior points but others who volunteer for other reasons. Some like to get out and get some fresh air, and others enjoy gardening and a nice chat, but we all collectively have one goal in mind – giving back to our community and keeping our cemetery tidy.

I decided to join the Friends of Liversedge Cemetery group for quite a simple reason. It was rumoured that my Grandad’s Grandma, or my Great Great Grandmother, was buried at the cemetery, and I thought it would be great to meet some people who may be able to assist in finding her plot. I also felt that it was right for me to do some volunteering in exchange for any information or assistance and would generally be a net positive for everybody. What I didn’t expect was that I would still be going up every other Sunday two years later!

In February 2022, we were able to mark Betty’s unmarked grave after about 88 years,

Being a little self-indulgent here but volunteering at the Friends of Liversedge Cemetery has been a roundly positive experience for me. I have met many different people of all different backgrounds and ages and made many friendships that wouldn’t have ever come to fruition if it wasn’t for the group. Partly by setting my One Place Study of Liversedge Cemetery, but also by meeting people at the tidy-ups, I have become even more informed about our local history. It has also been from the unique perspective of people from a range of different backgrounds, occupations and social classes. I am also now quite a good strimmer and weeder and have more gardening skills than before, but I certainly haven’t inherited the green fingers yet! I also have been able to give back to my local community and can say that I have made a difference. Regular volunteers or not, anybody who has worked with the group at Liversedge Cemetery has also made a difference.

As part of my One Place Study and also my EPQ project at school, I wrote a book on all known graves at Liversedge Cemetery that have soldiers buried in them or commemorated on them. This isn’t a usual thing volunteering at Friends of Cemetery groups, don’t get me wrong, but without my time up at the cemetery volunteering and the regular Remembrance Day events we hold, the book wouldn’t have likely happened.

Myself with a copy of my book at Cleckheaton Library in March 2022

Some would argue that it is the council’s obligation to look after and tidy our cemeteries. Sure this is true, but we have to consider that our local authorities are now quite large. Kirklees, my local authority, for example, is by area the third largest metropolitan district in England, behind Doncaster and Leeds. The council has to look after fourteen cemeteries in this area, and I am sure you can see why people feel like our cemeteries are neglected. It is not that the council is of fault necessarily, but they simply cannot fulfil the work to the standards prior to the 1970s local government reorganisation. This is where organisations such as the friends of Liversedge Cemetery are so vital because we can step in and do what is necessary to keep the cemetery as tidy and as beautiful as can be. The problem with this, of course, is that we are volunteers and not paid to do this.

If we want our areas to look beautiful, to feel cared for and want to protect the heritage of the said areas, it is necessary to create organisations and volunteer. Nobody will do the work for us. I personally do not care to throw the blame at anybody – I simply want to make things happen.

I would recommend if you’re on the edge of wanting to volunteer in any similar organisations, or even the Friends of Liversedge Cemetery itself, that you give it a go. What is the worst that could happen? If it’s not for you, simply do not go again! But, on the other hand, you may enjoy it, you may also enjoy the company it brings, and it could become quite a regular thing for you to do.

Some of our volunteers at Liversedge, including our local MP, Kim Leadbeater

Mary Jane Fell: Courage and Perseverance

My ancestry has many stories of true tragedy, unimaginable loss and difficult and, to some extent, traumatic childhoods. But there are also remarkable stories of love, survival, and unimaginable perseverance. Sometimes, these stories come hand in hand, and my Great Great Great Grandmother, Mary Jane Fell’s story is perhaps the epitome.

The Woman in Question – Mary Jane Fell in later life

Mary Jane Fell was born into what is quite a complex and quite fascinating family. Depending upon the day, she was either Mary Jane ‘Fell’ or ‘Turner’ or even both. This is owing to the illegitimate birth of her grandfather but then his mother’s quick marriage to his biological father. What about her mother’s unclear origins before her move to York? And what about the fact mother changes her maiden name record to record, either being a ‘Ward’ or ‘Wedgewood’?

As these questions remain unanswered or have quite perplexing answers, let us focus on what we know. Mary Jane was baptised on 12 October 1856 at the now-demolished St Maurice, Monkgate. Her father was Alfred Fell, a comb maker and Freeman of the City and her mother was called Fanny. The couple married a few years previously and had already had one child, Alfred, before the birth of Mary Jane.

The Church where Mary Jane was baptised before it was rebuilt in 1876 – via Secret York (http://secretyork.com/st-maurice-monkgate/)

On this 1856 baptism record, the family is recorded as living on Lord Mayor’s Walk and, by 1861, had moved to Mason’s Buildings, Coppergate. Another brother, James, had joined the family by that point, and two more would follow over the next decade – John and Frederick. By 1871 the family had moved again to 9 King Street, Castlegate. These addresses may ostensibly appear to be dotted all over the city, but the last two are relatively close to each other and even moving from Lord Mayor’s Walk wasn’t the end of the world for young Mary Jane. In 1872 or so, the family welcomed its youngest and final member – Rose.

There was a problem about to materialise for young Mary Jane, her father and her siblings – her mother’s drinking habits and loose fingers.

Fanny spent nearly seven years in the confines of York Prison over the next twenty years or so. Years she should have raised her youngest daughter Rose, grown old with Alfred and simply just lived life. I am not claiming that life would have been easy, but certainly easier than the life spent in York Castle. The first conviction occurred in 1872, and from snippets of information, it is apparent that she tended to steal things after drinking but was ‘a good wife’ according to her husband when she was sober.

York Prison next to Clifford’s Tower via historyofyork.org.uk (http://www.historyofyork.org.uk/themes/victorian/the-victorian-prison-building)

This is clearly relevant to Mary Jane’s story, but it is worth discussing why. Firstly, there was the unfortunate fact that her mother had become a ‘notorious’ character well-known for her offences. Holding that burden as her daughter in Victorian society must have been a lot to deal with. Furthermore, Mary Jane was about 16 or so when her mother was first sent down and will likely have had lots of responsibility thrust upon her very quickly. Her sister Rose was still very young and needed looking after her. Additionally, who was to do the housework? Poor Mary Jane not only had to deal with the temporary loss of her mother but also her mother’s workload.

It is not all doom or gloom, however.

She fell lucky and married Alfred Dale in the final quarter of 1879. Alfred’s family was somewhat more prestigious. He was the son of a Printer, nephew of John Dale, the Sword Bearer of York, and grandson of the well-known late hairdresser William Dale. Yet, Alfred’s occupation was not as glamorous as he was a glassblower, but prestige isn’t that important.

What mattered was the birth of the newly wedded couple’s first child, a daughter called Frances Lily, in 1880. By 1881 they had moved to 14 Willow Street, Walmgate, and that year’s census also reveals some unique circumstances about Mary Jane’s day-to-day life – the fact she worked – specifically as a comb maker’s labourer. There is a link here to her father and his occupation, but I find it unlikely that Mary Jane would have been working for him directly. Both Alfred and Fanny (with some of their younger kids) had made a temporary move to Hackney in London by 1881 and would be back in less than a year.

Frances Lily Dale in much later life

More children followed Mary Jane in 1882 and Edward in 1885. Edward sadly passed away, aged only five hours, and it is unimaginable what pain Mary Jane and Alfred must have felt in grieving for their child. Perhaps comforting to some extent was the births of more children – Ada in 1886, Albert Victor in 1888 and Florence Edith in 1890.

By 1890, the family still lived in Walmgate but now at 33 Duke of York Place. Nothing much had changed in the family apart from the loss of Edward and its continuing growth. Mary Jane’s life was perhaps as stable as it had ever been; despite her mother continuing to be imprisoned, she had her beloved husband and plenty of children to fall back upon.

Sadly, despite this newfound stability, she wasn’t protected from reality as her father Alfred Fell died in 1895 and was buried at York Cemetery a few days after his passing in an unmarked public grave (18875). What probably made the loss sting, even more, was that her mother was imprisoned for trying to steal a shawl, so I find it unlikely she would have been present at the funeral. Alfred never gave up on Fanny and always came to her defence and was willing to admit her faults, which makes the prior fact even more painful.

Hope Street in York around 1889, Long Close Lane (Duke of York Place) was the next street. 

By 1901, the final Dale children had been born – Arthur in 1893 and George Alfred in 1898. That year’s census showed that the family remained living at 33 Duke of York Place but indicated that they lived in four rooms. Furthermore, Alfred Dale is recorded as working as a glassblower for bottles and the two eldest sisters (barring Frances Lily, who had left home), Mary Jane and Ada, as working confectionary makers. Life wasn’t easy for the family, but they were getting along with it and doing their bit to help.

Despite the stability of 1901, Mary Jane was to face her two most considerable losses yet.

First came the loss of her mother on 26 June 1905, which was likely a tough loss to deal with. Perhaps there was a feeling that her parents were reunited again by death, and her mother was no longer beset by her life’s problems on this earth. A few days after her death and perhaps some contemplation by those that knew her, Fanny Fell was buried in a different public grave (19402) to her husband, a sad irony reflecting that they were divided by bars in life and also divided in death.

What followed was worse, however – Alfred Dale became ill with tongue cancer and died, aged just 47, at home on 30 August 1906. His death, only from the description on his death certificate, appears to have been unpleasant, and it must have been excruciatingly distressing for Mary Jane to deal with. The death, however, was only just the beginning of her problems. How was she to feed five or so children? How would she keep her house? What work was available for her, a nearly fifty-year-old widow?

The Final Resting Place of Alfred Dale

As Alfred was buried on 1 August 1906 in a public grave at York Cemetery like her parents, perhaps some of these questions subsided. However, we have a unique way to see Mary Jane’s feelings for her late husband, mainly via a kerb erected on his grave. Disappointedly it has since sunken, but its inscription appears to be words of Mary Jane herself: “In Loving Memory of my beloved husband Alfred Dale, who died 30 August 1906”. The fact he even had a marker on his grave is quite unique and testimony to his memory and life as well as those around him.

Linking back to the problems Mary Jane faced now she was a widow, she finally concluded that the family were to pack up and go to the prosperous Heavy Wollen area. There would be plenty of work available in the mills, and if everything went well, the family could cope easier with its added pressures now the main breadwinner was dead. I think they likely moved via train and can only imagine how they all felt as they boarded the train at York Railway Station and said goodbye to their home.

Leeds Road, Dewsbury – via the Dewsbury Reporter

The gamble appeared to work well, and by 1908 the family lived at 4 Leeds Road, Dewsbury. We know this as Mary Jane (or Jenny as her marriage certificate refers to her) gets married to a 44-year-old Bachelor, George Marshall. He lived nearby at 8 Leeds Road and worked with the Coke Ovens as a labourer.

By 1911 the family, now consisting of the three youngest boys (Albert Victor, Arthur and George Alfred) and Mary Jane and George Marshall, ended up living at 40 Primrose Hill, Soothill. This began a long tradition of Dale residency on Primrose Hill that lasted up until the mid-1960s. Arthur was a labourer at a woollen mill, while George Marshall and Albert Victor Dale worked in a Coke Plant. Arguably, Mary Jane had returned to the stability of before, and this was not an easy feat to achieve. It was truly indicative of a robust and decisive character that loved her family deeply.

1914 came around, and everything changed.

The war affected every aspect of life, especially as it dragged on in its later years. Cuts and austerity measures were necessary, and propaganda and war news was plastered all over the local newspapers. Goods may have been harder to come by, and prices may have also altered. Not only this but Mary Jane’s youngest, George Alfred Dale, was serving in the war.

Mary Jane’s youngest, George Alfred Dale

It appears that he joined up pretty much at the start of the war and took the liberty, like many others, of rounding up his age in order to serve. He was a Private in the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) 2/5th Battalion which was originally formed as a home service unit. George travelled the whole country before he arrived in France in early 1917 and served in a variety of battles, including the Battle of Bullecourt (May 1917), The Cambrai Operations (November 1917) and the first stages of the First Battles of the Somme (1918).

Quite tragically, he was wounded in combat on 28 March 1918 and was sent to a hospital in Rouen the following day. He gallantly fought his injuries until 31 March 1918, when he passed away at age 20.

Mary Jane had lost her youngest boy.

Remembering George Alfred Dale and his bravery

George Alfred Dale wrote and signed an informal will on 12 May 1917, where he left his entire estate to his mother. Perhaps I read too much into it, but I always find it quite moving that he left all his estate to his mother, maybe a final nod to how much Mary Jane had done for him and his family.

We know a lot about Mary Jane’s further experience of 1918, and it doesn’t appear to have treated her well. Her son’s death had deeply affected her as she was described as ‘fretting a lot’ over his death. I resent that term because it almost trivialises her grief. Regardless, she was described as able to function and “carry out her work” despite the loss.

Adding to an already emotionally exhaustive year, she even caught influenza in November 1918 but luckily recovered.

Her death is one we know quite a great deal about owing to the inquest into it.

25 Jan 1917 – Dewsbury District News

Her husband described Mary Jane as being a ‘stout’ lady who was sometimes short of breath. The previously mentioned period of influenza in November 1918 didn’t help Mary Jane. Still, she appeared to be in alright health after it, with her daughter-in-law Hannah (who also happens to be my Great Great Grandmother) stating that “she seemed the same to me”.

On Monday 20 January 1919, Mary Jane had a light supper, removed herself to bed at about 8.45 and was in her normal state. However, this all changed when she awakened her husband at about 3 am, complaining of chest pains. George Marshall then made his wife a cup of tea, and she managed to drink about half of it. George remained downstairs, and Mary Jane later came downstairs at around 4.30 and collapsed onto the hearthrug.

Hannah and Arthur Dale, my Great Great Grandparents, in the 1950s

George placed his wife in a chair and quickly rushed for his stepson’s wife, Hannah, and they both put Mary Jane back to bed. Quite heartbreakingly, Mary Jane remarked, “I am going to die” when put back to bed, and George Marshall replied to his wife, saying, “Don’t talk like that”.

George then rushed for a doctor while Hannah remained with her mother-in-law. She made Mary Jane’s bed after her mother-in-law told her she wasn’t well. Mary Jane reportedly continued to complain of pain in the chest and was “fighting” for breath.

George managed to return just in time, and at about 5.30 am Mary Jane passed away, aged 62 or so, on 21 January 1919. 

An inquest found she died of heart failure caused by the fatty degeneration of the heart. She was buried at Batley Cemetery in the following days.

Batley Cemetery – July 2021

I would say that Mary Jane Fell, or Dale, or Marshall led a remarkable life. It had many ups and downs – every win was paired with an equal loss and vice versa. She fought hard from her mother’s first conviction right up until the end and those final pivotal hours. She moved her family across Yorkshire as a widow and lost a son soon after birth and one to war. She had also managed to find love again and, most importantly, guaranteed her and her family’s survival.

There is not too much else to say, just what a woman and a legacy.

I aspire to have an ounce of her courage and perseverance and can proudly claim her as my Great Great Great Grandmother.

Anthony Metcalfe: Miner, Dog Owner and Survivor

In order to know someone’s life story, you do not need to know everything, and Anthony Metcalfe’s story, my Great Great Great Great Grandfather, proves this concept. We know a great deal about his character via a telling account of his demise and a few other key events of his life and can tell his life story despite some apparent gaps.

Therefore, to begin, despite not knowing too much, let us confront what we do know – Anthony’s date and place of birth are wildly inconsistent. For example, his documented years of birth range from around 1822 to 1824. Alongside this, he reports, on censuses ranging from 1851 to 1881, that he was born in Birstall once, Bradford and on two of them Wensleydale. In 1846, he lived in and around Bradford, so he lived there at some point and lived in Birstall for most of his life. Because these places of birth came from census data, and we don’t know precisely who the informant was, this could explain them away.

Marriage Record

Either way, the first documented record of Anthony Metcalfe’s existence is his marriage to Mercy Ainsworth on 23 February 1846 at Bradford Parish Church. Anthony is described as 21-year-old Batchelor Collier, who resides in the village of Allerton, which is close to Bradford. He seems to take after his father, who is also recorded as being called Anthony and also recorded as working as a Collier. Mercy, his wife, lived in Manningham, and as we will later find out, it appears that he moved to live in her area after their marriage.

Their marriage is quite an interesting one – chiefly down to Mercy’s young death at the hands of unknown causes in the April quarter of 1846. Sadly it didn’t last long, but I feel a few questions could be asked regarding its length – when the couple married, was Mercy already unwell? Was it rushed, perhaps due to an illness? Or was it just another Victorian tragedy that unfolded down to the toughness of the era’s life?

What was once Bradford Parish Church

Anthony remarried at the end of 1846, specifically on Boxing Day, 26 December 1846, at the same Church. He had moved to Manningham, but nothing much else changes barring a new witness on the marriage record – a William Metcalfe, perhaps a brother or cousin? His new wife was called Sarah Blackburn and also had a similar mysterious background.

The early years of their marriage were quite inconsistent, in the sense that they took quite a while to settle down and seemed to quite regularly move around. They remained in Bradford for a year or two, with their first born child, William, been born in the October quarter of 1847 but didn’t stay for long.

Perhaps in order to seek out more stable work or better conditions and pay, Anthony and his young family moved to the village of Wingate in Durham by the birth of their daughter Elizabeth in January 1849. The Colliery there had opened in 1839 by Lord Howden and Partners, and on the 1851 Census, Anthony and his family are recorded as living at the Colliery itself, alongside a lodger. However, this detour into living and working in Wingate didn’t last long, as by the birth of the couple’s next child, John, in 1853, the couple had likely moved back to Bradford and its surrounding areas.

The area surrounding Wingate during the 1850s

In the next two years, ahead of the birth of another son named Smith in 1855, the family settled in Birstall, and the period of inconsistency finally came to an end. His birth was followed by a brother Joseph in 1856 and two sisters – Annie and Harriet, my Great Great Great Grandmother – in 1858 and 1860, respectively. The family resided in Howden Clough in 1861 and remained in the same area in 1871. However, that year’s census does give us an address – specifically “Brasscastle”, which I take to mean an area of Howden Clough, which was near to the Brass Castle Colliery. This makes sense as many neighbours work down the pits on both censuses, and it fits in with Anthony’s past.

There are two more quite intriguing things to note about the family in 1871. Firstly, Elizabeth got married to Daniel Simms in the first quarter of the year, and he had moved into the Metcalfe home shortly afterwards. Clearly, this added an extra mouth to feed but also a little more income, so I assume he was welcomed into the household. It was very kind of Anthony to allow them to adjust to married life and begin to start building their own family. It is not only the human members of the Metcalfe household that were highlighted in this period, as it is noted in the Dewsbury Reporter that Anthony was charged for allowing his dog to “be at large” without a muzzle, I assume, and he was fined a total of 5 shillings. It was not enough to ruin the families’ finances, but still money they would have preferred to have!

Death notice of Sarah, Anthony’s wife

Death again struck Anthony’s life with the death of his wife Sarah on 5 April 1879 when she was just aged 48. She was buried at Birstall Parish Church four days later, on 8 April 1879. I will never know Anthony’s feelings towards his wife and her untimely death, but I do know that a death notice was published in the Batley Reporter and Guardian for her. This isn’t unprecedented and doesn’t necessarily mean much, but we must not forget Anthony was a working-class coal miner. It mightn’t have bankrupted him, but he clearly cared enough about his wife to invest some of his genuinely hard-earned money into remembering her. To me, at least, this shows a devotion to his wife and her memory, and I hope it also indicates a relationship of respect.

Two years or so after this, on the 1881 Census, Anthony is recorded as still residing at “Brasscastle” but in very, very different circumstances. He had gone from living in a household of seven to living on his own. He no longer had a wife to look after him nor extra income from his older kids or the antics of his younger children messing and playing around. Everyone had grown up or died, and although his family remained living near, Anthony was alone. According to the census, he was also out of work. I am unsure when Brass Castle Colliery shut as there is little online information, so perhaps he was simply between jobs? Also, Anthony became ill with bouts of diarrhoea in the mid-1880s, so perhaps illness also factored into this fact?

Can you spot Brass Castle?

1885 is also an interesting time for Anthony, for he is involved with the police. He has committed no crime as he was a mere witness, but his blood had – specifically his grandson William Simms. 10-year-old William visited his grandfather on 18 August and presented a bell that he claimed he and a 14-year-old Alfred Dale had found in a corn field. As it would turn out, after a visit to his house by the police, Anthony was gifted something stolen by the two lads from the Volunteer Inn. They had stolen a clock, a spell, a lamp and two table bells and hidden them near the Howden Clough Rifle Range and a field on Windmill Lane. The lads were apprehended and owing to their age and the fact it was their first offence, each were fined 10 shillings and costs, or 14 days. Obviously, I doubt Anthony would have been happy with this, but it shows us that he saw some of his grandchildren and that he had a relationship with them.

Reporting from the Dewsbury Chronicle

I did miss out on a key event that happened to Anthony in 1882, namely his remarriage again to a widow named Mary Grayshon. This remarriage represented a chance to live a life not lonely, and Anthony was in many ways quite lucky to get this second chance, but it wasn’t to last too long.

Anthony went to work on 11 February 1887 like any other day. It must have been an early start as he met a colleague, Solomon Wallace, of Low Lane, Birstall, at about 6:15 am. The pair worked at the Howden Clough Pit of the West Yorkshire Colliery Company – Solomon worked on the east side of the pit, and Anthony worked by himself in a nearby bank. They both got on with their respective work, and Solomon causally saw Anthony a few times before hearing the roof falling and a loud crash. He instantly called out for Anthony and heard the reply, “o’ come here”. Solomon rushed towards him, and owing to a slip that could not be seen, a large rock had fallen onto Anthony’s leg. The hurried had arrived to see what had happened soon after, and Solomon sent him for help. Eventually, after what probably seemed a painfully long wait, Anthony was set free.

The Batley Cottage Hospital opened in 1883

He was rushed to the Cottage Hospital as it appeared his leg was broken in two places, and he was admitted between 11 am and 12 pm. Mary Ann Boulton, the widowed Resident Nurse, described Anthony’s leg as having a compound fracture of the right leg but that no bone was protruding from it. He was badly bruised from his shoulder to his right arm, which quickly healed, but the legs sloughed (skin falling off) from the knee to the ankle for about three weeks.

As mentioned before, he had regular bouts of diarrhoea, and these appeared to come back once the sloughing had healed. These bouts quite dismally led to Anthony developing gangrene of the bowels, which led to his demise. Boulton described Anthony as ‘gradually’ sinking before his death, perhaps indicating how painful it was for him. Conceivably mercifully, in a way, he died, aged approximately 63, on 15 April 1887, at around 8:50 am. He was buried at Birstall Parish Church’s Churchyard on 18 April 1887.

There is an irony to the fact we know so much about his demise but so little about his birth, but what we do know paints a picture of a man who lived lots. Despite the limitations of his class and the tough, brutal conditions of the society he lived in, he managed to survive until the end. He also survived two marriages and raised seven children, saw different parts of his country and left enough records of his soul and actions for his Great Great Great Great Grandson around 135 years after his death to proudly claim him as his own.

Bridget Cook: Bravery Lost to Time

Sadly, historically, women have been overlooked and sometimes intentionally dismissed and ignored, especially working-class women. In the field of genealogy, I suppose there is less of a chance of this discrimination, at least to an extent, as there is always a desire to trace back as much as physically possible, but when maiden names are unable to be found, and women are simply recorded as ‘Mrs. John Smith’, it can become near impossible to trace their stories. So they become ignored or misrepresented, and I find this to be such a shame.

With this point in mind, it would be easy to dismiss Bridget Cook, my Great Great Great Grandmother, as being John’s wife, George’s daughter, or Charles’ widow. However, this overlooks her story that, despite being lost to time temporarily due to some of the reasons mentioned above, truly exemplifies a woman driven by determination, grit and a quest for survival in a cruel and uncaring world.

The street Bridget would spend most of her life

Bridget was likely born in 1849, most likely in Monkwearmouth, Sunderland. She was the daughter of George Cook and his wife Judith McMahon, both Irish immigrants who originated from County Louth. They married almost certainly in the 1840s, before the birth of their first daughter in 1842, and had a few children in Ireland before moving across to Monkwearmouth by Bridget’s birth in 1849. Bridget’s place and approximate year of birth remain consistent throughout her life, which is quite surprising, but I have not been able to find any GRO registration relating to her birth. There is a multitude of reasons that could lay behind this and are irrelevant to her life story, but I thought it was worth mentioning still.

One half of the Cook Household on the 1851 Census

Growing up, Bridget had it tough, and nothing can illustrate this in a better way than the way her family was living in 1851, as there were eleven people residing in the Cook Household – including Bridget herself – on that year’s census. The family included Bridget’s parents and siblings, but she also lived with some lodgers – specifically George’s brother, some of her father’s cousins and two other unrelated men. Furthermore, there were another five people from another family residing in the same building, making 16 individuals.

Another indication of just how tough Bridget’s childhood was where the family lived throughout the entirety of it – Fighting Cock Yard, near John Street. The same doesn’t sound inspiring, nor do the much later reports that crime was rife, including prostitution, clearly showing just how destitute and desperate its inhabitants were. Despite this, siblings followed – Mary Jane in 1856, George in 1858 and Julia in 1863. Julia was lucky to survive past her infancy, but sadly, both George and Mary Jane were not, dying when they were just over a year or a few months old.

St. Benet’s R.C. Church, Sunderland

By 1861, George’s earlier mentioned brother had finally moved out and got married. He lived with his children, mother, and wife on that year’s census but also an eighteen-year-old lodger, Charles McIlroy. He is key to Bridget’s story as they both got married in less than a decade. Specifically at St. Benet’s Roman Catholic Church in the second quarter of 1869. Her marriage to McIlroy ostensibly started reasonably well – she gave birth to a boy named Charles (perhaps after his father) exactly a year later. However, this was not to last.

Charles McIlroy was dead by the time of the 1871 Census, and I am clueless as to exactly when or how he died. Was it tragically before the birth of his son, leading to him becoming his son’s namesake, or did he get to see his little boy be born? I am unsure, as I said before, but I will always pray to myself that he did get to see him. Another significant loss struck in this period as Bridget’s mother, Judith, passed away in late Jan or early Feb 1870, aged only about 50, and was buried at the local Mere Knolls Cemetery on 3 February 1870. Aged only 21 or so, Bridget had seen the loss of two siblings, her mother and also her husband – this would rightly break so many people but not Bridget.

Fighting Cock Yard circa 1860

I think that Bridget was a woman of incredible courage and determination and was certainly not stupid, and her actions after the death of her husband and mother display this. She took on a leadership role, being recorded as the Head of the Household of 13 Fighting Cock Yard on the 1871 Census – residing with her son, some siblings, father and new stepmother. She was willing to work both domestically but also to make a living, gladly recording the fact she was working as a labourer in pottery. She didn’t let the many losses she was facing destroy her, she had every right to, but she and her family would also end up dead with her late husband and mother. Society and life were cruel, and if Bridget didn’t work, she would fall into the hardest of times, and she clearly wasn’t willing to accept that.

Her courage and ability to take charge of her own destiny at the pivotal moment allowed her to remarry and eventually pick herself up from her losses. She did this in late 1872 to a man named James Conley, who lived nearby on John Street. From this marriage, my Great Great Grandmother, Catherine Conley, was born in 1873, followed by George in 1875. There was an interruption to Catherine’s period of relative peace as she lost a son, namely James, who died aged about 19 months in 1878. Things looked up again as she gave birth to a healthy boy, Peter, in 1879, and then a girl, Mary Ann, in 1882.

By 1881, Bridget had finally left Fighting Cock Yard, residing at 38 Brook Street, with some other families alongside her husband, sister Julia and children. Sadly, her father had died some years earlier, in 1877, and Bridget had lost another key figure in her life. It is perhaps less tragic in nature as George Cook was advanced in his age, dying aged 60 or so, but still, despite leaving Fighting Cock Yard, she couldn’t avoid another bout of deaths.

Bridget’s eldest son’s death certificate

Before she encountered another loss, she had two more children – John in 1885 and Julia in 1887. This subsequent loss was in spite of all her labouring and bravery, her eldest son Charles McIlroy, who had effectively been adopted into the Conley family, passed away on 26 April 1890 at the Conley family home of 18 Stobart Street due to complications from tuberculosis. Poignantly, James Conley registers his stepson’s death, showing that he was still willing to claim him even in death.

It all ended suddenly for Bridget, not so long after the birth of another daughter, Martha, in early January 1891. Years of toil, bravery and a burning desire to survive for the sake of her family all faded away due to the cruelty of tuberculosis. Like her son a year earlier, the disease killed Bridget on 13 January 1891 at home at 18 Stobart Street. Luckily, her husband, James, was present at her death.

Bridget’s death certificate

Due to the fact her grandson, my Great Grandfather, was orphaned and difficulties surrounding finding her maiden name, Bridget’s story was at least temporarily lost to time. It was only recently uncovered in its true form, one of immense determination and bravery. This was in the face of a brutal society, appalling living and working conditions and countless unimaginable losses – Bridget Cook defied all odds and managed to keep her family and children alive for generations to come. Her story is genuinely inspiring to me, and I look to employ her spirit and memory as I progress through life.

For, if she had given up without much of a fight, would I be sat down writing her story 131 years after she passed away?

Mere Knolls Cemetery – Bridget’s final resting place

Harriet Keighley: The Widow

Born into a turbulent childhood shrouded in mystery, Harriet Keighley found herself lucky when she married Jeremiah Hall in 1830. But, struck by Jeremiah’s loss only fifteen years later, she started a widowhood that would last over twice the length of her marriage and have profound consequences for the generations of Halls ahead.

Harriet’s parents were Samuel Keighley and Grace Fearnley, who married at Birstall Parish Church in 1797, both residents of Heckmondwike. In terms of occupation, Samuel took after his father Jonas and worked as a clothier, a pretty broad term for individuals working in the cloth trade or even individuals who made or sold clothing.

Upper Independent Chapel in Heckmondwike via the Kirklees Image Archive (https://kirkleesimages.org.uk/)

The couple’s first recorded child, Nancy, was born in 1801 and was baptised at the Heckmondwike Old Independent Chapel shortly after her birth. The same applied to Mary, who followed in 1804. Both baptism records indicate the family now was living on Dewsbury Moor. Elizabeth was born in 1806 but was baptised at Dewsbury Parish Church, as was her sister Ellen in 1808.

Harriet did not buck the trend, and after her birth which was likely not too long before her baptism, she was baptised at Dewsbury Parish Church on 21 November 1810. Her only brothers followed – Antony in 1813 and Samuel in 1816, both baptised at Dewsbury Parish Church. Interestingly, by the time of Samuel’s baptism, the family had moved to Batley.

Dewsbury Minister

I do not mean to bore, regurgitating facts, places and dates, but it is clear that Samuel and Grace were flexible people, regularly switching Religious Denominations and moving around. This seems to be more apparent at the beginning of the couple’s marriage, so it perhaps affected Harriet’s childhood in a more mitigated way. Still, it is pretty clear that she lacked some stability in her childhood.

Now, after Samuel’s baptism in 1816, for whatever reason, we hit a deep and barren void as I have no recorded evidence of what happened to Harriet’s siblings or her parents past that point. It has been a while since I have touched them, so perhaps this is an excellent reason to have another search, but anything could have happened to them as far as we are concerned.

Batley Parish Church

Aged about 19 or so, on 8 September 1830, at Batley Parish Church, Harriet married Jeremiah Hall, a local Clothier. They married into a changing world where things were changing at a greater pace now than ever as the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and Batley began to develop into a prosperous and industrial town.

The couple’s first child was a boy named Joseph, who was baptised at Batley in 1831, followed by a sister named Grace in 1832. Quite tragically, Grace passed away, aged only one year, in April 1833 and was buried in her local Parish Churchyard on the 22nd of that month.

Family life continued, and despite the fact the loss of their only daughter must have stung very profoundly, both Harriet and Jeremiah had their son Joesph’s mouth to feed. He was joined by a brother named Jeremiah, after his father, in 1836, and also a sister, Grace Ann, in 1838, named likely after her late sister Grace and paternal grandmother Ann. Another girl, Margaret, was born and baptised in 1839.

William Henry Hall’s baptism at Batley Parish Church

Like most other people, Harriet first appeared on a census in 1841, where she was living with her husband and children in “New Batley”, which appears to be close to what is now Upper Commercial Street, Batley. The year after the census return, on 13 February 1842, William Henry Hall, my Great Great Great Grandfather, Jeremiah and Harriet’s final child together, was born in Batley, most likely at home. William’s baptism took place the following year at Batley Parish Church, just like the rest of his siblings, on 15 January 1843.

Just two years after William’s baptism, when he was aged just 3, and Harriet herself was aged only about 34 years, Jeremiah succumbed to phthisis, an archaic term for tuberculosis, aged only 41, at home, on 14 May 1845. He was buried at Batley Parish Church, where both his father and daughter Grace were also buried, on 18 May 1845.

I do not, and most likely will never, know the family dynamics of the household of Jeremiah and Harriet, nor do I know if they were a happy family, but I would at least like to think so. Jeremiah’s death had severe consequences for the family, many of them profoundly negative, but he seems never to be forgotten despite those factors. For example, I know that many of their children honoured Jeremiah by naming many of his grandchildren after him. Another point of this loyalty to his memory is perhaps the fact that Harriet never remarried. Was this down to loyalty to her late husband or just circumstances? We will likely never know either way.

As said before, the death of Jeremiah did have profound consequences for his family, who now faced a more tough and brutal reality. I am in no way saying that the Hall family had it easy when Jeremiah was alive – they were a working-class family in 1840s Batley. However, now they had lost the support of the breadwinner, and Harriet was, despite the help of the Hall and Keighley families, alone. Nevertheless, she didn’t let this new, more brutal reality deter her and took little to no time adjusting to it.

Harriet and family on the 1851 Census

On the 1851 census, her occupation is recorded as a rag sorter, and two of her eldest children worked in the mill. Now, a rag-sorter has a vague definition – she could have been sorting rags in a mill or even just collecting and sorting old bits of clothing. Regardless, Harriet now had double the work – running a house and earning a living – and it is possible that each day seemed to be more brutal and more protracted as time went on. Nevertheless, the strength she likely showed during this period is unquestionably remarkable, and I personally am deeply proud of her.

In 1861 things may have begun to calm down for Harriet, at least to an extent, because all her children, barring her son Jeremiah, remained at home and all worked in a variety of woollen based occupations. She is still recorded as working herself, but perhaps some of the pressure began to lift, which was quite apt as she began to grow older. Of course, she wouldn’t ever get the retirement of the modern era, but even just having a simpler existence, with less pressure, would have likely been quite welcome.

A map circa 1910 of the area where Harriet and her family lived

By 1871, Harriet did get this break, at least to some extent, as most of her children had either got employed or married and moved out. Interestingly, my Great Great Great Grandfather, William Henry Hall, was the exception and remained living with his mother on New Street, alongside his wife and children. His wife Eliza is recorded as taking up the role of housekeeper, while William is a plucker, and Harriet takes up the more sophisticated role of a shopkeeper. Her son Jeremiah lived next door, and her brother-in-law Joseph Hall lived only a few doors away. Harriet now worked in a different role, and likely faced less pressure at home – a blessing of her arduous labour pursuing her family’s survival.

By 1877, Harriet had moved to Cross Bank in Batley, and it is likely that William and his family also remained living with her or at least nearby. I am unsure of the exact reason he may have stayed with her – perhaps financial reasons contributed or even a desire to look after her as she aged? Maybe he felt indebted to her for his survival in his youth? But, again, it could have just been circumstance and could have had next to no real deep meaning behind it – we just do not know.

Harriet’s death certificate

In 1870, Harriet had turned 60, and as the average life expectancy was around 70, if you managed to get past 40, she entered her final years. Unfortunately, she became ill with what was later recorded as chronic bronchitis around the early Autumn of 1876, and after about three months of illness, she began to deteriorate. She saw Christmas and the New Year but eventually, on 8 January 1877, her years of labour caught up with her, and she passed away in the presence of her youngest son, William Henry Hall.

She was buried not far from where she lived at Batley Cemetery on 10 January 1877. Her grave is unsurprisingly unmarked and is located in Section A of the cemetery, specifically plot 235. She is also interred with her daughter Grace Ann, who died around a year after her, and a grandson named Walter, who died years previously.

Section A, Plot 235

After her death, William Henry Hall’s alcoholism becomes more apparent, with a variety of arrests, fines and prison sentences. We do not know where it originated from, but I have always felt that his mother’s death contributed towards worsening it. Was she the influence that kept him in check? Perhaps the loss created the alcoholism? We can never be sure either way, but her survival led to William’s life and problems, which in turn led to my Great Great Grandfather Ernest James Hall’s issues, although the First World War was the main contributor to his. This again affected the next generation and so forth. I think this shows how significant Harriet’s death was, not just to her children but how it could still be perceived to be relevant today, about 145 years later.

Did Harriet’s courage aid her grandson, Ernest James Hall, when he served during the First World War?

As a human, Harriet was a survivor who survived so much strife, brutal labour, and loss but still managed to raise the next generation of her family alone. She singlehandedly had the gumption, drive and ability to survive and persevere. Her husband was ripped from her by a horrific illness, let’s not forget that, and she may have received some help along the way, but she was able to keep his memory alive by raising his children and allowing them to carry his name forward. To be honest, Jeremiah is still being talked about 177 years after his death, so she definitely succeeded in that regard.

Harriet will always be special to me, for her story is just so unique and special, and I take great pride in being able to call her my Great Great Great Great Grandmother.

The legacy of Harriet – From left to right, Ernest James Hall (1885-1949), Percy Hall (1908-1976), Richard Hall (1944-1982), Christopher Hall, George Mason Hall.

John Richardson: A Life of Scandal

When my Great Great Great Great Grandfather, John Richardson, was born in 1832, it would be unbeknownst to all what a scandalous life he was about to lead. One that is even still quite uncomfortable to discuss just under 150 years after it ended. Failed marriages, bigamy, illness and abandonment define what was still an incredibly interesting and unique journey to an untimely end, aged just 47.

John Richardson’s story, however, began around just under 70 miles from where it ended, in County Durham, specifically the village of Neasham, which is located nearby to Darlington. He was the eldest son of Robert Richardson, a shoemaker, and Ann Wennington, who had married a few years prior to his birth in 1829. He was baptised at the Parish Church nearby to Neasham, located in Hurworth, on 26 February 1832, the same place as where his parents married. Furthermore, the parish register notes his date of birth as 29 January 1832, which is the only record we have of his birth date, but it is important to note that this date can sometimes be unreliable.

Map showing Neasham in the 1890s

Clearly, as the couple’s eldest child, barring an early death, he would have some siblings to grow up with but also be a role model towards. These children came at wildly inconsistent rates down to what could be a multitude of reasons, but regardless, by 1855, when he was aged about twenty-three, his parent’s final child, a lad named Joseph, was born. In total, including John, they had eight children who survived infancy – 5 boys and 4 girls.

Despite the fact his family was growing, John didn’t remain in Neasham for long after he came of age. In fact, the last recorded time he was living with his family and in his place of birth was the 1851 census, where he is recorded as working as a joiner. Furthermore, it is noted that John is a journeyman, indicating that he may have also spent time away learning his trade as an apprentice, or at the very least illustrating his skills. Perhaps with his new skills and his trade, he set off into an ever-changing world with ambitions to build his own life and future.

Extract of their marriage certificate showing the hand of both John Richardson and Emma Exley

With this in mind, the fact within just over a year or so, he had moved to the up-and-coming West Yorkshire town of Dewsbury doesn’t seem too surprising. However, what is undoubtedly interesting is that in June 1852, within a year or so of his move, he married the 17-year-old Emma Exley. The couple settled into married life and welcomed their first child, John William, in 1854, followed by James in 1856.

In 1861, the family of four was residing on King Street, Batley Carr and John unsurprisingly worked as a joiner. Also, in what I feel to be somewhat of a poignant gesture towards John’s younger brother and father, their third lad born in 1864 was named Christopher Robert Richardson.

John’s brother, Christopher Robert Richardson, many years after the events of John’s life, aged about 90

However, despite all seeming well, the scandalous nature of John’s life was about to begin, for John left his wife and three boys in about 1864.

We will never know the exact motivation as to why John leaves his wife. From my perspective, the marriage seemed to be rushed and strange; Emma seemed too young and considering that John was also still a young lad that had just moved nearly 70 miles, how did the couple even meet? Was their period of courtship long enough? Was the marriage “rushed” with John regretting his decision? Emma’s family was more middle class, with her father being an employer, so perhaps John saw his marriage as a means to advance himself and was ignorant of any long-term consequences? Ignoring all of these more philosophical questions, which we realistically cannot answer easily, I believe that there is a trigger that caused him to leave his family – another woman.

Put in simple terms, my Great Great Great Grandfather, Samuel Walker Richardson, was born in December 1865, John’s first son to Lydia Walker, the above “other” woman. We do not know when they met exactly but using logic, they both must have known each other since the beginning of the year, and as it was around that year that John is later reported as leaving Emma, I think it is fair to come to the conclusion that this was the trigger. It is also worth noting by 1871 after the births of a few new kids to her – namely Tom, Harry and Jane – John is recorded as living with Lydia on Mill Lane, Hanging Heaton as her lodger.

The Baptisms of two of Lydia and John’s children – Jane and Tom – at St Thomas’ Church, Batley

John was in court around the same time period in 1871, specifically May, when he was summoned by the Dewsbury Poor Law Union at Dewsbury Borough Court for leaving his wife and children dependent upon the common fund of the Poor Law Union. The court notes that John typically paid weekly maintenance fees to Emma, but since he was recently taken ill, he could not do so. He was allowed to settle with the Receiving Officer outside of court, and the case was closed.

Arguably the most scandalous action of John’s life was when both he and Lydia moved to Wellington Street, Leeds, for a short period in late 1874, where they were married bigamously. They must have determined Leeds to be large enough to keep some anonymity as they were committing a crime but wasn’t too far removed from Batley and Dewsbury, where they would eventually live again. Banns were read between 25 October and 8 November, before their marriage on 21 November.

The marriage that shouldn’t have legally happened

Both John and Lydia had another son, in about 1872, named Fred, and then Mary Ann in 1875 and had moved back to Batley by the point of her birth. Despite now getting their relationship confirmed in front of god and effectively already existing as a married couple, John was once again summoned for neglecting to pay Emma’s maintenance and once again leaving her at the mercy of the Dewsbury Poor Law Union. He admitted in May 1876 before the Dewsbury Borough Court as being “away’, perhaps linking back to the time spent in Leeds. He was sentenced to three month’s hard labour unless he managed to settle with the Board of Guardians out of court, which he appeared to do. Interestingly, the newspaper report notes that he is “living with another woman” and that he has a sizeable number of kids with her. From this, it was likely well known that they were together, both John and Lydia, so the fact that they were able to get away with marrying bigamously is quite impressive.

It was touched upon in the May 1871 case that John had been taken ill, and ignoring if that was an excuse made for the court or a genuine fact, it foreshadowed what was to happen to John. Specifically, by August 1879, he becomes ill again – fatally ill. Tuberculosis is what kills him, aged 47, on 13 August 1879 at his home with Lydia on Ambler Street, Batley Carr.

Part of John Richardson’s death certificate – not the greatest copy in the world.

Funnily enough, Emma registers his death and is noted as being “in attendance”. This doesn’t illustrate anything significant, as she may have just felt it was right to fulfil her final duties as his wife and mother of his children, or they have reconciled even just a little towards the end. John was buried at Dewsbury Cemetery on 16 August 1879 in a grave that Emma bought and was later buried in herself. Again, the more romantic point might be a reconciliation between the two on his death bed. Yet, I honestly feel that Emma bought the plot over Lydia as, despite the bigamous marriage, Emma was John’s legal wife. Perhaps Emma didn’t even choose to be buried with John. She may have been buried there because it was the easiest for her family members.

There isn’t an easy way to conclude John’s tale as it is one that was cut short, and many pieces are missing from it, unlikely to have ever been recorded by any official records. His thoughts and feelings were especially crucial to his story, and as we don’t know them 150 years on, we should be mindful of that when discussing his actions and intentions. It is essential to discuss regardless as it beautifully exemplifies the fact that not everything is as simple as it appears. Despite what we may think of the past, people have always been people, easily all been able to make similar mistakes and decisions as we are in the modern world. John Richardson’s story isn’t one I gladly shout from the rooftops, but without him and the fact he left his wife, I wouldn’t be here today, so I feel it would be wrong of me to ignore it. After all, he led an incredibly interesting and unique journey through life irrespective of his flaws and scandalous nature.

William Dale: From Nothing to Something

William Dale was born into death, poverty, and a society that intentionally or unintentionally limited his dreams, but regardless, he managed to create a legacy spanning generations. His birth which took place on 8 February 1787 in York, England, likely pained those around him with worry and anger but blessed them also with love and joy.

St Michael le Belfrey in May 2021

To understand this, we must begin with William’s parents, John Dale, a Chaise Driver, and Ann Hinchcliffe, who married on 24 February 1783 at St Michael le Belfrey, a church in the City of York where Guy Fawkes was baptised in 1570. They lived in the Petergate area of York, at one point being recorded as living at Little Blake Street.

Now, the worry surrounding William’s birth likely originated, quite ironically, with John and Ann’s first daughter’s birth in 1783. They called her Sarah, and she would sadly pass away due to catching smallpox, aged about two. Around the time of her death, likely on the same day, their second daughter, also named Sarah as quite a poignant tribute to her late sister, was born. She would die aged less than six months in February 1786 due to the whooping cough.

In a period of just under three years, John and Ann Dale had lost all their children to two cruel and merciless ailments.

A later transcript of William’s baptism

William’s birth then was a period of worry but joy, and after a while, I would like to think the worry settled as William survived and would soon be joined by a sister, namely Ann, who was born in October 1789. Ann survived too, and ostensibly it appeared that both John and Ann, although not without worry, could begin to raise a family now, but alas, fate had other ideas.

As I said, William was born into death, and although he hadn’t personally experienced loss as of yet, being born after the passing of his sisters, their deaths likely marked his childhood in some way. Consequently, the death of his father, aged only 34, in November 1796, only added to this idea. He died of consumption, or tuberculosis, and was buried in the churchyard at St. Mary’s Church in York.

For Ann especially, this death was a disaster – not only had she lost her husband, but she had also lost the breadwinner. How was she to survive? She had two mouths to feed, never mind her own.

Unfortunately, consumption would strike again as it killed William’s mother, Ann, around six months after his father in May 1797. Aged just ten – he was now orphaned.

St Mary’s Church via Wikimedia

From this point, up until 1811, I have absolutely no idea what happens to William or his sister Ann. In fact, in Ann’s case, I do not know what happens to her after this stage at all. I would think they were sent to an Aunt or Uncle and stuck together, but I have no evidence for any possibility.

What I do know is that on 12 February 1811, William Dale became a Freeman of the City of York. This was by birthright owing to his late father John’s membership. Furthermore, on 30 March 1812, at St. John’s Church in York, William married Mary Perry, daughter of John. William is recorded as living in the parish of St Martins-Cooney Street and has by this point taken up the trade of a hairdresser.

William’s Freeman Claim

Now, the fact he managed to get a trade is fascinating too. Not just considering the fact he was orphaned, but the fact I haven’t come across an apprenticeship record for him. He literally just appears, at least from my perspective, to pick up the scissors and get on with the job, which is very admirable if true. Even if he did get some help in getting his trade, he must have been talented and a hard worker to even get the help in the first place.

In total, both William and Mary had two boys and four girls over the course of their marriage. The two boys – John and William, my 4 x Great Grandfather – are the ones I have spent the most focus upon, but I don’t wish to discredit nor overlook his daughters either. In a surprising twist of fate, it appears that not a single living child of theirs passed away, which was undoubtedly a change of fortunes from his childhood.

Like father, like sons and daughters – death would also tragically mark William’s children’s childhoods. William’s wife, Mary, passed away, aged only about 41, in November 1831, of unknown causes. She was buried in the churchyard of All Saints’ Church, Pavement, York – a point to keep in mind.

All Saint’s Pavement in May 2021

Keeping to the spirit of his youth, William didn’t let this death sink him.

As newspaper reporting became more widespread over this period, we can begin to understand the truly remarkable man William was to a more significant extent.

Firstly, a point I probably should have raised earlier, but by 1819, William Dale had moved to Jubbergate, York, where he likely ran his own hairdresser’s shop. I do not know definitively that he ran his own business until the 1830s, but it probably appears so. In 1838, he was listed in a list of voters objecting to a specific proposal, showing that he was willing to get political. Furthermore, he was also listed as a freeholder – owning his own property – something remarkable for a ten-year-old orphan in the late 1790s.

By 1841, my 4 x Great Grandfather William had moved out to undertake his apprenticeship as a printer. His brother John entered the business with his father around this period as a hairdresser, and it became known as “William Dale and Sons” from this point. His daughters remained at home, also working as weavers and dressmakers to help supplement the family income. Another interesting point to note is that William also donated not an insignificant amount of money to York prison in this period, so he clearly wasn’t without money which was again quite impressive.

A postcard depicting Jubbergate in the late 1800s to early 1900s

However, this wasn’t to last forever, and after what was described as a short but severe illness, William Dale passed away, aged fifty-five, in 1842, at Jubbergate, likely in his home. His cause of death was recorded as inflammation of the bowels, and it was also noted that a John Dale, likely his son, was with him as he passed away. His death notice states that he bore his illness with great patience and resignation, a fitting way, I think, for how he lived.

He lived a life of tragedy, but he didn’t allow it to define him, instead building a legacy that propelled his son John, named likely in part after his grandfather, William’s own father, to become the Swordbearer of the City of York and live a truly successful and remarkable life.

Without William’s labour, grit and determination, none of this would have happened, and in fact, I wouldn’t have written any of these words if he had given up on life. Clearly, he was fortunate and may have even had advantages unavailable to others, but he had a dream and allowed it to take place and indeed left his mark on the world.

Inside the Church

He was buried at All Saints Pavement’s churchyard, most likely with his wife, and I was lucky enough to visit this church just over a year ago, in late May 2021. It was a sunny, warm day, and I walked into the church itself alone with my thoughts when suddenly the organ started playing a beautiful melody. I sat down on a pew alone and mused to myself that about 180 years ago, the funeral service of William Dale took place here and now, all these years and eight generations later, I had come back to remember him.

As I walked out, I was left with a single thought – what a legacy, eh?

My Lessons from Auschwitz

In March, I was privileged to participate in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ online programme. I wish to share some of the key lessons and stories I have learnt and also explore why it is so important as someone who has absolutely no apparent connection to the Holocaust that it is important we all remember and learn from it.

Photo from my visit to Auschwitz-BirkenauAuschwitz-BirkenauAuschwitz-Birkenau in late 2019

As we discuss the Holocaust, it is vital to be clear with definitions.

The Holocaust: Defined by the Holocaust Educational Trust as the murder of approximately six million Jewish men, women and children by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the Second World War.

Antisemitism: The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) defines antisemitism as a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards both Jewish and non-Jewish individuals, their property and both religious and community institutions. It can take place in both rhetorical and physical forms.

Genocide: According to the United Nations, genocide can be a variety of actions which are intended to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Clearly, with those clear definitions from trustworthy sources, we can start to interpret the Holocaust. I would like to zero in on the definition of the Holocaust itself by the Holocaust Educational Trust. I believe it exemplifies many points that challenged or at least expanded my own personal knowledge of the Holocaust.

‘Murder’ in the Holocaust was not limited to just the gas chambers as perhaps the wider public’s perception may be but covers a wide array of different deaths equally as important. For example, many victims died of disease, exhaustion or starvation in the camps as they were used for labour in the cruellest and most inhuman conditions throughout the war. Furthermore, many individuals died away from Concentration Camps in different places throughout the period of Nazi rule.

The phrase ‘approximately six million Jewish men, women and children’ contains a vital statistic of the scale of the Holocaust but is quite impersonal and ultimately incomprehensible. However, one way we can try to interpret this number is through the Book of Names located at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which lists 4.2 million names and any known details of the Holocaust’s victims. Unfortunately, there are just under two million names missing – as no records remain of their stories – but there is hope as blank space is left to hopefully record each missing person’s story.

The Book of Names – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We should also refrain from simply considering statistics and consider that all people involved (victims but also perpetrators and collaborators) were individuals. I was lucky enough to hear the testimony of Manfred Goldberg BEM, a holocaust survivor and educator, who truly brought home this point. Each person had their own story and motivations, and to truly understand the Holocaust, and we must consider this.

Finally, I wish to explain why this is relevant to everybody today, especially people like me who may not have an obvious connection to the Holocaust. Antisemitism hasn’t stopped – the Community Security Trust recorded 1668 antisemitic incidents across the United Kingdom in 2020 – and is increasing; therefore, we must learn to fight hate by educating ourselves and others. We must not limit this education to just antisemitism, as all forms of hate, whether it be islamophobia, racism, homophobia etc.. must be challenged. The remaining survivors of the Holocaust are now beginning to pass away sadly, so educating ourselves also becomes even more critical as we must ensure that we can all collectively continue their work.

Betty Totton: The Lost Grandmother

One hundred forty-eight years ago, on 12 April 1874, probably at home, the tenth child of Benjamin and Hannah Smith was born. It was a girl, the couple’s fourth and final daughter, and she was named Betty, probably after her father’s sister. Unfortunately, out of four girls, two had passed away in their infancy, and I suspect that both Benjamin and Hannah had slight worries for Betty’s health in light of this.

Betty’s ancestry was quite complex, with young death, dissenting religion and illegitimacy greatly defining it. Her ancestry also represented profound change in local and national history, following the gradual industrial revolution and political and religious changes throughout the 17th to early to mid 19th centuries.

Croppers in the early 19th Century

Following her ancestor’s footsteps, she grew up in the Kew Hill area, a region bordering Blackley and Longwood in the old West Riding of Yorkshire. Her father seemed to work in a variety of cloth related jobs, following most men in his wider area. In 1861 he worked in the quite skilled job of a cloth dresser (or cropper) as did many of his ancestors, but as new technologies developed, croppers found work harder and harder to find. This perhaps explains Benjamin working as a cloth miller a few years before Betty’s birth and then as a cloth fuller for most of her childhood.

The instability surrounding Benjamin’s work perhaps only furthered both his and Hannah’s worries. By 1881 they had a family of ten to provide for, and if Benjamin lost his regular income, the entire family would be threatened. They had to make Benjamin’s wage stretch far, especially before Betty’s older brothers went to work – likely after leaving school aged thirteen – and it is hard not to understate the worry that must have haunted the family.

Another aspect of Betty’s childhood, apart from the worry and threat of starvation, is the sheer size of the household. Fair enough, the number of children couples had was typically much greater than the modern-day but also sadly was infant mortality. I find the fact that Betty grew up with her parents and also nine other siblings, making a household of twelve people, as absolutely striking, especially because the 1891 census describes the Smith household as living in just two rooms. There were no specific instructions relayed to enumerators regarding what counted as a room. Still, even if we were to consider the fact that the number may have been understated – the family must have been absolutely cramped.

The size of the Smith family

Although things had been difficult for the Smith family, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. They laughed, cried, smiled and got up to mischief just as much as anybody nowadays. We actually have an interesting insight into this as Betty’s older brother Brearley and some other local young lads were fined for “gaming at toss for money” in an open shed on Kew Hill. It is noted that a fair few of those present managed to run off, and I suspect there could have been one or two more Smiths in and amongst them. Nevertheless, the laughter, shouting and lecturing that followed all indicate that although times and conditions were hard and, in many ways, horrific, people still lived their lives like we do this day.

Richard Totton

Betty’s choice of husband, Richard Totton, was quite interesting due to his history – his family was typical, and his occupation was fine too – but in the mid-1890s, he had had a little bit of trouble with the law. He was caught doing some probably illegal poaching with his brother and some friends and only just narrowly avoided being sent to jail. Regardless, his name and the fact he basically laughed in a police officer’s face when been accused of the crime was plastered all over the news in West Yorkshire.

Ultimately this didn’t deter Betty, who married him in November 1897 at the local Baptist chapel in Blackley. After their marriage, they didn’t move too far from their respective families, living on Lindley Moor in 1901, and Richard took up work as a coal miner. It wasn’t too long until on a Friday evening, at around half past five in May 1898, that the couple’s first child, a boy called George, was born. After 1901 and at the latest by 1904, the family had moved from the areas Richard and Betty grew up in to the Hightown Heights area of Liversedge.

The couple’s next child was Wilfred, born in 1907, but why was there a nine-year gap between him and George? We cannot be sure of the exact reason, but perhaps both Richard and Betty wanted to settle properly before having more kids. On the other hand, the cramped nature of Betty’s childhood with nine siblings made her hesitant about having a big family? Or was it simply down to fate? Either way, it is impossible to know the exact reasoning, but it is important to acknowledge it.

The Totton and Smith families, circa 1918?

There were a few baptisms in between, but apart from that, nothing major happened until the birth of the couple’s first daughter Lucille in the early hours of 13 February 1911. The family not long after appeared on the 1911 census, where Richard worked as a Deputy in a Coal Mine, and George Totton worked in a mill part-time alongside his education. Betty stayed at home looking after the infant Wilf and Lucille.

Sadly, taking after her two aunts who died in infancy, Lucille died aged only fifteen months in May 1912. Her tragic passing was due to a form of tuberculosis, which she bravely fought against for an impressive two months. She was buried in a plot at Liversedge Cemetery in the following few days. Lucille’s death was tragic and cruel and likely inflicted unimaginable pain and grief upon the Totton household.

My Great Grandmother Doris

In June 1914, my Great Grandmother, Doris, was born. Her birth likely came as a blessing to all the family, allowing them time to grieve Lucille but also then to move on in her name.

By 1920, the family moved into the quite impressive Highfield House in Hartshead and in the Tax Records of the same year, it is clear this was quite the jump for the family. Firstly, the record indicates not only did they have such a lovely house but also the fact that it came with some land and stables but also the fact it had a rent of £18, not a small amount of money at the time.

Even more intriguingly is the fact that both Richard and George Totton were “out of work” in 1921. They both worked in the Hartshead/Clifton pit of the Low Moor Coal and Steel Company as a getter/hewer and trammer, respectively. I suspect that this was down to ongoing industrial disputes, but it is still important to note. Betty remains at home, performing “home duties” whilst Wilf works part-time, and Doris is going to school on a full-time basis.

Area surrounding Highfield House and Park View

George Totton married in 1923, and not too long after, in about 1927, the Totton family moved into one of the less impressive but still comfortable Park View terrace houses. Three years later, Wilf married his wife Minnie, and they moved not too far away to Hartshead and later Roberttown. The same applied to George Totton, who moved out not long after his marriage to Walker’s Terrace nearby. Betty became a grandmother in the aforementioned period also, first came Edith and then Jack in the mid-20s, followed by Barbara in 1931.

Perhaps down to age or even the Great Depression that was now engulfing the world, Richard took up work as a Highway Labourer for the West Riding County Council. Betty had gone from a family of twelve in her early years to now living with just her daughter and husband in the lovely village of Hartshead.

Betty and Doris

Not so long after turning sixty, on 10 May 1934, Betty passed away due to pernicious anaemia, which during the 1930s was almost always fatal. Treatment was tough, and Betty bravely put up with the worst until the end.

She was buried with Lucille two days later, on 12 May 1934. The plot remained unmarked until 24 February 2022, around eighty-eight years later, when the whole family played their part in making sure that both her and Lucille were remembered properly.

Marked finally

Betty will always remain special to me for a variety of reasons. The main one is simply the fact that I see her as such a warm, grandmotherly soul, especially through her pictures. The existence of so many pictures alongside so many other unique family heirlooms and facts also drew me into the Totton family and Betty’s story. Her story is unique but also of its time, and I am so privileged to tell it – alongside Ernest Hall, she is easily one of my “favourite” ancestors.

Why we need to save Spen.

I am writing this perhaps a tad late, but as the deadline to object looms tomorrow at midnight, I felt that the best way I could raise some awareness of what I think is quite an important issue is by posting something on my blog. 

The Spen Coat of Arms located on the recently refurbished Cleckheaton Library gates.

Firstly, I do not wish to be political; I simply believe that this issue is one that must be tackled. 

The Boundary Commission unveiled new proposals nationwide last summer, which on a local level butchers the current Batley and Spen constituency into an irregular oblong of leftover areas. The proposed zombified constituency will span through two councils and cut through the heart of local communities and make no sense on a practical and historical level.

The original ”Spen Valley constituency was created after the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 and existed with a fair few boundary changes in between, up until 1950. For that period of 65 years, not only was the constituency held by John Simon, who held all great offices of state apart from the Premiership, but it also was host to an upset Labour victory in a contested fiercely 1919 by-election, indicative of the momentum behind the rising Labour Party.

John Simon, 1st Viscount Simon – He served as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer throughout his long career.

The naming of the seatback in 1885 was also quite interesting as it resulted in quite a significant spat between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The constituency was originally going to be named “Birstall” after the ancient parish that covered the area. However, this was contested by Liberal Bradford MP Alfred Illingworth, who argued the area should be called “Spen Valley”. In many ways, at the time, the term “Spen Valley” was an artificial construct, as Illingworth would later admit, but he thought that the term would prevent jealousy between the local towns and also would be a more central name.

The Earl of Feversham strongly opposed Illingworth’s amendment arguing that the local population didn’t support or identify with the term “Spen Valley” and wanted the ancient parish’s name to be used. The Earl even further commented that the new term was “only remarkable for being the receptacle of all the sewage from Birstall”. President of the Local Government Board, Sir Charles Dilke, countered with the fact that although the term was artificial, it had the support of the local boards of Cleckheaton, Heckmondwike and Liversedge, which made up the majority of the proposed constituency. Finally, after the debate, the Commons voted 65 to 46 in favour of the seat using the Spen Valley. Afterwards, the Lords gave way much to Earl Feversham’sFeversham’s disgust.

Does this look like a good idea?

On a more practical level, is it right to have a constituency that spans two local authorities? Is it practical to have a Member of Parliament, an individual meant to represent all of us, split between a narrow strip of communities that have next to nothing in common?

And finally, and the point I wish to stress the most, is it right to lose a name that has stood for 137 years? I believe not.

What can we do then? Well, there is a multitude of things we can do, but the most important is submitting comments and objections to the Boundary Commission on their website.

The next part I have stolen from our MP Kim Leadbeater’s newsletter, but I couldn’t put them better myself.

“The key objections clearly are

  • Heckmondwike has strong ties to Batley
  • Removing the bulk of Heckmondwike would cut links between the west and east of the constituency, along the A638 (Halifax Road / High Street) in particular
  • Hipperholme and Lightcliffe have no ties to the constituency
  • Batley and Spen should remain wholly in Kirklees and not take in part of Calderdale”

It is also a good idea to highlight that the name Spen Valley, Spen or Spenborough has remained part of a parliamentary constituency since 1885 or 137 years. That represents five generations of my Batley Hall family. How many generations of your family have lived under this name?

I understand there is a pandemic and countless devastating conflicts and wars across the globe, but many people will think this isn’t actually the most pressing issue. But losing our local identity would be genuinely devastating, and I worry the sense of community we underestimate could begin to slip away.

This is why I really believe we should all try our best to reinforce the common identity we share in our local area. The Spen Valley is a historic place, once home to the Industrial Revolution, which permanently changed the area and our world. We once housed mills, factories and mines that were world-renowned. There are plenty of opportunities and hope for the future if we work together, and the first step starts by preserving our area’s name.

‘Spen Valley’ on the sign at the new ‘Spen Baths’ – indicative of a bright future?

According to the late Thomas William Thompson, the Spen Valley was inhabited by “brave, fearless people” – let us not lose that identity now.