The Murder of William Horsfall, from ‘York Castle In the Nineteenth Century’

202 years ago this month, the show trial of a handful of Luddites ended, and men were hung at York Castle after a ‘Special Commission’ at York Assizes. They built the scaffold unusually high, so the crowd of thousands could see the men die, like a farmer hangs a few crows pour encourager les autres.

On January 8th 1813, Longroyd Bridge croppers George Mellor, William Thorpe and Thomas Smith were hung for the alleged murder of mill-owner, William Horsfall.  Mellor was said to be the West Riding’s ‘King Ludd’. Only 23, he was literate, intelligent, charismatic – a born leader. Evidence has recently come to light that the ‘Guilty’ verdict was decided by the government, weeks ahead of time.

Hartshead Church, where Rawfolds victims are said to have been buried in an unmarked grave

The three men’s bodies were dissected at the County Hospital in York, to obviate the possibility of martyrs’ graves.  Patrick Bronte is said to have quietly, at night, officiated over the burials of  Luddites killed during the Rawfolds raid, in an unmarked grave, when he was vicar at Hartshead.

Reporters noted the York crowd watched the hangings in baleful silence. Maybe they knew it was more about preventing Yorkshire folk of all trades from ‘combination’ (developing trade unions) than it was about the death of Horsfall. Horsfall’s own funeral had necessarily been a low key affair at Huddersfield parish church.

On January 16th, fourteen more men were hung for the attack on Rawfolds Mill and stealing arms – when I read court accounts in the newspapers, it struck me that many had brought credible witnesses to court who gave them solid alibis. So it is not even clear if all the hanged men were even Luddites at all. The hanged men were: John Ogden, Nathan Hoyle, Joseph Crowther, John Hill, John Walker, Jonathan Dean, Thomas Brook, William Hartley, John Swallow, John Batley, Joseph Fisher, James Haigh, James Hey (or ‘Haigh’) and Job Hey. Some of those surnames may be familiar to anyone with West Riding ancestry.

Horsfall of Marsden near Huddersfield, had indulged in a spectacular piece of what can only be described as  trolling. He had boasted he was going to install new shearing frames even if it meant he had to ride upto his stirrups in (the workers’)  blood. Riding back from Huddersfield market, across moorland, Horsfall was shot.

We know the Horsfalls stayed in the wool trade in one capacity or another, as a Horsfall descendent donated this rare example of a knitted Welsh Wig to St Fagan’s Museum, documented and pattern by the marvellous Sally Pointer.

Throughout 1812,government agents had infiltrated the Luddite movement. Westminster dispatched spies to participate in “twissing in”, the secret initiation ceremony where Luddites were “twisted” (like threads spun into yarn) into service. Laws were rapidly passed so even uttering the words of the twissing in ceremony was a capital offence.  Far from lobbing a few stones, the Luddites were organised like a military operation, and armed themselves by raiding remote farm-houses for firearms, which they then drilled with on moorland, so they could attack the mills and break the machines that took away their livelihoods.  They raided in disguise, blackening their faces for camouflage at night. Many were well read, autodidacts not the backwards-looking, destructive neanderthals of myth but politicised, skilled craftsmen (Craftspeople were always, historically, hard for those in power to pull into line – many were early supporters of the Parliamentarians in the Civil War, for example).  In the West Riding, weavers and croppers were notoriously Non Conformists and free thinkers.

Croppers, or ‘shearmen’, had for some time had an effective proto-trade union but the 1802 Combination Act threatened this, making trade unionism illegal.

My great x 3 grandfather, Thomas Lister, was a wool weaver, born in 1791 from a long line of weavers, clothiers and wool merchants in Halifax, Yorkshire.  Many clothiers were one-man operations; weaving and then selling their pieces at Piece Hall.  Often a weaver aspired for at least one of his sons to become a cropper as they earned more than the weavers and then they could finish cloth and make it higher value, in-house. On family trees, you often see the line of oldest sons down a few generations going: weaver, cropper, weaver, cropper…

Thomas’s son, Tom (my great-great grandfather) was to become a cropper but his career was post mechanisation of the process. Thomas Lister the elder was the same age as some of the arrested Luddites and he moved to Longroyd Bridge in Huddersfield, somewhere between 1811 and the early 1820s. Both Halifax and Huddersfield were at the epicentre of the Luddite movement – a government agent described a twissing in ceremony witnessed in a Halifax pub. As weavers/croppers, actually at Longroyd Bridge – where the Luddite ‘ring-leaders’ were based – it is more than possible my ancestors were caught up in the conflict, either in Halifax or Huddersfield. I have always hoped they were!

In late 1812, before the York show trial, over a hundred ‘Luddites’ were arrested and imprisoned at York Castle. I have yet to trace the men on the prison calendar, but when I do, would not be remotely surprised to find a Lister in there, somewhere. Another great x 3 grandad from this time is Tom Smith, a Longwood (Huddersfield) clothier. Sadly with just about the most common name in England at these dates, that makes it hard for me to find out whether my Tom Smith (born 1799, and lived for many decades after this time) was related in any way to the Huddersfield Thomas Smith who hung alongside Mellor. Like the hanged men, both my Smith and Lister ancestors were Non-Conformists – baptists and methodists.  The second batch of hanged Luddites sang a methodist hymn on their way to the scaffold.

Croppers (sometimes called shearers or cloth dressers) were usually seen as the most skilled of all craftsmen in the wool trade; they raised and cropped the nap on finished cloth. One nick of the shears and the entire piece, representing hundreds of hours of work, was ruined. When a cropper finished, he added great value to the finished cloth. So, croppers were the highest paid textile workers. An apprentice cropper would have to work heavy shears which was agony til a ‘hoof’ (callous) developed on his hands. This took time.  They also had to develop incredible upper body strength and stamina as well as skill. They had a reputation as hard drinkers and men not to be messed with. I’ve written elsewhere about my relatives, the Huddersfield aniline dyers, the Dawsons, who were active in setting up Mechanics’ Institutes in the West Riding, to educate the working classes. But even before the Mechanics’ Institutes, many in the textile industry were educating themselves.

Our old (biased, wealthy) friend, George Walker, writing in 1813 about croppers said:

“… The majority are idle and dissolute…”

[Costumes of Yorkshire, 1814]

Which is interesting as the twissing in oath actually requires that the new member is “sober and faithful” in all his dealings with fellow Luddites. I suspect what people outside the industry saw, looking in a workshop, were the shearmen drinking a quantity of ale or small beer – safer than water, and standard to most British labourers in the nineteenth century. (Woolcombers had to work in a heated space so, like blacksiths, may well have drunk even more!)

Gig mill

Conflict was inevitable when crude machinery was developed – the gig mill and shearing frame which saved employers’ labour costs: “… a machine managed by one man and two boys doing the work of eighteen men and six boys…” (Lipson, p.189).  Early shearing frames were not even very good at cropping. But employers persisted with them for obvious reasons.

So the irresistible force hit the immovable object as the suppressed – and now soon to be unemployed – workers, clashed with the struggling employers. Mills like Rawfolds were heavily defended by armed soldiers. As the Peterloo Massacre showed, early nineteenth century governments were never slow to fire on their own (disenfranchised) citizens, if it suited their aims.

The textile industry drove the development of capitalism, more than anything, in the new, industrialised world and these men were amongst the first and the most dramatic casualties.

Government had ended their ability to combine together and fight for better wages, or better working conditions. What else were they supposed to do?

The whole episode was during the Peninsular War and yet there were more soldiers in Yorkshire, than on the Peninsular. In 1812, there were a thousand soldiers stationed in Huddersfield. A city of only ten thousand people…  In other words, there was a very determined effort by the powerful, to smash the rebellion before it got out of hand. In 1812, the law was changed so that the penalty for breaking a machine was death: it had previously been transportation.

They didn’t rage against all machines – just those that took away a craftsman’s skill forever and replaced it with something that was not improving the quality of the cloth at all.

I am proud my ancestors were weavers/croppers at the height of Luddism and in the eye of the storm.

The concerted effort to stamp out this workers’ movement, was effective. After the show trials, some of those still held at York Castle were transported. Others were quietly let free.

The Luddites were effectively crushed by the state yet I’d suggest they accomplished something incredible. They planted the seeds which, a generation later, were to become the Trade Union movement. If their voice was silenced brutally by the government, it re-emerged later in a groundswell of opinion that ultimately led to universal suffrage and rights for millions of people in the earliest industrialised society on the face of this planet.

Twissing In Oath:

“I, [insert name], of my own free will and accord do hereby promise and swear that I will never reveal any of the names of any one of this secret Committee, under the penalty of being sent out of this world by the first Brother that may meet me. I furthermore do swear, that I will pursue with unceasing vengeance any Traitors or Traitor, should there any arise, should he fly to the verge of  [left blank, possibly “Hell”]. I furthermore do swear that I will be sober and faithful, in all my dealings with all my Brothers, and if ever I decline them, my name to be blotted out from the list of Society and never to be remembered, but with contempt and abhorrence, so help me God to keep this our Oath inviolate.”

Armley Mills Industrial Museum, Leeds. Weaver’s Cottage at end!

If you would like to attend a (free) workshop on Tracing Your Textile Mill Ancestors, come and see us at Armley Mills (Leeds Industrial Museum) on June 6th.

I’ll be there with our Living History Yorkshire Luddites group giving a workshop on how to find your textile industry ancestors, and what their jobs actually were! I’ll post details nearer the time.

Resources: On the trail of the Luddites, Lesley Hall and Nick Kiplng, Pennine Heritage Network, 1984

The History of the English Woollen and Worsted Industries, E.Lipson, A & C Black, 1921




The Crochet Worker, Mary Ann Purdon, by William Etty., R.A

“Victorian parlour ladies” has become a derogatory phrase when it comes to describing the history of crafts.  I wrote this some time ago for Love:Crochet. Crochet is not ‘my’ craft but it was interesting to look at its history, as it was so beloved of the “Victorian parlour ladies” of the 1840s and sheds some light on why, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it became easy for some folk, taking their lead from historians, to be dismissive of the achievements and interests of nineteenth century women. 

Whenever I see that phrase “Victorian parlour ladies”, or – the contemporary equivalent “hobby” [knitters, spinners, weavers, insert craft here!], I see a sexist attempt to belittle craftspeople.  The whole idea of Victorian (female) dilettantes  had its roots in the Victorian era itself.  There is also a myth about the court of Queen Victoria dabbling in crafts when they were fashionable. In a future post, I hope to show how this is largely a fantasy.   In fact, the Victorian age and the early twentieth century  had many examples of middle class women (and men) reviving almost lost skills and using them to help working class people make a living. The most obvious example of this being William Morris’s revival of handspinning and weaving in Westmorland. Crafts were a part of the daily life of people of all social classes; for some, they might add a small but valuable income; for others, they didn’t just pass the time but also were a way of showing faith and virtue. Knitting and crochet were democratic. Why should the work of women of any social class be belittled or used to belittle contemporary craftspeople? 

Surviving textiles show the “parlour ladies” made beautiful things. Why wouldn’t they?  They had the time. I think it was more complex than just conspicuous look-at-me-I-can-afford-to-spend-hours-crocheting-doilies-that-must-mean-I’m-RICH! 

I will look at this in more depth soon but for now, here is a piece inspired by William Etty’s painting ‘The Crochet Worker’. Mary Ann Purdon was the daughter of a Hull clerk; not a grand lady but typical of so many women who would have spent their spare time profitably.


“LADIES MADE HAPPY! It is the observation of one of our best writers, ‘that elegant occupation is the source of happiness to the amiable sex….’ “   

From an advertisement for ‘Guide to Knitting, Netting and Crochet’, Manchester Times, 1844.

In the 1840s, the first written instructions for crochet appeared in print. In the same decade, William Etty painted this portrait of his great-niece, Mary Ann Purdon. The painting is often referred to as ‘Study’; a preliminary work for a painting that was never completed.

The 1840s saw a craze for crochet, which had formerly been called ‘Shepherd’s Knitting’. This uncharacteristic, quiet painting, a study for ‘The Crochet Worker’, is undated but was probably painted in the late 1840s, towards the end of his life.

Artist William Etty, R.A., (1787 – 1849) was infamous for painting nudes – not cosy domestic scenes. John Constable famously called Etty’s painting “Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm”, “the bum-boat”. Wikipedia calls it “particularly gruesome”. (Unfairly – it’s a brilliant painting).

Etty went from son of York gingerbread maker, to famous Royal Academician. His statue stands outside York Art Gallery, where in 2011-12, there was a popular exhibition of his work, ‘William Etty: Art and Controversy”.

He was born one of ten children, to Matthew and Esther Etty. Only five of the young family  made it to adulthood.

Etty’s father rented a mill on the Mount, in York and ran a gingerbread shop on Feasegate. William’s earliest drawings were done in chalk or in the flour on the mill’s walls. Sometimes the gingerbread was gilded with elaborate designs. It is said some were done by Etty.

hull packetAt 14, William was apprenticed to a printer, and worked for seven years, as a compositor for  ‘The Hull Packet’ newspaper, living with his master and his family in the backstreets of Hull. He hated every moment of it. During that time,  one of William’s older brothers, Thomas went to sea, and came home one time with a box of watercolours for him. Etty decided to ask his wealthy uncle to fund his studies to be an artist in London, and although his uncle ignored his first begging later, caved in with the second.

Etty arrived in London determined to become a painter, not a printer and in 1807 became a student at the Royal Academy.  In his day, he was to become the most famous artist in England.

Inside York Minster

In his later years, he retired home to York, where he continued to work, although he was useless with money and left anything practical to his brother, Walter. Etty was fond of his extended family, writing chatty letters to his brothers and nieces.  A Victorian biography quotes an affectionate letter written in later life to an unnamed niece, possibly the one in the painting:

“A pretty little Robin is in the Minster. And sometimes – often indeed – when the Choir is in full chorus, it joins its little voice and ‘o’ertops them all’”

This painting is often subtitled “Mary Ann Purdon, the artist’s niece”. Mary Ann was in fact, Etty’s great-niece, as she was the grand-daughter of his brother, John .

John’s daughter, Catharine Etty married Robert Purdon at All Saints Pavement, York, in 1825. Mary Ann was born in Hull in 1832 – she had one older brother, Charles. Robert Purdon, was on the 1841 census as “clerk”.

Victorians believed “The devil makes work for idle hands” and so manuals on virtue were published alongside the first crochet books. One title advertised alongside various Crochet and Knitting manuals in the 1840s, was the  ‘Guide to Female Happiness Through the Paths of Virtue’.

“Domestic amusement” – like crochet – was the way to avoid being sinful. ‘Mrs Griffiths’ in a foreword to ‘The Winchester fancy needlework instructor’ of 1847, said that at least needlewomen  can “..feel the satisfaction of knowing that we are…innocently employed”.

In ‘The Ladies’ Handbook of Knitting, Netting and Crochet, (1843), the writer stresses that crochet was a fairly recent trend:

“Crochet work has long been known, but it has only become a favourite with the fair votaries of the needle during the last few years.”

The Handbook stated that crochet was suited to shawls, table covers, pillows, mats,  slippers, carriage mats, “and a great variety of other things of elegance and utility”. The Victorian female ideal combined usefulness with beauty.

Crochet was possibly seen as more refined than knitting. Down the road from Mary Ann Purdon, working class women were busy knitting stockings and Humber fishermen’s ganseys for their families and maybe for sale. Crochet on the other hand, was seen as delicate and refined, and suited to the middle class lady who could spend her time usefully on “D’Oyleys” carriage mats or slippers.

The writer, “Mrs Savage” suggested using “an ivory hook is most desirable. It is so light in use and becomes, in use, so glassy smooth, that it greatly facilitates the operation”. For the finest of work she preferred a steel hook.

Mary Ann is using white yarn, probably linen or silk and maybe an ivory or bone hook. These can still be got for bargain prices at vintage fairs. When it came to selecting just the right silk for a project, the 1843 author advised “No young lady should trust, at first, to her own judgement…but a little attention will soon render her a proficient in the art of choosing the most profitable materials….

Etty died in 1849, when Mary Ann would have been only 17.

In the Morning Post, May 13th, 1850, I found a poignant list of the items for sale from Etty’s studio, after he died.  Amongst the works was ‘The Crochet Worker’, on sale for £48 and 6 shillings. It was listed under ‘Unfinished Paintings’ which suggests it really was one of his last works. And one of the most domestic and endearing. Only three years later, it was for sale again in the sale of “A series of Capital English Pictures”.  This time, it went for ninety guineas, doubling its price.

Mary Ann, and both her parents and brother, vanish from the censuses and eluded look ups in the marriage and death records. They are lost to us, for now, at least. She never owned the painting of herself. Looking down at her work, Mary Ann remains enigmatic. But this Hull lass must be one of the earliest English crochet workers recorded for posterity, at the height of the crochet craze.

I wonder if she’d agree with “E.L”, writing the preface to ‘The Royal magazine of Knitting, Netting and Crochet’,  in 1848,  who said, grandly:

What an allegory of human life is Crochet!

William Etty [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

First published in Love:Crochet

H.M. bark Endeavour; The General Carleton would have looked almost identical as it was built by the same ship-builder.

The village of Dębki in Poland, long had a myth about a British shipwreck and the survivors who came ashore – although the name of the ship was long forgotten.

Dr Michal Wozniewski, interested to see if there was any truth in the Dębki folklore, found the remains of a wooden vessel on the sea floor, and alerted The Polish Maritime Museum in Gdansk, who catalogued the wreck as “W-32″.  Local legend had long since forgotten the name of the vessel, so its identity was unknown. In the summer of 1995, the Museum anchored its own research vessel above W-32. Luckily, a recent storm had shifted a large amount of sand from the vessel, revealing its structure, and divers  found the ship’s bell, which had the words GENERAL CARLETON OF WHITBY 1777 cast into it.

Lloyd’s List for 21st October reported the sinking of “The General Carleton, [Master of ship, William] Hustler, from Stockholm to London, is totally lost in the Baltick, and all the Crew, except three Men.”

The General Carleton was a comparatively new ship, built in 1777 by the same shipbuilder who built Captain Cook’s Endeavour. It had been a transport ship supporting the British in The Revolutionary Wars, evacuating the British troops from Savannah and Charleston; moving loyalist civilians to Jamaica. In 1785, it was back in port in London, or Hull, once more trading between Britain and the Baltic.

Repro Carleton cap. Image courtesy Interweave Press http://www.interweavestore.com/the-general-carleton-cap

Image: Courtesy Polish Maritime Museum Gdansk

Image: Courtesy Polish Maritime Museum Gdansk. Note jog where rounds join, and original knitter fudges repeats slightly!

Baltic waters were treacherous, and the ship had to be guided by a pilot out into the open sea, where it was the following day, when a storm hit. Taking onboard water, The General Carleton began to list badly to one side, and so William Hustler made the decision to sail for the safety of Danzig (Gdansk) Bay, and take shelter til the storm passed. It was not Danzig, but the nearby fishing village of Dębki where the ship foundered on a sand bank.

Over 775 artefacts were raised, and preserved by The Polish Maritime Museum in an excavation led by Dr Waldemar Ossowski. Many of these were knitted items of clothing; some possibly manufactured in the Baltic, but most no doubt from Yorkshire.

Stockings from the wreck. Most likely knitted in Yorkshire, c. 1780. Image courtesy Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk.

Stockings from the wreck. Most likely knitted in Yorkshire, c. 1780. Image courtesy Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk.

On the ship’s port side, the barrels of Swedish pine tar that were cargo, had been smashed up and the tar had formed a matrix with the sand and water, that preserved the artefacts it covered. Amongst these rare survivals, many items of clothing and even paper, survived.

Courtesy Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk

Courtesy Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk

Items of clothing included sailors’ jackets, waistcoats, shoes, stockings and hats. This was not a Royal Navy vessel, but an armed merchantman. The mariners would be wearing clothes they had bought themselves.  Miraculously, some survived on the sea-bed still neatly folded, although the ‘slop chests’ they had been stored in, had rotted away around them. “Slops” was the generic name for “sailors’ clothing”.

At this date, Whitby had six slop shops. Sir Frederick Morton Eden in ‘State of the Poor’ wrote “…. almost every article of dress worn by farmers, mechanics and labourers, is manufactured at home…” In Yorkshire at this date, both the Great Wheel and the smaller treadle spinning wheel were in use – the former mainly for wool and semi-worsted; the latter for flax. Whitby was known for its woven ‘stuff’ – a cheap fabric made from a combed wool warp and weft.
It’s worth saying at this point, not a single sailor’s ‘gansey’ or knit frock was found in the wreck. Not one. At these dates, sailors wore a woven woollen jacket called a “Fearnought”.

If you want to read more about the knitted items from The General Carleton, there’s a link to the magazine where the original article appeared, below. Stephen Baines’ book, ‘The Yorkshire “Mary Rose”‘ (2010) is well worth a read. Also available “The General Carleton Shipwreck, 1785/ Wrak Statku General Carleton, 1785″. (2008). Waldemar Ossowski (ed).  Pub CMM, Gdańsk.

The General Carleton cap pattern is available in ’10 Best Patterns from Piecework’s Historical Knitting Collection‘, but is also available as a separate download, here.

It originally appeared in Piecework, Jan/Feb 2014, which is still available digitally or in hard copy.

Thanks are due to Elżbieta Wróblewska at the Polish Maritime Museum, whose help was invaluable. Also the kind folk at Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, and thanks also to Carol Kocian and Stephen Baines, whose scholarship and research made my own reconstruction of the Carleton cap, possible.

General Carleton hat. From a Whitby ship wrecked in the Baltic, in 1780.

The General Carleton hat has just been republished in Interweave’s  ’10 Best Patterns from Piecework’s Historical Knitting Collection’.

I’m hearing from museum historical interpreters, and living historians all over, that they have made this hat. Canadians love it for some reason! It has a certain crazy charm to it.

If you can’t find the yarn (Rowan Tweed Aran, now discontinued), use Ravelry’s Yarn tab to find a similar weight alternative. Rowan Tweed was a singles, but it would be fine knitted with a plied yarn, too, so long as it is Aran weight.

Hand-spinners can approximate the yarn by spinning an Aran grist singles.  The original hat had more stitches than the published pattern, and was from a slightly finer grist yarn; something between a DK and an Aran. I decided to write the pattern for a commercially available yarn to make it accessible to knitters but at some point, I hope to publish a stitch-by-stitch repro of the original hat. I saw it on display at The Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby when it was on loan from Gdansk Maritime Museum.

Orange-reds from madder.

The colours are putative but appear to be a light and a dark natural, plus one other colour that may have been an orangey red.  Dyers can reproduce this with a slightly-too-hot madder dyebath, or coreopsis.

Onion skins have been suggested as a possible dye-stuff, and with alum would give a reasonable colour but I think the wool at these dates would be more likely to have been dyed with a professional dye – like madder. The bands of colour in the Whalebone Scrapers picture, certainly appear to show a vivid orange colour. And the fact three men are wearing it suggests it was possibly seen as a bit of occupational clothing, in Yorkshire at least. Walker’s engraving was made 30 years after ‘The General Carleton’ was lost.

Whalebone Scrapers, 'Costumes of Yorkshire', George Walker, 1814

Whalebone Scrapers, ‘Costumes of Yorkshire’, George Walker, 1814

‘Ply’ magazine’s Winter 2014 issue, “Worsted”, has my snakey handspun inland gansey and I wrote a piece to accompany it.

I spun/plied the yarn in around 12 hours. Having read an assertion by my favourite blowhard blogger who claimed to spin the yarn for a gansey in 30 hours, and the suggestion that anyone who can’t, is Not A Real Spinner.  I wanted to see what was possible. I don’t normally time myself spinning, it has to be said. I don’t truly care how long anything takes me, so after thirty odd years of doing this had not a clue how long it takes me to spin a sock let alone a gansey! So when I timed, I got a pleasant surprise. If you try this at home, relax, enjoy, and rest assured that however long this takes you, and however much life intervenes – you will get there and the results will be great.

I arrived at a rather eccentric way of plying;  threading each ply through a flat iron; three old flat irons dotted around the living room floor. Any heavy object with a hole you could thread the yarn through, would work – I passed it under the flat irons’ handles – used flat irons as they are heavy and I could place the three a long way apart from eachother, and so maintain plying tension. I wish I had photographed this.

I used some common inland gansey motifs to make up a fairly repetitive pattern and then spent a couple of weeks watching 1970s’ ‘Grange Hills’ on YouTube, and reading books as I knitted. I read my favourite book of the year, ‘Put Me Back On My Bike: In Search Of Tommy Simpson’, by William Fotheringham. Like all lengthy projects, you associate the thing knitted forever after in your mind with the things you were reading/seeing/doing during the making. ‘Put Me Back On My Bike’ tells the story of the incredibly talented 1960s’ British cyclist, Tommy Simpson, who was a world champion cyclist and for the first time in the Tour De France’s history, gave the Brits a glimmer of hope of winning the Tour, wearing the yellow jersey.  Tommy literally cycled himself to death on Mont Ventoux, in 1967, where he died, on camera, as he almost reached the summit.  It is rumoured that his last words after he had zigzagged off the road, were “Put me back on my bike”.

A combination of alcohol and amphetamines were found in his system –  these things were not unusual for the 1960s’ professional cyclist. Tommy was often called a Yorkshireman or ‘Tyke’, as he lived and trained near Doncaster but he was born in the Midlands. I felt he was one of our’s, though.

All this reading about 1950s/60s cycling culture, led me to start investigating cycling jerseys – shapes, styles, colours. I’m hoping to work on something inspired by them, very soon.

singles gansey

BFL gansey singles

There were points during the marathon gansey spinning and knitting weeks, I felt like I was doing the Tour de France – day in, day out, getting on with this Big Project. It was a relief to be out the other side, but I was very quickly itching to spin and knit again, afterwards. A case of ‘Put me back on my spinning wheel’.  Around the time I was working on this, my 14 year old bull terrier was very obviously coming to the end of her time, and when I knitted, she sometimes sat next to me. When I spun and plied, she was a few feet away. She came so far with me, for so long. Around the week FedEx picked up the finished sample, she went away. Everything I have designed or made for the past 12 years, she was snoring next to me. So memories of her are spun into this, too. My usual favourite heart motif is for her.

A few months on, here it is in print. With no mention of Tommy Simpson but he was very much in my mind as I knitted the gansey and I will think of his story every time I look at it! No mention of my beautiful girl, either. But for me, it is there in every stitch. I think for knitters and spinners many of the things we make are inextricably woven together with the time in our lives when we made them.

I recently mended a gansey I had knitted in the 1980s and working on it a second time, gave me a slew of new memories to add to the old. The lovely Tom of Holland writes of this in his visible mending projects.

skein gansey

Strong ply twist on the BFL plied yarn

In the accompanying piece, I walk you through selecting the wool, how to figure out grist, how to figure out your best number of twists per inch and ply twist, amongst other things. I went with BFL because it is a soft longwool, has a buttery sort of hand to it – and, let’s be pragmatic – is probably more easily available in some parts of the world than say Cotswold or Wensleydale.

‘Ply’ is a beautiful magazine; well designed and well put together. I am really proud to be in the company of its contributors in this issue and working with Jacey was a joy.

It’s not often I’m so overt as to say – go buy one. But. for my textile friends.. go buy one.

Charm, doing what she did best – snoozing!

Marie Hartley and Ella Pontefract, from frontispiece to ‘Yorkshire Heritage’ (1950). With dogs Hardy and Chris.


or “How The New Edition of This Book Beloved By Knitters, Came About….”

Today I thought I’d give an insight into how we put together the new edition of “The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales”, that classic, much-loved book on the history of Yorkshire knitting…

Ella Pontefract and Marie Hartley produced six books together, mainly for London publishers J. M Dent & Sons; Ella as writer and Marie as illustrator.

Marie had trained as a wood engraver at the prestigious Slade art school. Ella was a folklorist. In the 1930s, the women went on a walking tour of the Dales and soon returned; living in a caravan, whilst they documented the changing way of life of the Dalespeople.

Marie later said:

“It was an open book, to us – and no-one else was writing it.”

In 1941, the women bought a tumbledown cottage in Askrigg. Their 1942 book, ‘Yorkshire Cottage’, documented its restoration. Ella and Marie brought out a new book every 18 months – 2 years. Ella’s writing style was haunting, beautiful, elegaic. We have no way of knowing how different ‘The Old Hand-Knitters’ might have been, had she lived to write it. Ella died unexpectedly in 1945 of chronic high blood pressure. The years that followed were to be Marie’s longest gap without publishing a book. Marie probably had to convince her publishers that she too, could write. Almost all her subsequent books would be co-written with Joan Ingilby. They worked together, at opposite ends of the same room, and wrote seamlessly.

‘The Old Hand-Knitters’ was commissioned around 1947 by Harry J Scott, legendary editor of ‘Dalesman’ magazine and friend of Marie. It was to be her first collaboration with Joan. The women were to write over 30 books on Yorkshire history and lore, together. They received the Yorkshire Archaeological Society’s Silver Medal in 1993 and the MBE in 1997.

‘The Old Hand-Knitters’ was originally meant to be 12,000 words but was 27,000 when the women posted it to Scott, in 1948. It then languished on Scott’s desk til finally seeing the light of day in 1951.  Post-War paper shortages were cited as the reason the book wasn’t published immediately. It was to be reprinted many times, and became one of Dalesman’s best loved titles.  Also one of the books most loved by knitters the world over. Many might be surprised to learn neither of the women were knitters.

Years ago, almost the only in print source about the history of knitting, was the Bishop of Leicester, Richard Rutt’s ‘The History of Hand-Knitting’.  (Batsford, 1987). Like many knitters of my generation, I loved this book and was intrigued by mention of a book about the history of Yorkshire hand-knitting, ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’ by Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby.  It was in the days before the internet, so my only chance of finding it was to scour secondhand bookshops.

Even in Hay-On-Wye, ‘the town of books’, where I scored many a then-obscure (in the UK) Elizabeth Zimmermann book, I failed to find Misses Hartley and Ingilby’s book. Years went by. Every bookshop I ever went in, I looked for The Book. It took on a special significance; became my personal Holy Grail. Forever out of reach.

Then on a day trip to Haworth and the Yorkshire Moors… I struck lucky. I found The Book. It had been reprinted by Dalesman. And was in the Tourist Information Centre.

I still have that edition and it is probably my most well-read,  most dog eared book.  Pages fell out, I read it to pieces.  It could have been terrible, for all I knew, all those years I searched high and low for it. But it was brilliant.

Several years ago, I wrote to the current editor of Dalesman and discovered they had no plans to re-print it. And alongside Shannon Okey at Cooperative Press,  I contacted the lovely Yorkshire lady who currently holds the copyright and got permission to go ahead with a new edition.

We wanted to make it available to a whole new audience, but also make an edition that would contain something new and be worth buying for those folk like me, who over the years got one or two different editions. The text is a re-print of the classic First Edition.

I wrote a Foreword because I was aware of the incredible reputation of Miss H & Miss I as Yorkshire historians (they both were awarded the MBE in 1997  for their work preserving Yorkshire lore and history, and worked on a prolific 40 plus books).  ‘Old Hand-Knitters’ is maybe their most loved book. But the people who love it, many are unaware of the writers’ record as social historians, and I wanted to put it back where it belonged,  in the broader context of the county’s history. I was also aware many knitters would love to know more about the women. I wanted to put them in context – Yorkshire greats like their friend,  J.B.Priestley.

Marie's 1948 wood engraving of George Walton glove

Marie’s 1948 wood engraving of George Walton glove

We also added an extra Appendix of our own – with the background pattern and charts for the oldest extant dated Dales gloves, the George Walton gloves. I travelled to various places researching for the book.

At York Reference Library, I found back issues of Dalesman, with numerous interviews with the ladies,  over decades.

I also visited the Yorkshire Archaeological Society (Misses H & I received their Silver Medal in 1993, and the women deposited all their extant notes, including a sparse few for ‘The Old Hand-Knitters’, at their archive in Leeds. I made several trips to the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes. Marie’s personal collection of agricultural implements, knitting sticks etc was the foundation of their collection.

One day in the  Dales Countryside archive, I was sitting opposite a gentleman who had an accordion. I was concentrating hard, documenting a Dales glove. Every now and then, he’d play a few bars of a long lost Yorkshire folk song; he was finding music notation. The music was so haunting and beautiful and so I couldn’t help striking up a conversation with him about his research. It turned out he was also one of the founders of the museum and had been the women’s neighbour for years. He gave me a brilliant insight into their work.I couldn’t help wondering what were the odds of bumping into their next door neighbour, whilst researching their lives – quite a few miles away from where they had lived.

Another odyssey we went on in our quest to find Miss Hartley and Miss Ingilby, was a trip up to the Wordsworth Trust’s Dove Cottage, in Grasmere, Cumbria. What started as a casual enquiry about a pair of gloves Marie had sketched around 1947 or 8, turned into a valued friendship with the wonderful curator there, who let me examine the George Walton gloves and somehow this led to us making 1800 period costume, and spending a weekend knitting and spinning at Dove Cottage.

The G. Walton glove Marie illustrated.

The G. Walton glove Marie illustrated. Courtesy: The Wordsworth Trust

I documented the George Walton glove – not one of the later Mary Allen gloves, but an earlier and much more subtle and complex design. The left glove and right had variations. We enlisted the help of designers and glove experts Tom van Deijnen, tomofholland.com , and “Corvid” to work out the intricacies of the design I had documented, and between the three of us, we came up with a pattern for the gloves.

I could never have imagined, in the 1980s, when I started looking for an OOP copy of the book, one day I would be involved with its resurrection. Nor that, travelling across Yorkshire and Cumbria to put this edition together, I would make friends and acquaintances along the way.

‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’ is available here. (Digital and hard copies).

And the George Walton pattern is also available as a download, via Amazon. Details on Ravelry page, here.

I will put up details of where hard copies can be got in the UK, when I have that info for yous.

Knitting needles from Marie's collection, now at the Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes. Image credit: Belinda May.

Knitting needles from Marie’s collection, now at the Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes. Image credit: Belinda May.

WW1 Ancestors

I’m always compelled by genealogy when it put stories and faces to names. And it being 100 years since WWI, I wanted to write something in memory of my two great-uncles who died in that War. One of them was the reason I got into genealogy in the first place. I was going to keep it simple and just post photos, maybe names and dates. But that seemed inadequate in the year that’s the hundredth anniversary of the start of WW1.

If you follow this, there are tips on how to trace your WWI relatives. As a lasting tribute to my own family’s lost loved ones might be someone else being able to find out about their’s.

William Boothman was my grandmother’s older brother. William was born in Leeds, oldest son to my great grandparents, Tom Boothman and Annie nee Hemingway, in 1897. He first appears on the 1901 Census, at 70 Bayswater Row, in the Potternewton district of Leeds. William (always called ‘Willie’ by the family) lived with his father, Tom, a 33 year old Milk Dealer born in Coulton (North Riding), and Annie, also 33, born in Hensall (East Riding). Like the vast majority of 1890s’ Loiners, they had come to the city from outside. William’s older sister, Nellie was 6 and born in Leeds. The first Leeds-born Boothman!

Tip: Check out your ancestors’ birthplaces on Genuki. It’s a free site and has great info about the places your family originated. Sometimes, it even has things like transcriptions of 19thC Trade Directories where you may find your ancestors but if not, will get a sense of place.

Software like ‘Family Tree Maker’ will take you to your ancestors’ addresses via Google Earth. It’s surprising how often houses still stand, over one hundred years on.. .

I find Census Returns using Ancestry.co.ukFindMyPast is another useful site. I stick with Ancestry as it has a broader spectrum of records and I find transcriptions to be accurate, on the whole. FindMyPast used to be easier than Ancestry to search just addresses and there are times when that can be really handy. But you can do that on Ancestry easily enough, now. Tip for using the Census on whichever site – I always have a good look at neighbours and neighbouring streets, as you can tell a lot about the context your ancestors lived in, from the neighbourhood.

Tom Boothman was later to have a couple of houses built, one of which became my grandparents’ home, and he also owned a fair bit of property – including the small terrace of stone cottages off Roman Avenue in Shadwell, where my dad was born. He also owned a large, Victorian house at the top of Roman Avenue which he rented to my other great grandad!  But 1901 was before he had built his business and we had not previously been aware they had lived at Bayswater Row. It was a working class street – neighbours were bricklayers, fitters, decorators and machinists. Most of the street were classed as “Worker” although several were listed as “Own Account” (ie: self-employed), one of which was Tom.

Only two households on this page of the Census had servants – Tom and Annie had a 16 year old Pontefract girl, Kathleen Brent as “Servant – Domestic”. By looking at the others on the street, and the context of a Census, you can learn a lot more about your ancestor, than just the bald facts. Years later, my grandparents – Tom and Annie’s youngest daughter and her husband, my grandad – were to take over the business. And I remember dad saying that grandma worked very hard in the business and she too, usually had a servant. This would not so much be in a ‘Downton Abbey’ kind of way but just a girl to do the everyday cooking and cleaning, to free up the woman of the family to actually work in the business. Even though ‘occupation’ was often left blank next to the names of tradesmen’s wives on Censuses, the reality was they worked. My grandmother – and presumably Annie before her – made cheese and butter for the dairy. Later, she learned to drive so she could help with deliveries.It always intrigues me how women’s lives are sometimes submerged in the  Censuses – occupations left blank; work unacknowledged.

One note of caution re. Censuses – Tom Boothman gave himself a new and different birth place for every census he is listed on (as did his parents before him – seems to be a tradition). As his father was a carrier, travelling between Lancashire and Yorkshire, Tom’s siblings were born in different places so looking at their birthplaces on Censuses gave me no clues, either. People did pull the wool over the Enumerator’s eyes and were self-reporting. 1901 is the last census that was filled in by the Enumerator, not the general populace.

Ancestry are digitising more and more parish records and it is always worth looking for your relative’s birth, marriages and death also. I was unable to find a baptism for William Boothman. But I knew Tom and Annie married in a Methodist church,

Nellie (left) and Lillie, post WW1

Nellie (left) and Lillie, post WW1

and Non-Conformist records are a bit patchier, in terms of what was kept and what has survived to be digitised or transcribed. Ancestry does have Non-Conformist records and if you can’t find your ancestor in the Church of England parish records, they are always worth a look. Another resource for Births, Marriages and Deaths is Free BMD which a quick Google can pull up. Ancestry also has FreeBMD. There is a William Boothman born in the last quarter of 1897, Vol 9b page 570. And he was born in Leeds.  That may well be my great uncle. Especially as when I run a Census search – he is the only William Boothman I can find in Leeds, born in 1897…  An example of how you can use one record to verify or shed light on, another. To be sure, I would have to send off for William’s birth certificate. It is a terrifying thought, to look at the pages of boys born around 1897 and realise how many of them must have ended up dead in France or Belgium, within twenty years or so of their birth. An entire generation of young men in Europe were obliterated. My grandfather was lucky to survive WWI and said that when he returned to Leeds, he was, quite literally the only young man of his age for streets around. And those streets had been densely populated, with back-to-back houses. I don’t know how typical my dad’s family were but of the three teenagers who went to War, only one returned.

William (standing) with Nellie (seated), my grandma Lillie and Leslie. Leeds, probably around 1915

Like so many men killed in WW1, William is only to be found on the 1901 and 1911 Censuses.

1911 found him living with the complete family; older sister Nellie, born 1895; my grandmother Lillie – born 1902 – and the youngest child of the family, Leslie, born 1908.  1911 is the first census that records the number  children born to a family,  who had died. Tom wrote “1” in that column. That’s a birth certificate we may have to search for as my dad had no idea his mother lost a sibling in infancy.

This time, Tom gave his ever-moveable birthplace as ‘Harding’. Tom filled in this return for himself (1911 is the first place you can find your ancestor’s signature; bottom right). This is the closest he gets to accuracy. He was born in a village called Arden, near Helmsley. ‘Harding’ may well be his own rendering of it as Yorkshire dialect often adds an ‘h’ in front of an initial ‘A’! Their address was now 116 Bankside Street; the house in Harehills Tom had built, moving his dairy business closer to the city centre, although they still continued to be supplied by milk from his father’s farm, near Roundhay Park. Had he lived, Willie would have taken over the family business. The result of a generation of young men being slaughtered was a change in the fortune of some women. Much is written about the changing role of women post WW2 but WW1 had an effect, too.  My grandmother was eventually to inherit the dairy and 116 Bankside St.

In 1911, William would have been 13 and probably about to start working in the business. Tom Boothman was well off by this time; but an ‘education’ would have been out of the question. Another William – my grandad – was eventually to run and then own, Boothman’s Dairy – and he was an unusually intelligent boy who won a scholarship to the best school in Leeds. His father refused to let him go – he’d have a family business to run, one day. What use was an ability to parse Latin verbs? My grandad, like Willie Boothman, also ran away aged only 14, to join the Army. His first action was as a bugle boy. On the First Day of the Somme. Underage for conscription, William ran away repeatedly to join the Army. Whenever he was brought home, he’d take off again.  I have the draft of a letter Tom wrote, to his regimental H.Q, demanding that William was sent home.  (I thought I had scanned this, but it appears not!) Conscription was at age 18 which meant Willie would not be able to join the Army legally until  late 1915. The fact he ran off more than once in the year before, shows how determined he was. It is the only piece of correspondence I have ever found, from any member of my family. Letters are a rare resource for the family historian – as they got sent. And often, read and then used as kindling.

116 Bankside St. Willie Boothman lived here 20 years before this picture was taken.

Ancestry will yield you a variety of Military records and probably has the best coverage for the genealogist. I found William Boothman on the ‘UK, WW1 Service Medal and Award Rolls’ – these record the ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ medals everyone got. This gives his rank (Gunner), Regt (Royal Artillery) and Regimental Number (107649 – this would have been on his dog tag). Sometimes, to this day, dog tags are found with bodies. More often than not, they aren’t as ground was fought and re-fought over; blown up time and time again; sometimes behind enemy lines, sometimes not. In other words, even bodies in the ground were blown to smithereens. The record also tells me that he was previously a Gunner in the Royal Field Artillery with the same service number.  My dad remembered anecdotally that Willie had run away to join the Army and been recalled for being underage on more than one occasion. It is thought that he was always a Gunner – we know he was in the X Battery of the trench mortars , a group of men called ‘the Suicide Squad’ as their chance of surviving even one action was almost zero. And he survived years. This was a dangerous battery to belong to, as trench mortars were loathed by both sides, and became prime targets.

William Boothman – spot the cigarette!

I’m lucky to have more than one photo of William. In the first it looks like he is a young 18, so allowed to join up officially. I take it this time was ‘legal’ as his brother and sisters appear in the photo with him. My grandma, the younger sister, was closest to him in the family. In the first picture, he looks pretty well a child. The second photo, he looks cynical, tough, middle aged. He’d be about 21.  You can see the cigarette jammed behind his ear. This second photo has been edged with an oval of wonky pin-pricks – presumably done by Willie himself, when he was bored in the trenches. Maybe he intended to tear it at the perforations. When they went over the top, men often handed their photos and other personal possessions, in for safe keeping. If they died, the belongings were sent home and cash might be divided between surviving friends. Not that William ‘went over the top’ the day he died, as it appears the Germans took the British by surprise that morning. But the story in the family was this photo was taken off his body. It is entirely possible as there is a big smear of something that looks like blood on it. It is one of my most treasured possessions. It came to my grandma, presumably, as the sibling closest to him. I can’t imagine how she must have felt every time she looked at it. There are no anecdotes about comrades coming to Bankside St with stories about what happened to William – but then, it’s entirely possible the entire Battery were wiped out as the artillery bombardment was so relentless, the day William died. RFA also had recruits from all over the UK, unlike the Pals Battalions, where they all came from the same few streets. William survived several years in  X Battery, before dying on 27th May, 1918. This was the first day of the Third Battle of the Aisne. That morning the Germans carried out a massive bombardment followed by a drop of poison gas. It looks likely most British casualties’ bodies ended up behind enemy lines which may explain why Willie’s body was never found. Around 127,000 men in Allied forces lost their lives over that week and 130,000 Germans.  29,000 of the Allied dead were British. Gunner William Boothman is commemorated on the memorial at Soissons Cathedral.

Reverse of William’s photo. Probably not his writing. An officer’s or friend’s?

Once you pull up one War record, Ancestry has a link to search for your ancestor across all WW1 records. The British Army Service (enlistment) Records had a link to a William Boothman from Leeds who enlisted but that turned out to be Willie’s uncle as his address was the Homestead Farm – our family farm at Roundhay, Leeds. The record is heavily charred (a lot of Army records were destroyed in the Blitz – looks like Willie’s uncle’s record survived; his didn’t). Be aware if you’re researching for the first time, there are gaps in the record for this reason. William’s name does appear in the ‘UK Soldiers Killed in The Great War’ list. If you know little about your ancestor, this may be useful as it gives the usual regiment/regimental number info but also Place of Birth. And Enlistment Place. This often varies as men – especially those joining underage – often went to a different town where nobody knew them,  to enlist. William enlisted in Leeds but of course, this might just be his final and legal enlistment…

The reason I got into genealogy was my great uncle, Norris Charles Lister. He was my grandad’s brother. Again, I don’t know how statistically typical it was, but each of my paternal grandparents lost a brother.


Emily and John Lister with Billie (left) and Norris. Probably 1916.

Norris was born in Leeds. On the 1901 Census he lives at 4 Bath Rd, Holbeck, Leeds with his wife, Emily (nee Stephenson) and sons Norris (1897) and Willie (1899). Willie was known as ‘Billie’ later on. He was my grandad. All four were born in Leeds. John was a Printer’s Machine Ruler, and a ‘Worker’ (employee). I only recently got this photo, and it was taken in bad light on my iPad so very blurry, but shows John, Emily, Norris (on the right)  and Billie. I suspect this may be Billie’s ‘joining up’ photo, as his uniform looks pristine – Norris’s doesn’t. They were in different regiments, so Billie may have joined up when Norris was on leave. Norris already had two stripes – their younger brother, Uncle Jack, once told us that he had been offered a commission not long before he died. He turned it down as he wanted to stay with his comrades. As the War progressed, and more and more of the ruling classes died – and young commissioned officers were famous for being easily picked off by snipers – working class men were more likely to be commissioned. Again, as oldest son of the family, had Norris lived he would have had the family business.

Despite John Lister’s fancy appearance in the photo, he was also a businessman. He had a small printing firm. Seeing WW1 on the horizon, it is said he bought up Leeds’ paper stocks then sold it back to other printers at an extortionate price. This was actually an imprisonable offence. John Lister brought his kids up to be strong and resourceful.  My grandad used to say his dad taught them to swim by chucking them in the deep end of the Leeds Olympic pool. John started life as a mechanic (as the 1901 Census shows) but suddenly, mysteriously, “had money”. His entire life, he told people his name was not Lister but he had randomly chosen that name aged 19. He said he was an orphan, dumped at an orphanage then brought up and later adopted by a family called Gillespie. My grandfather, Emily and his four brothers believed this their entire life. They knew his ‘foster sister’, Florrie Gillespie who backed him up in the story. In fact, the 1901 Census puts him on Bath Rd, Holbeck.

His mother, daughter of a Huddersfield mill-owner, Hannah Smith had married Tom Lister, a cropper at a wool mill, and John was a late child they had when middle aged. When John was a toddler, Tom Lister died. The widowed Hannah remarried a Birmingham born blacksmith, Charles Dealey. This is where it gets interesting.

On the 1901 Census, whilst John Lister is living with his two oldest sons and wife on Bath Road. Also on the 1901 Census, the mother he always claimed never existed – is living with her second husband at Bath Villa, on Bath Rd… We had always wondered why Norris’s middle name was Charles, when there were no Charles’s in the family… John called his firstborn son after his stepfather. Despite claiming he had no family.

Billie, just after WW1

Billie, just after WW1

My great grandmother Emily was adamant that she believed John’s story about being a foundling was true – so much so she went to a solicitor in the 1920s, to check she was legally married as Lister might not be John’s real name. In the 1911 Census, John and Emily were still at 4, Bath Rd. John mis-spelled Norris’s name as “Norriss”. John described himself as a “Bookbinding Paper Ruler and Manufacturing Station” [sic], and as an “Employer”. We know over the years his print shop was located at one point on Kirkgate, opposite Leeds Market (same road as the old Leeds Cloth Hall). Another time it was on Bond Square. Norris lived with my grandad, Billie, and also his brother Jack, and twins Clifford and Mary who were under one month old on Census night. John and Emily were to have one more son; Jeffrey.  Mary died aged ten. An obit published in the local papers mentioned Norris worked for his father’s business. Norris is listed in the WW1 Service Medal & Award Rolls. He was in the 1st 5th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He is listed as Killed in Action on 9th October, 1917 and his name also appears in ‘All UK Soldiers Died in the Great War”.

Great-Uncle Norris.

In the 1980s, we visited the last surviving brother, Uncle Jack and he told us some really interesting things. Apparently, they were so close in age, Norris and my grandad, Billie, were like twins. When Norris joined up, Billie thought if he joined up too they’d at least be together. Only grandad found himself in the West Yorkshires and Norris was in the KOYLIs.

Like William Boothman, my grandad was underage when he ran away to War. He was 15.  Uncle Jack said his two older brothers were both very musical and played the viola. In later life my grandfather played the piano – he only had to hear a piece once and could play it note perfect, from memory. At the start of the War he was a bugle boy.

Jack also told us that when Norris came home on leave in 1917 – just a few weeks before he died – he was so yellow from the mustard gas that the family insisted on taking him to St James’ Hospital in Leeds. The worthies at ‘Jimmy’s’ took one look at him and accused him of ‘swinging the lead’ – trying to get a ‘Blighty wound’ – Jack said poor Norris was mortified as he was devoted to his men and determined to go back and had been forced by the family to go to hospital.

September 1917, fresh from the sensitive and caring medics of St James’, it is thought he passed through Etaples camp. Around the week of the infamous mutiny. (The British Army’s only known mutiny during WW1). It is thought that the Army could effectively ‘bury’ the events at Etaples, by making sure the men who witnessed it were at Passchendaele. (When Gove made his offensive remarks trying to do a bit of revisionism vis a vis ‘lions led by donkeys’, I was particularly disgusted. I’d imagine his ancestors were the bloated officers safely behind the lines).  Either way, Norris had told his family back in Leeds he was turning down the offered commission to stay with ‘his men’. And he was to die with them at the Battle of Poelcapelle.

After the War, my great grandmother, Emily was visited by some of Norris’s surviving comrades. They told her the story comrades often told grieving mothers: that Norris had died trying to pull a friend off the barbed wire in No Man’s Land. My dad used to say he was told about this many times (presumably by Emily herself) but once he was a soldier himself, in World War II, he could no longer believe it.  Norris’s body was never found, and after the War the War Graves Commission told the family Norris had been commemorated on the Tyne Cot memorial. The family believed them. Well, you would. No-one had the money to go to Flanders, anyway.

Uncle Jack said that his mother left the kitchen light on at night, for the rest of her life – in case Norris was ‘missing in action’ and came home one day. She wanted the house to be welcoming. I think, as long as that light was burning, she felt her hope was alive. Like many loved ones of men killed in WW1 whose bodies were never identified, she must have felt that to accept that he was dead was a bit like writing him off.  Emily’s expression in the photo with her two soldier sons, is hauntingly sad. I can’t even imagine how she coped with Billie still being at War, or how Billie first heard his much loved brother was dead – presumably whilst he was still in a trench himself.

By 1917, grandad would have been 18 years old and had gone straight back to the Front the moment he could. Essentially my grandad had been soldiering three years, on and off, in the Front Line, when he was underage.

In the 1980s, I got interested in finding out more about my uncles who died in World War 1, and so the odyssey into genealogy began. As we researched Norris, it became apparent that his name was not on Tyne Cot Memorial (we found a transcription of the memorial at Birmingham Reference Library). We contacted the War Graves Commission and they put that right. For a while, his was the last name on the Memorial. More have come to light since.

A KOYLI officer’s log we read told us that he died along with his men – all of them, probably not long after the KOYLIs went over the top, that day. There probably were no surviving direct witnesses to come home and tell Emily about his heroic death on the wire as the men under his immediate care, as a Corporal, died alongside him. (Telling mothers their son was sniped was probably perceived as an act of kindness). I have no reason to doubt Jack’s memory of his mother being visited by comrades. They may have been survivors from his battalion; many of the KOYLIs  were from Leeds, after all. If not a Pals’ Battalion, exactly. Of the missing KOYLIs who died at Passchendaele, Norris was the only one omitted from the memorial. And the only one who it seems passed through Etaples. Which always struck me as suggestive.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website has a useful ‘Find War Dead’ data base you can search and from which you can download a certificate of commemoration for your relative.

Having Norris added to the Addenda Panel of the Tyne Cot memorial was my first achievement as a genealogist. We were pleased to go and visit Uncle Jack and tell him the news. He was very grateful. But it must also have been upsetting, knowing his parents and the entire family had gone to their graves believing he had been commemorated at Tyne Cot. In the 1990s, my dad went to Tyne Cot and discovered that Norris did have a grave – but was one of six ‘Unknown Soldiers’ – all six found together in a collapsed fox-hole, probably in 1921 when the War Graves Commission started sorting things out. They were known to be Norris and his comrades, but there was no way of knowing which man was which. The others’ names all appeared on the memorial. Dad was taken to the six graves known to be the KOYLIs who died that day. One day I hope to go there, too.

I always had a soft spot for Norris because, in the photos I have, he looks so much like my dad. Dad was born 9 years after Norris died and looked more like him than he looked like his dad.  I also found my grandad, the lone survivor of his generation who went to War, on the Ancestry WW1 Medal and Award Rolls. Which told me that at the end of the War, he was still a Private. He must have become a Corporal in the Territorial Army between the Wars as he was a Sergeant in WW2. The same record tells me he entered the Reserves in 1919. As did almost all his colleagues from the Leeds Rifles who are listed on the same page. I have grandad’s original dog tags. In the Medal Rolls, he had the usual ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ medals. But the Leeds Rifles had the rare honour of winning the Croix de Guerre and wore its insignia afterwards

Only surviving wedding photo Lillie and Billie, Leeds, 1925

Billie, my grandad, survived the War and married my grandmother, Lillie Boothman, in 1925.  He often said he had the pick of all the women in Leeds and could choose the most beautiful – because he was the only young man his age for streets around. My grandad eventually ran Boothman’s Dairy which in the 1930s became Lister’s Dairy. Dad said his father would have preferred to be a printer, but after the War, his doctor said the outdoor life of being a dairyman would be healthier for him.

My grandad, Billie, in WW2

On the day WW2 broke out, my grandad – who was in the Territorial Army and now a sergeant in the West Yorkshires – went to War a second time. His unit was in the Blitz doing fire watch, apparently then later amongst the first British troops to get to Belsen. (The West Yorkshires now a Leeds-based anti aircraft battalion of the Royal Artillery). So long as he lived, my grandfather refused ever to speak about what he saw in Belsen. He was a chain smoker – ever since the trenches. He died of lung cancer in 1971 so WW1 did kind of get him in the end.  I was a child in the 60s, and many of my school friends also had grandads who were WW1 veterans. We felt we grew up with it. Grandad once incurred mum’s wrath by teaching us the words to various ‘soldier songs’… Towards the end, Billie came home to die at our house, my parents looking after him as he literally stood up and walked out of hospital, refusing to die there. Right at the end he went into a coma, but it looked more like a prolonged nightmare – not the peaceful thing you’d imagine a coma to be. I was only nine but I was convinced my grandad was back in the trenches, in his mind. Or maybe – worse still – Belsen. When my dad returned from the War in 1947, now an experienced paratrooper himself, his dad didn’t talk about it with him.  It is rather incredible to think of this ordinary Leeds dairyman being at the First Day of the Somme, the Blitz and the Liberation of Belsen. But he was.

By Tijl Vercaemer from Gent, Flanders, Belgium. “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow”, via Wikimedia Commons


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