Until the Shadows Flee Away: The Himsworth Family and the Coming of War

Welcome to the first in a new series of (not so) mini-profiles inspired by my sepulchral travels! In these pieces, I will situate the stone centre-stage in reconstructing the life and lives of the departed, making use of archival facilities and newspaper repositories. In this way, I hope to let the monuments speak for themselves, building up a picture of those forgotten, adhering to the ethos of this occasional blog in ‘unearthing the lives of the dead.’ 

Amidst the tree-lined copse of Sheffield City Cemetery, a grave marker lingers, standing tall amidst the neighbouring stones that peer forward at a perilous angle, as if looking down into the very earth itself. The grass around the burial site lies parched, scorched under the burning gaze of unexpected summer rays, bursting out of the azure sky prematurely,  glaring at a crisp and stark April day. Emblazoned across the stone and crowned by the curvature of a Gothic ogee is a testament to the Himsworth family, residents of the wooded suburb of Heeley. Like many such monuments, the epitaph bears witness to the trauma of conflict, forming part of a complex mosaic in which the impact of the First World War on the relationships underlying a family, a community, and a city is enshrined. Indeed, the pain of the loss of the Himsworth’s ‘beloved and youngest son’ in the dust of battle is etched into the very stone itself, compounded by the deaths of father and offspring a mere year apart, the breaking of the ties that bind, tragedy in a quiet corner of this sun-washed burial ground.

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The Himsworth gravestone at City Road Cemetery, Sheffield. ©A Grave Announcement

William Himsworth was born on the 21st of July in 1852 into a family typifying the contemporary Sheffield industrial foundation, his father William employed as a ‘razor grinder,’ a common occupation within the ‘City of Steel.’ The latter had married Hannah Taylor in 1850, the daughter of a farmer who had grown up in semi-rural Hurlfield – now a suburb of the city. A twenty-five year age gap separated the spouses. Their son was baptised at St. Peter and St. Paul’s, a parish church in the centre of Sheffield, a building promoted to cathedral status when the diocese was formed in 1914. Life leapt along nicely, as life often does, tempered waters obscuring the whirling eddies beneath. The blow when it came, then, was all the more painful for such vengeful dissimulation. In 1856, when William was only four years of age, his father passed away at the age of 54, worn out from the exhausting labour of his profession, likely stricken with the effects of a weakened respiratory system. In doing so, the family’s main source of income was withdrawn. Fate had played its cruel hand, abandoning the Himsworths to the vagaries of the century, exposed to the erratic whims of time.

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The 1850 marriage certificate attesting to Hannah and William’s union. ©Findmypast

Flailing not only from grief, but also from the gnawing worry of the need to provide for her children, Hannah quickly remarried, taking as husband one Thomas Thickett, a Derbyshire widower considerably older than herself who possessed a similar agricultural background, working as a farmer. The couple lived on Cambridge Road in  the township of Nether Hallam with Thomas’ daughter from his previous marriage, Elizabeth, whose assistance around the house earned her the rather diminutive title ‘housemaid’ on the census, his infant son with his new wife, also called Thomas, and his two new step-sons, William Himsworth and his brother John, both school-pupils. Another child, a daughter named Ellen, followed in 1864. At some point between the record of this household and the census of 1871, Thomas ceased his agricultural endeavours, setting up shop as a grocer and coal dealer. It is clear then that Hannah’s second husband did not shy away from his money-making duties, even embarking upon a new venture in order to turn a profit for the household.

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The 1861 census entry listing the members of Hannah and Thomas Thickett’s household, including William Himsworth. ©Findmypast

Five years later, Hannah was dead at the age of 50. William’s relationship with both his parents had proved to be somewhat short-lived. Despite these absences, he had chosen to follow his father’s example in training in the same Sheffield industry as a cutler. A year after his  mother’s passing, William himself married. His new wife, Hannah Maria Booth, bearing the same name as his own parent, was the daughter of a miner from Heeley. Looking at the pair’s signatures on the document formalising their union is an intimate experience for the genealogical researcher, opening up a window into a long forgotten world, reviving the memories of those hitherto consigned to oblivion. We are reminded that history is a living and breathing beast, a writhing creature that we can only ever strive to capture, a figure ever-receding into the distance.

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The 1876 certificate solemnising the marriage between William Himsworth and Hannah Maria Booth. ©Findmypast

Children followed quickly for the newly-married couple, bringing a son William E. Himsworth in 1877, the third male of the family line to bear that name, a physical testament to the relentless roll of the generations. A daughter, Jessie, arrived four years later and is listed as a newborn infant on the census of that year, a record attesting to the presence of two further members of the household: widowed aunt and ‘laundress,’ Ann Beswick, and William’s (senior) twelve-year old sister-in-law, Alice Mary Booth. Regular labour as a cutler manufacturing spring knives saw William take on the role of provider, a common enough gendered configuration at the time, with Hannah remaining at home to tend to the children and regulate the household at 133 Gleadless Road. Like many families of their social strata in this period, everybody pitched in, working hard to contribute to the coffers, but only ever just keeping heads above water.

The passage of a decade brought little change to the Himsworth’s way of life. Two more children joined the family – John Herbert and Clara Alice – as their father continued in his employment in the Sheffield knife industry. The house they called home was now a mile away on Cambridge Road, a street teeming with red brick terraces and shop windows proudly announcing their wares. This was an area known already to William, who had  taken up occupancy of a house on this very thoroughfare with his mother and step-father. Money must have been tight for the household – their oldest son had left school and was engaged as an errand boy, perhaps even serving a nearby business, at the age of fourteen. Although pay was low, every last penny made a difference.

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Cambridge Road, Heeley, Sheffield.©Picture Sheffield

With four children to be kept on William’s salary, there was no time for leisure nor room for complacency. The family worked hard, keeping their heads down in quiet regularity, ensuring that order prevailed in the household. In 1898, William the younger returned to education, attending classes at Gleadless Road Evening School, seeking to improve his prospects in undertaking an apprenticeship in metalwork. As the 19th century transformed into the 20th and the age of Victoria came to an end, such was the repetitious constancy underlining their lives that, by 1901, the two sons, William and John, were now both employed as cutlers working with spring knives, presumably in the same factory as  their parent, having completed their apprenticeships. Like grandfather, like father, like sons, the familiarity of the Himsworth’s customary trade suited the uniform pulse of family life. Joining them were another daughter, Hannah Maria Edna, named after her mother, and Edwin Joseph, born 1894 and 1896 respectively.

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Typical Sheffield cutlery factory in the 19th century, the Washington Works owned by Messrs. G. Wostenholm and Son.©Museums Sheffield

The following year, William and Hannah’s second son John, aged twenty, married eighteen year old Jessie Corteen, whose late father, also William, had been employed as a coach builder. The ceremony took place at St. Silas’ Church in Broomhall, Sheffield, an imposing edifice in Gothic revival style. The couple would go on to have three children: Frank, Irene and Leslie. Following this happy event, the wedding bells continued to toll. The same year saw daughter Jessie wed Frank Lee, the twenty-four year old son of a successful surgical instrument manufacturer, for whose business he himself laboured as a filer. In 1904, the younger William Himsworth married one Elizabeth Wilkes, the twenty-two year old daughter of deceased hammer forger Edwin Wilkes and widowed Emma Parkes  at St. Paul’s Church in Norton Lees, a building constructed between 1875-7. The new bride had herself been engaged as a cigar maker prior to meeting her husband, a tiring and ceaselessly repetitious role with relatively low pay. The Himsworth children, then, were growing up and establishing themselves both personally and professionally, expanding the family throughout the area.

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The parish wedding certificate attesting to the union of John Himsworth and Jessie Corteen.©Findmypast

A year before William’s wedding to Elizabeth, his sister Clara had entered upon a novel and innovative training scheme, joining Sheffield Pupil Training College under an apprenticeship which lasted for five years. This pupil-teacher system, introduced in the mid-nineteenth century to address the problem of poor pedagogical recruitment, admitted those at least thirteen years of age to be instructed in the delivery of education. The moral character of applicants was deemed equally as important as their academic skill. Potential candidates were required to read and write with fluency, demonstrate their knowledge of basic geography, mathematics and grammar, and teach a class to the satisfaction of the inspectors. Initially earning ten pounds per year (a sum which increased incrementally to twenty), Clara had secured a position with more than adequate remuneration. It was a far cry from the dirty industry and poorly paid occupations to which the family had hitherto clung.

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The admission register for the Sheffield Pupil Training College recording Clara’s acceptance onto the programme.©Findmypast

By 1911, the Himsworths were on the move again, returning whence they came, relocating to their old haunt on Gleadless Road, taking on number 255 (see image below). William was now an older man and, at 59, was coming to the end of his working life as one involved in hard, physical labour. Of their six children, only three remained. The others, having reached adulthood, sought lives of their own and an independent existence elsewhere.

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The former Himsworth home at 255 Cambridge Road, Heeley, Sheffield in 2019.

Clara, aged 22, still lived with her parents whilst she worked as a local schoolteacher for Sheffield Council. Hannah, at 17, is rather charmingly referred to on the census as ‘mother’s help.’ Edwin, a young teenager, has been removed from regular education in favour of life as a hairdresser’s assistant. Most moving of all is the halting and trembling hand of he who completed the census return – our William Himsworth, his hesitant penmanship perhaps proof of his ailing years and, certainly, a sign of a nervous scribe, more experienced in holding tools than a writing implement.

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William Himsworth’s signature on the 1911 census.©Findmypast

The coming of war shattered the still quietude of the lives of many like the Himsworths. Matrimonial merriment and the joyous births of newborn infants were overshadowed by the dark fever of a nation in conflict. Britain’s young men eagerly stormed the recruitment offices, seeking to quell their patriotic fervour in the hunting down and decimation of the enemy abroad. Armies of young women, too, gladly offered their services in non-combatant roles without alarm or hesitation. It was felt that the country had come together in pursuit of a common goal, and the notion of personal sacrifice on behalf of the homeland took precedence over the bloodinesses and brutalities of the true horrors of combat. Such collective activity in the face of the enemy encouraged potential recruits to join their chums and not be left behind, covered in shame and dishonour, at home. A lively recruitment campaign capitalised on such sentiments.

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Front page of the Daily Mirror announcing the declaration of war. (08/05/1914).©British Newspaper Archive

Gung-ho for combat, then, one of the Himsworth boys – Edwin – enlisted into the army. His brothers, William and John, likely found themselves in demand with the munitions industry as skilled workers in Sheffield, possibly seeing out the war employed in the city’s factories. Their younger sibling, however, was enrolled as a private in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, a group formally founded in 1881, his army number 30277. At some point, Edwin transferred into the King’s Regiment (Liverpool), a move which may have been enacted in hopes of seeing active service, but whose motivation is  not, at this stage, definitively known. This unit was originally formed in 1685 by Lord Ferrars of Chartly. Termed ‘Princess Anne of Denmark’s Regiment of Foot’ and named after the daughter of James II, the force was established during the Monmouth Rebellion to put down the militia of James Scott – the 1st Duke of Monmouth – who was attempting to overthrow the king. Edwin became part of this long history in joining the 8th battalion, under soldier number 325057. Originally a territorial force, the unit accepted more enlistees when war broke out in 1914, increasing numbers to the strength required for deployment abroad.

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Headdress badge given to volunteers for the City Pals battalions of the Liverpool King’s Regiment prior to the 16th of October, 1914. ©Imperial War Museum

Whilst a number of the King’s battalions were mobilised immediately upon the declaration of war, Edwin’s group, the 8th, did not arrive in France until May 1915, landing at Boulogne. At first, they and the rest of their division were used to bolster forces under heavy assault at the Second Battle of Ypres, before being reassigned to assist in the Battle of Festubert and the Second Action of Givenchy. The group’s first taste of real and prolonged combat came in July 1916 during that fatal Battle of the Somme. In the meantime, those left behind in the United Kingdom read eagerly of progress on the continent, scouring the newspapers for information as to troop deployments, hoping that their loved ones were safe amidst the bombardments. Away from home and with access to only infrequent and erratic modes of communication, Edwin’s absence must have been the source of ineradicable anxiety for the Himsworths, separated by so many miles from their youngest boy, unaccustomed to residing far from any member of the family as people local to their district of Sheffield.

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Telegram communicating the death of a soldier in 1917. ©National Army Museum

As the months flew past and the in memoriam section of the newspaper began to scream ‘killed in action’ every other word, Edwin’s parents and siblings must have been permanently apprehensive, unsure of their relative’s fate, waiting for that doomed telegram from the British War Office: deeply regret to inform you. Living amidst the news that the husbands, sons, fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and friends of their neighbours had perished, the Himsworths must have almost expected the worst, interpreting every extended period of silence as an admission of Edwin’s demise – their son, the former hairdresser’s assistant. Worse still for the family, in the very same month that Edwin was caught up in combat in France, his father William died very suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 64. It must have been devastating for his son to hear the news, away from his loved ones, likely long after the dreadful event, powerless to assist his grieving mother, deployed instead in the valley of the Somme. 

As is well-known, this offensive was one of the bloodiest campaigns in the lives of man. Field Marshal Douglas Haig termed the contest ‘the greatest battle in the history of the world.’ The Liverpool King’s, including Edwin’s, spent time on the front line, relieving other troops near the village of Guillemont.

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Photograph showing the devastating damage done to the former High Street of Guillemont.

Towards the end of the year, the 8th, crossing the northern border, made their way into Flanders, again occupying the front line between Wieltje and Railway Woods. The men were involved in a number of offensives in the area, participating first in the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, the opening assault of the Third Battle of Ypres. A couple of months later, this was succeeded by another surge at the Menin Road Ridge, an infantry advance characterised by the ‘bite and hold’ method. This strategy denoted the achievement and consolidation of small objectives, rather than pushing forward and pressing on before full command of the area had been obtained. As the troops prepared for this major push, the mood was one of increasing optimism. The dry weather, having improved considerably from the rains and muds of previous action, enabled the readier transportation of supplies and the movement of soldiers. Visibility was enhanced on the battlefield. On the 20th of September, very early in the morning, the attack commenced and was quickly successful. German counter-attacks were easily repelled. The British and ANZAC forces gained land with relative ease.

Yet this favourable outcome was not without its own fair share of adversity and disaster. On this very day, the first of the assault, Edwin was killed in action. The details of his end are unavailable, lost to the passage of time. What we do know, however, is that the majority of the King’s territorials, assigned to the northern end of the line, had begun the offensive from their position dug in at Wieltje, capturing a number of machine gun posts and even pressing on towards the second German position. Edwin, however, died following the main attack, as the 8th battalion left the trenches behind their counterparts at 8:30am in order to mop up surviving pockets of enemies. Progress was slow across the pitted and pockmarked battleground, assailed by heavy shells from the German Artillery and under constant attack by snipers. Losses were substantial. Many fell alongside Edwin. He was 21 years old. 

All told, in the course of the action at Menin Road Ridge, the Allies suffered over 20,000 casualties, men who were wounded, killed or missing. It was an anxious time for those back in the United Kingdom, waiting to hear news of their loved ones, waiting for that telegram to be handed over to the next of kin. In Edwin’s case, it was likely his parents who first received the news, plunged into immediate grief just as so many others during that unyielding and pitiless war. Their son was buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest such burial site for Commonwealth forces in the world, located near Zonnebeke in Belgium. He was listed first as an unknown soldier before subsequently being named on the graves registration form.

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Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium. The final resting place of Edwin Himsworth.

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The CWGC Graves Registration Report Form featuring Edwin Himsworth.©CWGC

From Sheffield to Belgium, the Himsworth name had travelled a long way. In the loss of their beloved son, the quiet rhythm of their lives was broken, never to be renewed, an unspeakable absence. His remaining relatives remembered Edwin on their family stone at City Road Cemetery, choosing an epitaphic quote from the Song of Solomon, a phrase  whose context reflects painful separation, a wish that their boy would return: ‘until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.’ A month after his death, a notice was taken out in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph conveying their ongoing anguish. Both father and son were lost during those years of the war, a family decimated by events beyond their control, events governing the fate of nations. The brutal outcome of those actions were felt in every town, village and city throughout the land. Those places would never be the same again. 

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In memorial message in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (20th October 1917). ©British Newspaper Archive 

Edwin lies now far from home, resting where the uniform white stones stand like sentinels on the rise, watching over this land where the blood of men was shed in perpetuity, brothers in arms, a generation lost, in death together once again.

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Commemorative Certificate for Edwin Joseph Himsworth. ©CWGC

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The Peasants are Revolting: Samuel Holberry, Mary Cooper and the Sheffield Uprising

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Image by A Grave Announcement

It was an unusually cold Monday morning for early September when I, having found myself in Sheffield for the day, decided to see for myself the Victorian splendour of Sheffield General Cemetery. I set off in the magnificently tree-lined Nether Edge, a prosperous borough raised aloft in the southern part of the city, both looking down into the cavernous valleys of the urban sprawl and gazing away at the distant countryside of the city’s hill-studded environs. I made my way along a good number of such arboreal boulevards, espying a church or two amidst what seemed like  marshalled battalions of terraced dwellings, disappearing placidly into the horizon.

The cemetery itself is located in the neighbouring area of Sharrow, bordered by the aptly named Cemetery Road, along which I myself travelled, and edged on the other side by the indolent waters of the Porter Brook. I did not enter through the impressive neo-classical gatehouse, although, upon seeing this later, I was inevitably reminded of a Roman triumphal arch, a portal through which bodies would pass, overpowered by Death’s parading victory, in a final journey of silence. Rather, I myself passed through the so-called Egyptian Gate, gazed upon by twin ouroboroi – etymological tail-eaters – serpentine rings formed by coiled snakes with tails in their mouths, symbolising unity, eternity and a kind of cyclical balance. A winged sun surmounted the design, a pronounced symbol in the iconography of the Ancient Near East.

The site of the cemetery is spread across a quarried hillside, interspersed by a number of footpaths, both formal and informal, in what is now, I am told, a Grade II listed park. The presence of buildings manifestly influenced by Greek and Egyptian architectural styles attests to the grandeur and magnificence of the scope of the design – not merely a fine cemetery this, but a veritable Necropolis – a real life city of the dead.

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Image by A Grave Announcement

Opened in 1836, this Nonconformist cemetery holds over 87,000 burials, formerly serving as Victorian Sheffield’s main repository for the disposal of the dead. Rampant overcrowding, rife disease and paltry conditions in the churchyards of Sheffield had necessitated the construction of a burial site away from the dense congestion of the city itself. In 1834 a private enterprise, the Sheffield General Cemetery Company,’ was established with committee and shareholders, and the concern immediately began to gather funds for the project through public subscription. Their activities were reported in the press, as seen here in the Yorkshire Gazette of the 3rd of May 1834:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY.- A meeting

of the shareholders in this undertaking took place on Monday,

at the Cutlers’ Hall, T.A.Ward, Esq., in the chair. It

was stated, that £26,400 was already subscribed, but that

£25,000 would be amply sufficient to carry the object of the

society into effect. It was agreed, that the committee should

select a piece or several pieces of ground, and submit the choice

to a future meeting.

The requisite land was procured for £1900 and work soon commenced on the site. Designed by the Sheffield architect Samuel Worth and assisted by the horticulturalist Robert Marnock who superintended the layout, progress was rapid, aided considerably by the fact that the stone necessary for construction could be quarried from the very site itself. The first vault was sold on the 1st of January, 1836, and, amidst predictions of the cemetery’s imminent completion, the transaction was heralded with enthusiasm in the edition of the Sheffield Independent released on the following day:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY. – We understand

that the first and only finished family vault was sold

yesterday. It is calculated to contain about twenty coffins

in so many separate compartments, all neatly built with

stone and bricks. The ground and buildings are now

assuming a very imposing appearance, and it appears

probable that early in the Spring, the whole will be

completed.

As the year advanced and the business of the cemetery gathered momentum, directors of the cemetery were appointed and adverts placed for individuals to serve as employees, as seen here in the Sheffield Independent of the 28th May 1836, calling for a Sexton and Gatekeeper in residence:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY           

Wanted, a Steady, Active Man, who is married, to fill the Situations of SEXTON and GATEKEEPER, at the Sheffield General Cemetery. A Person who understands Gardening will be preferred. He will have a Residence, rent free, on the premises. Applications, with Testimonials of Character, addressed to the Directors of the Cemetery, must be presented at the Offices of Mr. JOHN WILLIAM SMITH, or Mr. GEORGE WELLS, Sheffield, on or before the 6th of June next. – Post letters to be paid.

The first burial was that of Mary Ann Fish, the wife of a book-keeper, having sadly succumbed to tuberculosis. Indeed, once ready to receive those to be interred, the cemetery had placed official advertisements in local newspapers. This extract, from the Sheffield Iris on the 9th of August 1836, announces the site’s readiness to bury the dead, a proclamation issued under the name of the Reverend William Thornhill Kidd of the Sheffield parish Eccleshall Bierlow:

Sheffield General Cemetery.

MINISTER AND REGISTRAR,

The Rev. William Thornhill Kidd.

This beautiful Place of Sepulture, whose picturesque

and architectural attractions are so well

known to the Inhabitants of this Town, arranged

upon a plan admirably adapted to the purposes for

which it was designed, IS NOW READY FOR

THE INTERMENT OF THE DEAD. Vaults of

almost every description and size, and finished in the

most complete manner, may, by an early Application,

be purchased upon reasonable terms; and Graves, in

various situations, the most open or the most secluded,

are also disposable to the choice of the Public.

In this place, in an alleyway lined with crooked tombstones, I stumbled across the final resting place of one Samuel Holberry, the name faintly familiar, the epitaph lengthy and full-hearted:

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Image by A Grave Announcement

SACRED

to the Memory of

SAMUEL HOLBERRY.

WHO AT THE EARLY AGE OF 27 DIED

IN YORK CASTLE, AFTER SUFFERING

AN IMPRISONMENT OF 2 YEARS AND 3

MONTHS, JUNE 21st, 1842.

FOR ADVOCATING WHAT TO HIM APPEARED

TO BE THE TRUE INTEREST OF THE PEOPLE OF

ENGLAND.

VANISH’D IS THE FEVERISH DEAM OF LIFE:-

THE RICH AND POOR FIND NO DISTINCTION HERE,

THE GREAT AND LOWLY END THEIR CARE AND STRIFE,

THE WELL BELOVED MAY HAVE AFFECTIONS TEAR.

BUT AT THE LAST, THE OPPRESSOR AND THE SLAVE

SHALL EQUAL STAND BEFORE THE BAR OF GOD;

OF HIM, WHO LIFE, AND HOPE, AND FREEDOM GAVE,

TO ALL THAT THRO’ THIS VALE OF TEARS HAVE TROD.

LET NONE THEN MURMUR ‘GAINST THE WISE DECREE,

THAT OPEN’D THE DOOR, AND SET THE CAPTIVE FREE.

ALSO OF SAMUEL JOHN, HIS SON WHO

DIED IN HIS INFANCY.

THIS TABLET WAS ERECTED BY HIS BEREFT WIDOW.

I wondered why I felt such a twinge of recognition upon scanning these words, and I pondered too about the identity of the grieving widow, nameless, her own exertions unmarked, compelled by injustice to erect this monument to her lost husband, an appeal to martyrdom and an attempt at post-mortem exoneration. A subsequent search brought my ailing memory back to life: Samuel Holberry, the Chartist activist, organiser of the Sheffield Uprising and champion of democracy. Grievously ill-treated at the end, his death stands as a testament to governmental misconduct and penal brutality in a demonstration of the barbaric treatment of one whose very existence was devoted to the advocation of political rights for the people. I vowed to look into his life and, in doing so, to attempt to restore the selfhood of that unnamed widow.

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Bust of Samuel Holberry (Photo by River Sheaf)

Samuel Holberry was born in the small village of Gamston, Nottinghamshire in 1814, and was baptised on the 21stof November in that same year. His father John was an agricultural labourer, working on the Duke of Newcastle’s estate, and had married his mother Martha Simpson on the 19th of December, 1793, in Grove, also in Nottinghamshire. Martha and John had nine children in total, of whom Samuel was the youngest. He grew up working on the land, watching over livestock and scaring off birds, jobs typical of child workers at the time, whilst receiving some basic schooling, before achieving the position of labourer like his father.

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‘Gamston Village and Church’ by Roger Reach is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Samuel, however, was restless and unsettled, making the decision in March 1832 to leave the area and enlist, following in the footsteps of his brother. Being only seventeen at the time, he was forced to lie about his age, joining the ranks of the 33rd infantry and subsequently serving in Ireland and Northampton. It was during his time in the latter that he became politically sensitive – the town was a bastion of radical activity and had considerable ties with the NUWC, The National Union of the Working Classes, a group comprising those who rejected the 1832 reform bill as unrepresentative of the rights of working people and retained links with the unions. Such political activism in Northampton came to be a preserve of the shoemakers with whom Samuel himself came to associate.

In April 1835, Samuel bought himself out the army, moving to Sheffield where he began working as a distiller, following a brief period as a barrel-maker. It was here that he met Mary Cooper, born in 1816 to John and Ann Cooper, labourers of Oakes Green, Attercliffe, Sheffield. Mary and Samuel soon established a relationship. In 1837 the pair were  separated, however, as Samuel was made out of work and spent some time in London, before returning to marry Mary on the 22nd of October in that same year, and settling in Sheffield. Despite joining the Sheffield Working Men’s Association towards the end of 1838, driven by his desire to extend the political rights enshrined within the aforementioned 1832 Reform Act, he did not yet announce himself as an active Chartist.

This latter movement had arisen from the People’s Charter, centring itself upon ‘a charter of rights for all,’ and, in particular, promoting mass enfranchisement. Authored mainly by William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association and introduced in Glasgow in May of 1838, it laid out six features of Chartist ideology deemed necessary for electoral reform: universal suffrage, no property qualification, annual parliaments, equal representation, payment of members and vote by secret ballot. Both Mary and her husband became increasingly involved in these Chartist aims and objectives and began to engage in a number of peaceful protests.

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‘The People’s Charter’ by the Working Men’s Association is licensed under CC by 2.0

The rejection of the Chartists’ strategy of moral resistance in 1839 after the failure of the above petition gave rise to a fractious leadership, riddled by division and dissent over the future of the movement. With some local leaders advocating a physical response, an initial uprising took place in Newport in Wales (the Newport Rising), but was swiftly suppressed, hamstrung by its own lack of proper planning. In this climate of insecurity and increasing anger, Samuel and Mary became involved in calls for more radical action, with Samuel spearheading proposals for an armed rebellion and appropriation of key settlements throughout the region. It was in this climate of discord and disunity that the Sheffield Rising was conceived, the event for which Samuel and Mary would become almost national celebrities.

With Samuel now in a leadership position alongside other prominent Chartists, more extreme plans began to be take shape. There was talk of seizing control of public buildings in Sheffield, namely the Town Hall and the Fortune Inn, with the aid of firepower and explosives. The houses of magistrates would also be torched. Before such proposals could come to fruition, however, the group was betrayed by the Rotherham landlord of the Station Inn, James Allen, on the 11th of January, 1840. Both Samuel and Mary, in addition to a number of their fellow activists, were arrested for conspiracy. Police officers Atcherly and Wilde had entered a dwelling owned by Samuel on Eyre Lane close to midnight, finding Holberry reclining in bed, fully clothed except for his stockinged feet, illuminated by the intermittent flickering of a bedside candle. According to the Northern Star of the 21st March 1840, the conversation proceeded as follows:

‘Are you one of the people called the Chartists?’ said Wilde.
‘Yes.’ replied Holberry.
‘This dagger is a deadly weapon – you surely would not take life with it?” said Atcherly.’
‘Yes; but I would in defence of the Charter, and to obtain liberty” replied Holberry.’

Whilst Samuel and his associates were held in custody, Mary was released, remaining tight-lipped throughout her interrogation. As Gammage (1969:173) notes, ‘Mrs. Holberry, a very interesting woman, was also arrested; but the evidence against her not being sufficient, she was discharged.’

Unrepentant, Samuel openly admitted his intentions to the police and swore that he would die for Chartist principles. Undeterred, the authorities admitted him for trial at Sheffield Assizes, charging Samuel with seditious conspiracy. A reporter for the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent of the 18th January 1840 described Samuel (and, elliptically, Mary in attendance) as follows:

Samuel Holberry: a very tall, well formed, and muscular young man, with much of the appearance and manner of an itinerant showman.

Mary Holberry: his wife.

Samuel’s importance both to the Chartists and the case itself can be seen in these opening remarks of the prosecuting Attorney General in the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette of the 20th March, 1840:

‘In regard to Holberry, it will be proved that he was a leader, and attended the class meetings; that he attended a meeting at a place called Fig Tree Lane, where the delegates used to attend, and that he attended likewise a meeting held in Lambert-Street, where the details of the plan were arranged. He was, I may say, the contriver of the scheme.’

During the course of the trial, the plans of Holberry and his associates to foment disorder by using force were laid bare. In this extract from the Northern Star on the 21st March, 1840, the testimony of Chartist Samuel Thompson revealed the extent of Holberry’s proposed charge:

‘He said we must all be at the Town Hall and the Tontine [Hotel] by two o’clock, as they must be the places to be first taken. The classes were to come up to take these places, one man first from every class, then two, and the whole body. Exactly as the clock struck two they were to rush into the Town Hall and Tontine, and take possession of them. Boardman said he could bring about fifty, and I said I could bring about fifty … If they got the Tontine, they were to shut the gates, and barricade them with the coaches inside. When they got into the Town Hall, one party was to occupy the floor, and the others were to go above. We then began to talk about the ‘cats’, the instruments to lame the horses, and it was proposed to throw them in Snig Hill, leading from the barracks, and they were to be thrown at the corner of the Town Hall and the Albion. Holberry said that he and eighty-three picked men were to go after the soldiers when they were called out and fire the straw chamber. One of them was to do it by climbing the spout and throwing a fire-ball in it. That, it was said, would set fire to the Riding School. The ones and twos who came up were to assassinate all the soldiers and watchmen they met … Holberry said in the event of their being baffled, they must ‘Moscow the town’.’

Unsurprisingly, it was as a result of his own candour as regards his offences that Samuel received a guilty verdict (along with twenty-nine others – six were acquitted) and he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Sent to the gaol at Northallerton, he was illegally placed upon the treadmill, a form of punishment banned by the government in 1902 forcing the prisoner to walk  for extremely lengthy periods as a means of powering equipment or producing some kind of energy. Samuel also underwent what was termed the ‘silent system,’ a combination of stringent diet, extended periods on the above machinery and solitary confinement.

Coldbath-fields-treadmill-mayhew-p306.jpg

‘Prisoners Working At The Tread-wheel, And Others Exercising,’ by Henry Mayhew & John Binny is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Whilst confined in that place, Mary was only able to visit her husband once, afflicted by grief at the death of their only son in October 1840. Indeed, she had suffered a breakdown and was supported by the National Charter Association. She was, however, a continuous advocate on Samuel’s behalf and wrote a number of letters to him in prison, often enclosing care packages filled with requested items. In this epistle, held in the Sheffield Archives, Mary lists such articles, including here a comb and a brush and two stocking needles:

Indeed, during his incarceration, Samuel received many other letters from supporters and associates, of which fifteen (including that above) survive in the collection of the above-named Sheffield Archives.

Following Samuel’s move from Northallerton Gaol to the hospital at York castle in September 1841, his already fragile health seriously deteriorated. On the 21st of June 1842 he succumbed to inflammation of the liver, brought about by the devastating advance of tuberculosis. The appalling state of the conditions in which Samuel had been imprisoned was revealed in the aftermath of the furore surrounding his death, when the House of Commons requested copies of all the correspondence relating to the prisoner between the Home Secretary and the prison authorities. In  reading these dispatches, it is clear that those involved in his care were well-aware of Samuel’s disproportionate suffering. Such missives were published at length in the newspaper, as seen here in a selection from the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser of the 30th of July 1842:

Return to an address of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated July 6, 1842, for a copy of all communications that have passed between the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the authorities of York Castle, from the beginning of September, 1841, to the present time, relative to the state of heath and death of Samuel Holberry.

Whitehall, 16th September, 1841

Gentlemen- Secretary Sir James Graham having deemed it expedient to give directions for the removal of Samuel Holberry from Northallerton Gaol to the York Castle, there to undergo the remaining term of his imprisonment, I am directed to request you to call upon the surgeon of the latter prison to pay constant and particular attention to the prisoner’s health, and to report theron to Sir James Graham from time to time.

I am, &c.,

(Signed) S.M.PHILLIPPS

The Visiting Magistrates of York Castle

[…]

Samuel Holberry, the Chartist prisoner in York Castle, is suffering from severe pain in the left side, the effect of chronic inflammation of the left lobe of the liver, extending to to [sic] the stomach, and, perhaps, the colon, which, from his having had former attacks, I believe to be organic disease. His digestion is very bad, and he is very weak; and I consider him to be in great danger. I am of an opinion that his symptoms have increased, and his health has been impaired, of late, by the length of the confinement, and the great anxiety of mind he appears to have suffered since his imprisonment.

(Signed)

                                                                                                                GEORGE CHAMPNEY.

Surgeon to the York Castle

7th June 1842.

York Castle, 21st June, 1842.

SIR, – As the gaoler of this prison is unavoidably absent at the Insolvent Sessions at Wakefield, I have to report the death of Samuel Holberry, the Chartist, who died this morning rather suddenly.

Such were the sympathies for his widow Mary Cooper in the aftermath of his death and such was the outrage at his fate, that a rousing call to obtain support for Mary was published in the Chartist Northern Star of the 16th July 1842, entitled ‘AN APPEAL TO THE CHARTISTS OF GREAT BRITAIN, IN BEHALF OF THE WIDOW OF SAMUEL HOLBERRY:’

BRETHREN.- We appeal to you in behalf of the widow of one of nature’s nobles, who has at last fallen a martyr for the rights and liberties of mankind. Samuel Holberry is no more, but oh could his dungeon walls find tongues to describe the anguish they have witnessed, the painful agony they endured, and the acute torture of his mind, when bursting the portals of a prison’s gloom, his soul left its clay tenement,without the kind assistance of a fond wife to minister to his wants, or to close his dying eyes. Who can pourtray [sic] the agony of his sufferings?…

Brethren, that wife he has left for your protection.

Sister democrats, do you do your duty. Your sister, though young in years, has drunk deeply of the cup of affliction. It is for you to administer the balm of consolation – to sympathise with the afflicted, and to comfort the heartbroken…

Sheffield has promptly and nobly come forward to assist in the good work, and to our townsmen we return our thanks for their hearty and generous sympathy so well proven upon this melancholy occasion. To the Chartists of York we also return our warmest thanks for their timely and patriotic aid, and to our brother democrats in other parts of the country who without waiting for this appeal have already commenced collecting monies for the support of Mrs Holberry. We have purchased the ground where the  remains of the martyr repose, and intend to erect a plain monument over the grave. To accomplish this, and secure for the widow a maintenance for the future, we expect the cooperation and assistance of every Chartist in the kingdom…’

The ensuing funeral on the 27th of June 1842 was a very public affair, attended by between 20,000 to 50,000 people who lined the route of the procession from Attercliffe all the way to Sheffield General Cemetery. The cortege was led by a band of musicians playing Pleyell’s German Hymn and festooned with a large black banner, on one side of which read ‘Thou shalt do no murder’ and on the other ‘Vengeance is mine, and I will repay it, saith the Lord.’ All the funeral trappings of an affluent send-off were present, most notably the elaborate hearse and the mourning coaches. On the name-plate of the coffin itself was the following inscription: ‘Samuel Holberry, died a martyr to the cause of democracy, June 21, 1842, aged 27.’

Once the line had reached the burial plot, a hymn composed especially for the occasion was sung, ‘Great God! Is this the patriot’s doom!’ by John Henry Bramwich, a Chartist hymn writer from Leicestershire:

Great God! Is this the patriot’s doom!

Shall they who dare defend the slave

Be hurled within a prison’s gloom,

To fit them for an early grave!

Shall victim after victim fall

A prey to cruel class-made laws?

Forbid it, Lord! on Thee we call,

Protect us, and defend our cause!

In vain we prayed the powers that be,

to burst the drooping captive’s chain;

But mercy, Lord, belongs to Thee,

For Thou hast freed him from all pain.

Is this the price of liberty!

Must martyrs fail to gain the prize?

Then be it so; we will be free,

Or all become a sacrifice.

Tho’ freedom mourns her murder’d son,

And weeping friends surround his bier;

Tho’ tears like mountain torrents run,

Our cause is watered by each tear.

Oh! may his fate cement the bond

That binds us to our glorious cause!

Raise, raise the cry, let all respond,

Justice, and pure and equal laws.

Those assembled were then addressed by George Harvey, a National Charter Association leader, in a speech which served as a call to arms, vowing that Chartists will ‘annihilate forever the blood-stained despotism which has slain its thousands of martyrs, and tens of thousands of patriots, and immolated at its shrine the lovers of liberty and truth.’ Samuel was also commemorated throughout the nation by local Chartist meetings, his sacrifice lauded and confirmed.

Samuel Holberry’s Sheffield legacy lives on. In 1998, the Holberry Cascades were named in his memory, located in the Peace Gardens next to the Town Hall.

Holberry Cascades

‘Holberry Cascades’ by Derek Harper is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This designation was also marked with a plaque, asserting that Holberry ‘gave his life for what he believed to be the true interest of the people of England – a democratic society that would guarantee freedom, equality and security for all.’ There could be no more fitting tribute to the struggle and activism of the man.

Holberry Plaque

‘Holberry Plaque, Peace Gardens, Sheffield’ by Chemical Engineer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As for his widow Mary Cooper, she continued to campaign alongside the movement until it was disbanded in the 1850s. She had remarried a widower, Charles Pearson, in 1845 who worked as a publican. Three children subsequently followed. The first was named Holberry in homage to Mary’s first husband, in what was also a powerful reminder of her own duty and sacrifice in pursuit of the Chartist cause.

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Bibliography

R. G. Gammage, History of the Chartist movement, 1837–1854, new edn. (1894), 173, 175, 213–16

R. Hutchins, ‘Holberry, Samuel (1814-1842)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), pp.