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From the Barwicker No.92
December 2008

Vicars of Whitkirk parish, recorded some of their more unusual deaths throughout the 18th century. From these records we get a graphic illustration of the hazards that people then faced at work and home in the East Leeds area.

The average life span in 18th century Whitkirk was sufficiently low, that anyone who reached the venerable age of 60 or above was usually considered to have died from ‘old age’. Some people of a wide range of ages died from ‘decline’, which probably included cancers, heart disease etc. A few died from other non-infectious conditions such as colic, fits, palsy (paralysis) or dropsy (oedema); conditions, which are rarely fatal now. But many died from infectious diseases such as smallpox, fever, and consumption (TB), for which there was then no effective preventative medicine. But intriguingly, the vicar recorded on 14th May 1768 ‘Miss Betty Brooke of Killingbeck, …died under inoculation for the Smallpox’. Lady Wortley Montague (1689-1763) had reported the use of inoculation against smallpox in Turkey in 1717. In 1722, a Dr Wright said it was an ancient practise in Wales, and the first recorded use of inoculation in Ireland was in 1723. But is Betty Brooke the first recorded example of experimentation with inoculation in England? Edward Jenner (1749-1823) did not use his effective vaccination against smallpox until 1796.

Among other features, 18th century maps of the Barwick area show windmills, quarries, coal pits, rivers and roads. All of these were potentially lethal. One of the most unfortunate deaths was that of little Sarah Thornton, who, on 1st June 1763, ‘was slain by John Batley’s Wind-Mill-Arms which it is supposed catch’d hold of her clothes, carried her aloft, and by the fall occasioned her death’. Accidental deaths also occurred in other workplaces. On 20th June 1716 ‘Alis Varley ..was slaine in Colton Quarry’. A few weeks earlier, John Smith of Halton ‘was slaine by a Brick Cilne’ on the 13th May 1716. On May 25th 1773, Mary Barker died ‘at Brown Moor Pot Ovens’. This pottery was run by William Gough from 1739 until c1775. He recruited potters from Staffordshire, and others locally, including his sons Godfrey and William. They are recorded in the Barwick or Whitkirk parish registers.

Eight pit deaths are recorded in the century. Four were due to the accumulation of methane gas. On 12th May 1750, Thomas Limbird of Crossgates ‘lost his life by being let down into a pit when the Damp was therein’, and on the 27th April 1770 ‘William Harrison of Halton, collier, was killed by the Damp in the Crosswell Pit’. More tragically on 18th May 1781, ‘Joseph Womack (aged 43), collier, was slain by the Firedamp at Seacroft, also his son Richard (aged 19) was slain at the same time’. A few weeks later, Joseph Womack Junior, collier of Halton, died. ‘His death was occasioned by the bruises he got at Seacroft Colliery when his father and brother were slain’. Deaths also occurred because of falls within or into a pit. On 22nd July 1780 ‘John Woodhead, Collier of Halton, was killed by a Fall from the upper to the lower Coal in a Pit nigh the Engine at a place called the Newhold’. ‘Arther Fletcher … was slaine in a pit at Mr. Moors’, 3rd October 1716. John Thompson, a 63 year old Collier of Seacroft, on the 5th October 1787 was ‘slain by a Fall into the Coalpit in Seacroft’.

Horse riding, coach travel, carts and poor roads were hazardous in the 18th century. ‘John Sayner from Leeds ...fell dead from his Horse at a foot Race on Winmoor’ on the 22nd May 1752. On 11th April 1774, ‘John Porter of Seacroft, Coalmaster…was slain by a fall from his horse’. On 19th June 1706, the vicar noted ‘William Simpson who was slaine between Seacroft and Wikebridge. Came from Kippax’. On 22nd July 1723 ‘Thomas Eltes…was slaine by a wagon. Came from Selby’. The chance of being killed was higher if people were coming from such foreign parts! Locals also died by falling off or being crushed by carts. On the 4th May 1760 John Whitehead of Halton was ‘slain by the Cart Wheel occasioned by his falling off the Sills’. ‘Thomas Goodall … died by a Crush got between Lord Irwin’s House Wall and the cart Sills’ on 8th June 1754. Forty years later, on 12th September 1790, ‘Samuel Wilson of Colton, labourer, his death was occasioned by a Crush he got with a Cart’. Ruts, made by heavily laden carts sinking into unmade roads, could cause carts to overturn or lunge sideways

Wasters from Gough’s pottery were used to repair the cart track beside his house at 36 The Boyle, Barwick; and also to improve tracks leading from his pottery to his sources of clay and coal. This explains the compacted deposits of 18th century pottery shards excavated at The Boyle by the Barwick in Elmet Historical Society, and at Lazencroft by Leeds Archaeological Fieldwork Society.

Deep water in wells, ponds or rivers, was particularly feared, because few people could swim in the 18th century. Eight drownings are recorded. On 24th February 1766 ‘James son of Thomas Shelburn …was found drowned in their own well’. Joseph Copperthwaite ‘at the Water Side drown’d as getting out of the ferry boat nigh his house’ on the 6th October 1759. A local man, ‘James Schofield, Farmer of Seacroft, drowned in the River at Leeds’ on 30th January 1798. The 23rd December 1767 was a very sad day for the parish when ‘Joseph Ledger …was found in the River Air near Thorp Hall being one of the three men who were drowned in crossing the said River at Kirkstall fforge’. But, there is a hint of divine retribution, when the vicar recorded on 15th July 1777 ‘Peter Atkinson ….was drowned in that part of the River Air called George Graves Ford, as he was bathing on the Sabbath day’. It would appear that those who were so wretchedly poor that they had to wash themselves in the river on Sundays, were perceived as having failed to ‘keep holy the Sabbath day’.

18th century suicides are as poignant as those of today. On 11th April 1722, ‘John Moor …went to drowning himself’. All the other suicides are after 1760, and possibly because of the pressures arising from increased industrialisation. On May Day 1761, William Linlay of Seacroft ‘was found dead, hanging in a Tree in a certain wood nigh Seacroft called Sammy Wood; supposed to have laid violent hands on himself’. Women also committed suicide. On 14th July 1783 ‘Sarah Thornton of Newsam, Spinster, …was found in her house hanged’. Even more sadly, 15 year old Ann German ‘poisoned herself’. She was buried on 26th May 1788.

Murder, domestic accidents and ‘Acts of God’ were uncommon, and the following are rare exceptions. On 16th December 1792 forty six year old ‘Benjamin Hare of Halton was slayed to Death near Halton Moor’. Two year old John Chapelthwaite (??) of Halton was ‘scalded to death’ on 8th November 1786. Two years later on 26th May 1788, ten year old Ann Linley ‘was killed by a Cow at Seacroft’. Finally, on 20th November 1793, 22 year old ‘William Coltass of Newsamgreen (was) slain by a Tree falling upon him’.

These eighteenth century reports of deaths in Whitkirk cast an interesting light on life, work and death in East Leeds on the eve of the industrial revolution. Additionally, the early experimentation with inoculation in this area is worthy of further research.


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