The Thorncliffe Riot 1870
On 21st January 1870, around 7.30 am, a riot took place at Thorncliffe Colliery. This was one of the worst incidents in British industrial relations in the nineteenth century and it was reported in newspapers across the country. It is relevant to Jarratts because several occupants were either accused of involvement, or gave evidence for the defence.
Thorncliffe Colliery was situated at Tankersley, about three miles from Worsborough Dale, and an hour’s walk away. In 1869, Thorncliffe’s owners sacked their workforce and then offered to re-employ them on lower wages. When the men refused, the owners encouraged workers from other areas to take the jobs and built some cottages which could be let to men who were prepared to move some distance to Tankersley.
No-one from Worsborough Dale was reported to have worked at Thorncliffe. Although the community was not directly affected by the dispute, men and women alike would have been deeply worried. If one local pit could successfully cut wages, why not others? With plenty of miners now in a union, there were ways to discuss matters of interest and plan responses.
There is little doubt that when hundreds of men converged on Thorncliffe Colliery from the surrounding areas it was pre-planned. It is too co-incidental that half a dozen pits all developed problems that prevented many staff working the morning shift. Nor is it likely that groups of workers from all of these pits would spontaneously decide to walk to Thorncliffe in the dark.
Estimates of the number of men who marched towards Thorncliffe at what would have been first light vary between 600 to 1,000. Anticipating that trouble would break out at some point, there had been a police presence at Tankersley for several days. The marchers arrived at the time when the police guard changed, probably hoping to exploit the changeover and attack the workings. However, the police managed to keep control and drove the noisy crowd back, though three policemen were injured in the struggle.
A crowd of up to 100 protesters splintered from the main group and went to the cottages at Westwood Row, where the ‘blacksheep’ workers lived. Although reports had been circulating for an hour that a mob was marching towards the pit, it would have been a very unpleasant experience for everyone in the houses when their homes were attacked. Money was stolen and household goods and clothes smashed, torn or set on fire. It seems that no actual violence was used towards the occupants, although verbal threats were made and makeshift weapons brandished. The intention was to intimidate the ‘blacksheep’ into quitting their jobs.
The riot provoked a wave of anger across the country with newspapers and men of authority demanding that those responsible were found and punished. Although the rioters had come from several areas, the police focussed on Worsborough Dale and made a series of arrests.
It would have been hard to identify those involved in the riot. Some men were reported to have masked their faces or rubbed them with soot. Most would have been unknown in Tankersley, but attention was drawn to Worsborough for two reasons. One was the absence of workers from the Darley Main and Oaks pits in particular. The second was that one of the injured policemen had worked in the village for seven years. Constable William Goodall was a conscientious officer, but he was probably under pressure from his superiors to provide leads and his evidence has to be treated with caution on this occasion. How much Goodall would have seen in the early light of a winter morning is questionable, as is how much he would have remembered of a fast-moving incident in which he was injured. When arrests had been made, witnesses from the cottages at Westwod Row were invited to view and identify the suspects and police officers could consider whether they recognised any of the men.
Within a week of the riot at least thirty men were arrested and in early February twenty nine of them were taken to Barnsley courthouse. A six day hearing by the town’s magistrates determined whether the evidence was strong enough to send the prisoners for trial. Those with a present (or subsequent) connection to Jarratts, either as tenants or lodgers were Joseph Baxter, John Beevers, William Beevers, Cornelius Carr, John Gee, Joseph Briggs Howson, William Ibberson, William McDonald, William Penny, George Pickering, Joseph Pratt, William Pratt, James Williams and Thomas Williams. William Winder had also been arrested but appears not to have been charged.
The only defence which anyone accused of being at Tankersley could hope to succeed with was to prove that they were were somewhere else at the time of the trouble and could not have been involved. The authorities, though, were very sceptical of alibis, considering that they were a put-up job. One of the criticisms of the alibis was that they were too precise, indicating that the various witnesses who appeared for each man, had agreed their stories in advance. Alternatively, they were criticised for being given by relatives, who naturally had a vested interest in the defendant walking free.
It is probable that witnesses had agreed their evidence beforehand, because the details stated in court were very precise. Collating evidence though, does not indicate that any witnesses were conspiring to defeat justice. They would have been anxious to see justice done and to contribute any information which would help their neighbours. As the alibis were put forward within days, and sometimes hours, it is not surprising that people could recall the morning of the riot with accuracy. After all, it was unusual for men to return almost immediately from the morning shift. Those providing alibi evidence faced robust cross-examination from educated and experienced solicitors and barristers, who failed to shake them on any material points, which suggests that the testimony was accurate.
Following the hearings by the magistrates, William Ibberson, George Pickering and William Pratt were amongst a small group who walked free. The magistrates decided not to send anyone for trial when there was only one witness. In this case the only witness to identify those three was PC Goodall. The remainder were sent to the gaol at York Castle to await trail at the next assizes. Ostensibly, the reason was that it was better for public order that their trial was not held locally, but sending the men to York, rather than Wakefield gaol would have thundered out a powerful message that the authorities were treating the matter very seriously.
The trial of the twenty-three prisoners was held in early March, and for convenience, the prisoners were split into three groups. The first group contained six alleged rioters who had attacked the cottages. It included John and William Beevers (No 52) and William Penny, a lodger at No 44. Penny did not have to make any defence. The judge ruled that the evidence against him was too slight and instructed the jury to find him not guilty. The other five were convicted and John Beevers was sentenced to five years penal servitude for his part in leading the riot. William Beevers was jailed for fifteen months.
The second group included Joseph Baxter, (No 45) Cornelius Carr, (No 7) William McDonald and Joseph Pratt. The cases against Baxter and Pratt were dropped at the judge’s request after he told the prosecution that their evidence was too weak to put before a jury. Despite offering credible alibis, Carr and McDonald were convicted and both were sentenced to fifteen months hard labour.
The final group contained John Gee (No 11), Joseph Briggs Howson (No 21) and James and Thomas Williams (No 44). Of these, only Gee, a 17 year old youth was convicted. His alibi which was from his mother and three next door neighbours was not accepted by the jury. He was sentenced to nine months imprisonment with hard labour, the lenient sentence being passed because of his age.
The case against Howson was effectively quashed by the evidence of the doctor who had treated his wife on 21st January in Jarratts Buildings. Interestingly a senior and a junior police officer had identified him as taking a leading part in the riot and shouting encouragement to others.
The issue did not end with the passing of the sentences. Convinced of the innocence of William McDonald, his barrister petitioned the Home Secretary for his release, pointing out that McDonald had the same alibi as others who had been acquitted. At the end of June 1870, he was released from jail and returned to Worsborough. By the time of the 1871 census, John Gee had served his time and was back at Jarratts with his parents. Cornelius Carr served his full time before returning home.
A public petition with at least 7,000 reported signatures was submitted to the Home Office early in 1872 about the plight of John Beevers and two other rioters who, like him, had been sentenced to five years penal servitude. In March 1872, all three received a free pardon and came back to Worsborough Dale. The owners of Thorncliffe Colliery supported their release as a gesture of good will to the workers after the industrial dispute was resolved.
Looking back a century and a half, the evidence against most of the twenty three prisoners who stood trial in York was unsatisfactory. That twelve of them were acquitted by the jury or on the instructions of the judge, after such a high profile riot demonstrates that the cases against them were weak. The only safe convictions were of two men who were arrested at the scene. One came from Pilley, a village close to Thorncliffe. The other worked at the Oaks colliery, a mile or so from Worsborough Dale.
The attack on the cottages was appalling and inexcusable. The prosecution witnesses who endured the destruction of their homes probably gave honest evidence about the event, but there were flaws in their identifications of the rioters, which were pointed out by defence lawyers at the time. In the panic that must have ensued that morning, it would have been difficult to be positive which strangers had burst into their homes.
Police officers had opportunities to discuss and co-ordinate their accounts and mention the same names. At least one admitted visiting the cells where the suspects were being held. The authorities appear keen to convict and make an example of a large group of men on charges of felony as a warning to other workers. From the pattern of the verdicts, which were given in groups, jurors may have felt morally obliged to convict some of the defendants, because of the high profile nature of the trial, and the seriousness of the crimes. Despite the arguments of the prosecution, they declined to convict the first batch of rioters for felony, substituting the lesser offence of misdemeanour. This reduced the severity of the sentence which could be imposed. In the second and third trials no attempt to bring charges of felony was made.
At the time, the issue of wrongful conviction was raised in only one case. It would have been too provocative to challenge all of them, and some of the shorter sentences were not as harsh as they could have been. Given the undoubted flaws in some of the identification evidence and the reasonableness of the alibis they put forward, up to eleven men may have been punished for crimes they did not commit.
Jarratts residents and future residents who appeared as witnesses either at York or at the magistrates court in Barnsley include:-
Sarah Beevers, Patrick Brannan, Charles Buckley, Mary Carr, Sarah Carr, William Carr, William Cauldwell, Susan Christopher, Sarah Cox, William Fleetwood, Ann Gee, Ann Glover, Andrew Grimshaw, Thomas Grist, Joseph Harper, George Hodgson, Mary Ann Kilburn, Harriet Lomas, George Siddons, Mary Ann Siddons, William Stanley, Ellen Taylor, George Taylor, John Taylor, George Vickers, Jane Vickers, James Wildgust, Hannah Wildgust, Mary Williams, William Winder, Ann Winter, Henry Winter and John Winter.
Their statements are scattered across several newspapers and give fascinating insight into daily life in a mining community.
Now largely forgotten, Thorncliffe in the nineteenth century was similar to the General Strike of 1926 and the Miners Strike of the 1980s, polarising opinion, arousing passions and creating wounds which were hard to heal. Interviewed in 1927, William Winder a member of the Miners Union since 1858 mentioned Thorncliffe alongside several mining disasters as powerful memories.
Compiled from newspaper reports in the British Newspaper Archive.