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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Local History



Life in Knottingley was certainly no ‘bed of roses’ when Ben Thompson lived here from 1843-1851. The affairs of the town were governed by an elected body of people known as the Select Vestry, originally established for poor relief. By the early 19th century the Parish Meeting or Vestry had developed from being a unit of ecclesiastical administration into a unit of civic management. The towns affairs were undertaken by a committee of twenty resident ratepayers, elected annually by the other ratepayers. Public notices of the ‘Town Meeting’ were fixed to the church door and town’s notice boards, and also announced around town by the ‘Town Crier’ who at various places would ring his bell to make the announcement, (probably followed by a gathering of children). In the absence of any local newspapers this was the method of relaying news of local and national importance.

Overseers of the Poor were elected at the Town’s meeting and they had a statutory duty to administer relief of the poor, money required to administer these duties being levied on ratepayers. Moneys required for other amenities such as road building or repair was raised in the same way. Visitors were subject to ‘settlement investigation’ and often sent back to their parish of origin so they did not become a burden on this parish. Vagrants were accommodated in lodging houses pending examination for poor relief, but in 1842 the Select Vestry resolved that

"Blankets and clean straw be provided in the Town’s Prison for the accommodation of vagrants instead of sending them to lodging houses, and those who are in real distress to have threepence each given them for breakfast.’

The town’s prison was in premises situated at Hill Top and the area is still known today as ‘Gaol Yard’. Labourers, frequently the victims of seasonal unemployment or recession, received outdoor relief from the Poor Law Overseers, but the able bodied were set to work in the town quarry or on the roads. Wages for labourers in 1843 was three shillings and sixpence a week. The old and infirm were admitted to the town’s workhouse, although the 1841 Census Returns includes three child paupers accommodated there. Poor Law administration was conducted from the workhouse as the master was also the Vestry Clerk and assistant overseer. A decline in moral standards led to resolutions such as:

"Stringent measures shall be adopted for the suppression of drunkenness, vice and immorality now so unhappily prevalent in the town and neighbourhood"

Paupers were actively encouraged to emigrate and were given assistance by the Select Vestry. Father or husband usually went ahead then sent for the family, the fare for passage being provided by the Select Vestry. To this end an Overseer accompanied the family to the port of embarkation (often Liverpool) and stayed with them until the ship was underway to ensure they actually went.

The mortality rate, especially amongst infants, was very high and statistics from St. Botolph’s Church Burial Register reveal that over a period of seven years, 50% of deaths were of children aged five years or under. In some instances the ravages of infectious diseases were known to wipe out complete families. In 1832 these burial records show that of 116 burials to take place, 32 died of cholera. One family of mother, father and three children were all buried within the space of three days. In 1866 a decision taken in anticipation of a cholera epidemic, implies the acceptance of a changeless inevitability. This decision was ‘that two women be engaged to be ready at any time to attend to cases of cholera which may occur and that a man be also engaged to assist and burn the clothes when required.’

Child bearing entailed a significant risk and also had a high mortality rate. Again from the burial records it is easy to spot numerous instances where the mother died as a result of childbirth as the records show both mother and child buried within weeks or even days of each other.

The state of housing was deplorable and as a consequence disease was rife. Houses were very small, probably two rooms downstairs and two upstairs, and food often had to be prepared in the living room. Stone slabs were laid on the downstairs floor so dampness was a prominent feature. Small bedrooms would be filled by a large bed where often children of both sexes in the same bed; cupboards, shelves and storage space was non-existent. Because of its abundance, houses were built of limestone, around the perimeter of small yards. There was a communal ‘privy’ positioned over a cesspit, and these were the root cause of much disease and illness. Cesspits were emptied and scoured through the night by gangs of able-bodied men in receipt of parish relief and supervised by the surveyor or constable. It was loaded into open carts and trundled through the streets at night when the stench would be least effective. The chaps responsible for this task were known as ‘night soilmen.’ Such material was usually disposed of on outlying farmland.

Even if windows were opened for ventilation, it could hardly have been described as ‘fresh air’, being contaminated by the filthy conditions outside. Drains which carried effluent to the river Aire were primitive and inadequate, and in one instance, because of fear of epidemic, it was rendered impractical to cleanse drains and cesspools because of the heat of high summer. The Select Vestry concluded ‘The present condition of the atmosphere unfavourable for the opening of the town’s drains, but as soon as the weather permits all the drains must be opened and cleared, and such as require to be made larger are to be improved.’ Waste disposal created a constant problem, with no proper refuse collection there would a continual odour of rot and decay. Garbage including animal droppings was left to rot in the streets, and it must be remembered that farms were situated in the middle of small towns and villages, so pigsties, stables, fold yards and slaughterhouses were very close to and even next to human habitations. A Pinder was appointed to round up any stray animals, which were confined in the ‘penfold,’ and a charge was made for their release. An Inspector of Nuisances was appointed by the Select Vestry with power to order removal of dunghills or obstacles causing inconvenience, offence or danger to the public, particularly public health.

Water was pumped from communal pumps where no doubt all manner of poisonous matter either passed or accumulated and this pollution caused outbreaks of cholera. Even as late as 1892 and prompted by an outbreak of diphtheria which claimed several lives, a local practitioner, Dr. Bywater, launched an outspoken attack in which he declared that well water in Knottingley would not bear the test of scientific analysis. Water had to be boiled over an open fire and a bath was unheard of, unless it was a zinc bath in front of the fire. Fresh bread would be baked almost every day, not bought from a shop. For most families day to day existence was a struggle and many were grateful for any charity provided.

A Town Hall was built in 1865 and in the basement was a public bath, but of course this was long after Ben had left. Even in the early 1900s only about 12 houses in Knottingley had baths. Illumination was provided by oil lamp or candles, and with no street lighting the winter nights would be long, dark and dreary. Clothing was usually handed down from the eldest child and items such as socks and jumpers, were knit by mother. Girls were considered less capable than boys, so they were taught subjects like needlework, sewing and knitting, presumably preparing them for domestic service or married life. They were brought up to believe that finding a husband and raising a family should be their main goal in life.

There were medical practitioners within the town, but disease such as TB, Cholera, Scarletina (scarlet fever), Diarrhoea and Smallpox were the result of inadequate food of poor quality, overcrowded and insanitary conditions, poor water supply and of course disease brought in by mariners from foreign countries. Medical treatment had to be paid for but invariably could not be afforded, and this may have given rise to the saying ‘I can’t afford to be ill.’

Transport was by and large horse drawn, with carts, gigs and coaches, the latter running regularly between local towns with one of the inns being the usual pick up and destination point. On Wednesday 28th March 1848 the first steam train appeared on the Wakefield to Goole line passing through Knottingley. Transport in bulk had always been waterborne, but now the age of steam was rapidly developing and rail transport was expanding along with steam ships, which were to eventually replace the sailing ship.

Boys by nature were attracted to water and fishing in the river and canal was possible at this time, until later pollution from the expanding industrial West Riding destroyed all marine life. A popular game on the water was called ‘ducks and drakes,’ whereby the lads would take a flat stone and skim it across the water counting how many times it jumped before sinking. Swimming in the river or in ponds created by worked out quarries was another pastime enjoyed during the warmer weather. A ferryboat, owned by a near neighbour of the Thompson’s, crossed the river leading onto the Marsh, an area of grassland, and Sunday School outings were a feature of children’s life, usually ending with a picnic and sports. Walks were taken to collect crab apples and wild fruits, and to breathe in the air from the lime quarries, the air being considered ‘good for health.’ Many poor people walked considerable distances to visit relations and other towns.

The highlight of the year was undoubtedly the annual Feast in July. It was held on land known as the Flatts, adjoining the river and certainly within 50 yards of Ben’s home on The Island. It was a time of festivity when travellers brought their fairground rides, shows and theatres, probably with musicians, jugglers and magicians. All the mariners tried to get home to be with their families for a time during feast week to enjoy this annual celebration, and the canal bank was lined with vessels throughout the length of the town.

The fact that many children are shown in the Census returns as ‘scholars’ in the 19th century seems to imply that they attended school regularly, although I think some of them attended rarely, if ever at all. It is evident from Parish Registers that many people in later life could sign their name only with a mark or cross. Successive governments ignored requests to back elementary education. Some politicians thought the education of all classes would undermine the authority of the running of government, and was seen by some as unnecessary and a dangerous radical idea. If it was their ‘lot’ to be poor it was considered pointless for they were looked upon as being ignorant. To coin a phrase it was thought that ‘a little knowledge was a dangerous thing’ and if they became dissatisfied with the situation they would support radical agitators.

The Sunday Schools thrived and many held weekday evening classes when they were allowed to teach other subjects such as writing and arithmetic. National Schools introduced in 1811 were in control of the Church of England; then in 1814 British Schools were backed by non-conformists (Methodist and Wesleyan). Basic education in reading was based mainly on the Bible, being the most important if not the only book around. The phonic method was most popular using simple words that sounded alike (i.e. the cat sat on the mat). On reflection there is ample explanation why religion played a far greater role in family life 150 years ago than it does today.

The first steps taken in writing would be in a ‘sand desk’ where children could practise marking letters and numbers in the sand, then simply smooth out the sand to start again. I have often heard older generations say "I learned to write my name in Calais sand." Progression was to chalk and slate, but because of expense only the most able of children would be allowed to use pen and ink.

The National and British schools introduced a system whereby a teacher taught a group of older children, known as monitors, who could then pass on their knowledge to younger pupils. The pupil teacher system of 1846 enabled older children to act as teacher’s assistants and to continue their own studies with a teacher in the evening. After five years, and an examination, those who could afford the fees went on to training college to study for a teaching certificate. Some who did not go to college continued as ‘uncertificated teachers.’

I feel sure this would form the basis of Ben’s early education and formative years. If he did attend school whilst in Knottingley he would have gone to the National School, which opened in 1842. Compulsory Education did not come into force until 1871.

Ron Gosney

Also by Ron Gosney:

William Sefton Moorhouse
Glassmakers of Knottingley
Captain George Colverson
Christopher Rowbotham & Sons
Disasters at Sea

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