West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Family History [ Index ]




As a young child, I grew up with an extended family only on my mother's side. My paternal grandparents had passed away before I could get to know them and I saw my paternal aunts only a few times and my eldest uncle only once. I have always been curious about the mystery surrounding my father's family, especially after discovering the family bible containing all the names, birth and death dates. My father would give snippets of information when asked, but it was not a subject he would discuss for long and I got the feeling it was an area I should not press for detail.

My curiosity about my father's side of the family was aroused not only by what was written in the bible, but also by what was omitted. The writing starts with the name of my great grandfather, Friend Senior, born 13th March 1834; his wife, Mary Ann Senior, born 8th August 1838 and the names of his parents John and Ann Senior, without dates. The list goes on to name all the children of my grandparents with birth, and in some cases death dates, and has been extended in my mother's hand with the names and dates of my father, his brothers and sisters, and myself with my brother and sister. The list omits marriages or any information about places or the people, and as I have since discovered, some children are missing or mysteriously untraceable. I resolved one day to research my family history, and now that I am retired, that time has finally come.

Family history is a fascinating subject but I have learned that some things will always remain a mystery and discoveries can often test your emotions of anger and sorrow. It remains a fact that our history books are full of exceptional characters, and the recording of the lives of ordinary people has never been very detailed in the past. Official registration only dates from 1837 and parishes were only requested to record their baptisms, marriages and funerals from 1538. Part of the fascination of family history is to find out about events in the areas where your ancestors lived and their possible reactions.

My journey begins with what little my father did tell me. The family originates from Staffordshire and moved towards Featherstone via what would now be the M62 corridor. A brother of my great grandfather had a skill for sinking deep shafts, highly sought after when deep coal mines were being developed. The unusual name given to my great grandfather was because his father, John, was a parish constable in the Colne Valley region, so would have few friends other than his own son. One of Friend Senior's sons was in turn called John, who took an active part in the Featherstone pit riot of 1893. Because of this and other activities such as poaching, he found it necessary to emigrate to Canada. My father's brother next to him in age was called Billy, but that was not his real name. He is buried in a military grave in Pontefract cemetery, apparently dying of TB while serving in the West Yorkshire Regiment during World War Two. His name was Cedric.

The 1851 Census says Friend Senior was a 16 year-old boy employed as a miner, living in Purston Jaglin with his 28 year-old brother, Anthony, also a miner, who was married to a 26 year-old Pontefract woman called Maria. The census also records that both brothers were born in Grange Moor. Logically the 1841 census for Grange Moor should show Friend Senior living with his parents, but there is no entry for him in Grange Moor or in any of the nearby towns and villages. The 1871 and 1881 Census' should show at least one of the brothers in later life, but there is nothing. In 1871 there is a Reuben Senior, slightly older at 52, but with a wife Maria of Pontefract, age 51. He is recorded as being born in Grange Moor and described as a coal miner. In 1881 Reuben is recorded as being 60 years old, his wife Maria is the same age. He is described as a well-sinker and was born in Lepton. Grange Moor and Lepton are next to each other and along with other nearby towns, they come under the parish of Kirkheaton. The parish baptism records show Reuben, the son of John and Ann Senior, born 10th October 1822. I believe Anthony and Reuben are the same person, one of many unexplainable manipulations of first names in the Family. The parish baptism records also say Friend Senior, the son of John and Ann Senior, was baptised 25th October 1838, but born 13th March 1834. His sisters were baptised at the same time; they are Charlotte, born 13th October 1835 and Rosellin, born 13th August 1837. The bible list is essentially a list of Friend's children, so his brothers and sisters are a new discovery to me.

Friend Senior died of bronchitis on 21st May 1901 at the age of 67. He was living in Snydale and is buried at Streethouse. According to the bible he had children as follows: John, born 2nd November 1856; Henry, born 23rd April 1858, died 7thOctober 1863; Ann, born 1st October 1861, died 31st October 1863; Emillie, born 31st March 1862; Edwina, born 15th September 1864; Clara, born 12th June 1867; Guy, born 12th November 1868, died 29th March 1949; Fred, born 27th January 1874, died 25th December 1950 and Sam, born 13th March 1875.

The mystery still to be resolved is that none of these ancestors can be traced by these dates in the Pontefract Registry Office or any of the local parishes, so where did Friend go in the years he had children? Did he break the law by not registering their births and did he simply not baptise them?

Leaving this mystery behind for the moment I want to look at my 2x great grandfather John Senior. The baptism records at Kirkheaton between 1795 and 1812 show only one John Senior, baptised on 26th December 1808, with no birth date. Is this the correct John with a late baptism at approx eight-years-old or is he the original Staffordshire member of the family? The marriage records show John married Ann Bacchus (probably Backhouse mis-spelt) on 12th November 1820. The baptism records of his children state that he was a weaver from Grange Moor.

A brief history of the Kirkheaton area is that in the 18th century it became a centre for both coal mining and the handloom weaving of woollen, cotton and silk cloths. In 1841, out of a population of 500, some 131 individuals declared that they were fancy handloom weavers. It is likely then, that John was a handloom weaver working in a cottage industry. The history books show that this cottage industry was under pressure from growing machine loom weaving in the mills. Many handloom weavers turned to direct action, attacking machine looms and mill owners. On the 11th April 1812 the Rawfords Mill at Cleckheaton, belonging to William Cartwright, was attacked by 150 Luddite's (machine breakers) and defended by Cartwright and 10 loyal employees. The resultant shootout resulted in several deaths and woundings. Two weeks later another mill owner, William Horsfall, was murdered. Machine breaking continued into the mid-19th century even though the government had cracked down on the law breakers. John must have been a young apprentice during these times yet a respecter of law because he volunteered as an adult, for the position of parish constable. Did he volunteer or was his weaving cottage tied to the parish therefore leaving him little choice? When he said at the time of his son's baptism that he was unpopular it was an understatement. He and his family must have been in great danger of serious harm.

In 1851 Friend Senior was a 16 year-old youth miner living with his older brother, also a miner, in Purston. The two Featherstone pits, Main and Ackton Hall, were not open at this time; coal was being extracted from shallow outcrop mines. By 1849 when the railway came to the area, North Featherstone was a county village set around All Saint's Church while Purston was a village set around its manorial hall. Between the two there were only two buildings; Moor Farm and the Railway Hotel. By 1866 John Shaw of Darrington Hall had bought mineral rights in the area and began the sinking of a shaft to the Stanley Main seam, the beginnings of Featherstone Main Colliery. Lord Masham opened the Ackton Hall Colliery in 1873. At the time of deep mine development we have the elder brother living in the locality with the skills to sink shafts. The population expanded with the opening of the two deep mines. Houses were built on the crossroads and up what is now Station Lane, and the town of Featherstone was born. Many of the miners came from Staffordshire. Times were prosperous and housing and wages were relatively good for that era. The miners had formed a powerful union which could easily maintain living standards in prosperous times, but by the 1890s a saturated market found it cheaper not to produce British coal, but to import coal from the continent.

Many years ago when I was a young teenager, I went with my father to a lecture given in the Town Hall about the Featherstone pit riots. I sat listening intently to the recalling of events in detail that I had previously not known. By the summer of 1893, the colliery owners, having failed to get an agreement on reduced wages and with stockpiles of unsold coal in their yards, decided to shut their pits and lock out their employees. The pits still needed to be kept in a ready to re-open condition, so deputies continued to work and other non-union labour were employed in the pit yards. By the end of August 1893 Featherstone was a bitter divided community, with the majority having no means of income and a minority still having spending power, and some un-tactfully boastful about it.

While listening to the speaker, my father leaned over and whispered to me so that others couldn't hear, "He hasn't mentioned anything about Uncle John yet!" In the past my father had told me snippets about great uncle John, which left me with the impression of a powerfully built man, not adverse to the pleasures of drinking and the illegal street gambling of his day. He was quick of temper and liked to supplement the food on his table with poached wildlife from the grounds of the local manors. I was now curious to know what my father knew about great uncle John and the pit riots, so after the lecture I asked him. He said, "This you will not find in the history books; it's what my father, your grandfather, told me about that day."

Around mid-morning on the 7th September 1893, Fred Senior, my grandfather, was on Wakefield Road just past the crossroads, when he saw a group of men walking towards him from the direction of Streethouse. He recognised one as his elder brother John. Some were carrying sticks, all had their pit boots on. Fred called out to John, "Where are you going?" The reply was, "t' pit yard lad, there's scabs working coal and we’re gonna stop it".

On reaching the pit yard, others were already confronting Alfred Holiday the pit manager, who lied to them saying it was only pit yard tidying. John and his group noticed that the coal wagons had delivery notes on them for Manningham Mill, Bradford. The deception was outed and the scabs armed themselves with wood from the yard. John was confronted with a man armed with a pickaxe handle. No chance then for the man with the handle, he went over and felt the boots. The coal wagons were overturned. Alfred Holiday had gone for the police, who called for the army to send troops of the Staffordshire Regiment from Bradford. Their presence on site induced the violence to restart, forcing them to take shelter in the engine house before agreeing on a withdrawal to the station. Bernard Hartley JP was sent for, who read the riot act to a by then jeering rather than rioting crowd, and practically gave the order to open fire in the same breath without giving time for dispersal. The result was a tragic loss of two lives and a parliamentary enquiry into the conduct of the authorities and the use of the riot act. My father concluded by saying, "I bet those boots are still in Wakefield Police Station in their black museum."

I have searched the court records and the chief constable's report. John Senior was not prosecuted for his part in the riot. I'm not surprised by this, the Victorian police could only prosecute by confession plus a reliable witness. The conspiracy of silence in Featherstone must have been total.

It is certain that John did not flee his troubles by emigrating. I have come across a letter from the customs and excise department sent to him at his home in Purston and dated 26th October 1926 asking him to stay in on the 28th to be interviewed about his pension. However, the emigration story is strong in my family, so who was it? Was it Guy Senior? I have checked the sailings from Liverpool and London between 1890 and 1900 to Canada, USA and Australia. There are plenty of G. Senior’s to all destinations, but none have given their full name and all have given ages much younger than my great uncle Guy would have been, but where have I seen first name hiding in my family history before! The date of Guy's death was written into the bible in my mother's hand. How did she find out? It's a mystery I cannot solve yet.

Was great uncle Sam the emigrant? This mysterious great uncle only has an unconfirmed birth date in a bible to say that he even existed. My Victorian ancestors present the greater challenge because they lived in the era of national registration, and some of them spent a lifetime in this area, yet show little sign of it in local records. My great aunts Ann and Emmilie, have only five months between the birth dates given in the bible and so if the dates are correct, they couldn't possibly have the same mother, yet again, nothing shows up on local registrations to confirm their existence.

I will not now go into detail about my grandfather’s children, my father, his brothers and sisters. It understandably contains memories that are personal to me and the surviving members of my family. There is an exception though, why was uncle Cedric Senior always known as Billy? Why did the army hold on to a soldier who was terminally ill and unfit for service? Now that's a mystery worth investigating; perhaps there may be another story in it.

Paul Senior.

Digest Magazine Pontefract and Knottingley in West Yorkshire Weaving, Mining, Rioting - A History of West Yorkshire Through the Eyes of the Senior Family by Paul  Senior was published in the Digest Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 3, September 2007.


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