Tag Archives: Lancashire

The Rohilla Privileged Will Dispute

What may seem a straightforward document can be far more contentious than first appearances suggest. This proved the case with the will of a man who perished in the wreck of the Hospital Ship Rohilla in October 1914. It led to the High Court.

William Edward Anderson was one of the 15 Barnoldswick St John Ambulance Brigade men on board, serving as part of the Royal Naval Sick Berth Reserve. Only three of these men came home.

Born in the then West Yorkshire town on 11 February 1891, he was the eldest child of Carleton-born cotton weaver Ralph Anderson and his wife Jane Elizabeth Wakefield, originally from Coventry. The couple married on 18 October 1890 in the parish church of St Mary le Gill, Barnoldswick. Their other children included Sarah, Walter, Florrie, George, Mary Ann and Ernest. An eighth child, Jane, died in 1905 aged three.

Like his father, William became a cotton weaver, cotton being the town’s predominant industry. His naval records describe him as being 5’6″ with light brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion.

William Edward Anderson

William was engaged to Edith Eliza Priscilla Downes. The daughter of joiner and builder James Downes and his wife Elizabeth, she was born on 22 July 1891 at Morton Banks near Keighley, and baptised St Mary’s Church, Riddlesden in September that year. The family address in the baptismal register was given as Barley-Cote, Riddlesden. Sometime between the 1901 and 1911 censuses the Downes family moved to Barnoldswick. In the latter census they were living at Gisburn Street and Edith had employment as a cotton spinner.

On 2 August 1914 John William Thompson, superintendent of the Barnoldswick Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade, received a telegram ordering the mobilisation of men, including William, in advance of any war declaration. The Brigade was a voluntary movement which the Army and Navy used as a recruitment source. It’s members knew they were liable to be called up for military service. Thompson contacted William and told him to hold himself in readiness. He was ordered to catch the 3 August 12.08pm train from Barnoldswick to Chatham.

3 August was Bank Holiday Monday. That morning, after finishing packing his kit at his family home alongside Edith, he made a soldier’s will leaving everything to his fiancée. He placed the will in an envelope with instructions for it to be opened one month after his death. He wanted Edith to take it for safe-keeping but she refused so he put it in a drawer saying to Edith “No one knows where this is, only you.” The will was made at 11am, just over an hour before his departure. Once he left Edith never saw him again.

William’s naval record shows him as a Senior Reserve Attendant, under Service Number M/10066, assigned to Pembroke I from 2 – 17 August 1914. This was the shore-based Royal Naval barracks at Chatham. From 18 August 1914 he was with the Rohilla. When she struck the rocks off Saltwick Nab it appears he was one of those who made it to the bridge, but subsequently lost his life attempting to swim to shore. His body was never recovered. He is commemorated in a number of locations including on the Chatham Naval Memorial, the Rohilla Memorial in Whitby’s Larpool Cemetery and on the Barnoldswick War Memorial.

His naval record includes the notation:

Papers dealing with an action in the High Court relating to this man’s will.

The case of Anderson v Downes was heard in the Probate Court in January 1916 before Mr Justice Bargrave Deane. The plaintiff Ralph Anderson, represented by Mr W.O. Willis, claimed his son had died intestate and he sought administration, being next-of-kin and heir-at-law. The defendant Miss Edith Downes, represented by Mr Pridham-Wippell and Mr Acton Pile denied this and counter-claimed William had made his last true will on 3 August 1914, it being made in accordance with the Section 11 of the 1837 Statute, namely William had been actively engaged in the service of the Crown on military and/or naval duties. In response Ralph claimed the will had not been executed according to the Statute.

Edith Downes

Those serving in the military had, for centuries, held a unique position in Probate law being entitled to make what was known as a Privileged Will. In 1914, Section 11 of the Wills Act 1837 specifically stated “that any soldier being in actual military service, or any mariner or seaman at sea, may dispose of his personal estate” without restrictions applicable to other wills. It meant they could dispose moveable goods, money, credits and leases without the restrictions which normally applied – the testator could be under 21, there was no need for witnesses to attest, for the testator’s signature, or even for it to be in writing. These privileges were conferred because of the unique nature of their employment. They could face the imminent danger if death; also because they were on service they may not have the same access to legal services as a civilian so would have less opportunity to make a properly executed will; and minors served in the armed forces.

The case of Anderson v Downes honed in on the key phrase “any mariner or seaman at sea.” Mr Mynett, supervising assistant clerk at the Admiralty was called to provide clarity. He produced William’s original engagement setting out he was to serve in the Navy for one year from 2 August 1914. He also had the original contract William made with the St John Ambulance. It was signed on 17 October 1914, but backdated to 2 August. Therefore it was dated from his mobilisation and covered his time at HMS Pembroke, the name by which the Admiralty recognised Chatham Barracks.

Staff-Surgeon Stewart RN also gave evidence stating when William arrived at Chatham he would be a naval rating, liable to serve from mobilisation for a period not exceeding one year, and he would be subject to the Naval Discipline Act for the year from 2 August 1914. Effectively he was on active service from the date of the mobilisation order. Under cross-examination he said William was qualified to serve when he left home.

A third Admiralty official, acting superintendent clerk Mr Drake, confirmed William was payed be the Admiralty from 2 August 1914.

Mr Willis held firm with his view that for the will to be valid in accordance with the Act, William needed to be at sea when he made it. Nothing else mattered. Mr Prichard-Wimpell differed in his view – he asserted that soldiers and sailors were treated in the same way in time of war for which mobilisation had taken place.

In summing up Mr Justice Bargrave Deane disagreed – the Act was not the same for soldiers and sailors. The will would have been perfectly good if made at sea. However he could not say in this case that William ever went to sea until he joined the Rohilla. He certainly had not joined any ship when he made the will. Whilst Mr Justice Bargrave Deane felt there was no doubt William’s wishes were that his sweetheart should have his money, regretfully the will did not hold good in law. In effect he died intestate and Administration was granted to William’s father. However the Judge decreed the costs of both parties should come out of the estate.

The entry in the National Probate Calendar for 1916 reads:

Anderson William Edward of 20 School-terrace Damhead-
road Barnoldswick Yorkshire died 30 October 1914 at sea
on H.M. Hospital Ship Rohilla Administration London 18
March to Ralph Anderson factory operative.
Effects £245 5s. 10d.

Interestingly, due to the sharp focus of war and the subtle changes in types of military service this brought, in February 1918 the law changed with the Wills (Soldiers and Sailors) Act 1918. It affirmed that:

“In order to remove doubts as to the construction of the Wills Act 1837, it is hereby declared and enacted that section eleven of that Act authorises and always has authorised any soldier being in actual military service, or any mariner or seaman being at sea, to dispose of his personal estate as he might have done before the passing of that Act, though under the age of 21”

Furthermore, the ability to make privileged will was judged to extend to any member of His Majesty’s naval or marine forces not only when he is at sea but also when he is so circumstanced that if he were a soldier he would be in actual military service within the meaning of that section. The Act was also extended to cover real estate, that is lands and buildings. And soldier included any member of the Air Force.

So what became of Ralph and Edith, the protagonists in this case? Ralph’s death, aged 62, is recorded in the Skipton Registration District (which covered Barnoldswick in this period) in the March Quarter of 1929. Edith’s marriage to Harry Whiteley is recorded in the Huddersfield Registration District. The 1939 Register shows the family living in the Colne Valley village of Linthwaite. She lived well into her 80s.

If you want to know more about the Rohilla sinking, please see my earlier blog post, here.

Sources:

  • 1939 Register – via FindMyPast
  • 1891-1911 Censuses – via Ancestry.co.uk and FindMyPast
  • Burnley Express and Advertiser – 4 November 1914 via FindMyPast
  • Burnley Express and Advertiser – 22 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • Burnley News – 4 November 1914 via FindMyPast
  • Burnley News – 22 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commissionhttps://www.cwgc.org/
  • Craven Herald – 6 November 1914, transcript via Craven’s Part in the Great War http://www.cpgw.org.uk/
  • Craven Herald – 21 January 1916, transcript via Craven’s Part in the Great War http://www.cpgw.org.uk/
  • GRO Indexes – via FindMyPast
  • Lancashire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1936 via Ancestry.co.uk (originals at Lancashire Archives)
  • Leeds Mercury – 21 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • National Probate Calendar – via FindMyPast
  • Privileged Wills: A Timely Reminder – Christopher Parker takes an in-depth look at the history of privileged wills and also reviews application of the law by C20th courts (taken from Issue No 21  – October 2002) http://www.tact.uk.net/review-index/privileged-wills-a-timely-reminder/
  • The Globe – 20 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • The Times – 21 January 1916 via The Times Digital Archive
  • The National Archives (TNA) Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services; Class: ADM 188; Piece: 1038 – via Ancestry.co.uk
  • TNA UK Royal Navy and Royal Marine War Graves Roll, 1914-1919 Class : ADM 242/7; Scan Number: 0082 – via Ancestry.co.uk
  • The Wills of our Ancestors – A Guide for Family & Local Historians – Stuart Raymond
  • Wills Acts of 1837 and 1918
  • Wills and Probate Records – A Guide for Family Historians 2nd Edition – Karen Grannum & Nigel Taylor
  • Yorkshire Evening Post – 20 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910 via Ancestry.co.uk (originals at West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England)
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Buried Alive: A Yorkshire Cemetery Sensation

1888 – Woodhouse Cemetery, Leeds: The gravedigger, shovelling clods of dense, frozen earth, heard a knocking from the coffin and felt an upward motion of the ground beneath him. He paused, listened, consulted with colleagues, then continued with his work.

St_George's_Fields,_Leeds_(8408739067)

By Tim Green from Bradford – St George’s Fields, Leeds, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51864472

Being buried alive was the stuff of gothic nightmares. The press in the 19th and early 20th centuries revelled in tales of premature interment, be it at home or overseas. Horror stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial’ fuelled public imagination. But there were plenty of real life stories to whet the reader’s appetite for the macabre.

There was the phenomenon of January 1905 concerning Esther Elizabeth Holden (née Mills) a mother in her late 20s, living at Hapton, near Accrington. Her first husband, James Henry Ferris, played rugby for Rochdale Hornets and according to reports died as a result of an injury sustained in a game against Leeds.  She was left with three young sons – James, Herbert and Henry.  Esther married William Holden in 1901 and their daughter, Florence, was born in 1904. Dr Shotton attended her during a serious illness in January 1905, visiting her the day before her ‘death’. When her husband, William, informed him she had passed away he was unsurprised and issued a death certificate citing the cause as heart disease and exhaustion. William made funeral preparations drawing the £27 insurance money and arranging for the funeral coach. He laid out her body washing her face and brushing her hair and, in accordance with a Lancashire custom, putting on her a pair of white stockings. Undertaker James Waddington then arrived to measure her for the coffin. Whilst in the process of doing this, Mr Waddington became aware of a flickering eyelid, and he realised she was alive.[1]  Brandy was fetched from the local pub and she revived, although still very weak and constantly swooning. Donations poured in for the family to assist with Esther’s recovery. This included one sovereign raised from the sale of the death certificate to an Accrington man.

Deathbed_Study,_by_Julia_Margaret_Cameron

Deathbed Study – Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Debates raged about the inadequacy of the law around death certification, especially the fact a medical practitioner was not required to inspect the body before granting a certificate. Others asked how many people had been buried without it being realised they were in fact alive. It also gave ‘fuel to the fire‘ of those in favour of cremation: still viewed with distaste and suspicion by many Christians, the first Cremation Act entered Statute only a few years previously in 1902, although it had not technically been illegal prior to this date and the Cremation Society dated from 1874. All this did not affect Mrs Holden. Less than two months later she was appearing on stage at the Circus and Variety Theatre Rochdale, billed as

“Mrs Holden late of Rochdale, who was saved from being buried alive by an Accrington undertaker.”[2]

She lived until 1942. Others were not so fortunate.

Like the newly-born son of Elizabeth Ann and Charles Lean. Charles was the landlord of the Tavistock Hotel in Gunnislake, Cornwall. Elizabeth died on 14 December 1892 whilst giving birth to her 10th child. The boy, named Thomas, was sickly. When the family reported him dead, the doctor issued a certificate. The baby was placed in his mother’s arms in the coffin, and the lid was screwed down. Prior to burial the father heard the baby cry and, when the undertaker unscrewed the coffin, he was found to be alive. Thomas survived for only a short time afterwards, but the doctor ordered him to be wrapped in blankets for several days before he would permit burial. This took place on 20 December, three days after his mother.

In January 1895 at Heap Bridge, near Heywood in Lancashire a woman named Mrs Sutcliffe, who was laid out for several hours and covered in linen, raised herself up in bed. Two women tidying the room fled in terror, falling down the stairs injuring themselves in their haste to get away. That evening Mrs Sutcliffe told her son that she had been aware of the washing and laying out burial preparations, but was unable to speak. The recovery again was short-lived – the doctor said that her ‘second‘ death was accelerated by shock.[3]

Such was the fear generated by such tales, in 1896 William Tebb founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial. He published a book about the phenomenon, filled with advice about avoiding such a fate. Indeed, precautions were taken by some to ensure it did not happen to them. These included coffins equipped with contraptions like bells to sound the alarm; to veins being severed, presumably to check blood flow. James Mott, a Birmingham brass founder even had provisions incorporated into his will, including:

“…after my death two medical men or surgeons shall apply every test to prove that life is extinct, that a strong dose of prussic acid shall next to be put into my mouth, and that one of them shall decapitate my body in the presence of the other, and that both shall certify that such a decapitation had been done; or otherwise I direct that my body shall be dissected by post-mortem examination”.

He then wanted to be buried at sea.[4]

But back to the incident at Woodhouse Cemetery, the Leeds General Cemetery in the St George’s Fields area of town, that cold 17 February day in 1888.  Fred Posey was an experienced, respectable and trustworthy gravedigger, tasked with backfilling the grave after the funeral of a woman. Her family had left the scene and he was halfway through filling the nine feet deep hole. He then jumped into the chasm to remove the shoulder boards fastening the sides of the grave up. It was at this point he claimed he felt several knocks beneath his feet and a slight upward movement of earth. He ran to a colleague in the cemetery, and with what the newspapers described as a pallid face and quivering voice, recounted the story. Eventually swayed, the other cemetery worker came to the grave and listened a while but deciding it was nothing, Fred was persuaded to continue his work.

V0042296 A gravedigger observes the resurrection of a dead woman. Aqu

A gravedigger observes the resurrection of a dead woman – Aquatint by Mayr. Credit Wellcome Library London, Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The case became a media sensation, causing a public outcry. The demand for an exhumation of the coffin reached Parliament. Leeds MP Herbert Gladstone raised the issue in the House of Commons in early March. The Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, wrote to the Local Authority ordering that if any suggestion of truth existed about the story an inquest should be held. Accordingly, a warrant was issued for the exhumation of the body.

The woman was named as Arabella Elizabeth Tetley. The daughter of watchmaker John Henry Elliott and his wife Arabella, she was born in Leeds in 1864 and baptised on 21 January 1870 at the Methodist Chapel, Little Stonegate, York. The family subsequently moved to Bradford.

Arabella married William Tetley, a schoolteacher, on 10 April 1884 at St Augustine’s Church, Bradford. The couple’s first child, a son named William Norman, was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire in 1885. However, by 2 February 1888 when she gave birth to daughter Lily Isabel, the couple resided at Beckwithshaw, near Harrogate where William worked as a schoolmaster. Shortly after giving birth 23-year-old Arabella fell victim to that scourge of childbirth puerperal fever, and died on 14 February. Dr Deville, who attended her throughout her confinement and illness, issued the certificate. But was she really dead?

In the early hours of Monday 5 March her body was exhumed and later that day an inquest held at the Millgarth Street Mortuary by Leeds Coroner, Mr J.C. Malcolm. They now had to determine whether her death was indeed natural causes, or if she had been asphyxiated as a result of being buried alive.

The coffin was opened by surgeon Mr Scattergood, formal identification took place and members of the jury viewed the body before witnesses were called. Chief of these was gravedigger Fred Posey. He denied ever having made statements about a knocking sound, saying “I never said nowt to nobody.” He admitted there had been a strange noise, one the like of which he had never heard so he fetched monumental mason, Sykes Shepperd. Contrary to the pale-faced, quivering voice description given by the media, Shepperd said Posey did not seem at all alarmed. In fact, he lit his pipe in the stonemason’s shop. They did go to the grave though and waited kneeling on it for around 20 minutes, but heard nothing further. They attributed the noise to the sound of the frozen clay rattling the sides of the coffin. Shepperd believed because of the three to four tons of earth on it any movement was impossible, and neither would it have been possible to hear any noise.

Next Mr Scattergood came forward. He described shrinkages and crevices in the coffin, with some portions detached. But Arabella’s body was undisturbed, still wrapped in its shroud with the flowers and wreaths laid upon it. When the shroud was drawn back her hands were in the expected position. The Coroner ordered the jury to return a verdict confirming Dr Deville’s original certificate.

What became of Arabella’s family? William was still employed as a schoolmaster living at the Dudley Hill Road School House at Beckwithshaw in 1891. His sisters Mary and Catherine were in residence too, presumably helping look after young William and Lily – yes she survived. William re-married in late 1891, to the wonderfully named Eularia Winter. In 1901 the family lived at Grove Park Terrace, Harrogate with William undertaking a new venture as a hardware and fancy merchant, later described as a 6½d bazaar in 1911. It was clearly a family enterprise, as the household still included his unmarried sisters, who worked in the shop too. A third unmarried sister, Rose Jane, joined the family in 1901, but she earned her living as a school-mistress. In addition to William and Lily, William now had three daughters and a son to his new wife – Caroline (8), John Archibald (6), Dorothy (4) and Eularia (1). So a whole new life.

The question of the source of the initial report to the press remains unanswered. Was it a case of Chinese whispers and the story being embellished for dramatic effect until it reached the ears of the eager media? Whatever the origins, the effect would only have served to heap distress on Arabella’s grieving family: Wondering if she had been buried alive; the trauma of the exhumation; appearing at the inquest to identify the body and give evidence; perhaps attending the reburial; and despite the verdict, would they always have that niggling doubt – was she really coffined alive?

Sources:

  • Ancestry – West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England; Yorkshire Parish Records; Old Reference Number: 17D85/7
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Leeds Times, 3 March 1888
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Pall Mall Gazette, 6 March 1888
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Knaresborough Post,10 March 1888
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Reynolds’s Newspaper, 11 March 1888
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Blackburn Standard, 19 January 1895
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – The Yorkshire Evening Post, 18 January 1905
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – The Grantham Journal, 21 January 1905
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Burnley Gazette, 1 March 1905
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – The Yorkshire Post, 29 August 1927
  • Census: 1891-1901
  • FindMyPast – Methodist Chapel, Little Stonegate, York (Borthwick Institute Reference Y EB 1)
  • Cornwall Online Parish Clerks http://www.opc-cornwall.org/
  • GRO Indexes
  • Premature burial and how it may be prevented: with special reference to trance, catalepsy, and other forms of suspended animation –  by Tebb, William, 1830-1918; Vollum, Edward Perry, d. 1902: https://ia600202.us.archive.org/35/items/prematureburialh00tebb/prematureburialh00tebb.pdf
  • The History of Cremations in the UK http://www.watltd.co.uk/the-history-of-cremations-in-the-uk/
  • Wellcome Library Images: https://wellcomeimages.org/
  • Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
  • Woodhouse Cemetery Burial Registers: https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections/collection/706

[1] The Grantham Journal – 21 January 1905

[2] Burnley Gazette – 1 March 1905

[3] Blackburn Standard – 19 January 1895

[4] The Yorkshire Post – 29 August 1927