May 032017
loom in mill

My new book, ” A Victorian Society” is now available to buy from Amazon UK, EU and USA (UK price is £15). It’s a strange feeling to have such a major work in print. I’ve published books before but nothing on this scale. Whilst the book is local history in content, it has a lot of information about Victorian society in general and the world of photography and photographic societies in particular, so I believe that it will be interesting to a wider range of readers than just those with an interest in Oldham.

The book includes biographies of many of Oldham’s prominent individuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Product details

  • Paperback: 326 pages
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1545379858
  • ISBN-13: 978-1545379851
  • Product Dimensions: 27.9×21.6 x1.9  cm (approx 11×8.5 inches)
Price £15 (including postage in UK)
See product  at this link.

victorian soc book

Description of “A Victorian Society”

“A Victorian Society” is a book about early photography and photographers, told against the backdrop of life in what was to become the most productive cotton spinning town in the world.

In 1867, when photography was still in its infancy, a group of photographers from Oldham and District met at the Hare and Hounds Inn, Yorkshire Street, and founded the Oldham Photographic Society and some of these men would provide the early photographic studios in the town. The photographic portrait had been accessible only to the wealthy but now it was beginning to be affordable by all but the poorest in society. One evening each week, the early photographers of Oldham met to share knowledge and to collect photographs in their album, which has mostly lain unseen in the society’s archives for over 100 years. “A Victorian Society” has more than 300 black and white photographs and illustrations, many of which are published here for the first time.

The book first traces the early days of photography through the lives of the pioneers, in France and Britain, whose work led to the creation of the permanent photographic image, paving the way for all professional and amateur photography.

After the Lancashire cotton famine, the late 1860s marked the beginning of the most exciting period of Oldham’s history. The author examines the rise of the town to become one of the most important cotton spinning and textile engineering towns in the world and follows its progress through phenomenal growth to eventual decline.

The Victorian age was the “Age of Invention” and the Oldham Photographic Society reflects that through the stories of its early members, many of whom rose to prominence in the world of photography, commerce and manufacturing, some of their businesses achieving national and international importance. Using genealogy sources and historic publications, the author researched the lives of many of the society’s Victorian members and brings them together in a social group not studied before. Their stories give a real insight into their origins, successes, rise to fortune, sometimes failures and personal tragedies.

The book concludes with a guide on how to date old photographs.

BUY “A Victorian Society”



Feb 192016

Researching Brick Walls

I have been engaged in my family history research for over ten years and have come across a number of brick walls…ancestors for whom I can find little meaningful evidence. These days, my research is characterised by bouts of intense interest, interspersed with long periods of inactivity (that’s a tongue twister to start with). Today I have had a period of some activity, partly due to having been contacted by a lady from, who had asked me if I would be prepared to add a link to their family trees feature, which I have done (see Links page). In doing this and checking out that the link worked, I noticed that, for three days, most of the ancestry catalogue was free without subscription, so I set about looking up some of my “brick wall” entries in the hope of finding just a small lead…and I did find quite a few little tidbits of new information on a few of my brick wall ancestors…and one link set me off on a journey to explore Yorkshire’s Luddite past.

In all the years that I have been researching, I have found that all of my ancestors as far back as I can reach, come from the West Riding of Yorkshire within a roughly drawn triangle bounded by Halifax, Wakefield and Huddersfield. I have been proud to say that I am Yorkshire through and through…but then some time ago, I found that I needed to acknowledge one anomaly in this otherwise immaculate Yorkshire ancestry. One of the greatest puzzles of my family tree has been my third great-grandmother Martha Arnold, who married into the well-documented Sheard family of Mirfield.

Migration from Woolwich to Mirfield

My third great-grandfather Thomas Sheard and Martha Arnold were both born in 1802. Thomas was born in Mirfield and became a woodman by occupation. He and Martha married in 1825 and had at least seven children together. I am descended from their youngest child, Edwin, who was also a woodman. Census records show quite clearly that Martha was not born in Mirfield but in Woolwich. I found that she was baptised in the parish of Westminster, London. That I found very odd. Martha had four siblings born in London up to 1808. Sometime between 1808 and 1825, Martha was uprooted from London and firmly planted in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. I initially had no clue as to why this should be. There really had to be a very good reason for a family to move such a great distance in those times, when the most distance that the average working class person moved was into a nearby parish. The driving influence in the movement of most working class families in the early 19th century was for work, so movement from country to town may involve moving from working on the land to working in the mill. But why would someone move from the hub of activity, a busy naval and military town in London, to come to a small borough where woollen cloth manufacture was the tradition and times were hard?

In the middle of documenting all the birth, marriage and death records that we can find, it is easy to forget what was going on socially, militarily and economically at the beginning of the 19th Century – when England was in the thick of the industrial revolution and also fighting the Napoleonic wars. I have already come across family drama in the early years of that century, detailed in my article “A case of industrial espionage” when my 5th Great Grandfather on my father’s side was arrested on suspicion of aiding and abetting his brother-in-law in creating drawings and models of textile machinery, with a view to taking them to France. Is it possible that I can find another family connection to that turbulent history?

I wondered if “Woolwich” was itself the clue. An acquaintance of mine, who was herself born in Woolwich, suggested that Martha’s father may have been a soldier…Woolwich was historically a great naval town and, in 1695, the Royal Laboratory was established, manufacturing explosives, fuses and shot. Later on garrisons of soldiers were there and 1716 to 1720 saw the formation of the Royal Regiment of Artillery and the construction of its first barracks. The Royal Military Academy was founded at Woolwich in 1741. From 1795, both the Corps of Royal Engineers and the Corps of Royal Military Artificers were head-quartered at the Woolwich Arsenal. It didn’t take too long digging before I discovered that the Luddite rebellion occurred very shortly after this and that thousands of soldiers were sent up North to quell the rebellion. Could Martha’s father have been sent north with his regiment in order to put down the Luddite uprising? I suspect that I may never know, but it’s a decent theory in the absence of any other and it gave me the push that I needed to have a look at that period in Mirfield’s history. helped me to find Martha’s father, but unfortunately not his occupation. Was he a soldier, a merchant, a labourer?

Woollen Manufacture in West Yorkshire

Mirfield is at the centre of the Yorkshire Woollen District. Sheep farms covered the nearby hills and valleys. For centuries, many local families, including my ancestors, would have specialised in the different processes involved in the manufacture of woollen cloth via a system known as “Putting out”. A clothier delivered raw wool from farms to the cottages in the villages and hamlets. The wool was transported by pack horses along ancient routes. Each cottager and his family would spin the yarn into woollen thread or weave the thread into fabric on hand looms.

The fabric was then collected and delivered to other craftsmen to be fulled (scoured and milled) and then sent to a dressing shop to be finished before going to market. The dressing process was the only one not carried out in the cottages. It was carried out by craftsmen called “croppers”, who were highly skilled in raising the nap and finishing the fabric and the quality of finish that they achieved could increase the value of the cloth by up to a third. Skilled croppers were paid three times as much as labourers and so they had a relatively good lifestyle.

In the second half of the 18th century, the processes involved in converting the raw wool to finished cloth started to be undertaken under one roof…this was much more cost effective for the clothiers and helped to increase production. Cottage-based spinners and weavers were forced to stop working from home and walk to work in the new mechanised mills powered by coal. However, at first, the croppers were still earning good money, as the mill owners were still sending cloth to their dressing shops to be finished.

As the century changed from 18th to 19th, change also caught up with the croppers, as machines were now being devised to mechanise their jobs too. By the turn of the century, the first cropping frames, operated my mill wheels, were being installed and each machine could do the work of ten skilled croppers. Many croppers found themselves out of work or looking for much less well paid work.

At the same time, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars and an American Trade Embargo, leading to higher taxation and aggravated by poor harvests, the price of corn was at an all-time high. In order to maintain profitability, the mill-owners cut the wages of the workers and introduced cropping frames into the workrooms. The rich got richer and the poor became destitute. Poverty among the mill workers in the lace industry in Nottingham led to violence erupting there, with gangs of workers breaking the machines, and it wasn’t long before the workers of Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire began to also engage in attacking the mills at night and breaking the new machines that they blamed for their poverty and starvation…but the greatest unrest was in Yorkshire.

Luddite Rebellion

Luddites were named after Ned Ludd, a Leicestershire born man who broke two stocking frames in 1779. They were mainly self-employed textile workers who feared the end of their trade brought about by employers installing labour saving technologies in mechanised mills around 1810-1816. In Kirklees, they were made up of croppers and other textile workers and their machine-breaking activity spread to Huddersfield and surrounding areas, including Halifax, in 1812. Although most of the Luddites came from the Huddersfield and Halifax areas, there is evidence that sympathisers from Mirfield had joined in. In retaliation for their actions, the government sent around 12,000 troops north from barracks such as those at Woolwich and I have read that more troops were engaged in opposing the Luddites than were fighting abroad at that time. At least 1000 troops were stationed in the Huddersfield area alone and many were helping mill-owners to protect their property from attack.

In April 1812, a large body of men, including the Huddersfield and Leeds Luddites, some armed with pistols, others with old swords and home-made weapons and sledgehammers, set out to attack William Cartwright’s Mill in Cleckheaton. Some had met at Dumb Steeple earlier in the day. Dumb Steeple was a monument at Cooper Bridge, Mirfield , which was a rallying point during troubles. The Huddersfield Luddites then joined up with the other groups until there were about 300 in the mob. Cartwright’s reinforcements of soldiers and local militia plus his foresight in strengthening the defenses of the mill, enabled him to hold off the Luddites. The soldiers fired into the crowd. Two Luddites were killed and many seriously injured. One soldier, who refused to fire on the crowds, was publicly flogged. Shortly afterwards, another mill owner, William Horsfall, was ambushed at Crosland, near Huddersfield, and murdered by Luddites. Martial Law was enforced for a time and the government of the day took decisive action, bringing in legislation to make machine-breaking punishable by death and making a concerted effort to round up the Luddites and their leaders.

Capture and Punishment

Eventually, by using a network of informers and spies, by torturing suspects and with the help of the soldiers, the authorities arrested more than a hundred men. When 64 Luddites stood in the dock at York in January 1813, 24 of them were young men from the Huddersfield area, all of them croppers, with an average age of 27. Some bore surnames that are familiar to me as they exist in my own family tree. Seventeen of these men were hanged and their bodies were dissected for medical science, in order that funerals could not be held, as they might give the excuse for more violence. Some of the men who avoided the capital punishment were transported to Australia and their families left destitute.

The remaining workforce, who eventually surrendered, were pardoned and some degree of stability returned. The uprising was largely over. In March 1813, most of the militia were withdrawn.

Within 20 years, the croppers’ trade had vanished, as more and improved machines were installed in the mills.

Martha Arnold

That brings me back to Martha Arnold’s father, who was probably named Jonathan. Was Jonathan a soldier from down south who was sent to the West Riding to quell the Luddite revolt? If so, how did it affect him? How did Martha end up in Mirfield?  Did Jonathan send for his family to settle with him up north after the troubles? How did Martha come to meet her husband to be, Thomas Sheard? I suppose I will never know the answer to any of those questions, but the speculation enabled me to engage with that period in my ancestors’ history, so I guess I come out of the experience with a little more knowledge about the Luddites and a lot more feeling for what it was like for my not too distant family, in the early part of the 19th Century, living in the Yorkshire Woollen District…what a struggle they must have had to keep their large families from starving and how lucky I am to have never experienced real hunger, destitution and violence like they did.

© Christine Widdall Feb 2016