Migration

Shearsby, Tuesday 25 August 1840: Disgraceful attack on four Irish labourers

Trouble was already brewing between the resident agricultural labourers of Shearsby and the visiting Irish by the late Summer of 1840. On Thursday 20 August Thomas Wilson brought a case before the Lutterworth Petty Sessions asking the magistrates to bind some unnamed defendants to ‘keep the peace to all Irishmen that might come to England’.

The following week the magistrate J. A. Arnold, Esq., then presiding over the Lutterworth Petty Sessions, heard that this peace had been already broken in what was reported as a disgraceful attack upon four Irish labourers.

It was Andrew Wilson, a Shearsby farmer, who made the complaint against John Elliott and Thomas Botterill for willfully and maliciously breaking two of his barn doors and two gates. Despite the prejudice perceived to have existed for some time among the local labourers against Irish reapers, Wilson had allowed four reapers to sleep in his barn about half a mile away from his house. One of this group, Thomas Hands, stated that he had been awakened at sometime in the night by several people calling out “Are there any Irishmen here?” and demanding admittance. but the Irishmen refused to open the doors “till they had lost their lives”. At this the defendants said that they should lose their lives then and began a violent attack on the barn doors. Finding that they could not force open the doors they ran to the nearby field gates and broke them down so that they could use the bars as levers. They managed to lift the lower parts of the doors from their hinges and tried again to enter, but were repulsed by the Irish inside, one on each side of the door and armed with forks.

Foiled in this attack, they then began to throw stones at the barn and kept this up for three to four hours, accompanied with the uttering of dreadful threats. Negotiation was their next ploy: “they called to the Irish and told them they were their own masters, and if they would come out they (defendants) would see them safe four miles along the Leicester road, and if they would promise not to come back to this part of the country again no harm should be done to them”. The Irish replied that they just wanted a night’s sleep and would go elsewhere of their own accord next morning and never come back, but that they would not come out of the barn just then, for fear their lives would be sacrificed.

At that point the Rapid coach came by, placing this whole incident somewhere along the Turnpike Road from Leicester to Welford (and onward south to London, about 80 miles south). The besieged Irish called out to the passengers for assistance and at this their attackers disappeared. The Irishmen then made it safely to the house of Mr. Wilson, reaching him a three in the morning.

It was 20 year old Thomas Wilson who was roused and had to deal with the disturbance. He listened to Hands and his account of what had happened and then went with the Irishmen back into the village. There they were able to identify John Elliott and Thomas Botterill, and to the best of Hands’ belief: Samuel Dyson, Daniel Billingham, Robert Wesson and Richard Simons.

At the Petty Sessions, William Fretter said that all of that group had been in his house that night and had drunk a good quantity of beer (which he had needed to bring over especially from Gilmorton, three miles away). When had they left at nine o’clock, he described them as ‘rather mellow’.

Mr. Marsh, the solicitor defending John Elliott and Thomas Botterill, called George Billingham. Elliott had been in his company at Fretter’s until nine o’clock, after which they had returned to the Shearsby, but had not passed within 150 yards of the barn in question. When they reached the village they had gone to Botterill’s house and stayed there until sometime between 11 and 12, after which he had gone home. Mary Billingham corroborated his statement and Jane Botterill, Thomas’ wife, swore that her husband had gone to bed when Elliott left, not leaving the house again until he went to work the next day.

The magistrate was unimpressed by these alibis and fined Elliott and Botterill £1. 7s. 6d., adding that he thought it was a most disgraceful assault. The Shearsby labourers involved do not come out of this story looking well. The trigger for their actions had been the presence of Irish reapers in a largely sheep-grazing parish (and consequently few opportunities for supplementary wages at harvest tine) to which alcoholic beverages had been copiously added. However, framework knitters work long hours and need their wits about them to avoid losing fingers to their machines. Their drinking during the working week may be an indicator of the effects of the economic downturn of the 1840’s, making them workless and wageless knitters.

Thomas Willson was the son of Andrew and Alice Willson and was christened on 3 January 1819 at Shearsby. In the 1841 Census he was found in Knaptoft Fields with his parents and siblings: Arthur, Eliza and Cornelia. Andrew Wilson (christened 1 January 1778 at Shearsby) had married Alice Waples of Husbands Bosworth on 31 Oct 1816.

In the same 1841 Census there was a 60-year-old Thomas Botterill, working as a carrier, in the first house surveyed in Church Street,  Shearsby. John Elliott was recorded as a 25-year-old butcher living in Hill Street, next door to Richard Simons, a 28-year-old Stocking Frame Knitter. Samuel Dyson (25, Agricultural labourer) lived farther up Hill Street. A 3-year-old Eliza Billingham was staying in the house that day, indicating a Dyson-Billingham connection. In fact Daniel Billingham had married a Mary Dyson in Shearsby on 30 January 1837. Robert Weston (28) was recorded living in Mill Street with a wife and two children and working as a Stocking Frame Knitter. There was a William Fretter born in 1814 in Mowsley, something that again points to the action taking place uphill from the village of Shearsby.

The Monthly Chronicle commented later in 1840 that “A greater importation of Irish labourers has taken place this year for the harvest than the oldest inhabitant of Liverpool can remember, in expectation of gaining employment in the Northern, Midland and Southern districts. In this, however, they have been egregiously disappointed… we have seen scores of these poor fellows with blistered feet and scarcely able to crawl… not having obtained a single day’s work in Lancashire, Nottinghamshire or Leicestershire, through all which counties they had in vain ‘padded the hoof’.

Leicestershire Mercury (Leicester, England), Saturday, August 29, 1840; pg. 3

Coventry Standard (Coventry, England), Friday, September 4, 1840

Image taken from page 155 of ‘Sunlight and Shade. Being poems and pictures of life and nature. Illustrations by F. Barnard, etc

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German Town, Philadelphia, 1831: A caution to runaways

George Ross had been placed in charge of the wool-combing and worsted-spinning business in Countesthorpe owned by his father Thomas and brother William Ross. In August 1827 George was found to have disappeared, along with (in all probability) a sizeable part of the funds of the business. William Ross ensured that news of his brother’s flight was put onto the front page of the Leicester Chronicle,  with mention of a handsome reward for any information that would lead to his discovery.

Though his father and uncles all came from Oadby, George had been born in the village of Shearsby and christened in the ancient church of St. Mary Magdalen on 14 November 1800. His father Thomas Ross was born  in 1768 and married his mother Frances Pebberdy in Shearsby on 6 April 1795. William Ross was born in 1772, Neal, born in 1791 and Samuel in 1804. Frances (‘Fanny’) Ross had not lived beyond 40 and died in January 1806. Uncle William Ross had died in February 1825.

No more was heard of George for a long while, and that might have remained the case, had it not been for another Leicestershire runaway: Thomas Shipley. He had been the ‘confidential traveller’ of a Mr. Overton, hosier, and had absconded with a sum of money belonging to his employer. He had, however, been tracked to America, arrested there and compelled to restore the greater part of the missing money. This international legal success had been orchestrated by the Leicester solicitors Messrs. Harris and Payne Johnson. They had sent their man, Bickling, over to America to identify Shipley and with the help of the American Consul brought him to justice. Over £700 had been returned, mostly from Shipley’s account in the Savings Bank. It would have been more, had not Shipley nervously thrown £100 into the sea on leaving England (at least, that’s what he told Bickling).

Not only was this achieved, but Bickling was able to report back on other Leicestershire abscondees. Shipley had been found in the home of Westbury Hill, also apparently from Countesthorpe, who had recently left behind a string of creditors there. He was one of a group of thirty or forty Leicestershire natives in the Philadelphia area alone. Among them were Poole and Jones and a fellow from Shearsby called Ross.

Messrs. Harris and Payne Johnson wanted readers of local newspapers to hear of their success in this matter and to understand that their experience was available for any other clients who had experienced losses in this manner. A piece entitled ‘a caution to runaways’ was printed in the Leicester Chronicle and re-printed in other newspapers in the Midlands.

By 1851 George Ross was back in Leicester, living in Craven Street with his other uncle, Neale and older brother William, both working as a wool-sorters.

Further research

How does worsted differ from other woollens?

What would George Ross’s life had been like in Philadelphia in the 1830s?

References

The Sheffield Independent, and Yorkshire and Derbyshire Advertiser (Sheffield, England), Saturday, August 06, 1831; Issue 537

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, August 11, 1827; pg. [1]; Issue 872

Marriage of Thomas Ross and Frances Pebberdy. “England Marriages, 1538–1973 ,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NJVL-MY6 : 10 December 2014), Thomas Ross and Frances Pebberdy, 06 Apr 1795; citing Shearsby, Leicester, England, reference V3; FHL microfilm 952,297.

Birth of George Ross. “England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NYRK-435 : 30 December 2014), George Ross, 14 Nov 1800; citing SHEARSBY,LEICESTER,ENGLAND, reference ; FHL microfilm 585,287.

Ross in the 1851 Census. “England and Wales Census, 1851,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:SGFG-MZY : 24 July 2016), George Ross in household of Neale Ross, St Margarets, Leicestershire, England; citing St Margarets, Leicestershire, England, p. 10, from “1851 England, Scotland and Wales census,” database and images, findmypast (http://www.findmypast.com : n.d.); citing PRO HO 107, The National Archives of the UK, Kew, Surrey.