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
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Where did Thomas Hands and his party come from in Ireland? There is some suggestion that the name is known in Dublin and Monaghan, but that might just be in the singular ‘Hand’ form, with ‘Hands’ more likely in Ulster or roscommon regions.