The life of Riley

MANY people get a great deal of pleasure researching their family history and sharing their findings with relatives and friends.

Thursday, 8th April 2010, 11:10 am

Occasionally someone goes further and decides to share their research with a wider audience by publishing it in a book.

This is what Dewsbury-born Kenneth Fedzin has done, and his recently published book, Robinson Riley, is a pleasure to read.

It tells the story of Kenneth's great-great-grandfather Robinson Riley, a handloom weaver during the Industrial Revolution.

But it is not just a story about one family, it is also a valuable piece of social history revealing the poverty and squalid lives many of the working classes endured during this period.

The story starts in rural Sowerby near Halifax where the Riley family originated, but it quickly progresses to Gawthorpe, Dewsbury and Batley where they later settled.

Robinson's grandfather, Henry Riley, was the first to come to this area in 1778, bringing with him his young wife-to-be Ann Robinson. They were later married in Dewsbury Parish Church.

Henry was just one of thousands who left their native villages in search of a better life in the fast expanding mill towns.

Kenneth writes: "From pleasant rural beginnings, to deplorable living conditions in mill towns, the Riley family struggled to survive during what proved to be a difficult period of English history for many ordinary working class families."

HENRY worked in the cottage textile industry in Gawthorpe and later one of his sons, Abraham Riley, became a handloom weaver working from home.

All of his family helped him in his work, his children combing and carding the raw wool and his wife and older daughters spinning the yarn on foot-operated spinning wheels.

The finished cloth would then be taken to the cloth hall in Leeds to be sold, Abraham walking the eight miles there carrying the cloth on his back.

The population of Ossett at this time, including the tiny hamlet of Gawthorpe, was only 450, and of these well over 100 were handloom weavers.

Robinson Riley, the hero of our book, followed in his father's foosteps and became a handloom weaver but he later came to work in Dewsbury and Batley.

Working men and women at this time had no employment rights.

In 1834, the year Robinson Riley was born, six farm labourers from Dorset, known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, were tried and transported to Australia for seven years for trying to form a trade union.

Kenneth's book records how bleak life was for the poor, especially for the children who worked in the mines and mills from as young as seven.

In 1841 a Royal Commission on the Employment of Children in Mines looked into and reported on the condition of children working underground.

Part of the investigation took place in Dewsbury, revealing that Shaw Cross colliery employed 38 children, eight of whom were girls.

Interviews also took place with children who worked in the Ridings Colliery at the junction of Wakefield Road and High Street, Earlsheaton.

According to Kenneth's research, it was a 'day hole', a small tunnel cut horizontally into the hillside, employing 27 boys and two girls, some as young as six.

One of the children, Amos Frost, aged 10, gave the following statement to the commissioners:

"I hurry (pushing filled coal carts underground) with my brother. I come down at half past five o'clock and get out sometimes at three and sometimes not till five. It tires me much in my legs. I don't like being in the pit.

"It's because the corves (timber carts on four wheels) are bad ones and we can hardly thrust them, that makes my legs ache.

"We get us dinners when we go home at night and next we get us drinkings. I've a good appetite.

"I go to sleep after my work and sometimes like to lake (play) after that. I go to Sunday School every Sunday. I am learning my letters but nought else."

IN 1851 Census records reveal that 16-year-old Robinson Riley is living with his parents, Abraham and Rachel Riley, in Batley Carr. They live in an area of houses gathered in courts and yards built closely together on the hillside between Purlwell and New Street. Many of the houses here consist of two reasonably large rooms, one above the other with a cellar beneath. The upper room, or chamber, has a bed among the looms, and the weavers work as many as 14 hours a day.

Their wives wind the yarn on to bobbins which go into the shuttle and they earn barely 10 shillings a week.

Conditions, however, are worse in the rag grinding warehouses, where the air is so filled with dust and fibres the women have to wear bandages to cover their nose and mouth. The women rag sorters earn six shillings a week – the men between 18 and 22 shillings.

IN 1854, Robinson Riley marries a local Catholic girl, Catherine Byrne, who lives in Dewsbury.

There is no Catholic church in Dewsbury when they marry but a certain Father Edward O'Leary is working hard to raise funds to build one.

Father O'Leary is a friend of the Byrne family and lodges at their house in King Street, Dewsbury, near the market place.

He says Mass in various locations in the town but there are only 300 Catholics, mainly Irish immigrants, living in Dewsbury at this time.

The number increased to around 6,000 by the time St Paulinus church was built in 1870. Following their marriage, Robinson and Catherine go to live in Commonside, Earlsheaton, now known as Low Side,and later to a bigger house in Providence Row. But tragedy is soon to enter their lives when Catherine dies at the age of 25 within days of giving birth to a baby daughter.

Catherine is buried on the day her child, also named Catherine, is christened.

Catherine died of puerperal fever, a common disease affecting women within the first three days of giving birth.

It was an infection spread from one woman to another by the visiting midwife or physician. Once the infection was better understood, the death rate was dramatically reduced simply by the regular washing of hands.

After Catherine's death Robinson goes back to live in Batley, where he died in 1892 aged 58 with his second wife, Rebecca, at his beside.

The last of his children, Catherine, the little girl born in Earlsheaton, died in 1929, aged 67, and it is at this point that Kenneth decided to close his book.

He ends by saying that although Robinson Riley, his siblings and his children have long since died, the Riley family directly descended from him, including Kenneth's mother Marjorie, still continue to flourish. He also believes that despite the life of the Riley family having been extremely hard, they would not have considered themselves to be any worse off than their neighbours, friends and others in their social class.

Kenneth said: "They would have had enjoyable times and would make music, read and play games within the home.

"There were also regular social and family gatherings at the local pubs and churches and the children would play happily around the lamp-posts in the cobbled streets. There were also the annual feasts in Batley and Dewsbury to look forward to. They were probably a relatively happy and contented family, even amidst all the hardship and emotional turmoil that was, for many people, an integral part of daily life."

Anyone who loves local history will want this book on their bookshelf.

It is on sale at Dewsbury Bookshop and Ossett Newsagents, price 8.95.

It can also be ordered online.