Ballad of a Dead Man – 1749
Tomorrow they’ll take me from this place in chains and hang me. From my cell I can see them polishing up the mourning coach that will transport me to the gallows at the Knavesmire. I’ve already heard them singing the ballads about my death.
The worst part is that it will all happen here in York. I’ve been a Leeds man all my life and they won’t allow me to end it there, the cowards.
But I declare that I, Josiah Fearn, Lord of the Manor of Leeds, am an innocent man. I’ll shout it. I’ll scream it all the way to the scaffold. I killed Thomas Graves, but everything I did was in self-defence.
Seven hours the trial took. Testimony for and agin. And after that, no more than a few minutes for the jury to reach their verdict. I cried injustice, no one would listen. So I must write down my account in the hope that it will clear the good name I own.
My father was a clothier. He had no fine start in life, but he was prudent, putting the money he made aside and investing it wisely. When he died he owned properties all over Mabgate and Woodhouse, and two more near the top of Briggate, close by the market cross. I made my home in one of them.
I executed his will, and it was straightforward. Most went to my mother, to be passed in time to my sisters, and a little to myself – one of the houses in Mabgate and the place where I dwelt. For my older brother, Nehemiah? £50 and a paddock in Burmantofts. No more than that, which tells you what my father thought of the wastrel he’d spawned.
I made my living as a drysalter, selling flax and hemp, cochineal and potash, the things people needed. A fair trade it was, but there were those who resented me, who thought I’d come by the little wealth that I possessed too easily. They talked me down behind my back and to my face; they’d raise my ire and challenge me. How can a man back down from that and still think himself a man? There was Joseph Metcalfe for one, who taunted and insulted until I hit him. Then he ran to the night watch, claiming to be in fear of his life. A fine that cost me when it came to court.
I married, to Sarah Dunwell, whose father owned half of Nether Mills, the fulling mill that lies where Sheepscar Beck meets the Aire. He’d worked there a long time, he knew the place in and out. It earned a goodly sum, enough to support the family in handsome style. But old man Dunwell had died, then one of Sarah’s sisters and brothers died, so that half the mill should have fallen to my wife. But her mother, the old bitch, refused to give it up, no matter what the law said. The only way she’d agree was if I bought her an estate worth £500. Five hundred pounds! It was enough to give her more than she could hope to spend. Aye, and for her to tell everyone she’d put one over on Josiah Fearn.
But I paid her, and it was worth every penny to be rid of her. Along with Nether Mills came more properties around Quarry Hill and Burmantofts.
We had children, three of them. The first, my boy Josiah, died quick enough, called by the Lord. But then there was John and his sister Sarah. And when my own sister died, all her wealth passed to my John, with me to look after it until he was of age. The Fearns were a family to be reckoned with in Leeds.
The bloody corporation, the ones who ran Leeds, they had no time for me. They were all merchants, full of fancy clothes and fine words, their noses high in the air. And me, I was no more than the son of clothier, someone who’d come up too far in the world.
‘You’re an uncouth man, sir,’ one of them told me. All because I’d made my money with my own wit and labour and I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty. I was someone who spoke as I found and that offended those who considered themselves refined. I’d been in court, and my brother, now had, too. We were too rough and ready for the likes of them. But I always knew I’d have my revenge. I’d make sure they remembered my name.
My wife, my lovely Sarah, died in 1731, and my daughter three years after. After that I couldn’t bear to live in the house where I’d abided with them and rented it out, moving to a place close to the mill. I bought property cannily, I knew its value. Nether Mills itself was rated at £150 per annum. Only the King’s Mill was worth more.
They tried to do me down, the ones who ran things. Twice I was in court for assault, although I’d done nothing. I was fined sixpence on the first occasion, but not guilty on the second, when a jury wasn’t taken in by all the lies. There were other instances when I did what any man should and stood on my pride – those conflicts with my brother Nehemiah, for instance. He’d managed to spend his way through his inheritance and thought I owed him a living. Then there was Benjamin Winn, who believed he could insult my honour with impunity. More fool him.
Then, finally, in 1738, I made sure those on the Corporation couldn’t ignore me any more. John Cookson put his share of the manor up for sale and I put my money down and bought it. It was worth every farthing. I owned one-ninth of the manor, and folk had to address me as Lord of the Manor of Leeds. I made sure they bloody well did, too. I’d done my father proud.
But still they tried to do me down. Where all the other owners of the manor were called Esquire in the minutes, I was plain Mister. No matter. They bloody well knew who I was.
I had Tom Grave running Nether Mills for me, just as he did for Mr. Greaves, who owned the other half of the place. Tom lived in the house there, it was part of his pay, and it kept him close in case there was any trouble.
I was an owner who kept up on things. Tom Grave should have reckoned with that that. If a ha’penny was spent, I wanted to know where it had gone. He seemed to think he could slip this and that by me, the way he did with Greaves. But I spotted it in the accounts. And as soon as I did, I sacked him and brought in John Crosland, a man I could trust. And I made bloody sure he had half the house where Grave and his family lived. If Grave had a right to it, so did Crosland.
It all came to a head on Friday, February 24th. I believed Grave was still lining his pockets with money from the mill and I went to the house to confront him. I’d had a little to drink, but what else ought a man do of a night? A flagon or two’s never done me any harm.
Grave wasn’t there, but his mouse of a wife tried to make me leave, the little shrew. I went, but I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I had it out with her husband. An hour later I went back and this time he was there.
He’ll have you believe he was meek and mild, leading me out by the hand, importuning me to leave, kind as you please, then helping me up when I fell, insensible from the drink.
Lies! All bloody lies!
He was the one who threw me down on the ground and threatened me. Anyone who’s seen him knows he’s a brute of a man with the strength of two or three. When he knelt on my chest he threatened to toss me in the mill stream, I believed him. It runs fast and hard, and anyone falling in there is certain to die. He dragged me up by my collar and I feared for my life. He had the glint of murder in his eye. So I did what any man would: I took my knife and stabbed him. And then I went home, to my bed.
They say in court that I was the one who’d threatened him before, but, before the Lord, there’s nothing to believe in those accusations.
At two o’clock on the morning of February 25th the night watch came hammering at my door to arrest me and take me before Mayor Scott. I swear the man was smiling as he ordered me to gaol in York Castle.
Tom Grave died on March 2nd. The day before he passed, he gave his statement and damned me in it, the bloody liar. After they held the inquest on him, the charge against me was murder.
The witnesses colluded. They had to do that, so their stories all fit together against me. And they told them in court, their faces straight in court as they all told their tales.
After that, the jury made their verdict and men were selling the broadsheets with the story in the streets.
Aye, the grand men in Leeds will be happy now, and happier still when I’m doing Jack Ketch’s dance in the morning at the end of a rope. But they’ll not forget the name of Josiah Fearn.
Historical Note: Josiah Fearn should be better known. After all, he was the only Lord of the Manor of Leeds to be executed for murder. At the time it was a sensation and the proceedings of the trial were published. But for all that, it’s largely vanished from history, and the man called the ‘domineering, villainous Lord of the Manor’ vanished. But, as far as we know, it happens as stated here, although the witnesses called in Fearn’s defence told a very different, largely unbelievable story. I’m grateful to Margaret Pullan’s excellent piece, Josiah Fearns: A Villainous Lord of the Manor of Leeds, published in the Second Series, Volume 24 of the Thoresby Society.