Ballad Of A Dead Man

A recent discussion with a friend about Fearn’s Island – a place that surprisingly still exists in Leeds, brought this to mind. It’s a short story that appeared in Leeds, The Biography, about the only Lord of the Manor in Leeds who was executed for murder in 1749.

fearns island

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 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 Fearne, Lord of the Manor of Leeds, am an innocent man. I’ll shout it. I’ll scream it. I killed Thomas Graves, but all I did was in self-defence.

Seven hours the trial took, and no more than a few minutes for the jury at York Castle to reach their verdict. And no matter how I yell injustice, no one will 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 money 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, and I made my home in one of them.

I executed his will, and it was clear. Much went to my mother, to be passed 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 he thought of the wastrel.

I made my living as a drysalter, selling flax and hemp, cochineal and potash, the things people needed. A fair living it was, but there were those who resented me, who thought I’d come by the little wealth that I possessed too easily. 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 and claimed 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, 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 fell 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, enough to give her more than she could spend. Aye, and for her to tell everyone she’d put one over on Josiah Fearns.

I paid the money, and it was worth every penny to be rid of her, because along with it 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 bloody corporation, the ones who ran Leeds, they had no time for me. They were merchants, full of fancy clothes and fine words, their noses high in the air. I was no more than the son of clothier, someone who’d come up in the world by his own wit and toil.

‘You’re an uncouth man, sir,’ one of them told me. All because I’d earned my money and wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty. I spoke as I found and that offended those who considered themselves refined. I’d been in court, and my brother, now a woolstapler, had, too. We were too rough and ready for their tastes. But I knew I’d have my revenge on them.

My wife, my lovely Sarah, died in 1731, and my daughter three years after. 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, and the mill itself was rated at £150 per annum. Only the King’s Mill was valued higher.

They tried to do me down, those who ran things. Twice I was in court for assault, fined sixpence on the first occasion, not guilty on the second, when a jury wasn’t taken in by the lies. There were others – conflicts with my brother Nehemiah, who’d managed to spend his way through his inheritance and thought I owed him a living, and Benjamin Winn, who believed he could insult my honour with impunity.

And then, finally, in 1738, I made sure those on the Corporation couldn’t ignore me. John Cookson put his share of the manor up for sale and I bought it. I had the money and it was worth every farthing. I owned one-ninth of the manor, and folk had to call me Lord of the Manor of Leeds. I’d done my father proud.

Still they tried to do me down. Where all the other owners were called Esquire in the minutes, my name 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 the other owner, Mr. Greaves. He lived in the house there, it was part of his pay.

But I was an owner who kept up on things. Tom Grave should have known that. He seemed to think he could slip this and that by me, the way he did with Greaves. As soon as I saw it in the accounts, I sacked him and brought in John Crosland, a man I could trust. And I made sure he had half the house where Graves and his family lived. He had a right to it as part of his job.

It all came to a head on Friday, February 24th, 1749. I believed Graves was stealing from the mill to line his pockets and I went to the house to confront him. I’d had a little to drink, but what else should a man do of a night?

He wasn’t there, but that mouse of a wife he had tried to make me leave, the little shrew. I went, but I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I had it out with Tom Grave. When I went back again, he was there.

He’ll have you believe he was meek and mild, leading me out by the hand, importuning me to leave, and helping me up when I fell, insensible from the drink.

Lies! All bloody lies!

He was the one who threw me down 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 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. When he picked me up again and told me what he was going to do, I feared for my life. He had the glint of murder in his eye. I took my knife and stabbed him as any man would who feared for his safety. 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.

Tom Grave died on March 2nd. The day before he gave his statement and damned me in it, the liar.

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. Then, after Grave died and they held the inquest on him, the charge 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 lies.

After that, the jury made their verdict and the ballad makers sent out their broadsheets to sell with the tale and the song.

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 Fearns.


Josiah Fearns 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 Fearns’ defence told a very different, largely unbelievable story. I’m grateful to Margaret Pullen’s excellent piece, Josiah Fearns: A Villainous Lord of the Manor of Leeds, published in the Second Series, Volume 24 of the Thoresby Society.

3 thoughts on “Ballad Of A Dead Man

  1. Patricia Engstrom

    Just finished reading “The Holywell Dead”. Loved it as well as “The Crooked Spire” and “The Saltergate Psalter”!! Keep the medieval mysteries coming!!

    I have always been curious about the cemetery that used to be located down the sides of the railway embankment going into Leeds from Rothwell, (over the bridge and through the arches towards the bus station near where Quarry flats used to be). The headstones were removed several years ago. Someone once told me that the graves were from the time of a cholera epidemic but had no idea of the year. Can you enlighten me???

    Can’t wait for ‘The Leaden Heart” to be published over here. Best wishes, Trish Engstrom, New Jersey, U.S.A.

    1. Thank you so much – I’m glad you like the Chesterfield books, although I’ve no idea whether there will be any more.
      I think I know what you mean about the headstones. Where the flats used to stand – and they were built in the 1930s, was part of Quarry Hill, of course, but closer to the railways line was part of the graveyard for the church. You can still see the stones flat on the ground in the little park on Kirkgate across from the church and going up the hill to the railway line, although I bet there were once many more. Does that answer you at all?

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