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.

The Oldest Photos Of Leeds

The Internet is full of rabbit holes. For me, bits of Leeds history can start me burrowing, and I only emerge, blinking, a few hours later. The Leodis site, with its wonderful old photos of Leeds, is like a little warren, an Aladdin’s cave, a place to lose myself for hours.

And inside there’s plenty of treasure. Like these, the oldest photographs of Leeds. We’re so used to seeing images that it’s easy to forget that the science of photography isn’t even 200 years old yet. The very first picture taken with a camera dates from 1826 or 27. The first to include a person? 1838.

It was quite a while later that the camera came to Leeds, at least from images that remain. This would seem to be the oldest, dating from 1866. Leeds Bridge as it was then, before it was replaced by the new iron bridge in 1870. This structure dated from the 1730s, and that had replaced an older one. It’s still an immediately recognisable view.

leeds bridge 1866

A year later came this view of Lower Briggate, with the rise of Holy Trinity Chruch in the background. All these buildings on the street are long gone now, as are the two women talking, or the mother and son walking along the pavement (the picture looks as if it might have been taken from a room in the Royal Hotel, which started life as a coaching inn in the 1690s).

lower briggate 1867

From the same period is this one of Briggate, with the old Corn Exchange in the middle of the road, as the Moot Hall had been before it. By then, the Corn Exchange we all know had been opened, and this building was awaiting demolition. What’s remarkable is how empty Leeds’ busiest street was. It’s eerie. Just what time of day were these shots taken?

Briggate 1867

Bridge End, just by Leeds Bridge, is where this photograph was taken in 1869. There’s life here: people walking and starting to move into the frame, the blur of mother and child behind the window. There’s a barber’s pole by the shop, the neat display of goods in the window, and the archway for carts and deliveries. It’s worth noting the discolouration of the brickwork, covered by a few generation of soot from the factories and mills.

Bridge End no30 1869

1870, Rotation Yard, taken from the entrance. The photographer must have climbed a ladder to take the picture and frame it this way. More people, mostly men, but also a shopkeeper’s wife standing next to her husband. There’s a mix of working men, on the right of the picture in their caps and battered bowlers, a pair of youths, and a few more who look eminently respectable. The small street is clean, well-cobbled, a reminder that not every court in Leeds was home to the poor. For those who know Leeds, this is now part of New Market Street.

Rotation office yard now New Market St 1870

It’s impossible to know it now, but this is Lands Lane in 1881, with a very different selection of shops compared to today’s ‘retail offering.’ It would have been part of Tom Harper’s beat in those days; at that time he would still have been a constable.

lands lane 1881

Across the river to Hunslet, and a reminder that Leeds did once have a formidable pottery company in Hartley, Green & Co., whose premises were on Jack Lane. Taken in 1883, this is two years after the pottery closed for business. The office is the squat building to the left, and the conical structures are all kilns.

leeds pottery

Political meetings drew huge crowds throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th. This gives an idea of the vast scale. Taken in the courtyard of the Mixed Cloth Hall (which stood where the NW corner of City Square is today) in 1880, it shows the yard filled to its capacity of 20,000, all gathered to listen to William Gladstone, who’s on the platform in the distance.

Roundhay Road in 1889, with workmen laying track for the tram. This view looks north – the first street going off to the left in Gathorne Street. The very first electric tram in Leeds, travelling from Sheepscar to Roundhay Park, appeared in October 1891. At the end of the third Tom Harper book, Skin Like Silver, Annabelle Harper wangles an invitation for herself and Tom on the inaugural trip.

roundhay raod 1889

Those are the old photos. To go back further, we need sketches. This 1834 panorama of Leeds, probably sketched just downriver from Fearn’s Island, show the effect of industry. Factory chimneys rise like awful fingers, leaving a pall of smoke; you can almost taste the soot. The Parish Church stands tall, four years before it was completely rebuilt. It’s a Leeds that’s beginning to look familiar to us today.

leeds 1834

The oldest illustration I’ve found, though, is far uglier in its own way. It dates from 1694, an image from Mabgate, found in the Leeds Corporation Court Books, showing a woman being dragged to the ducking stool by Lady Beck (or Sheepscar Beck). We even know her name: Anne Saule, the wife of Philip Saule. According to the record, several complaints had been that, stating she was “a person of lewd behaviour, a common scold and daily maketh strife and discord amongst her neighbours, it is therefore ordered that the said Anne Saule be ducked.” In fact, she was one of three women receiving the same punishment that day. The others were Jane Milner and Elizabeth Wooler, both of Mill Hill. At least we’ve moved on from that. But it’s the only old image of Mabgate that I’ve ever seen.

1694 ducking see leodis