Step Back 200 Years And Meet The Real Leeds People Of The Hocus Girl

At the end of September the second Simon Westow novel will be published in the UK. Quite honestly, I believe it’s one of the best books I’ve written. The main story is a version of the William Oliver affair (you can Google it), shifted to 1822 and more taking place in Leeds than the West Riding.

But other threads in the book involve people who were really here at that time – Joshua Tetley, about to set up as a brewer as he bought a site just south of the river which had been Sykes’s Brewery.

There’s also Matthew Murray, a visionary who ran the Round Foundry, which made (among other things) the locomotive that hauled coal from the Middleton Colliery down to the staithe at the bottom of Salem Place, just by…the brewery. The special cog system in the wheels of the engine and on the rails was the idea of Peter Blenkinsop, the mine manager. He’s here, too.

As to hocussing, well, you’ll have to read the book and find out, won’t you? And isn’t that cover a thing of beauty (scroll down to the end)?

Come on, come and meet them. They’re waiting for you…

Across the bridge and through the people on Boar Lane to Mill Hill. Tetley’s occupied an old shop, bow windows on either side of a varnished door. A small bell tinkled as he entered. Inside, open sacks of malt stood against the wall, the smell so overwhelming that Simon thought it might choke him.

Small casks of brandy and bottles of wine stood on the shelves by the wall. He was catching his breath as a tall man emerged from a back room.

‘How might I help you, sir?’ A warm, pleasant voice.

‘I’m looking for Mr Tetley. Joshua Tetley.’

‘I’m Joshua,’ the man said.

‘Simon Westow.’

‘Good of you to call, sir.’

He was tall, with wispy brown hair and sideboards that started down his cheeks before fading away to nothing. Friendly, merry blue eyes.

‘My apologies, I know the scent can be a little intoxicating. I’ve spent too long around it to notice any more. Would you care for coffee, perhaps? Or tea? It will clear the taste.’

Simon coughed. ‘I’ll be fine. You said you needed my services?’

Tetley glanced down at the ground for a moment before he spoke. ‘I do. But a question first, if I might.’

‘Of course.’ Everyone had their own strange ways; he’d learned that over the years.

‘I’m considering buying a brewery. Sykes’s, on Salem Place.’

‘Then I wish you good luck.’ Most of the inns and taverns brewed their own beer, the way they always had. He’d seen any number of men try their luck as commercial brewers. Most only lasted a few months before closing their doors. Sykes was one of the very few who’d survived.

‘If I said I wanted you to investigate him and his business to find any weak spots, what would you say?’

‘I’d turn you down,’ Simon replied, and Tetley smiled. The answer seemed to satisfy him.

‘Good, very good. I wouldn’t want someone willing to stoop to that. We have a problem, Mr Westow. One of our clerks has vanished and he’s taken fifty pounds of our money with him.’

Quite a sum, close to a year’s wages for a clerk. ‘He could live for a long time on that.’

‘We want it returned. Quietly, though. No need for everyone to know our business.’

‘Of course.’ If people learned the firm had been gulled like that, their reputation would suffer. ‘And no prosecution, I take it?’

‘Just the money, Mr Westow. As much of it as is left.’

‘You’d better tell me about this clerk of yours…’



‘This is Mr Peter Blenkinsop from the Middleton coal field. He designed the cog system for the locomotive that allows it to pull heavy loads of coal.’


He was a burly man, with strong callused hands and a sharp face. Like Murray, another man who spent most of his time outside the office. Dark, intelligent eyes assessed him.

‘A pleasure to meet you,’ Simon said.

Murray rubbed his cheeks, looking like someone who craved sleep far more than riches.

‘Mr Blenkinsop has been very generous in the past, letting people sketch the details of the engine and telling them the specifications,’ he said. ‘So far, no one else has managed to duplicate our success.’ His mouth curled into a smile. ‘Of course, there might be one or two things we’ve chosen not to reveal.’

Blenkinsop laughed, a raw sound like a bark. ‘We’d like to keep it that way,’ he said. ‘Hold on to our advantage. You told Matthew this man had also been at the staithe.’

‘That’s right,’ Simon told him.

‘You’re sure it was him?’ Blenkinsop’s stare hardened. ‘I know there’s been someone who resembles the description.’

That was what Jane had said. He didn’t doubt her. ‘I’m positive.’

‘As you can tell, we’re taking this very seriously,’ Murray said. ‘I’ve had men here bribed to pass on secrets before. It happened a few years ago and it came close to ruining me.’ Memory turned him silent for a few seconds. ‘I’m not going to let that occur again.’

‘What do you know about this man, Mr Westow?’ Blenkinsop’s turn, his rough voice loud.

‘His name’s Whittaker. He’s the bodyguard for Curzon the magistrate.’

‘Is Curzon involved?’ Murray asked with alarm.

‘No,’ Simon answered. ‘I’m sure he’s not.’

‘We want him gone.’

‘Warned off,’ Murray said.

‘Gone,’ Blenkinsop repeated. He’d made his hands into fists, the knuckles white. ‘And we’ll pay you good money to send him on his way. I don’t care how you do it.’

‘Peter—’ Murray began, but the man waved his hand.

‘I don’t know what you imagine a thief-taker does,’ Simon said coldly. ‘But I find what’s been stolen and return it. I don’t kill for money.’

‘Then don’t. Get rid of him some other way. I just told you: I don’t care. Secrets aren’t worth a damned thing once they’re gone.’

‘We’re prepared to pay you one hundred guineas if you can keep our trade secrets intact from these men and send them on their way. The method is up to you. Is that arrangement agreeable to you, Peter?’

A grunt of assent from Blenkinsop. ‘Come and see me tomorrow.’

‘I’ll do that,’ Simon said. He could imagine Rosie’s eyes lighting up with greed as he told her the amount. ‘My methods. But in the meantime, make sure your men turn Whittaker away from the works – and the staithe, too. That will help.’

‘Of course,’ Murray said. ‘We’ll leave you to start your work.’

Hocus Girl final

Spying…in Leeds

Leeds…it doesn’t seem like a hotbed of spies, does it? And while no state secrets might have ever gone missing from here, in turn of the 19th century there were a couple of case of definite skulduggery.

Almost certainly there’d have been earlier instances. Elizabeth the First’s spymaster almost certainly had people reporting from the Darnley household at Temple Newsman, and both Royalists and Roundheads would have had informers in Leeds during the Civil War.

But the first recorded case was a little different, and a symptom of the competition brought on by the Industrial Revolution, where Leeds was very much at the forefront.

Before we begin, though, a couple of facts you probably learned at school:

  1. James Watt invented the steam engine.
  2. Stephenson invented the first steam locomotive, the Rocket.

The first is right. The second is wrong. The first steam locomotive was invented in Leeds, the idea of a man named John Blenkinsop and used to bring coal from the Middleton mines to the staithes near Leeds Bridge. Called the Salamanca, it was built by Fenton, Murray & Wood at their rotunda works in Holbeck – the area we know today as the Round Foundry.

Salamanca, and the locomotive in action, 1814

Well before the locomotive, though, Murray’s company was the subject of industrial espionage, courtesy of James Watt, Jr and his works in Birmingham. Two of his senior men visited Holbeck in 1799 and were given a personal tour by Murray, one that proved sobering, as a letter to Watt from his business partner Boulton showed:

“Murdock & Abraham are now returned from their excursion highly delighted and full of panegyricks upon Murray’s excellent work. Abraham is now entirely convinced of his inferiority, and what is more, of the possibility of amendment and he is now actually making trials of different substances to mix with the sand with the view of giving a better skin to the castings. We have likewise written to G. Mc Murdock to send a boat load of the sand used by Murray”

They wanted to stop their Leeds rival, even buy up land close to his works to stop Murray expanding and keep a close eye on what he was doing. One story even has Watt taking a room at the Cross Keys on Water Lane to carry out spying himself.

round foundry

Murray’s works in Holbeck with the Round Foundry (Rotunda)

A few of Watt’s workers had moved to Leeds to work for the new company. They were contacted and encouraged to return to Birmingham with the knowledge they’d gained. Watt himself broke into the trunk of one and discovered drawing he’d made of machinery used in his Birmingham works. But it wasn’t theft; there was nothing to be done.

It was to a head when Watt’s company filed suit against Murray, accusing him of patenting ideas that belonged to them. The Leeds man didn’t yet have the money to fight a long battle in court – but instead turned to public opinion, which eventually vindicated him. He had more invention ahead – including the Middleton locomotive, although it’s rumoured that spies working for other countries tried to steal the details, although no one else ever made it work.


Matthew Murray

That was the industrial espionage.

But a few years later there was also the politics. It was known as the Oliver Affair, and the 1817 scandal in the West Riding almost brought down the government in London.

William Oliver, or Oliver the Spy as he became known, was actually a carpenter or clerk whose real name was W J Richards. He’s spent time in debtors’ prison, eventually released with the help of a friend, a shoemaker with connections to Radical causes. From there, Oliver wormed his way into the political circles until he’d become known and accepted.

It was after that he went to see the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, the man responsible for the hanging of several Northern Luddites a few years before. After the Napoleonic Wars, England was in a fragile state. Prices kept rising, wages were low, unemployment was high; there was a genuine possibility of revolution in the air. He offered to become the government’s man, a spy, an agent provocateur.

oliver brown coat library of congress

A contemporary cartoon, Oliver fourth from right in brown coat (Library of Congress)

Oliver accompanied another Radical, a man named Mitchell, on a tour of meeting in the Midlands and the North. After that, Mitchell was arrested – which left Oliver as the conduit between Radicals in London and the North.

Late May and early June saw Oliver back in the North, especially in Yorkshire, sending daily reports to the Home Office. A meeting of leading Radicals was set for June 6, just outside Dewsbury. Two days earlier, Oliver had met Major-General Byng, head of the army for the North of England.

When the meeting in Dewsbury took place, troops arrived and all the delegates arrested – except Oliver, who ‘managed’ to escape.

Early the next morning, a Radical who hadn’t been at the meeting spotted Oliver in Wakefield, waiting to board a coach for Nottingham, and deep in conversation with a man who admitted when questioned that he was one of General Byng’s servants.

Rumours of Oliver’s treachery reached Nottingham before he did, and he was lucky to survive the grilling he head from some Radicals there. But an uprising in Pentrich had already been planned, and had begun before word could reach them. They’d been betrayed by Oliver, of course. Three of the leaders were executed for treason, and others transported to Australia.

The Leeds connection came days later, when Edward Baines published a series of articles in the Leeds Mercury, giving all the details of what Oliver had done as the government’s agent provocateur. They were read out in Parliament and became the subject of several debates that embarrassed the government. At one point it seemed to be on the edge of falling.

Baines had caused a sensation. Magistrates had used informers to catch the Luddites, but that was during the Napoleonic Wars, and in wartime extreme measures can be excused. But this was peacetime, and the public were outraged. It came to a head too late for the Pentrich men to escape hanging (although they weren’t drawn and quartered in an ‘act of mercy’) but most of those arrested in Dewsbury were released.

oliver spy report

Oliver’s notes (National Archives)

And Oliver? In 1819 the government quietly packed him off to South Africa with a grant of land. He died there in 1827.

Of course, it was hardly the end to undercover policing here. There’s almost certainly been plenty more that’s never come to light. But one incident has surfaced: between 2002-2008, an officer given the identity Lynn Watson was based in Leeds, with the job of infiltrating groups like Climate Camp and the organising hub Dissent! Her role was publicly confirmed in 2011.

History, it seems, has a nasty way of repeating itself.