Monday, 14 April 2014

L is for Luddites

Starting with the local dialect words ... do you know what learn means?  What are lambkins? And what does lot mean?  The answers are at the end of this post.

Today we are going back to 1803 and the story of a Trowbridge youth, Thomas Helliker, believed by many to have been executed for a crime he didn't commit.

Thomas Helliker was born to a local family on the 23rd March 1783, at a time when Trowbridge was a centre for the production of high quality woollen broadcloth.  His family all worked in the woollen cloth trade and he was apprenticed as a shearman when he was 14 years old.  A shearman 'finished' the cloth by shearing it flat after it had been washed and the nap raised by teasels; it was one of the most skilled and highly paid trades in the woollen cloth industry with, historically, a realistic expectation of significantly higher earnings than other trades in the industry. 

However, this was during the industrial revolution when the introduction of mechanisation into the woollen trade impoverished thousands of workers and the workers most opposed to the new machinery were the shearmen.  They were very organised in resisting the move to mechanise the industry, both in the north of England and locally, and their actions of violence and arson are referred to as the Luddite movement.

The events leading to the execution of Thomas Helliker started with the introduction of gig and shearing frames at Littleton Mill in Semington, about 4 miles from Trowbridge. On the night of July 22nd 1802, the mill was attacked and burned to the ground by a group of shearmen from Trowbridge.  Thomas Helliker was arrested, charged with being a ringleader and sent for trial at Salisbury (about 35 miles away).  His arrest was based on an identification by the lessee of the mill, Ralph Heath, who was present during the attack on the mill and who accepted a substantial reward for the identification; in the identification parade Helliker who was the only mill employee in the line-up and Heath already knew him.  Helliker protested his innocence and actually had an alibi for the night of the attack but he was still convicted of the crime and sentenced to hang. Despite public outrage at the conviction, he was hanged at Fisherton Gaol near Salisbury on 22 March 1803, the day before his 20th birthday.  His body was brought back to Trowbridge by his supporters; in a procession across Salisbury Plain, his body was carried on a cart accompanied by a guard of honour of girls dressed all in white.  He was buried in St James Churchyard in a tomb paid for by public subscription. 

On the other side of the tomb it has the following inscription (but I forgot to take a photo!)
Sacred to the memory of
 The thread of whose life was cut in the bloom of youth
He exchanged mortality for immortality March 22 1803
in the 19th year of his age.
The fatal catastrophe which led to this unfortunate event is
too awful to describe. Suffice it say that he met his death with
 the greatest fortitude and resignation of mind. Considering
 his youth he may be said to have but few equals. He died a
 true penitent. Being very anxious in his last moments that
 others might take a timely warning and avoid evil company.
This tomb was erected at his earnest request by the cloth
 making factories of the counties of York, Wilts and Somerset
 as a token of their love to him and veneration of his memory. 
At that time of his death, and in the years since, it was generally accepted that he was innocent of the crime but was a victim of anti-Luddite feeling and there was a strong possibility that he was framed by powerful clothiers who were determined to make an example and deter future Luddite attacks.  It was believed that he knew who had carried out the attack but refused to inform on them, even though it would have cleared his name.  We were told at school that  he may have been protecting one of his brothers, who were also shearmen, although I haven't been able to find any information to validate this suggestion.  
The tomb fell into disrepair over the years but was restored in the 1876 (see inscription in the photograph above). 
Each year the White Horse (Wiltshire) TUC lay a commemorative wreath on the tomb on March 22nd, the anniversary of his death. 
A handwritten copy of the last letter allegedly written by Helliker is displayed in Trowbridge Museum.  This letter was included in the BBC's 'History of the World in 100 Objects' series.   

The answers to the local dialect words are: 
  • learn - to teach.
  • lambkins - hazel catkins
  • lot - to expect, to think/believe


  1. Lambkins was a word I had to learn when I accepted a teaching position in Devon in the 1970s. I had to teach seven year olds Australian whose knowledge of flora and fauna was ever so slightly different to that required by the local curriculum.
    Thank you for the memories.

  2. Love you alphabet blog posts, they are very interesting and I have learnt a lot thank you
    Julie xxxxxxxx

  3. What a disturbing and touching story. I can't help but think about the correlation to today's economy where so many laborers are being replaced by robotic production lines and we aren't doing a good job of retraining or positioning them for the future.

    Such a moving tribute to Thomas Helliker, and lovely photo. thank you for this.

  4. PS - there are quite a few of you talented wordsmiths/historians participating in A to Z. I hope you are finding each other! I plan to do some posts in May and June about bloggers and posts that I have discovered, so perhaps that will connect some of you if you haven't found each other. This A to Z journey has been such a treasure for me!