The legacy of slavery on the railways

Birmingham Curzon St 1840

In recent weeks an extraordinary Twitter argument has broken out concerning how much the railway system in the UK and Ireland owes to the capital provided by the slave trade. On the one hand we have Gareth Dennis (@GarethDennis), the author of what will be referred to in what follows as the “Thread”, who argued “that a significant proportion of slave-owner compensation was reinvested into the railways; that Britain’s railways are a direct legacy of slavery and colonialism; and that this legacy is hopelessly under-explored”. On the other hand there was a strong argument from Christian Wolmar (@christianwolmar) that the Thread’s arguments were overstated and not properly evidenced. He has repeated this in a recent edition of RAILmagazine. This post is concerned with trying to establish how much slave owner compensation might have been used for capital investment in the early railway network in the Great Britain and Ireland.

The Thread uses the quite outstanding UCL web site “Legacies of British Slave-ownership” which attempts to chart where the legacies of slave ownership, and in particular the compensation paid to slave-owners following theSlave Compensation Actof 1837, was used in commercial and social ventures.  The Thread takes the data from this web site for those who had both been compensated, and who also invested in the early railway companies, and a simple addition of the sum invested by these individuals in railway companies in Great Britain and Ireland comes to £5,261,768 (a little less than in the Thread, no doubt due to a minor omission somewhere that I can’t locate, but this is of no consequence to what follows). The implication in the Thread is that this sum comes directly from slave compensation and it is argued that this forms a significant proportion of the railway capital in the early years – for example the cumulative capital by 1840 was £30 million, and thus the total invested by the slave owners was around 1/6thof the total.  

However, all is not as simple as it looks. Firstly, an inspection of the UCL web entries indicates that a few of the identifications of slave owners with railway investors are not totally firm and that there is some doubt about them. Nonetheless these are unlikely to affect the above figure significantly, perhaps reducing it by a few tens of thousands pounds and no correction will be made. Secondly the web site lists a few payments to trustees, usually of minors. It is a moot point as to whether the future railway investment of these trustees in their own right should be included in the sum. Again, this is not a significant issue and no corrections have been made for it. 

A much bigger issue however is that, as I read it, the UCL web site shows the total investment of individuals in the railways, and that is what the figure of £5,261,768 actually refers to. Many of the slave-owners received far less in compensation than they actually invested in the railways – these figures are given on the pages for individuals in the list. So that figure for capital investment, which the Thread uses as the basis for its arguments, is a very significant overestimate of they investments that were made from slave compensation. For example, consider the three individuals who feature in the Thread. The first, John Moss invested £222,470 in railway concerns, but only received £40,353 in slave compensation; Robert Browne invested £577,260 but only received £797 in compensation; and Thomas Dunlop Douglas invested £396,100 having received £15,907 in compensation. One Robert Pulsford is included in the database as investing £291,000 in railways concerns. However his inclusion is as a result of five unsuccessful claims for compensation and he actually received no compensation at all. Similar discrepancies between total investment and compensation sums can be identified for nearly all the major investors, although the amounts invested for the smaller investors were often very similar to the amount of compensation they received. So the figure of £5,261,768 money that found its way into the railways cannot all be from compensation payments. In fact if one limits the amount of investment for each investor to the amount they received in compensation, the figure falls to £1,134,031 i.e. 21.6% of the original figure.  

But even this is without doubt an overestimate, as not all the compensation money would have been invested in the railways. It might be more realistic to say that the proportion of invested compensation should be the same as the proportion of the total investment to the overall wealth of the investor. The UCL site allows an estimate to be made of this for a subset of those named by giving their recorded wealth at death. The median of the ratio of investment to total wealth at death comes to 10% (excluding those individuals who went bankrupt or suffered major financial distress at the end of their lives). I am of course very well aware that this methodology is more than a little suspect! On this basis however the amount of slave-compensation money that was invested in the railways falls to around £110,000.

On the basis of these figures, the actual amount of compensation that became railway capital was between £0.1 million and 1 million. Whether of not this is significant in terms of the overall capital investment (£30 million by 1840) I will let the reader decide.  But it is best to use as accurate a figure as possible in coming to a view.

The Thread has done the community a service by raising the issue of slave-compensation investment on the railways, which should not be ignored, although it needs to be carefully looked at to investigate whether it was significant in comparison to other investment. In future posts, I intend to look at this issue further – both in relation to those who received large compensation sums and made large investments in the railways (not necessarily those mentioned in the Thread); but also in relation to that area of the Black Country about which I have posted regularly – the parish of Kingswinford – where traces of slave-owner investment can indeed be found if one looks carefully. 

The Seisdon anomaly

In coming to a the definition of the Original Mercia outlined in “The first Mercian Lands”, I included Seisdon Hundred in south Staffordshire within its bounds (figure 1). The reason for doing so was primarily because this area became part of the Mercian Diocese of Lichfield. However there is some rather disparate evidence that at least part of Seisdon hundred was Hwiccan territory at some stage before the formation of the diocese. 

  • Topographically, the area is in the catchment of the Smestow and Stour and thus of the Severn itself, as is the case for the other Hwiccan territories. Other parts of Staffordshire are in the Trent catchment.
  • There are Domesday linkages between the manors of Tardebigge and Clent in Worcestershire and Kingswinford in Staffordshire – and indeed Clent was for many centuries post-Domesday an island of Staffordshire within Worcestershire.  
  • The manors of Kingswinford and Amblecote (in Staffordshire) and Oldswinford (in Worcestershire) were almost certainly once part of the same land unit. 
  • The ecclesiastical parish of Oldswinford was split between the manors of Oldswinford in Worcestershire and Amblecote in Staffordshire.
  • The large Worcestershire enclave of Dudley has been surrounded by Staffordshire since the Domesday survey.
  • The name of the Hundred itself is taken from the village name of Seisdon, which can plausibly be translated as the Hill of the Saxons. This ties in with the now rather dated assumption that the Hwicce represent the northward advance of Saxons up the Severn valley.

Thus a case can be made that the area of Seisdon Hundred was originally Hwiccan territory that was absorbed into the Original Mercia. The reason for this is clear from the map of figure 1 – strategically it is a very important area. The Roman road system centred on Greensforge controls access along the Saltway from Droitwich to the north, access to Shropshire, the borders and Wales, and gives a direct link to Quatford on the Severn, allowing control of river traffic. Three potential roads are shown on the map that are not shown on the larger scale map of figure 8 in the main text – those from Greensforge north east to Wall, from Water Eaton to Metchley and from Metchley to Greensforge. The routes of the first two can be traced in places on the ground (Horovitz, 2005; Bassett, 2001), but the lines shown on the map are purely conjectural. It is however likely that the two routes crossed at Wednesbury. The route between Metchley and Greensforge (Baker, 2013) begins with the Metchley to Water Eaton route but branches from it through the village known as the Portway near Oldbury and then passing though, or to the south of Dudely, to Kingswinford and Greensforge.  Taken together this road network clearly adds to the connectivity of the region and emphasises its strategic importance. 

Figure 1 – Seisdon Hundred

(Red shows boundary of the hundred  – a solid line where it coincides with the county boundary, and a dotted line otherwise; grey shows other county and hundred boundaries; brown shows the pre-1974 county boundary, reflecting the early post-Domesday losses to Shropshire; roads are shown (schematically) in green and rivers in blue).

D Horovitz (2005) “Place names of Staffordshire”, published by D Horovitz, Brewood

S Bassett (2001) “Birmingham Before the Bull Ring”, Midland History, 26, 1, 1-33,

C J Baker (2013)  “Pensnett – its name and origins” Staffordshire History Journal

More on the Tribal Hidage

Table 1 The three recensions of the Tribal Hidage

On the page “The first Mercian Lands”, 1 have drawn on information in the document known as the Tribal Hidage, as part of the investigation into the location of the original Mercian lands. In this short note, I consider this document in a little more detail. Table 1 above gives a summary of the three separate recensions of the Tribal Hidage. The description of the polities from Recension A is given, together with the location where there is general scholarly agreement. As noted in the main text, there are two combined lists – Primary (P) and Secondary (S). The Hidages from the three recensions are then also given. It can be seen that these vary somewhat. The sum of the hidages in all three recensions is given for both lists A and B. In Recension A, a false total is given for the total hidage of 242,700. 

Figure 1. Tribal Hidage. “Firm” locations of regions in the primary and secondary lists  (figure 3 in main text)

(P1- Myrcna lands; P2 – Wocensætna; P4- Pecsætna: P5 – Elmedsætna: P6 – Lindesfarona mid Hæþfeldlande: P7 – Suþgyrwa: P8 – Norþgyrwa: P11 – Spalda; P13 – Herefinna : P14 – Sweordora P15 – Gifla : P16- Hicca: P18- Noxgaga: P19 – Ohtgaga; S1 – Hwinca; S2 – Cilternsætna; S6 – Færpinga; S9 – Eastwilla; S10 – Westwilla; S11 – Eastengle; S12 – Eastsexena; S13 – Cantwarena; S14 – Suþsexena; S15 – Westsexena)

It was noted on “The first Mercian Lands” that the clockwise ordering of the primary and secondary lists seems to be a very deliberate tactic on behalf of the original compiler of the list – see figure 1 above. At the risk of pushing this schema too far, it is worth asking the question if the location of the polities whose locations are not known can be inferred by imposing this clockwise presentation scheme. Thus let us consider those polities in table 1 where no location is given.

  • Westerna (P3). Scholars usually identify this as one of the Magonsaete in south Shropshire / Herefordshire, somewhere in Wales, or the region around Chesire. Higham would see it as representing the tribute payment of the Welsh Overkingship from somewhere in Gwynedd. It does not seem to the author that the Magonsate is a possibility as this kingdom seems to have been established late in the 7thcentury i.e. after the Tribal Hidage was compiled. The clockwise rotation would best place this polity in Wales or the Cheshire region. My preference would be to see it as the Western half of the Civitas of the Cornovii that was ultimately to become the kingdom of Powys, which fits best with both the name and the clockwise rotation.
  • East and West Wixna (P9 and P10). Within the Fenland there seems to be a subsiduary clockwise rotation, at least based on those polities identified by Oosthuizen.  If this is the case then the East and West Wixna would lie somewhere on the Fenland margin between the Gwyre and the Spalda. This is not however consistent Oosthuizen’s analysis.
  • Wigesta (P12). The clockwise rotation within the fens would place this to the south and west of the Spalda.
  • Wiht gara (P17). This is taken by most scholars to be the Isle of Wight. The present author finds this very difficult to believe, as it lies within the primary list, but is separated from all the other polities in that list by those in the secondary list.  In the author’s view this probably represents a typographical error, with the original name being confused for the (more familiar) name for the Isle of Wight. The clockwise rotation would see this region in the Bedfordshire area. 
  • Noxgaga (P18) and Ohtgaga (P19).It has already been argued on “The first Mercain Lnds”, that the clockwise rotation places these two sizeable entities in the Northanptonshire /Leicestershire area.
  • Hendrica (S3).The Ciltern sætna and Hendrica together have an assessment of 7000 or 7500, suggesting they are subdivisions of one unit. If so this would obviously place the Hendrica in the Chilterns area, which is consistent with the clockwise rotation of the secondary list.
  • Unecunga-ga (S4).This name is clearly corrupt and no convincing location seems to have been proposed.  Again, the clockwise rotation would suggest that it be placed somewhere in the Oxfordshire area.
  • Arosætna (S5). Conventionally, this polity is identified as being in the valley of the River Arrow in Worcestershire and Warwickshire. However there is no indication elsewhere that this area was ever anything other than part of the Hwicce, and I find it difficult to accept this identification. The clockwise rotation would again suggest that this be placed somewhere in the Oxfordshire region.
  • Bilmiga (S7) and Widerigga (S8). Various locations have been suggested for these entities, including the area of Lincolnshire to the west of the Wash, and regions in Eastern Northamptonshire. Both these suggestions however cut across the boundary between primary and secondary lists i.e. between the Midlands and Southern Overkingships. The clockwise rotation would see them best placed in the south Midlands area perhaps in Buckinghamshire or Hertfordshire. 

It has been noted above that the hidage values are generally expressed in terms of a duodecimal system for the smaller polities, and in units of 7000 for the middle sized polities. The larger kingdoms seem to have punitive assessments of 30,000 or 100,000. One must approach these numbers with a very great deal of caution and be very wary of giving them too great a significance. In an early study of the Tribal Hidage,Russell (1947)give an interpretation of the significance of the numbers in a tour de force of somewhat dubious arithmetic and remarkable assumptions of copyists errors to show hidden additions and totals throughout the list. What he actually demonstrates is the remarkable flexibility of the duodecimal system to provide all sorts of totals and subtotals from any subset of numbers. However there are perhaps two numbers that do have some significance – the figure of close to 36000 of the primary list of the Tribal Hidage (excluding the original Mercia), and the approximate 144,000 total of the primary and secondary lists excluding Wessex. Both these numbers have rich biblical symbolic meanings, which would have been well appreciated by later copyists, and in particular latter might be thought to emphasize the totality of the tribute being paid by the Midlands and Southern overkingships. These numbers are not of course exact, but there is perhaps some indication that those who later edited the lists attempted to make the additions more precise.  For example Recension C removes a 100 hides from the 900 for the Wigesta, which would reduce the overall total for the primary list (excluding the original Mercia) to 36,000 – although he also removes 600 from the Pecsaete and 598 (!) from the Herefina, which destroys this calculation. A similar change of 100 hides would also bring the overall total for the two lists to 144,000 (excluding Wessex), although this is again obscured by other minor changes (which are possibly copyists errors). It is not argued here that the numbers in the list should be seen as having any particular significance – but rather that later editors and compilers thought that this might be the case and tried to make them fit to what they believed were appropriate numbers. 

Climate and plague

At the page “The first Mercian Lands” I have argued that a plausible historical context for the establishment of Mercia was the northward expansion of Wessex during the third quartile of the sixth century. This followed, if the general thrust of the various annals and chronicles is taken as reliable for this period, a period of relatively calm between the various ethnic groups in southern England – the peace following the Battle of Mons Badonicus as recorded by Gildas (Higham, 1994). The question then arises as to what caused this renewed military activity on behalf of Wessex. It seems clear to the author that the primary reason for this was the climate upheavals of the 530s and 540s and the associated first pandemic of plague that swept across Europe, which resulted in depopulation and political destabilization. This effect is well documented, and probably resulted from multiple volcanic eruptions with or without some sort of impact event around that time (Degroot, 2016; Newfield, 2016). Yet this effect hardly seems to be considered at all by the academic historical community. The author can see no reason for this, other than a perhaps understandable reluctance to become involved in any way with the more speculative theories outlined in a number of popular works. Yet it seems that the objectivity of these events have a number of implications for academic historians.

  • Gildas’s magnum opus De Excidio Britanniaemust have been written before the first climatic catastrophe, which occurred in 535AD according to reliable tree ring evidence. Otherwise he would surely have included it within his polemic against the moral failure of the rulers of his day. 
  • The fact that this polemic was in some way validated by major external events (either through coincidence or divine action depending on your point of view), may well have been a major reason why Gildas and De Excidio Britanniaewas held in such high authority by his contempories and subsequent writers.
  • The plague hit a weakened Roman population in 542 AD, and would have spread throughout Europe over the next two or three years, judging by the speed of progress of the second pandemic (the Black Death) that has a well established chronology. The Historia Brittonum, regarded by most historians as unreliable for this period, gives the death date, by plague of Maglocunus, one of the rulers castigated by Gildas, as 547AD. This is perhaps three or four years too late, but does (perhaps uncomfortably for some) give an external validation to the Historia Brittonum.
  • The Annales Cambriaegives the death date of Gildas as 570AD, which, on the basis of the above, may be a few years too late. Now Gildas writes that he was born in the year of Mons Badonicus and was 44 years old at the time. Thus supposing he wrote De Excidio Britanniaein 534AD, this gives a date for his birth and the battle of 490AD, which is roughly where many historians would locate it, and would give him an age of, something less than 80 at his death, which does not seem impossible.

Thus, at the very least, a consideration of the effects of the global events of the 530s has the potential to cast some light on the chronology of the mid / late seventh century, and to give a little more confidence in the various annals and chronicles from that period.

N Higham (1994) “The English Conquest – Gildas and Britain in the firth century”, Manchester University Press

D Degroot (2016) “Volcanoes, Comet Crashes, and Changes in the Sun: How Sixth-Century Cooling Transformed the World”, 

T Newfield (2016) “The Global Cooling Event of the Sixth Century. Mystery No Longer?”

St. Michael’s, Lichfield in the 19th century. Part 2

St. Michael’s, Lichfield

Part 1 of this blog post can be found here.


The baptismal and burial registers allow the residence of the parents of the baptized child and those who have died to be identified, at least in broad terms. Neither measure can be regarded as an accurate measure of population, as the same couple may well figure more than once in the baptismal registers, and those who have died may not be long term residents of the parish. To investigate how this population is dispersed across the parish, we define the following districts.

Within the parish throughout the study period

  • Greenhill – the dense urban area close to St Michael’s church that extended up Burton Old Road and Trent Valley Road as the century progressed, together with its rural hinterland, broadly covering the area of the current Boley Park Estate.
  • St. Johns – based on the urban area around St. Johns Street (including, and south of St John’s Hospital) and the Birmingham Road, stretching south to the canal, with its rural hinterland in the Borrowcop and Berry Hill area. Note that the St. John’s and Greenhill as defined here did not have a direct road connection between their major centres for much of the study period, with journeys between them requiring a passage through St. Mary’s parish. 
  • The Workhouse on Trent Valley Road (the later St. Michael’s hospital).
  • The hamlet of Streethay to the north of the parish, including the development in the second half of the century of much railway activity around Trent Valley Station.
  • The rural hamlets of Freeford and Fulfen to the east of the parish. 

The out of parish townships

  • Burntwood, together with Edial and Woodhouses, which became a separate parish in 1820 with the opening of Christchurch, Burntwood.
  • Wall, which became a separate parish in 1845 following the opening of St. John’s Church in 1843.
  • Leamonsley to the west of the city which, with Pipe Hill, became the parish of Christchurch, Lichfield in 1848.

Out of parish districts

  • The parish of St. Mary Lichfield, including the extra-parochial areas of The Close and The Friary.
  • The parish of St. Chad, Lichfield
  • Any other out of parish location outside Lichfield.

Figures 6 below shows the baptisms (on the left hand side) and burials (on the right hand side) for each of these three categories. These graphs show actual baptism numbers in (nominally) 20 year periods, rather than the number of baptisms per year. Note again that the first and last periods are somewhat shorter than 20 years.

Consider first the baptisms and burials in the different areas of the parish itself. For the former, the largest contributing area is Greenhill, with St. John’s the second largest. The situation is reversed for burials, perhaps indicating a rather younger population in the Greenhill area. The Workhouse baptisms and burials begin in the 1831 to 1850 period, as the Workhouse opened in 1840. In general the number of baptisms decrease with time, while the number of burials increase markedly, until in the period from 1891 to 1905 they are the single biggest number of burials. Both baptisms and burials increase over the century in Streethay, reflecting the growth of railway based activities there, whilst the figures fro the rural area of Freeford / Fulfen remain small and constant. 

The township baptisms and burials show a major fall after the chapels in the respective area are opened – 1820 for Burntwood, 1845 for Wall and 1848 for Leamonsley.  The baptism figures fall more dramatically than the funeral figures, suggesting that a number of township residents wished to be buried in family graves at St. Michael’s.

The out of parish baptisms and burials are interesting. There can be seen to be significant cross boundary baptisms of parishioners from St. Mary’s and St. Chad’s parish, presumably because of family or other historical connections. The number of burials for St. Mary’s parish was however very large, due to the fact that there was no graveyard there.  This imposed a considerable load on the clergy at St Michael’s (as will be seen below), In 1886 the Vicar of St. Mary’s agreed to conduct the funerals of his parishioners in St. Michael’s churchyard, but he stressed that by ancient custom it was the duty of St. Michael’s clergy to do this. A somewhat grudging agreement it would seem. From 1888 an annual collection was taken at St. Mary’s for the upkeep of the churchyard. Both these developments probably reflect a grievance extending over several decades that St. Michael’s clergy were providing unpaid services to St. Mary’s parish. The out of Lichfield category includes baptisms for families from the towns and villages surrounding the city, but also significant number from further afield – in particular from Birmingham and London – probably because of historic or family connections.

Figure 6. Baptism and burial statistics by areas of residence

Finally the registers reveal the existence of some interesting groups of people in the population for whom a more in-depth study might be appropriate – the soldiers from the Militia Barracks in the Sandford Street area; the canal workers and boatmen on the Lichfield and Hathersage Canal and the wharfs in the St. John’s area; a huge community of coachmakers, coachmen, horsemen etc. connected with the coach routes through the city, and, in the second half of the century the railway workers on the London North Western Railway through Trent Valley and the South Staffordshire Railway through Lichfield City. 

Analysis of Christian names

Both the baptismal and burial registers can be used to study how the Christian names of those in the parish varied over time. Whilst this might seem a somewhat trivial analysis, it does reveal something of changing attitudes and perceptions over time. From the baptismal registers, the information is directly available on a year-by-year basis. Extracting dated information from the burial registers is a little more tricky and requires the birth year to be calculated from the death year and the age at death. Even if the names are all related to the birth year, one might expect some differences – the baptismal registers will, in general, refer to those who were born in the Lichfield area, the burial registers will contain entries relating to those who were born elsewhere. Similarly the latter are more likely to indicate the preferred name of the deceased – be it first name, middle name or by-name. These points being made, details of the names over a period of around 180 years are given in table 1 for men and table 2 for women. Each table shows the following information, for the usual nominal twenty-year periods.

  • The most popular ten names in that period and the percentage of the total number of register entries for each of these.
  • The percentage of the total number of register entries that are accounted for by these top ten names. 
  • The number of different names used in the period.

For both male and female names the following broad conclusions can be drawn.

  • The most popular names remain pretty much the same over most of the period studied.
  • For the earlier periods in the 18th century the top 10 names account for 80 to 90 % of all names. This figure falls throughout the 19thcentury to around 60% for male names and 35% for female names.
  • Over the same period the number of different names increases by a factor of four.
  • Female names were always more variable than male names. 

The most popular male names (William, John and Thomas) each account for about 20% of all entries in the early periods, falling to around 6 to 12% in the late 19thcentury. Similarly the most popular female names (Elizabeth, Mary and Sarah) account for around 15 to 20% of all entries in the earlier periods, falling to around just 3% in the late 19thcentury. 

Two points arise from this study. The first is that the increasing number of names in use possibly reflects the movement from a very conservative society (at least in terms of names) to one with a wider outlook. Indeed, some of the minor names not shown in the table are quite outlandish and unconventional, particularly for the female names – for example Rosetta, Vanda and Pretoria. Secondly, in their conservatism the most popular names are very similar to those outlined in two other studies that I have carried out for the western region of the Black Country – for the parish of Kingswinfordin 1822 and 1840, and for the members of the Shut End Chapel in Pensnett from 1840 to 1890. The general population for these two studies was again composed of unskilled and skilled manual workers, and were thus similar o the population make up of St. Michael’s parish in the 19thcentury.

Table 1. Analysis of male Christian names

Table 2. Analysis of female Christian names

Ministers and Church

Table 3 below shows the Perpetual Curates (Rectors from 1868) at St. Michael’s, their curates or assistants, and the chaplains of the Workhouse in the period we are considering, together with the absolute numbers of baptisms, marriages and funerals they carried out. The longevity of the ministers in charge is notable, with only three perpetual curates / rectors from 1813 to 1886.  The first of these, Edward Remington, was actually the brother of an earlier Perpetual Curate at St Michael’s and the son of another, the dynasty extending back to 1757. His early career included Perpetual Curacies at St Chad’s Lichfield and Pipe Ridware, before coming to St Michael’s in 1805. In 1820, he was, in addition to St. Michael’s, instituted as Curate at Burntwood, when Burntwood itself achieved parochial status. As Perpetual Curate of St. Michael’s he would already have had oversight of Burntwood, but it seems he was formally designated its first incumbent, at least for a short period until 1828. From 1829 to 1831 he was also Vicar at Wirksworth in Derbyshire. How he managed these two rather far-flung parishes is not clear, but doubtless he utilized the services of his curates. 

One of these curates was Thomas Gnossall Parr, who held that post at St. Michael’s from 1828 to Remington’s death in 1831. He was then appointed Perpetual Curate, a post he held for 37 years before becoming the first Rector in 1868, one year before his death. He was born in 1800, the son of another Thomas Gnossall Parr, a Lichfield solicitor, and remained umarried.  In 1861 he was living at the Parsonage House on Mount Pleasant with his sister Anne, and a single servant. The number of baptisms, marriages and funerals conducted by Remington and Gnossall Parr was eye-watering – the largest number in the table being the 3168 funerals conducted by the latter. Whist they were assisted by a string of curates, they still seems to have carried most of the load themselves. 

The first clergyman to be appointed Rector, James Sergeantson, was from Liverpool and educated at Trinity College in Cambridge. He was a rowing blue and part of the crew that lost the boat race in 1857 by 11 lengths. There have only been six larger losing margins in the 190 year history of the race, so I doubt it was an experience he relished. He served a curacy at Stoke before coming to St Michael’s. He was married to Elizabeth, a clergyman’s daughter and they had at least 5 children. In 1881 they lived at the Rectory, with a housekeeper, cook and two servants. He is recorded on a memorial in the church as being part of the team that rang a complete peal of Gransire Minor in 1876. He died in 1886. A memorial plaque in the chancel at St. Michael’s reads

To the glory of God and in loving memory of James Jordan Sergeantson M.A. for 17 years rector of this parish. He fell asleep January 1st1886 aged 50 years. 

Sergeantson was followed by Cyril Hubberd, an old Etonian who graduated from St. John’s College Cambridge, and served in parishes in the south of England before coming to St. Michael’s. In 1891 he lived at the Rectory with his wife Agnes, their two children, a cook, a nursemaid and two housemaids. In 1886 he secured an arrangement, albeit somewhat grudging, with the Vicar of Mary’s who agreed to conduct the St. Mary’s funerals, although more often than not, this resulted in the St. Mary’s curates carrying out the duty on his behalf. When Hubbard left St Michael’s in 1893, he moved to the south of England and out of parish ministry. Perhaps St. Michael’s was too much for him. He is however recorded as a Chaplain in various European cities in the 1900s.

The last of the 19thcentury rectors was Otho Steele. He was born in the 1839, educated at Trinity College Dublin, and served in parishes in the east of England, Guernsey and Stoke before coming to St Michael’s in 1893. He remained there till 1913, and died in 1922. Again there is a memorial plaque in the chancel that reads as follows. 

To the glory of God and in pious memory of Otho William Steel, M.A. Rector of this parish from 1893 to 1913 who dies 25thMay 1922 aged 83 years. 

The situation with regard to the Workhouse was interesting. The chaplains of the Workhouse conducted baptisms there, but these were recorded in the St. Michael’s register. However, up to the 1880s, all the funerals were conducted by St. Michael’s clergy. After that there seems to have been some overlap at that time with some of the curates at St. Michaels also acting as Workhouse Chaplains. 

The registers also indicate that a not-insignificant number of services were conducted by either visiting clergy (presumably at the family request) or by other clergy in the locality, to cover absence and holidays no doubt. The funerals of the residents at St. John’s hospital were usually conducted by the Master of the Hospital. In the early part of the century, the burials were actually in the grounds of St. John’s, with the burials registered in the St. Michael’s register, but later internments were in St. Michael’s graveyard. 

Table 3. Rectors, curates and chaplains

Closing comments

This post has presented what at first sight is a rather detailed technical examination of manuscripts. However it does reveal some quite fascinating details of the development of St. Michael’s parish over the 19thcentury. It was basically the parish of the lower and middle classes of the area, with very few of those at the top of Lichfield society. We see clearly a significant decrease in childhood mortality in this group over that period, and the huge risk of childbirth to women is all too clearly seen. The rise of basic literacy can also be seen from the signatures in the marriage registers. The development of the different areas of the parish can be traced in terms of a growing population and a widening of residential areas, with the increasing numbers of those within the Workhouse a reminder that such growth does not benefit all level of society. The analysis of Christian names sees an essentially conservative use of a small sub-set of names develop into a much wider use of a wide range of names, perhaps reflecting the growing horizons of the population. In ecclesiastical terms, the effect of the outlying townships becoming parishes in their own right is apparent, and the interactions between the city centre parishes is very clear – as are the reasons for the disagreement over funerals and burials between St. Michael’s and St. Mary’s.

But there is much more that could be said of course about some of the many individuals who feature in the registers – for example Rev John Louis Petit, the curate from 1825 to 1828 and a noted landscape painter, James Law, the Chancellor of the diocese, whose Mausoleum still dominates the front of the churchyard (see below), John Brown, who sounded the trumpet at the charge of the Light Brigade, and many others from long term Lichfield families.

There is of course further work that could be done of this type. Perhaps the most obvious extension would be to do the same sort of analysis for the registers of St. Mary’s and St. Chad’s as the three churches obviously have significant interaction.  This would be quite possible as for the period covered in this blog the registers are again available in .rtf format that can be manipulated in spreadsheets. Maybe one day in the near future I will summon up the energy to do this. 

The second extension, that would require more work, would be the integration of the current work with other datasets – and in particular the census returns and the St Michael’s Monumental Inscriptions. Whilst the data is available, the actual task of correlation and assessment would be very significant. Maybe in a year or so. 

Finally the work could be extended to look at earlier time periods – but here the registers are not in the same convenient format, and to make them so, at least from the publically available databases would be a huge task. Maybe in another life.

St. Michael’s, Lichfield in the 19th century. Part 1


The most common modern use for parish registers for baptism, marriage and burial is in family history research – to trace the lives of individuals and families through the centuries. But they also form a rich historical resource that can be looked at in quite another way. Where detailed registers exist, they allow a picture to be built up of the wider societal context, by looking at the entries in the register as a whole rather than individually, and considering details of birth and death statistics over time; the professions and trades of those bringing children to baptism and their places of residence.

In this post we take such a wide look at the parish registers for St, Michael’s parish in Lichfield during the 19thcentury.  These have been conveniently produced by Midland Ancestors as .rtf files, and can thus, with some manipulation, be imported in EXCEL and interrogated in a number of different ways. We begin by briefly describing the registers and the nature of St. Michael’s parish in the 19thcentury, then move on to consider statistics of baptisms and burials. The registers also give details of where the individuals lived and their trades or professions, and thus give us a snapshot of Lichfield society in the period. The marriage registers allow the level of literacy to be determined, from an analysis of those who signed the registers, and those who simply made their mark.  The registers also allow a survey of names to be carried out, which shows how the popularity of different Christian names varied over the century. Finally the registers cast some light on the ministers who performed the services, and on the nature of church practice. 

The information presented here will mainly be in the form of simple graphs and tables. Not everyone will be comfortable with such a presentation, but the material to some extent demands it. I will however attempt to describe the information shown on these figures in a more qualitative way, and try to draw out what they can tell us about church and parish in the 19thcentury. 

St Michael’s parish and the registers

Figure 1. The red solid line indicates the boundary of St. Michael’s parish around 1820. The red dotted line indicates the extra-parochial portion of Freeford township. St Michael’s church is indicated by the red cross. The green, blue and purple lines and crosses indicate the boundaries of St Chad’s parish, St Mary’s parish and the Cathedral Close and their churches respectively. The extra parochial area of the Friary is not shown.

The formation of parishes came relatively late in the Lichfield area, where the ecclesiastical organization was, until the seventeenth century, largely based on the Cathedral Prebendial system, with the Prebends appointing vicars who took responsibility for the three city centre churches. It was eventually divided into three parishes – St. Mary’s covering the city centre, St. Chad’s to the north-west and St. Michaels to the south west, south east and south (figure 1). There were three extra-parochial areas – the Cathedral Close, the area around the old Friary and part of the township of Freeford. Of the three parishes, St. Michael’s is the largest. The church itself and its large graveyard on Greenhill is just to the east of the boundary with St. Mary’s parish. In the early part of the 19th century, the parish contained the land immediately to the east and south of the city centre, and large areas further to the south and east containing a number of smaller townships – Wall to the south, Burntwood in the south west, Streethay in the north east, and Freeford and Fulfen to the east. In addition there were a number of detached portions – at Fisherwick and Haselour to the east for example. Thus, whilst the registers mainly concentrate on those who live close to the church in the more densely populated area on the eastern edge of the city, they also contain entries for a more dispersed rural population. As the 19thcentury progressed, some of the outlying townships became parishes in their own right – Burntwood in 1820 and Wall in 1845 and after those dates their inhabitants largely disappear from the St. Michael’s registers. Similarly a large area to the west of the city around the hamlet of Leamonsley formed Christchurch parish in1848. 

There are however further complications. St. Mary’s parish that encompasses the city centre has no graveyard, and used that at Greenhill. Thus the St. Michael’s burial register also contains many entries from St. Mary’ parish.  There also seems to have been a leakage across parish boundaries in baptism and marriage, with parishioners of St. Mary’s and St. Chad’s using St. Michael’s– and no doubt vice versa. The other complicating factor was the existence of the Lichfield Union Workhouse in St. Michael’s parish from 1840 onwards, which housed paupers from a wide area around Lichfield. As these were mainly men, care needs to be taken in any analysis, as the Workhouse entries in the registers can skew the statistics significantly if they are not allowed properly for. 

Before considering the detailed statistics from the registers, it is instructive to look at the general social make up of the parish in the 19thcentury. The baptismal registers contain brief descriptions of the occupation of the one who brings the child for baptism, usually the father. A statistical analysis of this information is, to say the least, difficult, so I will confine myself to only broad comments here. In total there are 6885 baptisms recorded. The number of families represented will be significantly less than this of course. But for these baptisms 2100 give an occupation as “Labourer” and around 650 are economically inactive (most often “Single Women” in the Workhouse or “Spinsters”). Thus around 2750 are at the lowest levels of the society of 19thcentury Lichfield. At the other end of the scale, there are around 35 baptisms of children of those who might be described as “Professional” – bankers, solicitors, architects etc.; 29 from the Ecclesiastical Establishment; and 40 who describe themselves as “Gentlemen”. In between there is a wide range of trades and occupations present of differing levels of skill, from low skilled gardeners and bricklayers to the highly skilled clockmakers, cordwainers and coach builders. Basically it seems that St Michael’s in the 19th century was a church for the workers and middle class artisans and tradesmen of the city – and certainly it attracted few at the higher end of the social scale to bring their children for baptism.  This is in accord with the various monuments and inscriptions within the church, few of which date from the 19th century, with most from the 18th and 20th centuries, indicating that for this period the upper reaches of Lichfield society looked elsewhere.

Population Statistics

Figure 2 shows the basic statistics from the baptismal register for the period between 1813 and 1905. Here the data is shown in nominally 20 year bands, with the first (1813-1830) and the last (1891-1905) being somewhat shorter. This variability in period can be allowed for to some extent by considering the number of baptisms / year in each band.  It can be seen that there were around 70 baptisms a year across the period, with that figure remaining relatively stable. The expected rise in baptism numbers due to population growth thus seems to have been balanced by the number of baptisms taking place in the new chapels at Burntwood, Wall and Christchurch, and also no doubt by an increase in the number of baptisms in non-conformist churches. The percentage of females was baptized was close to 50% throughout the period as would be expected, which at least shows the inhabitants of the parish in the 19thcentury did not practice female infanticide. Finally it can be seen that that the number of illegitimate children baptised is around 5 to 10% of the whole. This graph may not be wholly accurate however, as illegitimacy was recorded in different ways over the century, or not recorded at all, so some cases may have been missed, but any errors will be small.

Figure 2. Baptism statistics for number of baptisms / year, percentage of baptised females and the percentage of illegitimate children

Figures 3 show the marriage statistics . This data is given over a longer period than for the baptismal reisters, as the .rtf transcription extends back further into the 18thcentury. The number of marriages per year peaks at something over 40 marriages per year between 1811 and 1830. The register also provides an indication of the level of literacy amongst those getting married. The right hand figure gives the proportion of weddings where bride and groom both signed the register, just one of them signed, or neither signed. Very broadly, up to the middle of the nineteenth century, there were around a third of marriages where neither couple could sign their name, a third of marriages where one of them could (most often the groom) and around a third where both signed. After that time, the proportion of weddings where both signed increased rapidly, no doubt due to the establishment of the National Schools in the area, and by the start of the 20th century both partners almost always signed.

Figure 3. Marriage statistics, showing number of marriages per year and the percentage of participants signing the register.

Figure 4 shows the analysis of the burial statistics, excluding the Workhouse entries. The number of burials / year increases through the century, reflecting the increase in population. In the breakdown of burials by age group, the large infant mortality rate is clear, although burials in the 0 to 10 age group decrease from 36% of all burials to 25% over the 19th century. This same trend of reducing mortality is shown in the 11 to 20 and 21 to 30 age groups. The number of burials then increases with age, with a peak in the 71 to 80 age range, with a sharp fall off for the oldest age ranges. The percentage of female burials against age range rises from around 50% for the lowest age range, then increases to around 55% for the 11 to 20 and 21 to 30 age ranges, reflecting deaths during childbirth. There is a trough at just over 40% in the 51 to 60 age range as male mortality peaks, with a rise to around 60% in the highest age ranges, which simply reflects the greater longevity of women if they survive infancy and childbirth.

Figure 4. Burial statistics, excluding Workhouse data, showing number burials / year, burials by age range and percentage of female burials

Figure 5 shows similar figures for Workhouse burials. It can be seen that the number of burials per year is between 10 and 20 – a significant proportion of the whole. The burials by age show the same form as for the general population, although the child mortality rate remains at around 35% throughout the century rather than falling. The percentage of female burials by age do not show the same trend as for the general population, although this might possibly be because the sample size is smaller and any trend masked by statistical variation. 

Figure 5. Burial statistics, for Workhouse data, showing number burials / year, burials by age range and percentage of female burials

Part 2 of this blog post can be found here.

A policeman’s life – Samuel Hicklin (1858-1924) Part 3

Part 1 – A (very) young constable 

Part 2 – Climbing the ladder  – from Sergeant to Superintendent

Chief Superintendent Hicklin

Burslem Police Station (from Edina Digimap 1920 and

Hicklin became Chief Superintendent in late 1906 in charge of the Potteries District (District C) with its four Divisions of Burslem, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall, and was based at Burslem Police station. He also seems to have more local responsibility for the Burslem Division with its 16 police stations, although this was no doubt delegated to some extent. As a Chief Superintendent Hicklin was even more a public figure than before and attended many civic and community functions. The Staffordshire Sentinel reported on his involvement in St John’s Ambulance exam awards, civic church services and church parades, charity football matches, formal dinners, funerals, council events and so on.

The range of crimes and offences dealt with by Hicklin and his men was similar to that at Burton, with licensing issues and traffic offences forming the majority of cases. The one that drew most public attention however was again a murder – that of Sarah Ann Price, aged 51, the wife of George Price, a colliery labourer. It would appear that the couple had been drinking heavily together, and had then quarreled. During the quarrel, Price had poured paraffin over his wife and set her on fire. She died from her burns, “burnt to a cinder”. Hicklin arrested Price and was involved in his prosecution for murder. Not surprisingly the incident created much interest in the press, both locally and nationally.

The other major challenge that presented itself was the policing of elections and, with more difficulty, strikes and industrial action. The major incident during Hicklin’s time at Burslem was a widespread strike amongst miners in early July 1909, aiming to increase the length of the lunch break and to increase pay for Saturday working. This not only involved walk outs, but also large crowds of striking miners moved around the area, aiming to force miners at non-striking pits to join them, and closing other industries. There was much violence and intimidation, and the police stood between the strikers on one hand and the non-strikers and mine owners on the other. The whole police force in the area was stretched very thinly, and Hicklin himself, whilst trying to persuade a crowd of 300 to 400 miners to disperse to enable non-striking miners to go home, was himself “assailed with a volley of stones”. The strikes were settled after a few days, with some small concessions from the employers on the length of the “snapping time” – or lunch break, but the trials for riot and affray occupied the Magistrate’s courts and Assizes for many months after. 

In 1910 Stoke on Trent City Police was formed with a merger of Hanley Borough Police and that part of the County Force area then within the Potteries Federation. This included significant parts of the then District C of the Staffordshire Constabulary, and a major re-organisation of the County force took place. A new District C was formed, spanning both parts of the Potteries and also more rural areas of the county, of which Hicklin took charge. The Divisions of this District were Leek, Newcastle, Stone and Uttoxeter.  The District covered a very wide geographical area in the north of the county. Hicklin and his family moved to the police station at Leek, where the District headquarters were located, in early 1910.

Leek police station (from Edina Digimap 1920 and

The 1911 census gives us a further snapshot of the family – Samuel aged 56 with a birth year of 1854/5, Eliza aged 55 with a birth year of 1855/56, young Samuel aged 20, now a tailor running his own business and shop; Flora, aged 18, helping with the domestic work; and Reginald, aged 11 still at school. Their accommodation, in the police station, had seven rooms 

Samuel Hicklin’s signature from the 1911 census

At Leek, Hicklin’s life seems to have continued in much the same way as at Burslem, no doubt the majority of the time being taken up by the administrative roles necessary in any large organization – appointments and promotions, finance and reporting and so on. It is likely that, as one of the four Chief Superintendents, he also played a role in the determination of strategy and plans for the whole constabulary under the direction of the Chief Constable. He continued to deal with much the same range of crimes and incidents as before, although it seems that the war years were rather quieter than previously, in part because licensing hours were restricted.  His first involvement with motor vehicle transgressions is recorded– a taxicab colliding with a horse and cart in 1918; and the death of a pedestrian after being knocked down by a car whilst disembarking from a tram. The war also caused a significant decrease in the number of public functions. One that did occur after the war in 1923, was the presentation of certificates to the 219 special constables who were in post in the Leek Division between 1914 and 1919, replacing those who had volunteered to enlist.  The final mention of Hicklin in the press was on the 9thFebruary 1924 when he reported at the Annual Licensing Sessions of the Leek Division.

Chief Superintendent Hicklin reported that the number of licenses in the Division was 142, no license holders had been proceeded against under the licensing laws; 52 males and 10 females were proceeded against for drunkenness, all except 6 males and 4 females being convicted. 

As he began his career with drunken behavior, so he ended it.

Samuel Hicklin died on Thursday March 27th1924, having made his last court appearance on the Monday before, when he was in good health. This suggests that death was due to a heart attack or something similar. The obituaries were fulsome and generous. From the Staffordshire Sentinel of 31stMarch 1924.

…..During his 14 years at Leek, Chief Inspector Hicklin has made himself extremely popular with all classes but the courteous and tactful way in which he has carried out the important and various duties attached to his office. Of a quiet and unassuming disposition, and a man seeking little publicity, he was nevertheless a strict disciplinarian and his organization of the police in the large and important Leek Division was as complete and as efficient as anywhere in the county……. He was a zealous and efficient police official carrying out his work with conspicuous ability and whilst ever mindful of the responsibilities of his position, he was always fair and impartial in the preparation of prosecutions… 

He was also described as being in his 69thyear, implying birth years of 1855/1856. The tributes from magistrates and court officials were equally fulsome. 

Leek Parish Church (from,_Leek#/media/File:Leek,_church_of_St_Edward_the_Confessor.JPG)

His funeral took place on the afternoon of Monday 31stMarch. There was a procession of 100 officers, including many ex-officers who had served with him across the county from the Police Station to Leek Parish Church, led by six mounted constables. Chief Constable Anson also attended. At the service there were representatives from the two Freemasons lodges of which he was a member, many magistrates and court officials, representatives off the Licensed Victuallers Association (which seems wholly appropriate) and many others. The coffin was carried into church by six constables. After the funeral service led by the vicar, his body was laid to rest in Leek Cemetry. The mourners were recorded as 

Mr Reginald Hicklin (son), Miss Flora Hicklin (daughter), Mr and Mrs A Tipper (sister and brother in law) , Mr and Mrs T E Harper, Mr J Goode (nephew) and ex-Inspector George Oulton of Leek, formerly of Burton”. 

Sam Hicklin, the eldest son was stated to be in Canada. Mrs Tipper was actaully his half-sister Harriet. It is notable that Eliza was not present. In the pre-second world war register of 1939, she is registered as still living in Leek, with her unmarried daughter Flora, and as being incapacitated. Perhaps that was already the case in 1924. The Staffordshire Advertiser who reported on this event, also contained the only picture I can trace of Sam Hicklin – it is shown below.

Samuel Hicklin 1858-1924

Samuel Hicklin’s life was in some ways quite exceptional – that a farm labourer’s child should rise to perhaps the highest police rank that was available to him (as Chief Constable and Deputy Chief Constable ranks were largely restricted to “gentlemen” or retired military officers) must be viewed as remarkable, and a tribute to his abilities, hard work and diligence. From press reports it is not really possible to form a view of his character and personality, but he does seem to have been genuinely well liked and respected by his peers. The number of colleagues and acquaintances his funeral alone is testimony to that. 

Throughout these posts I have mentioned the rather variable birth dates that he assigned to himself through the years. This might have been in part due his own uncertainty about his age, but I find this explanation not wholly convincing in view of his precision in other areas (not least his pedantic interactions with landlords who keep their pubs open somewhat later than they should) and I would wonder if throughout his career he was careful to ensure that nobody came to realize that he gave a wrong age at the very start of it. A very small blot on the copybook of a remarkable man!

Part 1 – A (very) young constable 

Part 2 – Climbing the ladder  – from Sergeant to Superintendent 

A policeman’s life – Samuel Hicklin (1858-1924) Part 2

Part 1 – A (very) young constable 

 Part 3 – Chief Superintendent Hicklin 

Climbing the ladder  – from Sergeant to Superintendent

Bradley Green Police Station  (from Edina Digimap 1880)

Hicklin’s next move was to a completely different area – Bradley Green, near Biddulph in the Potteries District, where he took up a position as Sergeant 2nd class on December 1st1884. Perhaps oddly, as he scaled the promotion ladder, he becomes somewhat less visible, because of fewer court appearances and, one suspects, because the Congleton and Macclesfield Mercury, on which we rely for this period of Hicklin’s career, provided a less comprehensive news coverage than the County Express and County Advertiser between them for Tividale and Pensnett. But the necessity to deal with drunks and disorderly behavior continued, and we meet Hicklin in court a number of times proving cases of this type. In addition there are the usual incidences of petty theft and “furious” driving of horse and carts that needed to be addressed. He was also called to a number of suicides usually by hanging, then a criminal offence of course, and had to cut down the body. He was clearly becoming involved in more administrative duties, and we hear reports of him attending the Biddulph Local Board, and being given authority by that board to prosecute for “stone-throwing, swearing and dis-orderliness in the public street” on behalf of the Board.  

Of the more unusual incidents he had to deal with, perhaps the most distressing was that of Emily Poole of Hanley, who was very badly mistreated by her stepmother Priscilla Poole, a case which came to court in 1887. Emily was about 20, but looked much younger, and had been repeatedly beaten, left unfed with very little clothing, and was often required to work naked around the house. The neighbours, taking pity, gave her some clothes, but the step-mother pawned these. She slept in a damp, leaking garret room with very little bedding. Hicklin in giving evidence said he would rather sleep in the open air than in such a room as that. Over the past year Emily had tried to commit suicide, and Priscilla had continually abused the neighbours who remonstrated with her over step-daughter’s treatment.  The magistrate stated that this was the worst crime that he had ever had to deal with and sentenced Priscilla Poole to the maximum level he was allowed – six months in prison with hard labour. 

Perhaps the main incident that occurred during his time at Bradley Green, was in 1889 when he and one of his constables. PC Clay were charged with assaulting Samson Chadwick, a collier, in 1889. Chadwick had clearly been acting in a disruptive fashion in public, almost certainly due to drink, and PC Clay had tried to arrest him. He went with the PC quietly at first, but then began to resist. In a scuffle Clay threw him to the ground and tried to drag him, handcuffed, to the police station. Being unable to do so, he fetched Hicklin and another PC and between them they dragged Chadwick along the ground for three hundred yards to the station, in full view of the public.  At the station he was put into a cell, and was allegedly thrown roughly onto a bench, resulting in a black eye and other injuries. Witnesses testified that Clay kicked Chadwick on the ground while he was being dragged and that he did not have any injuries when he was put into the cell. According to Hicklin’s statement he was “laid very carefully upon the bench in the cell”.  Despite what appeared to be quite strong evidence that the police had been somewhat rougher than they ought to have been, and the less than convincing police statements, the magistrates conferred and decided in favour of the police.  And Samuel Hicklin was able to continue his career. 

The Hicklin’s third son Samuel was born in March 1891 and was baptized at Oldbury in early September. In the census of that year, Hicklin’s age had increased again to 36, giving a birth date of 1854/1855. In reality he was coming up to 33 at the time.  Eliza’s age was given as 35 and thus a birth year of 1855/56.

In November 1891, Hicklin moved directly from being a Sergeant 2nd class to being an Inspector 2nd class, thus jumping a grade. This involved a move to Burton upon Trent in the Rural District in 1891 and a subsequent move to Tipton, back in the Mining district for a brief period in 1896, at the same grade. Burton was of course near to his home, and the duties would have involved policing the area where he was born and brought up. In 1896 there were 17 Inspectors and 14 Superintendents in the Staffordshire Constabulary, which implies roughly one each per division. In this period of his career, Hicklin is at his least visible and the Burton Chronicle makes few mentions of him – too senior to be required to make many press-reported court appearances, but not quite senior enough to be the public face of the force. But where he does appear, the incidents he was dealing with were far removed from the drunkards of earlier years. At Burton in 1892, he rather wonderfully identified a shop-breaking suspect by comparing a boot print at the crime scene with the suspect’s boots – proper police procedure! In 1895, he was instrumental in the arrest of a fraudster on the run from the police in Oxford, having obtained jewelry by false pretenses; and in the same year, he arrested another travelling fraudster, who had pretended to be an old acquaintance of a number of leading cricketers of the day, now suffering from sickness, in order to obtain donations.  He moved to Tipton in early 1996 on what would seem to be a short term posting. The major incident that he was involved with there was the trial of Sarah Jane Williams (43) and Frederick Ward (49) were charged with the theft on significant money and property to the value of £400 from John Williams, Sarah’s husband, and then eloping via Liverpool to the United States.  Hicklin was entrusted with sailing to the United States in their pursuit and received them into custody on board the Belgenlandin Washington Docks, Philadelphia. It is to be hoped that he was actually allowed to disembark and see something of the USA after such a trip!

During their time in Burton, the Hicklin’s daughter Flora was born in Burton in August 1892.

Burton upon Trent and Tipton Police stations  (from Edina Digimap 1900)

On December 1st1896, Hicklin was appointed as a Superintendent (again jumping the grade) of Inspector 1st class and moved back to Burton upon Trent where he was in charge of the Burton Division, with 18 stations including Uttoxeter, Tutbury, Horninglow, Alrewas, Yoxall and Burton itself. By this time the Districts had been renamed –the Mining District as District A, the Rural District as District B and the Potteries District as District C. After the years as Inspector when his activities weren’t very visible, becoming the Superintendent put him very much in the public eye. Whilst he was no longer involved in arresting drunks he was responsible for licensing public houses, and had to report on an annual basis to the various licensing authorities in the area on the number of licenses, number of offences of drunken behavior, recommendations for granting or withholding licenses etc. He seems to have exchanged catching drunks for counting them! He can also be seen making reports to local council committees on various aspects of policing; attending fund raising functions, including kicking off a charity football match between Burton and Lichfield Police; organizing inspections of police forces; and attending funerals and delivering tributes. In short he became a public representative of the police in the area. 

He and his family lived in accommodation at the Police Station on Station Street, together with 8 police constables (presumably in some sort of dormitory facility) and for the night of the 1901 census, three prisoners in the cells. The picture below is from the Burton upon Trent History website and is captioned there as showing the newly appointed Superintendent Moss in 1898. Moss was actually appointed in late 1906 / early 1907, after Hicklin left Burton. So either the picture is wrongly dated and shows Superintendent Moss in 1907, or the picture is of Samuel Hicklin himself. I would of course like the latter to be true, but even if it is not, it does give clear indication of the sort of uniform worn by the Staffordshire Constabulary at the time. 

Description: Macintosh HD:Users:chrisbaker:Dropbox:Web site:Blog material:Hicklin:Pictures:Burton police andstation 1898 - superintendent Moss? or Hicklin.jpg

Superintendent Moss or Hicklin? (from

Some things however remained the same – he continued to bring malefactors to court for not being in proper control of their horse and cart, or for causing obstructions on the highway. “Reckless cycling” through the borough was also becoming an issue. The range of minor crimes he and his men investigated was very wide – for example house breaking, cruelty to animals, shoplifting, perjury, embezzlement and fraud, illegal betting, trespass and family maintenance defaulters. He also had to deal with a distressing number of suicides and attempted suicides. In general both Hicklin and the bench of magistrates were very gentle with survivors, and tried to place them in situations where they might find help.   

Amongst the most amusing of these minor incidents was the case in 1899 of the shop fire at Burton-upon-Trent where the owner, a Mr. joseph North, a draper from Uxbridge Street, was unable explain to Hicklin how the fire had started at around midnight and why he and his wife were fully dressed at that time after retiring to bed early. Hicklin, unsurprisingly, found the facts that Mr Richardson’s attire included collar and tie and laced up boots more than a little suspicious, particularly in the light of the fact that the level of insurance was about eight times the value of the stock that was burnt.  There was a further case in 1905, when Hicklin was able to solve a series of robberies that had been committed by Elizabeth Smith and Mary Parkes, through the initiative of a local shoe shop owner, who attached an enticing pair of slippers to a cord, leading to a mousetrap that was activated (presumably loudly!) when the slippers were taken. When Hicklin searched the suspect’s homes, he found, to quote his evidence “a cartload of stuff, including boots, shoes and clothing”. 

The ongoing series of relatively minor offences however were punctuated by major incidents of violence and murder, which naturally made the headlines in the local (and sometimes national) press. Of these two incidents stand out –the first that ultimately involved only minor injury, and the third that involved quite a complex murder investigation. Both were reported very widely in newspapers across the UK. In both, Hicklin showed himself to be much more than a desk bound administrator. 

In the first of these, in 1900, some children were standing on the Recreation Ground  canal bridge in Burton, when one of the boatmen on a passing barge shot at them from below with a pellet gun. Five of the children were injured in the face and shoulders. The incident was reported to the police in Burton and we read that Hicklin chased them for seven miles along the canal (presumably mounted) and then arrested them at Alrewas. The claim was made that the children had been throwing stones.  The three boatmen – Benjamin Nixon, Emmanuel Lloyd and Harry Banks- were charged with causing grievous bodily harm to the children. From the evidence presented it was not clear which of the three had fired the shots. They were committed for trial at the Quarter Sessions. From our perspective, the interesting aspect is that Hicklin, even at the rank of Superintendent, rode after them, and arrested them, knowing that they were potentially armed – an act of considerable bravery. 

We find a similar pattern in perhaps the major incident of Hicklin’s time in Burton.  On a Sunday morning, in late January 1903, PC William Price, based at Stretton near Burton, was investigating the stealing of some ferrets. His enquiries led him to a “gypsy” encampment consisting of several caravans, where he arrested a certain Tom Sherrif.  Sherriff’s two brothers John and William then attacked him with sticks and stones. When trying to use his baton, Price was repeatedly hit and forced to the ground where they continued to beat him. They eventually made their escape, despite the efforts of Price who tried to pursue them before collapsing. He was taken to Burton Infirmary and wounds on his head dressed. Later however at home he became delirious and was readmitted to hospital, where a fractured skull was diagnosed and an operation performed. Price however died later that night. It would seem that when Hicklin heard of the events, he drove (a horse and trap) and having driven through his home territory of Marston-on-Dove and Hilton, caught up with the caravans at Hatton, and arrested the group. He was assisted by a number of constables it would seem, although reports are a little vague. Those he arrested however, were the mother and father of the three brothers – Hope and Hattie Sherriff , who were traveling Hawkers, and another Hawker Arkless Holland, together with other younger family members.  The evidence that these gave at the inquest the following day suggested they were not involved in the assault although they did little to prevent it. The three brothers in the meantime were nowhere to be found and a search was instigated. Again the actions of Hicklin are interesting – driving after what could have been a group of very violent youths in order to make an arrest, with little support. The runaways were eventually sighted at Scropton about eight miles from Burton, but overpowered and maltreated the officer, Sergeant Hutchinson ,who tried to arrest them. Reports were later received of them being sighted in Derby and Belper. They were eventually captured at Buxton on Wednesday night and Hicklin and a Sergeant went by train to collect them, suitably handcuffed, on Thursday morning. They met with a hostile reception from a large crowd at Burton station, and were brought to court very quickly, where they were remanded in custody. At the County Sessions a week later the three brothers pleaded guilty to murder, but stated that their father and Holland were not guilty. They were all committed for trail at Stafford Assizes in March 1903. In the train on the way to Stafford Jail the three brothers were overheard discussing the fight with the Price by the constable accompanying them.  The charges against Hope Sherriff and Arkless Holland were not proceeded with at the Assizes due to lack of evidence, but the three brothers, who had changed their plea to not guilty, were found guilty of manslaughter, based partly on the overheard conversation on the train.  This sentence was possibly arrived at, as it was not possible to say which, if any of them, was actually responsible for the blow that fractured Price’s  skull and resulted in his death. They were each sentenced to 15 years penal servitude. In 1911 they were all held in the prison on the Isle of Portland.  Whether they were actually gypsies (i.e. Romany) or not is debatable, and they might simply have been travelling tinkers. The term “gypsy” however was clearly used in a derogatory way in much of the press coverage.

Samuel and Eliza’s time second period in Burton was not without personal trauma. Their two older sons, both in their twenties, died in that period – John in 1899 and William in 1904.  Their youngest child Reginald was born in 1899. In the 1901 census, Samuel’s age is given as 46 and Eliza’s as 43 and thus implying birth years of 1854/5 and 1857/58. At that time, William, aged 18, is recorded as an Engineer’s apprentice. 

In August 1906, Hicklin was promoted to the rank of Chief Superintendent, and left Burton with fulsome tributes from the Mayor, the bench of Magistrates and court officials and counsel. The tone of the tributes as reported in the press was warm and he seems to have been held in genuine respect and affection. 

Part 1 – A (very) young constable 

 Part 3 – Chief Superintendent Hicklin 

A policeman’s life – Samuel Hicklin (1858-1924) Part 1

Part 2 – Climbing the ladder  – from Sergeant to Superintendent 

Part 3 – Chief Superintendent Hicklin 

A (very) young constable

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The church of Hilton, St Mary’s (from

Arthur Samuel Hicklin was born in Hilton near Marston-upon-Dove in Derbyshire in early April 1858, to John and Ann Hicklin. John was a farm labourer in the area, but there are no further details available of where or for whom he worked. Arthur Samuel was baptized at Hilton church on 25thApril 1858 and was the couple’s fourth child. Of his siblings, Eliza was born in 1852, John in 1854 and Samuel in around July 1856. The latter died the next year in May 1857. They were to have a further child, William, in 1860 before John himself died in that year, leaving Ann a widow. Ann married again in the mid-1860s to William Long, another farm labourer from Hilton, and had two further children, Ann and Harriett. In the 1861 census, Arthur Samuel was referred to using his first name. After that he always seems to have been known as Samuel, or, one suspects, Sam. I will in general use either “Sam” or “Hicklin” in what follows. In 1871 he was no longer with his family, but was a thirteen-year-old general servant on William Loverock’s farm in Horninglow near Burton upon Trent.  Loverock was a major landowner in the area, and employed a number of men and boys on his farm of nearly 300 acres, as well as a number of domestic servants. Sam seems to have lived in a house adjacent to the farm (possibly Hodgkin’s Farmhouse although the census return is difficult to read), with a number of other servants, both male and female.  He thus probably only received the most rudimentary of educations, which makes his rise through he Staffordshire Constabulary that we will see in what follows the more remarkable. 

Possible location of Loverock’s Yard and Hodgkin’s Farmhouse in Horninglow (from Edina Digimap 1880) 

The next we learn of Sam is when he joined the Staffordshire Constabulary in November 1875, when his age is given as 18 years and 7 months, implying a birth date of April 1857 – i.e. a year earlier than the actual date. There must therefore be a suspicion that he exaggerated his age in order to join the police. He was initially stationed at Tividale in the Black Country. How he went from being a farm servant in rural Staffordshire to being a policeman in the industrial heart of the Black Country is not known. On entry to the force, he was described as being 5’ 8 5/8” tall, with brown eyes, dark brown hair and a fair complexion. His previous trade was given as labourer.

The Staffordshire Constabulary at that time was divided into three districts – the Mining district of the Black Country; the Potteries district around Stoke; and the Rural District for the rest of the county. This organization persisted, with some alterations of boundaries, throughout Hicklin’s career. At the head of the organization was the Chief Constable, based in Stafford. Each district was headed by a Chief Superintendent, one of whom served as Deputy Chief Constable. At times however the latter role was taken by a fourth Chief Superintendent. Each District was divided into Divisions headed by a Superintendent or Inspector, and each division into Sub-divisions, which included two or more police stations. Hicklin thus began his career in the Tividale station in the Blackheath Sub-division of the Brierley Hill Division in the Mining District.

His life at Tividale would have mirrored that of young constables anywhere. His first appearance in the press seems to have been in the County Advertiser of April 1st1876 which contains the following report of the proceedings of the Rowley Regis Magistrate’s court. 

Isaac Fisher was charged with being drunk on the 25thult., and pleaded guilty. Police Constable Hicklin proved the case, and the defendant was fined 5s with costs.”

Dozens of similar mentions appeared over the months and years that followed, mainly in the County Advertiser and County Express, as he rose from Constable 3rd class on appointment, to Constable 2ndclass on 1stAugust 1876 and Constable 1stclass on 1stAugust 1877. So he was clearly well regarded for his dealings with drunkards. To add a little variety, we also read of him apprehending carters driving too quickly or not exercising proper control over their horses; children stealing coal; bringing publicans to court for selling out of hours or for encouraging drunkenness; and (perhaps the highlight of his time in Tividale) bringing Joseph Evans and Benjamin Baker to trial for shooting ducks on the canal at Brades Village.

Brades Hall locks (from,_Gower_Branch.jpg)

During his time at Tividale, his private life was probably more interesting than his professional life. In that period Sam met and married Eliza Taylor, the daughter of the boat builder John Taylor at Brades Hall locks on the Gower Branch of the BCN. They were married at Christchurch, Oldbury on 10thFebruary 1878.  Here, for what seems to be the last time, the name Arthur Samuel was used in the registers. Both he and Eliza were recorded as being 20 at the time, which at least for Samuel, was not the case. Eliza was baptized in August 1858, so should only have been 20 at the time if there had been a significant delay between her birth and baptism, but she could well have been born in late 1857 or early 1858.  Perhaps at this point Sam was finding it necessary to continue the minor deceit concerning his age.  The couple were to return to Oldbury for the baptisms of their children John in 1880, William in 1883 and Samuel in 1991. 

Christchurch Oldbury  (from

In late 1879, Hicklin moved to a new posting in Pensnett – still in the Brierley Hill Division, but also in the Brierley Hill Sub-division. The head of the Division, Superintendent John Wollaston was based at Brierley Hill police station. The census record indicates that in 1881 Samuel and Eliza lived on Commonside (almost certainly in a police house) with their baby son John, and Police Constable Edward Wynn as a lodger. Their age inflation continued, with Samuel giving his age (in early April 1881) as 24, which implies a birth year of 1856/1857, and Eliza being 23, with a birth year of 1857/58. The move also coincided with a “merit” award on 1stJanuary 1880.

Brierley Hill Police Station and Magistrates Court (from Edina Digimap 1880)

In many ways, Hicklin’s life in Pensnett was very similar to his life Tividale – the large majority of the cases he took to court were charges of being drunk and disorderly, with the next most common being coal stealing, other petty theft, “furious” wagon driving and so on. But there were a number of other notable events. On the 26thof October 1880, Hicklin and another policeman, concealed themselves at a pit in the Wallows area, and watched a large crowd of mainly women and children picking coal from that stored at the pit. When the constables emerged from their hiding place, all the coal pickers ran away, but most were apprehended later, having been identified. In total 26 were brought to caught with ages ranging from 11 to 61. All were fined between 2s 6d and 5s, or 7 to 14 days in prison. The report ends with the rather sad note that “the charge against May Angel (13) a deaf and dumb girl, was withdrawn”.  

He also continued to come into conflict with publicans for failing to keep hours. Almost as soon as he arrived at Pensnett, on Christmas Day 1879, he visited the Sampson and Lion and found them still serving at 3.00 in the afternoon – half an hour later than should have been the case.  The whole case hinged upon whether or not his watch was correct, or whether the landlord’s clock was correct. After much discussion the bench dismissed the case, on the grounds of the landlord’s respectability and the fact that there seemed to be no intention to remain open. Hicklin’s zealousness probably did little to endear him to his local pub landlords. In a similar way, he charged the landlord of the Rifle in March 1881 with selling beer after hours, Hicklin and a colleague having concealed themselves behind the pub to observe. This time the case was proven and the landlord fined. 

There were further instances. Early one Sunday morning in October 1881, he heard voices from a house close to the High Oak public house at 2.00 on a Sunday morning, and (after secreting himself in the door of the post office) saw a group of women coming from that house to collect ale from the High Oak to take back to the house. After they had entered and then left the pub, he confronted them and found ale in their possession. Despite a raft of excuses made to the bench, the landlord of the pub, William Evans, was found guilty of keeping his house open during prohibited hours. On another occasion in December 1881, Hicklin and the main witness to drunken behavior at the Fish Inn (Cornelius Chambers, one of the leaders of the teetotaler movement in Pensnett) were challenged in the court by the defense solicitor Mr. Waldren as to whether or not he was teetotaler, in such a way that implied they had an animosity towards the sale of alcohol in any form. Hicklin admitted he was a teetotaler, but denied that he had signed any pledge, and had no intent to do so. A similar challenge by Mr. Waldren was made in a case in 1883 concerning drunken behavior at the Crown Inn on Commonside, which was bluntly rebutted by Superintendent Woollaston on Hicklin’s behalf.

The local animosity came out into the open in the middle of December 1981. Hicklin and a colleague, PC Lafford, assisted in throwing out four people from the Crown Inn on Commonside. He then went to the King’s Head Inn along the road to see the landlord there to ask him to serve on a Jury. As he entered, a man on a bench behind the door hit him a number of times with a stick, and a second man assaulted him with a poker with a blow across the shoulders. Lafford left to find assistance. When Hicklin recovered from being stunned he found his assailants and two of their friends had disappeared. Eventually Noah Bate, a miner from Commonside was arrested and brought to trial in March 1882. It would appear that Bate and the other three were those who had been thrown out of the Crown earlier. He was sentenced to jail with hard labour for two months. At that time, Hicklin was still suffering to some extent from the injuries he received. The story did not end there. On his way to the prison in Stafford, Bate was heard to say (by the accompanying Police Constable) that he would “do for that _____ Hicklin” when he came out. He was further charged with using threatening behaviour and bound over to keep the peace

Kings Head 1997 (from

 Finally the last case that is worthy of note is an instance of forgery from 1882.  Hicklin was asked to check that the signatures on testimonials provided by an applicant to be a constable were valid, and he showed that two of them were forged. One suspects that this must have been a slightly uncomfortable experience for one who did not tell the whole truth on his application to the police force!

Part 2 – Climbing the ladder  – from Sergeant to Superintendent 

Part 3 – Chief Superintendent Hicklin 

The oldest world record

Cricket in the 19th century

Perhaps the oldest sport world record still current is that for “Throwing the Cricket Ball”, with the record being listed in Wisden’s Cricketers Almanack as 140 yards 2ft by Robert Percival on Durham Sands Racecourse around 1882. The length of the throw, and the inability of any others to throw that distance over the last 140 years, has resulted in considerable scepticism concerning its veracity and reliability. As a result of a recent newspaper article about Percival’s throw (Guardian 23/4/2019), the author began to consider whether it would be possible to actually calculate the flight of a cricket ball given certain assumptions about throwing speed and angle of throw and the like, and perhaps to come to some more quantitative conclusion about whether or not Percival’s throw was possible. This paper presents the results of these calculations, together with a historical survey of “Throwing the cricket ball” competitions, and an examination of the events (and in particular the weather) on the day the record was set. 

We begin by setting out some of the background for the event at Durham Sands “around” 1882 (it will become apparent why quotation marks are used in what follows), give a brief discussion of the event itself, and then move on to discuss the results of flight trajectory calculations (in very broad terms) before coming to some sort of conclusion about whether Percival’s throw was possible. 

Throwing the cricket ball as an activity has a long history. In 1792, Mark Richmond, gamekeeper to the Duke of Richmond, threw 119 yards at Goodwood Park to defeat the Earl of Winchelsea “who had never before been beaten” (Hampshire chronicle 3/6/1820).  In the 1820s, contests were vehicles for wagers amongst gentlemen (Morning Chronicle 25/12/1822). As an athletics event it was popular at sports days in the mid- to late Victorian era, along with other events that sound strange to a modern ear, such a place kicking and drop kicking for distance and target throwing with a cricket ball at stumps between 20 and 50 yards away (for example, see the Luton Times and Advertiser 29/5/1855). However, throwing the cricket ball did not ultimately make it into the list of accepted sports for athletic events and its popularity waned. This is illustrated by the histogram of figure 1, which shows the number of mentions the phrase “Throwing the cricket ball” receives in a search of the British Newspaper Archive by decade from 1800 to 1950. This is hardly a valid statistical approach, since it depends upon the vagaries of press reporting, but is nonetheless illustrative. After around 1900, the event goes into sharp decline and by the middle of the century is confined to school sports days. It seems odd that such a simple throwing sport did not ultimately find favour at an international level, as it seems one of the most physically natural of all events and one can speculate on the reasons. Perhaps it was because throwing the ball is not really a stadium sport, as the throws are too long to conveniently fit within athletics tracks;  or because it was not included as an Olympic sport.

Figure 1 Search results for “Throwing the cricket ball” in the British Newspaper Archive

The BNA is also useful in enabling us to get some idea of how competitions were conducted and how far a cricket ball could be thrown. The competitions usually involved between two and four throws per competitor, presumably from behind some sort of throwing line. Sometimes the throw was from the top of a barrel to ensure that there was no overrunning. On occasion, penalties in terms of a set number of yards were applied, presumably for overrunning the line, and some competitions were run as handicaps (Sporting Life 12/16/1878). There is even one record of a competition where the ball had to be thrown in the left hand, won with a throw of 38 yards, presumably with no natural left hand / arm users taking part (Sporting Life 25/10/1862). Figure 2 shows the winning lengths for throwing the cricket ball events between 1860 and 1900 from “The Sporting Life” published in London, but with a national reach, and for papers published in Edinburgh during the same period. This represents only a small proportion of all the newspaper reporting, but is at least geographically representative. In general, only those results from senior pupils in school sports; from University sports; from military competitions; and from Athletics Clubs have been used. Length of throw is given in yards, in deference to historical usage, although all other units in this article will be the S.I. units in which the author (an engineer) would normally work. 

Figure 2 Length of throw from The Sporting Life and Edinburgh newspapers 

The results, although again statistically rather suspect, are nonetheless illustrative.  The London and the Edinburgh datasets are consistent with each other, with competition winning lengths through the period were around 80 to 110 yards. The school sports results tend to be at the bottom end of the range, and the student, military and athletic club results being at the higher end. There are a relatively few results above 110 yards, and the recorded limit seems to be around 120 yards. However there were a few reports of longer throws. A letter in the Dundee Evening Telegraph of 9/1/1889,reports that a Mr. Fawcett of Brighton College threw 126 yards 6 inches (or possibly 127 yards 4 inches – two figures are given). Much later, the Nottingham Journal of 18/3/1925 gave the information that, in 1873, W. H. Game of Oxford University threw 127 yards 1 foot 3 inches; in 1876. W. F Forbes threw 132 yards at the Eton College Sports; and in Dundee in 1882, A. McKellar threw 130 yards, 1 foot 6 inches. There is also the (almost inevitable) report of the omni-competent W G Grace’s prowess in this field, with a throw of 122 yards (Edinburgh Evening News 10/8/1895). Wisden itself lists two throws of similar distance to that of Percival – in 1872, Ross MacKenzie is said to have thrown 140 yards and 9 inches in Toronto, and on December 19 of that same year “King Billy the Aborigine” threw 140 yards at Clermont in Queensland. 

Now let us consider the world record event itself. The Sportsman magazine in 1889, states that it took place in 1884 at Durham Sands Racecourse (Sportsman Magazine, 3/1889). However, Rayvern Allen as reported on Cricinfo, states that this is a mistake and that it took place on Easter Monday April 18thin 1882. Something has clearly gone wrong in the transmission of information however, as Easter Monday in 1882 was on 10thApril. It was however on the required date in 1881, and the event is duly mentioned in the report in the Durham County Advertiser of 22/4/1881. Durham Sands Racecourse, was, and is, a large stretch of level ground next to the River Wear in Durham. It is shown on a map from the 1860s in figure 3. It is basically oriented east to west along the river.

Figure 3 Durham Sands Racecourse in the 1860s (from Edina Digimap)

1881 was the first year of the Sands Sports and was bitterly cold (in the author’s experience, typical of an Easter Monday on whatever date it occurs in whichever century one might be in) with a moderate easterly wind. This will be seen to be of some significance in what follows. There was a significant crowd, but visibility of the events was poor, and there was only one small stand that was poorly occupied. In addition to the Sports “there were a good number of shows, roundabouts, shooting galleries etc, …while two quadrille bands provided unlimited pleasure to numbers of young people and dancing was freely indulged in”. There was a short and rather cramped 300 yard track that was used for a horse races  – flat races for horses above 14 hands, for ponies below 14 hands, and a hurdle race for horses, all with an entrance fee and cash prizes for the winners and placed horses. For human competitors the events were a 220 yard flat race, quoits, high leap, 220 yard hurdle race, long leap, donkey race, pole leaping, put stone, one mile walking competition, 100 yards boys races, a mountebank race (!), an open flat race, and, of course, throwing the cricket ball. All had prize money for winners between 7s 6d and £1. The prize for throwing the cricket ball was the lower value. The results of the competition are simply stated as follows.

1stPercival, 2ndGnatt, 5 competitors

No throwing distances are given. It would seem that Percival was something of an expert in this event, and won many prizes, and thus supplemented his earnings as a miner quite well. At the time of the throw he was 25 years old. The census records give contradicting birth locations – Alston (1861/1871), West Auckland (1881/1891) or Northead (1901/1911).  In 1881 he lived with his family in East Thickley in County Durham. In the years following he was often to be seen at open weight wrestling competitions and was thus clearly a strong and well-built individual. The Cricinfo report of Rayvern Allen’s work suggest that in October 1884 he won £10 in a wrestling competition at Durham Sands – hence the confusion about the date of the Throwing Event. The author has not been able to trace any reference to this, but Percival did win a best of seven falls wrestling match worth £10 against G Stockdale of Spennymoor, at Wood View Gardens, Tudhoe Grange in October 1884, so again there is possibly some confusion in the transmission of information (Durham County Advertiser 24/10/1884).  He was married to Mary, and they had 6 children. In the mid 1880s and early 1990s he was firstly the professional at New Brighton CC and then  groundsman to Liverpool Police Athletic Society. But by the early 1900s he was again a miner and died in South Shields in 1980 of broncho-pneumonia. There was no obituary. 

In terms of the claim for a world record length, the Sportsman magazine in March 1889 stated that it took place on Easter Monday, 1884 (3 years too late) and “the throw was measured by the committee“. In 1897 Sporting Records was more skeptical writing “It has been claimed by R Percival that he threw 141 yards at Durham Racecourse in 1884, but this is regarded as so doubtful that few authorities even mention it.” Note that Percival himself seems to have been making the claim, and it was clearly contentious even at that stage. The record was not listed in Wisden until the 1908 edition. Also note there were other claims to the world record around at that time – on 8/11/1889 the Sporting Life reported that in Australia a certain “Crane” threw 128 yards 10½inches, beating the world record by 2 yards and 7 inches, in a competition with a touring American baseball team. Who set the “old” record, and who designated it as such, is not clear. 

So it can be seen that while Percival’s claimed throw is very much above the run of the mill competition winning throws of around 80 to 110 yards of the period, there are a number of other recorded throws of rather greater distances, and Percival’s throw seems to be at the upper end of what was possible. However, its claim to be a world record has always been treated with skepticism. Can any more be said about the likelihood of him being able to make such a throw? We thus move on now to briefly consider the trajectory calculations. They are described in a little more detail in the Appendix for those who are interested.  In simple terms the calculations use Newton’s laws to determine the trajectory of the cricket ball, allowing for air resistance and the somewhat peculiar aerodynamic properties of the cricket ball. The maximum distances are always achieved at an initial throwing angle of around 40 degrees (so the trajectory is rather like that of a javelin rather than the normal cricket throw). This results in trajectory heights of the order of 30 to 40 m. Figure 4 shows the maximum distances achieved against initial throwing speed for a new cricket ball and an old cricket ball, for no wind. Paradoxically the aerodynamic resistance of the latter is less than that of the former (just as dimpled golf balls have lower drag than smooth golf balls), and this is reflected in the distances travelled. To give some context to the throwing speeds, 40m/s (≈90mph) is the bowling speed of a current international fast bowler – but as the throwing angle and ball orientation needs to be precisely controlled, this is probably less than the maximum speed obtainable in a less controlled throw. Major League baseball players have been known to throw at up to 50m/s (≈110mph). From this figure one can conclude that, at least in still air conditions, an old ball and a high initial speed are necessary to approach the 140 yard mark. One might expect that it would be normal to use a used ball in such competitions rather than waste a new ball.

Figure 4 Calculated length of throw against throwing speed for old and new cricket balls

However, as noted above, on the day of Percival’s throw it was somewhat windy. The wind speed increases with height above the ground, and this effect has been modeled in the calculations using the same methods as would be uses in calculating the wind load on buildings in modern structural engineering codes of practice. Figure 5 shows the calculated contours of throwing distance for an old ball, plotted against initial throwing speed and wind speed at 10m above the ground, assuming a following wind. The annual average wind speed in England is of the order of 4 m/s at 10 m above the ground. It can be seen that wind speeds above the average can have a significant effect on the throwing distances at any one throwing speed. In particular a 6m/s following wind will allow a throw of 140 yards to be achieved with the same initial throwing speed as a 120 yard throw with no wind. These calculations show that the trajectory of cricket balls are much more sensitive to wind conditions than, say, javelin trajectories, largely because cricket balls are aerodynamically bluff rather than streamlined

Figure 5 Contours of length of throw plotted against initial throwing speed and wind speed at 10m height.

Now the wind conditions on the day of the throw can actually be quantified with some precision. The Durham University Observatory(figure 6), which has the second oldest sequence of continuous meteorological measurements in the world after the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, is just over 1 km away (see figure 3). Prof Tim Burt of the University Geography Department, who now has charge of the Observatory, has kindly provided the author with meteorological data for April 18th1881. Basically the wind speed that day, at the 10.00 observation, was 6 m/s from the north east. This is probably a mean value and one might expect gust wind speeds to exceed this. Presuming this was a direct following wind (and there is no indication of the throwing direction on the day, but somewhere in the east / north east quadrant is quite possible looking at the layout of the Sands) then this level of wind speed couldhave significantly assisted the throw, although, there can be no certainty on this.

So what then are we to conclude? Robert Percival was clearly one of the top throwers of the age judging by the number of competitions he won, and his wrestling activities suggest considerable innate strength. It seems to the author that, there is a prima facie case that he would have been capable of propelling the ball at the necessary speed for a 120m plus throw of an old cricket ball in still air. The conditions at the Sands on the day of the record were such that the winds may have given him considerable assistance. A throw of 140 yards seems a realistic possibility. That such a throw is possible is further confirmed in Wisden which lists a number unverified, throws of around the 140 yard mark in recent decades (in particular Ian Pont, in Cape Town in 1981 was said to have thrown 138 yards) and an unverified world record throw has appeared on Youtube.

Figure 6 The Durham Observatory

Before we conclude, some other points come to mind. 

  • Firstly the press reports tell us that on the day of the throw the conditions were quite chaotic at the Sands, with a considerable crush of people, and there was difficulty of finding space for the events themselves.  This would hardly have made for accurate measurement of the throw and perhaps gives pause for thought as to the accuracy of the measurements.  
  • Secondly, can a throw be described as a world record if it is heavily influenced by wind conditions, as the calculations suggest was the case on Easter Monday in 1881?  This point of course is a general one that reflects on the actual integrity of all results for throwing the cricket ball as the required ball trajectories are quite high and can be expected to be affected by the wind even on relatively calm days. 
  • Finally was there perhaps an anti-north, anti-working class bias in the reporting – most of the athletics reports between 1860 and 1900 concentrated on the activities of the public schools, the military and the southern clubs, and the exploits of a miner in an open Durham meeting would not be likely to gain great acceptance. Perhaps this is partly why there was a reluctance to accept the record? 

Appendix. More details on the flight calculations

The author has reported calculations of cricket ball trajectory in normal play in “A unified framework for the prediction of cricket ball trajectories in spin and swing bowling”, and the method that was developed in that paper will be used here .  The aerodynamics of cricket balls is quite complex and varies depending upon whether the ball is new or used. Basically there are three aerodynamic forces acting on the ball – the drag, the lift force due to the spin of the ball, and a side force due to differential separation on either side of the ball because of the presence of a seam. The force due to spin is only of relevance at low-ball speeds and will not be considered here. Similarly the side force relies on the seam of the ball having a fixed orientation to the flow, and a spin to stabilize it. Neither of these will be possible in a long throw, and thus this force will also not be considered. With regard to the drag force, the Reynolds’ number of the ball during flight means that the ball will pass through the “drag crisis” associated with the transition from laminar to turbulent separation. In the trajectory calculations it was assumed, based on earlier work, that for a new ball this occurs between Reynolds numbers of 1.8 x105and 2.2 x 105, whilst for old balls, it occurs between 105and 1.4 x 105. In both cases, the low Reynolds number drag coefficient was taken as 0.5 and the high Reynolds number coefficient as 0.3. For the trajectories calculated, the ball passed through the critical Reynolds number range both on the upward part of the trajectory, and on the downward leg.