Tuesday 15 April 2014

The Luddite John Hill is lost to us again, just as we thought we'd found him

'JH' - but not John Hill - the enigmatic gravestone at Greetland
Back in March, I wrote about how research by local historian Andrew Howson and myself had led us to contact Greetland Methodist Church officials to try to ensure that they looked into whether the remains of a Luddite hanged at York, John Hill, were buried in a plot there which was marked marked with an enigmatic gravestone (see picture above) bearing his initials.

This was only possible because the graveyard was being cleared in preparation for development on the site. Andrew's research into church records, combined with my publication of documents on this website, made it clear that Hill was buried at Greetland on 20th January 1813, within 4 days of his execution, and that the famous Methodist Thomas Jackson had signed the burial records, despite claims in Jackson's own biography that he prevented Luddite burials from taking place there.

Officials at Greetland Methodist Church, in particular Geoff Butler, took this research seriously, and applied for licenses to exhume the 'JH' grave plot, with archaeologists undertaking the excavation and other experts being employed to determine if the remains had injuries consistent with hanging.

In the meantime, Andrew and I determined that Hill's wife and child had died and been buried at Greetland within only a few years of Hill himself - on 16th April 1816 & 28th July 1816 respectively. Further research from Andrew determined the names that the patriarchal style of the burial records omitted - Hill's wife was originally called Susannah Fleeming, and had married Hill on Christmas Day 1810, and had died aged 26, while their daughter, Ann, was born 6 months before the Luddite uprisings in the West Riding on 28th September 1811 and died aged only 5.

There was therefore a very real prospect that Susannah and Ann had been buried with John, in the same plot.

So it was with much disappointment that I was informed by Geoff Butler yesterday that the remains found in the 'JH' plot at Greetland did not match what we had hoped would be found: instead, the grave contained the remains of a man and a woman aged over 60 years of age, and the remains of a small child up to 1 year of age.

Where is John Hill? Well, we know that he is buried somewhere in the graveyard at Greetland, but clearly not in a marked plot. The 'JH' gravestone was the only plot with a headstone that was a likely candidate. The church's own recording of the gravestones do not yield evidence that any other graves may contain John and his family. It's possible that his remains may be uncovered as work progresses on the wider site, and Geoff Butler has given me assurances that those doing the work will be alert to any remains uncovered. We can only hope that the remains of John, Susannah and Ann are located in this way.

The likelihood of a burial in an unmarked plot fits in with the fact that the latter day Methodist church was acutely embarrassed that members of its congregation were in any way connected with Luddism and the disturbances in the West Riding. In this way, Thomas Jackson wrote in his biography six decades after the burial of Hill that he had prevented the burial of Luddites (read the extract after the 'read more' link below). Strangely, Dr John Hargreaves is quoted in an article in the Yorkshire Post today saying that it's possible that Jackson's vain lies are the truth, despite the documentary evidence & primary sources that he has seen - found by amateur historians - that prove Hill's burial at Greetland & the fact that Jackson knew this had taken place.

Happily, Geoff Butler has confirmed that the current Methodist Church at Greetland is keen to remember John Hill in a more permanent way on the site, even if his remains can never be found.

The relevant extract from Thomas Jackson's biography "Recollections of My Own Life and Times" is at pp.136-137, subtitled 'A "Luddite" Plot discovered':
After this system [Luddism] had been carried on for some time, to the terror and dismay of the country, a part of the guilty men were discovered, apprehended, tried, convicted, and executed at York. Their bodies were given to their friends, who brought them to their several homes, some to Sowerby Bridge, others to the neighbouring villages and hamlets, where they were exhibited to the public as martyrs for, and friends of, the people.

An attempt was made to connect Methodism with the character and doings of these misguided and unhappy persons. Their friends resolved, on a given day, to bring their bodies to our chapel at Greetland; (a village in the Sowerby-Bridge Circuit;) take forcible possession of it; deliver addresses to the people from the pulpit; and then inter the bodies of the executed men in the grave-yard connected with the chapel. The scheme was to be kept a profound secret till the appointed time, so that no opposition might be prepared. Yet the plot was discovered in Halifax, and Mr. Bunting, having heard of it, sent a messenger to me early in the morning; when I hastened to the place where the outrage was to be perpetrated. I informed the acting Trustee of the plot which was laid, and intended on that day to be carried into execution; and he engaged, without delay, to secure the gates and doors by strong locks, and to warn any one who should attempt to take forcible possession of the premises. When the parties found that their scheme had been disclosed, and that resistance was offered, they became very wroth, threatened to pull down the chapel, and commit other acts of violence; but they saw, in the case of their deceased friends, that the law was stronger than they, and retired. A magistrate in the vicinity, hearing of this case afterwards, expressed his regret that an appeal had not been made to him at the time, saying that he would have made provision against the annoyance we had been called to resist. "The convicts," he observed, "were not Methodists, but nominal Churchmen; it was therefore right that they should be interred in the churchyards of the parishes to which they belonged." In these calamitous times I never hesitated to preach obedience to the laws, according to the precepts of the New Testament, and to warn the people against the dangerous courses to which they were incited; yet I was never interrupted in any of my night journeys across the moors, or in lonely roads.

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