24.32 – William and Sarah Ann Helliwell

This story was told as part of our “Dead for the Holidays” 2023 tour.

We stand here by the grave of William Helliwell, a good Todmorden name.  Reading between the lines, it sounds to me as though William led a difficult life, and did not live to an old age, being only 63 when he died.  But let’s go back to the beginning, and I’ll share what we’ve learned about William.

He was born at Underback, Stansfield, on the 26th of May 1830.  He was the youngest of 6, 3 boys and 3 girls.  Dad had been a Chelsea Pensioner, having served as a member of the Life Guards, which is the most senior regiment of the British Army and part of the Household Cavalry.  This sounds like it would have been a prestigious post, and he must have been disappointed to have been discharged after a short time for ‘incurable scrofulous disease in his right hand’.  Our researcher looked into this and feels it was most likely Dupuytren’s contracture, which is a condition where the hand has nodules and bumps and the fingers curl into the palm and cannot be opened. 

Prior to joining the Life Guards, dad had been a weaver, but he couldn’t return to this profession with his right hand in this condition, and he ended up taking work as a farm labourer.  This would have been a drop in status and the family may have struggled.  The first indication of this is the 1841 census which shows that William, aged 10, was employed as a worsted weaver, and the family were living at Cockden.  In 1851 the family had moved to Castle Street, and his profession aged 20 is shown as ‘power loom cotton weaver’.  This shows how far the industry came in a short time, as it seems likely that William had learned his trade on a hand loom, and by 1851, power looms were more common.  This involved monitoring anywhere from 10 to as many as 30 separate looms at a time.  The power loom was known as the Lancashire loom, and it meant that a single weaver could produce an average of 12 times more textile… which made a lot of people rich.  Just not the weavers.

But I digress.

In April 1856, William married Sarah Ann Heyworth, a neighbour.  Interestingly, he listed his father’s occupation as ‘cattle dealer’… which seems a bit of a stretch.  Another indication that William was struggling with where he found himself?  We do know the family seemed to have moved frequently showing different addresses in every census from 1861-1891, and in the meantime Sarah Ann and William had 8 children—6 of whom survived to adulthood.

In August of 1878 William and a neighbour were arrested and charged with stealing peas from a neighbour’s garden.  Far from a youthful prank, William was 48 at the time, and told a tall tale of chasing a canary as his excuse for why he was in the garden.  Unfortunately, the garden’s owner was unwilling to forgive the theft, as he had had vegetables taken from his garden previously.  Can you imagine Sarah Ann’s face when Ashworth went to speak to her about it?! The only reason I can imagine for this was scarcity of food or money…the 3rd piece of evidence that William seems to have led a difficult life.  If I’m right about his reasons, the punishment will have been harsh.  He was given the choice between paying 30 shillings fine and 11 shillings for costs, plus 2 pennies for the damage to the garden… or a month’s imprisonment with hard labour.  He seems to have paid the fine.

William’s name appears again in the papers in June 1888 when he’d have been 58.  He was injured at work when one of the shuttles flew off a loom and shattered his specs, sending glass into his eye.  He was treated at Manchester Royal Eye Institute, but he unfortunately lost his sight completely in that eye.  He never returned to weaving, and in the 1891 census his occupation is given as labourer.  Yet again, a Helliwell suffered a setback due to health.  Of course, in this day and age, the employer would have been held liable for this injury and William would have been compensated, but alas… William died on the 1st January 1894, aged 63, occupation given as Plumber’s Labourer.

An interesting side note is that William’s daughter was Emily Helliwell, who was an important witness in the tragic murder of Clara Law—a story you are no doubt familiar with.  If not, buy the Librarian a drink sometime and she’ll regale you!  But to her father, William Helliwell, we say—I hope wherever you are now, you can see just fine, and that you have plenty of peas to eat.  We remember you.

So what happened to Sarah Ann? She outlived William and ended up living with their youngest son Frank and his wife Annie. By 1911 Frank and Annie had four children and she was undoubtedly getting her fill of grandchildren – hopefully that was what she wanted! She died in 1912 and was buried here with William, closing out this grave’s story.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *