John Batty’s “History of Rothwell” has become something of a “bible” for those researching the town of Rothwell and the surrounding villages of Carlton, Lofthouse, Robin Hood, Middleton and Thorpe on the Hill, as well as Oulton and Woodlesford, which made up the original ecclesiastical parish.
The book was published in 1877 and starts with Batty’s understanding of what the area was like in pre-historic times. It continues through to the Romans, the Brigantes and the tumultous years after the Norman invasion in 1066 when all the land stretching from Pontefract to Blackburn was given to one of William the Conqueror’s lieutenants, Ilbert de Lacy.
It then tells the story of the House of Lancaster and how John Of Gaunt is reputed to have killed the last wild boar in England at Stye Bank on Rothwell Haigh which was a royal hunting ground.
Much of the second part of the book is less of a history and more a description of the Rothwell district, its social life and customs, as it then was halfway through the Victorian era. The development of the stone quarry and coal industries are described and there are mentions for local characters and notable citizens.
Batty was writing at a time when there was a thirst for knowledge as more and more people were learning to read and write. An advertisement in the Rothwell Times in November 1877 proclaimed that more than 500 copies had already been sold. It was said to be a “valuable and interesting work, and a worthy contribution of antiquarian and archaeological science.”
For 3 shillings and 6 pence it was “The Cheapest Local History” with 311 pages of good type, beautifully bound in cloth with gold lettering. Copies could be bought from the author at Elm Cottage or the Post Office, run by Andrew Marshall, the editor and publisher of the Rothwell Times which he had started in 1873.
No doubt taking time to savour the book over the Christmas holidays of 1877 Andrew Marshall published a review of his friend’s work a couple of weeks later. “Every page is warm with reality and truth,” he wrote.
“It begins with an instructive glimpse of the state which the village would present in primeval times, and draws a very striking picture of the country and people. Old games and customs are noted and described, early parsons and squires biographied, and several natives of the village mentioned, who afterwards made their mark in commerce, art and literature.”
“Rothwell Gaol and its tenants receive a considerable degree of attention while the alms houses and workhouse have traditions of their own. The very primitive and rough instruments and engines used in sinking the pits and getting the coal, as well as the tearful dangers and long hours endured by the colliers in those days caused a feeling of thankfulness to thrill through one’s heart that we live in better and less dangerous times.”
“Defunct trades are rescued from oblivion by their enumeration in this work, including the cloth, brush, lace and tanning industries, while the basket weavers and band spinners still remain in full swing. The author is to be highly applauded for his painstaking research, the general correctness of his statements, and the earnest perseverance and self denial which he has shown, and the book deserves a wide circulation among our own people especially. We wish it every success.”
John Batty was born in 1837, the son of Samuel Batty, a linen draper whose shop was on Town Street, now Commercial Street, in Rothwell. John followed his father into the business and in 1864 married his first wife, Mary Ann Hick, the daughter of a “tinner” from Beeston Hill. They appear to have had five children before she died in 1875.
During this period John was active in the Rothwell Mechanics’ Institute which had been started in 1853. He helped raise money for a permanent building for the Institute on land in Marsh Street owned by John Calverley of Oulton Hall and after it opened in August 1869 he served as secretary for three years.
He was present at a musical evening which was held in September 1871 to celebrate the paying off of the debt on the new building. 200 people were in a packed hall where the guest of honour was the Lord Mayor of Leeds.
After tea at five o’clock they listened to a concert by the Leeds Original Harmonic Union, and amongst the speeches John Batty delivered his report which appealed to the working classes: “to come forward and join the Institute, and feel that it is their own, and intended to benefit them. It is hoped, also, that they will show a desire to keep it in a flourishing condition and out of debt, so that it might be a praise and power in the land, not only in regard to its financial prosperity, but for good in instructing and educating people.”
A year after the death of his first wife John married Harriet Lyon, a butler’s daughter who was living in Yeadon, and with her he had two more children. By 1881 they were living at East Ardsley where, as well as continuing the drapery business, he became the post master and the clerk of a school board.
Continuing his interest in history he unearthed parish records from the 17th century which had fallen into private hands. He also published two more books, the first in 1883 on the “scope and charm of antiquarian study” and then in 1890 an essay on the chivalry of knights in the Middle Ages. He was a member of the Yorkshire Archaeological and Topographical Association and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Towards the end of his life John Batty moved to Harrogate where he continued to work as the clerk of a school board and his wife ran a bookshop. He died in 1905.
Click on the links below to read John Batty’s “History of Rothwell”. The first link is to a pdf copy of the original text. The second link is to a full searchable transcription of the book.
JOHN O’ GAUNT’S COAT. Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald. Saturday 12 April 1873.
By John Batty.
There is in the cupboard in the vestry of Rothwell Church, carefully kept under lock and key, a waistcoat or coat, if the remnant left may now be so designated, which tradition says belonged to John of Gaunt, the famous Duke of Lancaster, and father of Henry the Fourth.
I have seen and handled it myself. It is made of strong coarse canvass, well and firmly wadded with sheep’s wool, (at that time cotton was scarcely known and certainly not in use). It is about three-quarters of an inch thick, and quilted with twine, about 19 inches across the back, a great width. I believe John of Gaunt was a man of extraordinary size, tall and broad shouldered.
The coat is shaped to fit high and close to the neck and originally no doubt came over the hips, intended to protect the vital parts of the body. It has arm holes round the edges, but never had sleeves. Its dimensions, however, have got gradually less by the decay of time, and bits from time to time have been taken from it for souvenirs.
It has probably been intended as a rest for the armour, so as to prevent its concussion with the body, and that it might rest firmly and compactly on the person. It has evidently had hook clasps in a peculiar fashion to fasten at the front. I am told that some 40 or 50 years since, there were some pieces ot armour also, but these were sent to London, to the Tower, by one of the vicars.
Now there is every probability that John of Gaunt would occasionally come over to Rothwell on his hunting expeditions, Rothwell being one of the manors and hunting lodges connected with the Duchy of Lancaster, his extensive possessions ranging from Pontefract to Lancaster; the road from Leeds to Pontefract passing through Rothwell.
Again the legend runs, that John of Gaunt killed the last wild boar in the neighbourhood, the spot being called “Stye-Bank” to this day. On the other hand parish churches in former times were very important and useful in many ways, more than at present. They were often used as armouries as well as for religious purposes, and armour was deposited within their walls for safe keeping and to be ready for use when the Lord of the Manor was required by his superior to arm his dependants for war.
This said the coat may possibly have been one remaining in the Church – a memento of bye-gone days, such as had often been worn by the poorer classes outside the person, without any other protection, for wool well pressed down is capable of resisting arrow shots or even bullets.
I presume the credibility of the thing either one way or another can never be exactly proved. Naturally the first supposition has the greatest number of adherents, for our local vanity likes to be flattered, and we are apt to prize and venerate the traces and belongings of great men.
Again I judge that a tradition handed down from generation to generation, backed by the careful preservation of the relic, cannot wholly be without some foundation, and must have a modicum of truth at least in it, therefore I incline to the belief that this identical body vesture or coat, whatever it may be termed, has once enveloped the powerful frame of the noted John of Gaunt, wise patron of Chaucer, father of English poetry, and who was also the staunch friend of Wycliffe, pioneer of the English Reformation.
The following is an obituary of John Batty by John Alexander Symington who was librarian to the Wakefield industrialist Sir Edward Brotherton who was given a peerage in 1929. After Lord Brotherton’s death in 1930 Symington became curator of the Brotherton Collection at the University of Leeds. He was also an expert on the Bronte family.
Mr. Batty, a man of unwearied energies, did much to further the interest and diffusion of antiquarian knowledge, and the cultivation and study of local history. His life was not a very eventful one. It had the usual round of family incidents, and in Mr. Batty’s own words resembled the characters which illustrate the earlier novels of George Eliot rather than the adventurous heroes who colour the pages of Scott. Such is the life of any antiquary – a simple story of constant perseverance, and untiring devotion to the work he sets himself to accomplish.
Born in 1837, Mr. Batty spent the first thirty years of his life principally in Leeds. His father was by trade a tailor, and lived at No. 3, St. John’s Street, behind the Moot Hall, and some four years after the birth of his son went to reside at Rothwell, and established his business there.
There it was that John received his elementary education, first at a dame school and afterwards at the Wesleyan Day School. When ten years of age he was entrusted to the care of his uncle, Mr. Holmes, a linen draper, of Hunslet, a well-known antiquary and art connoisseur, who entered him as a scholar in the Leeds Mechanics’ Institute School – one of the best educational establishments of its kind, it then being under the headmastership of Dr. Bedford, who afterwards became Governor of George Heriot’s Hospital, Edinburgh. Here John not only got a good commercial training, but displayed marked ability in the study of history; also it was here that he met his life-long friend, Mr. William Wheater, whom he speaks of as a thorough good antiquary in the “History of Rothwell.”
Mr. Holmes lived at Armitage Hall, on Hunslet Moor Side, and was possessed of a large and well-selected library, which, together with his collections of archaeological and historical treasures (now housed in the Leeds City Art Gallery) were happy surroundings for a young man of Batty’s turn of mind. Taking a keen interest in the welfare of his nephew, Mr. Holmes devoted much of his time and energies in teaching and training him, and in 1851 John became an apprentice to the drapery trade with his uncle, who afterwards entrusted to him much care and responsibility in the business.
Until his marriage, in 1864, Mr. Batty resided with his uncle, and the spirit, and inspiration which the associations at Armitage Hall and the companionship of Mr. Holmes created in him were undoubtedly very beautiful. His reading was wide and varied; he became a great admirer of Sir Walter Scott and he looked upon Thoresby as the ideal of an antiquary. At 27 years of age he married a Miss Hick, of Beeston Hill, and took up a residence in that suburb. Three years later Mr. Holmes gave up the drapery business, and Mr. Batty joined his father in a similar capacity at Rothwell.
From 1870 we find Mr. Batty a very active and prominent member of the intellectual, social, and commercial life of the little town of Rothwell. He was honorary secretary to the Mechanics’ Institute during an important period of its history, and devoted much time to lectures and social functions; also he was frequently contributing literary essays and antiquarian notes to the local press.
Rothwell certainly presented a very rich and fruitful field of undiscovered archaeological treasures, and Mr. Batty assiduously sat himself to gather material for a “History of Rothwell,” which, after many years of patient toil, careful research and labour, he was enabled to publish in 1877.
The work was well received, and proved a valuable contribution to Yorkshire topography. It is upon this work that Mr Batty’ reputation seems to rest, and it has undoubtedly brought him many admirers and friends, one of whom, Mr Cornelius Walford, was instrumental in obtaining a Fellowship of the Royal Historical Society for Mr Batty in recognition and appreciation of his work.
In 1879 Mr Batty removed to East Ardsley, near Wakefield, where he commenced a small business on his own account. Here, again, his interests were turned to acquiring some knowledge of the history of the place, and finding that little or nothing was known, the subject instinctively engaged his attention. He was successful in gathering much curious and interesting information, a good deal of which is inserted in the parish magazine of that place; also he was fortunate in discovering the old town is a book of the parish of the East Ardsley, which embraces the momentous years from 1652 to 1696, and upon which subject he wrote two papers before the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.
During the thirty years that Mr. Batty resided at East Ardsley, he displayed considerable industry and many activities. His business prospered, and his pen was ever flowing. In 1883 he was confirmed in the Church of England by Bishop Ryan, and in the same year was appointed Clerk to the East Ardsley School Board. He transferred his business to larger premises, and four years later had built his own establishment, and had added another responsibility to his many duties, that of Postmaster.
It was in the earlier days at East Ardsley that he wrote a well-known essay on “The Charm and Scope of Antiquarian Study,” which he considered his best work, and afterwards revised, enlarged, and published it in pamphlet forms; a second edition of which was issued by Mr. George Redway, of London, in superior style. It was here also that he wrote “The Spirit and Influence of Chivalry,” published by Mr. Elliot Stock in 1890.
He also contributed articles to the volumes of “Old Yorkshire,” edited by Mr. William Smith, of Morley, one of which. a very interesting paper on “The Antiquities of Rothwell Church, was soon afterwards followed up by Mr. Batty directing the attention of the archaeological world to some very fine Anglo-Saxon carvings he had discovered in the church, drawings of which he submitted to the great Runic scholar, Professor Stephen, of Copenhagen whose interesting letter, pronouncing them as “very valuable and precious,” was published in “The Antiquary.”
Mr. Batty afterwards furnished a very descriptive account of them to the Journal of the Yorkshire Archaeological and Topographical Association. Casts were also made of these old-world stone carvings, and presented to the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society’s Museum at Mr. Batty’s expense.
Mr. Batty was not a man of very robust health, and in 1898 he removed to Harrogate in the hope of gaining some benefit. Although he relinquished the cares of business and other arduous duties, he still continued to write, among his later works being “Old Yorkshire Gleanings,” “Phases of Old Yorkshire Parish Life,” “A Short History of Wakefield,” and others.
His health did not improve, and in 1903 he became blind, when he added another proof that necessity is the mother of invention by constructing a writing apparatus for the blind, which he used with considerable success. He now devoted himself to poetry, and composed many verses, the longest poem being “A Father’s Address to his Family on becoming Blind.”
He died on August, 19, 1905, much respected for the work he had done was highly appreciated. He was scrupulously careful in his choice of words and style of composition, and ever sought to charm the reader both with the narrative and interest in his subject.