John Whittaker

John Whittaker, most probably photographed just before he left for India.

Whilst it’s true to say that most people who grew up and lived in Oulton and Woodlesford in the 19th century didn’t travel far from the township there were some who journeyed far and wide. From the opening of the railway in 1840 it was possible for those with a little spare money to go on day trips and longer holidays to seaside resorts like Scarborough and Blackpool. Later, in the 1880s and 1890s, others packed their bags for good and emigrated to start new lives in the United States and the colonies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. A few served in foreign wars as soldiers and sailors. A minority ended up in exotic locations in the tropics in Africa and Asia. 

One of these was joiner and cabinet maker John Whittaker, a colourful character from Oulton who left behind a wife and family to travel to India in the 1850s. Well read and educated, before he left he was a pioneer member of the Mechanics’ Institute and had been involved in a dramatic village dispute as well as serving a short prison sentence. 

John’s father was tailor and draper Robert Whittaker, born at Heywood in Lancashire in 1789. In Oldham in 1816 he married Hannah Wrigglesworth who had grown up at Fleet Mills in Oulton where her family had longstanding roots. It’s not known how she came to be on the other side of the Pennines but it’s clear that after their marriage the couple moved to live in Oulton where Robert set up in business.

The hand weaving of woollen cloth, blankets and flannels had been going on in the Rothwell district since the Middle Ages, with Oulton in particular being a centre of the trade, so Robert would have a ready market for his skills buying the cloth locally and turning it into finished garments.

Between 1817 and 1829 Robert and Hannah had six children – Thomas, Edward, George, Elizabeth, John and Robert. They all survived and by the early 1840s they lived next door to stone mason John Pool in a cottage adjacent to the Old Masons’ Arms.

The two oldest boys followed their father into the tailoring business, known as Whittaker and Sons, although after he married Thomas became a mechanic in the Leeds engineering industry. George and John were apprenticed as joiners and the youngest child, Robert, also trained as a tailor and draper although later he went to college in York and for the rest of his life was a school master in Yorkshire and Lancashire.

Elizabeth Whittaker trained as a dress maker and married John Woodcock, a cooper from Goole who worked at Bentley’s brewery. Both of them were patients in Leeds General Infirmary when the 1861 census was taken suggesting they had contracted a contagious disease. He died three years later but she recovered and was in domestic service in Leeds in 1873 when she married a Horsforth born corn dealer. They ran a farm at Kirkheaton near Huddersfield but as he grew older the couple moved back to Oulton where they took in traction engine drivers as lodgers in a house on Claremont Terrace.

Before the Oulton Institute in the background was built the Whittaker family lived in one of the two cottages on the left of this picture. Fairfield cottage is on the right. Admiral Brear’s workshop is just out of shot on the right.

Of all the family John Whittaker’s life appears to have been the most interesting. He was born in 1827 and by the time he was 14 years old was apprenticed to a joiner, possibly to Admiral Brear whose workshop was just a few yards away on the corner of Quarry Hill and Aberford Road.

After he qualified in about 1847 John teamed up with George Lockwood from Kirkburton near Huddersfield in a business, based in Woodlesford, known as Whittaker and Lockwood. George was a year younger than John and he may have been attracted to the area to work on the expansion of Henry Bentley’s brewery in the 1840s.

The business appears to have gone well for a number of years with both men involved in building new houses as well renovating old ones. They also made furniture and John branched out as a commission agent selling musical instruments. He was on the committee and became secretary of the Oulton-with-Woodlesford branch of a Mechanics’ Institute formed to provide adult education to working men, especially in technical subjects. In 1851 the branch had 93 members with a library of 696 books. They maintained a “newsroom” where newspapers could be read and that year they organised 15 lectures. John was also a member of the Camden Society which, for a yearly subscription of about £1, sent out two volumes of classic and literary books. 

John represented the branch at delegate meetings of the Yorkshire Union of Mechanics’ Institutions in Leeds and in June 1851 was present at their 14th anniversary conference when their membership had reached 20,000. A newspaper report notes that he seconded a motion to appoint an auditor. After the meeting he joined the 60 other delegates for a dinner held at the White Horse Hotel on Boar Lane. Other guests included the Leeds industrialist James Kitson and Robert Stephenson, chief engineer of the railway through Woodlesford. The same year John was probably amongst a party from the area who travelled by an excursion train to visit the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in London.

A Midland Railway ad placed in the Leeds Times in July 1851 showing the twice weekly excursion trains and fares to the Great Exhibition.

In 1852 John Whittaker married Emma Smalley, a widow from Woodlesford, and their only child, Anne Whittaker, was born in July 1854.

Emma’s widowed mother, Elizabeth Armitage Lee, lived on Prince’s Street. She  owned a number of houses in the village and it was probably whilst working for her that John met Emma who had an 11 year old daughter from her first marriage. Emma’s father, John Lee, had been born in Oulton and had made his money as a dyer. He appears to have had business interests in St. Petersburg in Russia where he took his family. It was there that in 1840 Emma had married her first husband, cotton manufacturer Robert Smalley.

Whittaker and Lockwood were still going strong. In 1855 they were engaged to rebuild the business premises in Rothwell of linen draper and shoe manufacturer John Holmes who lived in Methley. Another contract was for the carpentry on a new church at Brampton Bierlow near Barnsley. It was built on land donated by Earl Fitzwilliam and was consecrated by the Archbishop of York in August 1855.

One of their largest jobs was the renovation at about the same time of a building, believed to be part of Woodlesford House opposite the White Hart, which was used for Anglican worship until the church opened in 1870. It was leased for a small fee by wealthy solicitor John Dobson after an appeal by the Reverend Richard Hugh Hamilton of Oulton who needed somewhere for services for his Woodlesford parishioners who couldn’t attend the church at Oulton. In a report in the Leeds Mercury of a tea party, in two sittings attended by 500 people, to mark the building’s opening in May 1855 John Whittaker was described as the “village architect.”

Very shortly after that things turned sour and just over six months later, in January 1856, John was badly in debt and in prison in York. It’s not known what went wrong but he may have overstretched himself borrowing money buying musical instruments which didn’t sell. Luckily someone appears to have started to pay off his debts quite quickly because within a week he was reported to have been released and living in lodgings.

It’s impossible to know for sure what John Whittaker’s frame of mind was when he returned to Oulton. A good guess is that he was a bitter man and that may have influenced his behaviour just over 18 months later when he became one of the leaders in a minor revolt which became known as the “Battle of the Well.” It happened during the summer of 1857, a turbulent time with fights breaking out and guns brandished in a dispute over a well which had been open to villagers for generations.

People who lived close to the well, which is believed to have been at the bottom of Quarry Hill, were incensed at the actions of James Hartley, who blocked it off and installed pipes and a pump. Hartley was a retired mason who had been appointed “Surveyor of Highways” responsible for roads and other public property. The well was on his land and he said he had enclosed it because he was concerned that children might fall in. His neighbours were furious and broke down a wall and tore up the pipes.

They were all charged with damage to property but after they hired a barrister to speak for them the magistrates found in their favour. It didn’t end there though because a week later the villagers threatened to demolish a “mistle” or cowshed built by Hartley next to the well. As tempers rose the proprietor of Fleet Mills, John Jackson, was sent for and he turned up on his horse armed with a double-barrelled gun, and a brace of pistols.

Challenging John Whittaker at the door of his father’s house he said: “I’ll shoot you, if you come near me, or speak to me tonight. I will blow your brains out.” Luckily he rode away but was then taken to court where he was fined and bound over to keep the peace for six months. A few weeks later the dispute flared up again with John Whittaker and his neighbour, bricklayer John Higgins, getting into a fight with James Hartley.

A plan of Oulton made in 1869, a decade after the “Battle of the Well.” Aberford Road runs diagonally across the page. James Hartley’s house is marked next to the Old Masons’ Arms which has been wrongly labelled as the New Masons’.

In court it was said Higgins hit Hartley on the nose, saying: “I’ll help thee to kill him,” to which Whittaker replied: “Aye, do, lad.” They were bound over to keep the peace for six months, although the magistrates appeared to have some sympathy with them saying they would also have bound over Hartley too, had he not been the complainant. 

As the adults in the village were taking it out on each other the children were watching and listening and one young boy seems to have copied the actions of his elders with a near tragic outcome. He was Joseph Fletcher, who was 8 or 9 years old. His father had given him a large horse pistol to scare off birds in the fields. On his way there he met a girl, took her into a passage, and said he would shoot her, before firing the pistol at her. She was badly injured and unable to give evidence when Joseph appeared in court. He was remanded in custody but there were no further newspaper reports of the case and it’s not known what happened to him or the girl. Full details of the incidents as they were were reported in the Leeds newspapers are reproduced below.

During this period John Whittaker appears to have been living with his parents. The impact of his bankruptcy and the well dispute on his marriage is unknown but, from census returns, his wife appears not to have left her mother’s house in Woodlesford.

Whatever the state of their relationship it’s known that after the turmoil in Oulton in the summer of 1857 John Whittaker decided to pack his bags and seek his fortune in colonial India, perhaps as a way of paying off his debt to whoever bailed him out. Leaving his family behind he travelled to Bombay (Mumbai) in the latter part of 1857 or 1858. With his background as a joiner and builder one possibility is that he made the move because of a connection with the Faviell family of railway and canal builders. When he was a boy in the 1830s the Faviells had the contract for building the canal section of the Aire and Calder Navigation between Woodlesford and Methley. One of them, Jeremiah Bourne Faviell, had married in Rothwell and had a long standing association with the district. In the 1850s his younger brother, William Frederick Faviell, was the chief engineer of a railway being built in tough mountainous country east of Bombay and it’s therefore possible that John Whittaker went out to work on it. 

Unfortunately there’s no documentary proof of this theory. What is known that William Frederick Faviell was a hard task master and the harsh conditions along with the low wages he paid to his Indian labourers led to a riot in January 1859. The government dismissed Faviell and appointed another contractor and at this point John Whittaker may have lost his job.

He’s next heard of in July 1859 employed by officials in the British imperial government. This information comes from Mahesh Ranganathan in his 1999 book “Fencing the Forest.” It’s a study of the methods British colonialists used to change the environment thereby depriving local populations of access to the food and fuel from the forests which they’d enjoyed for generations. From documents in the Mumbai archives Ranganathan found that John Whittaker was surveying the forest to advise on the management and availability of wood for building work. “Whittaker focused official attention on the situation in Betul where he was deputed to supply 200,000 logs for the Indian Peninsular Railway but found ‘nearly the whole of the timber illegally cut by the Bohras, native timber dealers’,” he writes.

Another railway contracting partnership John Whittaker is thought to be associated with was Lee, Watson and Aiton, a partnership which built the line between Baitool and Oomrawattee. He’s also believed to have had links to Wythe and Jackson which had contracts with the East Indian Company. Through either bad judgement or just bad luck it’s understood that in 1860 he went bankrupt again.

The next reference to him comes in 1865 when he had formed a partnership with a man called Lawson. They had been given a contract to build a gas pipeline in Bombay which consisted of a number of small swampy islands. John’s woodworking skills were needed to construct wooden platforms to carry the iron gas pipes above the waterlogged ground. The chairman’s report for the Bombay Gas Works for 1865 states: “In Bombay, such is the pressure arising from public works and building operations, that it is a matter of extreme difficulty to find men with proper qualifications and sufficient capital to undertake a work of so large a character as we had to execute. We eventually closed with Messrs. Whittaker and Lawson. Due securities have been given for the performance of the contract, and on the 31st December next they are to hand over the works to us complete.”

The report went on: “I regret to say that the gentleman who has had the management of the laying down of the pipes, and in whose ability we had the greatest confidence, has been attacked by paralysis and was obliged to return home.” It’s not clear whether this was John Whittaker or his partner but records show that John died from “a disease of the brain” in Bombay on 17 September 1865 and was buried the following day in Byculla cemetery. His home was at York Cottage in the Parel area which he shared with Rebecca Rachel Anthony, an Anglo Indian referred to in his will as “living with me as my wife.” They had a daughter, Emma Jane, born on 1 January 1864 and baptised in the St. Thomas’ Cathedral in March that year when John was described as a builder.

John Whittaker’s will was made just two days before he died leaving everything invested in trust for Emma Jane, interest to be paid to her mother for her education until she reached the age of 21, and then directly to her. There was no mention of the wife, stepdaughter and daughter back in Yorkshire. Rebecca Rachel’s brother was named as the executor.

In May 1865 John’s father, Robert, made his will in Oulton. He divided his estate between his children, but didn’t include John and gave no reason. The omission may have been because he had given money to his son earlier, possibly for his passage to India, or he may have disapproved of the “country marriage” in Bombay.

Between 1857 and his death John Whittaker appears not to have returned home to England. Despite the cause of death being what appears to have been disease a family legend developed that he had lost his life after being robbed by his servant who was trying to steal the company payroll.

Back in Woodlesford his first business partner, George Lockwood, went from strength to strength and brought up a family of seven children. He continued to sell musical instruments, eventually handing over the business to his eldest son, Walter, who was the organist at Woodlesford church for nearly 50 years.

When Admiral Brear died Walter took over his premises and lived at Fairfield Cottage on the corner of Quarry Hill and Aberford Road, opposite the Whittaker’s house. On his death in 1927 he handed over to his son Sydney who worked there until he retired. The building was then bought and renovated by joiner Brian Westwood. 

Annie Whittaker before she left Woodlesford.

John Whittaker’s daughter, Annie, appears to have had little contact with her father’s family and following the deaths of her granny Lee from old age, her half-sister from tuberculosis, and her mother from cancer in 1873 she was left alone in Woodlesford when she was just 19 years old.

With nowhere else to go she decided to leave the village and travelled to live with her mother’s sister, Elizabeth, who was still in St. Petersburg married to businessman Issac Moss. There, in 1875, Annie married John Simpson from Northumberland, a civil engineer who had a contract to design branches to the main Russian railway lines.

The couple had a large family. They lived in Novgorod, went for holidays in Estonia and never returned to live in England. Annie died in 1904 a few weeks short of her 50th birthday. Her descendants live all over the world.


Some considerable excitement was evinced at the Wakefield Court House, on Monday last, caused by that day being the one appointed for the hearing of the great pump question connected with the village of Oulton; and which appears to have set the highway surveyors of that place in antagonism to most of the inhabitants.

Four large wagons, filled with witnesses for the defence, and others, arrived in Wood Street at eleven o’clock, and the Court House was crowded in every part.

William Poole, Edward Whittaker, Amos Cockerham, James Bretton, Benjamin Moore, Robert Whittaker, William Ingham, Joseph Gosney, John Hutchinson, Thomas Chadwick, Henry Cockerham, Thomas Higgins, Charles Cockerham, George Ball, David Smith, Benjamin Tempest, John Higgins, Young Abbey, John Dacre, Christopher Dacre, and John Whittaker, all of Oulton-cum-Woodlesford, were charged with having, on the 20th of July, at Oulton, committed injury, damage, and spoil, to the property of James Hartley, one of the surveyors of Oulton, by pulling up a quantity of lead piping, and doing injury to certain other property belonging to him.

Mr. Middleton, barrister, of Leeds, instructed by Mr. Charles Naylor, solicitor, Leeds, appeared for the complainant; and Mr. Shaw, barrister, of Wakefield, instructed by Mr. Barratt, solicitor of the latter place, appeared for the defendants.

Mr. Middleton, in opening the case, said he appeared on behalf of the surveyors, and the present information was laid under the 24th Geo. 4th, chapter 30, which provided that the Petty Sessions had jurisdiction in a case where any person committed any damage to property, provided the amount did not exceed £5.

Mr. Middleton then stated that a public well had existed in Oulton for a long time; that such well was in a highly dangerous condition, there being no protection against children falling into it; that complaints of its state had been made to the surveyors; that in consequence the surveyors had enclosed the well, and erected a pump, at the end of a passage leading to the well, having also laid down a quantity lead piping from the well to the pump.

It seemed a number of the inhabitants took umbrage at the pump; and on the 20th of July had assembled in large numbers, taken up the lead piping, demolished it and knocked down a wall which had been erected at the back of the well.

Mr. Shaw took a number of legal objections to the case being tried before the Court, contending that it had no jurisdiction, that the matter must be taken as whole; and the whole of the injury done brought into the question, not merely selecting the damage done to the lead piping.

This, however, having been overruled, Mr. Middleton called Mr. Hartley, and several other witnesses, who deposed to the dangerous state of the well and the subsequent disorderley proceedings. Mr. Shaw declined to call witnesses; but took his ground on the prescriptive right the community to their own property; that according to law, where there was malicious intention, people had a right use force to resist encroachment on their public property. The well in question had been a public one from time immemorial.

Mr. Hartley, for his own purposes, had secluded the well at the end a narrow passage, about seven feet high and two and half wide; had built a wall just behind it, thus endeavouring to appropriate a piece of land which had hitherto been pubic property in connection with the well. Mr. Shaw cited various cases in support of his argument; and the chairman ultimately gave it as his opinion that no more force had been used by the defendants than was necessary to remove the obstruction.

THREATENING TO SHOOT. Leeds Intelligencer, Saturday 15 August 1857.

At the Wakefield Petty Sessions on Monday last, Mr. John Jackson, corn miller, Wakefield, and proprietor of the Fleet Mills, Oulton-cum-Woodlesford, was charged with having, on the 6th of August, threatened to shoot Mr. John Whittaker, builder, of the same place.

In last week’s Intelligencer we detailed the proceedings which had been taken in connection with the forcible destruction of a pump which had been substituted by the highway surveyors in place of an ancient well, which they had enclosed. Tbe magistrates, after hearing the case on Monday last, decided in favour of the defendants, believing that no more force had been used than was necessary to resist encroachment on a public right.

This decision appears to have given encouragement to the parties engaged in the demolition of the pump, it coming to the ears of Mr. Hartley, one of the surveyors, that it was the intention of the villagers to remove a “mistle” which he had erected on some land contiguous to the well.

On Thursday afternoon week, Mrs. Hartley, during her husband’s absence, observed several men prowling about the premises, some with saws and others with hatchets. Becoming alarmed, she sent one of her children down to Fleet Mills, with a message to Mr. Jackson, requesting him to come up.

Mr. Jackson, on hearing of the state of affairs, armed himself with a double-barrelled gun, and a brace of pistols, mounted a horse, and took his way first to the residence of the constable, and afterwards to Mr. Hartley’s.

On his way he passed Whittaker’s house, Whittaker himself standing at the door. Mr. Jackson rode up to within few feet of the causeway, and presenting the pistol, said, “Whittaker, I’ll shoot you, if you come near me, or speak to me tonight. I will blow your brains out. I’ve two of them (meaning the pistols,) and they are both loaded with ball.”

Mr. Jackson then rode away. It was stated in evidence that he had previously threatened to “put the contents” of a double-barrelled gun into a person named Chadwick. Both Whittaker and Chadwick were defendants in the pump case last Monday.

Mr. Jackson, in his defence, said his only object was to preserve the peace of the village, which latterly had been sadly outraged, the decision of the magistrates last Monday having given encouragement to the demolishers of the pump.

The reason he brought out the fire-arms was because he thought their appearance might have a deterring effect upon the persons who were threatening to pull down the “mistle.” He had never loaded them or fired them off in his life. Mr. Superintendent Hall bore testimony to the assertion that the pistols had not been lately loaded.

The bench believing that the threat had been proved, adjudged Mr. Jackson to be bound over in his own recognisances to keep the peace towards Mr. John Whittaker and all Her Majesty’s subjects for the space of six months, and to pay the expenses, £1. 6s. 6d. The chairman also said the magistrates would have dealt in a very different manner with the parties had they destroyed the “mistle.”


Yesterday, at the Wakefield Court House, before E. Tew, Esq., chairman, W. H. Leatham, J. Barff, and J. A. Charlesworth, Esqrs., two men named John Whittaker (master cabinet maker), and John Higgins, stone mason, were charged with having at Oulton-cum-Woodlesford, on the 22nd ult., assaulted and threatened to kill James Hartley, one of the surveyors of that township.

A few weeks since a disturbance took place among the villagers, owing to the surveyors having closed a public well, and instead erected a pump; in consequence of which a number of the inhabitants, including the two defendants, assembled, and pulled down the pump.

The township surveyors and the villagers since then have been opposing and annoying each other as much as possible. Mr. Jackson, the other surveyor, was summoned by Whittaker for threatening to shoot him, the Magistrates on that occasion deciding in favour of Whittaker.

In the present case, Mr. Wainwright appeared on behalf of the complainant, and Mr. Barratt for the defendants.

Mr. Hartley, on being sworn, stated that on the 21st ult. he received a note, signed “John Whittaker,” which was in effect that if the stones placed near the well were not removed by six o’clock in the evening, he should remove them by force.

The well is situated in a garden belonging to complainant, and near to it is a stone chimney piece, which has been there above eight years. The day following, Whittaker and the other defendant entered the garden, bringing with them a wheelbarrow.

On defendants getting into the garden, Whittaker commenced putting the stones into the wheelbarrow, upon a which complainant interfered, and told him he had no right to remove them. Whittaker still persisting in doing so, he seized him by the coat collar.

On this Whittaker struck him violently upon the mouth and pushed him against the wall. Higgins then came up and struck complainant upon the nose, saying “I’ll help thee to kill him,” to which he replied “Aye, do, lad.”

Had it not been for his wife and some other females, who took him home, he believed they would have killed him. Mrs. Hartley, her daughter, and another witness named Kidd, were also called, and their evidence differed in some respect from that of complainant.

For the defence, it was alleged that the complainant was the first aggressor, having seized Whittaker by the coat collar, tore his coat, and afterwards stripped and offered to fight either of the defendants.

As a number of witnesses having been examined for the defence, the Bench bound the defendants’ over in £25 each to keep the peace for six months, intimating that had Hartley not been the complainant they should also have bound him over.