The good death of Lawrence Britcliffe, part one: the funeral

Ebenezer Particular Baptist Chapel, Bacup (photo from GEN-UKI)

This is the first in a series about an episode in my own family history – apologies, but it’s a long way from the Black Country.

One of the things that stuck with me most in Alison Light‘s description of family history research was the idea of making great bold leaps back through time (this was a book discussed in the Storying The Past group). In her case, it was bouncing back by decennial census returns, something anyone who’s researched their family tree will be familiar with. Doing my own genealogy, I got as far back as the censuses allowed, then a little further thanks to the heroic efforts of the Lancashire Online Parish Clerks website, before hitting a dead end. Thanks to others’ tremendous research I was eventually able to tie my own line of Briercliffes in with those identified back to 12th century Burnley, which is quite frankly amazing. Lots of jumping through history here though, and no more so than when footnote following.

As you can imagine, I was pretty excited to find a Briercliffe genealogy forum, and on there a link to a newspaper article on “Burwains, Briercliffe”. In March 1914, in between an advert for Dr Cassell’s Tablets and “Husband’s Vexation: Burnley Matrimonial Dispute,” the Literary and Antiquarian Corner of the Burnley Express & Advertiser was given over to a history of a house named Burwains, on the South Pennine moors overlooking the cotton village of Briercliffe. One of the incidents described here is “An Old Cliviger Tragedy” (Cliviger is a village on the road between Burnley and Todmorden), telling the dramatic story of Lawrence Britcliffe, or Briercliffe (1701-1742). We’ll discuss Lawrence more down the line – suffice to say, he is my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle, brother to my direct ancestor, William (1710-1774).

Contemporary woodcut of the hanging of the Pendle Witches (source)

In describing this family (my family), the unnamed author pulls out a fantastic quote: “the Briercliffes would appear to have been one of those gloomy and fated races, dogged by some unassuagable nemesis, in which crime and horror are transmitted from generation to generation.” We have an unassuagable nemesis! I couldn’t let that pass, and thankfully our good author provides a full citation: this was from “Mr James Crossley, in his preface to the Chetham Society’s reprint of Potts’ Discoverie of Witchcraft.” [At the recent urban history conference in Cambridge, Bob Morris made a stand in defence of nostalgia, and I’m with him here – sometimes the amateur historian can make the most incredible resource, and that’s true at records offices and civic societies up and down the country].

In my flush of excitement of finding a missing link and a story, I have to confess I originally didn’t dig any deeper. But recently I thought I had better tackle this footnote and see where it led. Potts’ book was originally published in 1613 and stemmed from Thomas Potts’ experiences of the Lancashire witch trials of the preceding year. Just a year after the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible, Potts was a clerk on the Northern assize circuit, bringing him into contact with the infamous trials in Lancaster. Religion was at peak controversy with James I trying to walk a line between Catholics, Anglicans and Dissenters – what better way to show authority than by trying, executing, and publicising these witches? The most famous were from Pendle – just across the valley of the Colne Water and visible from the Briercliffes’ homestead of Burwains – a good list of further reading can be found here.

Dr James Crossley, from the Chetham Society website

In 1845, the Chetham Society of Manchester reprinted the famous work with a new foreword by one of its founders, Dr James Crossley (1800-1883). Crossley (aka “Manchester’s Dr Johnson”) was a widely-connected and well-respected writer (despite publishing a notable fraud on mummies). There’s bound to be a fascinating study in these Victorian networks of gentlemen amateur local historians – I may later cite the occupant of Towneley Hall, Burnley, who copied and thus preserved deeds enabling the Briercliffe family to be traced extensively. Crossley had consulted the noted antiquarian of Cheshire George Ormerod. Ormerod loaned Crossley a tract published in 1743 entitled The Triumph of Sovereign Grace, or a Brand plucked out of the Fire, by David Crosly, Minister, Manchester. I wonder if Crossley was a descendant of this Crosly; I wonder too if Dr Whitaker, who Crossley gives as the previous owner of the work, was any relation to Mary Whitaker (d.c.1752), Lawrence Britcliffe’s widow?

Thomas Dunham Whitaker (1759-1821) was a folklorist

Thomas Dunham Whitaker, from the Romantic Circles website

and biographer, alongside his main job of vicar of Whalley and Holme Chapel (near to Cliviger and his family home; he was later also vicar of Heysham and Blackburn). Among his works are a re-editing of Ralph Thoresby (he was also married to a Lucy Thoresby of Leeds, so there may be some connection to the famous antiquarian there), topographical studies of parts of Yorkshire, and histories of Whalley and Clitheroe, and Craven. Whitaker appears to have been something of a completist in terms of Lancashire folklore and history, which explains both his possession of the tract that came to James Crossley, and Crossley’s bemusement about Whitaker’s lack of knowledge of the Pendle witches of 1612. In Crossley’s introduction to Potts (still following?) he notes “curious anecdotes which the Doctor gives with great unction” about the Briercliffes – I’ve yet to find these, as those in his History are fairly basic topographical history along the lines of the later VCH. Crossley is less good a referencer than the Burnley Express columnist, hence the current dead end.

However, we do find more luck if follow David Crosly (sic), and it takes us on another leap back in time. David Crosley (1670-1744 – see his ODNB entry) was a local lad who really got around a bit. Born in the Todmorden district, he became acquainted with John Bunyan and followed in the latter’s itinerant ways – he’s recorded preaching in Spitalfields in 1691, founding a Particular Baptist meeting house back in Bacup later in the year. The chapel was built for him on land belonging, curiously, to a John Whitaker of Broadclough (according to another antiquarian of this part of Lancs, Thomas Newbigging). According to this site, the original chapel was on the site of the Mechanics Institute, now the town library; if this is the case, it must have been removed pre-1850s as the OS map has the MI there. Either way, a group split from the congregation, built Ebenezer Chapel on Lane Head Lane, then made up, and that’s where they settled.

The centre of Bacup in 1852, much expanded from its 18th century village. Ebenezer Chapel and the Mechanics Institute are marked. Note the interior mapping of the ostensibly public buildings – this is something Patrick Joyce discusses in The Rule Of Freedom (see here for a precis)

Perhaps Crosley came across the local legacy of the Quaker George Fox as well, who had a famous vision atop Pendle Hill in the same region in 1652. Crosley’s is an interesting story in terms of the fluidity of doctrine and association among dissenters of this era. Originally converted on Presbyterian lines, he seems to have adopted the anabaptist principles of the Calvinist Particular Baptists by being baptised not far from where I live now, in Bromsgrove. He went on to preach from Bacup with his cousin, William Mitchell, before being appointed minister in Tottlebank on the Furness peninsula. 1705 saw him back in London, ministering at the Currier’s Hall meeting in London Wall, and he retired to preaching back in Lancashire in 1718, basing himself first at Hapton, then finally at a farm named “Tatop” between Crawshawbooth and Goodshaw in Rossendale. Not bad going for a lad of a reputed 20 stone. 

Poor David was however dogged by a reputation that probably prevented him gaining the same fame as contemporaries like Bunyan and his correspondent George Whitefield. He was accused of the heresy of antinomianism (essentially a sort of lawlessness, though perhaps the accusation was a conservative reaction to Crosley’s refusal to stick rigidly to denominational lines) that was apparently marked by a unrepentant tendency for drunkenness and “notorious immorality”. He was excommunicated by the Curriers’ Hall meeting, although he seems to have overcome this scandal and died a well-loved and respected preacher; indeed, perhaps the experience taught him the compassion he later needed to talk with Lawrence Britcliffe – but I’m jumping ahead. Anne Dunan-Page has a great article on Crosley here.

The tract that James Crossley was referring to was a published sermon, a funeral discourse for one Laurence Britcliffe (aka Briercliffe, Brearcliffe etc. – spelt names were somewhat fluid well into the 19th century). In 1742, my ancestor Lawrence Britcliffe was hanged in Lancaster for murder, and buried somewhere near the castle. At his funeral service on May 23rd, held at the chapel in Bacup that Crosley had founded, somewhere in the region of 4,000 stood to hear this big man speak to them about Britcliffe, life, death and salvation.

Imagine the scene. We’re on a bare hillside on the outskirts of the large village of Bacup – pre-industrial revolution this is a village of farmers and a few weavers of cotton who harness the streams pouring off the steep sides of the Rossendale valley, into the young river Irwell on its way to Manchester and the Mersey. We’re on the fields along the Todmorden Road because the crowd is so large that the little chapel can’t cope and so the elderly, but still imposing, minister takes advantage of the late spring weather to speak to this vast group – about four times the population of Bacup. Most likely the congregation have trekked from nearby valleys and the ancient Britcliffe home of Burnley and are ranged up the hillside with Crosley at the foot – much like John Wesley’s outdoor services later in the century. Some wear black, as for a funeral; most wear the same clothes they wear the rest of the time; they’re farm labourers, shepherds, weavers and other ordinary, un-wealthy Lancastrians. This being a Wednesday, many will be sacrificing pay to have made the journey to be here, to hear of their kinsman, their colleague, or perhaps just this infamous local man who has so affected the minister.

The shuffling and low chatter draws to a halt, as even those at the back hear the big man calling for quiet. Rev Crosley looks back down to his notes, and up to a crowd perhaps greater than any he’s ever preached to before. This is a big moment in a full life, but I think he probably has in the back of his mind not the size of the crowd, or nerves, but a complicated mixture of sorrow and a joy strugging to be felt. He takes a deep breath, and begins to speak…

8 thoughts on “The good death of Lawrence Britcliffe, part one: the funeral

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