The good death of Lawrence Britcliffe, part three: crime and flight


Cliviger Valley, by Alan Rayner. The path Alan describes here includes some of the Burnley Way via Holme, the Ram Inn and Dodbottom Woods.

This post is the third in a series on the unfortunate life of Lawrence Britcliffe, a distant ancestor of mine. The introduction is here; Lawrence’s youth and young manhood are here.

High day

By 1739, you might imagine Lawrence Britcliffe looks like the portrait that Dorian Grey kept locked in his attic. A good number of years of hard living had transformed Lawrence from a bright, ambitious young farmer into a habitual drunkard. He has remained upright in one sense though – he walks upright and at six feet high is significantly taller than most of his countrymen (who average, it is estimated, around 5’5″). He had light brown, lank hair and a small, pale face, although (like many around him) it was scarred by an encounter with smallpox (Jenner’s inoculation was not discovered until the end of the century).

We have this unusually accurate report thanks to a diligent police officer, George Halstead, constable of Cliviger – exactly why will become clear. It’s a Sunday in August 1739, and Lawrence Britcliffe has walked himself from his home to Holme Chapel, a part of the parish of Cliviger focussing around the church built by Thomas Dunham Whitaker. Today is a day of note – it’s the annual Holme Wake.

Wakes weeks have long played a major part in English, and particularly Lancashire, culture. I like the idea (see Peter Borsay’s description in A History Of Leisure, p.200-202) of time being felt differently in the pre-modern world: instead of our own forward-thinking, no-going-back society, time was cyclical, seasonally in tune with nature, with markers being a mixture of sacred and secular traditional festivals. It’s reminiscent of Braudel’s beautiful outline of the slowest type of time. Wakes weeks were a major part of that, originally being based around the feast of the community’s patron saint. This shifted in the modern era when wakes became part of an organised industrial time schedule – Richard Hutton argues that the ritual calendar has been replaced by the individualistic calender; “humanity has come to replace the natural world at the centre of the wheel of the year.” But in the early 18th century, wakes were still of great significance to everyday life – if departed somewhat from the original, sacred application towards a more boisterous, secular celebration that was eventually moved away from the sabbath to other days of the week.

To say it’s a sunny day is a bit of a guess, of course. If it’s anything like modern bank holidays, probably it was pouring. Like its modern counterpart also, for many it was a time for drinking and entertainment, and so it was for Lawrence. Enough to make him argumentative, as was his character, and the dubious company that Crosley referred to previously was probably no help.

The Ram Inn, Cliviger (Neil O’Connor for the Burnley Express)

I’m a firm believer in a good walk and so, it appears, was Eric Conway of Burnley. In 1915, he penned a column of “Rambles Around Burnley” for the Burnley News, one of which took in Buck Clough, Stonehouse Fold and Holme. Here, folklore seems to have been handed down over many years and many colourful tellings, but he includes a description of Lawrence’s actions which provided the source for Axon’s later article. According to Conway, Lawrence had been drinking all day “with a number of boon companions” when a quarrel arose between he and one of his group, John Hindle, arose. I have no certainty about the identity of this John Hindle except that he was from Rossendale, which perhaps points to the record at St Nicholas, Newchurch-in-Rossendale, where a John Hindle Jr from Whitewell Bottom near Newchurch was buried on 23rd August 1739.

And I can have no idea what the quarrel was about, or why it was so heated (although the drink will surely have exacerbated things), or exactly where they argued – Conway denotes a barn, no longer existing, close to the Ram Inn in Holme. James Hargreaves, historian of the Bacup Baptists ascribes “traditional” words to Britcliffe here: following Hindle towards the door he swore “I will kill him before I come in!” At the height of the argument, Lawrence Britcliffe cast his eyes around for a weapon and grasping a staff from a milk churn, struck his companion so violently that he died.

Dodbottom Wood (on the left of this picture) overlooking the Cliviger valley (Kevin Rushton on Geograph)
How can a historian like me possibly write about how that would have felt? To be Lawrence, or to witness the event? I don’t want to speculate about his feelings having just murdered a companion, so everything goes a bit fuzzy. He was seized, perhaps by his companions or by the Constable, but soon managed to escape. According to Conway (Axon has this differently), his first hiding place was Dodbottom Clough – a stream leading through the pictured woods to meet the Calder in Holme itself. The field now bounded by the railway and the Calder is now used for the Cliviger Show, and could well have been the centre of Wake festivities. Lawrence followed the stream and hid in caves in Dodbottom Wood, supplied by servants for a few days. When this became untenable, perhaps following paths familiar from his youth he would have headed over Deerplay Moor via Thieveley Pike.

Holme and Thievely Scout. I suspect Lawrence’s initial escape route may have led him through Buckley Wood and over Thieveley Pike (to the south of this pic) – roughly the same route that the Burnley Way follows now (marked with diamonds, running N-S)

Lawrence certainly wasn’t too badly kitted out for summer hill-walking, despite the fact that North Face had yet to be invented. At the time of his escape he was wearing grey seamed stockings, buckskin breeches, a blue, double-breasted waistcoat with silver trim, and a light, drab-coloured coat. If he had a pair of stout shoes, I’m sure even Wainwright would have approved (this again from Constable Halstead’s description).

However he did it, he made his way the whole length of the country. What sites he must have seen! England in 1739 was a land on the brink of convulsion. Already in Lawrence’s lifetime Jethro Tull had created his seed drill, leading to the beginnings of what was later termed an agricultural revolution; Abraham Darby perfected the process of smelting iron ore using coke rather than charcoal, so launching Coalbrookdale, the Black Country and other coal-mining parts (including, later, Cliviger) into national importance; Thomas Newcomen had presented his atmospheric engine for raising water (the first to be erected was probably within site of Dudley Castle); and John Kay had invented his flying shuttle, which was to have a huge impact on Lawrence’s own homeland of Lancashire. It’s impossible to say what route Lawrence took, but if we look at the fastest walking route that Google Maps can suggest, he would have covered 300 miles via soon-to-be-major textile centres like Oldham and Rochdale; the silk-weaving town of Macclesfield; over the Staffordshire moors past still small pottery villages; perhaps through the Black Country itself, in the process of becoming the “lunar landscape” of the later century; down the old Roman Roads of Warwickshire and over the Cotswolds escarpment; across the Thames valley, marvelling at the white figure on the hillside at Uffington; through market towns like Newbury and Winchester where his Northern accent would be an unusual thing indeed; then across the Western edge of the South Downs (I wonder if he missed the bleak Lancashire moors when he crossed these lush rolling hills?) to Portsea Island and the ancient naval port of Portsmouth.


The Loss of HMS ‘Victory’, 4 October 1744 by Peter Monamy (Wikimedia commons)
He related all his journeyings to David Crosley in his cell, a couple of years later. He certainly related how he chose the same route as many for getting out of a sticky situation – he ran away to sea. (He wasn’t the last Briercliffe to attempt this either – my own grandfather joined the merchant navy at 14, in 1924, because of a strained relationship with his stepmother).

Lawrence somehow found himself part of the 1150-strong crew of one of the great ships of his generation, the HMS Victory. This wasn’t the Victory, the one that still stands at Portsmouth dockyard, but the fourth in a line of Victorys, a first-rate ship of the line armed with 100 brass cannon, flagship of the Channel Fleet under the highly-decorated Sir John Norris. If Lawrence had taken several weeks to walk from Cliviger to Portsmouth, then he would be arriving on the eve of a war that all knew was coming. That August, talks had broken down between Britain and Spain over various rights demanded by both parties based on previous agreements. Essentially it was a battle between the European ancien régime and the mercantilist British government that had been going on for centuries – at the bottom of it in the eighteenth century was trade, slaves and money. Britain declared the “war of Jenkins’ear” on Spain in October 1739, fought mostly in the West Indies, but like all naval operations planned and engineered in Portsmouth.

The war was later subsumed into one of those pan-European wars that raged on and off throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, this time the War of Austrian Succession. Lawrence, happily for him, saw little of it. Aboard the Victory alongside Norris and Prince William (“Butcher Cumberland“, later to gain great glory putting down the Jacobite ’45, another part of this ongoing war), Lawrence prospered and seems to have rediscovered some of his vitality. But with promotion came the reward of strong liquor and it seems to have bested Lawrence again. The fleet set sail twice with Lawrence, on both occasions turning back because of the weather (including a close encounter with the French man of war Lyon on the first go, which “shocked” Lawrence). Lawrence, the fallen Christian seems to have perceived himself as the ship’s Jonah, bewailing and lamenting, and deciding that his own unpunished sin was causing the fleet’s problems.

Whether this was to come true was never to be seen. On requesting shore leave, Lawrence “fell to his old method of drinking cares away” (Crosley, p.65) and failed to make it back on board in time to serve the masters beer in the evening. In fact, Lawrence embraced his old ways with renewed vigour – we find him here in the alehouse on Portsmouth Hard on the first evening, there sleeping it off in the street the next morning, perhaps in one of Portsmouth’s many brothels, perhaps just staggering around the ancient city’s streets (as described so wonderfully by Alison Light). I think it fair to call it a bender – either way, Lawrence is AWOL for three days at the end of which, he’s been replaced and is left without a job.

No job, no home, a fugitive from justice and a drunkard to boot, Lawrence cut a sorry site at the beginning of the 1740s. I wonder if he had in his mind another Biblical analogy now, that of the prodigal son returning to his homeland with empty pocket and broken heart. It could be at this stage that he lived in the caves above Holme, not knowing what else to do. Those near to him found him there and comforted him, bringing him food and drink and, fatally, advice. From somewhere Lawrence got the impression that the crime was unlikely to be held against him and so, perhaps with trepidation, but I think more with hope in his heart, he went off to find the appropriate authority – perhaps Constable Halstead still – to give himself up…


5 thoughts on “The good death of Lawrence Britcliffe, part three: crime and flight

  1. Why do you think there were so many people attending the funeral? With such interest why is there no report of the burial? Interesting!


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