The good death of Lawrence Britcliffe: reflective microhistory

Pendle Hill, which looms over Burnley and the whole district, not just geographically but historically and even mystically – the Pendle Witches whose journey Lawrence echoed started their lives here [Wikipedia]

This is a summary of the last five posts on the life and death of Lawrence Britcliffe of Cliviger, Lancashire. You can read about the sources and inspiration for these posts here; about Lawrence’s birth, life and religious trials here; about his murder of John Hindle and subsequent escape here; about his trial and incarceration here; and about his execution here.

At the moment, my PhD is mostly in the throes of collecting huge amounts of primary sources. Writing anything feels a long way off. But on talking this through with my new second supervisor, we discussed the merits of a blog like this – it gives me plenty of writing practice and the opportunity to experiment with different styles of history writing. And so it’s been here: I’ve never tried writing a microhistory in the classic sense before, but I suppose this it.

In some ways, it’s a bit odd that as a historian of the urban poor in the nineteenth century, in a town down the road, utilising hundreds of different sources, I’ve ended up writing about an eighteenth-century, rural middle-class man in a place I’ve never been, about whom there are few sources. I think my inspiration came from Alison Light here. Her book Common People that we discussed as part of Storying the Past at the Social History Society conference (at Lancaster, of all places) gave me confidence that family history is well worth academic study, and by embracing your own method and purpose you can study things outside of that on which I’m well-read.

So I’ve tried to focus on Lawrence’s journeys. For an eighteenth century farmer in rural Lancashire, he really got about a bit, and it’s been good to question my assumptions about the immobility of our Ag Lab ancestors. Lawrence’s journeys would have taken in the everyday – trips to his relatives out at Briercliffe, ranging the hills to care for sheep, walking to market in Burnley, crossing the Rossendale hills to go to church in Bacup each weekend. But there was also the extraordinary – an escape to the caves, flight across the country, foreshortened sea crossings, a trip in chains to the Castle, a one-way journey to Gallows Hill. Our lives, any of our lives, are a mixture. I like to research the everyday in space, but it’s often only the extraordinary that’s recorded. How best to sift this and recover the everyday stuff that didn’t seem like it was worth recording?

I’ve been wondering why I’ve taken such a strong interest in Lawrence’s sad story; why what was originally intended as one post is now on its sixth. I don’t have as strong a reflexive tie to this story as Alexa demonstrates in her excellent post. So far as I can tell, my family’s collective memory goes as far back as my nan’s generation, specifically to post-war Stockport and south Manchester, and we never knew what went on further back than that. I suppose every genealogist dreams of finding a murderer in their family tree, especially one so well documented, but there’s more to it than that, I think.

From Crosley’s sermon, p.121 – the postscript by Lawrence’s friends.

Although murder isn’t one of them (I promise), Lawrence and I share many things. We were born and raised in the countryside, sons of farmers. We were raised also in chapel (or at least hall) rather than church. David Crosley’s non-conformist Christianity was Calvinist and ours Arminian, but they share a lot: themes of sin and redemption, Bible knowledge and prayer, preaching, teaching, evangelism. The experiences of our childhoods were both modified by stricter, more intense versions of the same teaching as we grew towards adulthood and experienced life a bit further afield. That’s perhaps a little tenuous – Lawrence trekked to Bacup each Sunday, I moved to London for university – but perhaps it holds.

There, almost, the comparison ends. I married someone with whom I can share and build opinions mutually and amicably; I’ve been utterly happy ever since and have rarely felt any inclination toward the alehouse beyond the odd carvery dinner. Lawrence, a fragile man, crashed and burned trying to reconcile his religious and earthly worlds. For my own part, on finding the intensified version of religion I discovered a little too intense, I have to confess it’s been a while since I’ve been to church. Like Lawrence, I have my moments of guilt, sometimes fierce. This isn’t a Catholic guilt with fears of damnation, it’s a Protestant guilt associated with feelings of letting people, family down. “We’re not angry, we’re just disappointed…” (By the way, I ought to stress there’s no evidence of this on anyone’s part, only in my head).

Perhaps this is why I can sit down alongside Lawrence in his cell as he talks to David Crosley. I know the Biblical references. I recognise all the allegories and object lessons. I empathise with his uncertainty as to whether he even knows what his own heart feels. I recognise the different identities that make up a complex human being, even one so un-complex as I (or Lawrence, who exists only as black words on a white, two-dimensional page by now). I understand his fears and his guilt, his ups and downs; his joy at finding peace in his heart eventually. I’m very thankful that there’s a part of Lawrence’s experience that I can’t possibly empathise with, of course. I’m also sure that when the time is right I’ll be found in the pew again, a luxury Lawrence could never know. I don’t need to filter my impending doom through any religious perspective. I do need to recognise my own positionality when researching and writing about this sort of thing; a historian’s most intimate beliefs are as significant to their practice as their politics, their gender, their class. They ought to be recognised in their place too, not withheld for fear of seeming silly, or intellectually feeble, or vacillatory, or dogmatic.

Guilt doesn’t last forever, thankfully. Sometimes it takes time for misplaced guilt to pass before you can uncover your true feelings about something, and I think that’s what’s happening for me. Pity poor Lawrence, who anguished and sweat blood through his dark nights of the soul. But admire him for coming to terms with his past, present and future in the space of a few days. His was a sad life, but a strangely good death.


Lawrence Britcliffe (1701-1742) was the eldest son of John (1679-1746) and Mary  (1678-1752) Brearcliffe of Cliviger, Lancs. His brother William (1710-1774) married Martha Hargreaves (1725-1792) and had at least eight children, including Robert Britcliffe (1743-1782).
Robert married Elizabeth Stephenson (b1743) and had c.6 children, including Robert (1779-1820). They lived at Cliviger.
This Robert married Mary Crabtree (1776-1841) and had c.11 children, including William (1808-1876). They lived in Worsthorne, near Burnley.
William married Susan Ormerod (1819-1885) and had c.8 children, including Henry (1847-1914). They lived at Heasandford, on the outskirts of Burnley, before moving further into the town to work at the new cotton mills by the canal.
Henry married Sarah Dudley (b.1852) and had four children, including Frederick (1880-1956). They moved their family from Burnley to Manchester then to Salford, working in cotton mills still.
Frederick married Ada Dobson (1888-1910) who died giving birth to their firstborn, Herbert (1910-1954). He remarried a girl from Wood Green, London, Norah Giddings and died in Oldham.
Herbert (1910-1954) ran away to sea at age 14, but eventually married Edith Ryder (1913-2000) in 1946. They lived in Fallowfield, South Manchester and had three children, including Neil (b.1948), before Herbert died at just 44.
Neil married Jane Piper in 1972 and had four children in Winchester, including – me.

5 thoughts on “The good death of Lawrence Britcliffe: reflective microhistory

  1. Dear Simon, I have been fascinated with your stories about the Briercliffes. I am related through my 4ggrandmother Susan Britcliffe,(1768 m. John Slater)to your Robert married to Mary Crabtree, she was his sister. I was in England this month looking at the “family” locations, Burwains, Dinely and Red Lees(?) I am interested in how the family lost its fortune and family status. John Briercliffe had a lot to answer for according to Whitaker. William may have been the last of the yeomen. I cannot find anything about Robert (m.Betty Stephenson) but he signed at his wedding and his son (your Robert m. Mary Crabtree) was a joiner (birth record of his son Wm), as eldest could he have followed his father. All interesting to me!! If you have any thoughts I would be delighted to have them. Genealogy opens the eyes to Social History! June Edmonds


    1. Hi June, very glad you found it interesting! Thanks for the info as well – I didn’t have your Susan in my list of siblings, but that fits well. I have my tree on Genes Reunited if you want to search for it.

      I don’t know much about John or that bit of the family. Perhaps that’s another research project!


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