James Berry, the son of a Bradford wool-stapler, held many jobs during his life: beat bobby, boot salesman, pig farmer and even preacher. But it was his gruesome role as Britain’s foremost hangman that earned him the respect and fear of the Victorian underworld – not to mention his own waxwork in Madame Tussaud’s “Chamber of Horrors”.
Berry despatched over 130 condemned prisoners during his time as public executioner: he even believed he had hanged Jack the Ripper himself. But while he was known for his professionalism, Berry couldn’t detach himself from the terrible office he performed and was haunted by the idea that not all of those he had hanged were guilty.
His experiences at the gallows caused him to sink into depression and, eventually, to attempt suicide. It was only a lucky encounter with a young evangelist at Bradford Forster Square station that prevented Berry going through with his plan to fling himself from a train.
After converting to evangelical Christianity, Berry became an ardent and vocal capital punishment abolitionist in later life, touring the country lecturing on the ineffectiveness of the death penalty.
Berry’s is just one of the stories told in a new local history book, “Tales of Old Airedale: A Miscellany”, by local writer and editor Lisa Firth. Delighting in the unusual, the quirky and the little-known, the book features ten true stories of Bradford and Airedale’s lost places, forgotten history, eccentric heroes and unsolved mysteries.
These include the tale of Milner Field house, an opulent mansion built by Titus Salt Jr in 1876, which became unsellable after a series of bizarre tragedies left a string of owners either dead, disgraced or both. The house was eventually demolished, and all that now remains of its former glory is a pile of rubble buried in the undergrowth at Shipley Glen.
Also investigated is the life of Joseph Wright, an illiterate Thackley millhand who could barely read a newspaper until the age of 15 but eventually rose to become a leading linguistics expert and Oxford don, mentor of none other than “Lord of the Rings” author JRR Tolkien.
“The book is a collection of historical stories that appealed to me because they they all have a certain ‘Well, I never knew that!’ factor,” says author Lisa Firth. “Often they’re stories that I’ve stumbled over while researching an entirely different subject: something mentioned in passing by my source that’s made me think ‘That’s really interesting – that should be the story here!’ And so I’ve shifted my research to focus on that.”
There’s the story of the Bollings of Bolling Hall, for example. “I was doing some research into the history of Bolling Hall when I discovered that a number of notable American politicians, including George Bush, Nancy Reagan and John McCain, were direct descendants of the Bollings,” says Lisa. “They also have a connection to the Native American princess Pocahontas, whose granddaughter married the first Bolling to emigrate to America. I thought that was really fascinating and decided to make it the focus of the story rather than the hall itself.”
The book is on sale now from Amazon for £7.99 plus p&p, or from the author’s website with a £1 discount on the RRP. Please visit www.lisafirtheditorial.co.uk to purchase a copy.
Formerly editor of the popular Bingley Rural community magazine, Lisa Firth has written local-interest feature articles for a number of publications, including Northern Life, The Local Leader and Living North.
Free review copies of “Tales of Old Airedale: A Miscellany” are available on request, either in hard copy or digital (PDF) format.
Further details of this title are available at http://www.lisafirtheditorial.co.uk/tales-of-old-airedale/
Please email the author on firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
Size: 152mm x 228mm (6in x 9in)
Format: perfect-bound paperback, full colour with photos
Length: 120 pages, 21,000 words
RRP: £7.99 plus p&p
Saltaire, Bradford’s New Eden
Salt’s Ruin: The Curse of Milner Field
John Nicholson, the Bingley Byron
The Lost World of Goit Stock
The Curious Case of the Cottingley Fairies
Joseph Wright: from Donkey Boy to Oxford Don
To the Manor Born: the Bollings of Bolling Hall
John Sagar, the Keighley Poisoner
Prophet John Wroe, the Moses of the West Riding
James Berry: the Hangman Cometh…