Thomas Helliker and Littleton Mill

Dawn broke on the 22nd March 1803, the day of Thomas Helliker’s 19th birthday. The occasion may not have been uppermost in his mind for it was also the date on which he would hang for arson and riot at Littlleton Mill, Semington. So what events led to his execution?

Helliker was born on 23rd March 1784 in Horningsham, the youngest of six children.

His whole family was employed in the Woollen industry. In 1797 he was taken on as a shearman’s colt in Trowbridge at a mill owned by Francis Naish, the start of a five-year apprenticeship.

However, it was the time industrialisation was being introduced into the woollen industry including at Littleton Mill, Semington. The new machinery would make shearmen redundant and, consequently, they formed a secret union, illegal at the time, to protect their trade.

Militancy against the introduction of machinery was increasing and so the mill owners introduced 24-hour watch keepers. Littleton Mill was no excepIon and rotated the task through some of its trusted workers.

On 22nd July 1802 a group of Trowbridge shearmen decided on active protest and they set out to destroy the newly installed shearing equipment at Littleton Mill. The mill was owned by Francis Naish but rented by Ralph Heath.

With blackened faces the group arrived at the mill. It so happened that the watch that night was Heath and his assistant John Pierce. They were allegedly taken captive at gunpoint while the mill was sacked and torched.  Heath claimed that the group comprised seven vigilantes.

Shearmen were amongst the most skilled and highly-paid workers in the woollen industry and at that time, Trowbridge was a centre for the production of the finest broadcloth.

The job of a shearman was to skilfully crop the raised nap of the cloth to produce a finely knifed fibre. This process resulted in a tough, high-quality material known as extra fine broadcloth.

The nap was raised using culIvated teasels. These were farmed and dried. You can see how the drying was done by looking at the building on the left as you drive over the bridge crossing the Biss into the second part of Shires car park. What look like a matrix of pigeonholes are where teasels were dried.

The outcome was eight thousand pounds worth of damage to the mill, a considerable amount at the time.

The Government considered the situation very serious. They feared similar action at other mills and so the Secretary of State sent James Read, a Bow Street magistrate, to Wiltshire. He arrested Thomas Bailey who, while in prison, cracked under interrogation and told of the Shearmen’s Union.

James May, George Marks, John Helliker (Thomas Helliker’s elder brother), Samuel Ferris and Phillip Edwards were arrested and held for seven months. They successfully claimed they were not at the Mill but elsewhere and released on lack of evidence. However, in Thomas Helliker’s case, Heath claimed he recognised him as one of two people holding him hostage and who had in his possession a gun.

Helliker said he was not at the mill that night and had an alibi, a fellow apprentice, Joseph Warren. Warren had voluntarily gone to the magistrates and stated that at 10:30pm he met Helliker outside John Walter’s house whom Warren was visiting. Helliker became very drunk so Warren put him in Walter’s kitchen and having locked the front door placed the key under the door of Walter’s bedroom.  Warren said that he and Helliker slept there till morning, locked in.

When Naish heard what Warren had said he demanded to see him the following morning. Warren disappeared eventually turning up in Leeds in September. It is believed that Union members sent him away with a reference and money, in fear of his safety.

Helliker was arrested on 3rd August, and placed in a police line-up where he was picked out by Heath as the man who had held him.

The magistrate, John Jones (who owned several mills) in summing up stated that Helliker’s alibi had been fabricated and, on the basis of the watch keeper’s evidence, he committed Helliker for trial at the Wiltshire Assizes held in Salisbury.  To deter any rescue attempt, Helliker was sent under military escort to Wilton Gaol to await trial.

He was tried at the Wiltshire Assizes on 14th March 1803 under Judge Thompson. The shearmen clubbed together sufficient funds to employ a qualified barrister, Mr Garrow, to defend Helliker.

However, with the lack of evidence to support his alibi as Warren was not at court but in Leeds, the case rested on Helliker’s word against Heath’s. The poor quality of the evidence to convict Helliker did not deter the judge from asking the jury to decide. They withdrew for only ten minutes before returning a guilty verdict.

He was sentenced to hang and publicly executed at the gallows in front of Salisbury’s Fisherton Anger prison (the site of the prison is where the Salisbury clock tower now stands).

Contrary to the direction of the judge who said Helliker’ body should be interred in a condemned grave within the prison, the shearmen collected his body and carried it back to Trowbridge in a very solemn procession. Some descriptions describe nearly a thousand girls, dressed in white, escorted the body on its journey though I tend to favour the reported six escorting it on its final leg to Trowbridge.

Helliker is buried in Trowbridge in St James’s church yard. His tomb fell into disrepair and was refurbished in 1876. Each year on the anniversary of the execution (except during the pandemic) the White Horse Trade Unions Council lays a wreath at the site.

At no time did Helliker say who had carried the raid on Littleton Mill, but why not? Several theories have been put forward:

  • It was generally thought Helliker would be reprieved and his sentence commuted to a couple of months in prison and he felt he could tolerate that time without incriminating others.
  • Members of his family or close friends might have been involved. His elder brother looked similar to him.
  • He was a courageous man prepared to forfeit his own life by not implicating others.

On the eve of his execution, Helliker wrote to his family. A copy of the letter is in Trowbridge Museum. In 2010 it was selected as one of 100 objects in the BBC’s A History of the World project, organised in partnership with the British Museum. Helliker signed his letter Hilliker and his sister confirmed that it was the correct spelling. I have used Helliker, the name he is commonly known by today and used in the court documentation.

But was Helliker’s verdict safe (some of the questions I raise may have answers, but I have not yet found them):

  • There is no available evidence as to whether Helliker had a genuine alibi that night or he was among the group at Littleton Mill.
  • Did Warren disappear, to reappear in Leeds, because he was afraid for his own safety if he met with Naish or did fellow shearmen believe Warren might break down and incriminate others for what happened at the mill?
  • Did Walter, in whose cottage Helliker and Warren spent the night, give evidence? If he did, what did he say and how was it received? If not, why not?
  • The overwhelming message from the Secretary of State downwards including mill owners, both in Wiltshire and Yorkshire, was that someone must be found guilty and awarded a punishment so severe it would act as a deterrent to others. Did this lead to the outcome?
  • Heath was offered a reward of £500 (sufficient to buy three houses) if Helliker was found guilty and it was Heath’s evidence that convicted Helliker.
  • At the identity parade at which Helliker was picked out, he was the only shearman in the line-up and the only person known to Heath.
  • The only evidence with which to convict Helliker was the person Heath supposedly recognised from their buck teeth. Helliker did have buck teeth and Heath knew that before the incident at the mill. Would that have been sufficient evidence to warrant a death sentence or was the pressure to convict somebody overwhelming?
  • Heath said Helliker was the second person to enter the watch keeper’s cottage but Pearce, who was part of the watch, was also in the cottage, did not say there were two and went onto say that Heath complied with an order to keep looking at the ground immediately to his front and could not therefore recognise anyone in the cottage. Pearce was not called to give evidence.
  • The jury coming to a decision in ten minutes. To consider a guilty verdict leading to a death sentence in such a short time was inappropriate unless the judge had given direction to the members. There was conflicting evidence for them to consider and decide upon which should have taken time.

Helliker is now generally considered not guilty of the offence. I am not so sure he wasn’t at the mill however the evidence to convict was not beyond reasonable doubt. His execution did mute ongoing protest and machinery was installed.  However, the peace did not last for long leading to further militant protest especially in Wiltshire and Yorkshire.

Stephen Turpin

Semington Heritage Society Publication No2.