Harry Birkhead & Ezra Crossland, Town Criers
& Little Billy Birkhead
Main photo: Harry Birkhead's donkey cart at Stocksbridge, with his son Billy standing with the donkey
Did you know that Stocksbridge used to have a Town Crier (otherwise known as a Bellman)? I had no idea, but, whilst looking into the history of Pearson House on Pearson Street (Horner House), I discovered that we did indeed have such a man, and his name was Henry Birkhead, also known as Harry, or by his nickname “Sloper.” Digging a bit deeper, he was the father of “Little Billy Birkhead” who is still fondly remembered in Stocksbridge today for his sense of humour. And it turns out that my grandma’s sister, Alice Rogers, married Billy Birkhead’s brother, Thomas Kilner Birkhead.
I do not know when he commenced in this useful occupation, but he held the position for forty years, so it would have been in the late 1890s and early 1900s, although I found one very early reference in 1881. The post was a paid one, and he carried it on alongside his work as a wiredrawer in Fox’s. He also had two other businesses: bill posting and dealing in firewood. Part of his work for the Board involved posting notices in churches and chapels, usually about Vestry meetings and rates. He later sold the billposting business to a Sheffield firm.
There was another bellman serving this area called Ezra Crossland. Ezra lived at Bacon Row, Wood Royd. Some records relating to Bradfield parish are online at https://bradfieldarchives.co.uk/. Many more records for the parish are not online, and are kept at Sheffield Archives on Shoreham Street, including a very large “Guard Book” relating to the accounts of the parish officials. The online records contain references to payments made to bellmen for both ringing/crying and bill posting, but the majority of these relate to Ezra. There are only two references to Henry, one in 1881 when he was paid 4s.3d. and one in 1893 when he was paid 2 shillings. Payments were made regularly to Ezra from 1884-1893. It is possible that payments to Henry are in any surviving records of the Stocksbridge Local Board which was formed in 1873 and superseded by the Urban District Council in 1895.
Bellmen served an important purpose in the days before mass literacy. If there was something important to be shared, the bellman was sent out to “cry” it. In the Barnsley mining districts, a crier’s busiest times were during coal disputes and the Cudworth crier Mr. Johnson told the local paper in 1931 that his happiest cry was always “strike settled.”
Criers rang their bell and walked the villages in all weathers, crying for lost dogs and lost children, making political announcements, informing folk about measles epidemics (usually telling people the schools were closed) and so on. Mr. Johnson said that when he started as bellman he could go round Cudworth in 16 ringing stations, but by 1931 this had risen to over 70, so much had the village grown.
Mr. Birkhead’s call of “This is to give notice” was frequently heard around Stocksbridge and Deepcar. He had been officially sworn in for the post and used to attend gatherings of criers, which were held in Sheffield. On one occasion, there was an election coming up, and the Liberals and Conservatives were battling it out. Henry had been engaged to cry from Stocksbridge to Deepcar calling attention to the Conservative propaganda. On reaching Deepcar he was approached by a prominent Liberal and he returned along the same route bellowing out the advantages of voting for the Liberals.
Crying was a paid post. In 1929 the Hoyland bellman, Mr. Liptrot, submitted his charges for making public announcements: he asked varying amounts (which were all approved by the Local Board) for each village: for Hoyland Common he asked for 3 shillings, Hoyland 3/6, Platts Common 3/6 and Elsecar 4 shillings. Presumably there was more ground to cover at the latter. But woe betide the person who refused to pay; in 1899 the Hoyland bellman began crying some very funny stories about those who had not paid him for his services. Unfortunately, what these stories were isn’t known, but the local paper wrote: “Moral: do not split straws with the bellman – that is if you do not desire to become notorious.”
Stocksbridge was in Bradfield parish at one time, and Ezra Crossland was paid by Bradfield parish for “ringing” and bill posting. Most of it was in reference to the poor rates. This was a tax on property that was levied in each parish, and it was used to provide relief to the poor. He also gave notice of the date of the Vestry meeting, which was the annual meeting of the parish ratepayers. Receipts survive in which Ezra acknowledges payment from Frederick Adolphus Samuel Crawshaw, one of the Overseers of the Poor, and his name also appears in the biannual parish accounts. The amount varied according to the job, varying from 2 shillings to 18s. 6d. On some occasions Ezra “cried” in 12 areas, covering Bolsterstone, Bracken Moor, Horner House, [?], Stocksbridge, New Haywoods, Old Haywoods, Deepcar, Brightholmlee, Wharncliffe Side, Oughtybridge and Worral.
Ezra was quite a character according to local author Jack Branston. He wrote that he “liked a drink or two and at times his duties were carried out in a rather aggressive manner. Taking up his stand in some central place, he would ring his bell to attract a good crowd, then he would address them as follows: - “I want to tell ye ratepayers that if you do not pay ye B-dy rates by Saturday October 12th, ye’ll be sent to hell.” This of course was not his usual approach, but it certainly seemed to work.”
Henry Birkhead was 82 when he died in 1937, so all that walking up and down in all weathers served him well. Hoyland Common bellman Charles Pitchford was still working at the age of 77, and had served over 50 years in the job, although he had done the job on his own account before being set on officially. He was still “hale and hearty,” and continued to ring his bell when required.
Henry Birkhead liked to shoot and play at knur and spell. Although born in Denby, he had lived in Stocksbridge practically all his life, first on Brownhill Row, Hunshelf, then at Brook View on Pearson Street. He lived at Pearson House from at least 1918 until his death.
This photograph of Birkhead’s donkey cart was taken at Langsett Terrace. The shop in the background is W. J. Watts. Harry was born in 1855 and Billy in 1898. Billy looks to be about ten years old here, so possibly taken in about 1908. That would make Harry about 53 years old so I would guess he is the man sat in the cart (?)
A request for Henry Birkhead to cry a notice 1881
Vestry Offices, Bradfield, August 3rd 1881
To Mr. Birkhead. Please cry the notice on the other side as soon as you desire this if you cannot do it please let me know by return of post. Yrs truly
Source: Bradfield Archives ref. 97/9094 or 64162
The other side isn’t shown unfortunately but probably refers to the Poor Rate
MRS. BIRKHEAD CAUGHT UP IN A DISPUTE:
In 1913 Henry’s wife Mary Ann Martha (nee Marshall) took a neighbour called Arthur James Riley to court on an assault charge. One of Mrs. Birkhead’s sons also lived on Pearson Street and had been in dispute with Riley, who lived at River View (also on Pearson Street). The two men had been arguing about a fence; Birkhead had barricaded up a gateway, and Riley said he was going to knock it down again. Mrs. Birkhead had been talking to her son in his garden when Riley came along with a hammer. Her son told her to put her arm on the fence and Riley hit the fence with the hammer about 15” from where her arm rested, trapping her arm between two boards. Mrs. Riley said that she had been unable to work for a fortnight and had to get other people to do her work for her. And in those pre-NHS days, she had a doctor’s bill of £1 2s. 6d. to pay. She was claiming damages of £5, and the judge awarded her damages of £2.
EZRA CROSSLAND: 1848-1918
Ezra was born in Halifax, although his parents were local; his father Ezra was a blacksmith, the son of Nathanial Crossland of Hunshelf, a wheelwright. Ezra married Ann Crookes in 1842 and their first child, Nathaniel, was born at Deepcar in 1843. The family were still living in Halifax when the 1851 census was taken but were back in Stocksbridge by 1861, living near the Ebeneezer chapel. Ezra junior married Ellen Hinchcliffe in 1869 and they lived at Bacon Row, Wood Royd. Jack Branston, mentioned above, said that Ezra liked a drink. There is one reference in the newspapers in 1910 to an Ezra Crossland being drunk and disorderly, but this could have been his son, also called Ezra, who was born in 1874. “I was neither drunk nor disorderly,” he said when P.C. Vardy had spoken to seeing him drunk at five minutes to midnight on the 17th July but it was heard that he had been before the court twenty times before and he was fined 7/6.
Harry and Mary Ann had a son called William Henry in 1898, who is perhaps better known as “Little Billy Birkhead” because he was born with dwarfism. He made a bit of a name for himself as a comedian, performing in concerts in his younger years. He was already a popular comedian by his 21st birthday in May 1919 when a Coming of Age celebration was held in his honour at the Wesley Hall. At a concert in the British School the following year he “fairly brought down the house” with his humour and dancing. He was said to be “double-jointed.” At the Engineering Department’s annual staff outing in 1923 the party went to Liverpool. When he was asked at the ticket barrier in the station if he had travelled half-fare, very pointedly replied, “I’ve come for now’t!” Billy married Olive Dobson and they had a son, Geoffrey, in 1930.
Billy died in 1974.
Drunk and Incapable
“Long and Short of it.”
P.c. Peckover, who stands 6ft. and weights 17 stone, and 4ft., 8 stone William Birkhead (41), steel worker, of 55, Smithy Moor Avenue, Stocksbridge, stood opposite each other at Sheffield Police Court on Friday. Birkhead, the smallest man in Stocksbridge, was summoned for having been drunk and incapable, and P.c. Peckover proved the offence. He said at 12.30 a.m. on October 12th, he found Birkhead in Langsett Road, Midhope. Birkhead was drunk and lying by the side of the main Manchester to Sheffield Road. For his own safety witness say Birkhead home. “The only thing I could get from him was ‘I am little Billy, me,’” the officer added. Asked if he had anything to say, Birkhead said, “Guilty, sir. I am sorry.” After a fine of 5s. had been imposed, Birkhead shook hands with the police constable.
Penistone, Stocksbridge and Hoyland Express 18 November 1939
Births, marriages & deaths , parish records and census returns at Findmypast and Ancestry and the GRO
Jack Branston, The History of Stocksbridge p133
Local newspapers at Findmypast (also available at the British Newspaper Archive)
Fox Magazines published by Samuel Fox & Co. Ltd.
Electoral Registers at Ancestry