1. St Peter’s Bells and my native town…

This is the first posting on the timeline of William’s life. He was born on the 10th November 1840 in Stokesley in the North Riding of Yorkshire and this posting describes his ‘native town’ around the time of his birth and some early influences on his life. [click on map to enlarge]

William’s home town – Stokesley (1853) ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 


In 1859 the Stockton Herald published a poem entitled, ‘St Peter’s Bells’.  The author of this poem was my great-grandfather, William Hall Burnett and later in life he was to recall ‘I think this is the first rhyme of mine that found its way into print. The bells of the poem are those of the Parish Church of Stokesley, my native town’. William was nineteen years old when he wrote it and had been living in Middlesbrough for three to four years.  The year before, his mother had died and his beloved sister Elizabeth was married and living in the North Yorkshire village of Easington – some twenty odd miles due west of Middlesbrough. Like William many of his childhood friends had also moved away from Stokesley and although the poem, through the sound of the church bells, evokes a happy memory of childhood…

Sounds without words, have touching power;
Your boisterous, cheering tongue
Opes memory’s cells, and paints the days
When friends were true and strong;
When children laughed in happy glee,
Or sang some simple song

…it also records the loss he felt, not only at leaving Stokesley, but also of friends and family…

‘Tis still the same enthralling voice –
All things are changed but ye;
Friends, comrades, dear ones –all are gone,
And all are strange to me;
But your sweet tones, O, Gladsome bells!
I know your ministrelsy

The poem did not appear in print again[1] until he was retired as editor of the Blackburn Standard and self-published a collection of his poems and aphorisms to celebrate his 67th birthday. In its introduction, he tells us that they were ‘printed at request of many friends, who have read them as scattered effusions, mainly in newspapers, and wished to have them in some permanent form for reference’ and appraises them as being ‘amongst the best things that have come from a pen which having been employed for fifty-four years on the Press – and busily employed – has written a great deal’. Whether they were the best things he wrote is for others to judge but as a journalist and newspaper editor he did write on many diverse topics fulfilling that role, ascribed to newspapers and periodicals by Asa Briggs, of providing ‘an indispensable record of contemporary opinions’[2].

William’s story begins on Wednesday, 10th November 1840, when Hannah Burnett, a single woman living in the market town of Stokesley in the North Riding of Yorkshire[3], gave birth to a son, who was baptised the following year in the Parish Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul[4].  The officiating minister was David Hick who was living with his wife Elizabeth and their two children ‘south of the River Leven’. He was an assistant to the Rector, Charles Cator, who had arrived at St Peters’ in 1835 with his wife Philadelphia, their four sons and two daughters and was to remain there until his death[5] just before Christmas 1872 at the age of 86. Charles Cator was a graduate of Brasenose College in Oxford, a keen advocate of education in all its forms and a major influence on William, nurturing in him a life-long allegiance to the Church of England and its institutions as well as providing opportunities for his education. The italicised ‘one’ in the penultimate verse of William’s poem ‘Stokesley’[6] almost certainly acknowledges this early influence …

Oh, there was one who taught me well,
E’en in the blush of life’s young day.
How olden Eden is regained
By being true and pure always.
I know since then full many a fall
Has led me on a lower road, –
But still my heart aspires the same
To truth, humanity and God.

It is not known how old William was when he wrote the poem but when it was published in 1888 William was forty-eight and the year before he had moved from Middlesbrough to become the editor of the Blackburn Standard. The anthology’s editor, William Andrews said of the poem ‘in addition to its poetic merits, it possesses biographical and topographical interest’.  As with the earlier ‘St Peter’s Bells’ it recalls both a happy memory of childhood and a strong sense of loss but it also contains in four stanzas providing an emotive description of his home town of Stokesley, or village as he characterises it…

But oh! within my constant heart
A red-roofed village greenly dwells:
No traveller from the sunny South
Knows half the rapture in me swells

By Leven’s stream, on Caldmoor’s hill,
I wander, as in days gone by;
The glorious meadows shine again,
Refreshing oft my woe-worn eye. 

The woods their queenliest foliage wear,
The streams chaunt to the summer sun,
The village bells across the vale
Chime in the evening shadows dun;

The rooks in immemorial trees
Awake their chorus of delight,
And all sweet sights and sounds of earth
Possess the day and fill the night.

William was to spend the first seventeen years of his life in Stokesley and the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map published in 1856[7],with a notable exception (the Town Hall which was built in 1853, the year the OS took place), shows Stokesley as it was in William’s early years and indeed in basic topography it is much the same today, albeit with a surfeit of double yellow lines and motorcars.  Samuel Lewis writing in 1845 described the town as consisting of ‘one spacious street, extending from east to west, along the north bank of the river Leven. The houses are chiefly modern, and of handsome appearance. Till lately, the inhabitants were partly employed in the linen manufacture, which was carried on to a considerable extent, and in the spinning of yarn and the manufacture of patent thread, for which an extensive mill was erected in 1823; this mill has been lately taken down, and the site converted into a garden’[8].  In the east was High Green (now College Square) and in the west, Low Green (now West Green).  In the middle was the market place and the toll booth and shambles where butchers slaughtered and sold their animals. Front Street where William was born was at the west end of the town on the north side of Low Green and later he and his mother moved to nearby Back Lane. The Parish Church, its rectory, the manor-house and the schools were at the opposite end of town near High Green, but no great distance away, it being less than two thirds of a mile as the crow flies. Entertainment for a young boy and his friends in passage from the west to east of the town would involve criss-crossing the river Leven by the many stepping stones and the ancient Pack Horse Bridge ‘the route of merchants using pack horses to carry goods to Stokesley market’[9].

Another view of the town, albeit one with sting its tail, is provided by John Walker Ord [10], a native of near-by Guisborough:

‘Stokesley is a handsome neat town, consisting principally of one main street perched between the lofty over-hanging hills of Broughton, Kirby and Dromonby, in the centre of a broad and fertile vale of great extent, well wooded and watered, and sprinkled over with numerous mansions, seat-houses, and pretty villages. But although abounding in many natural advantages, it is greatly deformed by odious unsightly shambles, situated in the centre of the main street, and which it is high time were either removed or rebuilt’[11]

Ord like Lewis make mention of linen manufacturer but only Ord  mentions the importance of the printing and publishing businesses that flourished from the 1820’s through to the late 1850’s. As we shall see both those engaged in linen manufacture and in printing and publishing were to be responsible not only for William’s genesis, but also for mentoring him in his chosen profession.

Ord after reporting on the demise of ‘manufactories for the production of linens’, included an important footnote, ‘we must not omit to notice the printing press of Stokesley’, and ‘in no respect does it (Stokesley) stand second to any similar town in just appreciation of literary industry and munificent patronage of works of merit. A proof of this may be seen in the fact at the moment we write, three printing presses are at work in the town, and a large expensive History of Cleveland is appearing monthly’[12]. The History being Ord’s own work! – printed and published in 1846 by the Stokesley printer, William Braithwaite; who as we shall see was to become a major influence in William’s life.

Daphne Franks, in her history of ‘Printing and Publishing in Stokesley’ points out that ‘In the 1841 Census returns we find twelve people in the town occupied as printers, three as bookbinders, two bookfolders and one book-sewer, a total of eighteen’ and goes on to say ‘only ten years later there were sixty-two persons employed in the book trade’, of whom the majority worked for John Slater Pratt at the west end of town. But this boom was short lived and ‘by 1861 the heyday of printing and publishing in Stokesley was over, although there were still three printers, one bookseller and one author’ – many young men who had been employed in printing, William amongst them, had moved to other cities to pursue their ambitions.

It wasn’t until 1853, when William was thirteen, that the ‘odious unsightly shambles’ referred to in Ord’s account gave place to a town hall, erected at the sole expense of Lieut-Col. Robert Hildyard (the lord of the manor) – ‘The shambles which stood in the centre of the street have disappeared. Here there were twenty-four butchers’ shops, of which the lord of the manor let some on lease, allowing the butchers of the district to hire the rest on market day at a cost of 6d’[13]. Robert Hildyard was a wealthy and important personage in Stokesley having inherited the title of ‘Lord of the Manor of Stokesley’ plus the manorial rights from his father, the Reverend Henry Hildyard. Robert Hildyard was a Magistrate and ‘sometime, Lieutenant-Colonel of the second Regiment of Militia of the West Riding of the said county of York[14]’. He lived with his sister, Charlotte Jane in the Manor House which still stands in its own grounds near the church. Their extensive household consisted of a Butler, Under Butler, Groom, Housekeeper, Cook, Lady’s Maid, Kitchen Maid, Scullery Maid, Still Room Maid, Dairy Maid, Laundry Maid and three Housemaids.

For William the building of the Town Hall would have been an exciting event. He would have witnessed the progress on a daily basis as he was, by now, working for William Braithwaite at what is now 30 High Street on the north side of the Market Place.  The Town Hall is described five years after the death of Robert Hildyard in 1854[15], as standing ‘in the centre of the most spacious part of the town’ and being ‘a great ornament to the place’.  This description of the building and the account of the activities which took place in the building is as William would have known it:

‘…a large stone building in the plain Italianate style.  A fine vestibule and stone staircase conducts to a large Court Room, in which the magistrates of this division of the Wapentake hold Petty Sessions every alternate Saturday, and in which the County Court is held monthly, before Mr Sergeant Dowling, the Judge. In this room, which is lighted in the front by five large windows, is a splendid full-length portrait of Col. Hildyard, painted by Sir J. W. Gordon, R.A… There is likewise a retiring room for the Magistrates, and in another part of the building is a commodious Reading Room and Library of the Mechanics’ Institution. Lectures of this Society are delivered in the reading room.  The Langbaurgh West Savings Bank is also held in the Town Hall… In the Saving’s Bank Room is the Parish Library, of about 1000 volumes, to which all inhabitants of Stokesley have free access. This collection of books formed an old subscription library, which was purchased by Colonel Hildyard and presented to the town’

The exterior of the building is largely unchanged and although the ground is much altered the large Court Room with its towering ceiling and five large windows remains as impressive as when it was built. Robert Hildyard must have been unwell for some-time before the building of the Town Hall, for his death certificate gives the cause of death as ‘chronic disease of the larynx’.   A contemporary account of the progress of that particular disease makes grim reading – ‘but from the proofs that will be developed in this work, the disease of the larynx alone may induce consumption and death, though this is a rare termination; because the anatomical of the parts is such that the patient die suffocated, before they reach the last stage, or consumption’[16].  Perhaps he had some intimation of his own mortality and wished to be remembered by his gift to the townsfolk of Stokesley.

The portrait of Robert Hildyard that hung in the Court room was painted before or around the same time as the completion of the Town Hall. Sir John Watson-Gordon[17] an Edinburgh-born painter of historical subjects and portraits exhibited at the Royal Academy in London from 1827, becoming an associate member in 1841 and a full member ten years later. As a result his work became well known in England and many English people travelled to sit for him in his Edinburgh studio. Of the current whereabouts of ‘the oil painting of Colonel Hildyard which cost the townsfolk £500 in subscriptions’ nothing is known. Such appreciation shown by the townsfolk of Stokesley must have provided some consolation for Robert Hildyard. The subscription library mentioned was almost certainly acquired from William Braithwaite, William most likely had access to the library before it was purchased for the Town Hall but as we shall see in future posts, the other opportunities for self-improvement that the building offered to young men like William, were a fitting memorial to the Lord of the Manor.


[1] Burnett, W.H. A Few Specimen Poems and Aphorisms. Blackburn: R Denham & Co. Southport: Shackerley
Literary Agency (1907)

[2] Briggs Asa, Victorian Cities, Penguin (1963) p12

[3] Unless otherwise stated all places mentioned in this chapter are in Yorkshire, England

[4] YB Stokesley parish register. Baptisms 1841, 19 February, William (82) son of Hannah Burnett (20), single woman of Stokesley.

[5] GRO Index of Deaths – December 1872.  Cator Charles   86  Stokesley 09d  332 (Bronchitis 3 weeks)

[6] Northern Poets, edited by W A Ashton (1888)

[7] Ordnance Survey – Six-inch Yorkshire Sheet 28 (which included; Newby, Rudby in Cleveland, Seamer, Skutterskelfe and Stokesley), 1st Edition, surveyed in 1853 and published in 1856

[8] Lewis, Samuel. Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England. London, England:  S. Lewis and Co., (1845). Vol. I-IV

[9] Stokesley Trail, Stokesley Society (2002)

[10] Thompson Cooper, ‘Ord, John Walker (1811–1853)’, rev. Nilanjana Banerji, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/20808, accessed 23 Oct 2015]

[11] Ord, John Walker, The History and Antiquities of Cleveland comprising the Wapentake of East and West Langbargh, North Riding County York. Simpkin and Marshall, London; W Tait, Edinburgh; W Braithwaite, Stokesley.

[12] Franks, Daphne,Printing and Publishing in Stokesley Stokesley & District Local History Study Group (1984)

[13] A History of the County of York North Riding: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History,
London, 1923 [http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/north/vol2/pp301-308]

[14] The Edinburgh Gazette, Number 6504, page 757, Tuesday,June 26, 1855
. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/Edinburgh/issue/6504/page/757/data.pdf

[15] GRO Index of Deaths – November 1854.  Hildyard Robert  66  Stokesley 09d  292 (Chronic disease of the

[16] Trousseau A and Belloc, H  A Practical Treatise on Laryngeal Phthisis-Chronic Laryngitis and Diseases of the Voice. Translated by J A Warder. A Waldie, Philadelphia (1839)

[17] Jennifer Melville, ‘Gordon, Sir John Watson- (1788–1864)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford
University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/11068, accessed 21 Oct 2015]



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