A Township Called Wortley

Fog, dank and impenetrable swirled through the wintry streets of Leeds slowing down the traffic. It was the morning of Friday 2 January 1891. In Wortley, to the west of the town, the steam trams clanged their measured way up Oldfield Lane but a strange stillness hung over the township. That morning people when they met spoke in hushed tones. At the top of Lower Wortley Road opposite the old churchyard a group of young children gazed silently at the grey stone church schoolroom opposite. According to the Leeds Evening Express they 'stood marvelling with child-like wonder at the fate of lost playmates'.

It was not just a group of Wortley children whose attention was focussed on that sombre looking building. There was not a part of the United Kingdom which by now had not heard of that schoolroom and the dreadful event that had occurred there the evening before.

Ireland's two most respected newspapers carried the news; the Belfast Newsletter declaimed SHOCKING ACCIDENT AT LEEDS whilst Dublin's Freeman's Commercial Advertiser declared, DISTRESSING ACCIDENT AT LEEDS. From Scotland came the Dundee Courier& Argus with its headline, GIRLS BURNED AT LEEDS. And across the length and breadth of England the same response appeared: the Bristol Mercury featured, TERRIBLE FIRE AT LEEDS; Middlesbrough's North-Eastern Daily Gazette, TERRIBLE SCENE AT ENTERTAINMENT; the Pall Mall Gazette settled for, A SAD NEW YEAR'S DAY DISASTER whilst the Sheffield & Rotherham Independent announced TERRIBLE ACCIDENT AT BAZAAR.

Inevitably the local press too heralded the tragic news. The Leeds Mercury led with SHOCKING CATASTROPHE IN LEEDS - FIRE AT CHURCH BAZAAR. Then came the Leeds Daily News, the paper with the largest circulation outside London, sombrely stating LEEDS CHILDREN IN FLAMES - TERRIBLE ACCIDENT AT A NEW YEAR ENTERTAINMENT; the Yorkshire Post announced, SHOCKING AFFAIR IN LEEDS, whilst its stablemate, the Yorkshire Evening Post spoke of a TERRIBLE FATALITY.

The local Armley and Wortley News reflected on the TERRIBLE CALAMITY AT WORTLEY CHURCH - CHILDREN DREADFULLY BURNT. And as was expected, the down market Leeds Evening Express trumpeted - HARROWING SCENES AT A BAZAAR - CHILDREN IN FLAMES. It went on; 'January 1 1891 was not destined to be marked by mere felicitous greetings, for ere the day closed a calamity occurred in Leeds which BROUGHT DEATH, AGONY AND SORROW.'

But how could such a disaster bringing 'death, agony and sorrow' have occurred? It had not happened in some bloody war zone torn apart by warring factions nor in some area devastated by a natural catastrophe. It had happened in nowhere more dangerous than in the local schoolroom of a simple parish church in a provincial North of England town where a group of law abiding, church-going men, women and children had gathered to celebrate the New Year.


On 13 June 1890 the patrons of Wortley Parish Church met to discuss the resignation of Revd John Trower. Dr Trower had led the parish with dynamic zeal for ten years. Now it was time for a change. With the existing incumbent appointed to a living at Otley, the patrons had the task of finding a suitable candidate to fill the post at St John the Evangelist.

On Tuesday 22 June four of them invited Revd Canon William Arthur Brameld, MA, the principal of St Paul's Missionary College at Burgh and a Keble College man, to Leeds for interview. Once they saw him they unanimously appointed him. So on 28 August, the York Herald was able to report, 'Yesterday, the Bishop of Ripon instituted the Rev. William Arthur Brameld, M. A., to the new vicarage of Wortley-de-Leeds, on the presentation of the "Patrons of the Church of Wortley".'

Brameld was no stranger to the township. In 1851 his father, Arthur James Brameld had been appointed to the newly created parish of New Wortley, carved out of the old parish. By the 1850s New Wortley had mushroomed as street after street of sprawling back-to-backs were built to cater for the quickly growing working-class population of the area. Originally the congregation worshipped in a licensed schoolroom until St John the Baptist on Spence Lane was built and which was then consecrated in 1853.

Brameld was a an enthusiastic leader of the community, setting up the New Wortley Penny Savings Bank at the Church, chairing a committee to open a much needed cemetery in New Wortley and another committee dedicated to providing relief to those cotton workers in Lancashire who were suffering as a result of the American Civil War. He also passionately struggled to improve the appalling sanitary conditions in the district.

It was here in the vicarage at New Wortley that William Arthur was born. However, he was not to know his father for long. On Wednesday 22 November 1865 the vicar, who had gone to Scarborough for a break, decided to take a swim despite heavy seas and poor weather. He and a friend plunged into the North Bay but getting out of his depth, Brameld was drowned.

Now his son was to return to the ancient township where he had been born. Ancient it truly was. Mentioned in Domesday Book as Reestones, by the end of the twelfth century it was known as Wirkalaie. The township comprised two hamlets, Upper and Lower Wortley. For centuries its people were either mainly farmers or involved in the wool textile industry.


Wortley Local History Group

St. Johns's Church known originally as the Old Bell Chapel

They worked from their cottage homes but a rich vein of clay under the area also saw dozens of small potteries established in the area which produced coarse earthenware and clay pipes.

Over the centuries the population expanded and as the two hamlets merged a new development of mainly back-to-back working-class housing took place at New Wortley. By 1890, the small potteries had been replaced by two major fireclay companies, Ingham's and Cliff's on Wortley Moor Road, whilst wool textiles were produced in numerous factories and mills in the township and Copley Hill Railway shed, the gas works on Wellington Road and the growing services provided by the corporation also employed workers from the area.

It was a thriving community boasting cricket, football, athletic and cycling teams. It also claimed one of the oldest schools in Yorkshire in the Wortley Grammar School first opened in 1677 and now several new local authority council schools.

Churches and chapels predominated in the district with the Methodists and Wesleyans the most popular. Branch Road, Silver Royd Methodists, the Bull Ring, and Mount Pisgah were all thriving chapels; Roman Catholics in West Leeds had worshipped at Holy Family Church since the early 1870s; the Anglicans met at St John the Baptist in Spence Lane, St Mary of Bethany on Tong Road and Holy Trinity Church in Canal Street. However, the oldest of these churches was St John the Evangelist, the parish church of Wortley on Dixon Lane. Originally opened in 1787 and known as the Old Bell Chapel, it was consecrated as a place of Anglican worship in 1813.

It was a flourishing Church. Already to the north of the parish a mission school had been established at Silver Royd whilst at St John's itself men's Bible classes, a Mothers' Union, cottage meetings, an Adult Temperance Society and a Band of Hope all flourished. Its Sunday schools claimed some 700 pupils and a library of some 360 volumes. Both the Band of Hope and the infants' department of the Sunday school were lead by Eli Auty, a 26 year-old clerk in a clothing company . Not surprisingly in such a thriving Church it was felt necessary to appoint a curate and in November 1890, the Revd Ernest Freer Buckton, took up his duties.

Christmas was approaching and plans had to be drawn up for the usual festivities. One thing Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists and the Wesleyans had in common was that each year around Christmas time and the New Year the local churches and chapels held annual sales-of-work to bolster their finances. In the autumn of 1890 plans were afoot across Leeds for such events to take place. In West Leeds Theaker Lane Methodists, St Mary's in Tong Road, Christ Church in Armley, the United Methodists on Whitehall Road, Greenside Methodists and Bethel Congregational Chapel all made similar arrangements.

The new Wortley vicar decided St John's too would hold one.


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