Wiltshire’s little-known hero – hanged for refusing to betray his workmates

Rosie Upton recounts the tale of a young man who died rather than inform on his friends after a mill was burned to the ground in 1802
by - 17th March 2013, 8.30 BST
The tomb of Thomas Helliker, in Trowbridge, Wiltshire

The tomb of Thomas Helliker, in Trowbridge, Wiltshire

The story of Thomas Helliker (sometimes spelt Hilliker or Elliker) who is sometimes referred to as the Trowbridge Martyr is little known outside Trowbridge, the county town of Wiltshire.

Born in 1783 into a local family employed as cloth workers he was apprenticed as a shearman at the age of 14 and might in time have expected significantly higher earnings than weavers or other wool workers.  Shearmen were amongst the most skilled and highly-paid workers in the woollen industry and Trowbridge at that time was a centre for the production of the finest broadcloth. Their job was not to cut the cloth but to finish it by shearing it flat after it had been washed and the nap raised by teasels.

The industrial revolution brought mechanisation and the local workers feared the introduction of shearing frames to finish the cloth in local mills. The shearmen stood to lose the most from the introduction of machinery and were well organised in the North of England and the West-country in fighting this mechanisation. When shearing frames were introduced at Littleton Mill it was burned to the ground on 22 July 1802.

It is doubtful that Thomas took any part in the destruction but despite having an alibi and protesting his innocence he was arrested, charged and sent for trial, in Salisbury where he was subsequently found guilty.

He was hanged at Fisherton Gaol on his 19th birthday on 22 March 1803, despite public outrage.

Afterwards it was generally accepted that he was innocent, but that he had known those who burned down the mill and had refused to inform on them.  It is likely that he had been framed by powerful clothiers determined to make an example.

His body was carried in procession on a cart across Salisbury plain and buried in St James Churchyard in Trowbridge. It is said that the procession grew larger as it reached his hometown and was accompanied by girls dressed all in white who formed a guard of honour.

A fine carved chamber tombstone, the finest in the churchyard, was erected by the shearmen of Yorkshire, Wiltshire and Somerset over the grave. This fell into disrepair over the years and his story became largely forgotten, except within the town itself.

The tomb was restored by Trowbridge Trades Council in the 1980s and White Horse (Wiltshire) TUC hold a commemorative wreath laying there on 22 March of each year.

A handwritten copy of the last letter allegedly written by Helliker (signed Hiliker) is on display at Trowbridge Museum as part of a current exhibition about the woollen industry in the town.

The full story of Thomas Helliker can be found in a booklet produced by White Horse TUC – Wiltshire Industrial History – Working Class Episodes – priced at £7.50 plus £1 p&p and available here.

* White Horse (Wiltshire) TUC is organising a wreath laying today at noon at St James’ Churchyard, Trowbridge. They have also organised a social tomorrow evening at 8pm at Village Pump, Lamb Inn, Trowbridge. Admission is £5, with singing from The Boghouse Boys, Rosie Upton and Pete McGregor