Jun 19 • 9M

The Execution of an Innocent Man

the story of Thomas Helliker

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Tomb of Thomas Helliker, St James Church Trowbridge
The Tomb of Thomas Helliker, St James Church Trowbridge

The Story of Thomas Helliker

There have been miscarriages of justice throughout history and right down to our very day. In Trowbridge, lying in St James Church Yard, there is a tomb. This is the burial place of Thomas Helliker, regarded by many as a martyr, hanged for allegedly taking part in a riot and destruction of a woollen mill.

The mechanisation of the woollen industry was a significant concern for workers who would find themselves out of work when a machine could take over their job. Across England, many were rising up, and not many years after the hanging of Thomas Helliker, the Luddite movement would spring up, named after Ned Ludd, an apprentice who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779 and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers.

Thomas Helliker was born on March 23rd 1784. He became a shearman’s apprentice, a highly-skilled cutter or finisher of cloth. He worked at Littleton Mill, Semington, around 3 miles northeast of Trowbridge. July 22nd 1802, would be a night that would seal Helliker’s fate. A riot was organised by workers unhappy with the new machines. They attacked the mill, and it was destroyed by fire.

18-year-old Thomas was accused of waving a pistol at a night watchman. A man named Heath witnessed the attack. He gave a description of one of the rioters that resembled that of Helliker’s to a police officer. It was later said that Helliker had been heard praising the attacks on the mill machines.

The summer of 1802 was difficult for mill owners as the Trowbridge shearmen had organised themselves into unions, although illegal. There was much unrest, and the shearmen went on strike. The employers were determined to break the power of the shearmen. This can be covered in another story.

Thomas Helliker Arrested

Thomas was arrested on August 3rd 1802, in Trowbridge. Later, Heath, who witnessed the attack, picked out Helliker in an identification parade.  However, it must be noted that Thomas was the only employee of Littleton Mill in the lineup and that he was already known to Heath.

When before the magistrates, Helliker denied the offence and had an alibi, one Joseph Warren, a fellow apprentice. Warren went to a magistrate to say that he had found Helliker very drunk on the night of the fire outside a friend’s cottage. He had put Helliker in the kitchen of the friend’s cottage overnight. The front door had been locked, and the key had been placed under the cottage owner’s bedroom door. Helliker had slept here until 5 am and could not have been involved in the attack.

Mr Jones, the magistrate and mill-owner, had determined that he was guilty and should be referred for trial. The defendant was duly charged and sent to Salisbury Gaol.

The Trial

His trial took place in Salisbury, and many believed that Helliker knew the real culprit and tried to get him to name him, but he refused. At the trial, his alibi and friend Warren failed to attend court. He had been taken off to Yorkshire by colleagues who felt he could not withstand the questioning.

The only evidence presented in court was that of Heath’s. Incidentally, something that could cause injustice to be done was the fact that Heath had been given a reward of £500 (a considerable sum in those days) for naming Thomas Helliker. If Thomas were acquitted, Heath would lose out on enough money to buy several houses.

Thomas Helliker Found Guilty

The jury found Thomas Helliker guilty, taking only ten minutes to decide. The death sentence was given, and on March 22nd 1803, Thomas was hanged at just 19 years of age. His body was carried back to Trowbridge by colleagues across Salisbury Plain, and now he lies in St James Church graveyard. On his tomb (pictured above) are two inscriptions.

Sacred to the memory of

Thomas Helliker
The thread of whose life was cut in the bloom of youth
He exchanged mortality for immortality March 22 1803 in the 19th year of his age.

The fatal catastrophe which led to this unfortunate event is too awful to describe. Suffice it say that he met his death with the greatest fortitude and resignation of mind. Considering his youth he may be said to have but few equals. He died a true penitent. Being very anxious in his last moments that others might take a timely warning and avoid evil company.

This tomb was erected at his earnest request by the cloth making factories of the counties of York Wilts and Somerset as a token of their love to him and veneration of his memory.

A second inscription was added later:

This tomb was formerly placed over the remains of
Thomas Helliker
At a time of great disturbance throughout the manufacturing towns of this county. He was condemned for an offence against the law of which he was afterwards believed to be innocent and determined to die rather than give testimony which would have saved his own life, but forfeited the lives of others.
Some of the cloth-workers of this town being so desirous to perpetuate the remembrance of such an heroic act of self sacrifice have restored this memorial in the year of our lord 1876.

Preserved at Trowbridge Museum is a handwritten notebook that contains a copy of Helliker’s letter to his parents. See the photo below. It is signed Hilliker, but the family have preferred Helliker.

A handwritten copy of Thomas Helliker’s final letter - Trowbridge Museum

This is a sad story of a life taken in turbulent times and when justice was more important to be seen to be done than in finding those who were truly guilty. The way workers have been treated by wealthy business owners has been awful, and this story is one of the thousands that could be told.

The history of work and the changes in industrialisation is one that is still being written, and future generations will always have something to look back on and wonder about.

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