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ROBERT LAW

1840-1907

Fellow of the Geological Society of London

 

On 26th December 1816, Betty Jackson and John Law were married at St. Chad's Parish Church in Rochdale. Betty was just 16 years old, and pregnant. John was 6 years her senior. Despite this shotgun start to married life, the couple remained together until John died some 56 years later. By the time Betty was 35 she had 9 children. (Samuel, John, William, Nancy, Enoch, Sarah, Betty and Hannah). They lived at NORTH HOLLINGWORTH and were handloom weavers. Initially, handloom weaving was a well-paid occupation, but as more and more mills converted to steam and installed large weaving sheds, the handloom weavers became amongst the poorest in the Walsden society. What a struggle it must have been for them to keep above the poverty level.

   
North Hollingworth is high up on the eastern side of the Walsden valley, reached by a steep and narrow track from the valley bottom at Birks Mill. The packhorse trail, which follows the shelf line of the hills, passes through Hollingworth, and is still used today by walkers and riders.
   
The views from Hollingworth across the Walsden valley to the Inchfield Moor on the opposite side are magnificent. Betty was born and brought up on Inchfield Moor in one of the Pot Ovens farms and may well have been able to see her old home from her window at Hollingworth. John on the other hand was a valley lad, born and brought up at Square.
   
The 21st June 1840 saw the birth of their 10th and last child. He was Robert Law. Shortly after his arrival, his two oldest brothers married and left home to live in the valley bottom where they could be closer to the mills and a better living. Robert grew up with his parents and 7 older siblings, happy to be in the countryside where he took a great interest in insects, birds and nature in general.
   

St. Peters Church

He had no interest in books or education, and this worried his parents. At the age of seven he was sent to the village school for the first time, but first he had to be baptised. This event took place at the newly built St. Peter's Church at the bottom of the lane just 6 days after his 7th birthday.

Robert was a reluctant pupil, often playing truant to spend his days in the fields and on the moors collecting stones and studying the wildlife. So disinterested at school was he that he barely learnt how to hold a pen, and could neither read nor write by the time he left school 3 years later at the age of 10.

   

He floated about aimlessly, thinking about little other than his collection of stones. Soon, he had so many in his drawers and cupboards that his mother made him put them all in the garden where they were made in to a rockery. Eventually, he was made to start work in a mill, probably alongside his older sisters, Hannah and Betty. He was still semi-literate, even at 14 years old, and faced ridicule from other mill workers. He decided to do something about it. He started classes at a Walsden night school and at slack times at the mill would be seen doing practice sums and letters on the floor with a piece of chalk.

Perhaps because his love of science and nature made him seem odd to his contempories, he was anxious to be part of a group, and at the age of 17 he fell in with an unworthy crowd. He gave up night school and for a few years he lost the desire to pursue his scientific leanings. He led a wild and reckless life with his unsavoury companions and his behaviour was quite notorious throughout the district. Fortunately, before he was totally ruined and disgraced, he saw the error of his ways, shook off the associates, and went back to night school. He also joined the newly formed Walsden Working Men's Institute. He was a regular attendee for the next 16 years, taking an active part in the activities. At the Institute he joined a grammar class and an art class. He also learnt the art of taxidermy, and when science classes commenced in Todmorden he went along.

Stones were his greatest interest, and one day he happened to see a pamphlet about the science of geology and fossil collecting. This was a surprise to him, as he hadn't previously realised that what he was doing in all his spare time was geology, and it was also a surprise that it was a popular science with volumes of books on the subject. He was filled with renewed interest and he began to inspect his neglected stone and fossil collection in the rockery at his home. Back inside they all went for closer examination. He started to study the rocks around Walsden and Todmorden and all his spare money was spent on books and journeys to different places. He still needed to work at the mill, but his books went with him. He visited all the coal pits, quarries and ravines hunting for fossils. This led to him having a reputation as an odd ball. He was viewed with suspicion by the other village folk as he travelled about breaking up stones with his hammer. They would surround him and watch, call him names, and even throw stones at him. Geology was an unheard of science in the Lancashire countryside of this period.

Robert was fortunate to meet a geologist by the name of John Aitken from Bacup, and through him, many friends with like minds. He continued his studies and qualified as a teacher. In 1878 he was asked to take a class of geology students at the Walsden Institute under the Science and Art Department. Students were difficult to come by for this class, but eventually 6 of them enrolled and all of them passed the final examinations. Inspired by this success, the following year Robert started a similar class at Todmorden where he had 16 students, many of whom passed the examination with a first class.

Part of his obituary in the Todmorden and Hebden Bridge Almanac of 1908 read:

 

"He had a plain but effective method of teaching and he possessed to a remarkable degree the power of winning the interest and devotion of his students. In a few years he was in great demand as a teacher, and had classes every evening in the week, as well as on Saturday afternoons. Among the places he taught may be mentioned Bacup, Rochdale, Shaw, Oldham, Hebden Bridge, Halifax and many others.
 

If not one of the actual founders, he was one of the most active and notable of the leading men connected with the now defunct Todmorden Scientific Association, and regularly took his part in the lectures and debates, his contempories being the present Mayor of Todmorden (Alderman A. Crossley C.C.), Mr. T. Stenhouse, Mr. Barker Crabtree, Mr. Thomas Lee, Dr. F.W. Stansfield (Reading), Mr. Thomas Howarth and others."

 

In 1881 Robert was still working in the mill as a weaver. He was 40 and unmarried, still living at North Hollingworth. His parents were both dead by this time, but his sister Betty and her family had taken over the old homestead. Betty had married Peter Crossley, her long time sweetheart, and they had 3 daughters.

Robert continued with his teaching, and now had enough money to travel further afield. He attended summer courses in Geology at South Kensington and read important papers to societies throughout the country. On February 10th 1886 he was elected as a fellow of the Geological Society of London and on 23rd July that same year he married Elizabeth Ann Blackburn, one of his former students from Halifax, and a teacher with the Halifax School Board. The local press recorded the event as follows:

 

23rd July 1886

Marriage of Mr. Robert Law F.G.S. of Walsden to

Miss Elizabeth Ann Blackburn of Cromwell Terrace, Halifax.

His former and present pupils presented him with a splendid binocular microscope, which cost £40, in commemoration of his marriage. Robert and Elizabeth lived at Cromwell Terrace in Halifax after their marriage. Marriage did not stop Robert. His wife was equally fascinated in geology, and together they travelled the country in search of fossils. One of their favourite places for this was the Isle of Man.

 

As a member of the British Association of Geologists, Robert travelled to North America for an annual meeting at Montreal. Whilst there, he took the opportunity of visiting the far west and returned with many stories and anecdotes about the cowboys and Indians he met.

 

The historic moment when Tattersall Wilkinson, Robert Law and Abraham Crossley opened the barrow. Photo by kind permission of Roger Birch.

He was especially interested in the origins and history of man. He travelled hundreds of miles, searching caves and other places for evidence of early man, collecting flints and fossils from every conceivable corner. Such was his luck that a very important find was made right on his home ground at Todmorden. This was the Blackheath Barrow, a Bronze Age burial ground on land at Higher Cross Stone Farm, owned then by William Sutcliffe, and farmed by a very distant relation of Robert, Charles Law. On 7th July 1898, Tattersall Wilkinson, Abraham Crossley and Robert Law opened the barrow.
   
The barrow was known locally as the Frying Pan Circle because of its shape. The circle was about 100 feet across, and was flat with raised edges. Stones were scattered around the outside edge of the circle.
   
There were several upright urns up to 2 feet tall near the center of the barrow, just beneath the surface. There were flint and stone implements, pottery fragments, incense cups, food vessels, beads and urns. The tall urns near the centre contained burial remains such as calcified bones and teeth, bone, clay, jet and amber ornaments, and flint, bone and bronze implements.

Robert on the right with the urns & artifacts

photo by kind permission of Tony Leah

   

The artifacts on display at Todmorden library

 

The circle was declared to have been a funerary site dating back to maybe 600BC. It is easy to imagine how excited Robert must have been to have such close involvement with the "find" and to be the first to excavate it.

Once the excitement was over and the treasures removed, the locals used the circle to play their favourite game, Knur and Spell. The monument is still to be seen, and just about recognisable, midway down the 6th fairway on the local golf course.

   

Fennyroyd Hall, Hipperholme

When Robert and Elizabeth retired, they bought a lovely big house in Hipperholme called Fennyroyd Hall. Here they displayed all their valuable flints and fossils, said to be the most extensive and valuable private collection in the country. They also collected rare books, pictures and antique oak furniture.
   
The house was a museum. Both Robert and Elizabeth gave up teaching, but Robert continued collecting, and took an occasional commission as a geological expert in connection with new reservoirs, well sinking, and other similar projects.
   
In 1902 Robert was elected a member of the Hipperholme District Council, and 3 years later was re-elected at the head of the poll. He developed strong Conservative leanings and became one of the leaders of Conservatism in the area. He was closely identified with the Primrose League and was President of the Hipperholme and Lightcliffe Conservative Association.

Robert Law

   

Can this be the same person who was so wild as a teenager back in Walsden ... the same Robert Law who was a truant and illiterate at the age of 14?

In December 1907, Robert was taken ill with stomach problems, which developed into heart trouble. He died about 10-30pm on Sunday December 29th 1907. The funeral took place at Brighouse Cemetery, attended by the Mayor of Todmorden, Alderman Abraham Crossley JP., and his Mayoress, along with many other friends and relatives from Todmorden and Walsden. His gravestone reads:

   

photo kindly supplied by

Malcolm Bull

In Memoriam

Robert Law F.G.S

Born at Walsden, Todmorden, June 21st 1840

Died at Fenny Royd Hall, Hipperholme

December 29th 1907

Also of Elizabeth Ann Wife of the above

Who died June 21st 1932 aged 81 years

   

After his death, his fossils were donated to the Natural History Museum in London, to be used by geology students for research purposes.

 

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