Fishers of Briestfield – Coal Miners

Postcard from the early 20th Century of an old cottage close to Briestfield

In the 1870-72 Gazetteer of England, Briestfield was described as a hamlet in Lower Whitley, situated on the edge of Thornhill parish in West Yorkshire. Also known at various times as Briestwell and Briestwistle, records show that in 1150 it was known as Brerethuisel, meaning “common or waste overgrown with briars in the confluence of two rivers”. Flint stones found nearby hark back to a much earlier occupancy and cannon balls found in the vicinity were a legacy of the Civil War bombardment of nearby Thornhill Hall. The villagers were won over to Wesleyan Methodism and a chapel was built in 1875.

It is a place with which I had only a passing acquaintance as a child, not knowing I had any historical connection with the location.

Family Connection to the Village

Back Lane, Briestfield - - 1002223
Briestfield now. Photo by Humphrey Bolton / Back Lane, Briestfield / CC BY-SA 2.0

In my extensive family history research are a family of coalminers from Briestfield. Their family name was “Fisher”, their occupation was almost exclusively coal mining and their claim to notoriety was one Joseph Fisher who was hanged at York, for the crime of housebreaking and theft of money and butter, during the Luddite unrest of 1812. This Fisher family can be traced back in Briestfield at least to the birth of my 10th great grandfather, Thomas Fisher (born 1575). Four generations later, his descendant, my 6th great grandmother Mary Fisher, born 1713, married into my Blackburn line and her descendants eventually show up in my mother’s Hemingway line. Descendants of a second Fisher line headed by my 9th great grandfather Joshua Fisher of Briestfield, born 1641, also feeds down to my mother’s Hemingway line.

Descendants of a third Fisher line lead from my 4th great-grandfather, Richard Fisher (1792-1859), also of Thornhill parish (possibly also Briestfield), also a coal miner, whose descendants lead down to my father’s Sheard line. These three Fisher families may well be related to each other in the distant past, as working people didn’t move much from their own villages and married within the community, so it is fascinating to find out as much as I can about the lives of the folk who lived there and whose genes passed on to the lines of both my parents.

About Briestfield

Briestfield 1842. Map reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

I have read that the local inhabitants were a suspicious group; some believed that their cottages were haunted and, in past times, the women would bury silver thimbles in the walls of their cottages to scare away witches. Local legend has it that even as late as 1924 “little brown men” or “fairies” were reportedly seen in nearby caves at dusk. So this is the culture in which my ancestors grew up, lived, loved, worked and ultimately died.

Briestfield had never been known for its modern amenities. Occupants had to draw their own water from a well across the field. The growing village only acquired street lighting in the 1950s. Before that time, events had to take place at the time of a full moon so that the inhabitants could find their way back home. Work was hard for both men and women, but there were pleasant times too. Although poor, the families were not necessarily hungry. They kept pigs and hens and grew their own fruit and vegetables, even roses might be grown around the cottage doorway. Of course, there was always plenty of coal for a raging fire in the grate, even in summer, to provide heating for the oven and for a set pot (a washing tub made from iron or copper, that was set into a fireproof surround, in which water was heated from a fire). A hamlet known, not only for its coal, but also handloom weaving, some cottagers had their own weaving looms and the weavers took their cloth to sell at Cloth Markets such as Leeds and Halifax.

Voice Recording of a Mr Fisher of Thornhill born 1877

But my family were all coal miners. It was a dangerous business but it paid good money, so families sent their sons down the pit from an early age. This is detailed elsewhere in my articles about Yorkshire coal and the Thornhill Pit Disaster.

Today’s short article came about because I happened to be watching a snippet of a TV programme about the Treasures of the British Museum, when their sound archive was featured…so I unearthed a recording this morning that I knew existed, but had forgotten where to find it again! It’s a recording of an interview of a man called simply “Mr Fisher”, who was born in 1877. He was a coal miner of Thornhill, who worked down the mine from the age of ten and the recording was made in 1962, for the University of Leeds.

Mr Fisher speaks of the working and living conditions he experienced as a young miner, working in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. He recalls playing marbles in the street as a child and saving money to buy a house and reflects on the nationalisation of the coal mines.

Naturally I looked on my family tree to see if I was related to Mr Fisher but found no direct link to him in my Fisher lines. However, it was fascinating to hear his story and to think that this would be how my own coal mining Fisher relatives lived and spoke…it also reminded me of the dialect of some of my older relatives when I was a child.

Listen to the interview at this link.

Shelf mark    C908/9     Recording date    1962     Recording locations    Thornhill, Yorkshire: OS Grid Reference(425500,418500).  Producers University of Leeds. Recordist Stanley Ellis (b.1926)     Speaker:  Fisher, Mr (born 1877).