In the early 18th century Trowbridge was the centre of the woollen cloth production. It was also home to the largest woollen cloth producer in the west of England, wealthy magistrate and mill owner John Jones, who was keen to modernise the production of woollen cloth. Until this point a Shearman (Helliker’s profession) had been protected by statute since Tudor Times. However as time went on and technology progressed this legal protection had been removed. With inadequate poor relief the Shearman had to organise themselves into illegal unions. The job of a Shearman was to skillfully crop off the raised nap of the cloth to ensure a finely knitted fibre. This produced a tough, high quality material known as extra fine board cloth. Jone’s proposal was to introduce mechanisation into woollen cloth production, replacing the need for Shearman craftsmanship. In response Trowbridge Shearman allied with Yorkshire Shearman, facing a similar threat. In 1802 a trade union monopoly existed between the two counties. There Union cards bore the words ‘Industry, Freedom and Friendship’.
Thomas Helliker was in the middle of his apprenticeship, at The Conigre, owned by Francis Naish, who traded extensively in fancy waistcoats, when the organised resistance against mechanisation became violent. On the night of the 22nd July 1802 Helliker was on striker, that same night Littleton Mill, near Semington was burned down for having Shearing frames installed. The mill was owned by Naish but rented by Ralph Heath. A group of men with blackened faces entered Heath’s cottage, held him at gunpoint, whilst the mill was set on fire.
Heath testified that Helliker was the second man to enter his cottage, his face was blackened and he carried a pistol that he threatened those present with. Heath stated that though Helliker’s face was blackened he recognised him from his voice and protruding front teeth as the man who held him captive. He claimed that when he had made a contradictory statement saying he hadn’t recognised Helliker he done so “from a dread that his life was in danger if it had been understood that he could convict him”.
However a statement has surfaced from the Public Records Office that throws doubt on Heath’s evidence.
In the cottage also that night was John Pearce, Heath’s assistant. Pearce’s statement mentioned nothing of a second man; supposedly Helliker and claims that Heath never looked up from the ground the whole time after the first man entered the cottage. But Pearce’s evidence was not formally recorded nor was he called to the trail. Heath was almost certainly pressured by Naish to testify and seems to have been rewarded, receiving £500, a substantial amount of money at this time. Furthermore the authorities needed a scapegoat to keep the workforce in line, unfortunately Helliker fitted the bill.
Helliker did in fact have an alibi for the night, a fellow apprentice, Joseph Warren. Warren had voluntarily gone to the magistrates and stated that at 10:30pm he met Helliker outside John Walter’s house who Warren was visiting. Helliker became very drunk so Warren put him in Walter’s kitchen and having locked the front door placed the key under the door of Walter’s bedroom. So he and Helliker slept there till morning, locked in. When Naish heard of Warren’s statement he asked to interview him and the following morning Warren disappeared eventually turning up in Leeds, September. It is believed that Union members sent him away with a reference and money, in fear of his safety.
Helliker was arrested in August but maintained his innocence. It did not matter, Jones told him “you have been recognised and it will go badly for you”. Helliker was imprisoned at Wilton jail, far side of Salisbury Plain, preventing rescue from his fellow Shearmen, throughout the winter of 1802-1803 until his trail in March. Warren never gave evidence and the outcome was predictable.
Thomas Helliker was hanged in front of Fisherton Goal, 22nd March 1803, maintaining his innocence to the very last. He never testified against any of his fellow workers, though as a Shearman he would almost certainly have known who was at the mill even if he himself was not.
Helliker’s body was carried back by Trowbridge Shearmen, across Salisbury Plain to his resting placing at St. James church, Trowbridge, where his tomb still remains. His fellow cloth workers regarded him as a martyr, today he is seen as an early trade unionist who paid the highest price for defending his trade.
Was he really innocent?
We can never know. It is possible he was there, but it would seem unusual for an apprentice, with 2 years training remaining (only fully trained workers were accepted into the union) to have been involved in a high level and dangerous union activity, with such an important role.