The Old Schoolroom, Bransdale

The former schoolhouse, now used as a community centre for the families of this isolated dale.

In 1874, an old schoolmaster of Bransdale met an unfortunate end which caused an outrage in the dale, indeed it was headlined in the regional press as1“THE OUTRAGE UPON AN OLD SCHOOL-MASTER AT BRANSDALE.” York Herald, 9 May 1874, p. 7. British Library Newspapers, Accessed 6 May 2021.:


The old schoolmaster was Robert Johnson, aged approaching 70, and in February of that year he died from congestion of the lungs, brought on by exposure. But it was the circumstances of his death which shocked the community.

Johnson had lived for a number of years at Bransdale, and was looked up to as somewhat of an authority in various matters, rendering many of the farmers assistance with their accounts, correspondence, etc. He was generally respected, and said to have been of a good character. A native of Whitby, where he had a little property, Johnson was a quiet, inoffensive man, but had an hunchback affliction and was very, very fond of drink.

Saturday, the 31st of January, was a cold, raw, foggy night. A well-to-do farmer, Mr. Scarth was having a “pig weighing”. The previous day, the “pig-killing” had taken place, and the custom was to leave the flesh to hang for a day or so, when the “weighing” happens. The pig weighing is a custom which rivals such events as birthdays, christenings, and weddings, for conviviality and rejoicing amongst friends and neighbours, when a considerable quantity of liquor was usually drunk.

One of the guests was Robert Johnson. He appears to have partaken freely of the host’s hospitality, and before the evening closed was much the worse for drink. There was about a dozen at the  gathering which had become increasingly boisterous with everyone consuming a significant quantities of liquor. As the evening progressed, Johnson became the butt of the joke as his companions became more inebriated.

At two o’clock on the Sunday morning, Johnson became sick, and was taken to the back door. Ten minutes later, he was brought back into the passage of the house, where he fell heavily on the floor. He was then taken into an outhouse, where hay was kept, to sleep off, while the party continued in the farmhouse.

At this point, the account becomes a little hazy, no doubt because of the state of the party goers. But it would appear, Johnson was partially stripped naked and had oil and soot having been rubbed over his face and body. Some say Johnson “ruttled” in his throat and appeared to be dying as he lay on the hay.

At noon on Sunday he still appeared to be “dead drunk,” and the “ruttling” continued. By four o’clock, he was able to speak, and complained of being ill all over. Tea, brandy and gin was given to him, and he was then taken into the house and laid on a bed near the fire, but the soberer he became the more he suffered.

By eleven o’clock at night he was taken back to his lodgings. His face and body still were discoloured, though an attempt had been made to clean him up.

On the following (Monday) morning a doctor was sent for, who said Johnson suffering from congestion of the lungs. Johnson gave instructions as to the making of his will and died the following day.

Subsequently, William Baldwin, a small farmer and labourer of Farndale West Side, and supposedly the main instigator was charged with indecently assaulting Johnson by rubbing soot and oil upon him when intoxicated, and then some hours afterwards exposing him to a number of boys in the hay shed.  At the inquest, “owing to the nature of the evidence which had to be called, in order to support the charge against the defendant of indecency, women were ordered out of court.”

At the hearing, the magistrate said that “what had been done had been done in a rough lark — a dirty and nasty one he admitted, but still a practical joke”. He committed Baldwin for trial at the next Quarter Sessions where he was sentenced to three months hard labour2“NORTH RIDING QUARTER SESSIONS THURSDAY, JULY 2.” York Herald, 3 July 1874, p. 6. British Library Newspapers, Accessed 6 May 2021..


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