In 2004 when I started researching for my Jacobite Chronicles series (although I had no idea it would actually be a series then, and was just aiming to write one novel), I spent a week in Manchester at the beautiful central library, reading newspapers and researching information on 18th century Manchester, with special interest in its role in the Jacobite rising.
Whilst doing that I discovered that, following the collapse of the ’45, the officers of the Manchester Regiment were treated with particular severity, but that three of them managed to escape from prison and therefore avoid the traitors’ death that their comrades endured. At the time the only information I had was their names – John Betts, John Holker and Peter Moss, and the fact that they’d escaped and were not recaptured, so I thought it would be interesting to include two of them in my book.
John Holker features only briefly in my books, firstly as the Mancunian in the alleyway room where Beth first meets Alex in Mask of Duplicity, and secondly at the reception in Manchester during the rising in The Storm Breaks.
Since then the internet has made research much easier, and while I haven’t found much more out about John Betts, I have found out a lot more about John Holker and how he and his family’s lives were changed completely by his decision to enlist with Prince Charles.
John was born in 1719 in Stretford, which is a few miles from the centre of Manchester (an area I used to shop in regularly when I lived there!), the son of John and Alice Holker. His father died not long after he was born and his mother died when he was about twenty-one. He then sold the property he inherited from his father and bought a cotton mill, spending two years in Manchester to learn the trade. He married Elizabeth Hilton or Hulton, and seemed on course to spend his life as a Manchester mill-owner.
However, he was also a Roman Catholic and a Jacobite, and on hearing in July 1745 that Prince Charles Edward Stuart had landed in Scotland, he was tempted to travel there and join him, but was dissuaded from doing so by his wife. However, when the prince and the Jacobite army arrived in his home town, he was presumably not to be dissuaded at that point, and enlisted. He was given the rank of lieutenant. I can find no record of him having had any previous military experience, but it would have been normal in these times for middle-class men (which Holker was, as a mill owner) to become officers.
What his wife thought of this decision is not recorded, but Holker left Manchester along with the other recruits and headed south to Derby. Sadly the glorious advance of the Manchester Regiment was to last for only a few days, as on arriving at Derby the fateful decision to turn back rather than continue to London was made by the Jacobite council.
At this point, and upon the return to Manchester a number of the men understandably deserted, but John Holker was not one of them – indeed he led a party of men from the regiment to ride in advance into Manchester to try to recruit more men. This was not successful, as the Whigs who had run away on the arrival of the Jacobites from the north were now back and armed to beat off the army as it retreated.
The army continued north, the Manchester Regiment captained by Francis Townley, and when they arrived at Carlisle Castle, just south of the Scottish border, Townley petitioned Prince Charles for the regiment be allowed to stay at the castle. A number of his men were less than impressed by this, as they wanted to continue into Scotland with their prince, but were persuaded when Townley told them that the prince was in favour of the Manchester men staying at Carlisle and holding the castle for him. By this time the regiment numbered 113 men.
This turned out to be a terrible decision, as a few days later the Duke of Cumberland arrived with his army, and in spite of Townley doing his best to defend the castle and inspire the men to hold out as long as possible in the hope of making a good bargain for their release, the castle was surrendered unconditionally to Cumberland, which was the worst possible deal for the men.
The Duke of Cumberland is not remembered for his sense of justice and mercy, and the Manchester Regiment suffered disproportionately badly for their support of the Stuarts (see part two of my blog on Manchester). Most of the officers were taken to London for trial, and were held in Newgate prison from February before being executed on Kennington Common on 28th July 1746.
In the list of the personnel of the Manchester Regiment, John Holker is named as being a lieutenant, a Roman Catholic 26-year-old calendar man from Lancashire, and his fate is listed as ‘escaped’.
It seems (from his own later account) that he was held in a cell with Peter Moss, and they succeeded in bribing a turnkey to give them tools and a rope, with which both men successfully escaped on 26th June. It would seem that they managed to scrape away the damp plaster from the walls of their structurally unsound cell, and by removing a few bricks, make a hole large enough to squeeze through, Holker having some trouble in this due to his size. They then went their separate ways, and Holker was sheltered by a woman who ran a vegetable stall for some six weeks until he could make his way abroad to France, via Holland.
Once there he joined the Scottish Ogilvie regiment in 1747, and saw military action in Flanders. He continued his military career until 1751. Having failed to obtain a pardon from Britain, he resigned himself to a life in exile with his wife, and built a cotton mill at Rouen.
In spite of not being pardoned, he did return to England twice – the first time when he accompanied Prince Charles on a secret visit in 1750, and the second time in 1754 when he came at the behest of the French to enrol English workers and act as an industrial spy to discover methods by which the French cotton industry could be raised to the standard of that in England.
Once back in Rouen, he went from strength to strength, making great improvements in cotton manufacture and starting the first vitriol factory in France. He was made a knight of St Louis in 1770. He died in 1786 and was buried in Rouen. Prince Charles gave him a damasked sword, which is still in the possession of his descendants.
Incidentally his son, also named John Holker, was sent to America by the French government to report on the war, and to help stop the rebels from submitting to Britain. He was appointed Consul-General in Phiadelphia and helped to equip French ships in American ports. Later he bought 20,000 acres of land, and died in America in 1822.
All of this as a result of a decision to support Prince Charles as he rode through Manchester!