Jo Cox: A year on, the West Yorkshire village that refused to be defined by tragedy

The market place in Birstall.
The market place in Birstall.
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There were no police officers on duty outside Birstall Library on the day of the General Election.

No security staff in high-vis jackets, no searching looks at people entering the building to place their cross on a ballot paper.

Jo Cox.

Jo Cox.

The library was just like any other polling station around the country, a small symbol of democracy in an increasingly troubled world.

And that, surely, would have met with the approval of the woman whose death thrust the village of Birstall into the global spotlight a year ago today.

Batley & Spen MP Jo Cox was murdered near the library as she headed for one of the constituency surgeries that, like the simple act of casting a vote, form part of the democratic bedrock of our society.

“I miss my sister Jo Cox every day. I will ensure her murder was not in vain”

Anne Thompson and Jill Mellor.

Anne Thompson and Jill Mellor.

This week the Yorkshire Evening Post travelled again to Birstall and found a community that to some degree is still trying to make sense of the nightmare that unfolded on June 16 last year.

But in many other ways it has shown the best of British and Yorkshire spirit in its determination to move forward and, in the words of Mrs Cox, prove that we have more in common.

In Birstall’s cobbled market place, a single bunch of flowers lies at the foot of the statue of Joseph Priestley, an 18th century thinker who was a passionate advocate for tolerance and equal rights.

All around the village, meanwhile, are signs of the Tour de Yorkshire cycle race’s visit at the end of April this year.

Shops remain decked with the race’s yellow and blue bunting while brightly painted bikes are fixed to a railing in front of the library.

Thousands packed the streets of Birstall on the day the world’s finest cyclists came and went, with Mrs Cox’s sister Kim Leadbeater among those joining the party.

So it is understandable if no one has been in a hurry to remove the colourful reminders of an occasion that has had an important role in the village’s healing process.

Jill Mellor, owner of Birstall’s Fashion Workroom business, told the YEP: “[Mrs Cox’s death] was very difficult for all of us – the day itself obviously put the fear of God into everyone.

“Then, for a long while, the village was so low. People were just walking round, shaking their heads and trying to take in what had happened. It was a scary and very, very saddening time.

“However, then we had the Tour de Yorkshire. I cannot tell you how it lifted everyone’s spirits, the effect has been unbelievable.

Jo Cox: Heroes who showed the very best of humanity

“It has meant we can start smiling again and looking to the future in a positive way.”

Her words were echoed by Anne Thompson, chair of Birstall Chamber of Trade and co-owner of the Seaspray fish and chip shop.

She said the local economy had suffered in the aftermath of the murder, with some people seeming reluctant to return to a location linked with such a shocking crime.

Mrs Thompson told the YEP: “The Birstall I know and love is a warm, friendly and welcoming place. It has its share of social issues, but which community doesn’t?

“It’s close knit, a bit old fashioned in some respects, but old fashioned values are no bad thing.

“The last year has been tough both socially and economically, but it’s those kind of values, and a determination that Birstall won’t be defined by one act, that has seen us through.

“The Tour de Yorkshire was a great turning point for us. Local community groups really came together to organise our events and the turnout was wonderful.

MP Jo Cox’s humanitarian spirit is continuing inspiration

“Birstall truly shone. I’m very proud of Birstall, as are thousands of others.

“It may only be a little speck on the map, and not figure much on some people’s radar, but it has a hell of a lot going for it, not least of which is its community spirit.”

That community spirit will be in evidence again today, tomorrow and Sunday as the village plays its part in the nationwide Great Get Together initiative, organised to mark the anniversary of Mrs Cox’s death.

Posters for events at venues such as St Peter’s Church and the Wesley Playhouse were this week proudly fixed in the windows of shops and businesses throughout the village.

Back on the evening of June 16, the Vicar of Birstall, the Rev Paul Knight, spoke of the “fragility of civilisation” as hundreds of people sought solace by gathering at St Peter’s.

This week he told the YEP: “For a few days the village was swamped by the international media caught up in the drama.

“I was privileged to be able to speak on behalf of the people of Birstall about the very special person who had helped so many people throughout her life and particularly in the short time she had served as our MP.

“I promised then that we would not forget Jo and we haven’t.

“Our community is stronger as we stand together with love and hope for the future.”

A dark chapter, then. But when the story of Birstall comes to be written, it should not paint a picture of a village consumed by grief, rather one which embodies the inner strength and optimism of a never-to-be forgotten woman.

Their Jo. Your Jo. Our Jo Cox.

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