Hidden away in the grounds of St Stephen’s Church in Kirkstall lies the grave of one of its most famous sons. Richard Oastler was most famous for his campaigning for civil rights.
Born in Kirkstall in 1789, he died in 1861 in Harrogate and is buried in a crypt, only accessibly via a set of gates. In 2011, there was talk of a campaign to raise money to renovate the grave and give it the prominence it deserves but five years on the grave still lies largely neglected.
Times Past understands, however, that the idea of tidying up the grave, could be looked at with new eyes, as the matter could be brought up at a future meeting of church wardens.
Oastler remains a popular figure for the church - it bares a window donated by his relatives and a photograph of the man. St Stephen’s is not blessed by conspicuousness, being tucked away off the main road, its sprawling split-level chrurchyard and the building itself surrounded by large trees.
Oastler was a vociferous campaigner for children’s rights. In 1830, he wrote passionately to the Leeds Mercury, attacking the morals of those who used children in the workplace for long hours and little pay, something he refered to as ‘Yorkshire slavery’. It was through his dedication that the Ten Hours Bill became law in 1847.
Kirkstall historian Mike Harwood has this to say on Oastler: “Oastler was a native of Leeds, but left it early in life, and about the year 1820 (we believe) succeeded to his father as steward of the Yorkshire estates of Thomas Thornhill, Esq, a Norfolk gentleman of large property.
“It was while living in this capacity at Fixby Hall, near Huddersfield, that Mr Oastler became a public man under somewhat remarkable circumstances. He was in the autumn of 1830 on a visit to the late John Wood, Esq. an extensive manufacturer at Bradford, when in the course of conversation with that gentleman, who had discovered somewhat of the benevolent, energetic and impassioned nature of his guest, expressed surprise that he had never turned his attention to the Factory System, adding that little children were by it subjected to excessive work and exposed to much cruelty in other ways.
“Mr Oastler inquired particulars and next morning found that Mr Wood’s mind as well as his own had been so much impressed with the subject that neither of them could sleep. The consequence was an engagement on his part to obtain if possible remedies for the evils which had so deeply excited the feelings of both. From that day this became the great object of Mr Oastler’s life, and in pursuit of it he spent seventeen years of almost incessant labour.
“He was a man of large heart, whose story may perhaps point a moral, but will certainly excite much admiration for the purity of motive, the energy of character, the indomitable perseverance with which ends which he believed to be right were pursued throughout a long and most chequered career.”
He added: “One version of the legend has it that Richard was passing in the train when he saw the church and expressed a wish that he (and presumably his wife) should be buried there.
Of course, Oastler was buried at St Stephen’s because that is where his wife, Mary, had been buried when she died on 12 June 1845 in Headingley.”