On this date in 1803, 19-year-old apprentice Thomas Hilliker (or Helliker, or Heliker, or Hiliker) was hanged on doubtful eyewitness identification for having helped torch Littleton Mill near Semington during an anti-mechanization protest.
The youth’s affecting handwritten last letter, on display at the Trowbridge Museum, was recently selected by the BBC for its “History of the World in 100 Objects” series.
Executed Today is pleased to mark the anniversary of Thomas Hilliker’s hanging with a chat with Trowbridge Museum Curator Clare Lyall.
ET: Can you put in context the significance of burning down a mill in Wiltshire in the early 1800s?
CL: This was part of organized resistance against mechanization that had begun to turn violent. Mills at Warminster and Bedington had already been burned. There was widespread opposition to processes that were perceived as threatening jobs and this was indicated by many employees joining unions despite the union’s illegal status.
Thomas Hilliker was 19 when he died. What do we know about him? What kind of life did he lead?
Thomas was a literate, apprentice shearman. The job of a shearman was highly skilled and involved the cropping of the raised nap of the cloth to ensure that a finely knitted fibre remained. He was only two years into a five-year apprenticeship when he was arrested. We have little evidence about the type of life he led. There was a statement that gave him an alibi for the night of the burning down of Littleton Mill, when one of his friends found him drunk outside a cottage where he had been visiting and took him in there to spend the night in the kitchen. I guess from that we can conclude that like many teenagers he liked on occasion to drink alcohol to excess.
You’re quoted on thisiswiltshire.co.uk as saying that Hilliker “was probably the wrong guy.” Was he wrongfully executed?
There were contradictory statements about whether Hilliker was actually there holding the Mill manager prisoner whilst the Mill was burned. He also had an alibi for that evening and it would have been very unusual for senior union men to have involved a junior member with such a serious event. I think all this casts doubt on his guilt.
What did Thomas have to say to his family in this last letter? What does that tell us about his life?
It was a moving farewell to his parents and siblings with a request for them not to forget him and to stay out of trouble. I don’t think this was an admission of his involvement in the Littleton Mill incident but may refer to his membership of an illegal organization, a union which after what had happened to him might have considered wasn’t worth the risk.
As a curator, how do you present this artifact to visitors? What kind of reactions does it typically draw?
We present the letter in a display case which has a controlled environment and subdued lighting. There is a transcription of his final letter that is displayed on the outside of the case and adjacent to the letter.
Many people are moved by the letter and why he never told who the true culprits were.