The only Rawcliffe man who would appear to have gained recognition on a national scale was James Hirst. He was born in Rawcliffe in 1738, the son of a farmer and was originally intended for the church but he was expelled from boarding school in Pontefract for unruly behaviour and then became apprenticed to a tanner. That did not last long and he returned home, spending his time training one of his father's bulls as a mount for riding.
When his father died, James (Jemmy as he was known) received about £800, with which he bought a house and premises, setting himself up as a dealer in corn, flax and potatoes. By judicious business, he was able to invest sums of money which enabled him to retire in his middle forties.
He was an eccentric bloke who wore a red coat with blue sleeves, harlequin breeches, a glossy waistcoat made of drakes feathers' and a lambskin hat, a full three yards in circumference. He also constructed all manner of mechanical contraptions, including a threshing machine and a flying machine. Being an attraction in his own right he always gave the crowd something to talk about by riding in his wickerwork carriage which had a sail attached for wind assisted
drive or on his pet bull called Jupiter, which he used instead of a horse. A bogus set of banknotes were issued by him which were engraved and printed in Hull in the form of a £5 note of the day but were only worth 2 1/2d. Some of these banknotes are still in existence in the village today having been passed down by previous generations.
King George III summoned Jemmy to London after hearing of him, and eventually he went, travelling down, of course, in his wickerwork carriage pulled by Jupiter, his bull.
He attended parties and dances which were held in his honour for a week in London. He invited the King to visit him if he so wished, but the offer was never taken up. On returning to Rawcliffe, were he spent the rest of his life, as many as 400 people called on him on a Sunday afternoon to see the man, his home, and its contents, and particularly his coffin, complete with glass panelled doors and a bell fitted for him to ring for help.
He was 91 when he died on 29th October 1829 and in his will he left £12 for 12 old maids to carry him to his grave, with £5 for a piper and a fiddler to play him to the churchyard. There is no trace of Jemmy Hirsts' grave at Rawcliffe and one can only assume that he was buried with his mother and father whose grave can be found in the church graveyard.
He most memorable legacy was that to John Bingley, attorney at law, of Rawcliffe, who had, it would seem, done Jemmy a bad turn during his life. It read:
"I give to John Bingley attorney at law now at Rawcliffe, a small rope which we call a falce line such like things are used with unfortunate people at the gallows at York and other places, when he likes to call for it, his roguish and rascally villainous and scandalous deceiving behaviour to me for carrying on a lawsuit against my mind and orders which cost me two hundred and fifty pounds he said it should cost me nothing he would do it at his own expense. I hope this will be a caution to some others to keep away from the above place of torment. I also wish and desire a copy of this to be put up in some public place on Rawcliffe Feast Monday in August every year as long as the said John Bingley shall live. I promised I would leave him something on my death and I always had a great liking to be as good as my word."
Whether this request was fulfilled, it is not known but judging by the obvious popularity of
Jemmy Hirst I would imagine it was.
By Len Turner
Taken from "Rawcliffe The Queen of Villages"
(c) The Rawcliffe History Group 1989