The letter published this week was written and signed by Thomas Helliker on the night before his execution at Fisherton Gaol, Salisbury, on March 22nd 1803. He was hanged on his 19th birthday despite public outrage.

Also known as Thomas Helliker, he was employed as a Shearmen, a skilled and well-paid position within the woollen and cloth industry. Helliker’s job would have been to finish the cloth by shearing it flat after it had been washed and the nap raised by teasels. At the time, Trowbridge was producing some of the finest broadcloth and Thomas was employed at Littleton Mill, around 3 miles away from Trowbridge.

The mechanisation of the woollen industry was a significant concern for workers who feared that they might find themselves out of work if a machine could take over their job. Things came to a head when shearing frames were introduced at Littleton Mill and a short time after a fire burned the mill to the ground. Thomas Helliker was duly arrested for the offence and despite having an alibi and protesting his innocence he was taken to Salisbury for trial. The Salisbury Journal who recorded the case wrote, “The jury deliberated for about ten minutes, during which time Helliker was in great agitation; when they at length pronounced him guilty, he appeared as if relieved from a torturing suspense, and to assume a degree of fortitude to encounter his fate, and which he retained when sentenced to death was pronounced. He is a good-looking youth, only 19 years old.

The body of Thomas Helliker was carried in procession on a cart across Salisbury plain and buried in St James Churchyard in Trowbridge.

It is now generally accepted that Helliker was innocent of the crime and although he knew the men responsible, he refused to inform on them.