Billy Tweedale was born in 1827; his baptism records the family to be resident in Overton.
On a small plot of land in Helsby there is a huge cavern, known as the 'Conker Cave', carved out by hand to extract fine white sand, used for cleaning and spreading on cottage floors.
Between the 1840s and 1870s the cave was leased to Charles Tweedale and his family. Charles and his wife Sarah (known as 'Sally') were to have nine children, all of whom were probably involved in the labour of extracting the sand. It was their son William (known as 'Billy'), however, who is now remembered as the local sand and rubbing-stone vendor and who was something of a 'character'.
Charles died in 1865 but his wife does not appear to have mourned for long. At the age of 63 she eloped with a navvy, taking the family savings with her.
The distraught Billy, who was 42 and unmarried, is reported to have wandered the locality searching for her (see extract Cheshire Observer, 13 March 1869).
Sally finally returned home but by the 1870s the Tweedales found themselves on hard times. By 1881 they had abandoned Helsby and Billy with his mother and sister were forced to live at the Dutton Workhouse, although Billy continued to roam the area and scrape a living from his dwindling trade. He was registered as an 'Imbecile', a term used to indicate limited mental ability but it could have just implied vulnerability. He remained a resident at Dutton until his death in 1901 and was buried in Little Leigh.
The photograph of Billy taken in 1880 shows an old man, warmly dressed and with a broad grin.
There were sand holes throughout the length of the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge. Most have disappeared or their original function long forgotten and it is rare to find records of actual individuals who depended on this dangerous and low-status industry. Happily, Billy, the Helsby Sand-Man, and his extraordinary cavern, are not entirely forgotten.
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Credits: Sue Lorimer, Peter Winn, Peter Snape
Photo — Billy Tweedle, 1880, Courtesy of Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, image FDN0246