How community in Birstall coped in wake of MP’s murder

Floral tributes to Jo Cox left in the wake of her murder in June.
Floral tributes to Jo Cox left in the wake of her murder in June.

At the spot where hundreds of floral tributes were laid for Jo Cox in the days after her murder, the market traders whose plot overlooked the crime scene go about their business on a sunny autumn Thursday.

And children from Birstall Primary Academy, a school which was put on lock down in the moments after the attack, can be heard laughing in the playground.

Floral tributes surround the statue of Joseph Priestley in Market Place, Birstall.

Floral tributes surround the statue of Joseph Priestley in Market Place, Birstall.

But exactly 15 weeks before, the people working around the village’s Joseph Priestley statue stood in shock as just yards away their MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed outside its library.

As events unfolded, the world’s media focused its intense glare on a what one Birstall trader calls a “normal, everyday close-knit community where most people know each other.”

Months on, villagers are reluctant to speak about the horrific events of June 16 and the trial that is still to come.

But what is clear from those who do is that they are determined for Birstall not to be defined by what happened, and the generous tributes which were paid to Mrs Cox when she died are just as warm as time passes.

People didn’t know what to do or how to put their feelings into words.

The Rev Paul Knight

Birstall Chamber of Trade chairwoman Anne Thompson heard about the attack when a distressed customer walked into her Sea Spray fish and chips shop on Low Lane.

“I will never forget standing behind that cordon and watching the medics working on her,” she said.

“As the day progressed we were waiting for the news, which ultimately was the saddest news. To be taken from her family in such circumstances is awful.”

She added: “We didn’t know at the time that she had died in front of us. That realisation dawned afterwards. This poor girl.”

The Rev Paul Knight, of St Peter's Church.

The Rev Paul Knight, of St Peter's Church.

Prior to the murder of Mrs Cox, some of the village’s typical concerns included keeping trade up for its 90 per cent independent businesses and funding its annual Christmas lights switch-on.

“People say ‘I’m shocked that this has happened here’ and you hear it that many times, but I fully understand what those people mean,” said Mrs Thompson. “I mean, Birstall, for God’s sake!”

The Rev Paul Knight conducted a vigil at St Peter’s Church in the village on the day of Mrs Cox’s death.

Mourners from the area were joined by a number of high-profile Labour party figures who serve nearby constituencies.

Crowds pay their respects during the funeral of Mrs Cox.

Crowds pay their respects during the funeral of Mrs Cox.

Tearful MPs such as Rachel Reeves, Dan Jarvis, Mary Creagh and Yvette Cooper sat side-by-side, united in their grief for a friend who had joined their political fraternity only a year before.

Mr Knight said: “It was a very distressed, shocked atmosphere [in the church]. People didn’t know what to do or how to put their feelings into words.”

The media presence lasted days as then Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn visited the village, and tributes from world leaders such as Barack Obama poured in for Mrs Cox.

“It was extraordinary for me and for the local people,” said Mr Knight.

“There was of course the three days of intense focus but in some ways we were relieved when the media moved on because while they were there we couldn’t move on.

“My impression was that 99 per cent of the media and journalists were courteous, interested, some of them very affected by it themselves.

“I found them really helpful and generous. They wanted their stories but for the most part it was done courteously and with grace. I was quite impressed.”

Although she credits local reporters for mostly showing respect, Mrs Thompson experienced another side of the media.

“We felt as if we had suffered a personal loss. The national and international media were like vultures descending,” she said.

The chairman of the Batley Historical Society, Malcolm Haigh, said: “It was remarkable that a place like Batley and Spen attracted the attention of the country’s press and television. It was so sad that it had to be because of the horrible murder of a remarkable MP.”

Tribute events were put on in Mrs Cox’s memory at Batley’s Market Place and London, as well as cities around the world, on the day the mother-of-two would have turned 42.

Then on July 15 her constituents broke out in spontaneous applause as her funeral cortege passed through the centre of Heckmondwike and Batley before a private service was held for family.

And Birstall was tasked with returning to normality.

Rebecca Walker, who runs Birstall Wellbeing Centre, said: “It was like this stormy, dark cloud for weeks and weeks. There’s a lot of people still going through the healing process.

“As a community we have to rebuild. We’ll come back stronger, but that scar will always be there. We have to just keep going.”

Mrs Thompson, 62, said: “It did have a major impact on the village. We couldn’t believe what had happened. For the first time in many years we had an MP that took a genuine interest in Birstall.”

But she added: “You get on as best you can. You can’t sit and be maudlin about things. We have to try and get on and live life in as normal a way as possible.

“Once the village had started to come to terms with what had happened, and you realise the enormity of what had happened, I think people were determined not to let that define Birstall.

“That’s really not what Birstall was about. It’s a strong, close-knit community. People genuinely care about each other.”

Mr Knight hopes people “make an effort to be neighbourly and consider the needs of those around.”

He said: “I would hope this whole episode makes people think about integrity and honesty. I fear it won’t change too much. I hope that it will but I fear it won’t because people are people and they move on fast.”

Mr Haigh is developing plans with Kirklees Council to name one of the rooms in Batley Town Hall after Mrs Cox.

He said that in the brief time he knew her, he was “amazed at the depth” with which she worked to get the best service possible for her area.

“I’m saddened by the fact that we have been denied what could have been one of the best MPs in the constituency,” he said

Mrs Thompson, of Hanging Heaton, said: “Because she was a local lass she had got this area at heart. She had political experience as well so she hit the ground running.

“She was a very accessible MP and a lovely person.

“The real thing that stood out about her she was inclusive. She didn’t care which side of the political fence you were on. She was happy for people to disagree with her.

“She was there doing the job she got paid for in the best way she knew how. God bless her for it.”