West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History



There seem to have been few famous people to originate or emerge from Pontefract - even famous sporting personalities are a rarity - but one Pomfretian who achieved fame or even notoriety in the recent past was the architect John Poulson.

Mr. Poulson was one of the biggest names in the world of architecture in the 1950s and 1960s and his headquarters was in Pontefract. He left a lasting mark on the appearance of the town and it might have been even greater.

He first achieved prominence in the mid fifties by winning a national newspaper competition, the result being the imposing modern mansion 'Manaseh' on the very edge of Pontefract at Carleton. Its style was certainly very different from the so called 'brutalist' style which was the style for the homes of ordinary folk.

His own practise was centred on offices in Ropergate. later expanding to a large Victorian villa in Mill Hill which then was given a typical 1960s extension which had little sympathy for the older building. Horsefair Flats were design by his company and one of his biggest projects was the development of the Scottish skiing resort of Aviemore where many of the buildings designed by him still stand.

He was a prominent Leeds United supporter including being a member of the very exclusive 'One Hundred Club' for supporters with wealth and influence.

Eventually he became bankrupt and it emerged that he was involved in a corruption scandal which caused the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudlin, to resign and also involved 'Mr. Newcastle' T. Dan Smith, and it is said to have had many local politicians in the North of England quaking in their boots. The television series "Our Friends in the North" was inspired by the happenings of these murky events. John Poulson was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for his crimes.

Before this fall from grace his company had been commissioned to study the redevelopment of Pontefract town centre, in particular the Salter Row area, a development that was already broadly approved by the Ministry and West Riding County Council. By the 1960s much of the area behind St. Giles' Church and the Market Hall was derelict or undesirable (remember those public toilets and the approach to the library?) and it was mainly that area which was studied and subsequently rebuilt, but not entirely as the Poulson report had suggested. Pontefract got its new library but it was very lucky not to have lost its old one to a new supermarket commissioned for the site. Buildings that were lost were the fine Georgian building, Great Northern House, and the pleasant and recently rehabilitated pub, the Flying Horse. Central to the plan was a ramp and servicing area high above Salter Row for the shops of Cornmarket and the new development, the ramp, would lead in from the current Headlands Lane. The idea was to aid the exclusion of motor traffic in the town centre. In addition to the current zones where vehicles are excluded, Ropergate, Horsefair, Beastfair and Finkle Street were all to become free of vehicles. The study, commissioned in July 1967 and published in 1969 also recommended that shops be built between Woolworths and what was then Martins Bank to stop up Valley Road, thus reversing the 1930s development when the dual carriageway along Southgate was formed. The study did not suggest a wholesale demolition of historic buildings and actually lamented that many had been allowed to fall into disrepair.

In the end all of the area under review was redeveloped and new shops were built, many readers will probably be able to imagine coming up Bridge Street and turning into Woolmarket to the sight of decaying property on the left and then on up Salter Row past more dereliction with double-decker buses thundering past. The Poulson proposal was that the Salter Row shops would be under cover (the ramp and service area above) and connected to the rear of the Market Hall - these days we might call it a Mall.

Two important road developments that also were to ease traffic congestion had nothing to do with the report and were already in the minds of the planners at the West Riding HQ. They were the link between Northgate and Front Street and Jubilee Way which even then was seen as a major road link to the as yet un-built M62 which was to run right through the middle of what they envisaged to be 'The Five Towns City' with a proposed population of half a million!

I began to think of writing this article after realising on one of my now infrequent visits to my home town that shopping here is now very much different from the sixties and the town centre has changed so much. The report concluded that 65,000 people from the Town and its surrounding rural areas, used Pontefract as their primary shopping area and that its proposals would add the required floorspace needed up to at least 1972! There are now few articles that cannot be purchased there or in one of the retail parks whereas only a few years past many items could only be purchased on a visit to Leeds, Wakefield, Doncaster - or even Castleford!

This article was prepared with the help of a copy of 'Pontefract Town Centre' Consultants report of February 1969 by J.G.L. Poulson of 29 Ropergate, Pontefract - also at London, Newcastle, Middlesborough, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Lago, Beruit and Mexico City. It's probably still available in Pontefract Library.

Dave Barry



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