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Pontefract Local History

PONTEFRACT'S FORGOTTEN MAN


THOMAS JEFFRIES SIDES


by TERRY SPENCER

PART ONE | PART TWO

Such is the transience of mortal fame that a recently published book containing biographical sketches of almost two hundred people associated with the town of Pontefract made no mention of T. J. Sides, the town’s most prominent citizen during the period 1916-1937.

Thomas Jeffries Sides was born in Phillipsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., in 1874 of English emigrant parents who came to live at Henry Street, Featherstone, when he was about twelve years of age. Obtaining employment as a boy labourer at Featherstone Main Colliery, Sides worked there for some 15 years, becoming foreman of the coal screening plant before leaving in February 1902 to become the licensee of the recently built Featherstone Hotel.

As the tenant of the Featherstone Hotel, Sides was well ahead of rival licensees in attracting customers by promoting regular events as diverse as dog shows, shooting competitions, brass band contests, billiard matches and athletic competitions held on a specially constructed track located next to the hotel.

An accomplished musician, Sides played the violin at local festivals organised by the Free Churches of Featherstone and was for a time a member of a locally based orchestra. The wide circle of friends and acquaintances gained through his cultural and church activities was doubtless influential in his decision to enter local politics, somewhat surprisingly given his social background, as a member of the Conservative Party. By the turn of the twentieth century Sides was a member of Featherstone Urban District Council and in due course its Chairman.

As the representative of the North Ward in the 1904 local elections Sides revealed a talent for self-promotion which is almost breathtaking in its opportunism. Standing against William Sykes, a local miner and Labour Party candidate, Sides upstaged his opponent by presenting himself as "the true ‘labour’ candidate" heading the poll with a majority of 191. A local pro-Conservative newspaper editorial acknowledged Sides’ power of persuasion stating that : -

"The result indicated that in Mr. Sides the ratepayers feel that they have a man of some substance, who is likely to attend to their interests per se and not sacrifice them in the same way as his opponent."

Sides, who was described as having "The power of throwing himself without reck into events of the moment", also had an innate ability matched by boundless self-confidence which thrust him to the forefront of local affairs and ensured that criticism of his actions and motives was not wanting. An indication of the passion aroused by Sides is seen in the turmoil arising from his fractured association with St. Peters’ Mission Church at Featherstone in 1911.

Friction arose when the Vicar of Featherstone, Reverend F.G. Stebbigs, announced at a vestry meeting that his warden, T.J. Sides, would henceforth have sole control of the financial affairs of the church. The Vicar, the parish incumbent for over 20 years, was highly esteemed by the local populace, having been instrumental in raising over £100 per week for relief of the local miners during the period of industrial upheaval subsequently designated as the ‘Featherstone Riots’ in 1893.

Sides, who lived in the Mission Church district and had been active in the affairs of the Mission Church for a number of years had, however, had a disagreement with the ‘elders’ of the congregation and had ‘defected’ to the parish church at which he had been confirmed by the Bishop of Beverley in 1909.

The announcement of the Vicar annoyed his curate, the Reverend F.H. Jackson, who had resided at Featherstone about 16 months, having been appointed curate by the Archbishop of York, Dr. Lang, with whom he had earlier been associated at Stepney. The Curate therefore petitioned the Archbishop, objecting to Sides’ financial control and followed up his action by preaching a sermon at the Mission Church stating the reason for his objections and making derogatory remarks about Sides. In a public statement refuting the remarks of the Curate, Sides accused him of being the Archbishop’s ‘placeman’ and said that he objected to his preaching of "socialist sermons", a charge denied by the cleric. The incident caused a bitter schism in the local church at Featherstone. Nevertheless, the ire of opponents had never deterred Sides in his pursuit of his political and business interests nor prevented his rise to prominence in local affairs and by 1910 he was the Chairman of Featherstone Urban District Council, having been a member of the Board of Guardians and the Local Burial Board since 1903, and also Secretary of the local Licensed Victuallers’ Association and Treasurer of the Yorkshire District Licensed Victuallers National Defence League.

As the result of a letter from Private E. Wilks who was on active service on the western front, Sides, who was too old for enlistment, was inspired to assist with recruitment and training and to this end raised the Featherstone Company of Volunteers under his command and successfully obtained a Court grant to facilitate this patriotic effort.

As the tenant of Carters’ Knottingley Brewery Company Limited, Sides used his contacts and influence in the service of the company, obtaining land and properties and facilitating business deals and on occasion acting as the Company’s representative such as the presentation in 1914 to the War Relief Committee on behalf of the Brewery of £15 to the Distress Fund and a further £10 to the Belgian Refugee Fund. Simultaneously, Sides was building up a portfolio of shares in the company. Recognition of Sides’ value to the company and his potential future value resulted in an invitation to join the board in 1916. Such was Sides’ business skill and energy that within two years he was appointed managing director. Commencing at a yearly salary of £500, itself not an insignificant sum at that time, by 1920 Sides’ annual income from the brewery alone was £1,500, plus expenses and provision of a company car.

At the time of his appointment as managing director of the brewery company, Sides left Featherstone and took up residence at ‘Fernhill’, a detached house in the Nevison district of Pontefract. The following year Sides, having resigned from Featherstone Council, was elected to Pontefract Borough Council and a year later, in 1918, was elected Mayor of Pontefract, remaining in that office for four consecutive years. Sides’ first official civic duty was to publicly proclaim the end of the Great War of 1914-1918 thereby inaugurating the first of seven mayoralities each of significance in the wide context of national developments.

Raised to Alderman status in 1920, Sides was again called upon to assume the style and title of Mayor in 1924 when Alderman R.P. Husband died in office. In 1921 Sides was appointed a County magistrate and became a Borough J.P. two years later. Sides was also the representative member of the Knottingley Division of the West Riding County Council and until its obsolescence, a member of the Pontefract Board of Guardians. In 1928 Sides was made an honorary freeman of Pontefract Borough for services to the town.

His term as an alderman being due to expire in late 1926, Sides resigned his office in order to contest the West Ward in the forthcoming Borough elections. Some indication of public dismay, perhaps with Sides political opportunism, was evident in his defeat at the polls. Beaten by 475 votes to 386, Sides was presented with a further opportunity to stand in the same ward when his recent opponent Councillor Brittain, was nominated as an Alderman, but in a three cornered fight Sides was again rejected. Shortly thereafter, the resignation of Councillor H. Holmes created a vacancy in the Central Ward of the town and Sides was duly elected by a comfortable margin. Re-elected in 1927 and again, unopposed, in 1930, Sides successfully faced two opponents in 1933.

Elected Mayor in 1935 and again, for a seventh time the year following, Sides’ period in office encompassed the abdication crisis and the coronation of George VI, the effect of mass unemployment on local industry and the increasing threat of war arising from the rise of fascism in Europe. The dramatic nature of these events allied to those of peace, post war reconstruction and industrial unrest which had characterised earlier mayoralty’s combined to make his periods as mayor more memorable than most.

Sides effected a great affection for children and used to carry sweets and small change in his pockets to distribute to children he met and at Christmas 1912 gave away 500 new pennies to local children. At the time of the general strike in 1926 Sides advocated that local miners be relieved of the burden of debt which they had incurred in consequence of the dispute and throughout the strike adopted a Saturday ritual, giving a penny and an orange to local children, the result of which action it was subsequently recalled, reduced their strike-hardened fathers to tears.

Sides propensity to hurl loose change amongst groups of children, when electioneering, had near fatal consequences for his social standing and political career when following his involvement in a local election in 1909 he was subsequently arraigned on three charges of giving money to voters, a number of whom had comprised an incidental element of the throng in receipt of Sides’ largess.

The case was heard at Leeds Assize Court on Monday 18th August 1910 when Sides was charged with bribery under the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act of 1854 with regard to events concerning the municipal election at Pontefract West Ward in November the previous year. Charges of perjury were also brought against Councillor W. Archer and Dr. Moxon in connection with the case.

It was alleged that Sides had given seven pence to one Arthur Millet, son of a voter and one shilling and seven pence halfpenny to Ernest Rowe, son of another voter as well as to sundry others, having thrown an handful of small silver and copper coins onto the ground for them to pick up.

Sides was presented as a "highly respected publican" and erstwhile secretary of the Licensed Victuallers Association who were supporting the Conservatives in the local election. Admitting that he had obtained ten shillings worth of small change from a local shop, Sides also stated that he had thrown money to groups containing children during the afternoon and evening of the day in question and had encouraged them to sing "Vote, vote, vote for Mr. Archer..."

Without vacating the jury box, the jury announced a verdict of not guilty on Sides, a verdict enthusiastically applauded by the attendant public while

"A large number of friends heartily congratulated Sides on his escape from a position into which, but for a political rancour and ill-feeling, he would never have been forced."

At the subsequent meeting of the well attended Yorkshire District Licensed Victuallers’ National Defence League at Harrogate, a resolution couched in flattering terms was passed congratulating Sides on his acquittal and was carried with great acclamation. Sides "responded feelingly", doubtlessly thinking of his co-defendants who had fared less well, Archer being barred from public office for five years and Moxon for seven years, although the suspension was eventually lifted in the latter case. Yet again an incident involving Sides and from which he emerged relatively unscathed, left a legacy of bitterness and alienation. To show his disapproval of Corporation employees who had signed the petition accusing Councillor Archer of corruption, the Mayor, Colonel Shaw of Darrington Hall, cancelled the annual dinner held for Council workmen. The dinner went ahead, however, when the manager of the Midland Bank and a group of associates undertook to pay the cost of the event in opposition of the mayor.

The sundry public bodies of which Sides was a member at various periods of his civic life mirror his interests in child welfare and particularly the provision of educational opportunity. Sides was sometime Chairman of the local Education Committee, Vice Chairman of the Association of Education Authorities of Yorkshire and a long serving member of the Advisory Council of the Examination Board of Yorkshire Training Colleges. Chairman of the Governors of Pontefract & district Girls High School and a Governor of the King’s School Foundation, Sides was also a Manager of the Pontefract Evening & Technical Institutes and of All Saints Infants’ School, Pontefract.

In the sphere of social welfare Sides was a member of the Osgoldcross Assessment Committee, Pontefract Old Age Pensions Sub-Committee and a co-opted member of the Pontefract Charity Trustees. A member of Pontefract & District Board and Sherburn District Smallpox Hospital Committee, Sides was also a Freemason, being a member of the De Lacy Lodge. In October 1936 he was instrumental in organising the attendance of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Yorkshire at Pontefract for the first time in almost sixty years. Shortly afterwards Sides was appointed to the post of Assistant Grand Director of Ceremonies in the Grand Lodge of England, bearing the rank of Grand Lodge Officer. Appointed a member of the Supreme Chapter of Freemasons, a national group, Sides was the first such appointee from Pontefract since the honour was conferred on Mr. T.W. Tew more than half a century earlier.

In the mid 1920s when economic adversity threatened the future prospects of the Pontefract Race Company, formed in 1919, Sides was appointed managing director and assumed responsibility for its recovery. Through reorganisation involving severe financial cuts which did not endear him to the shareholders, Sides ensured the survival and long-term prosperity of the company which still functions today, almost three-quarters of a century after his demise.

Progressing from Chairman and musical director of the Queen’s Theatre Company, Castleford, Sides became managing director and was instrumental in overseeing the transition of the building from a theatre to a cinema. Sides had a long connection with theatre management. As early as September 1901 he had taken out a lease on the Theatre Royal, Featherstone, and reopened it following several months of closure with an eclectic programme of drama, opera and cinematography. Also in connection with social events at Castleford, Sides was prominent in the introduction and promotion of the ‘Reight Neet Aht’ with its famous taws (marbles) and tiddlywinks contests and rolled the first marble to inaugurate the charitable event in 1936. Featuring nationally known celebrities, the now defunct event outlived Sides, reaching its apogee in the immediate post Second World War period when graced by the wealthy industrialist Sir Bernard Docker and his wife who arrived at the town in their gold plated Daimler.

Ever the demagogue and self publicist, with an eye open for a photo opportunity, Sides was omnipresent at events such as local fetes, charitable demonstrations and fund-raising activities, or accompanying church and school trips to the seaside. While none can dispute Sides’ interest and generosity, the taint of opportunism and vested interest seems to have permeated the atmosphere of many such events.

©2006 Dr. Terry Spencer

PART ONE | PART TWO


Also by Terry Spencer:

Darrington Hotel: Origins and Early History
Willow Park Dog Track
The Hope and Anchor Inn, Pontefract
Priming the Town Pump
A Very Gallant Gentleman: Percy Bentley


 

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