MY EARLY IMPRESSIONS OF
As I came to Pontefract when I was nine years old in 1936, my early
impressions are those of a child and so not perceived by an adult. In
many cases they are just little things. To understand my impressions,
you need to know my background.
I had lived in a residential suburb of Birmingham, so was used to a big
city. Coming from a big city to a small, northern market town was a big
change. Lots of things were strange, confusing and yet in some ways
My mother and I came in January by train from New Street Station,
Birmingham (a large, busy, covered station) to Baghill Station. My first
view was of my father greeting us, standing alone, on a bleak, open to
the sky platform, covered by ice and lines of frozen snow. As we stepped
out of the train, I thought we’d come to the North Pole – it was so
icy and bleak. This was emphasised on our journey home, for I noticed
that lots of the footpaths had encrusted snow on them. We did have snow
in Birmingham, but it never lasted long and was soon cleared away. I
realised, after about two months, that snowploughs came to clear the
roads, but they pushed the snow to the side and up onto the paths.
Strange, because there weren’t many vehicles, but lots of pedestrians.
Another strange feature for me were the chains on car wheels.
The lack of trees on the roads added to the image of the North Pole. I was
used to trees all around, with lots of red squirrels – here there were
no squirrels and only recently have grey squirrels come to Pontefract.
In the house mother and I discovered that the dust (we were used to easily
dusting away) had become an ogre of greasy soot. The water was so hard
it didn’t remove the dirt. However, the good thing was that the hard
water made delightful tea.
When I started getting out and about and speaking to people, I thought I was
in a foreign land, as I could only understand half they said. My
contemporaries said ‘wier’ and ‘theer’. What did that mean?
Strangest of all, when the grown ups finished a sentence, they called
To me, Yorkshire people had loud, harsh voices and I wondered why so many
of them shouted. Looking back, I realised that I was used to the softer,
sing-song speech of the Brummies.
People asked me "What do you think of Pontefract, Sheila?" As I was
brought up to be honest and polite, I couldn’t say that I thought I’d
come to the North Pole, so I said, "I think it is a funny little
place." Proud Ponfretians were taken aback by this response and my
mother was very embarrassed. Eventually, she advised me otherwise. Of
course, what I should have said was "Well it is very different from
the big city of Birmingham".
As I began to explore my environs and Pontefract town, the magic and
mystery began. We lived on Carleton Road, so on a walk to town the names
of the roads amazed and fascinated me. I was used to roads being named
according to the destination, like Worcester Road or City Road.
The first path down the hill across the fields was called Crankey Pin. The
first side road was Mayor’s Walk, so I could imagine the Mayor walking
along there. Then it was Button Park – where were the buttons and this
was not a park. Carleton Road then became Mill Hill, but where was the
mill. Off Mill Hill was Dark Lane - yes, dark, twisting and exciting. At
the bottom of the hill on the right hand side was a steep drop to the
valley, whose slopes had orchards, and at the bottom, the unique
liquorice plant was grown. The view into the valley and indeed, the
various open views from Pontefract impressed and delighted me. On the
left hand side in the middle of the road was the War Memorial. I couldn’t
understand why this was in the road at a busy junction. Here also was
Southgate, a road which made a great impression on me, for in those days
it was a very narrow road with a footpath only about two feet wide. I
had to go along Southgate, because it was the way to Pontefract General
Infirmary where my father was secretary. A lot of heavy lorries used
this route, coming from Hull Docks and taking goods to the West Riding
woollen industry. These lorries came so close to the footpath that they
covered one with mud. The nearness was really frightening. At the side
of the footpath was a high wall, so one felt imprisoned and threatened.
My impressions of the town were of a place with a great variety of small
shops. The ones that made the most impact on me were Heckingbottoms on
Ropergate because it always had rabbits and game hanging outside, Miss
Jennings (hats and ladies fashions) because I wasn’t used to a shop
having the name of a single lady. England’s and Wordsworth’s, both
ironmongers side by side seemed strange, Vaux Brothers because of the
lovely smell of coffee beans being ground, Bon Marche (A P Smiths)
because of the deference shown to their customers, the Coop Café and
Wordsworth Café because they were close to each other and quite
extensive cafes, and Baileys (baby clothes) because it had an arcade and
a pleasant round, outer display window.
The street names mystified me – Southgate, Ropergate, Northgate, Newgate,
Micklegate, Gillygate – where were the gates? Horsefair and Beastfair
– I couldn’t see how these animals could be in town. I could accept
Corn Market as I could imagine these commodities being sold there. All
the narrow passages called ‘ginnels’ fascinated me but what an odd
Some of the public buildings were unusual to me. The Buttercross stirred the
imagination, but where was the cross? I found the Town Hall balcony
exciting as I could easily visualise the parliamentary election result
being announced from there. As I was used to churches having steeples,
the octagonal tower of St Giles’ Church was odd, as was the tower of
All Saints’ Church. When I discovered that there were four cinemas I
found it amazing for such a small town – quite out of proportion.
Likewise, the numerous pubs. The Barracks was an enchanting building,
rather like a fairytale fortress.
At that time there were two liquorice factories actually in the town area
– these were Hillabys and Dunhills. I gathered that these factories
produced Pontefract Cakes, made of liquorice. I imagined something like
a chocolate cake and was utterly amazed to discover that the so-called
Pontefract Cakes were actually like small flat buttons, only half an
Town seemed to me a great mixture of things – shops, banks, public houses,
factories and bus stops. I was more used to trams and buses that came
every fifteen minutes instead of one every hour. I suppose for us this
infrequent service didn’t matter, because the distances to the shops,
work and school were so small that we walked almost everywhere.
Like the four cinemas for such a small town, another anomaly that intrigued
me were the three railway stations at Baghill, Tanshelf and Monkhill. I
found the historical side of Pontefract quite magical. I had heard of a
local author who wrote the book ‘Pontefract – The Town of Crooked
Ways’, and thought this meant exciting underground passages. My father
had taken me down the ‘Hermitage’ and I felt sure there were
underground passages from the castle to the town. This promised to be
very exciting and I looked forward to discovering the whereabouts of
these passages from J.S. Fletcher’s book. Naturally, I was very
disappointed when I read the book some years later and discovered the
Pontefract people kept extolling the Park, but when I went there it was so
different what I expected. I was used to the Birmingham city parks, full
of flowerbeds amongst sheltered winding paths, whereas here, the Park
consisted of rather wild, open green areas around an extensive lake.
Similarly, the land behind our house was called Carleton Park, but it
was just a large field.
My impressions of the people were that they were helpful and friendly, but
whoever one spoke to was part of a related family, so one had to be very
careful what comments one made regarding other people. Of course, this
family intertwining is typical of a small place as compared to a big
city. I was not used to being in a coal mining area, so when I first saw
the miners with dirty faces, I thought Pontefract had an unusually large
number of chimney sweeps! Also, these ‘chimney sweeps’ had long,
thin, sad looking dogs called greyhounds!
Overall my early impressions of Pontefract consisted of strangeness, confusion
on the one hand, and on the other, excitement, fascination and magic.
From being a nine-year-old ‘foreigner’ who thought she had come to
‘a funny little place’ at the North Pole, I grew to appreciate the
friendly people, loved the magic of the place and after about fifteen
years, became an adopted Ponfretian. Now I am proud to stand up for
Pontefract at any time.
Sheila M. K. Richards