West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections



My grandfather, Martin McGowan, was born on 15th October 1878, in Quignalegan, Ballina, County Mayo, in the Republic of Ireland. He came over from Ireland as a young man, after running away at the age of 12 to be a ship’s cabin boy, and arrived in Pontefract between 1901 and 1910. As the years went by, my granddad became a well-known figure in and around Tanshelf, being known affectionately as "Old Mac".

Even as a young boy, it would not have been difficult for him to leave Ballina and to board a ship as the quayside was within walking distance. His experiences at sea were often related to me when I was a child living in Tanshelf. He used to tell me stories about this time in his life and of the many different countries he had visited and the places he had seen. Amongst other things I learnt was why discipline was important on board ship, and the punishment metered out to anyone who did not comply.

My granddad’s father, James, (my great grandfather), was born at the height of the potato famine time in Ireland, which caused immense suffering and hardship among local people, with thousands destitute and dying of starvation. The workhouses themselves were full to overflowing and forced to close their doors even to people in desperate need of food, clothing and shelter. Thousands of men, women and children died in County Mayo as a result of the famine. Many local farmers grew potatoes but when the crops failed year after year, and people were dying of starvation and illness, there began a mass exodus of the population of Ireland to many parts of the world. The repercussions of the famine lasted for many years afterwards and continued to cause unremitting hardship, and James’s father, who was himself a farmer during this time, would have felt the consequences of the famine profoundly. His experiences could often be seen reflected in my Granddad when I lived with him in Tanshelf.

Ballina is situated on the West Coast of Ireland, on the opposite side of the country to Dublin, and if travelling there today, with our motorways and fast ferries, from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire, or from Liverpool to Dublin, it can still take two days to arrive at your destination, even with our modern transport system. It is a very rural community where everyone knows everyone else. The Atlantic coast of Ireland is known locally as Lillal Bay, which is the estuary of the river Moy, and which in turn flows through Ballina. The landscape is typical of the rural communities along the West Coast. Ships are loaded and unloaded on the quayside in Ballina, with grain warehouses and other warehouses along the quayside storing the various goods awaiting transshipment.

My granddad and his brothers, John, Patrick, James and their sister Mary, walked four miles to attend the Catholic School and the same distance back home again. My granddad was the first born in the family, followed by John born in 1880, Mary born in 1882, Patrick born in 1885 and James born in 1888.

My mother used to write to Ballina on behalf of my granddad and she used to address the letter to the Post Office in Quignalegan, Ballina, and the letter would then be collected from the local post office by my granddad’s relatives. When writing to Ireland, even today, it is still only necessary to write the person’s name, village and county on the envelope and the local postman will know who the letter is for, and it will reach its destination without any problems.

Townend Farm Tug-of-War Team Pontefract

Townend Farm Tug-Of War Team

After his arrival in Pontefract, my Granddad began working as a blacksmith at the Prince of Wales Colliery where he shoed the pit ponies. He also worked at Glasshoughton pit. I have enclosed a photograph of him taken about 1910 (featured above) when he was the trainer for the tug-of-war team at the Prince of Wales. He is pictured standing on the extreme left with the team captain, J. Gillard, in the middle of the back row, wearing a dark shirt. Tug-of-war seems to have been a family affair as there are four Webster’s on the photograph (back row, third from left and front row third, fourth and fifth from the right), and two Goddard’s (front row third from the left and second from the right). Some readers may possibly be able to recognise some of the other members of the team.

As time went by, my granddad began to suffer from a chest ailment and eventually had to leave his employment at the pit but he still continued to work. He established his own blacksmith’s shop at Glasshoughton and as well as this he helped out local farmers, not only shoeing their horses but also doing odd jobs for them. Coming from a farming background in Ireland at the time of the potato famine, my Granddad was used to hard work and I remember his big hands being rough and weathered, cut and cracked, with old scars where he had previously sliced them.

He was always busy and was a familiar figure riding everywhere on his big black bicycle, which I believe was an ex-police bicycle. He made his own hammers and pincers, and tied his tools to the back of his bike with sacking. He would also tie his pincers in a leather apron, and attach it to the handlebars. He rode down the steep hill along Colonels Walk in Tanshelf, under the bridge near Railway Terrace and past the cricket field and on to the main road to his work. He also used to cycle to visit my aunt who lives in Cutsyke. Before he went out he used to shave with a ‘cutthroat’ razor, which he sharpened on a thick leather strap.

Before he got his own house in Pontefract he used to lodge in Lennard’s Yard with Miss Helling’s family. Miss Helling was a teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic School and she taught my mother, my aunt and eventually myself. Much later, when I had left school and begun work as a Staff Nurse at Pontefract Infirmary, Miss Helling spoke to me about my Granddad. I bumped into her in town one day and she told me how well respected he was in the town.

On the 1st September 1913 my granddad married my grandmother, Kate McDonald, in the Catholic Church of Our Lady and St. Paulinus, in Dewsbury. My granddad had a house in Front Street in Pontefract, which is now demolished, before living at 1 Colonels Walk, the house where I was born. My father was away in the army and I lived with my mother, aunt and granddad in my granddad’s house until the day he died.

As well as local people who lived in Tanshelf there were others who came to Pontefract to work in the many industries in the town. We lived in the same street as a Polish family, a family from Devon and a gentleman from London, who had all married local girls and settled in Tanshelf.

My granddad had many friends in Pontefract and he was a good worker. He was a tall, slim man and I have been told that in his younger years he had black hair and bright blue eyes, typical of the Irish descent. The memories, experiences and habits of his younger life in Ireland appeared to be never too far away from him and seemed to be present in many of his mannerisms when I lived with him in Tanshelf.

As a young child I can remember that at mealtimes, he always ate only enough for his needs and at the end of the meal there would nearly always be some food left on his plate. He used to tell my mother he would put it back in the oven and have it tomorrow. He never threw food away and had a great respect for it and no amount of persuasion from my mother would make him change his mind even though she told him that she would be cooking another meal later in the day. Such was his appreciation for a good meal and good food, which was perhaps not so freely available in his own childhood or younger years.

He was left in his forties to bring up his two children on his own - my mother Kathleen, and my Aunt, Winifred McGowan - raising them from being little more than toddlers. A neighbour, Mrs Madden at number 5 Colonels Walk, used to help, as did Kate McDonald’s family from Duke Street in Tanshelf. Although these families were themselves poor and had young children of their own they did not hesitate to help my granddad out – typical of the community spirit in Tanshelf during the 1920’s. Times were difficult for him and his two girls, and my mother and Aunt had to learn to care for themselves from an early age. My Aunt tells me that initially the family did not have gas in their home, only candlelight.

Coming up to the Irish Grand National, granddad knew which of his friends and which of the farmers in the area wanted to buy a ticket for the Irish sweepstake. He used to cycle to different farms to sell the farmers a ticket for this event, which was important to him and reminded him of his homeland and brought it closer to him. I used to follow him on my bicycle and became familiar with the roads and dirt tracks in the area and I got to know many of his friends and some of the farmers. The conversations they had about the events of the day were very interesting to hear, especially my granddads, which were always down to earth, funny at times, and always reflected some Irish opinions and humour.

Because he had a strong Irish accent some of my school friends could not understand him clearly and so I would have to let them know what he was saying to them.

Colonels Walk had a wide pavement and the children used to congregate and play all sorts of games on it. Outside our house was a gas street lamp and at dusk or on a winter’s evening it was an ideal place for the children to gather around and play. When my granddad had had enough of the noise he would open the front door and tell them all, in no uncertain terms, to go home. They could not always understand him, but they all used to disappear fast. None of the children’s parents ever came round to complain about my granddad, such was the neighbourhood closeness in Tanshelf.

On bonfire night he always made sure that we had a good bonfire in the street. Each year he would instruct me to tell some of my friends when we were going out to collect wood and branches for the bonfire, which he chopped down for us, and which we used to drag home behind us. There was never any shortage of friends to accompany us on these trips and he did this every year right up until the year that he died.

I never remember him going to see a doctor, as he always used to treat himself, but he always had a great respect for the doctor, who was called upon to visit at our house occasionally, though not to see my granddad. When I became ill with Jaundice and then Pleurisy and appendicitis, I used to hear him tell my mother to "send for the doctor man." This would be followed by Dr. Young arriving at our home. Doctor Young was from Edinburgh and had a Scottish accent. My granddad used to wait in for him to visit and always used to listen to what he had to say. When I got better and returned to school I could not always eat breakfast in the mornings before school time and on such days, come playtime, my granddad could be found waiting at the school gates outside St. Joseph’s. The gates overlooked the school playground at the bottom of Love Lane, and my granddad would be standing there with some warm toast and butter wrapped in greaseproof bread paper, which he had brought for me. Such was his caring and the significance he attached to keeping well. He was a rough, tough man, but always attached importance to eating something, which again springs from his background of having to look after himself from being a child.

My granddad was frightened of no one except for the Catholic priests, of which there were several at St. Joseph’s when I was a child and they used to visit Catholic families on a regular basis. They did not ask to come in, they just used to knock and walk in, such was the respect in which they were held within the community. However, my granddad was not a practicing Catholic at the time and used to visit the Horse Vaults and enjoyed a drink in his younger years.

In his later years, my memories of my granddad were of extreme love, fondness and security. I can see him now leaning on the wall outside our house; he would touch his forelock and lift his hat slightly with a cheery good morning to all. As time went by he used to spend some time in the old public library, which now forms the museum building, meeting his friends, looking at the newspapers, and discussing the events of the day. He always took an interest in what was happening locally and in the rest of the country and liked to listen to the news on the wireless as well as look at the newspapers. He also liked the newspaper at home, which I would read to him at times. He would sit at the side of the fire smoking his pipe, listening, and his comments concerning those events were very memorable and usually peppered with his own unique opinion, which were very succinct and at times reflected his own views in Ireland. He was also very astute.

He liked to listen to the weather reports over the wireless and to the shipping forecast relating gale force conditions at sea, and which areas were involved. I used to listen to his comments and soon began to understand what gale force 7,8 and 9 meant to the ships and the sailors out at sea, and the predicaments they were in at the time.

He also used to work on Pontefract market on a Saturday and helped Peter Townend on his fruit and vegetable stall near the Buttercross where he could be seen unpacking the boxes of fruit and vegetables and putting them out on the stall. At the end of each market day he would help Peter to pack up again.

He had a hard life in many ways and had to make his own way in life while still a child; learning from an early age that in those days you had to work hard as there were no social security benefits to fall back on. He had his blacksmith’s shop in Glasshoughton and his second job, helping out at a farm, and later on the market. He worked and rode his bicycle to work up to the week before he died which was well past pensionable age and into his seventies. When he became ill my mother sent for her best friend Margaret Wilson, affectionately known to me as Auntie Mag, who lived on Stuart Street in Tanshelf. Although she had three boys of her own to look after, Albert, Graham and Peter, my Auntie Mag always came to help and support my mother in times of need and she did at this time. They had been best friends since childhood and your friends were always there for you when you needed them.

My granddad always wanted to return to Ireland to visit his family and looked forward greatly to receiving a letter or any kind of news from home. He went back only once when both my mother and my aunt were old enough to be working. Two weeks after his death, we had a visitor from Ireland - Moira McGowan, his niece. She came to see us and brought news of my granddad’s brother in Ireland. She was so sorry to learn of his death and that she had missed him.

My granddad had a positive influence on my life, which I have carried with me throughout. He took a great interest in my schoolwork and offered great encouragement. He showed me compassion, care and great kindness, and I loved him dearly. I will never forget his legacy and will remember him always with deep affection and love.

Delna Evans (nee Dalziel)


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