West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections



I was born in Pontefract in 1933 and lived in the Headlands Lane Social Club with my mam, dad Ben Wood, (steward of the club) and my two sisters.  Directly opposite the club was the swimming baths.  The superintendent in charge was Mr. Colley, an ex-military man who had a waxed moustache, twisted into sharp points at each end.  I often wondered if those points were sharp!  He was a good friend of my father’s and indeed the whole family.

Many events were held in the baths in those days (the early thirties) such as swimming galas or water polo.  I would attend these events with my sisters and sit up in the balcony to get a good view.  I went there twice to have swimming lessons but could never get the hang of it.  My swimming could be likened to a house brick.

Behind the baths was the fairground. At the top end was the rear of South Yorkshire Motors.  Their buses would be parked outside in neat rows when they were not in service.  As most of them were hand cranked for starting, an easy way to start them was to roll them down past the fairground and then put them in gear.  When they did start they emitted a huge cloud of white smoke, rather like a fog, which took a while to clear.

Once a year a large showman’s steam engine would appear, pulling up to three trailers on which would be fairground rides.  The STATIS (Statutes Fair) had started to arrive.  The engine would be followed by all manner of lorries carrying the various attractions.  Over one or two days the fair would be unloaded and assembled, until it filled the fairground.  Some of the rides were rather scary, especially the flying chairs.  This was a roundabout with chains suspended all the way round, supporting a chair.  You sat in this and an attendant fastened a safety chain across your lap.  When it revolved the chairs would swing upwards and outwards.  The faster it revolved the farther out the chains would go.  Quite dangerous if you unhooked the safety chain!

There was of course, the usual dodgems, helter skelter etc, and numerous sideshows and stalls.  One of the most amazing sights was that of the steam yachts.  Two large gondolas suspended on arms and connected to a central pillar.  These could seat twenty or thirty people.  The only cover was a canvas canopy.  When they started they would swing backwards and forwards, getting higher and higher.  To make the whole lot stable, as one swung forward, the other would swing backwards, and all driven by steam.

We could not see the fair from our bedroom window as it was obscured by the swimming baths but we could hear the music and see the glow of the lights.  At this time the showman’s steam engine was a sight to see, as it would be in steam, and a large fly wheel on the left hand side would be connected by a belt to a large dynamo on top of the boiler, just behind the smoke stack.  This generated electricity for the rides and also powered all the lights that were round the edge of the engine canopy.  Sadly a sight no longer seen!

A favourite attraction at these fairs was the gypsy fortune-teller in a real gypsy caravan.  My mum was a believer in fortune telling and on one occasion she took me along with her.  I cannot remember what transpired, but just before we left, Gypsy Rose Lee told my mother that her little boy would one day go to a foreign land, across water on a large ship.  Nothing more was thought of this until many years later, when I joined the regular army and was posted to Germany!

Next to the destructor, going towards the town, was the council yard where all the machinery for repairing roads etc was kept.  At the top of the yard, next to the road, were some single storey buildings, presumably offices connected with housing repairs and such like.  Set into the outside wall was a cubbyhole that could be opened. This was the council weighbridge which was set into the road outside.  A shire horse called Major was kept in the yard.  He and his handler would take a two-wheeled farm cart around the town to collect all the waste cardboard from the shops and take it to the destructor.  Major was always immaculately groomed with his harness and horse brasses polished.  When the handler came to retire, as Major was getting on in years, he was retired too.

The council offices were next to the council yard and on the opposite side of the road was a place where you could buy disinfectant (similar to Jays Fluid). To the left were some large wooden huts where the market stalls were kept. To the right was a short sloping drive flanked by metal railings, similar to scaffolding poles.  This was the ambulance station, with a mortuary at the rear. In those days each town had its own ambulance and fire engine (the Pontefract fire engine was kept under the Town Hall arches). The driver of the ambulance also had to keep the vehicle clean and polished. The Pontefract one was, if I remember rightly, painted pale grey and the mechanical bits were made by Morris Commercial.  The caretaker/cleaner of the council offices lived in a small flat at the top of the building.

Some of the families who lived on the Headlands at that time were Crumpton, Ponsonby, Beetham, Rollason and of course our family, the Woods. The shop at the end of the Headlands at the top of Tanshelf Hill was run by Patty Dunford. She used to sell soap with the trade name “Betty”. It was made in different colours for different jobs; i.e. white for hand washing, green for washing clothes and brown for washing floors.  When I went to the shop for this soap, I always got the colour wrong and had to go back to change it.

Ponsonby’s sold hot peas. They always had them on the boil so you could buy them at any time if you knocked on their door.  On race days at the racecourse you would always find Mr. and Mrs Ponsonby selling hot peas.  Their stall consisted of an old pram on which the container of peas would sit, with a heater underneath.  I can only assume that this was a paraffin heater.  They also carried small pots in which the peas were served, plus spoons and the necessary washing up tackle, and not forgetting the inevitable bottle of vinegar.  There is nothing today that comes near to the taste of fresh hot peas.

During winter when there was snow on the ground, snowploughs would clear the roads but not the footpaths.  These were cleared manually, the snow being shovelled up onto lorries, and then taken and tipped on the fairground.  This made a miniature mountain range for us kids to play on.

There was a field at the side of the Headlands Club, with a wall built to separate it from the road.  Quite a few people had bikes in those days and they had a tendency to ride very fast – down the side of the fairground towards the baths, the only problem being that they had to make a sharp left turn onto the Headlands.  This turn, taken at speed, was a recipe for disaster, which often happened.  They finished up slamming into our wall and going over the top.  Mam had to administer to them.  One thing was certain – they wouldn’t do it twice!

It was during this period that I first met Arthur Briggs.  Arthur worked for the railways, driving what I thought at the time was just a lorry.  Later I was to learn that the lorry was called a Scammel Scarab, and was designed to be very manoeuvrable.  Usually Arthur left his trailer backed into Dunhill’s loading bay, and on the back was a railway container. While this was being filled with liquorice etc. Arthur would go off to Monkhill and pick up another trailer and go off and do other jobs.  When the time came to collect the trailer from Dunhill’s he would collect me when passing the Headlands Club and I would sit on the passenger seat.  The cab had stable doors with no windows at the top so I couldn’t see out.  The trailer was collected and taken to Monkhill Station where it was unloaded by crane and placed on a railway truck, ready to be shipped out.  Arthur would then pick up another container and trailer which he would deliver to Dunhill’s once again.

On one occasion when we arrived at Monkhill, it was Arthur’s lunchtime so he took me home with him.  He lived just through the Monkhill Railway Bridge.  They had the radio playing and I have never forgotten the tune – it was ‘Deep Purple’.

We had many local traders who would deliver to the door. Usually at the beginning of the week the draymen from the brewery would roll up with the barrels of beer.  At the front of the club was a bay window with a girder with a ring in the end, jutting out above it.  The men would put a large padded bag on the ground next to the lorry, dropping the barrels onto it.  They would then be rolled to a pair of large trap doors in the floor below the window which would be opened.  A rope was passed through the ring on the girder and a pair of flattened hooks attached, which were then hooked under the rim of the barrel at both ends.  The weight was then taken and the barrel pushed out over the trap door and lowered into the cellar below.  The empties were removed in the reverse way and then the doors would be closed.  It was common practice for the draymen to be given a pint when they had finished, which would be frowned upon today.

In the early days they would have used a ‘Sentinel’ steam lorry, but later they had a diesel lorry.  I was mad on anything mechanical so inspected the lorry at any given opportunity.  On one occasion I emerged from under the lorry with a handful of nuts and bolts just as the driver came out of the club.  He seemed to think that I was capable of removing them from his lorry and would not drive away until a mechanic had checked it out.

Another weekly caller was the woman selling pikelets.  She rang a large brass hand bell to let you know she was outside.  She carried a large wicker basket with the pikelets sitting on a clean white cloth and covered by another one.  A man also came round selling fresh kippers.  There was also the Rington’s tea man.  He arrived in a pony and trap which looked something like a Hansom Cab.  The tea was wrapped in strong paper and tied into a small parcel with thin white string.  The colour of the wrapping paper denoted which blend it contained.  The one my mum bought was in dark red paper.

Then of course there was the milkman or woman.  They also came by pony and trap.  The milk was in two large churns and was measured out in a tubular measure with a long handle, curved at the end.  It was tipped into your jug or basin.

A frequent passer by at the club was a large green van (similar to a furniture van).  This belonged to Hardcastle Transport in Tanshelf.  I seem to remember it was a Bedford fitted with a Perkins diesel engine.  They had contracted to transport sweets from Dunhill’s to the docks – I can only assume that these were either Goole or Hull docks.

Pontefract Digest Magazine September 2006 Memories of the 1930s by William Wood was published in the Pontefract Digest Magazine, Issue 19, September 2006.

Also by William Wood:

Memories of the War Years
Pontefract Senior Boys and Beyond


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