West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections




Typed by him in 1971 with a short autobiography written in 1981



It was not number one when I first knew it - it could not have been, for there was another house with a double-fronted shop between it and the end of the street, and at the other end, another resident claimed that his place was No. 1. It seems confusing, but there is a simple explanation.

Pontefract is an ancient town. Its centre was laid out on the early Danish lines, with a large open ‘Place’ or square (but in this case a triangle), with the principal houses facing upon it, their gardens behind extending out into the surrounding wilds. To this central area there were just four narrow entrances, one of them uphill from the south-east to arrive in front of the Town Hall, which faced imposingly west. This little street, though wide enough for only one vehicle at a time, being considered a principal approach to the Church of St. Giles and standing in the middle of the Place, not surprisingly came to be known as Gillygate (curiously, always pronounced with a hard ‘G’). Gate, by the way, is derived from the Danish ‘Gade’, a street, not a gate.

When my grandfather, Richard Holmes, the historian, came to Pontefract from Worcester in 1862, and took over a printing and stationery business which had been established in 1787, he found the premises – house at the front over the shop, works up the yard at the back – were next door but one to Gillygate. He avoided any numbering difficulty (if any such were realised in those days) by calling his house and the premises generally ‘Advertiser Office’, for he had not long been in charge before he set up a local newspaper, ‘The Pontefract Advertiser’. In this house, in the next 35 years, all his eight sons and two daughters were born and raised.

One daughter died in childhood, the other, in the style of those times, lived at home as a true ‘daughter of the house’; but all the boys in turn took some part in the business, either in the printing works or on the newspaper, or generally, both. In due course each went out into the world, most of them into either journalism, printing or paper.

So it was that my father, Oswald (named after the Northumbrian King who in 625 at Pontefract married Ethelburga, daughter of the king of Kent), having served an apprenticeship with his father, went to The Birmingham Post as a journalist. Grandma Holmes, by the way, used to tell with pride of an occasion when she went to Birmingham to satisfy herself as to her son’s circumstances. When they met, in the street, he was somewhat out of breath. ‘He had just stopped a runaway horse’, Grandma would explain, knowing well that even in those horsey days, not everyone had a son who had done that. And she was even more proud, years later, when he gained an award from the Royal Humane Society for saving a child who had fallen into Whitby harbour. Whilst in Birmingham, father heard of a vacancy on The Walsall Advertiser, a concern very similar to that of his father, and to that he moved. In Walsall he married, and there I was born in 1897 – ‘in the third hour of the third day of the third month of the third year of my parents ‘married life’, as he reported in a little circular in which he announced the event to his family and friends.

At the same time, his own father, at the age of 71, decided he would retire and devote his remaining days to the historical research he had been pursuing so assiduously during his time in Pontefract. Of the eight sons, Oswald was apparently the one chosen, or perhaps the only one able and willing, to take over.

Thus it was that in June 1897 I came to the Advertiser Office, Pontefract. Naturally there is little I can remember of that time, though it was not long before there were events of which I still have memories. One of the earliest, no doubt, was on a Sunday after-church visit (a regular weekly event), to Avenue House, a new dwelling in Banks Avenue, to which my grandparents, Aunt Ada, and Uncle Herbert moved when my father took over the Market Place establishment.

Grandpa was busy with his books, which lined at least one whole wall of the room he used as a study, when he called for someone to mend his fire. One of my cousins, (a little older than I) raced with me to respond, but he stopped her. ‘No’ said he, ‘let Frank do it, he does not make so much noise’. Whether I deserved it or not, that little piece of flattery has even remained comfortingly clear in my mind.

It could not have been long after that, that Aunt Ada took me to see him laid in a spare bedroom, awaiting the undertaker, for he died on 23 October 1901. I well remember the funeral too. Naturally the shop was closed for the occasion (and doubtless, according to the custom of the time, some of the neighbouring shops too) but, I was deemed to be too young to go to the funeral, though apparently I was old enough to be left alone, for left I was.

I must have found things a little dull, for I remember clearly how I wandered through the hall into the shop, where I came across a copy of Grandpa Holmes’s funeral service paper. When I found a paste pot and brush conveniently near, it must have seemed an obvious call to action; and right until the shop was dismantled when father retired in 1928, there remained this old service paper firmly stuck on the end of the counter, facing father’s little office at the back of the shop.

It was about this period that soldiers were returning from the Boer War. Like his father, my father was a corespondent for the Yorkshire Post, and from that paper he learned that a detachment of troop was to come to Pontefract Barracks via Baghill Station some time in the night. There was no time to arrange a civic reception but father did his best. Having passed the word to as many as he could, so that they could gather in the Market Place and cheer, he roused Fred Pickering in Bridge Street, a hairdresser who also sold fireworks. A couple of boxes of Bengal matches, however, was the best that Pickering could offer, and these father brought home. I was taken from my cot and allowed to watch him place a box on each side of the apex over the pediment of the shop front and set fire to the lot as the soldiers entered Market Place from Gillygate. And the marks of these two little conflagrations remained there until 1928.

Mention of the Boer War reminds me that I saw some of the troops pass through Baghill and this mental picture includes the detail that the carriages were so old-fashioned that the communication cord hung outside the windows, a very primitive arrangement.

Before we go any further it should be recorded that Advertiser Office became the end house on that side of Market Place in 1905 when the adjoining house and shop (of Galloway and Gill, ladies’ outfitters) were taken down and the top half of Gillygate widened to its present condition. (The demolition led to the discovery of a well which nobody knew had been covered by the flags of the scullery at the back of these premises).

Not required for this widening was a strip of land increasing from nothing at the corner to about ten feet where 13 Gillygate is now, and this strip Oswald Holmes bought. Adding to this his stable, old kitchens (one with a copper for washing and another for brewing), and other bits, he brought about the building of the shops and two houses now on the combined area. The official numbering of the house as no. 1 came in the early twenties.

The reference to Pickering reminds me of a feature of his establishment. At one end of his salon he had a wooden wheel, with a handle, fixed to the wall. From it went a light belt to a wooden shaft in bearings on the ceiling, and from this hung another light belt. Having finished a haircut, Pickering would signal to his lather-boy, who promptly applied himself to the handle of the wheel, the hairdresser took up a cylindrical brush with a two-handled spindle, fitted it to the hanging belt, and the customer was subjected to a brisk brushing all round.

In talking of local shops I should record those of the brothers Cleave with Arthur the chemist, with Reverdy, tobacconist, on his right. Reverdy had a pair of light brass scales hanging from the ceiling over the counter, on which the scale pans rested until required. When loaded, the whole device was lifted by the string, a balance achieved, and the pans let down to the counter. Cigarettes, by the way, were sold by weight. His shop equipment included a gas burner standing up a foot or so from the counter, with a small flame permanently ready for customers to light their pipes.

The two shops were ultimately combined and taken over by Percy Clayton, chemist, from whom they went to Pontefract Industrial Co-operative Society. For a period after this, Arthur Cleave sold pianos and music from a shop two or three doors west of his former premises – and his laugh resounded across the Market Place with a strength rivalling that of the piano which he often played in his shop doorway, or even on the footpath.

It would be wrong to permit these recollections of two or three small shops to obscure the main industries. Malting was for long a big thing, with malt houses in Micklegate, Northgate, North Baileygate and Front Street, but they are all closed now.

Coal mining, however, continues to be of great importance in the life of the town, and although I never worked at a colliery I know more of the Prince of Wales Colliery than many local folk did, for my closest friend at school was the son of the engine-wright there, and I joined him on many strolls round the colliery.

Great quantities of bricks were produced in the adjacent kilns (favourite haunt of many of those with ‘no visible means of support’) as well as glazed earthenware drainpipes. The colliery fitting shop we found fascinating, and so was the fan driven by half a dozen heavy ropes connecting it to a massive horizontal steam engine, but the winding engines topped everything for us.

The Haigh Moor shaft was the smaller and shallower with the older engine, steam of course, and lovingly embellished with painted curly-wurlies on suitable surfaces; but the Silkston was larger and deeper, with a more modern engine. In each house, however, it was an equal thrill to hear the bell signals, see the engine man perched in his solitary pulpit, move the controls and then watch the winding drum move, slowly at first, gain speed, and slow as the indicator showed its position near the top or bottom, and come to rest with its chalk mark (corrected daily) at the pointer.

My friend and I were taken below a time or two, accompanying the horse keeper on a Sunday or a bank holiday, and I can remember well how the cleanliness of the stables impressed me, and the brightness of the ponies too. At the other extreme, on one occasion, we climbed to the very top of the headgear, where I was daft enough to step through the spokes and stand between the two great wheels, just to be able to say I had done so. Fortunately nobody called for a cage either up or down during those few mad moments.

It was through this school friend that I went down a pit in a bucket. His father had moved to Ingleton where a pit was being sunk in great hopes of rich coal. The bucket on a rope which served to bring out the excavated material also carried men up and down, so down we went, the bucket swinging gently as we went. Damp and dirty it certainly was, and I had great sympathy for a man we passed a few feet from the bottom, sitting in a sling of chains attached to the shaft wall, controlling a pump to keep the bottom dry for the men steadily digging to deepen the shaft. Coal was duly found, but not enough, and the project was abandoned.

It was probably on a working day that we had a chat with an engine driver in the colliery sidings, and it was this which led to a ride on the footplate as far as the bridge over the road at Parkside, where the driver stopped the train specially for us to dismount and walk home.

This was not my first unconventional train ride, for I would not have been more than about ten when father heard that one Saturday night a wagon in a coal train had jumped the rails and had damaged chairs and sleepers for a distance towards Ackworth before it pulled other wagons off as well and stopped the train when some of them went over. Next day, father, taking me with him for the walk, climbed the embankment at East Hardwick road bridge, and we walked along the line to the scene. As he finished his enquiries and we stood aside for a slow moving goods train going in our homeward direction, father asked me if I thought I could run as fast as the train. ‘Yes’ I answered, and then, when the guard’s van came along, he set me running with him after it and hoisted me on to the narrow platform at its back and clambered up himself. The astonishment of the guard when he saw us was equalled by my puzzlement as to how we should get off. Luckily and quite by chance, the engine was stopped for water at Baghill, and all ended well.

Not all the miners living in Pontefract worked at the Prince of Wales Colliery, though probably did the majority of those living in the houses of Well Close, the true name of the district between Tanshelf Station and the low end of Sessions House Yard. Well Close was doubtless so named because of the spring there, which I have an idea was a help to the tannery, but a hindrance to the builders of the Alexandra Theatre (built 1906 on the site of the tannery but demolished in 1973 to be superseded by Kikos Night Club).

Where they came from I cannot say, but at five o’ clock in a morning I have soon a queue right from Tanshelf Station gates to the booking office of men entraining for Featherstone, or possibly beyond.

This brings to mind two other railway occasions. One was when from Tanshelf railway bridge I saw a train for Wakefield come in and on stopping, instantly dip towards the platform as every compartment was simultaneously boarded by a crowd of returning racegoers. The other time was during Hitler’s war and also involved returning racegoers. It was at Baghill where the last of the crowd of intending passengers had to be literally pushed by a large woman porter into a train already well occupied when it arrived from the York direction.

Reverting to those much earlier times, my mind carries a cameo of a concert in the Assembly Room, where tremendous applause was aroused by ‘Goodbye Dolly Gray’, and similar patriotic songs, one of which was sung by a soldier in khaki with a realistically blood-stained bandage wound dramatically round his forehead.

Concerts and plays in the Assembly Room (then comparatively new, at about twenty years old) were quite a feature of life in those long pre-radio days. (And where today would anybody expect to be admitted for ‘half price at half time’). Lighting of this imposing building was chiefly by two rings of numerous fish-tail gas burners up near the ceiling. These flames were usually lowered during the performances and if by chance the pilot light went out, great was the stir when the caretaker brought in his wax taper on the end of what seemed an enormously long pole, and restored the illumination. There was a row of fish-tail burners for footlights, and similar yellow lights round the hall and on the stairs.

Probably one of the most notable events in the Assembly Room in its early days was the annual ball for supporters of the Badsworth Hunt. The Town hall, with its minstrel gallery, was naturally the place for this before the Assembly Room was built alongside it, providing more generous accommodation for the actual dancing; whilst the Town Hall, with its lights suitably shaded and numerous armchairs set amongst tactically disposed screens, was allotted to those ‘sitting out’. Spectators (and chaperones) had the Assembly Room gallery, and refreshments were available in the Council Chamber, downstairs, near the Mayor’s Parlour (now degenerated into the caretaker’s office).

At the height of its popularity the Hunt Ball brought into the town the nobility and gentry from a wide district, and their horses and carriages, besides filling all the available stabling, were often lined up in the middle of Horsefair and Market Place. In its later days the Hunt Ball was followed the next evening by the Farmers Ball, who thus had the benefit of the elaborate decorations and flowers installed for the aristocracy, though they did not necessarily have two bands, playing alternately as did the hunt folk, most of whose men incidentally attended in hunting pink (scarlet to ordinary people like you and me).

In my boyhood, of course, motors were almost unheard of, and as late as 1912 when my father-in-law came to Pontefract, there were barely half a dozen cars beside his own in the town.

Horses were the universal means of carriage and traction. Many a stir was caused in the town by an unruly animal, or a horse ‘down’. In the latter case the usual procedure was for someone to sit on the horse’s head to keep him from struggling whilst the driver unharnessed the creature and then, probably with the help of bystanders, withdrew the cart or trap (possibly with one or more of its shafts broken), leaving the horse to regain its feet by its own efforts.

Amongst the horse population, the animals working from Baghill and Monkhill railway stations were stalwart specimens. Those from Monkhill could each mount the rises to the town drawing a four-wheel flat wagon (commonly called a ‘lorry’ or sometimes a ‘lurry’), but those from Baghill required an extra ‘trace’ horse to help with a heavy load up the steep part of Southgate. On the return journey, especially if well loaded, the lorry would be stopped at the top of the hill and the driver would apply an iron skid pan, a device which was chained to the lorry and put under a back wheel which could not then revolve, thus giving the vehicle in effect, three wheels and a skid – a simple but very effective braking system.

As both these stations were a good distance from the town centre, the two principal hotels, the Red Lion and the Elephant, each sent a bus to meet trains, generally the Red Lion to Baghill and the Elephant to Monkhill. If both, or any two vehicles arrived simultaneously, one at each end of Gillygate, the upper one had to withdraw until the other had emerged, for two vehicles could not before 1905 pass in the upper half of Gillygate.

There was some distribution of domestic coal supplies from Baghill Station by horse-drawn tipper carts, of course, and those which used Gillygate doubtless had the same passing difficulty as the hotel busses. The deliveries from Tanshelf had not this trouble, and in most cases from either place a coal cart would be accompanied by, as well as its driver, a man hoping to be given the job of putting the coal into the customers cellar or coal-house. For this service his reward might be sixpence or perhaps a shilling, but as a ton of coal probably cost under a pound including delivery, a shilling was by no means insignificant.

The shoeing of horses was quite a business, and there were several farriers in the town. There was a busy one at Town End facing Southgate, another in Southgate at the bottom of Post Office Yard (which faced the Infirmary), one in the Crown and Anchor Yard, and one in Trinity Street, at each of which I have spent fascinating minutes watching the proceedings and smelled the unforgettable odour of scorching hoof as the farrier fitted a shoe to an animal, sometimes placid or sometimes protesting.

A couple of saddlers too had busy shops – Walker in Cornmarket and Chapman in Beastfair, and Brewster near the old church did much repairing of agricultural machinery, for the town was important in providing the many services required by the farmers of the district.

Pontefract in my boyhood was a considerable agricultural centre, which explains why it had so many public houses, for the journey on foot or on horse from the outlying villages could take so long that midday sustenance and often overnight accommodation was a necessity. It has been said that the sun could not shine without casting the shadow of the church on a public house.

The Starkies’ Arms (Middle Row), Mail Coach (Cross Street), Cross Keys (Church Lane), Crown and Anchor (Beastfair), could well have come within that range, but all have gone since I was a boy.

With a little stretching, however, this range still includes the Cartners’ Arms (a bare dozen feet from the church tower), Muscroft’s Beastfair Vaults, White Hart (Shoe Market), Flying Horse (formerly Corporation Arms, Salter Row), Windmill (Woolmarket), Tankard (formerly the Central Hotel, belonging to Pickersgill’s), who had the only brewery in Pontefract, facing the old church, Red Lion (Market Place), United Kingdom (Market Place), Elephant (Market Place), and Muscroft’s Market Place Vaults (claimed to have had the longest bar and most doors into its yard as compared with any pub in Pontefract, but recently rebuilt and named the Borough Arms).

Extend the church shadow to a couple of good stone's throw and you would reach also the Blue Bell (South Gate), Malt Shovel (Beastfair), Green Dragon (Corn Market), Blackamoor Head (Corn Market), Horse Vaults (Horsefair), and Nags Head (Ropergate); and there are several more only a little outside the central area. Besides these, the Pineapple (Gillygate) has been converted into a shop, the Black Boy (Market Place) has become a branch of the Halifax Building Society, and the Curriers Arms (Shoe Market) has been bought by the council and was demolished in 1973 for part of the new library to be built where it stood.

The two hotel buses were not the only links between the stations and the town centre. People walked more readily then than now, and those who had luggage often accepted the services of men who, perhaps out of work or even unemployable, carried it for them or brought it on a handcart. These were particularly useful to commercial travellers who brought large hampers of samples to show to the drapers and other shopkeepers.

These travelling salesmen did not always use hampers too big to be carried, for some of them had ordinary travelling bags (often made of carpet, hence ‘carpet-baggers’), or simple brown paper parcels which they carried. ‘Japanese baskets’ were also in common use. These were made of strong split straw or cane, or some similar material woven into a rectangular shape and supplied in nests so that any two adjacent members of the set could be fitted one inside another to make a light case with double thickness sides, the whole held together by a pair of loose straps.

Incidentally, one traveller I remember carried not only a travelling case in each hand, one or both of them with a parcel strapped to it, but a packet of small samples in each of the pockets of the flowing overcoat he always wore. And he continued to call at our shop until well into his eighties.

It should not be thought from the preceding paragraphs on the pubs of Pontefract that there were hardly any other shops, for there was probably a greater variety then than ever since. Our own shop had stationery, newspapers, pictures and frames, handbags, jewellery, household ornaments, children’s books and games. At Christmastime we gave up the downstairs sitting room behind the shop, and set it out as a show room where it was my duty, and joy, when I was old enough, to take charge and sell large quantities of Christmas cards, loose and in boxes.

We had rivals in the stationery in Fred Marshall, whose premises faced imposingly down Horsefair, and in Ralph Atkinson at the bottom of Beastfair, each of whom also did printing, the former himself and the latter through his brother Walter in Star Yard. Ralph had his shop at the corner of that yard in Beastfair. William McGowan came a little later and had his workshop in Belks Court, off Corn Market.

There were none of today’s supermarkets. Directly across the Market Place from us, Edwin (‘Teddy’ to almost everybody) Heckingbottom sold greengrocery, poultry and game, and as parking (even at that narrow corner) was no problem at all in those traffic free days, he kept a pony and light flat cart almost all day in front of his shop, ready for his shop-boy (or perhaps, even then, a young woman) to jump aboard and make a delivery.

In the middle of Market Place, south side, was a Vaux Bros, who ranked amongst the leading grocers; with Alfred Wilkinson (almost next door), Richard Husband (at the foot of Beastfair), though he called his place (next to Ralph Atkinson) No. 1 Market Place until an official numbering of the premises in Market Place and elsewhere in the early 1920’s, Thomas Wordsworth (a few steps further up) and George Hemmant (next door above).

The Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Almanac published in 1839 by John Fox and Son (predecessors, though not the founders of the printing business taken over by Richard Holmes in 1862), has a long list of fairs and shows eight for Pontefract. In 1877 however, an edition of the Almanac published by Richard Holmes has a revised and much reduced list which shows Pontefract as having only four fairs, the last mentioned being described simply as "Statutes, 1st Thursday in November".

All the other fairs in Pontefract had evidently faded away, but for many generations ‘The Statutes’ (‘Stattis’ colloquially) was an accepted fixture for the first Thursday after All Saints Day (November 1st), St Giles, patron of the church in Market Place (All Saints being the old parish church) having no day allotted to him in the calendar of Saints. Its name was based on the belief that this fair in the streets was authorised by a Statute (an Act of Parliament), but in 1925 the obstruction, noise and general upheaval gave rise to so much complaint that the Town Clerk, Mr. F. M. Farmer, made enquiries and then declared that no such Statute existed. Thus, for 1926 and thereafter, the Corporation allowed the showmen to use the streets for one day (Thursday) and no more, but offered instead standings for the full week in the fairground, between Headlands and Salter Row. And thereto the fair was banished, until after a year or two in the park it was moved to the car park, which took the place of the former cattle market near Baghill Station. The original aim of the fair was to bring together the farmers and the men and women of the district, seeking to be ‘hired’ for the ensuing year. Having been engaged and having thereupon discarded the straw in the button-hole by which they had indicated their availability for hiring, the young men and maidens would hasten to spend their ‘fastening pennies’ and what else they could spare on new clothing etc. and the rest on the amusements which made up the fair.

In the years close before the Kaiser’s war, when the fair was still being held in the streets, and although it was only supposed to be on Thursday, some of the amusements were in full swing in, for instance, Cornmarket by Monday evening, and most of the rest by Wednesday evening, whilst all continued to operate until Saturday night (with scales of charges and length of rides varied according to the day and time of day). Nevertheless, nothing but possibly a few marks on the roads remained by the time the church people were assembling on Sunday morning.



Further reading from Frank Holmes:

Recollections of Pontefract Part Two
Recollections of Pontefract Part Three
One Man in His Time - A Short Autobiography
2352 Sapper Frank H.W. Holmes


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