West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections




Typed by him in 1971


In those more tranquil days there were many other happenings now long discontinued. Drunks and fighting dogs were common place, and fighting men were by no means unknown too; whilst I have seen more than once a man belabouring his sobbing wife outside one or other of the towns ‘common lodging houses’. There were three or four or more of these – one in the middle of Gillygate which made way for the Palace Cinema in 1925; another occupying the two stone houses which faced each other in Southgate at the bottom of Smyth Street; and one near the bottom of Horsefair on the north side. When this was demolished by the way, in the 1930’s, it could be seen to be half-timbered with a brick casing.

And that reminds me that when about 1938 property was demolished for the construction of Lower Beastfair (which curiously has been named Valley Road though it is not in a valley and does not even lead into a valley), an adjoining building at the end of Ropergate was revealed to have been built at a time when there stood next to it a building in which the timbers of its framing had projected so as to be embedded in the building subsequently constructed beside it.

Whilst Saturday was the general market day, Tuesday was the day of the cattle market (near Baghill Station). Each brought much activity to the streets. On both days many shops had displays of their goods on the pavement at their fronts, or perhaps on tables on the roadside. This was particularly the case with those places which served the farmers – with cattle troughs, poultry pens, drinking vessels, farmers tools and implements and the like, and there were many shops which had displays outside their premises on other than market days too. A string of boots hanging by a shop door left no doubt in the mind of the passer-by as to what the shop sold, but today, few but the vegetable shops seem to have continued the custom of the shop-front display.

There was no mistaking cattle market day, for from an early hour there would be animals driven through the streets, with drovers and dogs frequently failing to prevent their charges straying into the wrong streets, or into a yard, or even into a shop.

And for not a few of these creatures, their journey to Pontefract was their last, for there were at least three slaughter houses right in the town. Wilson Clayton had one in his yard off Market Place, Austwick killed pigs between his shop (and house) and the Pineapple Inn in Gillygate; but the one in the Pig Market was practically a public one, for it opened directly into the market, which was a convenient snicket between Market Place and Back Northgate, through which I passed directly to and from the King’s School.

The ‘entertainment’ thus provided was much deplored by Mrs Nicholls, wife of the Rev. Thomas Howey Nicholls, head of the King’s School, who was unable to have it restricted. She is, however, understood to have had rather more success with her request to Walter Smith, proprietor of Bon Marche at the corner of Finkle Street and Horsefair, whose window displays sometimes included articles of feminine underwear that Mrs Nicholls felt might undesirably affect boys of the school who passed that way.

The King’s School boys were by no means all from Pontefract. Many came from Castleford, from villages in the district like their fathers to the towns market, and there was a daily contingent from the east, as far as Goole. They came to Monkhill by a Lancashire and Yorkshire railway train, which arrived a few minutes after eight, leaving them time for a leisurely walk to school at nine.

Their return was preceded by two expresses from the west towards Goole and Hull, so they knew when from the school playing field they had seen the first express pass, it was time to set out for Monkhill for the slow stopping train. And if, by chance, they mistook the second express for the first, they knew they would have to run to catch their own train. Others came by train to Baghill from Ferrybridge, Ackworth and elsewhere.

Tommy Nicholls, head for many years until his death in 1918, was a remarkable character. Each morning the whole school assembled for a prayer and a hymn and usually a little pep talk from himself. And with a little luck, a boy arriving after the hall door had been closed could wait just outside it until the end of assembly and mingle with the boys dispersing to their lessons and so escape discovery as having been late. Tommy also took a class or two himself. I had been at the school for only a few days when he had my class of seven and eight year olds in his study for a reading lesson. When, of this dozen or so, I proved to be the only one who could spell ‘expostulate’ (from Robinson Crusoe), he declared I should have a penny (a handsome reward in those days). Reaching into his pocket he found he had no penny with him and I thought that was the end of the matter. But no. A few days later when he marched in to take morning assembly, on the dais he diverted – in a puzzled, anxious, expectant silence by all present, walked straight up to me standing in the middle of the hall with the youngest ones, (for whom there were no places at their desks) and without a word, handed me a penny.

Despite the tendencies indicated by these incidents, Tommy was keenly interested in the academic activities of school life, and would make an unheralded visit to a classroom to see what was going on. Sometimes he would so participate as to take over from the master in charge. One occasion I well remember, when, having superseded the class master, he became so immersed in his subject (I forget what it was) that he over-ran the time for the lesson and the next class for this room arrived with their master to take their places. "Just stand along the wall there for a minute said Tommy. But his ‘minute’ ran on for another period and ‘recess’ arrived (to the great ‘relief’ of at least one of the boys) with the first class still at their desks and TWO other classes standing along the wall ‘for a few minutes more’.

Shop hours in my boyhood were very different from those of today. The general opening hour was eight, which frequently found a cluster of customers waiting for it. Few shops closed at midday nor closed before nine at night, later for some shops, especially at Christmas and similar times when business continued (as on most Saturdays) until not far from midnight.

Letters posted before 9.30 at the head post office (formerly in premises demolished in 1938, facing up Beastfair, but from 1915 in the present building in Ropergate) could be relied upon to be delivered in most parts of the country the following morning, including Sundays; whilst if bearing an extra halfpenny stamp they could be posted at around 10.00pm on the south-bound mail train at Baghill Station (no charge for admission to the station).

Mail could be posted at the head office up to 5.00am for same day local delivery, and I recall a resident in Mayor’s Walk complaining that a letter she posted in the local pillar box before 11.00am had failed to be delivered in Market Place by the 2.30 delivery that day.

Watches and clocks were not quite so plentiful in those days – long before radio time signals were introduced, and the parish church clock with Lord Grimthorpe’s gravity three-leg escapement (installed in 1887 in celebration of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee) was the town’s standard public timepiece, though the clock in the post office window was generally treated with respect as it was reputed to be set to GMT every morning.

Since a high proportion of the population lived within the sound of the church bells, the daily ‘time bell’ was a real convenience. It was sounded for five minutes before 8.00am, noon, 1.00pm and 6.00pm, marking the opening and closing of most peoples working spells.

At the other end of Market Place, over the Town Hall, there was a bell (cracked for as long as I ever knew it) struck by the old clock which was displaced in the 30’s by a commonplace electric piece of modernity.

Both these public clocks were in the care of a character named Samuel Joseph Stockleymoney, a Londoner who had settled in Pontefract, living at one time at the corner of Gillygate and Southgate, before the second Gillygate widening in 1912, and later in Horsefair. His comparatively cultured accent probably gained him greater respect than his apparent financial status seemed to justify, but he was certainly worthy of the respect he gained by his diving displays in the old swimming bath at the one-time waterworks at the junction of Halfpenny Lane and Back Street. Part of the wall of the heart-shaped tank can still be seen at the back of the water board depot at this site, though the machinery, chimney and water tower went soon after Hitler’s war (the wall went when Kwik Save was built).

I learned to swim in that little old bath, where I spent many happy hours before the present baths were opened in 1912 – when father took the first public plunge at the opening ceremony. I also joined with many others in the summers of 1913 and 1914 in the Park lake, which had one part made specially deep for swimmers, when in 1913 it was doubled to its present six acres. It was in that deeper part that I had the fiercest attack of cramp I ever had in or out of water, as I stretched up to put the crossbar on a water polo goal. At the other end of the lake, at the boat landing stage, other men fell into the water when they failed to climb a greasy pole with a ham at the top as a prize. This was part of some sports occasion of which the date and its other features have escaped me.

I do recall clearly however, another event at the lake. A parade and collection had been arranged on behalf of the RNLI with a lifeboat (of the pulling and sailing type) on a heavy horse-drawn carriage being the central feature. The proceedings were to include a trip round the lake for paying passengers in the lifeboat, but when the vessel reached the lake and was launched, it went straight to the bottom which was a couple of feet below the surface. This resulted in it having to be withdrawn and have the mud washed from its beautiful white surface.

In passing, I might mention that when the work of extending the lake had been nearly completed and the water level had been lowered, as I walked across the narrow dividing strip between old and new, I was surprised to find mussels established there, for I had always understood them to be purely sea creatures.

Now back to the public clocks. Stockleymoney was very proud of his charges and would willingly take an interested visitor to see (and help him to wind) the church clock, the accuracy of which he adjusted by adding or removing a penny from the pendulum bob. The Town Hall clock however, was very old and more difficult to control, so much so that it got me into trouble when it stopped one morning at 8.35 and thereby made me very late for school. My form master (a newcomer from some city) could not be persuaded that the clock on a Town Hall had been allowed to stop.

The Town Hall cracked bell, though normally it did no more than announce the hours, was heard on other occasions during the year. On pancake day it was sounded for a couple of hours before noon (with brief intervals when the ringer’s arm tired), and similarly on 1st May when those interested were invited to take up ‘gaits’ authorising them to run cattle or horses on the park pastures, a privilege for which they paid a fee to the corporation. Many a time, I, like other youngsters was given the treat (or at least the experience) of walking down to the park to see the cattle gathered and milked in the shed which, though dilapidated, stood until 1975 near the Girl’s High School. The pond at which the cattle watered was near the gate on the south side, but was filled in many years ago.

Mayor’s Day (9th November, the local elections having been on 1st November) was another occasion when the Town Hall bell was heard, for it was generally sounded as soon as the new Mayor had been elected, though it could soon be augmented (or drowned) by a lively peal of the eight bells of the church. Mayor’s Day was usually marked by a ‘scramble’ in which the now head of the municipality scattered coins from the Town Hall balcony over the crowd below.

This event however, became very rough and in due course it died, though one Mayor softened it somewhat by a distribution of oranges and apples instead of coins. I have not been able to trace any trustworthy support of the story that one ‘joker’ in the municipal party tossed out a small shovelful of coins which were almost red hot.

‘Scrambles’ on less pretentious lines were not uncommon outside a home where a wedding was being celebrated, and sometimes, the first movement of the train which carried the couple away for their honeymoon was accompanied by two or three fog signals beneath their compartment.

The church bells rang out on many occasions besides those already mentioned, and of course, forty minutes or so on Sunday mornings and evenings, as well as a similar period of practice on Monday evening.

Parishioners of prominence were generally accorded a peal on their marriage, and the depth of a public figure could be marked by a ‘passing bell’. There seems to have been some uncertainty about the rules for this, for there were those who expected single strokes for a man and doubles for a woman; whilst others claimed that the proper thing was one stroke for every year of the deceased’s life.

The funeral of a person of importance could well be marked by a peal of muffled bells, the open tenor at the end of each round striking a sharp contrast with the subdued tones of the other seven. The former ring of eight bells was re-cast and augmented in 1920 to form the present ten-bell ring as part of the parish war memorial. Funerals seem to have been much more marked then than they are today, especially of public personalities. House blinds were lowered, shops closed, and many people – men bare-headed, lined the streets on the route from the church to the cemetery.

Many men lived in, or were, or had been connected with the Barracks, so that a military funeral was not infrequent – and always almost spectacular. Headed by a military band playing a funeral march, the procession would include a detachment of soldiers marching at funeral pace, and amongst them would be a firing party with reversed arms for a volley over the open grave after the committal. The march back to the Barracks, by contrast, was brisk, with the band setting the pace with more normal sounds.

Sunday morning church parade really was a spectacle. Headed by their band in full blast, two or three companies of men of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and of the York and Lancaster Regiment (so often miscalled the Yorkshire and Lancashire), marched by Wakefield Road and Ropergate to church, where a small party of Roman Catholics were detached and marched off to their own church, and at a later period some non-conformists similarly separated. The band left their instruments in the Buttercross with two or three of their number to look after them, while the men clattered into the galleries and the officers took places in the pews bearing a plate marked ‘Officers of the Garrison’. After the service with the band already in formation at the end of Ropergate, the troops ‘fell in’ on the space in front of the Buttercross and performed their ‘form fours’, the movements of which sometimes seemed to be too intricate for the newest recruits, to the chagrin of those in charge and the derision of old soldiers amongst the spectators. Then away to the Barracks.

One summer this parade was particularly impressive, for the two local battalions were joined by some Northumberland Fusiliers for several weeks. The contrast between the sounds of the visitor’s drums and fifes, and the more dulcet tones of the home sides silver instruments was quite striking, each seeming to set off the appeal of the others. On the parade ground at the Barracks the two bands joined in a musical half-hour before ‘dismiss’ and the bugles called ‘come to the cookhouse door’.

The occupants of the Barracks were prominent in the life of the town. The inn-keepers, of course, welcomed them especially, although a few of the men preferred the quieter atmosphere of the Soldiers Home, at one time in Ropergate and later in Southgate in a house now part of the premises of G. R. Smith Ltd, motor engineers (now Kwik-Fit offices after demolition) where tea and light refreshments were served by voluntary helpers under the leadership of Miss Chapman.

Somewhat similar facilities and parallel activities were provided in the Girls’ Evening Home in Salter Row in premises later absorbed into those of the Co-operative Society.

There was an annual reminder of the part played by the Y and L in the battle of Minden, when the date was marked by the wearing of a flower in the hat of each soldier to recall how his predecessors plucked a flower each from the gardens through which they passed on their way to the battle.

Another parade ought to be mentioned. Every Saturday and Sunday evening the Salvation Army met in front of the Town Hall under the balcony big lamp, and held an open-air service with a collection, before marching off via Salter Row, to their Citadel at the top of Front Street (demolished 1974). The military turn-outs on Sunday were not by any means the only parades of the day, for Sunday evening almost exceeded Saturday evening in its throng of young people who ambled to and fro in Ropergate, which their elders spoke of disparagingly, even disgustedly, as the ‘Monkey Walk’, though they themselves might well have been amongst the many whose romance began in Ropergate on a Saturday or Sunday evening.

Frank H. W. Holmes 1971.


Further reading from Frank Holmes:

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


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