West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections




Typed by him in 1971

The expression to ‘get on the band-wagon’ has become commonplace today, but there must be many using it who have never seen a party of bandsmen with their instruments clustered on a massive wagon, drawn by at least two horses, or more likely four, or perhaps an elephant, leading a procession of human and animal performers in costume round the town and back into the circus tent.

On one occasion, as such a procession passed up Salter Row on its way back to the fairground, an elephant paused and casually tore small branches from the trees in the garden where the old Carnegie library now stands. The house to which this garden was attached had then not long been serving as Municipal Offices, for the staff had become too numerous to continue to be conveniently accommodated in the rooms at the Town Hall and Assembly Room. This house, having in turn been found insufficient for the growing number of municipal office workers, was pulled down to be replaced by the present building. It was during this change that the staff found temporary accommodation in the old Congregational School in Back Northgate, which at one time had been the largest school in the town. This building in turn disappeared in 1974, when Stuart Road (named after Stuart Lowden, a property owner and Mayor in 1904) was extended from Tanshelf to Finkle Street.

A picture of Pontefract of these early days would not be complete without reference to the pawnbroker. There were but two, George Grandidge and Wilfred Hutton Hydes. The premises of the former had display windows for clothing, furnishing and jewellery in Woolmarket and Bridge Street, and round the corner in Finkle Street a discreet entrance to a yard leading to the door where many a Sunday suit or even tradesmen’s tools were deposited, so many of them doomed to forfeiture if the loan they had secured was not repaid in the statutory year and a day. The Hydes establishment in Salter Row similarly had two entrances and did similar business.

Pontefract’s liquorice industry is well known and has already been mentioned. So has Pickersgill’s Brewery, almost opposite the South Baileygate entrance to All Saints Church, but that was closed in the early twenties I think.

Nicholson’s mat works was in one of the quarries on the north side of Wakefield Road, with a row of stone cottages almost adjoining, and housing some of the mat workers, of whom some could often in good weather be seen in the yard outside their homes winding the material to be used in the mill.

There were several builders and joiners of course, and Wilcock’s steam saw mill, near Monkhill Station, ultimately grew and became Wilkinson’s cabinet works. It was Albert Wilcock of this family, who built Pontefract’s first cinema, the Picture Palace, near the Alexandra Theatre.

The old builders, I imagine, would be staggered to see how steel tubes have taken the place of the scaffolding which they contrived with wooden poles standing in barrels of sand, with other poles lashed to them horizontally, and 6x2 putlogs.

Of the buildings in the town used for farming, with entrances broad and very high to admit farmer’s bulky loads, one still exists in Northgate – before a yard where some enterprising man a little before the Kaiser’s war garaged four ex-London General Omnibus Company’s double-deckers and began a service between Pontefract and Knottingley and elsewhere. Another big entrance in Newgate, with a hayloft above it, survived until the forties, and it was not much earlier that the last cow was accommodated in buildings in Southgate (fronted by 29 Ropergate).

No. 1 Market Place, by the way, had a two-stall stable, though whether it was for horse or cow I cannot say. It went in 1906.

It was on 29th October 1906 that a tram service was opened between Pontefract Market Place, Castleford and Normanton Market Place. The track was of the standard 4ft 8 1/2in gauge, but its route was not easy. In Castleford it had to divide to make two one-way lines, whilst in Pontefract the service had hardly begun when it was discovered that the double line in Front Street brought the trams nearer to the houses on the south-west than the regulations permitted.

There was, however, a little spare margin on the other side, next to the maltkilns, so the two tracks were amended, and ever thereafter the trams had to make the best of the resultant kink in the rails – a distinct slowdown and a jerk for the uphill vehicle, but not quite so bad for those going down.

Apart from their value as public passenger transport, the trams gave other benefits, for in fog they were a trusty guide and in times of snowfall they soon cleared the way for themselves and willy-nilly for all other traffic. Costs of running and the competition of busses, however, proved too much for the undertaking, and the last tram left Pontefract for the depot in Castleford on 1st November 1925, marking the end of a rather short era.

Incidentally, it was stated that at the height of the tramway period, it was possible to travel by tram, with only two or three short gaps, from Pontefract to Blackpool – and today, Blackpool has the only living tramway system in this country.

Public bonfires merit a mention. The earliest I can remember was one on the Park Hill in the celebrations of the Accession of King Edward VII (and at my age at that time, I found it somewhat terrifying). There was another in the same place and circumstances for King George V, and in 1919 to celebrate peace after the Kaiser’s war.

Street decorations for these events included, besides triumphal arches and flags and bunting through the town, strings of coloured lights between poles, lining the main streets. This was the last time, as far as I can remember, when these lights consisted of coloured fancy glass jars in which the illuminant was a wax night-light. These were the usual things for such events, and some were set up in the castle on gala evenings. Incidentally, Father bought some of these when the 1919 decorations were cleared away, and we set up a line or two of them in the grounds of The Priory when we had a private bonfire to mark the end of Hitler’s war. ‘Private’ it might nominally have been, but scores of strangers from all parts joined in. When the excavations in the castle took place, the diggers were puzzled by the bits of coloured glass they were finding. Were they part of the castle windows? What a disappointment when they were put right!

I noted one little contrast between the 1919 and 1945 bonfires. On the former occasion I remember the crowding and jostling there was at a stile from Park Lane to the park near the Girl’s School, but in 1945 at that same style I found a quite orderly queue on each side, both going and coming. Could it be that the food shortage before 1945 had been more severe than in 1914-19?

In the early years of the century there was much more interest in elections than there seems to have been in recent years. For many years the municipal elections were held on November 1st and the Mayor-making on the 9th, and although the elections were conducted in the light of the Ballot Act of 1872 (which was first used in Pontefract that same year at a Parliamentary by-election) the rules were interpreted more loosely than they are now. For instance, an ‘Advertiser’ reporter was allowed to visit each polling station each hour and note how many ballot papers had by then been issued, so as to compile a table showing how the voters had come in, early or late.

There was no suggestion of disclosing at any time how anyone had voted, but at the count it was possible for figures to be extracted to show how, when a ward returned two members at a time, the candidates had been coupled by the voters. The fact that such a statistic was thought to be sufficiently interesting to be worth the trouble may be taken to show what interest there was in elections.

The flexibility in the interpretation of the law on elections was also illustrated by the case of Mr. Quarterman, an estate agent, who had reached the age of ninety or so and was not very mobile. Voters in his ward had the Town Hall as their polling station, but as he could not manage the steps from the street, a poll clerk and an assistant brought one of the little polling desks down to the lobby at the foot of the stairs, cleared out the candidate’s representatives, helped Mr. Quarterman from his cab, and let him make his mark in solitude behind the iron gates!

At the counting too, there was some latitude. An ‘Advertiser’ representative would get himself sworn in as a candidate’s counting agent, collect the results as soon as they were known in each ward, pass them from a back window to a messenger outside, and so, by the time they had been publicly declared from the Town Hall balcony, followed by a speech or two, they were being printed in a special edition of the ‘Advertiser’ and were on sale to the dispersing crowd. All very enterprising no doubt, but not particularly profitable.

Parliamentary elections were taken very seriously. At one of them, the retiring Liberal Member, Sir T. Willans Nussey, was to be opposed by a Conservative named Yate, who faded from the scene very early in the campaign. Promptly the Liberals put out a poster ‘Nussy is on the spot. Where is Yate?’ Almost at once the more frivolous Liberals obliterated the first letter of the fifth word and added ‘underneath’. Nussey was elected.

Colonel J. R. Shaw, coal-owner, seven times Mayor, was a candidate at one election before which he came in for some criticism in a newspaper article headed ‘A month for a cabbage’. This arose from a case in which a defendant was sentenced by a Bench on which the Colonel had been Chairman to a month’s imprisonment for stealing a cabbage from a garden.

Other public comment gave rise to a libel action, which proved very expensive to the proprietor of the ‘Advertiser’. This same proprietor showed his enterprise at another election, when he announced that when the result was declared he would pass the news to the suburbs by sending up from his house (next to the Town Hall) a rocket with a yellow burst for a Liberal win, or a blue one for a Tory victory. It turned out to be a yellow one.

In the 1911 elections (two in one year), he had an arrangement with the Yorkshire Post to receive results as sent in to that paper and relayed to him by telephone, and display them by limelight projection onto a temporary screen fixed in front of his house. This naturally drew a crowd and he knew what he could expect from it if the Conservatives (whom he openly and actively supported) showed signs of gaining any ascendancy. Consequently, during Election Day, the shop windows below were cleared of their contents and the ground floor front was boarded over with all doors fastened. He also prepared his revolver (a primitive pin-fire type) – a weapon I never saw him use, except for fun in the yard below or to pot at a rat gambolling round the ash pit.

Mention of boarding up the shop reminds me that in my boyhood there still remained, lying about in the back premises, wooden shutters which had been in regular use on the shop front which existed on No. 1 Market Place before the front was put on in 1897.

Shutters were at one time almost universal for shops. In fact, right up to its closure in the early 1930’s, the establishment of John W. Hemmant, draper and ladies outfitter in Beastfair, had a flexible continuous shutter which covered both of his windows and the central doorway, and slid with its runners on a track in the yard at the side of the premises when not in use at the front.

No. 1 also had hinged shutters (the slatted type) on all the upstairs windows, and simple solid wooden hinged shutters were in regular use on some of the old houses in Northgate and Horsefair, and, I believe, in Front Street; but they have all long since gone.

And with that I think it’s time I put up my own shutters.

Frank H. W. Holmes 1971.

Further reading from Frank Holmes:

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


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