West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections



When I was fifteen-years-old I started work as an office junior / shop assistant from Mr. F.H.W. Holmes, printer and stationer at 13 Gillygate, Pontefract.

The office was on the third floor of the building and the shop was at street level. I must have run up and down that couple of flights of stairs hundreds, if not thousands of times whenever the shop doorbell rang to signal the arrival of a customer or company representative. Hardly a day passed by then without a visit from some salesman or other hoping to extract an order from Mr. Holmes.

Later, when another assistant was taken on, I spent more time in other parts of the building whilst the new arrival worked in the shop. During my time there the shop assistants came and went. I made friends with Marina Jarvis from Featherstone, who stayed a few months then left to work elsewhere. Our friendship endured for many years until sadly she died. I still keep in contact with her husband Les occasionally.

Other assistants I remember were Myra Beanland from Pontefract and Esther Greenhalg from Badsworth. A very pretty young woman named Valerie Sheldon also worked in the shop for a few months. A local artist who lived in Horsefair or thereabouts, obviously smitten by her good looks, asked if he could paint her portrait. She agreed and although I never saw the finished painting, I often wonder if it was ever finished, and what happened to it. I can’t recall the artists name but I believe his Christian name was Ken.

In those days a large part of Mr. Holmes day would be spent on the top floor which was two floors above the office. He spent hours seated in front of the keyboard of a huge linotype machine preparing copy for printing. Wearing a fawn coloured smock to protect his suit he would be typing away totally oblivious to what was happening in other parts of the building because of the terrific din emanating from the machine. If he was ever wanted either in the shop or on the telephone, I had to run up to the top floor and give him a tap on his arm and then yell in his ear to make myself heard.

The toilets were in the cellar which also housed the coke-fired boiler that heated the radiators throughout the building.

Although to most folk it would have appeared to be a rather drab and dingy place to work, in the few years I spent there I gained a wealth of knowledge in a hug variety of subjects. Working there was far from dull, and Mr. Holmes was a brilliant man who genuinely loved sharing his wealth of expertise. To me, a naïve fifteen-year-old, he was a never-ending source of wisdom and information. He taught me to type on a huge old Remington typewriter and soon I was allowed to type out the many accounts that went out to customers in those days for printing work.

Apart from his love of life and the pleasure he got from passing on what he had learned however, Mr. Holmes was a very canny man when it came to saving the odd bob or two! Nowadays there is an ever increasing awareness of the need to re-cycle and protect our environment and rightly so, but I was made aware of these issues by Mr. Holmes – a very forward thinking man – over fifty years ago.

Nothing whatsoever was ever wasted. Whenever he received mail through the post, each envelope was carefully opened and then kept for re-use. Consequently all the accounts I had typed out for customers would be delivered in used envelopes!

Brown paper wrapping from huge bales of paper and card in the printing room was carefully folded ready to be used either for customers orders, or to wrap item sold in the shop. Everything that could be salvaged for re-use was kept even though the items concerned were kept as stock items. If it had a use it was kept. I don’t ever remember using a new box of paper clips or rubber bands, there was always an abundance of second hand ones! Mr. Holmes wasn’t a miser, he just hated unnecessary waste.

I can still remember his generosity to me at Christmas. He called me into the office on my first Christmas there and presented me with £10 and a big bag of toffees. I was speechless – ten pounds in those days represented a months wages for me.

Every week he would read the Pontefract and Castleford Express from cover to cover, then it was carefully folded and placed on a shelf in the printing room with the dozens of copies from weeks and years earlier. All were filed neatly in date order, some yellowing with age, so that if he ever needed to look anything up he knew exactly where it was. He was an agent for the ‘Yorkshire Post’, the ‘Yorkshire Evening Post’, ‘Yorkshire Evening News’ and the ‘Pontefract and Castleford Express’. I accepted many advertisements from customers, mostly obituaries or items for sale, and in return Mr. Holmes was paid commission for them. I was taught what to look for in an Obituary notice for example, and I remember being ‘told off’ in a small way once when I accepted one that failed to include the deceased persons age. If the advertisement was for the Pontefract & Castleford Express, I would be sent to their offices in Front Street and always reminded by Mr. Holmes "Don’t forget the Commission.

One year he was elected Secretary for the Pontefract & District Musical Festival, and the stock room/ print room over the shop was used to store all the cups, banners and trophies that were presented to competition winners. I helped to carry them all across to the Town Hall in time for the festival. In those days, Gallons the grocers occupied the shop at the top of Gillygate and at the side of the shop was a footpath and passage that led to the rear entrance of Holmes Printers. It was mainly used for deliveries of paper and card which was very heavy and bulky, but it simplified the task of transporting all the Festival prizes across to the Town Hall.

One day he told me to close the shop and accompany him to see the Proclamation for our present Queen being delivered from the balcony of the Town Hall. "It will probably be the last one I will see," he said wryly.

The shop sold every conceivable thing you could imagine. Stationery of every description from brown business envelopes in boxes of thousands, to Basildon Bond for the private letter writer. Pens, pencils, erasers, office supplies, duplicators, Remington, Underwood and Olympia typewriters and many more. Ledgers, account books for every trade from milkmen to hairdressers. Typing paper, greeting cards (Holmes was still known locally for having a large and varied selection of cards for every occasion) Pillars and cake boards for wedding cakes, birthday cake candles and decorations, confetti, soaps, toiletries, toothpaste and brushes. The list of stock items was endless and new items were constantly being added.

A firm named Sadler’s from Leeds, supplied us with games and novelties, playing cards, canasta, dominoes etc., and anything else that appealed to Mr. Holmes.

A lady who lived near Ferrybridge Church, who was a dressmaker, came into the shop regularly to stock up on Blackmore sewing patterns; I never knew her name.

We got lots of young boys in the shop too who would spend ages poring over the very comprehensive range of foreign stamps that Holmes stocked. Half an hour looking at stamps at Holmes’ was a popular after-school activity in those days, even if you didn’t actually buy any.

Mr. Holmes also ran a flourishing lending library and customers paid threepence a week to borrow a book. One day I remarked that some of the books were a bit old and tatty and suggested getting out some of the new ones that were packed away upstairs but he wouldn’t hear of it. I believe they were still there some years later when I left.

Most of the shops in Gillygate were owned by him in those days and I was often sent to ask shopkeepers if they had a ‘message’ for Mr. Holmes. I later discovered that I was in fact collecting the rents for these properties.

A shop that sold groceries, sweets and fruit and vegetables was run by a nice man called Mr. Garnham. Next to him was the toy shop run by the William’s sisters and a shoe-repair shop was the domain of the Morley’s. They dabbled in other things too and my friend Marina and I bought tennis rackets there once, so that we could take tennis lessons in Purston Park.

Next door to Holmes was Mr. Welburn’s electrical shop, and further down the street of course was Harker’s the Jewellers. Opposite Holes was ‘The Playhouse’ cinema and I remember Maud (I never knew her surname) a lovely lady who worked there for years would occasionally cross over the road to give us a couple of free tickets for the latest film. Happy days!

The shop opened at nine o’clock and I was given a key to the door almost from my first day there. My first tasks were to mop the shop floor and light the boiler in the cellar if it was cold. One morning I switched on the light in the lobby at the top of the cellar steps and there was a terrific bang and a flash, and the glass light shade shattered and fell down in pieces around me. I had to wait an hour or so for Mr. Holmes to arrive so that he could fix it. He never used outside tradesmen if he could do a job himself!

In cold weather he would come downstairs and stand in the shop with his backside resting on the piping hot radiator, whilst he read his ‘Yorkshire Post.’ I would be busy marking up newspapers and magazines for our regulars.

A lovely lady named Miss Purchon who lived in Badsworth, came into Pontefract once a week to do her shopping and pick up a copy of the ‘Christian Herald.’ A young man named Mr. Mountain had a regular order for the ‘Musical Express’ and a motoring magazine. I remember seeing the first copy of ‘The Eagle’ comic and recall a couple of customers who bought it regularly for their children.

For me it was a joy to be able to read all my favourite magazines ‘for free’ when I had a few quiet moments to myself.

Mr. Holmes was a despatch rider during the First World War and I remember seeing photographs of him with his motor-cycle in France.

During the time I worked for him he was diagnosed with Osteomyelitis and had to go into Pontefract General Infirmary for a chest operation. On his return to work he proudly displayed photographs taken during the operation. He had take them himself using mirrors!

I was often sent across Market Place to G.T. Smith’s to pick up a wholemeal loaf for him. Even then, years before ‘healthy eating’ was promoted, Mr. Holmes would insist on wholemeal bread, never white.

He even kept me informed on progress regarding his coffin! A huge tree had been cut down in the garden of his home and he said the timber was reserved to be made into his coffin when he eventually died. I wonder if it was?

Another occasion I remember vividly is being taken to Mr. Holmes house after work one day to meet his mother who was then in her nineties. She possessed a very old bible which consequently had become rather the worse for wear. Mr. Holmes had taught me book-binding and asked me to re-cover the bible for his mother. I repaired the spine, secured all the loose pages and added new fly-leaves. Then I covered it in black leather. His mother was very pleased with the end-result, hence my being taken to his home to meet her. She had insisted on thanking me in person.

I met Mr. Holmes wife Doris on numerous occasions and also his daughter Joyce, who at that time lived in Guernsey, although she visited Pontefract fairly regularly. His son John eventually joined his father in the business when he left the R.A.F. and I recall that on our first meeting I sold him a Waterman’s fountain pen for 12/6d!

In my mind I can still see the many drawers beneath the counter of that lovely old shop, and if it were still there untouched by time I could go directly to the drawer that held rulers or protractors, or the larger drawers whose contents held such delight for little schoolboys – foreign stamps!

I remember the beautiful cards supplied by a firm named John Dickinson (who still exist today, over fifty years later!) They always used real photographs on their greeting cards and were truly exquisite.

Holmes Printers and Stationers was a household name in Pontefract then, and Mr. Holmes was a very well known and respected figure in the town. A town he loved very much. A keen historian, he wrte a small booklet entitled "A History of Pontefract Castle" whilst I worked there. I remember collating and stapling hundreds of copies together. I believe it sold for two shillings or maybe half a crown. Do any still exist I wonder?

I’m so glad that I was able to spend a few short years there, discovering the secrets that were hidden away beneath the surface of this lovely old building. I wonder if the windows in the printing room still bear the signatures of past generations of the Holmes family? Scratched into the glass they had remained undisturbed for many years before my arrival and I was fascinated by them.

I will always remember what I learnt there from Mr. Holmes. A man who was always truly altruistic in his every thought and deed. A gentleman.

Jean Norfolk
January 2005

Further articles by Jean Norfolk:

M.L. Jennings, Ropergate
Tribute to Gillian Lesley Askew


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