Knottingley and Ferrybridge Online West Yorkshire
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Also by Terry Spencer

The following studies by Terry Spencer are now available on the Knottingley website:

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century the August Bank Holiday period at Knottingley abounded in fun and frolic with the Feast as the hub of the festivities. The fair was supplemented by community sports and of the sporting element within the town none was more prominent than Knottingley Town Cricket Club.

Situated on the southern bank of the River Aire, to the north side of Aire Street, lies Knottingley Flatts. Today, the Flatts occupy only a small portion of the original layout which comprised the greater part of Knottingley Ings.

The modern image of the fair is one of outdoor entertainment for pleasure seeking people but such a concept is one which has developed over the last two centuries being born as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

Prior to the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948 local people relied for health care in the event of sickness or serious injury upon charitable institutions such as Pontefract Dispensary and Leeds Infirmary.

The application by Knottingley Urban District Council for a grant of arms was made to the College of Arms, London, in mid 1942.

That there was a glassworks at Ferrybridge is indisputable for it was both documented and photographed. That it was situated on the north bank of the River Aire "..where the Parish of Brotherton merges into the Parish of Ferrybridge" is confirmed by map reference. The doubt lies not in the existence or location of the furnace but with its origin.

The township of Knottingley, situated three miles north-east of Pontefract in the Wapentake of Osgoldcross, developed from a 6th century Saxon settlement in a forest clearing on the south bank of the river Aire. By the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066 the settlement had acquired the status of a manorial vill

As the process of industrialisation and urban development gained pace in the second half of the nineteenth century the provision of public spaces such as municipal gardens and parks for the purpose of public recreation and amenity became increasingly desirable.

Percy Bentley, scion of a prominent Knottingley family, was born in that town on the 18th January 1891, the son of James William and Helena Bentley, and was baptised in the parish church of St. Botolph on the 11th February.

On Wednesday, 25th September 1918, a committee previously sanctioned by Knottingley Urban District Council in meeting assembled, met in the Council Chamber at Knottingley Town Hall to consider the form of memorial to the men who had fallen during the Great War.

No less than the citizens of its larger neighbour, the inhabitants of the village of Ferrybridge decided to honour those drawn from the community and slain in the Great War.

For approximately a decade from the mid 1940's the 'K' Sisters, Marjorie and Pamela Kellett, were prominent throughout the town and district of Knottingley as all-round entertainers who harnessed their talent to providing public enjoyment and in so doing raised large amounts of money for local charities.

The new cinema, one of the earliest purpose-built picture houses in the country, was situated on an oblique strip of land some 560 square yards in extent, adjacent to Ship Lane at the junction with lower Aire Street. The hall was designed to seat 600 people: 500 in the area and 100 in the balcony.

In 1752, eighteen residents of the township of Knottingley in company with John Mitchell, the Parish Constable, agreed to be bound over in the sum of £10 each to observe the legal and moral obligations attendant upon being granted a licence as an innkeeper.

In the Spring of 1994, the recently deceased and much lamented Edwin Beckett arranged for the installation of a clock at the top of the Town Hall turret. The event was celebrated in verse by Mrs Joyce Bell who concluded her eulogy by stating that her mother, Dolly Lightowler, had always wished to see a clock set in the "bare face" of the Town Hall - a wish which had now come true.

Awareness of a link between my native Knottingley and the Prince's statue came quite recently when Mrs Shirley Bedford of Knottingley informed me that her great grandfather was the master of a barge which had transported the statue from Hull to Leeds in 1903.

It was in the course of a recent conversation with Roger Ellis that the subject of nicknames arose, following which, in an idle half-hour, I casually began to compile a list of those I recalled. My list quickly exceeded fifty in number and I was seized by a natural desire to list as many more as I could obtain.

The origin of Knottingley Band is obscure. In 1980 the Band celebrated its conjectured centenary year, the date being taken from an old letterhead of 1880.  However, a subsequent documentary source has been located which indicates that the genesis of the Band may lie much further in the past.

The burgeoning spirit of civic pride found practical expression on 29th October 1864, when a group of prominent citizens of the town formed the Knottingley Town Hall & Mechanics’ Institute Company Limited.

The purpose of this study is to consider the topography of modern day Knottingley and formulate a theoretical model concerning the development of the settlement during the medieval and post medieval eras as reflected in the field systems adopted.

An A-Z listing of Knottingley field and place names.

One of the most impressive and graceful houses ever built at Knottingley was Lime Grove. The large attached house was the residence of the Carter family and was built to the orders of Mark Carter at Mill Close, Hill Top, about 1808.

Conflict is fuelled by finance so it is unsurprising that following the outbreak of war in 1939, local savings committees were established to encourage people to curb personal expenditure and invest surplus cash in the National War Savings Scheme in order to assist the cost of the war.

The township of Knottingley became a semi-autonomous parish in 1789 following the ecclesiastical reorganisation of that period but remaining under the patronage of the Vicar of Pontefract until it became an independent parish in 1846

Knottingley and Ferrybridge Local History


by TERRY SPENCER, B.A. (Hons), Ph D

KNOTTINGLEY, Circa 1840 - 2003
Volume One (2003)


Aire Street, Knottingley

(above) Aire Street, the traditional site for Knottingley Feast

The modern image of the fair is one of outdoor entertainment for pleasure seeking people but such a concept is one which has developed over the last two centuries being born as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

The linguistic term ‘fair’ derives from the Latin word ‘feriae’ meaning holidays and also ‘forum’; a market place. (1) Thus the two definitions combine to produce the basic elements of a fair; a festive occasion and an open space conducive to the transaction of business.

While it is true that fairs in the pre industrial era catered for pleasure-seekers this aspect was secondary to commercial opportunities and the consequent business transactions arising from such events. (2)

The origin of ‘Knottla Feast’ is lost in the mists of antiquity but it is clearly evident that the event was directly connected with ecclesiastical observance for the predominant factor in the establishment of any fair was the gathering of the inhabitants of any community at their local church on an occasion of religious significance for that community, such as the feast day of the saint to whom the church was dedicated.

It is reasonable therefore, to assume that the feast at Knottingley began as a Church Ale held on the 17th June each year to mark the feast day of St. Botolph, the dedicatee of the chapel of ease which served the local community and as there is architectural evidence that such a chapel was in existence by early Norman times one may conject that the towns fair dates from the early medieval period.

The earliest manifestation was probably in the form of a church service followed by sports and feasting attended by friends and acquaintances. An increasingly important element however, was the opportunity presented by social intercourse for business of a commercial nature to be undertaken. Thus, within a relatively short space of time the annual event became an economic as well as a religious institution, pleasure being an adjunct of the feast day.

From the earliest times business was conducted within the confines of the church yard but as time progressed the lay elements with the emphasis on business and jollification rather than religious observation began to be regarded as deplorable by the Church authorities, particularly as such activities began to encroach upon the precincts of the church, and such activities were therefore discouraged by the local clergy and the church wardens. By the late thirteenth century it had become necessary to formulate statutes making the holding of fairs in churchyards illegal and it may be that at this period Knottingley feast began to be held on the Flatts, an area of common land lying close of St. Botolph’s Church. (3)

The thirteenth century was one of substantial social and economic change at Knottingley. The establishment of corn and fulling mills alongside the River Aire at the Western edge of the manor during the previous century had resulted in the construction of a weir across the river to provide the motive power for the mills and this necessitated the transhipment at Knottingley of all goods carried on the waterway. (4) Thus, by the thirteenth century the settlement was already a significant inland port which not only served to victual Pontefract Castle but controlled the distribution of goods and materials over a wide area of the county of Yorkshire. (5)

The development of trade allied to demographic expansion resulted in the reorganisation of the manor of Knottingley with the realignment and extension of the open field system and the development of secondary areas of settlement such as those of Racca and Fernley (Swinley) Green. (6)

Developmental circumstances therefore favoured the relocation and enlargement of the local fair. The thriving river port would also ensure the attendance of buyers and sellers and casual visitors from distant parts to swell the throng, bringing goods and produce to meet the requirements of the local populace, while the proximity of Pontefract Castle, guarding the land and water routes of the surrounding district was sufficient to warrant the security and prosperity of the fair.

It must be emphasised however, that the evidence concerning the origin and development of Knottingley fair is circumstantial. Fairs could only be established by Royal Charter of Act of Parliament from the medieval period and there is no extant documentation concerning the manor of Knottingley. However, many early charters cannot be traced even for otherwise well documented fairs which are therefore deemed to be fairs of ancient prescription. It is known that as late as the mid-eighteenth century the Honour of Pontefract, of which Knottingley was a constituent part, held no less than nine fairs, one of which may well have been associated with Knottingley. Furthermore, early grants frequently specify fairs of four days duration commencing on the eve of the patrimonial festival, a pattern which applied at Knottingley until quite recent times.

As early as 1186 King Henry II granted to Henry de Lacy, Lord of the Honour of Pontefract, the right to hold a fair on St. Giles day (7) Henry de Lacy held the Honour of Pontefract for over forty years and it is not improbable that in his capacity of Tenant in Chief he would permit a fair to be held at the increasingly busy and important port of Knottingley for such a grant would ensure a significant increase in manorial revenue from tolls levied on merchants and pedlars for the privilege of bringing their merchandise to the fair and from dues paid by them for the protection afforded by the lord of the manor. The right of subsequent manorial lords to collect tolls from people using the Flatts was asserted well into the twentieth century and suggests the continuance of bygone observation which may have a connection with the early day fairs. (8)

By the mid eighteenth century the combination of the Reformation, Puritanism and indifference born of increasing secularisation had resulted in non-observation of many of the church festivals of yore, including the elimination of observation of many saints’ days. Further detachment from patrimonial association occurred in 1752 with the adoption by Britain of the Gregorian Calendar. The requisite advancement of the date by eleven days initiated a change in the date of the observance of the feast at Knottingley which henceforth fell within the octave of the feast of St. James, resulting in the fair being held in the week preceding August Bank Holiday. (9)

It was from the early nineteenth century that the character of the local fair changed. Improvements in communications through the establishment of turnpike roads, the construction of canals, assisted by the enclosure of common land, promoted new methods of production and distribution. The availability of corn and meat in all seasons of the year resulted in the establishment of specialist markets and trade halls. The hiring of domestic and agricultural labour had become a feature of many old established fairs in consequence of the Black Death and the collapse of the feudal system and the attempted regulation of labour by the Tudor dynasty. The industrial and agricultural revolutions of the eighteenth century increased the demand for labour which was more readily available due to demographic expansion early in the following century. By that time Statute (Stattis) or hiring fairs became increasingly focused on market towns such as Pontefract and fairs held at other venues were transformed from predominantly business affairs with subsidiary entertainment to events in which amusements were the principal feature.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century entertainment’s were largely in the form of booths and sideshows featuring Punch & Judy, waxwork exhibits, camera obscura, fortune-tellers, portrait painters or more exotic exhibits such as caged wild beasts and freak shows. An element of the traditional fair was retained in the form of jugglers, tumblers, fire-eaters and stalls offering refreshments such as hot peas, nuts and gingerbread. Similarly, the sale of merchandise such as ribbons and lace and other soft goods was a retention of the commercial element of the traditional fair. Such riding machines as there were relied on manual or horsepower and were few in number.

The adaption of steam power wrought a revolution in fairground entertainment. Scientific machines for testing weight, height or strength supplemented mechanical rides with steam engines providing the motive power. The advent of these rides tipped the balance of fairground attractions from sideshows to mobile apparatus although the development of the national railway network which ensured a wide range of goods in local shops and regular replacement of stock was also a factor in the decline of the trading element of the fairground. Nevertheless, by adaptability, stalls offering brandy snap, coconuts, toffee and foodstuffs such as jellied eels and tripe and onions continued to be a feature of the local fair. It is against this background of developing technology that events concerning Knottingley feast took place during the half century before 1880. (10)

As a maritime community, life at Knottingley was punctuated by the frequent and quite prolonged absence of seafarers from the town who together with their families, often spent time aboard ship in the summer season. (11) An adjunct of voyaging was that a considerable number of local inhabitants settled in distant locations. (12) Long before the establishment of mass communication it had become customary for exiled natives and local mariners to return to Knottingley at feast time.

"Relations of inhabitants flocked to Knottingley on Sunday with many sea-faring men who were in port running down to see home and friends once more" (13) reported a local newspaper in 1890. Even in 1909 when the towns’ maritime trade had declined to a mere semblance of its glorious past and given way to industries such as pottery and glass manufacture, it was recorded; "Many who belong to the ‘village of glass bottles and boats’ but are away all year, make the Feast their holiday time. Old friends in the streets who had not met since ‘last feast’ adjourned to the nearest tavern for a ‘pot o’ ale’ for their health’s sake." (14)

Following the opening of the Aire and Calder canal in 1826 a further practice arose and by mid century locally owned vessels, moored stem to stern in a line from the Bendles to Stubbs Bridge, and dressed overall, marked the occasion of the annual feast. (15) The feast was clearly a time of great merrymaking, based in considerable measure on the reunion of family and friends. The feast time was the "Season when friends and relations from far and near pour in amongst us and everything is hospitality and goodwill."(16)

As late as 1928 it was reported that there were "many former inhabitants renewing acquaintance with their former homes. (17)

The influx of former residents, together with visitors attracted from outlying districts combined to ensure that even at times of severe trade depression and high unemployment the fair attracted a large attendance. Indeed, such was the throng that by the 1840s the Select Vestry ordered that Aire Street should be closed to vehicular traffic for the duration of the feast and this decree was still being observed almost a century later. (18)

It is of passing interest to note an attempt in 1848 to move the Feast from its traditional site. At a meeting of the Select Vestry held on the 29th June 1848, Robert Thwaites, supported by Joseph Senior, proposed "That the annual feast shall be in future held on Racca Green." (19)

The reason for the proposal is not recorded. Perhaps a conflict of interest had arisen between those exercising traditional rights in respect of the Flatts and the public in general. Equally, the restrictions imposed upon traffic in and through the increasingly busy commercial centre of the town may have been regarded as an unjustified constraint and prompted the relocation of the Feast to the Racca which at that date was an area of secondary habitation, largely rural in character, which in the context of urban development was to remain so for almost another forty years. With its sparse and peripherally located dwellings and large centrally situated swathe of green, the Racca offered an ideal site for the fair, such locations being commonly associated with village fairs in general. Whatever the motive underlying the proposal which was passed by the Select Vestry nem con, the measure proved to be of temporary nature for the following year the Vestry resolved "That the [Parish] Constable demand of the showfolk’s rent for setting up their shews (sic) on the flatts (sic) to the amount of £1-1-0 per night." (20)

The above resolution is the earliest indication of charges being levied for the use of the Flatts and one may conject that the itinerant showfolks, realising the better custom to be gained, had insisted on a return to the traditional site of the Feast and the Vestry in conceding to the demand had decided to seek some recompense by charging rent for the privilege of using the site. However, there is no evidence of the rent being collected and such payment did not become regularised until almost twenty years later. At a meeting of the Select Vestry on the 15th July 1867, it was again proposed to "…charge stalls, puppet shows, Hobby-Horses and all similar erections a rent for permission to fix them on the Flatts during the Feast & Co." (21)

The Surveyor of Highways was instructed to collect the tolls and apply them to supplement the Highway Rate. Once again however, the proposal was not implemented as there was insufficient time to give the requisite public notice and organise a system of collection. That the Knottingley public, or at least the rate paying element, favoured supplemental rates is beyond doubt for at a Town’s Meeting on the 8th August a proposal by William Worfolk "that a rent be charged to persons for stalls, theatres, Hobby-Horses and similar erections for permission to erect them on the Flatts and that no entertainment or stall &Co., to be permitted to remain longer than one week" was greeted with unanimous acclaim especially as a further resolution advised the local Vestry to use the ensuing revenue "to the advantage of the township." (22)

Implementation of the resolution regarding the duration of the showmen’s stay appears to have been somewhat difficult or lax for in 1878 the Vestry Clerk was authorised to convey to the Surveyor of Highways the desire of the Select Vestry that steps be taken to remove erections from the Flatts in respect of the said resolution. (23) It is well documented that one popular feature of Knottingley Fair, Vicker’s Alhambra Theatre (colloquially known as the ‘rag and stick theatre’) stayed well beyond the feast period each year, being "located on the Flatts at Feast-time and for some time afterwards" although it appears that their season ended in late August. (24) As the Vestry decision was dated 31st October, it therefore seems probable that the offending parties were itinerant showmen who had made a speculative appearance en route to a larger venue such as Hull Fair rather than being a lingering element of the town’s feast held some months before.

The issue of levying tolls for use of the Flatts resulted in a protracted dispute between William Worfolk and his fellow Vestrymen. Worfolk, a shipbuilder and smallholder, had resided in the town since 1843 and in 1878 had purchased a half share of the manorial rights. A forceful, contentious man with a penchant for litigation, Worfolk was no stranger to controversy. (25) Worfolk asserted that the right to levy tolls for use of the Flatts was his prerogative as the Lord of the Manor. The uncertainty concerning the exercise of such right may account for the hiatus which occurred between the initial decision of the Select Vestry to levy tolls and the attempt to do so some years later. The matter was not settled until 1908 when Knottingley Council, the successor to the Select Vestry, obtained a legal judgement in its favour. (26)

Meanwhile, the Select Vestry, despite its desire to charge for use of the Flatts, was compelled to countermand Worfolk’s attempt to do so by issuing a statement that "All person visiting the feast will be allowed to set up their stalls, shows and other temporary erections free during feast week and they be requested not to pay anybody whatever….for the present year." (27)

The concluding phrase reveals the hope that the issue would be a temporary inconvenience which once settled would allow the Vestry to charge a toll thereafter. However, in 1881, the issue was forced when a Town’s Meeting on a show of hands, voted against the Vestry proposal to charge for use of the Flatts. (28) Yet despite this expression of popular opinion the Select Vestry sought to assert its presumed authority and in April 1883 empowered the Waywarden, George Greenhow, to make a variable charge based upon the size of the plot of land occupied by each showman and sought moral and legal support from the Pontefract Highway Board. (29) Greenhow, however, met with a refusal to pay when attempting to collect the rent from one Robert Heap and therefore overturned Heap’s stall and the apparatus for boiling peas, scolding two children in the process. Greenhow was subsequently sued by Heap and others but the Pontefract Magistrates Court dismissed the cases. (30)

Incidents arising from the disputed ownership of Knottingley Flatts are considered elsewhere (31) meanwhile the Feast continued to be located on the Flatts until the demolition of Aire Street in the 1960s.

The transition of the Feast from traditional to modern was remarked upon as early as 1885, comparing the contemporary scene with that "in days gone by [when there was] nothing but the fair to amuse one’s friends when Wild’s Theatre or some mountebank show with other similar attractions, or the old swinging boat and the quaint merry-go-round with some wonderful monstrosity of nature were all that could be seen outside, or in the street or were exhibited on Flatts; but now this is changed."

After listing the existence of the local Horticultural Show and Athletic Sports, together with the contribution made to the local culture by the town’s band, the writer concluded that such things "in the days we speak of would have been thought wonderful in our rural village." (31`)

Marvelling at the impact of technological change the writer alluded to "Mammoth merry-go-rounds driven by steam [and] made so that the rider might imagine he was riding on a bicycle or a beautiful horse or enjoying a boat excursion" (32) and while "Knottingley Feast was celebrated for its fun and merriment when dancing shows were there in plenty that is now passed away" and "the small theatres of the past have given way to the popular Alhambra Theatre." (33)

While the Feast of 1885 made a further acknowledgement of developing technology in the existence of a photographers studio there were plentiful reminders of an earlier age in the presence of a quack doctor, freak show, bazaars and aunt sallys, bygone features which were to continue to form a part of what was frequently and scathingly referred to by the local press as "attendant paraphernalia"

Another attraction enhanced if not born of technological development which appeared at Knottla Feast in 1883 was the "Ghost Show with its thrilling sight and sounds [and] was numerously patronised" (34) while the cinematograph show which by 1902 was sufficiently well established to draw the adjective "usual" in a report of its presence on the Flatts. By the turn of the twentieth century roundabouts such as the ‘farmyard and horses’ (colloquially referred to as ‘cocks and hens’), switchbacks, galloping horses and "roundabouts of every description" all steam driven, were a common sight at the annual fair.

The first application of steam power as the motive force for such rides occurred in the mid 1860s. Before the 1880s the roundabouts consisted of wooden horses suspended from overhead pivots with no base or platform beneath, a format which may still be seen on many children’s roundabouts to this day. The introduction of centrally situated engines facilitated the adoption of a base or spinning platform incorporating sets of ‘animal’, three or four abreast. A further development was the division of the base platform into hinged sections to produce the ‘hills and hollows’ undulations of the modern roundabout.

The ‘farmyard’ or variant ‘Noah’s Ark’ was so named because of the animal figures fixed to the revolving platform while the ‘switchbacks’ were named from the motion of the platform undulations and are first referred to at Knottingley in 1893. (35) Its presence was still a novelty the following year when it was reported that "Tuby’s switchback has lost none of its charms." (36)

By 1907 the scenic railway had made its appearance and by 1910 the roundabouts whilst retaining their basic design were referred to as ‘motorised’, presumably because they had been converted from steam powered to electrically driven machines. (37)

On the eve of the Great War the ‘Cakewalk’ and the ‘Joy Wheel’ had joined the switchback on the Flatts and with such innovative technology one can understand why it was that the Feast had been eagerly "anticipated for months." (38)

Amongst the sideshows one of the most novel was the "Champion Diver in the World" who was reported to have dived from a thirty-foot ladder placed on board a keel. (39) Presumably the dive was into the River Aire, although the report does not state so. If the feat was thus undertaken it is all the more remarkable for the river is notoriously shallow alongside the Flatts being designated as ‘Knottingley Shallows’ in ancient documents. (39) Another feature held in great esteem was the periodic appearance of the Boxing Booth. One is mentioned on the Flatts in 1910 although it had doubtless made an appearance long before that date. In 1938 it is again mentioned as an arena in which "local men, Tommy Garner, Joe Boyes and Paddy Ryan showed their metal against the Booth boxers." (40)

The Boxing Booth provided more than an opportunity for local ‘young bloods’ to test their manhood, for in the depressive era of the Thirties it offered a ‘purse’ to supplement meagre income. Likewise, economic hardship drew many aspiring boxers to the occupation of fairground pugilist with itinerant boxing booths and a number of British and indeed, world champions of the period immediately following the Second World War honed their skills in fairground shows before the war. (41) The present writer can recall three visits to Knottingley Feast by the renown Bosco’s Booth’ in the years immediately following the war, and indeed, participating in one bout circa 1951, albeit against local opposition. Interestingly, during the second such visit the booth was situated on a sliver of waste ground near the east-end of the Flatts but at the opposite side of the road.

Shooting galleries became a popular feature at fairgrounds in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The semi-rural aspect of Knottingley township at that time together with the numerous rural settlements in the vicinity meant that firearms were in common use throughout the district in order to control vermin or to shoot rabbits and hares to supplement the diet of frequently large and impoverished working class families. In addition, the existence of regiments of local militia assisted the popularisation of shooting galleries. At the Feast of 1878 two such galleries were set up for their respective proprietors, John Robinson and Caroline Tuby, were charged at Pontefract Magistrates Court in July that year with permitting the discharge of a rifle within 50 yards of the highway. It was stated in their defence that the rifles were fired to clean them as otherwise it would be dangerous for public use and that such a practice was permissible in other towns. The court took a different view however, and the gallery proprietors were fined 2s 6d, plus costs. (42)

Gambling was prohibited in public but there seems to have been a fine distinction as to what constituted gambling. Thus, ‘roll-a-penny’ and, at a later date ‘slot machines’ were regarded as acceptable fairground features while other games of chance were not. In 1879, four men were charged with playing ‘Billy Fairplay’ at Knottingley Feast. The game was one in which money was gambled on the ultimate destination of a marble which was rolled down a board sub-divided into coloured sections. It was averred on behalf of the accused that the game was allowed to be played by gentlemen at Pontefract Races but was a pleasure denied to workingmen attending the fair. Regardless of this assertion (or perhaps because of it??) the four accused were taken into custody, fined £1 each, with costs, and threatened with one months hard labour in default of payment of the fine. (43)

Vickers Alhambra Theatre was an evergreen feature at Knottingley Feast for more than 40 consecutive years. A reference in 1881 to the tenth anniversary appearance of Mr. Vicker’s Royal Alhambra Theatre reveals the date of its first appearance on the Flatts, a fact confirmed by a much later statement that the theatre "has visited the town annually for considerably over 20 years." (44)

However welcome to the generality the travelling theatre had some critics within the town who for reasons of religious belief, whether sincerely or sanctimoniously expressed, regarded such entertainment’s as morally harmful. Indeed, for generation upon generation the public authorities had paid lip service to such a belief, albeit as a cover for the suppression of potential anti-establishment propaganda and theatre shows were only permitted by the issue of a licence by the Lord Chamberlains Office. It was only from the mid nineteenth century when constraints were eased somewhat, that theatre performances became a feature of fairground sites, although a degree of censorship continued to be exercised by the Lord Chamberlains Office until beyond the middle of the following century.

(above) Photographs from Knottingley Feast

Travelling theatres had in fact visited Knottingley Feast before 1870 but as the item previously quoted reveals, were less imposing than that of Mr. Vickers (45) which apart from being of grander appearance and consisting of a ‘choice company’ also presented a programme which "provided healthy recreation and thereby raised the moral tone." (46)

The popularity of the ‘rag and stick’ theatre as it was affectionately known is testified by numerous local newspaper references to its being "one of the old attraction", and "well patronised past and present." (47)

Consequently there were "Spicy melodramas at Mr. Vicker’s theatre which was crowded every night" (48) and again, "No one does it better at Knottingley Feast than Mr. Vicker’s theatre which is crowded every night." (49)

So popular was the Royal Alhambra Theatre that within a few years of its first appearance it had established an extended seasonal stay, continuing to provide performances beyond the traditional duration of the Feast, being "located on the Flatts at Feast time and for some time afterwards." The theatre invariably enjoyed a ‘successful run’ right up to the close of the season which terminated at the end of August. (50)

To show his appreciation of the constant patronage Mr. Vicker’s sought to give something back to the community. On Thursday 12th August 1880 for instance, Vickers provided a tea at the Buck Inn for all women of Knottingley who were over 60 years of age. A report in the local press refers to the event as being "in accordance with a custom established for several years" thereby revealing that such largesse was afforded by the grateful proprietor within a few years of the initial appearance of the show at Knottingley. Following the tea the assemblage repaired to the theatre, standing across the road on the Flatts, and enjoyed an entertainment provided by the theatre company. (51)

Almost a quarter of a century later the event was still being observed for on Wednesday 21st September 1904, an ‘Old Folks Treat’ was held in Knottingley Town Hall. The theatre orchestra played selections throughout the tea which was followed by a short dance before the guests were taken to the theatre to see a performance of ‘Our Baby’. (52) The above event was probably the last held in that particular form for there is no record of such after 1904. However, benefit performances took place after that date. In 1907 the subscription list of Pontefract Dispensary Committee reveals a donation of £3-6-0 by Mrs. Vickers, from which it would appear that the proprietorship of the theatre had passed into the hands of that lady. (53) By that date the practise of holding shows to raise funds for local charity had become more widespread among the fairground community. On the last Tuesday of July, 1907, Mrs. Vickers and another proprietor gave benefit performances for the Dispensary funds and the following evening Farrars’ Cinematograph Show devoted takings from the last performance to the same cause. (54) Benefit performances continued on an annual basis thereafter and it is interesting to note that in 1908 the theatre proprietor was a Mrs. North, which may be an indication that Mrs Vickers had either disposed of the theatre or had perhaps remarried. (55)

In 1896 it was reported that, "As big a muster of shows on the Flatts as ever which seemed to get their share of loose coppers. On Sunday an effort was made to try to drain some of the oddments into a more useful channel – the coffers of the Pontefract Dispensary." (56)

In the light of Vickers’ obvious generosity the comment may seem somewhat harsh but whether by dint of implied criticism or the desire to emulate the example of Mrs Vickers, there is no doubt that the dawn of a new century was characterised by a new era of benevolence on the part of the showfolks.

Barkers circus, in attendance with the Feast in 1902, gave a big-top entertainment with half the proceeds donated to Pontefract Dispensary and the same season Harry Tuby’s roundabouts were run for one hour with the entire proceeds donated to the Dispensary. (57) Thereafter the system was expanded. In 1907 several proprietors donated one hours takings. In 1930 it was reported that "The showmen displayed their customary generosity by giving a portion of their takings to the funds of the Knottingley Infirmary Committee despite heavy rain affecting attendance." (58)

The gesture had been repeated annually throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, with two hours proceeds being given by 1934. (59)

A principal attraction at the Feast in 1883 was a "circus with all its feminine talent" (60) and in 1902 Bakers Circus formed an integral element of the fairground attractions. However, circus and fair, while generally regarded as allied forms of entertainment, normally retained separate identities.

A regular visitor to the town for at least half a century was ‘Wombwells’ Royal Menagerie of birds, beasts and reptiles which is recorded at Knottingley as early as 1863 and at frequent intervals until just before the Great War. (61) In 1881 Fosset’s Grand Circus visited the town on ‘Feast Monday’, albeit in an independent capacity. On that occasion, a parade led by a ‘car’ containing the circus musicians and followed by a retinue of outriders, clowns and animals toured the streets of Knottingley. A well attended children’s matinee in the afternoon was followed by a crowded evening performance, the circus commanding a combined audience of about 2,000 during its brief stay. (62) Again, in the wake of the Feast, Bailey’s renown Circus came to town on Monday 10th August 1896. Occupying Howard’s Field, Gas House Lane, the entourage gave afternoon and evening performances to large and appreciative audiences before striking camp. (63) At other times, usually in the spring season or early autumn, circuses came and went, not always to the delight of some residents. When ‘Sir’ Robert Fosset’s circus revisited the town on a Saturday in August 1906, it drew a large attendance to the great disadvantage of an evening entertainment promoted by the Oddfellows Friendly Society in Knottingley Town Hall. (64) For the most part, however, the circus was a welcome event which guaranteed a large attendance, even when the visitation occurred on a normal working day. The visit of ‘Lord’ George Sanger’s circus on Wednesday 20th May 1896 was advertised by a procession of "immense length and interest" resulting in a well attended afternoon performance followed in the evening by a ‘crowded tent’ for a performance described as "Far in excess of the usual travelling circus." (65) and ending with a representation of the Sudan War. (65)

With such a memorable performance it is a wonder that the visit by Bailey’s circus a few months later wasn’t regarded as an anti-climax but there are no recorded complaints.

Sanger’s returned to Howard’s Field in October 1912. Known as the ‘Hippodrome’ and complete with a menagerie and numerous caravans and trailers, the noon day procession drew large attendances for the varied programme of events within the huge circus tent. Muggy weather and a rain soaked site did nothing to detract from the enjoyment of the programme which included many animal acts. The show took place on Wednesday and the following day the troupe decamped for Hemsworth where the show was scheduled for Friday. (66)

In terms of sheer spectacle the fair could not compete with the exotic aura of the circus but for the thrill engendered by the monstrous high-speed wonders of modern technology the fair was equally as exciting. In an age lacking the soi dissent ‘sophistication’ of contemporary society, one in which simple pleasures gave delight, both forms of entertainment were welcomed and continued to visit the town for many years.

As early as 1910 the showmen had introduced a ‘Spring Fair’ which was of considerable size. The attractions that year included a scenic railway, switchbacks, and cinematograph shows in addition to the usual range of ancillary items. The fair drew crowds to the Flatts each night including, somewhat surprisingly, a Sunday evening film show featuring the funeral of King Edward VII which was ‘greatly appreciated.’ (67) While sources make clear that the ‘Spring Fair’ was of recent origin, being ‘added in recent years’, and had become a regular feature from the late 1940s, such was by no means the case in the early decades. A report of 1932 refers to the appearance of the fairground apparatus as "an unexpected treat" arranged by the ‘amusement caterers’ as a stop over whilst en-route elsewhere. (68)

On the 27th July 1901, Cr. William Bagley whilst attending a meeting of Knottingley Urban District Council proposed that the date of Knottingley Feast be altered from the last week in July to coincide with the August Bank Holiday. (69) The following year a petition bearing 700 signatures in favour of the proposed change was presented to the Council. The petition was prompted by local manufacturers, led by Bagley, who in accordance with tradition closed their works for the duration of the Feast and again the following (Bank Holiday) weekend. Bagley, head of the largest of the town’s glassworks, claimed that closure of the works for the Feast occurred in the run up to the nationally observed holiday when goods were most required. By moving the Feast date Bagley asserted, the break would take place when there was little or no demand for goods and the movement of goods was in abeyance due to the temporary cessation of railway freight. The manufacturers further contended that the benefit arising from the Feast to local inhabitants was confined to two casual days whereas local industry conferred benefits for 363 days of the year. Doubt was also cast upon the financial benefit bestowed by the fair which critics argued took money away from the town.

The tradesmen of the town were against the proposal. As many of them had businesses located in Aire Street they benefited from the extra custom generated by the Feast, trade which would be lost if the Feast were to be incorporated into the Bank Holiday weekend when their premises would be closed.

The Council had no power to decree a change in the date but by declining to let the Flatts in the week before the Bank Holiday could exert a subtle influence in favour of the proposed change. As the local manufacturers were well represented on the council it was feared that any direct action by the Council would be interpreted by the public as pandering to vested interest. Recourse was therefore made to the Home Office to sanction the change of Feast date. The Home Secretary replied that he did not have the power to authorise the change and the matter was therefore left in abeyance pro tem. However, led by Bagley, the manufacturers continued with sporadic agitation and in 1906 the proposal was revived. The following year the Council passed a resolution "That the Flatts be not let for Feast purposes except on and after the Wednesday on the week prior to Bank Holiday and that this decision be advertised in the Yorkshire Post and other papers."

The townsfolk, resenting the ‘back door’ action of the Council in effecting a change in the date of the feast without public consultation were incensed. Led by Mr. J. Drinkwater and Cr. G. Brown, a Town’s Meeting was convened in the Chapel Street School one Thursday evening in mid-June 1907. Of seven members of the council present on the occasion, three, William Bagley, John Jackson and John Harker, were local manufacturers while a fourth, G.W Reynolds, was employed by Bagley. The convener of the meeting, J.W. Bentley, was unanimously elected as chairman of the meeting and opened proceedings by calling upon Cr. Jackson to explain the decision of the Council. Jackson stated that in passing the resolution the councillors thought that they were carrying out the wishes of the townspeople. However, in the course of the meeting Cr. Reynolds revealed that he had several times been stopped in the street by tradesmen who had accused the Council of ‘hole in the corner’ conduct to suit the manufacturers (although he supported the proposed alteration which, in keeping with his employer, thought would suit the workers). John Drinkwater said the Council ought to have sought the opinion of the ratepayers and pressed Jackson into revealing William Bagley as the motivator of the Council’s recent action. Jackson said Bagley’s deserved the greatest consideration, having made the town what it was. Bagley, himself, claimed that the Council had acted constitutionally and stated that his firm paid more than £350 per annum in rates and over £1,000 per week in wages. The firm had lost so much through the clashing of the holidays that henceforth he was determined to close his works for Bank Holiday only.

Reynolds moved confirmation of the Council’s action, being seconded by Bagley, but Mr. H. Coultas countered with a motion of condemnation of the Council and on a show of hands the latter motion was carried by 51 votes to 30 amidst loud applause.

Bagley demanded an immediate poll but it was countered by a proposal that the Council resolution be withheld for the current year and the local public be polled on the issue. The counter proposal being carried by approximately the same margin as the earlier vote, the Chairman declared that in his capacity of Overseer of the Poor he would make arrangements for a public vote on the matter. (70) Following the Town’s Meeting a special meeting of the K.U.D.C was convened on the 23rd July in accordance with notice given by Cr. G. Brown. At the meeting Brown moved that the Council resolution of the 23rd August 1906 be rescinded but the motion failed for want of a seconder. (71)

In accordance with their declared intent the manufacturers declined to shut their works down for the Feast. The move was a prime example of force majeure for few workers could afford to take two days voluntary absence and ran the risk of dismissal if they did (72), as evinced by the case of Albi Pogmore, an employee of Bagley & Co., Ltd. Who, a few years later was claimed against in the local magistrates court for absenting himself from work at feast time. (73)

The uncertainty arising from the controversy was further exacerbated by a revival of the dispute concerning the ownership of the Flatts as a consequence of which Mr. Thomas Worfolk took it upon himself to remove the posts and chains installed by the council in order to provide the itinerant showmen with access to the fairground in defiance of the Council. Having repeated this action the following year the Council sued Worfolk in the High Court and judgement was entered against him with an injunction restraining him from future trespass on the Flatts. (74)

Dr. Terry Spencer

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