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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Local History




Grandma Burden with twins Nellie and Eva circa. 1928

Knottingley Common may be threatened more closely in each succeeding year by the encroachment of industry and the growth of the town, but it is still a strange place, a quiet place, peopled with memories and pregnant with silences. It ceased to be a common in all but name many years ago; but the atmosphere clings. Seen from its old lanes, the thronging chimneys of the industrial background are attenuated, as by a great gulf of time; and their long, dun pillars of smoke appear remote, like the vapourings of some demon smith, whose phantom forge belongs to another age.

For the spirit of Knottingley’s rural past lingers on in that skein of lanes, brooding in the summer tangle of the convolvulus, exhaling the balm of meadowsweet and the tang of gypsy fires long cold. And the core and centre of the spirit in the site of an old house, which stood completely alone, separated from the town by long stretches of rutted by-ways, the castle of the Common.

Its life story is an echo of the company it kept with wind and sun and wide country, and an illuminating commentary on a way of life that has gone. Now that life story has drawn to its close.

Not very long ago, like an old man whose threescore years and ten are long outlived, and whose bewildered spirit can no longer sustain the shocks of modernity, the house died, because it has died its obituary notice can be written.

It was built when the French Revolution was thundering on the doors of Europe; when, before that industrial noose had tightened around the people of these islands, Englishmen of simple tastes and strong character could live in almost baronial independence on a few acres of land. John Blackburn, ship carpenter, of Knottingley, was of that breed. Like others of his calling he may have seen the Indies rising from a purple sea, or the hungry breakers battering at The Horn; but when he decided to establish himself, he went out on to the Knottingley Common and built that house, brick by brick, baulk by baulk, with his own hands. Every brick, every stick, had to be transported out into the solitude’s of the Common; and the task John Blackburn set himself must have meant a complete break with the ways of his previous existence. But it was accomplished, and legend handed on to descendants still living in Knottingley, has it that his wife Mary was his only helper.


It was a stout house, a complete house, and stood foursquare to winds that have scoured the Common since the beginning of time. In the words of a man in 1794 the property comprised " a house, workshop, stable, dovecote and brewhouse" the complete apparatus of independence! Perhaps John Blackburn foresaw and feared the growth of the new economic theories, which were to tie millions to the factory wheels. Or maybe he loved this way of life in the house he had built and saw the fundamental truth of it. In either event, he is said to have arranged things so that any member of his family who chose to keep the hearthstone warm should do so rent free, and that none of the others should be entitled to turn him out. And the deeds show how he built up a small holding by careful purchases of adjacent land – from a Mr. Grosvenor Perfect, gentleman of Pontefract, and from a Miss M Mitton of Chapeltown, and there grew up a garden and an orchard. Some documents refer to land in the vicinity "allotted and awarded under the late Knottingley Enclosure Act of Parliament" in lieu of the right of common of pasture and mention some well known Knottingley family names as the tenants of the property that carried rights of pasture – Wm Bryan, John Roebottom, Wm Brown, John Wray, Christopher Shillito, and Ann Thompson.

The earliest occupants of the house seem to have been a source of great interest to the clustered townsfolk living two miles from its solitude’s. There was talk of Mrs Blackburn and her mob cap; and of an Amazonian daughter who with golden hair streaming behind her in the wind, rode a great grey horse daily to Pontefract. But the property was destined to pass from the family. Ship carpenter Blackburn’s effort to found a rural dynasty failed, though the failure was not apparent in his diligent lifetime, nor in that of his wife. She remained in the house after his death, but when she died, control of the property passed to "Mr Robert Long, gentleman of Knottingley." as a sole surviving trustee. From him it went to Mr Edward Long, and by 1862 it had been conveyed to a gardener, James Affleck. He apparently, was a relative of John Blackburn, for in his title to the property, the stipulation is made that, in the event of his death, his widow should not be entitled to any dower from it. However, James Affleck, gardener, sold the property in 1875 to Mr George William Carter, in whose family it remained until 1920.

It was then bought by the late Mr George Burden of Knottingley. Mr Burden was a natural choice of a tenant for the old house and he rejoiced in his occupation. He has left behind him the emphatic declaration that it was a happy house. Although by trade a glassblower, there was in him that strain of independence that imbued the long-dead carpenter. He lived on the Common before he bought the property and afterwards, nothing could coax him to leave its peace and tranquillity he gardened diligently, as only one who loved the work can, and the land burgeoned with his handiwork. People went out to buy his plants and Sunday afternoon walkers paused to admire his sturdy rows of vegetables and blooms.


Mr Burden’s family grew up at the house, and it was busy and happy again. Its people made the long journeys to the town and did not count the miles. Perhaps Mr Burden knew some of its more intimate history, for he was known to describe it, occasionally, as ‘Honeysuckle Hall’ - a name not unlike the one said to have been bestowed by the enigmatic builder. And he would tell a touching story of how, one hot summers day, an old man, who said he hailed from a distant part of the country, came tramping across the dusty Common to see again before he died the house that had been the scene of his youth. He inquired after a certain pear tree, and other familiar things, and then left much affected. It was so, at odd times, and in strange ways, that the house disclosed some of its happier memories. During the last war, however, after his family had grown up and left, Mr Burden fell ill and had to leave his home. That was a possibility he would never contemplate, and perhaps the wrench was too great, for in 1946 he died.

Then the strange thing happened. Within an amazingly short space of time this stout building, which had withstood alone the gales and snows of nearly 150 years, began to disintegrate. In months the garden became a wilderness. It is said that night marauders tore out timbers from the house as they fancied them. The fabric deteriorated with incredible rapidity. Soon the roof was down. For a year or two more, skeleton walls gloomed miserably under the winter moons, or sighed in the autumn gales, but the life of the house had fled. Perhaps the creeping outposts of the new housing estates over the hill warned it that its time had come. Perhaps its blithe spirit could not survive the loss of yet another who had tended it long and lovingly.

Since then, the land has been sold again, and recently the site was cleared of the mouldering remains, leaving only a jumble of bricks, half hidden now by weeds. The west winds range uninterruptedly over it, and scarcely a vestige of the building or orchard remains. But the name ‘Blackburn’ lives in the lane that passes the site, and winds on over the railway crossing towards Knottingley. It is said that when John Blackburn laid aside his trowel, and looked upon the house he had fashioned he declared:

"And if it stands and does not fall
It shall be called Ducalfield Hall"

It has fallen, and it was never generally known as Ducalfield Hall so far as anyone can remember. It was called merely, ‘T’ Common House’


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