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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories





Sunday was a ritual in our family; a day of rest. That meant no play and no work, except for the cooking of Sunday lunch. What was worse, there was no money to spend, apart from the 'thrupenny' bit destined for the collection plate. A right old puritan's day out I always thought.

Coming from a Methodist family on both sides it also meant chapel and Sunday school. Now there was a surprise, because almost to the week that I started at Chapel Street School, I was enrolled at the Ropewalk Methodist Sunday School. I must have thought, “That's great, no Sundays off for me.” This time it was my Dad's turn to deliver me safely to the door of the Wesley Hall at 10.15. He was not the owner of a car due to his poor eyesight, so I rode on the cross bar of his new Raleigh 'sit up and beg' cycle. To this he had fitted a child's saddle with a bar on the front downtube for my feet. I rode many a good mile on that bike, until eventually I became too big to get my knees under the handle bars and my rear end proportions made it almost impossible for Dad to peddle around me. There were no crash hats in those days' folks! - mind you, there was no traffic either to knock you from your cycle.

Sunday school was nothing like week day school, and as a gentle explanation of what it was like, I was told "First you go into Sunday school for half-an-hour and then you go across into Chapel for another half-an-hour and sing a few hymns." I vividly remember thinking about this; would I be sat all on my own in this vast space?

I visualized me sitting in this large empty room all alone. I had never been inside the chapel before; even the look of it filled me with fear and that was only the view from the outside. That's not quite true, I was christened inside it, but that was years before, and I couldn't be expected to remember that brief episode.

Anyway, to my utter surprise it was not so; the place was packed with youngsters just like me, all of them singing their little heads off. If Chapel Street School was scary, this was certainly the toughening up bit, especially when the organ struck up with Onward Christian Soldiers.

There was no escaping that hymn. What a formal procedure it all was; my small mind did not understand a bit of it, and to be truthful, I never did.

I enjoyed the story for children that each preacher would tell. Some were good, some were even funny, although some of the story tellers had no idea at all. A few would even forget that they had children in the congregation, but were reminded by a notice in the pulpit that said in large letters DON'T FORGET THE CHILDREN. I must say that it was the lay preachers who told the best stories. Thinking about it, this was probably because they had day jobs that took them off into the real world.

A pal of mine from around that time was Michael. He became a Methodist lay preacher for a short spell in later years. He always had a great fun-loving temperament and that rare ability to see something good in everything and everybody. I recall him saying to me years later, when he started to train for lay preaching, that he had a shed full of sermons he had written, each of them having a number.

"They will last me for years”, he said, “the only thing is I need to make a note in my diary which number I have given at which chapel so that I don't go repeating them again at the same place."

He then made us laugh in the way that he always did by saying. "Number so and so's a good one. It is a bit raunchy though, certainly gets the old girls in the congregation going, I think I will give it this Sunday just for a laugh to watch their faces."
In later years he went off to drama school and forgot all about his past life of religious devotion and forged a new one amongst the stage elite as the manager in an Edinburgh Theatre, only to die unexpectedly a few years ago in Dublin.

At 11.15 every Sunday morning I would be met outside chapel, rain or shine, by my dad sitting astride his bike. We would then either visit my grandmother at Pear Tree Cottage or go round to see Aunt Annie and Uncle Fred who lived in Gillan Street. It was only on one occasion that we visited Aunt Mary Lizzie in the Croft. I introduce them now, but being old Knottingley characters they will each make their own grand entrance later.

Hey Ho, Sunday school! It was part of the lives of many of us in those days. Ropewalk Methodist Chapel was one of those places, that from the age of four, I was taken every Sunday morning and afternoon. It became a way of life and one that I did not question until many years later. I suppose we were made to go and hopefully, in the eyes of our parents and those of our teachers, some spiritual guidance would enter our lives, because by golly as we got older we certainly needed some. Several of those who attended were also day school friends, so once again nothing really had changed. It was, looking back on those years, something that I would not have missed or changed, but change would come, and of that we knew with certainty. It was certainly a thriving community with a variety of evening social activities, even judo at one point, drama, shows, and even films. Jungle Jim and Laurel and Hardy were my favourites. I even remember a spooky version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with the ghost of old Marley looking like my Dad with a white cotton sheet over his head. It frightened the hell out of me. I remember going to sleep that night with my head under the sheets hoping that Jacob Marley would not come to take me on a trip around London and show me my past life. Not that I had one. It might not be a bad idea now though!

By the time the 1960's came, the youth culture had taken a firm hold, much to the alarm of our parents and chapel elders. It had all started around 1957 when the BBC televised the ‘Six Five Special’, followed in 1958 by ‘Oh Boy!’ It was fundamentally a revolution in music. "It won't last," they said, and the rest, of course, is history. Our parents must have felt like saying something, but did not say too much when we rocked to Dutch Middleton and his Raven Four Rhythm Group at the chapel concerts.

This must have been the first time that I had ever heard or seen an electric guitar played live. To me it was a revelation, and we all thought that Dutch played very well. Not quite in the class of Joe Brown or Hank Marvin, but not bad for a Knottla' lad. The group certainly practiced hard in the upstairs room down at the Wagon and Horses in Aire Street.

Now that was a bit of a moral dilemma for my confused young mind, it went against all that we were being taught. How was it that Dutch and the boys could play for us in the Wesley Hall at the Saturday night concerts, yet practice in the upstairs room of a place where they sold alcohol during the week? I know that it caused Ian, Roy and me, one or two problems when it came to decision time. And this is the reason why...

In the mid 1950's there was this fun loving travelling evangelist who visited us each summer for several years. He was the Reverend Ronald Sylverwood and a big college mate of our church minister, Walter Newby. Reverend Sylverwood was certainly here to save our young souls, though why, I do not know, because we were in our first decade of youth at this time and more innocent than Paddy's donkey. Nevertheless he tried. Bless him!

I recall that on a sunny Sunday afternoon, quite out of the blue, he produced a sheaf of cards from his inside pocket, just as if he were doing a conjuring trick. While the pianist pounded away on the grand piano he invited each and every one of us to sign The Pledge. Sign The Pledge!

As each of the Sunday school pupils quietly trooped down to the front to put their signatures to this graphic piece of paper, I stuck my hand up and asked him what this so called Pledge was, and what it meant. There was a short silence and the permanent smile on the reverend’s cherubic face disappeared. The Wesley Hall went into silent mode.

After a long pause he flung his arms in the air. "I am asking you all to renounce alcohol." He almost sang the words, reaching heavenwards with a flourishing arm gesture. Talk about Hallelujah Brother. "And what will happen to it once we have signed?", another bold dissenter challenged. This time no answer came except, "Well..." , we waited agog, we thought he had been struck dumb, he was stumped for words. "Mr. Newby will 'erm…keep them for future reference”, he spluttered.

Give up alcohol..? no problem there; the only time I ever drank anything stronger than tea was the one glass of sherry I was allowed on Christmas Day. Even my Dad had that and there was never a stauncher Methodist than him. Oh..!, and my grandmother always made nettle beer each summer and I just loved that.

The three of us stuck our heads together. "My Dad likes a drink and when I'm old enough I want to have one with him”, Ian whispered, "I'm not signing any pledge."

We each for our own reasons agreed and refused to sign on the dotted line. Well, this caused a bit of a fuss I can tell you. Our argument was, why at such a young impressionable age were we being asked to sign a piece of paper that tied us for the rest of our lives. How did we know how our futures would develop? This was all a bit profound really, even a bit risqué for the mid-fifties, especially for a sunny Sunday afternoon in a Methodist Chapel. But the strange thing was, the loveable old Reverend Sylverwood did not visit us the following summer, or any other summer after that. Do you think it was something that we had said? Maybe it was the start of the 60's revolution that was to touch each and every one of us in so many different ways?

It was always a roast lunch on Sunday in those days, not like today when it still may be a succulent joint of lamb or pork. Equally it could be a Chinese or Indian; such is the way things have altered with the passing of our parent's generation. By the late 50's - early 60's, I would always listen to Family Favourites on the radio, hoping that something very up-to-date would be played. By this time Sunday morning was taken up with ever-increasing amounts of homework. I suppose, looking back, it was time well spent, but the diversions, even in those days were always there, pulling, tempting and on occasion having some success over my wondering mind.

Ropewalk in those days was celebrated for its choir. Reputedly, the chapel held one thousand people and was a celebrated monument to Victorian building and hope for the future. I am told that it was only ever full to capacity on two occasions: on Sunday 22 April 1945 and Sunday 23rd November 1947, when Kathleen Ferrier, the guest contralto singer, sang in Handel’s Messiah. Choral singing was the choir's forte, the heyday being those years preceeding and immediately following the Second World War.
Both my father and mother were deeply immersed in choral singing, both of them being members of the church choir and the Brotherton Choral Society. My father was also in the Knottingley Male Voice Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society. I am told he had the perfect tenor voice and was frequently called upon to sing solo, and I can tell you it was frequent. I do not think that a month went by when I was not dragged along to some male voice concert somewhere. Very often it was in a cold, draughty, country chapel, with no heating, and hard polished benches, but always with a sumptuous supper to follow.

This Gargantuan feast, called supper, usually consisted of beef and salmon paste sandwiches in white bread, ham and tongue in brown bread, jars of pickled onions, eggs and sausage rolls, with hot vol-au-vents to follow, straight out of the oven. There were the usual cakes, homemade of course, fairy cakes, butterfly cakes, and layer cakes, jam and lemon curd tarts, mince pies, apple pies, rhubarb tart and as a final flourish from the deprivations of war, the dreaded caraway seed cake. I say a throw back to the war because I am told that when fruit was scarce, caraway was the only substitute, and I hated it. If we were very lucky, and we usually were, there was either trifle or blancmange, sometimes both, lovingly prepared by the village wives. They really knew how to put a supper on in those country places. Smeaton and Kellington were the best with Brotherton being runner up. In those days tea was served from the largest tea urns I have ever seen and strangely enough the tea tasted better - you could even smell it as you walked into the room. It must have been something to do with the urn that gave it that special flavour. The innards must have been pickled for so many years with tannin from the many suppers they had served. All of this was prepared by buxom farmer's wives wearing starched aprons and flowered pinafores. Gosh, didn't they look after us? You don't get suppers like those these days. Forget the singing, give me a good old chapel supper any day.

Anyway, back to the singing. My father tried desperately to get me to sing along with him and become interested in the music that he liked, but as a result, to this day I so much dislike male voice choirs and in particular choral music. I must have reached saturation point during those early years because that particular music is the only type to which I do not listen. Harry Secombe was great in the Goon Show on Sunday lunchtimes, but when he turned to singing ….that did it for me. I just had to switch off.

Now, in the late fifties, Knottingley was a much different town to the one we know now. To begin with, if you wanted anything - and I mean anything - you went down Aire Street, known to all affectionately as The Street. If you wanted food and provisions, the Knottingley Co-operative on Hill Top was the best place, and that was not just because my Dad worked there.

I cannot imagine now, that Aire Street in the late 1950's had changed much from the 1850's. The older generation, that is those older than my generation, may not agree with such a bold statement but, to make the comparison of how different it looks today, in the early 1960's it had not changed all. One has only to see old postcards and pictures of Aire Street, to see what I mean. It was a vibrant, hard working and friendly community, the heart and soul of the town. As budding young teenagers out on the prowl, this particular part of the town was important. It is where we bought our comics down at Alf Spires shop every Thursday night. There was the little sweet shop next door, where for 1d we got our weekly fix on liquorice root. "Good for the bowels", so my old granny would say.

Gee's usually had all the latest gear, or so we thought. It was a bit shoddy, but for the small amount of money that we had, it looked good. Looking back, it looked pretty awful really. We never went in the bank next door because we had nothing to put in and it always seemed a bit somber and lack lustre, but nothing that a good bank raid wouldn't have livened up.

Mr. Benton's Post Office was okay, if one could get past the sentry on the door. It was run rather on the military style of business. Strict, no nonsense, run by the book with the company sergeant major behind the counter. Rank and serial number before pensions could be drawn. Stamps three, envelopes two, salute and click your heels on the way out. Oh!, and don't forget to choose a book from the library shelf at the door. Any topic that you liked, providing it was a Western. As youngsters, he scared us to death.

Sergeant Major Benton was just one of the many characters on Aire Street along with Chippy Watt across the road, not forgetting his long suffering wife. Tom Taylor, the butcher was always on guard at the door in case the council tried to knock his shop down. A little further down was the Habro where, as a very small boy, I took a penny that I had found on the pavement. It was burning this great hole in my pocket, so in I went and asked…"Have you got anything for a penny, please?" It must have been the tiny voice saying please that did it. "Well, yes," came the reply. "We do have penny pencils." “What a good buy”, I must have thought as I raced off home, Eagle comic in one hand and a penny pencil in the other.

Then there was the other Mr. Taylor, the demon barber of Aire Street. "Short back and sides son, that's all I do, short back and sides." He always held his hand out for the money before he put the razor to your head just in case you escaped without paying. When I was very small, as with all little boys we were made to sit on a wooden box, on the barber’s chair. He always demanded that you…"Sit still boy and don't wriggle, how can I cut hair with you writhing about so much?" Hardly surprising, that old wooden box was so hard and full of splinters that it was impossible for a small boy's bottom to sit for any longer than two minutes. This incidentally was just about as long as it took him to whiz round your head with the shears. Were they all there now with their shops, the street would be far a more interesting place. Do I hear murmurs of agreement?

Unfortunately, our valiant, far-seeing Knottingley Urban District Council (KUDC) of the day, for reasons known only to themselves, took a dislike to old Aire Street, perhaps even to Knottingley as a whole. Either that or they lost interest in the place or got a job lot of bulldozers that they needed to use, and very effective they were too.

It is my view that had Aire Street been retained, the shops saved and renovated, it would almost have been another Beamish Museum. Visitors would have come from miles around to see its old world charm and unique character. The shops might now have been lavish craft type establishments and pubs with real ale. It is a far cry now from that bustling urban artery that helped to supply all of our daily needs, whatever they were. Here is a toast to those visionaries of the 1960's. God bless them wherever they are. You failed those who trusted you with their vote.

I don't think that in those closing years of the first half of the 20th century we could consider ourselves to be tearaways. We were young teenagers who, by the time it came to 1960, were just 15 years old. We canoed on the River Aire, went bird nesting over the marsh, and fishing up to the Brotherton Lido, and even that is in a sorry state now. Just above the mill weir was moored an old punt type vessel, which we paddled across the river by using the curved wooden staves from a butter barrel. It was very dangerous; there was always that chance that if we did not paddle hard enough we would shoot the rapids over the mill weir. Certainly something our parents would not have approved of ….had they known.

We wandered the quarries, climbed the crumbling limestone faces, and trudged the country lanes as far as the Valley Woods. We certainly knew the district in those days. How different would all this have been had we been part of the present computer generation? Sitting now at my computer, I do wonder.

Roger Ellis

[Memories Index]


Also by Roger Ellis:

Legend of the Iron Man
Sunday School Days
School Days is Happy Daze

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