A recent visit to Dewsbury, the first in many years, was a pretty sorrowful experience. The town centre that I knew in my childhood and early adulthood had changed almost beyond recognition. Above all, I was sad to see how many shops and buildings looked derelict and boarded up. Chatting to an assistant in one of the many charity shops, I heard that there is a movement afoot to improve the town centre. However, reading the updated reports of this in March 2020, the £200-million pound regeneration plan has been cut to a share of £68-million with Huddersfield. I hope that regeneration comes to fruition because it would be such a shame to see such a proud and historic town continue to decline.
However, looking at old postcards and photographs of the area that I have collected, I discovered that maybe some of my own memories were seen through rose-tinted glasses, but the one that wasn’t romanticised is my memory of the Victorian Town Hall, built between 1886 and 1889, which is still the splendid building that I remember.
My paternal great-grandfather, Edward Archer was born in 1875 and he remembered the time when the new Town Hall was built. In 1881 he had been living with his father, Smith Archer, at the British Oak Pub in Earlsheaton, where Smith was the publican, but soon afterwards, Smith had lost his living. He moved his wife and seven children to number 6, Foundry Street, just off Market Place (between the old Queen’s Foundry the new Town Hall site) and Smith was working nearby as a rag extractor. The whole family would be able follow the rise of the new Town Hall with interest. My maternal Great-grandmother, Ellen Wilson Fozzard and her husband Herbert Hemingway also lived in the town centre, off Crackenedge Lane, with their six surviving children. Ellen was a dressmaker and would be sure to bedeck her children in their finest clothes for the opening of the new Town Hall.
Population growth of the town
The town of Dewsbury had grown rapidly in population from just 400 in 1761, to 4,566 in 1801 and 8,272 in 1813, the year that the shoddy process was invented.
By the 1870s the shoddy producing towns of the West Riding were producing 70% of the world’s shoddy textiles and their populations had grown rapidly. The town now lay on the main rail network and boasted four railway stations.
Dewsbury was incorporated as a municipal borough in 1862 and by 1881, its population was 29,842. It is the largest town in the Heavy Woollen District and its population was 62,945 at the 2011 Census.
Before incorporation, meetings of the Town Council took place at a building in Bond Street, but the office became too small as the number of councillors increased. In January 1885, the Council agreed that a new building should be erected and that it should reflect the importance of the town.
The site chosen was adjacent to the Market Place and the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Station.
The main steps and entrance would face the Market. The new Town Hall would have a central large “Victoria Hall” and, below it, a place for merchants to meet which would be called the “Exchange Hall”. There would be a police station and a court, replacing the court which had previously met at the Royal Hotel and, of course, the Municipal Offices.
The earliest photograph that I have found of the Market Place, shows the site for the Town Hall before it was begun, showing the old and shabby looking buildings that were on the land there, reflecting an earlier industrialised period.
The site chosen for the Town Hall (“New Municipal offices, Courthouse and Police Station”) still housed various businesses, including a Shoeing Forge, Blacksmith and Wheelwright shop, the Albion Hotel (Edward Hemingway) and the Cross Keys, a butchers and a seedsman (Mr W Ballance). The Council bought up all the properties and Mr. Ballance quickly agreed to move to a better site at 27 Market Place. The forge moved into Manor Street, just opposite, behind the bank. The site was then completely cleared.
The architects appointed were Holtom and Fox and the first stone of the new building was laid in 1886, the building being completed in 1889. The building contractors were Messrs. Chadwick & Sons of Staincliffe, at a cost of £25,000 and the total expenditure was £40,000. Many local businessmen and gentry gave donations to help with the building costs.
The Town Hall was officially opened at 11:30 am on Tuesday 17th September 1889. The opening day was declared a local holiday. Brass bands played and thousands of people would have crowded together in the streets around, including members of my family. A “Grand Procession” assembled at Savile Town and marched through the town centre and on to Crow Nest Park. 1500 guests were accommodated in the Town Hall’s fabulous “Victoria Hall”, including many dignitaries from nearby towns, benefactors, the Magistracy, former Mayors of the Borough and councillors.
The Town Hall soon became the focal point of the town. On the Wakefield Road side of the building (north of the Town Hall) stood the old Manor House, built in the 1600s and home to the Lords of the Manor of Dewsbury. This was later acquired for the first Empire Palace Theatre, which was demolished in 1906 to make way for the new Empire Palace Theatre. The theatre was to have pride of place opposite the Town Hall’s Wakefield Road entrance. The theatre opened in 1909 but sadly closed in 1955, tragically to be replaced by an ugly concrete block of offices called “Empire House”, which is still there today.
A Building of Significance
The Town Hall, whose clock tower can be seen from all across the town, became a significant building in the lives of many of Dewsbury’s population, including my own family. We would set our watches by its clock, and its chimes would dictate our daily timetable.
In the First World War, the Town Hall was a place for recruitment of the men of the town to the forces, and for patriotic assemblies.
There have been several Royal Visits to the Town Hall. Notably, King George V and Queen Mary visited there in 1912 and 8000 children, all dressed in their best clothes, were accommodated on grandstands erected on three sides of the Town Hall. Local employers gave their workers a half day off with pay. Thousands lined the streets and some climbed up onto rooftops to see the royal party. Queen Mary was said to have commented on “how bonny” the children were.
The King and Queen were received there again in 1918, when they came to show their appreciation for the town’s war effort in making shoddy cloth for uniforms.
Throughout its history, vehicles losing their brakes on the way down Leeds Rd or Wakefield Rd, crash into the Town Hall! A grassy mound was later built behind it in an attempt to stop vehicles before they ran into the building.
Personal memories of the Town Hall
In the Second World War, in December 1941, five people died when bombs fell on Dewsbury, narrowly missing the Town Hall and falling on terraced houses in Wakefield Road, opposite and just below my grandparents’ house. My father and grandfather, who lived in Wakefield Rd had just arrived home and a couple of minutes earlier, they would have probably been casualties. Their house shook and plaster fell off the walls in places. It was thought that the bombs were being aimed at the railway and goods yards nearby. A few months after this, my father was called up for army service.
During WW2, my mother went to dances in the Town Hall on a Saturday evening. She would walk home to Dewsbury Moor in the blackout, feeling her way along the cemetery wall in the blackness of the night. In the late 1940s, after being de-mobbed, my father went to dances there too, and that is where he and my mum met, danced, and fell in love. They continued to go to dances at the Town Hall…and they taught me to dance too, so that sometimes I could go with them and dance a slow foxtrot with my dad.
When I was at junior school, I was often minded at weekends and holidays by my paternal grandmother, who still lived a hundred yards or so up Wakefield Rd. My Great-grandfather, Edward, lived there too. As an only child, I had no playmates there, so I cajoled my gran into playing cards with me, or read books or played ball in the sloping yard. When my ball escaped under the gate, which it did frequently, the trick was to run down the steep hill of Wakefield Road and catch it before it reached the Town Hall. It’s a wonder I didn’t get run over crossing the main Leeds Road, but perhaps I was a sensible child. Sometimes I caught the ball by the Globe Inn on its way down. Only once do I remember the ball actually getting stopped by the grass mound of the Town Hall itself. Mostly, somebody walking up the hill would see the ball bouncing towards them, see me running after it and stop the ball in good time.
On a I also took part in massed schools choirs concerts in the Victoria Hall when I was at the Grammar School. Happy days!
The Town Hall lies at the meeting place of two steep hills, Wakefield Road and Leeds Road. That made it susceptible to runaway vehicles embedding themselves into the building. In the 1950s a grass mound was constructed behind the building to protect it from runaways. It was partially successful. However, in 1967, the driver of a tanker full of liquid gas lost control coming down Leeds Road and it crashed into the Town Hall’s Wakefield Rd entrance. The vehicle became embedded in the building, but fortunately it did not catch fire or explode.
Later on, when I was married at St Peter’s Church in Earlsheaton, we had our Wedding Breakfast in the Mayor’s Parlour at the Town Hall.
In recent years, I have occasionally returned to the Town Hall, to give talks to Dewsbury & District Photographic Society, who meet in the Mayor’s Parlour. That hasn’t changed much in the last 5 decades.
The Police Station and Courts are an integral part of the Town Hall building and have dealt with many offences from minor to murder. In 1981, the Police Station gained notoriety as the place that Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was taken after his arrest. He had been committing murder over a 16 year period but was apprehended in relation to a vehicle number plate offence, in Mirfield. Further searching of the scene of the arrest turned up a knife, hammer and rope, which led to the suspicion that he was the Ripper. The young woman who was with him that night had a very lucky escape. Sutcliffe appeared in Dewsbury Magistrate’s Court on 5th January, three days later. In due course, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of thirteen women and attempted murder of seven more.
But let’s dwell on the happy times. The Town Hall remains the focal point of Dewsbury. It continues to host weddings and conferences. It’s spectacularly ornate rooms have been used in television and films and its 700 seat hall is used for award ceremonies, elections, concerts and many other celebrations. It certainly holds many happy memories for me and it hasn’t changed much at all in the last 50 years (except the stonework is actually cleaner!). I must pay it a visit.