More moving memories of the Dewsbury Empire

IN my last column I wrote about two men, Ray Brace and Bill Stephenson, who worked at Dewsbury Empire before it closed in 1955.

Bill was manager and Ray stage manager and they met recently after I was able to put them back in touch.

Bill’s family moved from Wakefield to Crackenedge Lane, Dewsbury, in 1947 when his father, Richard Stephenson, took over as manager of the Empire.

Bill’s parents stayed in Dewsbury until moving to Clacton on Sea where Richard went to manage the Savoy Theatre.

Ray, however, was born in Dewsbury and still has family living here. His cousin, Stella Long, was the last Mayoress of Dewsbury before the town became part of Kirklees, and her husband, Willie Long, was the last Mayor.

Recently, Ray told me of his memories of the theatre and how impressed he had been by the sort of person Richard was when he ran the Empire. He said: “Because of Richard and his wife, all the staff were treated like family members, and both Mr and Mrs Richardson were always willing to listen and help with any problems any member of staff had.

“When the Empire closed he helped me find work at the Palace Theatre in Morecambe, and in 1957 helped me in moving to the Queen’s Theatre in Blackpool.

“Every year I worked for them, the whole staff were taken on a day trip with everything paid for.

“Sometimes Blackpool, and other times to the Lake District. I only found out the other week that both had died in the 1970s.

“After my National Service, I returned to the Empire in 1952 as assistant stage manager, and in March 1953 became stage manager. I was in this position when the theatre closed in May 1955.

“During the time I worked there Richard’s son, Bill Stephenson, started as assistant electrician, and later as chief electrician. Later he was general manager, the position he held when the theatre closed.

“During the time Richard Stephenson ran the theatre he presented seven pantomimes.

“During the pantomime of 1954/5, Reg Bolton, who produced all the pantos, and starred in some of the earlier ones, unfortunately died.

“Reg was a wonderful man, and was known by everyone as uncle Reg.

“I find there’s no comparison between the town I knew and loved in 1955 compared to the town today.

“If the town had stood still I wouldn’t mind, but everything seems to have gone back. When I left there had been a great theatre, five cinemas, The Regal, The Pioneer, The Majestic, The Tudor, and the beautiful Playhouse, now all gone.

“There were wonderful dances and balls at the Town Hall, and the best market in England, and that’s only a start.

“There are, of course, still some wonderful places around Dewsbury, and some wonderful friendly people.”

Ray would like to know if readers know if Mr Spink, former manager of the Playhouse Cinema, is still living in the area.

Anyone who can put me or Ray in touch with Mr Spink please ring 01924 468282 or email tresham3@gmail.com.

THANKS to the internet memories of old Dewsbury are speeding round the world and giving so much pleasure to people who once lived here.

Since publishing my book, Dewsbury in Food and Photos, I have been amazed by the interest shown in all the old photographs it contains.

People living abroad in particular have loved seeing them and say they have put them back in touch with their roots.

There was a lady in Canada who was delighted to see the old photograph of the Forty Shilling Tailors in the town centre. It was outside this shop, she told me, that she had her first kiss from the man she later married and who she is still married to after more than 50 years.

No doubt it’s the photographs more than the recipes which are the main attraction to most who have read the book. This is what I had intended – giving back to the people of Dewsbury the photographs which were rightly theirs, which belong to them.

I feel sure this accounts for the fact that the book has nearly sold out after just a few weeks.

And how heart-warming it has been for me to read all the lovely letters and e-mails I have received since its publication.

One lady, who bought her book at Dewsbury Minster after the church service, said she and her husband had spent all Sunday afternoon looking at the photographs.

“It was one of the nicest afternoons we’ve had, just sitting there and thinking back and sharing our memories of old Dewsbury,” she said.

Another man told me he’d laughed so much when he read the recipe for feather cake there were tears running downs his cheeks.

“It reminded me of my mother and all the feather cakes she used to make for us on Sunday afternoons,” he said.

A retired GP told me how the photographs had brought back memories which had made him laugh. The one showing how women used to hang their washing in the street reminded him of an incident when he was a young doctor.

“One of my patients complained that her neighbour kept throwing mud on her washing and wouldn’t stop doing it,” he said.

“I told her to call the police but she didn’t want to get them involved. I told her if she threw some mud at the other woman’s washing that might stop her. A few days later I got a bit of a shock when a big, burly policeman arrived on my doorstep demanding to know why I telling patients to commit a breach of the peace!”

May I say a big thank you to all those who have bought my book which at present has raised more than £13,000 for the Forget Me Not Children’s Hospice. There are still some books on sale but they are selling fast, at WH Smith, the Reporter office, the Minster Church, Redbrick Mill and Dewsbury Museum and Library.

l Margaret Watson will be signing copies of her recipe and old pictures book at the West Riding Refreshment Rooms, at Dewsbury train station, on Wednesdays March 28 and April 4, from 2.30pm to 4.30pm.

See page 22 for more details.