Briestfield tales from Down Under

LAST week I wrote about the history of Briestfield and gave a few glimpses into its interesting past.

Friday, 31st December 2010, 8:00 am

This week I can add a few more, thanks to the recollections of a man now living in Australia.

He is Dr Ralph Foster, whose aunt and uncle, William and Ruth Walker, lived in Oak Cottage, Briestfield. William was Ralph’s mother’s brother and the two families kept in regular touch with each other.

Dr Foster has written to the newly formed Briestfield History Group with an account of his time spent in the village.

At the time he lived in Horsforth but spent most of his school holidays with his aunt and uncle in Briestfield.

He still has warm memories of the village and is delighted villagers are putting on record their history and the lives of those who lived there.

He wrote: “I do admire your efforts in keeping the history of Briestfield alive.

“History books are generally full of what royalty, nobles and gentry did, but what about the ordinary people who made up the bulk of the population?

“Children need to know their roots if the life of the village is to be preserved and the buildings cared for. From the 1930s onward my family visited Uncle William and Aunt Ruth in Briestfield several times a year.

“William Walker was one of 13 children, of which my mother, born in 1896, was number 12. Only seven of them, four boys and three girls survived infancy. Edith and Sophia, who were brought up at Oak Cottage, are now both dead.

“William and Ruth were married at Briestfield Methodist Chapel. My mother vividly remembered the driver of the horse drawn vehicle taking the wedding party home, and my mother and grandma to Dewsbury Railway Station, being too drunk to drive safely.

“Uncle William had to leave his new bride’s side and take over the reins on top of the box.

“Each year in the 1940s and 50s, my twin brother and I used to spend several weeks of our school holidays with Uncle William and Aunt Ruth at Oak Cottage.

“My father could not drive, so we took a tram from Horsforth to Leeds, the train from Leeds to Dewsbury and then a bus from Dewsbury to Whitley Lower.

“At that time the bus only ran on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and then only once or twice a day, so timing was of the essence.

“We then had, what seemed to my small legs, a very long walk indeed up Briestfield Road to Oak Cottage.

“We had strict instructions to remember to hand over our Ration Cards to Auntie Ruth, and to be sure to bring them back.

“I still have the Foster family’s ration cards from the 1950s, here with me in South Australia, all neatly protected in the cut-off top of an old Wellington boot.

“As a teenager I used to cycle over to Oak Cottage past endless fields of rhubarb, and the last time I was at Oak Cottage was in 1967 by which time their married daughter Sophia and her husband Alec were in residence.”

“WHEN I was at Oak Cottage as a boy there was no electricity, the lower rooms had gas mantle lights and we went up to bed with candles.

“Going upstairs to sleep in a bed was a novel experience for us boys because at home we slept every night in an air-raid shelter which my father had built at the bottom of the back garden.

“My parents got so fed up of getting us out of bed and dressing us in our siren suits whenever the sirens sounded, and taking us down to the shelter, that my father installed bunk beds and electric lights and heater in the shelter.

“The things I most remember of Oak Cottage were the huge thick walls and the supposed well in the cellar. I say supposed because we were never allowed in the cellar for fear of falls.

“There was no TV in those days and in the evening Uncle William told us hair-raising stories of the Scots’ raiding parties coming to steal the sheep and cattle, and the house having to withstand a siege. Fact or fiction? It does not matter - it enthralled us boys.

“Uncle William kept hens and pigs, and with the hens being free range, it was our duty to go out into the fields and hedges and look for eggs each morning.

“Uncle William also rented out some fields to a nearby farmer who ran cows on them, and the pigs were in the mistle attached to the house.

“Uncle William worked at a coal mine, I am not sure where, and one day he took us to work with him. I chiefly remember the huge drum on which the cable was wound that let the cage down into the pit.

“I remember Auntie Ruth as a stout lady with a white apron and rosy cheeks and a good cook.

“She used to bath us in a tin bath in the large kitchen. There was a huge coal fired set pot in the kitchen for boiling water for baths and doing the laundry.

“There was a huge mangle with wooden rollers and dangerous metal cogs. In the sitting room there was the old fashioned Yorkist range with a hob for a kettle.

“Occasionally we used to go shopping with Aunt Ruth which involved walking uphill to the Co-op, but when we were older we would go by ourselves with a list.

“The downside of Oak Cottage was that there was no water closet, just an earth closet down the garden. A night soil man used to empty it.

“A stream ran through the garden of Oak Cottage in a stone-lined channel. I think the water was pumped from the coal mine. There was a path of stone slabs on one side of Briestfield Road. I am sure Uncle said it was an old pack horse route. I wonder if it is still there? And was it a pack horse track?

“It would be interesting to know where it went from and where it went to and what commerce was transported on it.

“Great excitement ensued after the war when Uncle William was sure to become a millionaire because the National Coal Board was set to dig up his property for open cast coal. It never happened!

“Ruth and William Walker had two daughters, Edith (Sally) and Sophia, but both were grown up and left Oak Cottage long before we boys visited it.

“Sally was a nurse and during World War II, met and married an Australian soldier whilst serving overseas and went to live in Australia.

“Imagine my surprise when I first visited South Australia in 1964 to find a first cousin from Oak Cottage who I had never met!

“Over the next 30 years we had many interesting conversations about Briestfield and Grange Moor.”

l Members of Briestfield History Group would love to hear more from people like Ralph who lived in the village or had connections with it. Also any old photographs they may have.

Please ring John Lyte on 1924 848893 or e-mail him at [email protected]