Seeking out history

FEW things delight me more than hearing of a small group of people delving into the history of the area where they live and putting it all on record.

Friday, 24th December 2010, 9:00 am

They did it some years ago in Chickenley and Thornhill, and more recently in Earlsheaton, Ravensthorpe and Thornhill Lees - now they are doing it in Briestfield.

Villagers have formed their own history group, led by John Lyte, whose present home in Chapel Row was converted from four old cottages.

The architect assisting him in the renovation, Stuart Hartley, had connections with the village and was able to tell John some of its history.

Captivated by what he heard and discovering something of the people who had once lived in the cottages in which he now lives, John wanted to know more.

Soon he was busy carrying out his own research, and with the help of Stuart, whose mother once lived in the village, and the support of enthusiastic neighbours, including Laurence and Margaret Campbell, he has formed the Briestfield History Group.

The group meets monthly and between them have managed to collect a lot of information and photographs they hope to put into book form, and sometime next year they hope to have a website up and running.

But they still need much more, and are hoping other people with photographs and knowledge of Briestfield will contact John and share them.

John admits he has fallen in love with Briestfield and is captivated by its rich history and some of the characters who once lived there.

He has also discovered that four of the men killed in the Combs Colliery Disaster of 1893 all lived in Chapel Row where he now lives.

John says while the village may have lost its chapel, pub, the community centre and shop, it still remains a thriving community interested in preserving its heritage.

“There is little we can do about what the village has lost, but we can at least try to preserve its history,” said John.

“We are confident there are a lot of people who once lived in Briestfield or who have connections with it, who will be able to give us more information about it.”

EARLIEST records of Briestfield date back to 1150 when the lands were known as Brerethuisel, later to be called Briestwhistle, then Briestwell, and finally in the 18th century, Briestfield.

The village is steeped in history and traces of a primitive civilisation which lived there in the Stone and Bronze Ages have been found.

A cannonball was also unearthed from a garden some years ago, no doubt having lain there since the Cromwellian Wars when Lady Anne Saville, a Royalist, was defending nearby Thornhill Hall against the Roundheads.

Superstition and tradition were once all part of Briestfield’s charm, and many of the old cottages have interesting stories to tell.

A great friend of mine, Phyllis Brooke and her husband Sam, lived in a lovely old cottage, which had a ‘marriage stone’ over the fireplace on which was carved, ‘Thomas and Mary Green 1729’.

The marriage of this Briestfield couple and their subsequent family is recorded in Thornhill Parish Church.

While doing alterations to the cottage, Phyllis also found a tiny silver thimble buried in the wall.

She was later to discover from an old book on superstitions that it was a custom to bury such a thimble in the structure of a house to scare away witches.

Although there have been no sightings of witches in the village, I have it on good authority that there are a few haunted cottages whose residents receive occasional visits from former residents of long ago.

YOU could never describe Briestfield as a village ahead of its time.

On the contrary it was last on the local authority’s list when it came to handing out amenities.

Indeed it remained without street lighting long after Dewsbury had been lit up, and it wasn’t until the 1950s when they finally got it.

Until then, events being organised at the local chapel were always timed to coincide with the full moon so the inhabitants could find their way home.

Villagers also had to draw their water from a well, and one old lady I once interviewed remembered how the fresh spring water was as cool as ice.

She used to have to trudge across the fields to fill two buckets at a time when it was washing day.

“It took all morning and we usually spilled more water than we took home,” she recalled.

There used to be plenty of characters in the village, including Ann Pickles who lived until she was a hundred, and Sarah Jayne Ayton who had a sweet shop at her home, Rose Cottage.

She sold acid drops and pear drops, she had made herself, but never weighed them, just counted them.

Ernest Dunford, who lived in a cottage on the road leading to Dimpledale, was seen in the village every day riding his bicycle with his collie dog, Sandy, always close behind.

He had been a miner from the age of 13 to 65, and kept active all his life. He thought nothing of setting off on his bike for a day at the seaside.

Two spinster sisters I also interviewed some years ago, lived a quiet but active life in their picturesque little cottage with roses round the door and a little wicket gate.

When I first visited them there was a lovely coal fire burning in the grate, an organ stood in the parlour, the trees in their orchard was heavy with fruit and there was home-made jam in the pantry.

Fairytale characters? No - hard working daughters of a large mining family who had known hardship and poverty in the olden days.

The elder one told me: “There were eight of us and we were poor but never hungry.

“We had a couple of pigs and a few hens and we grew our own fruit and vegetables.”

But as a girl of 13 she had had to walk to work in Lepton near Huddersfield, and had to get up at five in the morning to do so.

l If you have any photographs, memorabilia or information about Briestfield, please contact John on 01924 848-893 or e-mail [email protected]