Memories of mill workers’ Christmas party in 1950s Dewsbury

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SOME photographs, like the one above, make me smile because they say so much of what life used to be like in this district.

This one shows a group of local mill girls in the 1950s having a Christmas drink in the Great Northern pub in Dewsbury.

It is a picture which gives us a glimpse of how working women lived and worked in those days and how they got pleasure from the simple things in life.

Looking at this picture you don’t have to guess if they’re having a good time, you can see it, and even though there’s no tinsel or mistletoe around, you can sense the spirit of Christmas all around them.

They lift their glasses to drink a toast to Christmas and smile at the photographer, and for this little group of weavers from Mark Oldroyd’s mill, Christmas is just beginning.

Earlier that day, they had enjoyed a Christmas fuddle in the weaving shed at the mill, and when a kindly boss told them they could go home early, they decided to keep the party going.

They set off in high spirits, all linking arms, as women did in those days, and off they went down Halifax Road to the posh Playhouse Cafe for afternoon tea.

Afterwards, they popped across the road to the Great Northern pub for a Christmas drink before heading off home to get everything ready for Christmas Day.

Looking at photographs like these you can sense the special kind of camaraderie which existed among working women in Dewsbury in those days, something which often continued throughout their lives.

I grew up witnessing this sense of unity among women in my family and in my neighbourhood, and I saw how this kind of support helped women cope with the difficulties of working and looking after a home and children.

The woman in the picture wearing the white turban, third from the left, was Elsie Healey, who gave this photograph to me many years ago when I interviewed her for an article I was writing on working women.

Elsie, who was brought up in The Flatts and later lived in Thornhill, never forgot the friendships she forged while working at local mills like Mark Oldroyd’s, Joseph Newsome’s, Batley Carr, and Fenton and Bradley’s in Thornhill Lees.

She never forgot how workmates had helped and supported each other, covered for each other, and sometimes were even prepared to lose their job to help a workmate.

She once told me: “If a friend needed a day off work I’d look after her loom for her so she didn’t lose out, and I always knew she’d do the same for me.

“It was hard doing your own work as well as doing somebody else’s, but we did it because we believed in helping each other.”

When I think of women like Elsie, I think that the spirit of Christmas was in the hearts of women like her all year long. I’m sure most of them would never have bought each other Christmas presents, because we didn’t go in much for present buying in those days. But what women like those pictured above did for each other, day in day out, was worth far more than any card or present. They gave themselves and their time.

They gave their presence not presents, which is what people really need from each other, not only at Christmas but all year round. I think of people like Elsie at Christmas time and when I look at photographs like this I share in the happiness which is so clear to see. This photograph makes me think of all the women I knew when I was growing up, my mother, my aunties, my sisters, my cousins. I also think of that kindly boss who gave them a couple of precious hours off work to do with what they wanted. They certainly didn’t waste them. Afternoon tea at the Playhouse Cafe, which was a luxury in those days, and a couple of drinks in the grandest pub in town, the Great Northern.

The mills mentioned above are no longer with us, neither is the Playhouse Cafe (it’s been taken over by Wilkinson’s) or the Great Northern pub (now converted into shops), but although they are long gone, we still have happy memories of these places. We can think of them from time to time, just as I know Elsie Healey always did.

Many of us will have heard of the Christmas truce which took place between the British and and German soldiers in the trenches in World War One. But there was a young soldier from Dewsbury who witnessed it and wrote home to tell his family about it. The letter was printed in the Dewsbury Reporter a week later but I don’t think the soldier realised the historic significance of what he had seen because he only mentions it halfway through his letter.

Perhaps like everyone else at home, he thought the war would be over by Christmas, and he had yet to experience the true brutality of what was about to occur.

The letter came from Private George Ireland, of Gladstone Street, Dewsbury, who was at the Front with the 1st Leicesters. He sent the letter to his sister and her husband, Mr and Mrs E Eastwood, of 35 North Park Street, Dewsbury, and this is what he wrote:

“You must excuse me having kept you so long without a letter, but we were in the trenches from December 11th till January 2nd. Before we went, there was nothing but rain for about three weeks. We were up to our knees in either water or mud; in fact you would have laughed if you could have seen us when we were coming out. I myself sank into the mud just above my knees, and before I could shift, the men had to dig around my legs till they got to my feet. Then I managed to shift!

By the dates you will see we were in the trenches on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Although our conditions were bad we were happy as larks. Both the Germans and ourselves seemed to have come to the same opinion - that they meant to enjoy themselves as well as they could. So they stopped all firing at Christmas and so did we. They then put their fires (made in tins or old buckets) on the top of the trenches and even sat around them. Then they started shouting across to us. One of them just opposite me could speak English very well. He started with “Gentlemen how do you do?” Of course we answered him.

To tell you the truth, if any of you could have seen or heard us you would not have thought we were at war with one another. But as soon as Christmas Day was over, we started again till New Year’s Day, when the same thing occurred as on Christmas Day.

As I draw to a close, I would like to ask if you would kindly thank the people of St John’s Church for me, as they have sent a little Bible to me. On the cover it says ‘Service Testament 1914’, and inside an inscription - “From friends at St John’s”.

Please tell them I carry it in my breast pocket and I take it into the trenches with me.”

Tragically, this young Dewsbury soldier was killed at Ypres the following year, 1915, just three days after Christmas.