Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Social climbing in Dewsbury

A home fit for a successful man of industry

By Margaret Watson
Sunday, 6th June 2021, 6:30 pm
AUSTIN FRIARS: James Austin, who founded James Austin and Sons Limited, Thornhill Lees in the 1850s, stands proudly in front of the house he named after himself.
AUSTIN FRIARS: James Austin, who founded James Austin and Sons Limited, Thornhill Lees in the 1850s, stands proudly in front of the house he named after himself.

Last week I wrote about James Austin a rich Dewsbury industrial who amassed great wealth through his ever-growing steel works.

I also described the mansion in which he lived in Springfield Terrace, Dewsbury, which bore his name - ‘Austin Friars’.

My column also included a photograph of one of the rooms in this magnificent house which still stands today, 150 years later.

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The house is in a conservation area and therefore cannot be changed on the outside.

This week I’m able to show you another picture showing the exterior of the house with James, all dressed in white, proudly standing in front of his grand home.

It is one of a selection of photographs the Austin family had taken of their fine new house after going to live there in 1852.

They had previously lived in a small house next to James’s factory at the bottom of Victoria Road, Springfield.

But as James’s business grew and his family increased, the family needed a bigger house but it still had to be near his factory.

Not surprisingly, he chose to invest in one of five mansions being built in nearby Springfield Terrace which was still in walking distance of his business.

The first of the five mansions had been bought by mill-owner Mark Oldroyd, whose son, Sir Mark Oldroyd, would later become Dewsbury’s first MP.

James was not only moving further up the road but also further up the social ladder, for who could have had more illustrious neighbours?

However, both James Austin and Mark Oldroyd had come from humble beginnings and were self-made men.

The Austin family lived in the house for more than 40 years but I have not been able to discover who took over the house when James died in 1892, aged 69.

But I do recall that in the early 1950s, the house was bought by the old Dewsbury local authority who converted it into a residential home for elderly men, but they kept the name ‘Austin Friars’.

Springfield Terrace was, and still is, a private road situated betwixt Moorlands Road at the top and Halifax Road at the bottom.

But, local people have always used it as a short cut to whichever road of these two roads they wish to traverse.

I remember as a child carol singing at these houses and looking at them in wonderment, trying to imagine what they looked like inside.

One night I did manage to get inside one of them after carol singing there, but that is another story for another time.

‘Austin Friars’ captured my imagination mainly because of its majestic bow windows and the front garden with its circular lawn and winding gravel paths on either side.

Large Victorian houses like these had many rooms, including attics and basements where the servants lived, but after the first and second world wars, it became difficult for the owners to get domestic staff and many were sold off.

Some of those who once lived in these fine houses often found that riches did not necessarily bring happiness.

For the Austin family, 1870 was a year of great personal tragedy when two of their sons died within a short period of each other.

Their youngest child, James, died when he was only eight months old and their second son, John, died at the age of 21.

James himself died in 1892, leaving three sons and three daughters, but within eight months, his eldest son, Alfred, died at the age of 46 and his third son, Cyrus, died aged 41.

This left his fourth son, Harry, to shoulder the burden of business at the young age of 35, but sadly he was a sick man and died a few years later aged 45.

He was a bachelor and his death severed the line of direct inheritance, but the Austin name did continue for many years to come.

The man who took it over, Joseph William Wilson, had joined the firm in 1895 as an office boy, and worked his way up to being both chairman and managing director.

It is many years since the local authority closed ‘Austin Friars’ as a residential home and it was not surprising that the new owner converted it into apartments.

Some years ago, I was delighted to speak to one of those living in one of them, Christine Wood, who told me she had loved her apartment from the first moment she saw it.

She said as soon as she walked in she knew it was the home for her.

Christine believed that old houses had an atmosphere which new houses didn’t have. I think she was right.

Christine had no idea when she moved into the apartment that it had been once owned by the Austin family.

It wasn’t until she read my first article about ‘Austin Friars’ that she learned how the house got its name.

Remarkably, it turned out that her parents, Sandra and Roger Wood, had both worked at Austin Steel Works in Thornhill Lees, where they had first met.

But when their daughter moved into ‘Austin Friars’, they too had no idea it had once been the home of James Austin.

Roger and Sandra had met 65 years ago at Austin’s with Sandra working in the office, and Roger being a draughtsman there.

Neither of them was aware the name of the house their daughter was living in had been named after the man who owned the company where they worked all those years ago.

It was a remarkable coincidence and it makes you wonder how many more houses in Dewsbury bear names which hold a great deal of history of which we know nothing.

If you have any recollections, I would love to hear from you. You can contact me by email on: [email protected]

Also, I don’t know if Christine still lives in the apartment at ‘Austin Friars’, but if she does, I would love to hear from her again too.