Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Our great keepers of history

We must not lose our libraries and museums

Sunday, 6th June 2021, 6:30 pm
LONGCAUSEWAY: Mr Fred W Smith, former librarian and curator of Dewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, showing paintings done by local artists.

Last week I wrote about the old Dewsbury Library in Wellington Road, and the two librarians who between them worked there for a hundred years, both named Smith.

There was Mr W H Smith, not related to the famous bookstores, who became the town’s first borough librarian in 1887, and Mr F W Smith, his deputy, who succeeded him in 1937.

Many of my generation will still remember Mr F W Smith because he did so much to preserve our town’s rich history. He was also curator of the museum and art gallery in Crow Nest Park Mansion, which has sadly closed down.

I wonder what our lovely Mr Smith, so protective of Dewsbury’s history and culture, would think about that? For, he was always passionate about our town’s history and forever coming up with new ideas to engage local people in what was available to them.

One idea was to go out to the people and talk to them face to face about what was available in the newly opened art gallery in Crow Nest Park.

He is pictured above showing a young Dewsbury family in the 1950s the high standard of work which local artists were providing at that time.

Dewsbury has been fortunate over the years that our two Mr Smiths were followed by similarly dedicated librarians and curators.

I have worked with them all, including the lovely Barbara Chappell, and shared their struggles to keep these historic buildings open to the public.

Dewsbury, however, has not been alone in trying to keep its libraries and museums open, because it is happening all over the country.

Batley is now fighting the same battle, namely to keep Red House Museum open. I wish them well.

We must all support each other in fighting to keep these historic buildings open because once they are gone, they are gone forever.

What the future holds for Dewsbury Park Mansion I do not know.

But let us hope that the artefacts it contained are preserved and will be seen again.

The history of the mansion and the park must also be preserved so that those who follow us will know of their origin.

For, the park mansion was once part of a huge private estate owned by the Hague family before they sold it to the old Dewsbury Corporation in 1892 to be converted into a park.

When the council took it over, it was in a bad state of repair with the top storey still being in the possession of a detachment of Dragoon Guards.

It wasn’t unusual at that time for soldiers to be brought over to Dewsbury and stationed in the mansion to preserve order when trouble broke out.

When the house became vacant, the town’s surveyor, Mr Marks, immediately set about reconstructing its interior and designing several apartments, one of which became a museum.

Two of the rooms displayed Egyptian artefacts which were of such significance that the museum was invited to become trustees of the much famed Egyptian Exploration Society.

Miss Amelia Oldroyd, niece of Dewsbury mill owner, Sir Mark Oldroyd, became secretary of the society and donated a fascinating and rare collection of Egyptian artefacts to be displayed there.

Some years ago, this collection was transferred to the Bagshaw Museum in Batley Park and has since been on show at an important exhibition in London.

Before its closure Dewsbury Museum had been thriving and was being visited by thousands of schoolchildren, some from schools all over Yorkshire.

A new child-oriented display gallery entitled “Growing up in Dewsbury”, had been erected and became a huge attraction to both young and old.

Local people were also given the opportunity to visit the museum and tell real life stories in their own words with the aid of new technology. They recorded their memories of dancing at the Galleon and Ben Riley dance halls and stories of rock ‘n’ roll, Teddy boy outfits, mini-skirts and platform- soled shoes and flares.

Also they could listen to and see the Pathe Newsreel which told the story of Dewsbury girl Eileen Fenton’s spectacular Channel swim.

Fortunately, many artefacts relating to Eileen’s historic swim, including the swimming costume she wore, are now on permanent display in Dewsbury Town Hall.

When I was a child I spent much of my time in Crow Nest Park and in the museum because it was my retreat.

It never occurred to me while I was spending time in this ancient space in such beautiful surroundings, that I was soaking up food for my soul.

It is only as we grow older that we begin to appreciate what we were seeing and experiencing in such beautiful places.

We all have our different memories of the park and its museum, and should be grateful to those who have taken care of them and done their best to keep them open.

For this reason, I end this article by expressing my thanks to all the cultural services staff, both past and present, who have done their best, and still are, to try and preserve our town’s rich history.

I also take this opportunity to thank Dewsbury Library staff who are keeping our history alive and always willing to help visitors find what they are looking for, especially those trying to trace their family tree.

In this week’s featured photograph, pictured bringing art into Dewsbury town centre is Mr Fred W Smith, former librarian and curator of Dewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, showing paintings done by local artists to passersby on Longcauseway in the 1950s.

You can email your recollections of Dewsbury in years gone by to: [email protected]