The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson

Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

MANY readers have asked me what happened to Eileen Fenton after she swam the channel in 1950 and whether or not she left Dewsbury.

She did remain in Dewsbury for some years afterwards but left when she obtained a teaching position at Sandal Endowed School to be near her work.

Centre stage: Eileen Fenton is pictured here playing the leading role in one of the many productions presented by Thornhill Amateur Dramatics some time in the 1950s.'The names of other cast members I do not have, but I'm sure our readers will let me know them.

Centre stage: Eileen Fenton is pictured here playing the leading role in one of the many productions presented by Thornhill Amateur Dramatics some time in the 1950s.'The names of other cast members I do not have, but I'm sure our readers will let me know them.

Until then she had taught at local schools, including Eastborough and Earlsheaton Secondary Modern School.

But it was said that many felt she might have well stayed in Dewsbury because she was never away, from the town of her birth, returning here every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, to run Dewsbury Swimming Club.

Under her tuition, a significant number of youngsters reached the highest levels possible, some even representing Britain in the Olympics and Empire Games.

Some became world champions, but although she dedicated nearly all her spare time to running Dewsbury Swimming Club, where at one time she was chairman, secretary and treasurer all at once, she did find time to do other things.

Her second passion was acting, an interest she cultivated while at teacher training college, and which she followed when she joined Thornhill Parish Church Amateur Dramatic Society.

The picture above shows her in the leading role of one of their productions in the 1950s, but her most famous role was that of Elizabeth de Thornhill in “The Pageant of Thornhill”, in 1952.

Many local people will remember this remarkable pageant which was held in the open air and lasted six days. It had a cast of nearly 300 local people as well as 200 backstage workers.

Eileen herself was also a big attraction having just swum the channel, and now being given a starring role as the young bride of Sir Henry Savile, played by Peter Coney.

More than 10,000 people attended.

The youngest member of the cast was nine-month-old Nigel Senior while the eldest was 75-year-old George Thomas Nunns.

The pageant depicted Thornhill’s proud history from the 9th Century to the 20th Century, when the township of Thornhill was bigger and more important than Dewsbury.

A book was written about the pageant, and in its foreword, local historian Barbara Nuttall invited the audience (in the words of Shakespeare) to “live for a while in imagination, the lives of those who came before us”.

It was a spectacular event, and every evening it was opened by a different local celebrity, one of them was Dewsbury MP William Paling, who said: “Thornhill was once bigger and more important than Dewsbury, and if things go on like this, we shall have Thornhill wanting to run Dewsbury.”

A number of very fine horses took part, including a white charger, named ‘Roma’ which had belonged to the Italian dictator Mussolini.

It had been brought over from Italy by Captain Walter Millington, of Cawthorne, who loaned it for the occasion, and it was a huge attraction.

Such an impressive event could never have gone ahead without the co-operation and participation of hundreds of villagers as well as financial support from local businesses.

It is incredible to think that more than 1,000 people attended the opening event on a Saturday afternoon, and another 2,000 for the evening performance.

On the Monday evening, which was for children only, there was an audience of 2,000 – an incredible number of people to have in one place at one time.

One cannot help wondering if such an event could ever be staged today, in view of all the health and safety restrictions now imposed on open-air events. And where would everyone park their cars today?

It was undoubtedly a magnificent community event, and the price of admission was not cheap with tickets selling at five shillings, three shillings, two shillings, and one shilling for children.

The president of the organising committee, Lord Savile, whose family had, and still have, strong family links with the village, took part, representing his ancestor Sir John Savile.

The historical background for the event was provided by Barbara Nuttall, and although the pageant depicted the spirit of Thornhill from the 9th Century upwards, most scenes took place in the 1800s, including the Combs Colliery Disaster in 1893 in which 139 men and boys lost their lives.

Thornhill’s rich history had never previously been presented in such a graphic way, and many who attended said they would never forget it.

It was an amazing event, and among its cast of hundreds were sword dancers, tumblers, pedlars, jesters, Morris dancers, minstrels, monks, soldiers, cavaliers, country yokels, town criers, maypole dancers, madrigal singers, a string quartet, and, of course, Thornhill Prize Band.

Those who attended came away proud to live in a village which for centuries had been home to the Savile family, regarded as one of the most illustrious families in Yorkshire.

Eileen Fenton was always proud to be invited to take part in local events, and still is, because, although she still lives in Sandal in the same house she moved to when she went to work there, she tells everyone that Dewsbury is her home and always will be.

If you want to see film of Eileen’s channel swim and her jubilant welcome home, you can find it on www.britishpathe.com/record.php/id=34333.

Happy viewing!