The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson – the decline of the landladies’ Empire

Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

NEWS that the Empire Theatre in Dewsbury was closing in 1955 meant the loss of many people’s livelihoods – especially the landladies who ran boarding houses.

Many stars stayed with ordinary families in various parts of town, mainly in Crackenedge Lane, Leeds Road and the Eightlands.

Grand day out: Landlady Alice Blackburn and husband take a break from looking after the stars to spend a day at Blackpool.

Grand day out: Landlady Alice Blackburn and husband take a break from looking after the stars to spend a day at Blackpool.

One of the best known landladies was May Cage, of Marsden Terrace, Crackenedge, who was distraught when she heard the theatre was closing.

She and her husband lived in the hope it would re-open again, but their hopes were dashed five years later when it was demolished.

Mrs Cage said at the time: “We are so upset we make a point of not walking past the demolition site – it is too much to bear.”

The theatre had meant everything to her and her husband both socially and professionally.

“We are disgusted at the attitude of local officials and citizens of Dewsbury,” she said.

“Something could have been done to save it, but no-one tried hard enough.”

Most of the top names stayed in the Crackendge area of Dewsbury including comedians Norman Evans and Frank Randle.

Another popular landlady was Alice Blackburn who had a boarding house in Eightlands Road, Dewsbury.

But she never liked taking in chorus girls because it took her too long to get their make-up off the pillows.

Her daughter Edith, described some years ago the house they had lived in during the 1930s when her mother took in professionals.

“It was a lovely big house which had belonged to a doctor. It had an inside toilet, bathroom and four bedrooms, a big lounge and a kitchen which was every bit as big as the lounge.”

Her mother loved cooking and enjoyed being a landlady. “She always cooked them a big breakfast because they didn’t get up early,” Edith recalled.

“Comedian Albert Modley always came and stayed with us and became part of the family. Another famous comedian, Albert Whelan, and his wife, came to my wedding.

“When I had my first baby, Albert Modley bought her a little three-wheeler bike. She loved it so much she wore the wheels out.”

Bertha Wrigley was senior cleaner at the theatre, and two of her daughters, Lena and Alice, were usherettes.

Bertha was heartbroken when she was told on the last night it was closing.

Marjorie Crawshaw was an usherette there when she was 15 and was able to meet all the stars, including the parents of singer Julie Andrews, Ted and Barbara Andrews.

She said: “I worked at Wormalds and Walker’s mill during the day and at the Empire at night.

“I did it because I loved the theatre and I needed extra money.”

Most of the stars stayed in local boarding houses because it was more convenient to be near the theatre, but also because they couldn’t afford to stay in hotels.

Some of them, like Bud Flannagan, didn’t mind if the boarding house didn’t have a bathroom or inside toilet, which most hadn’t.

Bud stayed at a boarding house in Wood Street, Crackenedge, run by Eva Gibson.

Some years ago, her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Gibson, recalled the days when many chorus girls stayed there as well as comedians like Sandy Powell.

“We didn’t have running hot water or amenities like that,” she recalled.

“But the stars didn’t mind going to the outside toilet in the back yard.”

Another landlady, Cora Mellor, had a boarding house in Wakefield Road and later in the Eightlands.

Her visitor’s book, which her daughter Margaret once showed me, contained the names and good wishes of hundreds of stars.

She said: “My mother never made any money out of running a boarding house.

“She charged very little and gave them massive meals.”

One message left in the guest book from comedian Jack Train, read: “Can’t possibly recollect a better patch than this one.”

Another read “Only one complaint – too much food!”

There are many more interesting stories about The Empire, the staff who worked there, the stars who appeared there, and I promise to write about these in future articles.

Perhaps the landlady who looked after the most famous comedian in the world – Charlie Chaplin – will be of great interest.

The Empire closed because people stopped going, and the same is happening today with many voluntary organisations because of lack of support.

This year, Thornhill Women’s Institute, celebrated its 40th anniversary, and I wish to congratulate them most heartily, because they are one of the few women’s organisations in Dewsbury still going.

The WI provides women with the friendship of other women, educational opportunities and the chance to develop new skills.

They would like to welcome a few new members, so if you are interested, pop along to one of their meetings – the third Wednesday of the month at Thornhill Methodist Church, Chapel Lane, at 7.30pm.

But after January, their new meeting place will be in the Old Spar Shop, opposite the Scarborough Pub in Thornhill. 

For further information about the group contact Joyce Parker at joyce.parker@live .co.uk.