Mansion was a wonderland to its young visitors

LAST week John Walker asked readers if they could send him more information about Cliffe House in Shepley which he attended as a young boy when he took part in a residential course there.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 3rd August 2012, 3:44 pm

His memories of Cliffe House reminded me of all the letters I have received over the years from Dewsbury people who also attended such courses and like John have been eager to share memories of their stay there.

However, few people realise that this Victorian mansion, set in beautiful surroundings seven miles south of Huddersfield, once belonged to the people of Dewsbury.

It was bought in 1947 by the old Dewsbury Town Council as an educational rural retreat for children who lived most of their lives surrounded by mill chimneys.

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The children spent two weeks at Cliffe House and were able to explore the surrounding countryside and learn more about the natural environment than they could sat behind a desk.

Thousands of children benefited from their stay at Cliffe House, and the old Dewsbury authority continued to run it right until 1974 when the new Kirklees Council took over.

I am pleased to say that Kirklees continue to run it as it was originally intended and I understand some 90 primary schools attend courses there every year.

Cliffe House was built in 1889 by James Senior, a wealthy businessman who ran a brewery founded by his father.

When the house was put up for sale in 1947 the old Dewsbury council saw the educational benefit such a facility could have on local children living in an industrial town, and with great foresight decided to buy it.

It was opened for its first residential course shortly afterwards.

ALTHOUGH I was never fortunate enough to go on a visit to Cliffe House myself, my older sister Doreen was and went there in 1948. When she returned home she never stopped talking about it.

She went with most of the girls from her class at St Joseph’s School, Batley Carr, and it was her first time away from home.

Although it is 64 years since she first set foot in Cliffe House, she can still recall it as though it was yesterday.

“It was a wonderful experience – one I will never forget – because I had never slept away from home before,” she recalled.

“The only countryside I’d seen before was on day trips to Bluebell Wood and Coxley Valley.

“We lived in a little two-up-one-down house with no bathroom or inside toilet, so Cliffe House was like a palace to me. It was Wonderland with all those beautiful big rooms and windows.

“My parents had to pay ten shillings for my two-week stay which I suppose in those days was a lot of money to them.

“Coming from a big family it was wonderful to get so much attention from the staff and having everything done for me.

“I remember the matron washing my hair and using a shampoo – the first I’d ever had. When my mother washed my hair she always used Rinso washing powder and brushed it straight back because it was thick and wiry.

“The matron said she wanted to wash my hair and make it look nice, and I started crying because I thought she thought I was dirty because my hair was so black and I looked like a gypsy.

“But when she shampooed it and pressed it into waves and curled it with her fingers, it looked lovely and glossy. I discovered for the first time that I actually had lovely curly hair.

“I will never forget the beautiful smell of the shampoo – I had never felt so nice and pampered.”

DOREEN, like many other young girls who went to Cliffe House during those early years, learned a great deal not only about the rural surroundings, but about herself.

It was only two years after the end of the war and food was still on ration and Doreen remembers having to take her ration book with her.

“The meals we had were the most delicious I’d ever tasted,” she said. “Cliffe House had its own vegetable garden and their own gardeners, so we were able to have fresh vegetables every day.

“I tasted cornflakes there for the first time and I loved just sitting at the table and being waited on.

“I remember the last night at Cliffe House when the children gave a concert in the large ballroom with each of us having to do a party piece.

“I chose a popular song at the time, The Rich Maharajah of Magadore, and I made up my own dance routine and wore a veil over my face.

“It was the first time I’d ever been the centre of attention before and I revelled in it.

“I sang and danced with complete confidence, clicking my fingers and wiggling my hips, because there were no boys there to laugh at me.

“Everyone loved it and when we got back to school, Miss Phillips, the teacher who went with us, asked me to do it in front of the class and other teachers.

“But I couldn’t do it. I was back in my old environment and couldn’t pretend any more. I was too shy.

“So many of us during those two weeks found something in ourselves which we’d never known before.

“We could pretend we were rich and famous and had no worries or fears.

“I can still see myself dancing round that big ballroom, happy and alive, and I remember every word of the song:

The rich Maharajah of Magadore,

He had ten thousand rubies and maybe more,

He had diamonds and pearls and hundreds of girls,

But he never knew how to do the Rumba!

Doreen admits that even though it is more than 60 years since she first sang this song in public, she still sometimes sings it to herself.

“And when I do I laugh because it was my one moment of glory in that beautiful ballroom in Cliffe House.

“I am so glad to know that Cliffe House is still going and I do hope the children who still go there get as much pleasure from it as I did.”

l Reader Imelda Marsden is carrying out research into the old Crossley Maternity Home in Mirfield. She would like to know if anyone remembers when the home, formerly a fever hospital, first opened.

Email [email protected] or phone the newsroom on 01924 468282.