Nostalgia: No class boundaries in Dewsbury’s mills

There must be thousands of people still living in Dewsbury who worked in local mills when they were flourishing and have happy memories of the camaraderie which existed there.

By Margaret Watson
Wednesday, 1st May 2013, 8:12 am
Wormald and Walker staff on a trip to Filey
Nostalgia Wormald and Walker staff on a trip to Filey

Nearly every mill, large or small, organised events throughout the year for their employees - Christmas parties, theatre trips and trips to the seaside.

The workers also formed their own drama groups and sports teams and produced monthly magazines which detailed every aspect of mill life.

Many of these still exist and every page tells its story and shows photographs of happy smiling faces like those pictured on the right.

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This photograph was kindly loaned by 80-year-old Joseph Sheard, who went to work there as a young lad of 15 after leaving Victoria Central School in Dewsbury.

Nearly all his family worked at the mill, his father, Johnny Sheard, his stepmother and his brother and sisters.

And when his father, who worked in the maintenance department died, all those who worked in his department walked behind the hearse from his home in West Vale to Thornhill Lees Church.

Mr Sheard recalled the respect people had for those who had worked long years at the mill like his father.

He had happy memories of the day the workers were treated to a trip to Filey in 1947 to celebrate the end of the war.

He recalled the strong sense of belonging which existed at the mill and the fact that they were all like one big family. This was in the days when the mills in Dewsbury were booming and conditions were improving by the day.

Dewsbury in those days was a prosperous mill town with a reputation for producing some of the finest cloth in the world.

Some mills employed as many as a thousand workers and the buildings in which they worked were often five storey’s high and every inch of space was well utilised.

Wormalds and Walker in Thornhill Lees, employed well over 1,000 people and was acknowledged to be the largest manufacturer of woollen blankets in the world.

They produced over 1,000 a day and these were dispatched to every part of the world, the most famous being their luxurious Dormy blankets.

The weavers making them were well-trained and highly skilled and were fully aware that the products they were producing were highly sought after throughout the world.

Wormalds and Walker started life well over 200 years ago under the title Dewsbury Mills, but there had been a mill on the same site as far back as the 12th century, when Dewsbury was mainly farmland and mills were powered by water from the River Calder.

The Wormald family became involved in the running of the mill in the early 1840s, later to be joined by the Wormald family, hence the name Wormalds and Walker.

People working at Wormalds and Walker always felt as though they belonged to a family, and many of them stayed there all their working lives.

Generation after generation went to work at the mill in various capacities and a good many met their husbands and wives there.

Bosses and workers got on well, respected each other’s positions and often went on outings together, the most memorable being in 1951 when the company took its workforce of over 1,000 to see the Festival of Britain in London. Various committees within the mill were formed months before the trip took place to arrange every aspect of it down to the last detail.

It was no easy task taking so many by train but everything went to plan.

Each employee was given an envelope containing tickets for train and tube, tickets for admission to the Exhibition and Pleasure Gardens, a ten-shilling note and a map of London to make sure no-one got lost. And soon after getting on the train they were provided with a cooked breakfast.

On their arrival at Kings Cross Station, waiting at the end of the platform were specially selected stewards to escort them to the famous Lyons Corner House Cafe for lunch.

The menu was tomato soup, mixed grill or plaice and chips, ice-cream and tea or coffee.

One of the employees, John Garforth, laughingly asked a waitress if tripe, his favourite dish, was on the menu. It wasn’t.

It was not many years after this happy occasion when things started going wrong for the textile industry in general. Times were changing. The introduction of electric blankets, central heating and duvets caused a gradual decline in the market for blankets.

Wormalds and Walker attempted to diversify into both carpet yarn production and fibre bond fabrics but this was not sufficiently successful.

By 1980, their workforce was reduced to less than a hundred, and in 1986 they were eventually forced to close down.

It was the end of an era.

Mr Sheard still remembers many of those pictured particularly members of the Kaye and Dunford families, and Councillor Willie Long, pictured on the left at the end of the row waving at the camera.

Mr Sheard is the young man standing on the front row on the left holding his raincoat and beside him is his father, Johnny, who is pictured kneeling behind his wife, Joseph’s stepmother.