Masons’ Marks at Westgate, Wakefield

Victorian stone masons left their marks on this embankment wall, south of Wakefield Westgate Station.

The Roman numeral ‘IV’ carved on this sandstone block appears to relate to the iron bracket that has been added to brace the wall but it’s the mark below that intrigues me: it looks like a flag, a key or a crossed out semiquaver. It has weathered more than the numeral, which suggests that the ironwork is a later addition.

The sun was at a perfect angle this morning for picking out the marks and we spotted dozens of them.

They’re carved at the centre of the facing side of each block. Some masons used letters of the alphabet. You can see that the quality of the sandstone varied because the ‘H’ in the top right of my photograph has faded away more than the one on the left.

There are crosses, arrows and triangles but my favourite marks are the fish-like hieroglyphs and that rabbit’s head (or perhaps it’s an upside-down ‘R’) in the bottom right-hand corner.

This embankment wall, between Westgate Wakefield and the first arch of the Ninety-nine Arches railway viaduct over Ings Road, was constructed in the mid-1860s.

The Great Snowstorm, Christmas 1906

Leeds Mercury, 27 December, 1906, British Newspaper Archive.

People were tobogganing at Ilkley, skating on the Mere at Scarborough and photographing snow-covered trees in the Gorge at Roundhay Park after the Great Snowstorm of Christmas 1906.

Despite the snow, a large crowd turned out to watch the annual Fishermen versus Firemen football match on the beach at South Bay, Scarborough.

My thanks to Gordon Berry of Chicago for sending me this photograph of work to clear the tram tracks between Wakefield and Horbury. I’ve seen another photograph, presumably taken at the same time, of an electric tram making progress through the drifts.

Gordon’s grandparents and their family lived at  Smeath House, Horbury, in the early 1900s (later, in the 1950s and 1960s, Smeath House was my childhood home).

Leeds Mercury, 27 December, 1906, British Newspaper Archive.

Gordon tells me:

My grandfather’s family (Alfred Edward Berry and Fanny Albiia Murgatroyd) lived at Smeath House from at least 1906 till 1909. My father was the third son, Henry Vernon, born in Huddersfield in 1901.  The fourth and youngest child was Cynthia Berry born at Smeath House in 1909.

My brother John Berry was a medical doctor as a GP  in Horbury and Ossett (he retired about 15 years ago and died 2 years ago) – his practice went all the way through to Netherton.  He said when he first got there , some old people remembered the Berry family.

Alfred Edward Berry (right), with his sons Henry (in front of Alfred) and Rex (centre, behind the dog’s tail).

I am pretty sure that some of the boys in the photo are my father Henry Vernon Berry, his older brother Rex (Reginald), and their father Alfred Edward Berry.

The man leaning on his shovel behind Rex might have been part of the team clearing snow from the tram tracks.

I am sure they were in Kristiania (now Oslo) in Norway from 1910 to 1914. I have a record of Rex being at Pannal Ash school Harrogate in the school year 1910-11, recorded as a boarder in the 1911 census, plus a letter to the family in Kristiania in February 1914. Since I cannot find the family anywhere in the 1910 census, they must have gone to Norway then. They certainly returned before the outbreak of World War I.  

Has this young man on the far left been marking the route with flags?

Presumably, Alfred Edward was a mill or brewery manager in Horbury. 

 In later years, Daddy still knew a few phrases of Norwegian, and he also learned to ski and to ice-skate in Norway (occasionally there was enough ice on Bretton Park Lake for us to watch him to skate). There was also a Norwegian plaque on the wall of our parents’ bedroom in Louisville.

 There is a family story that Alfred Edward was a golf-pro at Filey Golf Club when they returned from Norway – he apparently had an excellent golf handicap of 1.

Wakefield Road, Horbury

I believe the photograph shows what today is the Horbury Road, looking southwest towards Horbury. Just visible in the background are two tall chimneys which might belong to Richard Sutcliffe’s Universal Works. Sutcliffe patented the first conveyor belt for use in coal mines in  1905. He bought a former dyehouse here and in that year produced his first six belt conveyors here for Glass Houghton Colliery.

The present day Horbury Road dips under the M1 motorway here.

A Bookseller’s Dream of Christmas, 1777



There’s a twinkle in bookseller Thomas Gent’s eye,
As he sits by the fire with his port and mince pie:
“I shall go down in history in Old Ripon Town;
With my red Russian hat and my long college gown:

“On this fine Christmas Eve in the snow-covered square
By the Old Obelisk with my books, I’ll be there!
When the Wakeman of Ripon blows thrice on his horn
I’ll take up my sack and be busy til dawn.

“With six fine stags from Studley all yoked to my sleigh
With novels and poems, it’s up and away!
Now, Defoe! now, Dryden! now Shakespeare and Swift!
There’s nothing like books to give spirits a lift!”

St Mary’s Whitby, from Thomas Gent’s ‘History of Hull’.

Thomas Gent, Bookseller


When I saw Nathan Drake’s portrait of Thomas Gent (1693-1798), the Yorkshire historian and bookseller, I couldn’t help thinking that, popping up in that hearth-like alcove, sporting those luxuriant side whiskers and with his right hand extended, offering us a copy of his ‘quaint’ and ‘charming’ History of Ripon, he’d make a great Santa.

With a little Photoshopping, I was soon able to make a Fake or Fortune-style restoration of the painting and I felt that he also deserved a verse or two to hint that even an Ebenezer Scrooge lookalike might have had a hidden, softer side.

If you’d like to know more about the real Thomas Gent, you’re in luck because, just published this month, there’s The Autobiography of Thomas Gent, Printer of York, edited by his descendant, Frank Gent.

Hull from the Humber, from Thomas Gent’s ‘History of Hull’.

‘The name of Thomas Gent has obtained a wider celebrity than that of any other York typographer. Author, printer, and artist, his labours extended over more than half a century, and during that period many of the numerous productions of his pen, both in prose and verse, were printed at his own press, and embellished with engravings executed by his own hand. His works are, for the most part, below mediocrity, yet they possess a certain quaintness and eccentricity of character which are not without their charm’

Robert Davies, 1868


The Autobiography of Thomas Gent, Printer of York is available from Rickaro Bookshop, Horbury, where you can view the portrait by Nathan Drake.

(So far there’s no evidence that Gent ever acted as Santa Claus to the townsfolk of Ripon).

Matchbox Models

Actual size of drawing, 5×3 cm.

There’s a scene in Joby, Stan Barstow’s novel of childhood in a small Yorkshire town, where Joby has to decide which of his small collection of model cars he’s going to take with him when he has to leave home because of some family trauma. The boy lines them up to assess the personality of each car and eventually goes for the one that seems mundane but dependable, rather than the flashy and spectacular.

Sand and gravel steam wagon, one of Lesney’s Matchbox Models of Yesteryear.

I must have gone through a similar process with this Dinky Toys die-cast van (above). At a time when we wanted to buy an Emgee Memo Stamp (a kind of hand-held duplicator) to print a little club magazine, my brother Bill and I sold most of our childhood toys to Steele’s Surplus, the secondhand shop in the wooden hut down the road (now a beauty and tanning salon), but I decided that I couldn’t part with this van which, even in the 1960s, seemed to have the dependable and practical look and feel of a bygone age.

I kept this Matchbox Austin A50 because it reminded me of our family car in the mid-1950s, an Austin A40.

It originally came to us secondhand, with a box of cast-off toys that had belonged to Mick, the son of our butchers, Mr and Mrs Thompson. I notice that I’d replaced the nearside front tyre with a slightly larger spare, which you could buy in a pack from the newsagents. It’s now the van’s only tyre with legal treads the other’s are bald.

The Bedford Removals Van (below) was a smaller scale Lesney Matchbox model. This was a gift and I went to bed clutching it in my sweaty hand during our annual seaside holiday at Filey on the Yorkshire coast. In the morning the transfer on the side of it – ‘MATCHBOX REMOVALS SERVICE’ – had been rearranged like an anagram in a crossword.

I was so taken with the model and the concept of removal vans in general that when we moved from Wrenthorpe to Horbury, my sister Linda and I persuaded our parents, and the removal men, who should have known better, to allow us to travel in the back of the van. I imagined a great adventure that consisted of sitting in comfort in an armchair on the journey but by the time that we got to the end of our road, my sister and I were convinced that a large piece of furniture lurching and rattling over our heads was going to come crashing down on us.

As we slowed down at a junction in the centre of Wakefield, passers by might have heard the muffled sound of two young children shouting ” Help! HELP!”

Return of the Swifts

We saw our first swifts circling over Nostell Lakes a week ago and, by coincidence, since then their namesakes, my mum’s family, the Swifts, have taken centre stage in my family tree research.

I’ve taken a break from genealogy since the death of my mum in February 2015; she was my last link with my Victorian forbears and I enjoyed updating her with some nugget of family history that I’d unearthed, especially any family scandal, such as an attempted murder.

I subscribe to the Find My Past and a hint in one of their regular e-mails set me on the trail again.

Missing Uncles

Maurice T Swift, Hayburn Wyke, c. 1928.

I’ve gone right back to first principles and and I’m building my family tree again from scratch, starting with my mum, Gladys Joan Swift. The orange circles highlight hints, which usually lead to census records or births, deaths and marriages.

More material has been added to the online resources since I started delving into family history eight or nine years ago, for instance the 1939 Register, which is the nearest thing that we’re ever going to get to a census for the wartime years.

Adding portraits brings the list of names to life and we’re lucky to have photographs going back over the last 150 years and even a few oil on canvas portraits.

I just found a picture of my uncle, Maurice Truelove Swift (above, right), sitting on the beach at Hayburn Wyke, North Yorkshire. Sadly I never met him as he died around the time that I was born.

Maurice Swift

In the family tree (above, far right), there’s an uncle of my mum’s who she never knew about until I started my research. Frederick James Swift was the eldest son of my great grandad George’s first wife and I’ve discovered that he emigrated to New Zealand. Quite why my grandad never mentioned him to my mum is still a bit of a mystery. A family feud? Or did my grandad, Maurice Swift, not renowned as a people person, never see the point of mentioning him.

Filey Beach

Robert Douglas Bell

Finally, here’s a photograph that I found of my dad, Robert Douglas Bell; he was a sergeant major in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War and I think that you can see from this photograph taken on the beach at Filey that, although most of the time he was charming, he could revert to his sergeant major assertiveness when necessary!

It’s good to have a portrait where, for once, the subject isn’t just smiling at the camera; this is very much as I remember him as he implored me to get to grips with my maths and English instead of spending so much time drawing!


Find My Past

Chessmen Chimney Pots

Two chimneys, one built in brick, the other in stone, on the same roof. I haven’t checked around the front of this terrace on Station Road, Ossett, but possibly the facade is faced in stone and the back of the house built in brick.

It looks as if the chimney pots are limbering up for a game of chess. The Victorian pots on the left are king, also known as crown, chimney pots and the phalanx of more modern-looking pots on the right remind me of pawns.

I got a chance to drawn the Queen Street roof-scape a couple of weeks ago from the waiting room of Horbury dentists’. I don’t imagine that John Carr, who designed St Peter’s Church (in the background), would approve of chess-piece chimney pots; I suspect that he’d go to some effort to hide such a utilitarian feature on one of his elegant country houses, either that or disguise it as a classical feature, such as a pillar or an obelisk.

Wakefield Naturalists’, 1883

‘Numquam aliud natura, aliud sapentia dicit’

Beneath a shield with the fleur-de-lys of Wakefield at its centre and a daisy, a beetle, a bird and a microscope in the quarters around  it, the  motto of the Wakefield Naturalists’ and Philosophical Society, a quotation from Juvenal’s Satires, translates as:

‘Never does nature say one thing and wisdom say another’

Wisdom wasn’t always the first consideration for the enthusiastic naturalists of the 1880s; at a summer field meeting in 1881, the president of the Society was bitten by an adder as he attempted to pick it up.

Later that year an ambitious Exhibition of Science and Fine Art, intended to be a fundraiser for the Nats and a benefit to the town, was destined to leave an enormous hole in the balance sheet of the Society, as detailed in the Twelfth Annual Report of 1883.


Adder Bite

Getting it in Proportion

Sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, looking up Queen Street, I’m attempting to draw the spire of St Peter and St Leonard’s Church, Horbury.

The proportions are so subtle; the tower’s structure reminds me of a four-stage Saturn rocket, about to soar skywards but it might so easily, with the addition of an extra foot or so of girth, start to appear crushingly earthbound or, conversely, if too slender, become too spindly and emaciated to inspire confidence.

It’s the same with the individual pillars: there’s such a slim ‘Goldilocks zone’ between undernourished and elephantine. I think that he got it just right.

The architect, John Carr(1723-1807), started his career working the stone in local quarries. As far as I know, he never had any formal training in architecture, nor did he ever make the Grand Tour, to absorb the classical influence of Italy but as bridge surveyor to the West Riding of Yorkshire, he had an eye for structure.

I walked past the church every day when I attended St Peter’s Junior School, which in those days stood close to where the dentist’s stands today. As I looked up at that wedding cake of a spire, so unlike anything else in Horbury, I’d imagine the kind of character that might be living in there, in the pilastered penthouse apartment above the rusticated clock section. Shutters and a the mini-balcony made me think of Spain or Mexico, so a mantillared señorita or a caballero.

The rotunda of columns could be a home for a minor Greek deity.

The Man with the Silver Spade


Map from ‘Thornes Park’, a history trail (see link below).

Along the Victorian avenue of horse chestnuts in Clarence Park, Wakefield, a handful of trees that have been lost over the years have recently been replaced. The park is named after the Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, grandson of Queen Victoria (and second in line for the throne), who planted a tree – a ‘white chestnut’ – here on Thursday, 30 April, 1891, using a sliver spade presented to him by Lady Green, wife of Sir Edward Green, M.P., of Heath Old Hall.

The local fish and chip shop, Avondale Fisheries, is another reminder of his visit. Continue reading “The Man with the Silver Spade”

Sketching Smeaton

SmeatonSmeatonWriting my nature diary for the January edition of the Dalesman magazine, I got sidetracked by the story of John Smeaton (1724-1792), ‘the father of civil engineering’. He only has a walk-on part in my article, where he described the rock in Coxley Quarry as ‘the best Blue Stone’ he had ever seen (I’ve come up with a theory of why he described the buff sandstone in the quarry as ‘Blue Stone’).

He visited the quarry in 1760 when he was acting as superintendent engineer on what would become the Calder and Hebble Navigation. The year before he had completed the construction of the Eddystone Lighthouse, which he designed to have the proportions of the trunk of an oak tree.

SmeatonHe’d also recently been awarded a medal by the Royal Society for his work on the mechanics of waterwheels and windmills. His enquiries into the relationship between pressure and velocity for objects moving in air led to a formula for calculating lift that the Wright brothers used in designing their aircraft.

Coxley QuarryI wanted to draw Smeaton looking suitably dynamic for my article but for the main illustration we’re going for an acrylic on board painting that I made on location twenty years ago in 1996.