The drill hall on Oulton Lane in Woodlesford was built just before the Second World War as a base for the local unit of the Territorial Army. It was also used for dances, badminton matches and other social functions finally ending its days as a clothing factory.
Constructed from brick at a cost of £12,000 the hall was officially opened on Saturday 11 June 1938 by Major-General James Murray Roberts Harrison, Commander of the 2nd Anti-Aircraft Division. As well as the main hall the building had showers, changing rooms, gun sheds, stores, a canteen, and sergeants’ and officers’ messes. A garage could accommodate lorries and other vehicles and there was also a miniature rifle range with the adjacent land turned into a sports field for games and drill practice.
The local unit of the “territorials” had been established in 1922 by a veteran of the First World War, Leeds based solicitor Arthur Maxwell Ramsden. After serving in the ranks of the Leeds Pals he had risen to become an officer in the 8th Leeds Rifles.
Starting with just a few recruits from Oulton and Woodlesford under Ramsden’s leadership the unit grew to about a hundred men before its was redesignated in 1936 to become the 186th Battery of the 66th (Leeds Rifles, the West Yorkshire Regiment) Anti-Aircraft Brigade, Royal Artillery, Territorial Army. At full strength it was meant to have 180 officers and men with some of the volunteers coming from Rothwell, Castleford and Wakefield.
For the opening ceremony the battery paraded on Oulton Lane with a guard of honour and after the main door was opened by Major-General Harrison the hall was crowded to hear a series of speeches presided over by Major Kenneth Hargreaves, the battery commander. He said the hall would make a tremendous difference to the training. But with war clouds looming once again he said the occasion was also a solemn one. It was dedication of themselves to the service of their country. If the time ever came when they were called upon to serve the country actively, he believed they would not let the country down.
Major-General Harrison congratulated the battery on getting “such a fine drill hall.” They had wonderful traditions, and he was sure they were going to make good in their new task. “There are lots of people,” he said, “who have rather funny ideas about soldiers and about pacificism. Well if pacifism means that you don’t want war I am a pacifist; and the best way not to have war is to make sure that you are prepared to defend yourselves. The readier we are in defence, the less likely we are to be attacked. Its is very heartening to learn of your numbers. You can be certain that foreign powers are watching the result of the appeal which is being made by the government to the patriotism of their people.”
Another speaker was Major Bernard Armitage, joint managing director of George Armitage & Sons. He lived at The Grove in Oulton and was later to become chairman of the Rothwell Urban District Council. He said he believed the territorials would be equal to the task given them of defending the country against attack. He felt sure that the civilian population locally would support the battery in every way.
By 1938 Arthur Ramsden had been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and was commander of the 66th Leeds Anti-Aircraft Brigade. He said since he first came to Oulton, 16 years previously, it had been his ambition to have a drill hall, and they now had a hall which was a model of what a battery drill halls should be.
After the ceremony, a section of the battery, commanded by 2nd Lt. J. Robinson gave a demonstration of the unit’s skills performing a mock attack on an aeroplane which had flown over from Yeadon aerodrome. Villagers were invited into the grounds to look at the gardens and equipment with music provided by the regimental band conducted by Bandmaster Lewis.
Three weeks after the drill hall opened it was the starting point for the battery’s 6th annual Military Sunday parade which took place on 3 July 1938. Joined by members of the British Legion and headed by the Leeds Rifles Band about 160 men marched first to Woodlesford church where a service was conducted by the vicar, Don Ivor James. They then went along Station Lane and Aberford Road to the cenotaph where another service was held and a laurel wreath, adorned with black, green, red and blue ribbons was placed by Gunner R. White, the battery’s “best” recruit that year. The “Last Post” and “Revielle” were sounded by trumpeters.
With the British Legion standard borne by former Royal Navy sailor Leonard Fish the parade returned via Quarry Hill to the drill hall where Lieutenant-Colonel Ramsden was on hand to take the salute. Afterwards there was another tea catered by Paley’s bakery and a collection was made for the Oulton and Woodlesford Hospital Committee which coincidentally had been holding its own fund raising procession that day led by the Yorkshire Copper Works Band.
After the Territorial Army was cut back in 1961 the drill hall was empty for a number of years before it was sold by the Ministry of Defence to Rothwell Urban District Council. They decided it could be used as a factory to provide local jobs and rented it to Hepworth’s, the Leeds based tailoring company formed in 1864 by Joseph Hepworth who became famous for his made-to-measure men’s suits.
Hepworth’s invested £60,000 in the drill hall altering it to provide modern offices, a new canteen, refurbished toilets and cloakrooms. It was part of policy of basing their production closer to the workforce rather than expanding their larger production centres. Following the creation of a similar factory at Hetton-le-Hole in County Durham the drill hall at Woodlesford was to be a “satellite” operation with women employed to sew together and finish off Hardy Amies style ready-to-wear jackets which had been cut at the main factory on Claypit Lane in Leeds.
Production Manager Ronald Sheffield told the Rothwell Advertiser that experienced labour was available locally but domestic arrangements didn’t allow people to travel into Leeds. “This new factory will go a long way to solving the problem of working wives in Woodlesford and Oulton by providing employment on the doorstep,” he said. A training centre was also created to attract school leavers into the tailoring trade.
The factory started production at the end of August 1970 with 70 employees including 14 girl trainees fresh from school. By the time the drill hall witnessed its second official opening on Monday 19 October the workforce had already reached its planned size of 150 and they were well on their way to producing a target of 1500 jackets a week. This time the ceremony was in the hands of M.P. Albert Roberts, accompanied by his wife Alice, and with a large pair of cutter’s shears he snipped through a piece of silk draped across the main entrance.
After being shown round he was presented with a new jacket and Mrs. Roberts was given a bouquet of flowers by Patricia Ward, the youngest girl at the training centre. Other guests that day included Arthur Dibble, Rothwell council’s engineer and surveyor, and the council chairman, Dora Hardwick.
Despite much optimism at the factory’s opening there were big changes afoot in the economy and by the end of the 1970s Hepworth’s were struggling to make a profit. The Claypit Lane factory closed in December 1979 and the closure of Hetton-le-Hole and Woodlesford was announced in 1980. Shortly afterwards the drill hall was demolished to make way for a housing development.