Standing at the corner of Holmsley Lane and Pickpocket Lane, the Needless Inn was a local landmark in Woodlesford. Children who grew up before and after the Second World War knew it as the home of the Hirst family who farmed the land around it and sold milk.
They also built horse drawn bowtop caravans for sale to gypsy travellers who used stay just down the road on land at Gypsy Lane. Up until the 1960s they were regular visitors, the men doing odd jobs on local farms, the women going door to door selling clothes pegs and sprigs of “lucky” heather. Some can remember the Hirst brothers using a large round stone in the yard to form the iron tyres for the wooden wagon wheels.
When it was an inn the house was reputed to have had a concealed cellar used by smugglers. It was also rumoured there was a tunnel running down towards the canal.
Evidence for a concealed cellar, but not the tunnel, is found in the article below which was printed in the Leeds Mercury in 1888 and written by historian John Holmes. Although he was willing to speculate that smugglers once used the hidden cellar he appears not to have been totally convinced!
THE STORY OF AN OLD HOUSE AT WOODLESFORD
Leeds Mercury. Saturday 14 April 1888.
Travellers on foot, going the direct road betweeen Woodlesford station and Rothwell, will do well to note the last house in Woodlesford to the right of the road. It stands alone, and has no external features to attract. A close observation will, however, show it to be very strongly built of stone of the neighbourhood, quoined, contrary to the natural bed.
The doorway is narrow and low, and the windows comparatively small and square. It occupies a “three corner bit,” having to the south the old vicinal Roman road from Slack, Dewsbury, Lingwell Nook through Carlton and Rothwell, over the hill to Woodlesford (the ford in the wood), to Garforth, and so on to the great Roman road of Wetherby to York. On the east runs an old “occupation road” called Pickpocket Lane, and to the west is an open field. There are a few dilapidated outbuildings at the back, but it never can have been attractive to the eye at any time.
The period of erection from the appearance may be placed between 1700 and 1750. It stands a little back, and is lower than the present road. It has four rooms on the ground floor, tolerably sized, say the two front 15 feet square, with chambers over; but both chambers and rooms to the back are smaller.
There is an ordinary cellar under the house, in which, some 15 or 20 years ago, a flag gave way in the floor. The occupant, a miner still living in it, raised the flag up, expecting that a little packing would set it straight and tight as it ought to be. He was, however, not a little surprised to find a set of steps leading down to a lower depth still.
The cellar beneath appeared to be a second thought, was low, and, from appearance, had been cut out of the rocky bed as “done by somebody themselves.” Like many another wonder, “there was nothing in it,” at least, so he told me; and being all intact, he packed in the flag, having neither explanation nor story to tell relating to the cellar curiosity.
Still we surmise that there must be a story in connection, for it is scarcely likely that “nobody” would take trouble to cut another deeper cellar for nothing. From information received, I may, however, relate one or two facts and surmises that may throw some dim light on the subject.
An old gentleman born at Oulton in 1780 told me that he remembered this house well. It stood upon a wild moor, thickly covered by gorse or “whins,” and these were being stubbed up as he passed over the moor from Oulton to go to some feasting celebration at Rothwell, when he had his first leather-breeched suit on. This would be about 1786-7, when the moor or common was being taken in.
At that time the house was a way-side inn called the “World’s End.” This was probably some old Puritan sign – only at that time the house bore a bad name – from robberies and whispers of violence, if not murders, being traced to it.
Whether true or not, the house lost its license, and it was said that even military force had to be employed to enforce the law before things quietened down. May not this secret cellar be a fair evidence of the truth of rumours and suppositions of the old reports?
At that time there were no rural police, and we had lawless Jack Sheppards in the south and Dick Turpins in the north relieving His or Her Majesty’s subjects of their “purses or lives” as they travelled on their several businesses on the King’s highway. We have evidence enough of this in old Thoresby’s prayers of thankfulness from escaping perils of road and robbers in his journeys betwixt York and Leeds, especially if he called to prayers at Lady Betty Hastings’s, at Ledstone, or the pious Mr. Goodwin’s, Rector of Methley, on the way.
That these gentlemen of the road had calling places both for “liquoring up” and for shelter and storehouses, we have the evidence still remaining of the “Sandal Three Houses” where the notorious thief, Nevison, was actually captured after his celebrated leap near Pontefract.
Another surmise may be equally probable. The River Aire has been navigable from Norman times: but it was improved, and in 1760 a cut or canal was finished, which from Leeds, via Knottingley, saved 17 miles in the navigation to Hull.
From 1700 to 1800 was a troubled time. The intrigues of the Stuarts up to 1744, and then the American and French Revolutions, drained England of both men and money. Exorbitant taxation, and enormous duties upon all imports imposed by Governments, both arbitrary and extravagant, embittered the lives of the people, and soured their hearts, until their ideas of right and wrong, and of duty as citizens to the State, were so warped that they cared little for the right of law, and scrupled not to escape its taxations and, whenever they could, it’s penalties.
In this way smuggling became both a profit and a pleasure, much the same as poaching is still. Spirits, wines, and tobacco were very heavily taxed; and tea and coffee, beginning to spread in town populations, were thus tempting, and so favourite objects of smuggling. The then newly worked canal direct from the port of Hull to the inlands was doubtless utilised in the way of contraband traffic, and the locks betwixt Castleford and Leeds offered many opportunities of safe haul to willing receivers.
The “boat” or hauling, house of Woodlesford, being a favourite calling place, both for coals and for approaching to Leeds, offered a fair opening for trade which did not pass through the hands of the excise man; and there are suppositions that the inn at the “World’s End” was pretty well known to the boatman landing at Woodlesford lock. In that case a snug cellar, like the one now instanced, might be found convenient wherein to plant and store valuable commodities until they could be safely disposed of.
Since the good old times (1815) we have heard, or at least known, little of smuggling. Reduction of duties and additional organisation against smuggling took away the gains and added to the risk of the trade, and so it rapidly declined. “Little goes” of both tobacco and spirits have doubtless been made, but not until recently has there been any extensive attempt to defraud the revenue.
But during 1884 and 1885 a lot of Jews in Holland and Belgium conspired with Polish and other Jew workers in Leeds to “run” spirits, tobacco and cigars. They did this by hollowing legs of timber, which were delivered at Leeds, and housed in outbuildings in the Leylands, when the contraband articles, especially tobacco and cigars, were passed to a dealer named Holmes. He had two or three shops in Leeds, and was convicted as receiver. He was imprisoned, and heavily fined for the offence. And so we register, to pass before the reader, these “phases of parish life.”
One of the features noticeable in this “World’s End” or “Needless Inn” was a well figured ship on one of the window square’s of glass. The square’s were set in a strong frame about 10 inches by 8 inches, and the diamond cutting represented a fall wrecked ship in sail. This would intimate that one of the early holders, if not the builder, might have been a sailor, for this ship can be remembered as early as anything about the house.
So far it bears out the idea that the cellar was used for smuggling; but I believe there is no legend of any such use being made of the place.
Both of Anne Rayner’s parents grew up on Church Street in Woodlesford and after they married they lived in Swillington. They moved back to live in Woodlesford in 1961 when their only daughter, Anne, was 4 years old. New houses were being built on Holmsley Lane and they bought No 48 next to the overgrown plot which had once been Hirst’s farm.
The only surviving member of the family was the daughter, Mary Ann, and she lived alone in the old house. The Rayner’s house was separated from hers by a small wooden fence and they were right next to what was probably an orchard belonging to the farm, though by then it was completely dark and overgrown.
Mary Ann kept bantam hens in amongst the trees and would often give Mrs. Rayner eggs. Anne remembers Miss Hirst, as she was always called, as quite a scary figure and children on their way along Holmsley Lane to and from Woodlesford School used to run to past the “witch’s house.”
Anne gradually got to know Miss Hirst mainly because she kept several cats. She used to visit her and once went round for tea with salmon sandwiches. She was a very well-spoken lady and had taught piano at one time. Anne’s aunt told her she had been to Mary Ann for lessons.
The house was very dark inside as it was surrounded by trees. It was crammed with old newspapers and boxes and Mary Ann lived mainly in one room. Anne remembers laughing when she visited when she said she didn’t have room to swing a cat since she kept several!
In winter, when there were gales, Miss Hirst would knock at the Rayner’s door and spend the night on their sofa as she was frightened that her house would collapse around her! One morning Miss Hirst pointed to the ceiling saying “I think you’ve got a cobweb.” Mrs. Rayner was very put out saying she must have had thousands!
There was an entrance to the Hirst’s land on Pickpocket Lane and there were still the old circular stones lying on the ground from the family’s days as wheelwrights. Behind the gate, amongst the trees, was an immaculately kept gypsy caravan painted green and gold.
The kettle, which hung underneath, was always gleaming. Anne only saw inside from her seat on the steps, but remembers it being beautiful. A man, known to her as Vin, lived there and her mum and dad used to say he was a “real gypsy.”
Vin was like a character from another age. He dressed in a large black hat and long coat and spoke very slowly and politely. Its not known if he was a relative of the Hirsts but he used to do Miss Hirst’s shopping and generally keep an eye on her. From time to time Vin would disappear in his caravan for a few weeks, but always returned.
Before Miss Hirst died she sold the land on which the orchard was situated to her neighbour and local house builder Ernest Appleyard. He allowed her to continue using the land for her hens and for visiting traditional gypsy caravans.
After Miss Hirst’s death Vin was never seen again and the old farm house fell into disrepair. As it was in a dangerous condition it was demolished on the order of Rothwell council. It was always believed that in her will Miss Hirst had left the old farmhouse and small garden to Vin.
In the early 1970s a house was built on the orchard plot by Ernest Appleyard’s company and this was sold to a private purchaser who subsequently fenced off the adjacent unclaimed land and after many years claimed title to it. The new house previously built on the orchard site changed hands and became the Woodlesford vicarage. Years later another house was built on the “claimed land,” once the site of the old farmhouse.
The following contribution comes from Granville Foster who lived in Woodlesford when he was a boy.
When I moved to Woodlesford, age 8, with my mum and dad in February 1955 to live at 56 Holmsley Lane what remained of the Hirst family, George and Mary Anne, were our next door neighbours. We were separated by a field that is now Holmsley Garth.
At this time George and Mary Anne were living in the right hand section of the house, effectively a living room and lean-to kitchen. The left hand side of the house was already uninhabitable due to the damage to the roof from a fallen chimney although the left hand downstairs room, the front parlour, was still just as it had been lived in. There was a piano in the front hall which on occasions Mary Ann would play. The living room was lit by a single gas light and heated by a coal fired range. Any other lighting was by candle.
To the rear of the property were two stone floored rooms which would eventually become Mary Ann’s living space. To the rear of the property was a wooden building in which George used to work on the bow top caravans. Beyond that and adjacent to Pickpocket Lane was the caravan that was the home of Vin. Opposite that was another wooden shed in a partial state of collapse. Between Pickpocket Lane and Holmsley Lane was an orchard with apple and pear trees. Mary Ann kept her hens within the orchard.
My memory of George Hirst is that he was a small man almost bent double who walked with a stick. George died in the doorway of the kitchen and I was dispatched by Mary Ann to go and get a lady who dealt with the laying out of bodies. I would only be 9 or 10 when this happened. The lady, whose name I don’t recall, lived in one of the council houses at the end of Pickpocket Lane before it meets Leeds Road. I had to take my bike with me so that I could carry the laying out boards over the handle bars and saddle. The picture of George laying in a crumpled heap in the doorway is one that has stayed with me all my life, but not in a scary way.
Mary Ann was also of small stature and was rarely seen without her thick coat and head scarf even in summer. She used to have a black and white dog with some sheep dog in its family. I used to walk the dog with Mary Ann mostly along Pickpocket Lane. On many of our walks she would talk about Nellie and Fred and the time they lived at Wood End farm.
Another of my “duties” each Saturday morning was to take Mary Ann’s accumulator (rechargeable battery) to the cobbler and bring a second one back, fully charged. The cobbler worked in a green wooden hut on Church Street near Woodlesford school. Great care had to be taken carrying the accumulator as it was filled with acid which wasn’t sealed. The accumulator was used to power her radio. She attempted to teach me to play piano but my musical talent did not lend its self to playing musical instruments. In my early life in Woodlesford I spent many happy hours with Mary Ann and Vin. She was always telling suggestive jokes much to Vin’s disapproval.
Vin, as I recall, was a tall a well dressed ginger haired man. He always wore what looked to be a good substantial wool suit in brown and a brown felt hat. He was very well spoken and gave the impression of being well educated. I was never allowed into the caravan that was his home and kept private. He never spoke about any of his family and was a very private person. He did disappear at times. Sometimes for a few days sometimes longer and on his return he occasionally made reference to York.