It’s not clear precisely when Croft Farm in Oulton got its name. A croft was the old English word used to describe an area of enclosed land next to a dwelling house. On old maps of Oulton there are several crofts marked, with names like Brook Croft and Tenter Croft, but census records up to 1901 don’t indicate a farm anywhere in the village with the specific description of Croft Farm.
However, by the 1911 census, it’s given as the address of John Greaves and his family, and from photographs and other evidence its clear they lived in the house, in what is now called Bentley Square, which had been the childhood home of the famous scholar and theologian, Richard Bentley. He was born in 1662 and was distantly related to Henry Bentley, the founder of the brewery at Woodlesford.
Little is known of who lived in the house in the 18th century but by the middle of the 19th century the farm house, orchard and barn, and much of the surrounding land was owned by the lord of the manor of Oulton, John Blayds. His father, John Calverley, had inherited the Rothwell parish property of wealthy Leeds merchant, John Blayds, and in 1807 he changed his name to Blayds in his benefactor’s honour. His son changed it back to Calverley in 1852.
The tenant of what became Croft Farm was Robert Flint, who may have previously owned the farm house and seven adjacent cottages. He appears to have sold them to John Blayds about the time of a survey of Oulton and Woodlesford in 1835. It followed the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and listed all the owners and occupiers of land and buildings with a calculation of their value to determine how much each should contribute to towards “Relief of the Poor.”
Robert Flint’s farmland, which was also owned by John Blayds, was made up of ten fields dotted across the village. One of the largest, known as Acres, was immediately behind the house and was probably used for grazing cows. A smaller plot called West Yard Orchard was roughly at the bottom of what is now North Lane.
There were two fields on land which became part of Rothwell Park – Oven Croft and Rothwell Lane Close. At Water Haigh there were two plots known as Bule Ings and on the opposite side of Fleet Lane another two fields were part of Quarry Close. Furthest away from the house was Little Field in what is now Rothwell Country Park.
Four of the tenants who occupied the cottages next to the Bentley house at the time of the 1835 survey were still there when the census was carried out in 1841. They included stone mason William Rimmington, bricklayer Jonathan Higgins, and 72 year old Sarah Hutchinson, widow of Abraham Hutchinson.
Robert Flint, who was born in 1773, and his wife Faith, who was ten years younger than him, appear to have had ten children between 1804 and 1825, although none of them seems to have been in a position to keep the farm going after their widowed father died at the age of 70 in 1843.
The eldest son, William, married Grace Lister at Wakefield in 1835. They ran an inn at South Milford but it appears both of them died because by 1841 their two young children were living with their grandfather at Oulton.
Another son of Robert and Faith, George Flint, became a gardener and moved to live at Stanley with his family. The youngest child, Myers, born in 1825, became a joiner and carpenter after serving an apprenticeship as a wheelwright. He moved to live first on Fleet Lane and then on Farrer Lane. After her father’s death the eldest daughter, Susanna, went to Alma Place in Woodlesford along with two of her nephews where she earned a living as a laundress.
By the 1851 census the tenant of the Bentley house was 67 year old Samuel Armitage. Previously he had lived in a house on the triangle of land bordered by Leeds Road, Aberford Road and St. John’s Street. Samuel was helped to farm 33 acres by his son Francis and two daughters, Mary and Hannah. Another son, Samuel, was a cabinet maker.
It’s difficult to determine from the census records who lived in the Bentley house after the Armitage family but by 1881 it appears to have been occupied by George and Hannah King and their son Tom. By then the acreage they looked after had fallen to 13.
Previously they had run a public house in Oulton and before that George, who came from Kirby Underdale in the East Riding, was a coachman living in a cottage at The Hollings. He possibly worked for John Bell, the Vicar of Rothwell, who was the tenant of the large house at Oulton Green or he could have driven for the Calverley family at Oulton Hall.
What is clear is that one the neighbours of both the Flint and Armitage families was a widowed blacksmith who lived his final years on parish relief. His name was Thomas Greaves and he may have been related to William Greaves, also a blacksmith, who brought his young family to Oulton from Skelton near York in about 1858. He set up his business in St. John’s Yard on the other side of Oulton beck close to the Three Horse Shoes pub.
William’s son, John, grew up there and followed his father as a blacksmith. His older sister, Mary, became a dressmaker and his younger sister, Elizabeth, was the headmistress at St. John’s school. His younger brother, Thomas, worked in a stationer’s shop.
In 1884 John Greaves married Harriet Amelia Spink, the daughter of a Mickletown butcher, and they appear to have moved into the Bentley house about that time although, according to the 1891 census, it was known then as Vine Cottage, probably because of all the greenery growing on its walls.
John Greaves continued as the village smithy after the death of his father and also took up farming. Eventually he gave up being a smithy and at Croft Farm in 1911 was employing two waggoners and a domestic servant. After the First World War he was also the tenant of Manor Farm and another at Fleet Mills. He was still running them until a couple of years before his death on Good Friday 1939 at the age of 88 when he was described as the second oldest man in the village.
His obituary in the Wakefield Express noted that he was always a very active man whose main hobby was growing roses. As a boy he could remember walking to Leeds in 1858 to see Queen Victoria at the opening of Leeds Town Hall.
John and Harriet Greaves brought up four daughters and a son at Croft Farm and for many years Harriet’s elderly mother also lived with them until her death, at the age of 86, in 1905. Two of the daughters qualified as elementary school teachers.
Bentley Square, or Chapel Yard as it was known up until the 1880s, must have been a lively place, a village within a village, with at least seven other families living in the cottages adjacent to the larger farm house. Some were tenanted by the same family for several generations but others changed hands quite regularly.
In 1911, for instance, 1 Bentley Square was the home of brewery labourer Walter Mirfin, his wife Annie, and their three children. Sharing their five rooms were Walter’s widowed father and a brother. They were also labourers at Bentley’s in Woodlesford. Then there was Christopher Ripley from Mickletown, a colliery bye-worker who lived at No. 5 along with his wife Maude Catherine, the daughter of Oulton shopkeeper Joseph Snell. Next door to them was jobbing gardener John Palfreeman and his wife Sarah Jane. One of their sons, John Leslie, was a railway clerk and the other, Edwin, was a university student, quite an achievement for an Oulton lad at that time. He had previously been a school master.
Also doing well for himself was Edwin Wrigglesworth at No. 7, a locomotive erector at one of the engineering works in Hunslet. He had been born in Clerkenwell in London but was obviously from a local family and was living with his elderly aunt, Mary Metcalf, who was blind. Her father had been the lock keeper at Woodlesford, and she was 96 when she died in 1912.
One of the long term families in Bentley Square were the Flocktons. In 1901 brothers Thomas and William Flockton lived next door to each other. Like his father, Michael, Thomas had been a stone mason but in later life became a cab driver and carting agent. William was a bricklayer. Thomas’ first wife died in 1896 and in 1901 he married his housekeeper, Sarah Ann Milner. Unfortunately they only had four years together before he too passed away in 1905.
To make ends meet Sarah Ann took in lodgers at 3 Bentley Square. Mostly they were young single men who worked in local industries and moved from job to job quite regularly. In 1911 there were five of them sharing the small cottage’s four rooms. They included a bricklayer, a quarry labourer, a gardener and two railway platelayers, probably working on the construction of the sidings at the newly opened Water Haigh colliery.
Three years later there was plenty to talk about in Bentley Square as two of Sarah Ann’s lodgers found themselves in trouble – one in hot water, so to speak, and the other in cold water, quite literally!
The first incident was the apparent suicide, on Wednesday 27 May 1914, of a young Irish pitman who had been a lodger since the previous September. 28 year old Edward Fleming, from Creeve in County Rosscommon, had gone for an evening walk towards Swillington with a fellow lodger, Michael Joyce, who had just moved in. As Joyce was sitting on the wall at Swillington Bridge Fleming went to the river bank and the next thing Joyce knew Fleming was in the water and drowning.
The full story emerged at the inquest which was held a couple of days later in Oulton before the West Riding Coroner Pelham Page Maitland. The first witness was James Mannion, another lodger at 3 Bentley Square. He was 26, also from County Rosscommon, and had come to Yorkshire a few years earlier where he had worked as a contractor on the sinking of Water Haigh pit. He originally lodged on Church Street with colliery engine driver William Wiseman and his family.
Mannion told the inquest that Fleming had been working regular night shifts as a bye-workman at the Robin Hood pit up until the previous Monday night. He had enjoyed good health, with the exception of an occasional cold when he would complain of pains in his head, but he hadn’t taken time off work and neither had he been to see a doctor.
On the day of his death he appeared “somewhat strange” and had said to Sarah Ann: “Many a man in Wakefield is not as bad as I am,” which was taken to refer to the lunatic asylum at Stanley Royd.
Michael Joyce, who was 19 and a labourer, said that Fleming has asked him to go for a walk at about 6.45 p.m. They went towards Swillington and as they reached the bridge over the canal Fleming asked if they could “swap” caps. Joyce pointed out that his cap was an old one whilst Fleming’s was practically new. He said Fleming had answered: “It will do for me,” and the exchange was made.
Coroner Maitland asked Joyce why he’d agreed to the swap and whether he was afraid of Fleming. “No, I wasn’t afraid of him. His cap was better than mine,” he said, which caused a ripple of laughter around the court.
Joyce then explained that they had walked towards the bridge over the River Aire and he had sat down on a low wall facing the road. Fleming went to the river’s edge to look at the bridge and then walked away along the bank. A few moments later when Joyce looked round he saw Fleming in the water but said he had heard no splash. He shouted to him “Teddy”, and Fleming answered: “Goodbye, Joyce.”
Michael Joyce shouted for help to a group of men who were coming along the road and they ran towards the river bank but by the time they got there Fleming had sunk underwater and all they could see were a few bubbles on the surface. They went to Oulton to call out police constables Coldwell and Abbott who grappled for the body which they recovered about 11 p,m. All they found in his pockets were two pence and an insurance card.
The coroner advised the jury to return a verdict of “suicide whilst temporarily insane.” Probably tongue in cheek he said: “The action of changing caps was a strange one, but the idea seemed to be economical as his cap was too good to spoil!” The jury returned a verdict of “suicide whilst of unsound mind.”
It was an eventful time at Bentley Square because just a few days later the police had to be called again, this time to arrest a thief who appears to have been a new lodger in place of Teddy Fleming. On June 1st, a day after Joseph Mcgee moved in, Sarah Ann was in the kitchen and thought she was alone in the house when she heard a noise from a bedroom occupied by James Mannion and a man called Smith who were at work. When she went upstairs she found Mcgee with wrapped up clothes belonging to the other lodgers. She asked him what he was doing and he said: “Now’t wrong.”
She followed him downstairs where they met another lodger who had just come in and she went back upstairs with him. When she went back to the kitchen Mcgee had disappeared. She checked her cupboard and discovered that 21 shillings in silver coins were missing.
Police Constable Abbot was sent for and when he arrested Mcgee he was charged with stealing the money and a silver “Albert” chain and a metal match box, in the shape of a fiddle, which belonged to James Mannion. When he testified in court he said that when he returned from work he found his box and dressing case broken open and the chain and match box, which was worth 2 shillings, were missing from a waistcoat pocket.
It appears Mcgee had been wanted for another offence because by the time the case was heard at the Petty Sessions in Leeds in September a detective said he was serving a sentence in Manchester, and had confessed to the theft in Bentley Square.
In 1925 the Bentley house, its barn and orchard, were sold for £550 by Major Horace Walter Calverley to John Greaves’ daughter Marjorie.
After John’s death the land which he farmed appears to have been taken over by other farmers and eventually in the 1960s much of it was sold off by the Calverley family for housing development.