Before the 1890s Church Street in Woodlesford was known as Prince’s or Princess Street and on some older documents is referred to as Town Street. Then between the 1891 census and the next in 1901 the lower part below Applegarth became Church Street acknowledging the presence of the Anglican church which was consecrated in 1870. The name Prince’s or Princess continued to be used for the stretch up to the junction with Oulton Lane but by 1911 that too had become a continuation of Church Street with the houses being renumbered.
For about a century from the 1860s to the 1960s, with the help of photographs, maps and memories, the locations of the shops on Church Street can fairly easily be deduced. But because of the change of street name over the years and the different routes the census takers took its difficult to deduct from the census information who was the proprietor of a particular shop.
What is clear is that the working class families who lived in the village didn’t have far to go to buy their food, clothing and shoes. Most everything they needed was in walking distance and it wasn’t until the 1950s that they started to venture regularly into Leeds to buy luxuries like televisions and expensive furniture.
The key locations for the main shops on Church Street were opposite the White Hart pub, between the Two Pointers and the church, and on the corner of Church Street and Station Lane. There were also other smaller shops in one room of particular houses and there were at least two wooden huts which housed a cobbler and fish and chip shop. For many years until the 1960s the Post Office was in a stone building opposite the entrance to Applegarth although it was originally at the railway station and in the 1890s was on Station Lane.
As with Smiffies in recent times a village institution in the latter part of the 19th century was Langstaff’s. Members of the family were quarry owners and stone merchants but one of them, John Langstaff, became a shoemaker with premises on Princess Street. His son, Henry, ran a shop opposite the school on Stockings Lane, later renamed Highfield Lane. In 1881 it was listed as a stationers and newsagent. Ten years later Henry’s occupation was given as a grocer and draper.
In the 1890s the name Langstaff’s was known across the world in an advertisement for “Mother Siegel’s Syrup” which appeared in newspapers as far afield as New Zealand. The concoction purported to restore your appetite and the advertisement featured an endorsement from a Midland Railway employee called George Hunt who may have worked at Woodlesford.
In the ad George says: “In the year 1889 I changed work from railway porter to signalman. I had been signalman twelve months, and then all at once, so to speak, I did not feel myself. My mouth tasted bad, so that ordinary articles of diet seemed to lose their flavour; the palate, to put in that way, appeared to have nothing to say to them. One thing was like another, and none was good. My tongue was coated and furred, with a dark line down the middle and yellow fur round it. My breath was offensive and my appetite poor, with pains through the chest and shoulders, which were always right before I had eaten anything.”
“My wife,” he says, “got me a bottle at Mr. Langstaffs, in Woodlesford, and after using its contents the ailment left me and has never returned since that fortunate day. I should like the whole world to know what it did for me. I have been employed by the Midland Railway Company for eleven years. (Signed) George Hunt, Car Bottom Boad, Apperley Bridge, near Leeds.”
Needless to say a search of the railway employment records and the census fails to find a George Hunt connected to Woodlesford or Apperley Bridge so he was probably a figment of a copywriter’s imagination. However it’s intriguing to wonder why Langstaff’s was featured.
Another shopkeeper who brought a certain notoriety to the village was a draper and boot dealer whose name also featured in newspapers nationwide. Unfortunately it was the poor man’s untimely death and village gossip about how he had met his maker that led to the “Woodlesford Sensation” headlines over several weeks in the winter of 1902.
Scott Wilson and his wife can only have arrived a short while earlier because during the 1901 census they were running a draper’s shop at Ferry Fryston. He was 30 years old and had been brought up at Earlsheaton near Dewsbury, the son of a weaver who later became a rent collector.
Scott trained to be a confectioner and after his parents died he lived with two older sisters at Batley. There, in 1894, he married Gertrude Elizabeth Yellow, a teacher’s daughter from Nether Poppleton near York who was employed as a servant at Batley Carr. She was 5 years older than him.
From the start things didn’t go well. According to evidence given in the corner’s court, Gertrude didn’t get on with her sisters-in-law. She persuaded Scott to give up the confectionery business and become a draper but they don’t seem to have been very successful and moved about five times over the course of the next 8 years. Scott wasn’t a well man either. He had suffered from “low” fever, scarlet fever, and “touches” of pleurisy.
In January 1902 Scott and Gertrude fell out and separated for a week. The newspaper reports don’t say precisely what happened but it’s probable that Scott went to stay with his sister Sarah who by that time was married to railway clerk Nahum Belfield and living at Northowram near Halifax.
Shortly after Scott and Gertrude got back together he was taken seriously ill and on February 1st Dr. Joseph Buck was called from Mulgrave House in Rothwell. Sarah and Scott’s other sister Hannah also arrived.
Dr. Buck felt it necessary to bring in another doctor from Leeds but despite their best efforts Scott Wilson gradually became worse and after a day of vomiting died at home late on February 5th. A certificate was signed stating the cause of death to be gastroenteritis and the body was taken to Earlsheaton to be buried.
It was then that the trouble started. Alerted by “wagging tongues” a few days after the funeral Sarah returned to Woodlesford and at her dead brother’s shop found a packet of oxalic acid. Alleging that her brother had been poisoned Sarah called the local bobby, P.C. Alfred Womack, who lived on Church Street. He was also aware of the gossip and after he reported to his superiors permission was sought from the Home Secretary in London to exhume the body.
That took place on Thursday February 27th and after a post mortem by two surgeons an inquest opened at the West Riding Court House in Dewsbury a day later. It was held under the coroner, Pelham Page Maitland, a man who was well known in Oulton and Woodlesford through the inquests he had conducted locally.
In the witness box Dr. Buck said that Scott Wilson had “never hinted at anything suspicious” and his wife had seemed “very attentive.” However the sisters had insinuated to him that Gertrude Wilson “had not led a good life.” He had asked if the vomiting had been caused by rotten food but said the relatives had denied that Scott had eaten any.
The coroner was concerned that a death certificate had been issued despite the fact the two doctors were uncertain of the precise cause and the Leeds doctor had taken away a sample of the vomit for analysis. Dr. Buck, however, stood his ground saying he was perfectly justified in issuing the certificate although he did admit that the death might have been “possibly” caused by “something quite unnatural.”
The Dewsbury surgeons who had conducted the postmortem said there were five or six ounces of a thick greenish fluid in the stomach which had dark patches, probably due to an irritant. There were signs of peritonitis but they were unable to say what had caused it.
In her evidence Sarah Belfield said that 11 days after her brother’s marriage he had complained that he had made a mistake. She said she’d heard Mrs. Wilson put razors under her pillow, (presumably for self defence), but admitted she had “never seen anything of the sort herself.” She said the Vicar had made her brother’s will and that nobody would benefit apart from creditors of the business. Asked if she had any suspicions there was anything wrong going on during her brother’s illness she replied: “No.” She also denied telling the police that she suspected Mrs. Wilson who, throughout the proceedings, dressed in black, was “an attentive but silent observer.”
The coroner then adjourned the hearing so the contents of Scott Wilson’s stomach could be analysed. A month later the inquest reconvened to hear Thomas Fairley, the Leeds analyst, declare that he had examined three samples but could find no trace of oxalic acid nor any other poison. Asked if it would have been possible for the acid to have evaporated he said: “Oxalic acid does not evaporate at all. It is one of the most permanent of poisons.”
Summing up the coroner said: “There has been imparted into the case a lot of feeling, gossip, and scandal which never ought to have been raised, especially by Mrs. Belfield, who has acted very unwisely – to put it mildly – to take it to the police and make all sorts of rash and violent statements. She had exhibited an amount of spleen which “was very wicked indeed.”
After a short while the jury returned a verdict of: “Death from natural causes.” A solicitor acting for Gertrude Wilson said he was in a position to prove that her husband had himself bought the oxalic acid for cleaning purposes shortly before his death.
Not long after after the case Gertrude Wilson left Woodlesford to live with her sister Jane who was a schoolmisteress at Howden near Goole. She died just over a year later.
Known as Midgley’s the grocery, at 55 Church Street, was one of the last survivors of the old shops until it was surrounded in the 1960s by the Beechwood shopping centre. Before the First World War it was run by William Inman, his wife, and their youngest daughter, Violet Emily, who was 20 years old.
William was the son of a drayman at Bentley’s brewery and grew up just across the road on Stockings Lane. As a young man he was a butcher’s assistant living in Oulton but after he married Ellen Matilda Empson in 1886 they took over the shop. In the early 1890s he was listed as a butcher but ten years later business can’t have been too good because he was working as a bricklayer’s labourer and the shop was a grocery run by Ellen. She was the daughter of a gamekeeper and was born at Westwell near Ashford in Kent.
As a young woman Ellen worked as a still room maid at Eridge Castle in Sussex, the home of the 1st Marquess of Abergavenny. His wife came from Yorkshire and one of their sons, Lord George Montacute Nevill, was born at Braham so its possible Ellen met William when she travelled north with her employers. Alternatively she may have visited Oulton Hall with the Nevills or moved to work for the Calverleys or another family from the local gentry.
After the Inmans the shop was in the hands of Harry and Lilian Webster who rented at first then bought it with the help of a mortgage in 1925. Harry was born in Oakdene Yard and started his working life as a telegraph boy at the post office in Woodlesford. Later he worked for Bentley’s and then became a miner giving that up in 1932 to concentrate on the grocery and a milk round.
The shop’s supply of eggs came from 60 hens which were kept on an allotment near the Stockings footpath. An incident in March 1939 led to a temporary short supply when a dog owned by Percy Benson from New Row in Oulton killed 6 pullets. They were worth £2 8 shillings and in court he offered to pay the Websters back at 5 shillings per week. Harry and Lilian sold the shop in 1945 and retired to live in a bungalow on Church Street.
The large house next door was 53 Church Street. Known as Woodlesford House it can easily be confused with the old manor house at the bottom of Applegarth. In the 1930’s it was occupied by chemist Horace Stringer and his family. Horace owned a number of houses in Woodlesford including Beecroft Yard which was behind the shop.
Click on the links below to listen to Betty Benson (nee Alderson) and Sylvia Johnson (nee Cowling) as they take a walk down Church Street reminiscing about the street and its shops from when they were children in the 1930s. Betty was born at 41 Church Street and Sylvia lived for a while at 51 Church Street next door to the Stringers. They also talk about the cottages in Beecroft Yard, otherwise known as Raglan Cottages or Hell’s Jet, which were demolished in 1939 with many of the families moving to newly built council houses on Green Lea.