Johnnie Wilkinson

Coal merchant Johnnie Wilkison and his wife Lily on Midland Street in October 1963. Sam Garland’s barber’s shop is in the background. It was previously occupied by Norman Ellis’s electrical business.

Johnnie Wilkinson’s coal lorry was a common sight in Oulton and Woodlesford from the 1940s until the 1960s. In the days before gas boilers and central heating when practically every house was heated by coal fires there was enough business to keep him going within a small area apart from occasional forays further afield to customers in places like Harrogate and Wetherby.

Most of Johnnie’s supplies came from Water Haigh colliery and such was the demand in the Rothwell area that at least two other local merchants, Frank Armitage and Kenny Baber, operated from there. Many of the customers were miners who got a free allowance of coal but had to pay for it to be delivered. A load of coal would be tipped outside a house ready for it to be shovelled by the occupant into the cellar. Smaller amounts were weighed and bagged into hessian sacks at the pit. They were then delivered to households with the coalmen skillfully humping the sacks into coal bunkers or garden sheds. 

Johnnie lived with his wife and daughter on Aberford Road just across from the Midland Hotel but kept his lorry in a shed on land next to Woodlesford school which he had bought from an aunt.

His grandparents were John and Emma Wilkinson. Born on Quarry Hill in Oulton in 1845, the son of a shoemaker, John had followed his older brothers into the quarries as a stone mason. Later he became a carting agent, green grocer, market gardener and milk dealer with a shop on Church Street opposite the White Hart pub.

Over their long marriage John and Emma had 12 children four of whom died young. At the time of the 1911 census the family occupied 43 and 45 Church Street with five of the children still living at home helping in the business. The eldest, Admiral, was 41 years old, single, and working as a green grocer with his father. His younger brothers, Fred and Leonard, did the heavy lifting mainly “leading” or delivering coal by horse and cart along with Johnnie’s father, Owen, who by that time had married and set up his own household. Their sisters, Connie and Eleanor, who were also unmarried, helped at home. Another brother emigrated to Manitoba in Canada in 1910 but returned to fight in France in the First World War.

Owen Wilkinson, Harry Martin and Herbert Boyes sitting on the boundary benches at Woodlesford cricket ground now the site of the Northwood Falls estate. Harry was a traction engine driver and Herbert was a butcher whose shop, Boyes and Drew, was in Rothwell.

In 1902 the Wilkinson’s must have been caused some embarrassment when they were taken to court for selling watered down milk. Frederick S. Turner, an Inspector of Weights and Measures from Wakefield, had bought some milk from Eleanor on her round and an analysis revealed that it was deficient in fat and contained 18 per cent of added water.

In his defence a solicitor acting for John said he no longer kept his own cows and obtained his milk from Jesse Spurdon, a farmer at Great Preston, and the milk received from him was delivered straight to customers.

Eleanor testified that Spurdon had delivered the milk at their door that morning, and without interfering with it, she had taken taken it out, a statement corroborated by their next door neighbour Joseph Parker.

Under cross-examination Jesse Spurdon said he had told John Wilkinson that any milk he delivered would “stand the test.” Unfortunately for John Wilkinson the magistrates believed the farmer and he was fined £1 and costs, although there appears to have been some sympathy from the bench as the zealous inspector was denied the fee he had to pay the analyst.

John Wilkinson, who died at the age of 78 in 1924, was a keen cricketer and had played for the Woodlesford team. According to the Wakefield Express he was a cricket enthusiast who had few equals. “He used to delight to talk of “his day” in the old village club. Many a time when a playing member was unable to attend a match, Mr. Wilkinson stood the expenses of the substitute,” said the paper. After his death his daughter, Connie, continued to run the family shop selling firewood and sweets from the front room of her home on Church Street.

Johnnie Wilkinson followed his father into the coal delivery business and it continued until about 1963. Then, with the introduction of smokeless fuel legislation, he could see the writing was on the wall for domestic coal. The West Riding County Council also made a compulsory purchase order on the land where he kept his lorry for the expansion of Woodlesford school so he sold up and got a job as a labourer at Bentley’s brewery until he retired.  

Woodlesford cricket team before the First World War. Back row: Charles Taylor, John Robinson, John Robert Hewitt, Frank Benton, Garnett Hewitt, Unknown umpire. Middle row: Harry Martin, Edwin Baxter, Unknown, Edmund Smith, Howson McWilliam. Front row: Owen Wilkinson, Charles Bates.

Click on the links below to listen to Johnnie Wilkinson’s daughter, Dorothy, talk about growing up with her coalman father. She also has stories about her grandfather who inherited his father’s interest in cricket and became an umpire. He also had a weakness for gambling on greyhounds which, on one occasion, led to him being “in the doghouse!”   

My dad was a coalman

All the ladies were none too pleased