Meeting Report 4 April 2019

The Airedale & Wharfedale Family History Society met at the Salem Church Hall on Thursday 4 April. Chairman Lynda Balmforth opened the meeting and welcomed speaker Gillian Waters who gave an illustrated talk ‘To New York, Chicago, Wakefield or Otley’.

Gillian is the archivist for the Washburn Heritage Centre at Fewston and her association with the Fewston Assembly was the inspiration for her talk. The Fewston Assembly was a project undertaken to identify and research people whose graves were removed from the Fewston churchyard to make way for the heritage centre. The title of her talk refers to destinations of former Washburn Valley residents.

The Washburn Valley was a prominent location in Roman times as a Roman road ran through the valley to Ilkley. One of John Ogilby’s C17th strip maps depicts a coach route with directions through the valley featuring places such as Fewston, Blubberhouses, Keskin Moor and Swinsty Hall. Alan Godfrey’s C18th maps illustrate the turnpike roads enabling faster stage coach journeys through the valley. The Hopper Inn at Blubberhouses was a coaching inn at this time. In addition to coach travel many also travelled by horse or on foot. Joseph Holmes of Timble was a long-distance runner who successfully raced a coach from the valley to Wakefield.

As industrialisation came to the valley late C18th horses and waggons transported equipment and building supplies to aid the construction of a number of cotton and flax mills and the local population increased significantly to include a new workforce and associated tradespeople. By mid C19th many of the mills had failed and the workforce dispersed. The population of Fewston fell from c.900 to c.3/400 within a decade or so around this time. West House Mills at Fewston was the largest in the area using cheap female and child labour. Many orphan apprentices were brought from places such as London and Hull often travelling by river and canal to live in apprentice houses in the area. Robert Colyer spent his early life working at West House Mills. In 1850s he became a blacksmith and walked to Ilkley where he married. The couple subsequently travelled by packet ship from Liverpool to America where Robert eventually became a very successful Methodist preacher in Chicago. In 1892 he returned to Timble for the opening of the Robinson Gill Library. Robinson Gill was a former Timble resident who made his fortune in New York and provided the funds for the library.

During C19th the valley once known as England’s Little Switzerland took on a very different appearance as reservoirs were constructed to provide water for the industrial centres of Bradford and Leeds. Many navvies lived in the area during this time at Lindley Wood Navvy Camp. The coming of the railways into the region mid C19th opened up opportunities for travel and tourism with links to the local towns of Otley, Ilkley and Skipton. John Dickinson describes in his Timble diaries various journeys from the valley as far as London.

President Stanley Merridew gave a vote of thanks at the close. The Society’s next meeting will take place 7.30 pm on Thursday 2 May at the Salem Church Hall, Main Street, Burley when Jackie Depelle will present ‘Which Website & Why?’. Members and non-members all welcome, refreshments provided.

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