The pandemic has badly hit towns, cities, and high streets, while the ‘levelling up’ agenda is failing to materialise. And yet, investment in places like Wakefield has a history of success. Five decades ago, local government reorganisation, the decimalisation of the currency, joining the European Economic Community as it was then, and a lot of new building helped transform our cities and there was a lot of optimism in the air.
But 55 years ago, the city of Wakefield looked different. A handbook was published with an introduction from the mayor, and when I was reading it, I could not help thinking that this seemed like a different world. Wakefield was described as an “industrial city with much of the air of a country town” about it. Fifty-five years doesn’t seem that long ago but when you read that the Leeds-Sheffield motorway (part of the M1) was not yet opened and that the city was linked to Hull by the railway plus an “up-to-date waterway system”, it feels like a different age.
Wakefield in the 1960s
In 1967, Wakefield covered almost 5,800 acres with a population of 60,100 (1965) and contained 20,000 dwelling houses. It was not only the home of the city council but also of the West Riding County Council, based in the county hall. The city’s crown court was to be found next to the town hall.
Policing within the area was undertaken by the Wakefield City Force (formed in 1848) although one year later it was to be combined with other West Riding forces to become the West Yorkshire Constabulary.
Wakefield is a city of manufacturing
The city was still a centre of industry and manufacture. The handbook boasted:
“Wakefield is fortunate to have a great diversity of industries within its boundaries… [and that] employment is provided … for many persons who live outside its boundaries”.
One only needs to browse through the many advertisements contained within its pages to see names that were synonymous with the area: Engineering companies British Jeffery Diamond (coal mining and construction machinery), Greens Economiser Group and Raines Engineers (structural steelwork), together with textile manufacturers Star Knitting Company (sportswear), I Goldstone (trouser manufacturers), George Lee and Alfred Hayley and Co. to mention just a few. The Empire Stores Mail Order Company was also a major employer within the city.
Education in Wakefield
Wakefield was especially proud of its Industrial Technical Training Scheme, a partnership between industrialists, trade unions, education authorities and colleges. New entrants into industry were provided with one full day (paid) and two evenings (unpaid) of study at Wakefield and Whitwood Technical Colleges. Bursaries were also awarded yearly, including study trips to Switzerland.
In 1967, there were still some 13 active collieries within the Wakefield area. Electricity was supplied by the Yorkshire Electricity Board whose area offices were situated at 1a Denby Dale Road. The city had its own power station on the southern bank of the Aire and Calder Navigation Canal off Doncaster Road. Gas supply was the preserve of the North Eastern Gas Board (NEGAS). The gasometer and the old gas works for the city were to be found next to Jacobs Well Lane, opposite what is now Sainsbury’s in the Trinity Walk development.
As is still the case, the major local newspaper in the city was the Wakefield Express. Now part of the Johnson Group, in 1967 it was independently owned. As the guide reminded us, the paper had “for more than a century … been a constant factor in city affairs reflecting accurately the industrial, social, religious, and sporting life of the community”. With its head office and print works situated on Southgate, the paper was first produced on 13 March 1852 and by the time of the guide, had a circulation of some 40,000 copies.
Brewers, Beverley Brothers were based at the Eagle Brewery on Harrison Street in Wakefield. It was a considerable site. Its two main beers were ‘Trinity’ and ‘Eagle’ both bitters, whilst the firms ‘Golden Eagle Light Ale’ and ‘Old Warrior Brown Ale’ both bottled, were consistently popular. The brewery was eventually absorbed into the Watney Mann Group. After brewing finished the buildings were operated as a distribution centre until 1971.
Shopping in Wakefield
Wakefield was the major shopping centre for many miles around. The city’s open market was substantial and held approximately three hundred semi-permanent stalls. It was situated near the Bull Ring by Brook and Teall Streets.
The ‘new’ indoor market had not long been open (April 1964) and held a further 87 stalls. It replaced the old Borough Market. There was also a separate meat and fish market. Markets were held on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays. As a child, I fondly remember being allowed on the fairground roundabout that operated on those days. What a change from today.
These were the days before pedestrianisation, when the shopping streets were still shared with motor vehicles. Interestingly though, parking was free! Whilst shops such as Marks and Spencer and Boots the Chemist still feature, they were joined with others now long gone.
Glancing through the guides photographs it is interesting to spot well-known former retailers such as ‘Redman’s’ (butter, hams, and cheeses) ‘Thrift Supermarket’ (the first supermarket in the city), ‘Weaver to Wearer (tailors),’ ‘Hagenbach’s’ (bakers), Wigfalls (electrical goods) and many others.
There were several banks in the town from which to withdraw money for the shopping including the Midland (long before it became HSBC), The National Provincial and the Westminster (two separate banks at this time), Martins and the Yorkshire County Savings Bank. Banking transactions were still carried out face to face with a cashier! The city had its own building society ‘The Wakefield’ with a reputation for ‘Speedy, Personal, Service’.
Wakefield’s entertainment offers
The ‘Merrie City’ was not short of places of entertainment. It offered numerous public houses Licencing hours were 11am–3pm and 5.30–11pm on Mondays to Saturdays and 12 noon to 2pm and 7–10.30pm on Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday.
The guide listed three nightclubs, the ‘Kon-Tiki,’ Market Street, the ‘Savoy Theatre Club’ on Horbury Road and the ‘Ace Club’ on George Street. A younger clientele was catered for at the Mecca Locarno on Southgate, a casualty along with the Mitre Pub, when the Ridings was built.
The city had two cinemas, the ‘Playhouse; on Westgate and the ‘ABC’, both now closed. There were few restaurants in the city, the guide advertised the ‘Steak House’, which was situated near the market. I also remember the ‘Carousel Restaurant’, which was in the same area.
Sporting facilities were available throughout the city. The two major sporting teams being Wakefield Trinity (Rugby League) and Wakefield RFC (Rugby Union). There was also a greyhound racing track on Denby Dale Road.
The future of Wakefield
The guidebook has been a window into the city of Wakefield in 1967. At a time when the future of town and city centres are far from secure it has been a fascinating glimpse to a city that in many ways seems forever lost, but in others still reassuringly familiar.