Three Hundred Years of History of Westgate in Wakefield, Yorkshire.

Phil Judkins returned for our December meeting and took us through 300 years of a street that was, and still is, a street divided.  Using slides to illustrate his talk Phil first gave an example of this showing a sketch of Westgate Bar where tolls were collected and that once stretched between today’s Unity Hall and the Theatre Royal., Running down either side of Westgate can still be seen a number of mansions once owned by princes of industry such as the houses of Milne and Naylor families etc but are now occupied by shops, pubs and banks.

While hidden from view were the many yards at right angle to Westgate. These were populated by people living in cramped conditions of which many served as workers in the textile mills owned by the families mentioned above. Phil’s meticulous research revealed the many stories that the inhabitants of this street had to tell.

In the 1850s the street had to succumb to more changes with the arrival of the railway.  Milne’s mansion was partially destroyed in order to build a railway bridge that still spans Westgate.  During this period the Corn Exchange was constructed in which great sums of money was involved between merchants and dealers.  Wakefield was home to the greatest corn market in the North being well served by the Calder navigation. Huge warehouses had already been constructed for storing wool along Cheapside.

Pastimes for the farmers who came to attend sales included blood sports such as cock fighting which was accompanied by heavy drinking and often by arguments leading to fights among themselves.  Mob rule wasn’t far from erupting especially at times of elections when supporters of the Tories clashed with Liberal supporters or on the occasion of Bonfire Night in 1849 when a mob clashed with police at Cross Square.

Many local people could have many stories to tell such as those who suffered at the hands of the law.  Public whipping for women did not cease until 1774; a woman was sentenced to transportation for stealing a few rashers of bacon; women were often also seen as mere chattels and could be sold or even auctioned; laudanum was the preferred means of medication for the poor because it was also cheaper than gin which was sold at Gissing’s chemist shop in Thompson’s Yard.

The overcrowded conditions and poor sanitation in the yards often led to high rates of infant mortality and diseases such as cholera and typhoid were frequent occurrences.  These were partially alleviated when new estates were built at Lupset and Flanshaw although many families did not want to move.  Improvements did occur with the opening of a Cooperative store and availability of cheaper food; new places of worship such as the Unitarian Chapel which had as a minister one Goodwyn Barnby, a radical with left wing tendencies who first initiated the use of the word ‘communist’ into the English language. New places of entertainment were opened such as the Theatre Royal opened in 1894; a cinema in 1913; and dances in Unity Hall. Wakefield attracted a number of German migrants who specialized as butchers in the production of pork pies and sausages. These included the Hoffmans, Oesterleins, Hagenbachs and Zeiglers with Hoffmans still with us today.

Other stories, Phil touched on included the escape of a bear from the zoological garden to the rear of Milne’s house.  The bear had to be shot and the mystery of the Green Door beneath the railway bridge. This actually led to an underground passage used as a shelter during WWII and perhaps as a means of a flight of stairs to gain access to the railway platform.

Today Westgate is still a busy thoroughfare with much evidence of its past as evident in the large buildings once inhabited by wealthy mill owners but are now perhaps showing their age and in some cases neglect. However, it is a street which offers fun, entertainment and a living for the many shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs.