Dewsbury had huge influence on local genius

Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

LAST week I wrote about the achievements of computer genius Tom Kilburn, born in Earlsheaton and educated at Wheelwright Grammar School, Dewsbury.

This week, I am writing about his love of Dewsbury, the influence his education had on his life and how he remained true to his roots.

ABILITY RECOGNISED: Tom Kilburns headmaster Leslie Sadler persuaded him to take the maths route to Oxford or Cambridge.

ABILITY RECOGNISED: Tom Kilburns headmaster Leslie Sadler persuaded him to take the maths route to Oxford or Cambridge.

Tom, who led the British team which beat the world to build the first modern digital computer with a stored memory, was born in Town Street, Earlsheaton.

It was his genius which 70 years ago launched the computer age and changed the course of world history, but Tom never forgot the town of his birth or the schools he always said had given him the finest of educations.

Although born in Earlsheaton, Tom’s family moved to a house in Moorlands Avenue, Dewsbury, while he was a child and he started attending Carlton Road Infants’ School.

At the age of 10 he won a free scholarship to Wheelwright Grammar School where the headmaster Leslie Sadler quickly noted his outstanding ability at maths.

Mr Sadler, who himself had gained a double first in maths and physics at Oxford, was to play a significant role in Tom’s education.

Tom’s favourite subject was physics but Mr Sadler persuaded him that it would be maths which would gain him a place at Oxford or Cambridge. If a pupil shone at maths, Mr Sadler would encourage him to immerse himself in the subject, and it is said that Tom did little but maths from the age of 14.

In later life Tom, who had taken his matriculation exam in 1936 aged 14, said Mr Sadler had a habit of “pushing” people and had put him in for the equivalent of A-levels when he was 15.

“He was a marvellous man, a wonderful teacher and a disciplinarian,” said Tom. “He told me I must study maths.”

Tom always praised both Mr Sadler and Percy Rouse, headmaster of Carlton Road School, for giving him the finest of educations, and also his parents for supporting him through university and setting him on the right path.

Tom, who died in 2001, won a scholarship to Cambridge – very rare for a Dewsbury boy in those days – where he gained a First in Mathematics at Sidney Sussex College.

Tom’s sister Joan, who was three-and-a-half years younger, stayed behind, married and went to live in Mirfield.

In 1942 Tom married local girl, Irene Marsden, of Dewsbury Moor, who was a great encouragement to him in his work.

After the war Tom was offered a position at Manchester University where his pioneering work took place.

He had he had to commute daily across the Pennines from Wellington Road Station to Manchester, and it was on one of these journeys that he wrote the computer program which would change the world.

Tom and Irene, who had lived with Tom’s parents since their marriage, later moved to Manchester where Tom would eventually become Britain’s first Professor of Computer Science at Manchester University.

The couple continued to be frequent visitors to Dewsbury where they still had many relatives and friends.

In one interview Tom recounted memories of his hometown emphasising how he always loved visiting the town and renewing old acquaintances.

“I always think of Dewsbury as a wonderful place,” he said. “It was always very friendly. Even during the depression, which took place while I was in my teens, people didn’t seem to let it get them down. I will always look back on Dewsbury with fond memories.

Tom’s father, John William Kilburn, came from a working class background, but bettered himself by working his way up from being an office clerk at Mark Oldroyd’s Mill, Dewsbury, to becoming company secretary.

At that time, Mark Oldroyd’s Mill was one of the largest and most successful textile mills in the country, employing more than 2,000 people.

Tom said of his childhood: “We weren’t well off, but we didn’t suffer like so many others did in the depression.”

Tom met wife Irene in 1938 at a youth group dance at Ebenezer Church in Dewsbury – now known as The Longcauseway Church – and they remained inseparable until her sad death in 1981.

They had two children, both born in Dewsbury, Anne, who sadly passed away two years ago, and John, who now lives in Cheshire with wife Barbara.

Throughout his life Tom was always keen to discuss Dewsbury and the places of his childhood and the schools he attended. His memories of the town were happy ones and he always spoke with great affection of the places he loved, particularly the town’s five cinemas – the Playhouse, Pioneers, Majestic, Regal and Tudor.

“I also remember going to the Collins Cinema in Batley Carr and seeing Al Jolson in one of the very early Talkies, and Caddy’s Ice Cream Parlour and Crow Nest Park.”

Tom also talked of his early days in Earlsheaton where he attended Highfield Congregational Church, now sadly closed.

He recalled taking part in the Whit Walks and visiting relatives’ houses and being given pennies after showing them his new Whitsuntide clothes.

A modest man, Tom Kilburn never made much money from his invention, but he didn’t begrudge those who went on to become computer billionaires.

Indeed, he never owned a computer himself, and if he needed to use one he would pop over to the university and use theirs.

Tom described his early days working on computers as being a wonderful time and very exciting.

He recalled how he and his colleague and co-creator of the computer, Sir Freddie Williams, at the time the world’s best electronic circuit engineer, would bounce ideas off one another.

Tom said they had no idea what they were starting. He said: ”We just got on with our work, day by day, and enjoyed what we were doing. We never did anything with money in mind.”