A man from Australia wrote last week asking for information about the ten o’clock gun which was fired every night outside the woollen mill of Wormalds and Walker’s in Thornhill Lees, Dewsbury.
His letter sparked a great deal of interest among Dewsbury people who have long-known about this ancient and well-loved local tradition.
Many years ago I was fortunate enough to befriend the late Stanley Oldroyd, who had worked at the mill most of his life, retiring in 1980 as financial director.
He gave me access to all the background information surrounding this tradition and I committed it to paper (not memory) so there would always be a true account in our archives of the ten o’clock gun.
This week I recount it again, not just for our reader in Australia, but also for all those whose memory of this tradition may not be as good as it once was, and also for our children and grand-children.
Sadly, the mill where once the ten o’clock gun was fired is no longer with us, although the building itself still is, for it closed in 1983.
However, its memory still lives on in the minds of the many thousands who once worked there, most of them for most of their lives.
The firing of the ten o’clock gun is a tradition which belongs to Dewsbury alone, starting as it did in 1815 to alert mill-owners living at the top of the hill that their mill was safe from Luddite attack.
Although the gun is no longer fired, the memory of it has been treasured and talked about by Dewsbury people for generations.
It is a tradition which belongs to Dewsbury alone.
It is our heritage.
When the gun was heard at 10pm every night – Saturdays and Sundays included – people would set their clocks by it.
It was also a signal to every young girl out courting to immediately head for home because no decent girl in those days would be out at that time of night.
It was also used by some to even regulate their bowel movements, like the father of a friend of mine, who at the moment of its sound would make his way to the outside lavatory in the back yard, before retiring to bed.
The following details are a true account of Dewsbury’s ten o’clock gun as related to me over 40 years ago by Stanley Oldroyd:
The ten o’clock gun was a tradition which started in 1815 shortly after the Luddite riots in Cleckheaton which resulted in mills being attacked by disgruntled mill workers who feared new machinery would affect their livelihoods.
It was fired at this time every night to let the mill owners living some distance away know that they could go to bed knowing all was well at the mill. If the gun didn’t go off, they would immediately rush there to investigate what was going on, as would those living nearby.
The gun was a muzzle-loading bell-mouthed blunderbuss which was kept hanging behind the door in the watch-house, and the gunpowder was kept in a drawer nearby.
The firing of the gun became a local tradition which was kept up for 150 years, even though the telephone had been invented many years earlier, rendering the firing of the gun no longer necessary.
Even throughout the war, the ten o-clock gun continued despite fierce objections from the Ministry of Defence who wanted it stopping because the local defence force might misinterpret it.
The mill-owners, however, made forceful representations on the grounds that it was a well-known and well-loved tradition, and surprisingly, the MoD relented.
Sadly the gun was stolen some years before Wormalds and Walker’s closed down in 1983, and it was never recovered.
Stanley Oldroyd remembered the gun hanging on two hooks on the wall of the watch-house, and half an hour before it was due to be fired, the watchman would take it down to get it ready.
He would cut a pile of paper into small sections and place them down the muzzle, and then take a scoopful of gunpowder from the drawer and put it down the muzzle, ramming them down.
When this was completed, he would take the gun outside and walk into the middle of Thornhill Road where he held it up above his head, pointed it towards the sky and fired it.
But as the night watchman got older, it became more difficult for him to hold the gun up in the air, and so eventually, the firm stopped using it.
The tradition, however, still had to go on, and instead they used special fireworks which they got from the Standard Firework Company to make the sound of a gun being fired.
When the mill closed in 1983, the sound of the ten o’clock gun (or exploding fireworks) was finally silenced, as were the looms of Wormalds and Walker Ltd, a mill which in its heyday employed 1,400 people.
The mill building eventually came into the ownership of Calder Textiles, which thankfully retained much of its history, including an old film taken inside the mill in the 1930s showing the production of yarns and blankets in the mill.
They put this into sequence and enlisted the help of former employees to add to it, and this is now in the safe keeping of the Yorkshire Film Archives for posterity and public reference.
Various night watchmen would have carried on this tradition over the years.
The man in our picture was named Watson (no relation) but there were others.
How fortunate we are to have this photograph telling us the story of our famous ten o’clock gun.