Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Entrepreneurs living the high life in Dewsbury

In the early days, many successful entrepreneurs came to Dewsbury and surrounding towns to seek their fortune and open new businesses.

Sunday, 28th March 2021, 9:43 pm
Updated Sunday, 28th March 2021, 9:46 pm
This shop was owned by Marsden Oates and was one of the first to open in The Arcade when it was built in 1899.

Many made a huge impact on the district and were able to make good profits, and to live in fine houses and employ servants.

One of these was a man called Marsden Oates, who sold knitting yarns and knitted garments, for which he almost had a monopoly. He opened six shops throughout the area, including three in Dewsbury and was helped in the businesses by two of his sons, John and George. They all managed to make a very good living for themselves, all living together in a large Victorian house in Eightlands Road, Dewsbury. Marsden was never afraid to branch out, and when the new Arcade in Dewsbury town centre was built in 1899, he was one of the first to move in. He sold knitting wools and knitted garments which were made on knitting machines by 12 ladies in workrooms above the shop. The outbreak of WWI meant four of his five sons had to leave the business to go and fight, which meant he had to close most of his shops. Marsden kept the ones in Dewsbury open but competition from other wool shops and the arrival of synthetic materials became too much for him. In 1956, he closed his shop in The Arcade, and gradually over the years, one by one, every other shop in this historic Arcade would also close down.

It became derelict and an eyesore. But fortunately it was saved by the council who compulsory purchased it and are currently restoring it. They are hoping there are other entrepreneurs out there like Marsden Oates, who will be ready and willing to take a gamble as he did and move in.

It is interesting to recall the lives of people like Marsden, and how successful they became and how they lived their lives. They always lived near their businesses, which accounts for the many mansions which were built near to the town centre.

Some years ago I interviewed Marsden’s grandson, Geoffrey Oates, of Hanging Heaton, who was born in the family home in Eightlands Road. He remembered other fine houses nearby including that of Dr Ferguson, a highly respected physician, and the Mellor and Reid families, who took in professional stars appearing at the Empire Theatre. Geoffrey could give a description of them all, particularly that of his grandparents, who lived in a large stone, double-fronted house with a long driveway leading to the stables. It had lots of rooms and its own private garden with big iron gates, overlooking the railway station.

“I used to love standing there as a child looking through the railings at the trains passing below,” he recalled.

“The room in which I was born was called the ‘master bedroom’ and had a dressing room attached full of wardrobes, drawers and mirrors.

“The house had a huge kitchen, scullery and a washroom, and was so big my grandma had to employ what were called ‘day’ girls to help her run it.

“There were lots of other rooms including a big room at the front of the house which I wasn’t allowed to go into.

“If ever I did sneak in, I was quickly moved out, but I do remember seeing a beautiful harmonium in there which Uncle John used to play.

“He was a marvellous pianist and an organist who used to play the organ at the Ebenezer Chapel on Longcauseway, now the United Reformed Church.”

Geoffrey remembered with great affection his grandma who used to love cooking and baking, and every Saturday would invite all the family to tea.

“The house would be filled with aunts and uncles and cousins, and the table filled with plenty of boiled ham, tongue and polony and lots of fine cakes,” he recalled.

“I wasn’t allowed to sit down and had to stand up to have my tea, but I was so small I couldn’t see above the table and had to stand on a hassock.

“Grandma was a wonderful woman, a great organiser, who kept all the family together, and when grandfather was taken ill, she took over the running of the business.

“I remember my uncles bringing home the takings from the shops on an evening in cash bags for her to count and take to the bank next day.”

Marsden’s house would many years later become a pubic house - The Eightlands Well – which closed some years ago. The building was eventually taken over by a company which I understand dealt in computer software. The impressive county court building next door is also still standing but no longer functions as a court-house. Geoffrey remembered the county court caretaker, Mr Butterworth, who lived on the premises with his two daughters, Poppy and Ruby Butterworth.

Like me, Geoffrey was always glad that these fine buildings did not suffer the same fate as so many others did when they were demolished during the 1960s.

If any readers remember some of these fine houses and what their fate was, please let me know.

Also it would be interesting to talk to anyone from the Reid and Mellor family, who lived near Marsden.

Please email your memories to me at – [email protected].

Pictured are: John Oates, centre, and his brother George, who helped their father run the family business. Standing alongside in his bowler hat is Willie Ballance, who had a florist shop next door. He was forced to move from his shop nearby when it was demolished to make way for the building of the town hall. Willie will be remembered by old Crown Flatt supporters for his life-long support of Dewsbury Rugby League Club.