Dewsbury Town Hall is a place that simply reeks of history.
Built in 1889 it’s a masterpiece in stone, marble, oak and stained glass. It’s also a place that brought me face-to-face with my own family history.
Town Hall manager Richard Batterby gave me a behind-the-scenes tour to see some of the places the public no longer see.
In my near 30-year career as a journalist I’ve covered council meetings, election counts and court cases at the town hall.
These days there are few council meetings, local and general election counts have moved to Huddersfield and the old magistrates’ court – where Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe famously made his first appearance after his arrest – shut down in the late 1980s.
The modern-day town hall houses Dewsbury Register Office and hosts wedding ceremonies, receptions and concerts in the impressive Victoria Hall.
But it was the past I wanted to see and you could literally smell the history. Old buildings have a certain smell. It’s not unpleasant, it’s just history.
My grandfather Herbert Farrar Shaw was Mayor of Dewsbury from 1933-35 and his brother Henry held the office for the two years before that. It was a proud and unique achievement for brothers to be mayors in successive years.
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My grandfather died long before I was born but I’ve always felt a connection to him through the family photographs showing this stern, proud, paternal figure who was a respected and influential man in the town.
Herbert, if he’ll forgive me for being familiar, was awarded the OBE and his charity works for the poor and less fortunate were many and varied.
He and his brother built an imposing pair of semi-detached houses in Birkdale Road, Dewsbury, and named them Trieste and Trento after the Italian towns where they served in the First World War. The houses still stand today.
I was keen to walk the corridors where my grandfather – I really can’t call him Herbert – walked 80 years ago.
Many of the rooms, some out of bounds to the public, have the original oak panelling and ornate fireplaces that my grandfather would have touched.
And it was in the locked Members’ Room, formerly the Mayor’s Parlour, where I came face-to-face with my grandfather. All round the walls are the mayors of Dewsbury, right from the first – George Fearnley in 1862 – to the last – Willie Long – in 1974.
After that only the Dewsbury-based mayors of Kirklees are added to the roll of honour. The last was Clr Eric Firth in 2011-12 and he will be joined shortly by recently-retired Mayor of Kirklees Clr Paul Kane.
We found Henry Shaw first but Herbert – grandfather, that is – was the first portrait at the other side of the fireplace. I found it poignant that the brothers, mayors in successive years, next-door neighbours in life and buried in the same family grave at Dewsbury Cemetery, had been separated in this way.
I’ve covered countless meetings in the Mayor’s Reception Room with its oak panelling and clock above the fireplace. On the walls there are old works of art donated by a benefactor called Austin in 1903.
My mind has often wandered to thoughts of my grandfather at the dullest moments of council meetings. Did he once warm himself by that long since extinguished open fire? I’ll never know, of course, but I’ll wager he did.
Next stop was the former courtroom, listed in its own right for its historical importance. It’s where the Ripper would have stood and what stories that place could tell.
The court closed when a brand new courthouse was opened in Grove Street. That ‘new’ courthouse is now also shut with all cases heard at Huddersfield.
These days the old courtroom, which is due a lick of paint, is hired out by film crews. It’s been Hotton Crown Court more than once on Emmerdale and the Yorkshire soap returns often.
Sir David Jason’s A Touch of Frost has also been and there was also a short-lasting drama Eternal Law filmed there.
The courtroom is also opened regularly for primary school children to role play and learn about the justice system.
I’d covered the magistrates’ court for a year or two before it closed so sat again on the press benches for old times’ sake.
I then stood in the dock – no, I’d never been THERE before – and walked down the well-worn, cold steel steps to the cells below.
The door at the bottom was bolted, well it would be, and creepy wasn’t the word. It’s no wonder the town hall has ghost-hunters queuing up to stage night-time vigils.
Is the town hall haunted? Richard Batterby wasn’t saying.
While the door to the cells was locked there was another way round. The cell area was converted some years ago into a base for youth workers from Young Dewsbury.
The white tiled cells had only a minimal makeover and with the bars still on the windows it doesn’t take much imagination to see what it would have been like.
Elsewhere in the town hall there are valuable artworks – one a stunning oil on canvas called Stocks Closed With Upwards Tendancy by William Strutt – and a cabinet containing Dewsbury’s gold mayoral chain and the civic silver.
I couldn’t help remarking that I thought Kirklees Council had sold off all the family silver! Just my little joke.
In 2010 the town hall underwent a £1m repair programme to make it wind and watertight and the groundfloor has been modernised and includes a public exhibition space.
The town hall’s a special place and Kirklees is often criticised but the council – and people like Richard Batterby – are doing sterling work preserving the history while ensuring the building remains relevant – and pays its way – in the modern world.
Long may Dewsbury Town Hall continue to reinvent itself. I think grandfather would approve.