Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Luxury living back in the day!

Wealthy business men owned grand houses in Dewsbury.

Sunday, 2nd May 2021, 6:30 pm
SPRINGFIELD TERRACE: This Dewsbury home belonged to James Austin, who founded Austin Steel Works in Thornhill Lees.

It is true that different things interest different people, which is why I try to write something different every week.

I write a lot about houses because I think they say a lot about those who live in them.

Recently, I wrote about the little one-up-and-one-down house in Brook Street, Dewsbury, in which a lady called Charlotte Sykes once lived.

It was a humble abode compared to some of the larger houses not far from the place where she had lived all her life.

And I showed a picture of the interior of her house because I felt what it showed was an important part of social history.

People in Charlotte’s day didn’t take photographs of the interior of their homes, no doubt because they had little to show.

But not far from Charlotte’s modest house stood other houses which were much bigger, some of which could be classed as mansions.

The owners of such abodes were often quite happy to have their homes photographed and also their interiors.

Unlike Charlotte, however, they had much more to show off, like the owner of the house pictured.

He was James Austin, a wealthy steel merchant, who was so proud of his home that he had a series of photographs taken of both the inside and outside.

It was while researching the life of James that I was able to gain access to sepia coloured images which I found quite enchanting.

They captured a fine house that was beautifully decorated and no doubt furnished with the best that money could buy.

It appears something of a showpiece but at the same time it was a family home, lived in and enjoyed.

The house was named after him — Austin-Friars and situated in Springfield Terrace, a private road, only a stone’s throw from where Charlotte had lived all her life on The Flatts.

It seems remarkable today to think that such a grand house would have been built so near to where the poor lived.

That, however, was how things were in those days when the bosses chose to live near factories they’d built to be near their workers.

Bosses and workers lived almost shoulder to shoulder with only their large gardens and long drives cutting them off from where the poor lived.

Nowhere was this more evident than the Halifax Road area where a number of splendid mansions had been built.

Nearby were hundreds of shoddily built back-to-back houses which had been built at the height of the Industrial Revolution to house the workers.

In the 1920s, the Vicar of Dewsbury, Canon Brown, commented in his parish magazine on this startling contrast of living abodes.

He himself lived in Halifax Road and referred to his neighbours in this leafy part of Dewsbury as the “Halifax Road aristocrats”.

He wondered what they felt when they walked past these homes of the poor, many of which were in shocking conditions and insanitary.

Mr Austin, however, had passed away by this time, after living in the house above for over 40 years.

He had named the house after himself – Austin Friars – and I am glad to say it still stands today and still bears his name.

James Austin came to Dewsbury from his native Leeds in the 1840s hoping to find work in one of the many factories opening up in the town.

He started off as a millwright and ended up founding a company which became one of the biggest and most powerful in the area – Austin Steelworks.

When he first arrived in Dewsbury he soon found work with the firm of Harrison and Padgett in Watergate who repaired and maintained mill engines.

When Mr Padgett retired shortly afterwards, James entered into partnership with Mr Harrison, and when Mr Harrison retired in 1850, James became the ‘master’ of this modest business.

James was only 29, but soon this small business would grow, outlive and outclass some of the largest and most powerful businesses in the area, making the Austin family a fortune.

As his business grew, James would move his business from Watergate to bigger premises in other parts of the town.

One was to premises at the bottom of Victoria Road, Springfield, where he and his wife lived in a modest house close to those of his workers.

He would later move into the house pictured above which was just at the top of Victoria Road but still in sight of his factory.

Later Austin Steel Works would move into the centre of Dewsbury, on the site later to be occupied by the Playhouse Cinema, now Wilko’s store.

Carts bearing the name ‘James Austin and Sons’ were now travelling further afield to take orders from mills, collieries and factories for iron plates and sections, chains and a wide variety of engineering tools.

In later years, Austin’s would establish good connections with the shipbuilding and ship repairing yards throughout the country.

At the start of the 1914 war, Austin’s was placed on the Admiralty supply list, but there were bigger and better things ahead when the firm later moved to premises in Thornhill Lees where his business grew and grew.

There is much, much more to be written about the Austin family and also about the family house where James raised his large family.

There were many other large houses like Austin-Friars which were built by businessmen who had worked their way up in life.

During the Industrial Revolution, Dewsbury attracted quite a few entrepreneurs to the town, all, like James, hoping to make their fortune.

Many of them succeeded, and I hope in future columns to write more about them as well as more about James and his family.