Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Whitley’s well-loved chapel

Over the years I have written a great deal about the various villages in Dewsbury but I’m afraid I’ve never been able to find out much about Whitley’s history.

Sunday, 26th September 2021, 6:30 pm
VILLAGE LIFE: A lovely picture of old Whitley probably taken in the late 1920s, showing the Wesleyan Chapel, now converted into a house, which perhaps the little children pictured may have attended. The picture was kindly loaned to me some years ago by John Riley.

However, I have never given up, and whenever I have come across anything in old newspaper files about it, I’ve always taken note and put it to one side to one day form an article.

Some years ago I was fortunate enough to find a few snippets of information about the old Whitley Wesleyan Chapel, now closed and converted into a house.

I also found a few interesting stories about Whitley’s famous blacksmith, Harry Asquith, whose lucky horseshoes were exported all over the world.

Also, I spotted a story about the big man of Whitley, John Fisher, who weighed a staggering 33 stone.

I put them together to form one article just to let Whitley people know I haven’t forgotten them.

John Fisher, who was renowned for his huge size, ran the Woolpack Inn, and was also a long-standing member of the old Thornhill Council before it amalgamated with the old Dewsbury Borough in 1910.

When he died in 1907, his coffin measured 6ft 10inches by 2ft 10 inches, and was borne from his home to Whitley Parish Church on a four wheel stretcher.

It took eight men to carry it to the graveside, and a block and tackle had to be used to lower it into the grave.

One of his descendants, John Stead, once told me that John Fisher was also a farmer as well as running the Woolpack and a little grocer’s shop next door which he owned.

He was certainly a man of tremendous bulk, but his weight did drop to 16 stone after he had been ill with dropsy. He was 67 when he died.

Now, I turn to another interesting Whitley story, that of Harry Asquith, one of the most successful blacksmiths in the country, who travelled all over England taking part in agricultural shows, including the Great Yorkshire Show.

His family had been blacksmiths in Whitley for more than 400 years, and so highly skilled was he at his trade that there wasn’t a cup or trophy he hadn’t won.

Harry was famous for the lucky horseshoes he made and presented to all kinds of beauty queens throughout the country.

The lucky horseshoe tradition started when Harry was asked to design and make a horseshoe to present to Dewsbury’s first wool queen.

He ended up making them for every wool queen thereafter, and also for other beauty queens throughout the country, including Lancashire’s Cotton Queen and Miss Yorkshire.

One of the biggest orders was for 50 lucky horseshoes for a riding school in Essex, and soon orders were coming in from all over the world, mainly from Canada and Australia.

He made the shoes from old bits of pig iron which others would have thrown away, but he patiently filed and polished them to such a high degree they shone like silver.

The Asquith family were farriers in Whitley from generation to generation, and were probably the best known family in the village.

One Dewsbury wool queen, Miss Betty Stead, wrote the following letter to Harry after she had received her lucky horseshoe.

“I cannot find words adequate to express my thanks to you for your kindness in sending me a lucky horseshoe.

“I have not yet decided where to hang it, but if I put into my life the beauty you have put into this gift, it will indeed give me lots of joy and happiness.”

Whitley’s Wesleyan Chapel pictured above was converted into a house when it closed down some years ago.

It had closed down before but because it was so well-loved, ways and means were found to open it again.

It was one of the oldest Wesleyan preaching places in the circuit, but in 1932, the trustees had no alternative but to close it down.

However, a number of young local preachers led by one or two of the older “brethren” continued to hold occasional services there in the hope that one day it might officially re-open.

Later when a new housing estate was built in the village, a few people decided to canvass every house in Whitley to ask if they wanted the chapel to re-open. The successful result of the canvas was reported to a meeting of the circuit local preachers and it was decided the chapel should re-open once more.

A “fettling” brigade was quickly formed to clean the church, and young local preachers along with their “sweethearts” set about cleaning and scrubbing it from top to bottom.

The official reopening service was an emotional affair with local preachers and members of other Methodist churches turning up to take part and give their support.

These included Dr H W J Cousen, organist and choirmaster of Dewsbury Centenery Methodist Church, the Reverend G Handel Broadbent, Mackenzie Church, Batley Carr, Mr Gilbert Auty, Ravensthorpe Methodist Church, and Misses N Bennett and B Laycock, of Thornhill Lees Methodist Church, who sang a solo.

Mr Arthur Batley, of Savile Town Methodist Church, also took part and Mr Alan Ledgard, of Earlsheaton Methodist Church, outlined the facts and instances which had led to the re-opening of the chapel.

Sadly, the chapel was eventually closed again some years later, never to reopen as a church again.

I am glad to say there continues to be a strong community spirit in Whitley, and the Whitley Community Centre situated in the old school is very well used.

Indeed this coming Sunday between 2-5pm, an event is being organised there in support of Macmillan Nurses.

Lots of home-made cakes will be served as well as tea and coffee and lots of craft stalls if you want to buy a few early Christmas presents. There is car parking in the car park at the back of the school.

You can email your recollections of Dewsbury in years gone by to: [email protected]