By David Cockman, Holmfirth Local History Group
Where is it?
Town Gate is at the very heart of Holmfirth and was indeed where the small town we know today came into existence in the Middle Ages. The clue is in that word “Gate” which has nothing to do with “garden gate” or “farmyard gate”, but in this context means “road”. It is derived from the Old Norse “gata” meaning “road”, and is therefore almost certainly a legacy from our Viking ancestors, dating from circa 930AD. It is used with the word “town” in several local communities e.g. Meltham and Marsden, pointing there, too, to their origin.
That the parish church, Holy Trinity, is also situated on Town Gate is yet another indication of its lengthy history.
The reason for placing the settlement here was the need for a reliable source of water to power the new medieval technology, the corn mill, driven by a water wheel exploiting the flow of water in the river.
Thus the first mill was built around 1300 on the site now occupied by the post office, its water wheel projecting into the river perhaps close to the steps leading to the Sainsbury supermarket.
The water supply came from both the Holme and the Ribble, the latter now hidden under Victoria Square.
A fulling mill was then added to the site, which then developed over the centuries into the larger textile mill which was finally demolished in the 1950s, to be replaced by the post office and the bus station, which opened in 1959.
Development of Holmfirth around Towngate
The need to construct the mill close to the river resulted in housing being built along the river bank close by and up the steep hillside behind the church, thus creating Holnfrith, as it was called in medieval documents.
The first record of a church or chapel of ease on Town Gate dates from about 1480. It will probably have been replaced several times as the population grew, the present church dating from about 1780, with the tower added later.
Unusually its burial ground does not surround the church but was opened on the site of what is now known as Holmeside Park a few yards up Town Gate.
When the park, was created from the old burial ground in the 1960s the gravestones were preserved and can be viewed on the paths and boundary walls.
One of these, for the 18th century curate of Holmfirth, the Rev. Harrop, is inscribed in Latin, quite a rarity in a Yorkshire graveyard.
Note the spelling”frith”.
Kayes, the Ironmongers, at number 2 Town Gate, is one of the oldest established businesses in Holmfirth, existing under several names: 1845 James Garside; 1897 David Bilsom; 1899 Henry Swallow; 1925 J.W.Kaye.
The café in the corner of the church yard, now world famous as Sid’s café in Last of the Summer Wine, was in about 1900 the home of the Holmfirth conservative club.
Beattie’s café was created out of two small cottages and one of the cooking ranges from the original cottage is preserved in the café – and a product of the Bilson family who owned Kayes.
The twentieth century brought problems
The picture of the lorry of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, squeezing its way past Kayes on a very narrow road, (now the A635 to New Mill) shows that Town Gate 100 years ago was much more densely built-up than it is today.
Opposite the church and clinging to the bank of the river was a row of cottages, shops…
The red arrow points to the gap through which the lorry was attempting to make its way in the previous picture.
… and a pub, the Jolly Hatter, with just about enough room for a pony and trap to make its way up Town Gate towards New Mill.
Rapid growth of traffic after WW I meant that the council had little choice but to demolish all the properties on the river bank to widen the road in 1921.
This composite picture shows the difference the road widening made with the Yorkshire and Lancashire Railway lorry superimposed on today’s roads.
But 2017: Plus ça change … plus c’est le SatNav…
The White Hart
Situated in Towngate near to the parish church the White Hart was one of Holmfirth’s larger inns. It is not known when it opened and lying in a strategic position on the oldest route in the town an early date would seem realistic
The first recorded evidence of the White Hart is an entry in the List of Alehouse Keepers dated 1803. It was described fifty years later as an old established and well accustomed inn with a house, coach house and stables.
A central location, the size of the premises and the nature of the accommodation offered by the White Hart contributed to its standing within the town. It was a popular venue for auctions and the members of many local groups and societies met here.
It was re-named Brambles in 2012 and subsequently the H bar.
Although the origin of the name, “Owd Genn”, of this column monument on Town Gate is a source of debate, the reason for its construction is not.
Local cloth producers commissioned the column from the local stone mason, John Wadsworth, to celebrate the Peace of Amiens in 1802. This would bring an end, so they thought, to the long-running Napoleonic Wars which had had a devastating effect on the export of cloth from Holmfirth to Europe. The markets would reopen and prosperity would return.
Unfortunately the peace collapsed after a few months and the war continued. Bitterly disappointed it is said that the cloth merchants then refused to pay for the column. A furious John Wadsworth then hacked off the inscription on the base of the column.
But the column survived and is best known today for the marker on it indicating the height of the flood water on Town Gate after the 1852 collapse of the Bilberry dam.
Owd Genn still stands today alongside the widened road. The construction to the left of the column in the first photograph was known as the “Tin tabernacle” – a gents’ urinal. The building behind it in this photograph is, at the time of writing, a public convenience.
On the plot of land now occupied by Holmfirth post office stood Holmfirth Mill.
By the 20th century this was becoming increasingly run-down and dilapidated and much of its work was transferred to Albert Mill on Crown Bottom.
After World War 2 just one part of the mill remained and was being used by Baddeley Brothers, coach operators, for their garage and work shop. This closed in 1955, the mill was demolished and the post office erected on the site.
In 1959 the remaining land was converted into Holmfirth bus station seen here in 1967
To achieve this the large weir which had diverted water into Holmfirth Mill was itself demolished and the river narrowed and built over to form the new entrance to the bus station.
Towngate leads to Station Road