1920s Keighley

Keighley Characters

by Ian Dewhirst


Ian Dewhirst

As a boy in Keighley I used to be frightened of a scrawny woman in a grubby mackintosh and beret, who screeched, and occasionally danced, in the streets. Her nickname, rather obscurely, was Emily Matchbox.

I also steered clear of a raucous little man, likewise in grubby mackintosh with cloth cap, who entertained – if that is the right word – the theatre and picture house queues with a gramophone mounted on an old pram. He was Freddy Gramophone, and had once allegedly ‘shown my mother up’ in front of a whole queue by leering at her and saying “Don’t I knaw you:”

I suppose they both represented a time when Keighley boasted a diversity of ‘characters,’ though even by the 1940s, with uniformity already creeping in, they were the rearguard.

Nearly fifty years ago I listened to an older generation which would lovingly reminisce about the heyday of local personalities, and I picked up an oral history which I probably couldn’t have got nowadays; like the tale of Old Lur, the Oakworth stone-knapper:

“There were stables opposite where he lived. The stablemen once got him in and persuaded him to take his shoes and socks off. Then they cut his toe-nails with shears, and the parings were so big they flew up and hit the ceiling!”

Or Billy Coleman, a strict teetotaller and vegetarian. “When he used to visit my father’s farm,” related one informant, “my father would say, ‘Give him a meat sandwich.’ If that didn’t draw him out he’d say, “Fetch him some whisky up from t’cellar.” Billy Coleman always left our farm in a temper!”

Keighley boasted a diversity of characters

Or Clifford – a newspaper seller whose feeble shout translated “Papers!” into “Pay-men! Pay-men!” – who once ordered a pint and didn’t hand over enough money for it. “Nay, Clifford, tha’s short,” said the barman. “Nay,” said Clifford, drinking up, “it’s thee ‘at’s short!”

Actually, you didn’t need to do much in the old days to become a character. One James Heaton was known as Jim Cats. “There’s a thousand cats in our yard!” he had once called to his mother. “A thousand!” she replied. “Nivver!” “Well,” he said, “at least there’s our tom-cat an’ another!”

Old Pateley imitated trains and made other funny noises. Mog Dick kept his money hidden in the fat at the bottom of his frying-pan. Johnny Touchwood used to trail his walking-stick along railings, and had to touch every one – if anybody was in the way he would wait until they moved. Dicky Two-Pails’s claim to eccentricity was trying to lift himself off the ground in two buckets, a foot in each.

 Sidney Walker, hot-pea seller, was rumoured to stir his peas up with his wooden leg!

Every tradesman was a potential character. Jack Toyt, a Haworth barber, had a customer who only paid half the price of a shave and hair-cut and said, “It’ll be alright, I’ll give you the rest later.” Whereupon Jack shaved and trimmed only one side of his head! Wilky Driver, a barber in Keighley, allowed factory workers a weekly hair-cut and half-ounce of thick twist and even lent them twopence for a pint, then collected sixpence on Friday pay-days.

Greengrocer Fiddler Bob used to play the violin when trade was slack. Joiner Bob Nelson made his own coffin and kept it under his bed. Hannah Fish had once walked from Keighley to Edinburgh, whilst Polly Ladder carried two baskets hawking herrings and would repeat “Ah’ve scrubbed mi baskets reight well this mornin’.” Sidney Walker, hot-pea seller, was rumoured to stir his peas up with his wooden leg!

“Pie” Leach’s climb up the social ladder had been chequered”

And so the list continues; Old Moth-Balls, Bull Jack, Joe Pump, the Whistling Dummy, Billy Golightly, Johnny Twobbles, Ned Pom-Pom, Flywheel Tommy…

Ironically perhaps, we know more about some older, Victorian characters, thanks to solid contemporary sources.

James ‘Pie’ Leach (he had once sold pies) was a character of a different stamp, a local politician who used his drollery for publicity. His offices are enshrined on his impressive tombstone in Utley Cemetery, prepared to his specifications some time before his death in 1893:

James ‘Pie’ Leach (1815 – 1893)

“He was elected a member of the Keighley Local Board, and served about 12 years; he was elected a member of the Keighley Board of Guardians, and served 7 years; he was elected a member of the Keighley School Board, and served 2 years…”

“Pie” Leach’s climb up the social ladder had been chequered: he had kept a beerhouse, made leaden spoons, worked on Liverpool docks, sunk an unsuccessful coal pit, carried by horse and cart, even tried gambling and hawking. His gravestone praises his ‘sober and steady habits’ as a constable, though local authority minutes reveal that he had been brusquely given a fortnight’s notice and discharged!

“…he was elected a member of the Keighley Burial Board, and served 3 years; he was a Commissioner of the Baths and Washhouses for 7 years; and moved the resolution for the incorporation of the town officially in the Finance and General Purposes Committee of the old Local Board of Health.”

Notwithstanding, at Keighley’s first Municipal Elections in 1882, when he got himself nominated as a candidate in five wards, he was defeated in every one. Presumably Keighley had grown too sophisticated for a public figure who offered to fight his colleagues at Board of Guardians’ meetings, and gave strange vernacular ‘funeral sermons’ on two wives who had predeceased him.

Craven&Valley Life Summer 2010