Whitwood and C.F.A Voysey A West Yorkshire village with an interesting story to tell
Roy Hampson is in this West Yorkshire village which has an unlikely and fascinating history to tell.
WHITWOOD village in West Yorkshire stands beside a busy road close to Junction 31 on the M62, and is exactly the sort of place that everyone drives through without giving it a second glance. There are no thatched cottages to be found here, or even well-fed ducks dozing around the village pond.
However, most will miss a truly fascinating history as they motor past, and anyone taking the time to stop and explore the area properly will certainly be in for a few surprises. It even has a place called Diggerland where young and old alike can have fun at driving a JCB.
The importance of the village, though, is that it’s home to the largest collection of buildings in the UK by the renowned early 20th-century Arts and Crafts designer, Charles Francis Annesley Voysey.
He was born in 1857 at Hessle, near Hull, and grew up to be a prolific designer of his day. But he was a stubborn Yorkshireman who would turn down commissions if he couldn’t have things his own way.
Voysey insisted that anything that went inside his homes was designed by himself to his own exact standards – tables, chairs, mirrors. fireplaces, fabrics, carpets and clocks. It extended even to a key-ring holder shaped in the letter V which was presented to each new tenant on completion of the buildings in 1908.
Voysey also designed his own clothing, banishing lapels and trouser turn-ups which he considered to be dust traps.
Retired schoolteacher and local historian Shirley Schofield lives in one of the 19 cottages built by Voysey in 1905. They are a striking row of terraced houses with large pointed red tile roofs acting as a centrepiece for the whole village.
Together with the adjoining Rising Sun inn and its distinctive white tower, they are reminders of a time when thousands of colliers and their managers once lived, worked and spent their recreational time
> in Whitwood during the early part of the last century.
Shirley, together with husband Vic, moved into the cottage in 1985 and admits that she knew nothing about the architecture or design of these houses until she turned “house detective”, unearthing the fascinating past of her own home and its surrounding village.
The book she ended up writing about the history of Whitwood has more than made up for her initial lack of knowledge, though.
Shirley can reel off dates and information about Voysey’s life and went on to write a second book about Whitwood’s unique houses and the Miners’ Welfare Institute which Voysey designed at the end of the terrace.
Shirley and Vic have decorated in much the way that Voysey would have wanted. The walls are white to draw attention to the furniture and there are no clashing patterns. You could have pattern in your curtains or carpets but not both, according to Voysey.
The pine doors are painted white and the architect’s trademark ventilation grille, showing four birds and seven trees, is on display on the chimney breast. The houses were built and decorated to Voysey’s exacting standards and many of the original features remain.
Each had and still has a neat black gate and straight paved path through the uniformly designed gardens, which had a privet hedge, laurel bushes, and poplar trees.
The huge overhanging pitched-roof tiles are beginning to show signs of their original colour as the weather gradually removes decades of coal dust. Even when they were at home the original occupants couldn’t forget work: each house was fitted with a direct telephone line to the colliery.
Voysey often fitted fireplaces in the corners of rooms because he said people didn’t sit in the corners.
The window in the fourth bedroom is, unusually, at floor level so you have to get down on your hands and knees to peer through to the outside. He did this so the houses would look arrow straight from the rear.
Voysey insisted on the use of oak throughout in buildings, which was not always affordable by the builders, so he refused to enter properties where pine acted as a substitute.
The cottages and former Miners’ Welfare Institute are an unusual style of structure for the area and indeed the only examples of Voysey architecture in Yorkshire itself. The nearest is Broadleys at Windermere.
Young children consider the houses to have quite a scary appearance and the windows, front doors and distinctive high pointed roofs do bear a striking resemblance to a witch’s face and hat.
Once, the village played host to the largest coal mine in Europe, owned by the Briggs Company, and the village grew as thousands of men found employment at the pit.
The buildings were originally commissioned in 1905 by local pit owner Arthur Currer Briggs, who had visions of Whitwood being modelled on Saltaire near Bradford.
This was a place providing not only dwellings for the workers he employed but also leisure amenities such as a park with bandstand, bowling green and tennis courts for all the villagers to use. These plans were scuppered owing to the outbreak of World War I.
The Miners’ Welfare Institute building (or “Stute” as it was nicknamed by the miners) was a place where Briggs workers could meet and play billiards, read and smoke. This was in the hope of distracting his workforce from local ale houses.
It opened in 1908 with 500 members, who for one penny a week could enjoy the facilities.
The institute, with its distinctive square tower, is now the Rising Sun inn. Although the name may have changed, many of the features are still the same.
There are beautiful examples of Voysey stained-glass windows in the bar, quite near to the original Voysey fireplace and trademark ventilation grills. Two of the upper floors inside the white tower have magnificent oak-beamed fireplaces.
The memorial hall behind the pub appears to be a Voysey design, but experts argue as to whether or not it’s a Voysey original. It was built as an extension to the Miners’ Welfare.
Briggs never saw the project completed and died at the early age of fifty. Above the door is a plaque which reads: In memory of Arthur Currer Briggs, born 1855, died 1906.
The hall became the centre for all activities in the village, from wedding receptions to inquests after mining accidents and even a dole office.
During the 1930s it became the scene of great excitement and drama. A local called Billy Derbyshire accused the dole officer of docking some money, so he went back home to collect his gun and shot the dole man in the leg while he waited in the nearby tram shed.
Not far away are the remains of a cemetery with only a handful of gravestones. Here you will find the last resting place of Mary Alnie Kay who, in February 1926 at the age of twenty, was killed by a roof fall at Whitwood colliery.
Her father, Redfern Kay, had arranged for a group of Leeds University students to go down the Beeston Shaft. A huge rockfall killed Mary instantly.
Hidden away past the golf course is another of Whitwood’s delights, the Aire and Calder canal, a peaceful spot where barges are moored and kingfishers swoop.
Shirley often ponders on the man who avoided turn-ups because they gathered dust.
“He certainly wouldn’t have approved of Diggerland, nor those who spend their spare time driving building-site diggers for fun,” Shirley says.