Ian Clayton: Wall to wall with history

This week’s story starts with the knocking down of an old wall. It was just a bit of honey coloured sandstone, but one I was attached to, that’s if you can be attached to an old wall.

The wall was on the left hand side of Church Lane in North Featherstone. It formed a boundary to the garden of a council bungalow where the famous big band singer Geraldine Farrar lived in her retirement.

When I take my dog for a walk on a morning I sometimes used to touch that wall, bit daft and sentimental I know, but I did it because the wall was very ancient and I wanted to somehow feel connected to the past. The other morning when I went by, the wall was gone. I saw some bricklayers from Wakefield and District Housing, so I said to the one who looked like he was in charge: “That’s another landmark gone.” He said: “Do you mean that old wall? Aye, it was rotting and they told us to pull it down, we’re replacing all the old walls.” Wakefield and District Housing are indeed knocking down the old walls and replacing them with smart new ones, but it all left me feeling a bit sentimental about the old stone one.

About 15 years ago I worked on telly with a man called James Cartland, an antiques expert and eminent historian, who lived in a lovely old hall in Derbyshire. He once came to our house for lunch and when we walked up to the post office he noticed that old wall.

He said: “I say! But that’s a fine old wall. Boundary to an Elizabethan manor I should think.” I wondered at the time how he could deduce that, but I was so used to James and his formidable knowledge, I didn’t bother to ask him how he knew and we were rushing to catch the last post.

I’ve done a bit of research this last week and I’ve found out that the wall was indeed a part of a fine old manor house, a house that survived right up to the 1950s. Featherstone Manor was the ancestral home of the Hippon family, hereditary keepers of game at Pontefract Park from Elizabethan times.

By 1857, according to Baines Directory, the Manor was occupied by a farmer called John Lake, then in 1865, when George Bradley a solicitor and coal owner bought the Ackton Hall estate, a man called William Gower, described by Kelly’s Directory as “a organist and schoolmaster” lived there and ran it as an “academy” – I suspect a private school.

The Denbeigh family of farmers then moved in when Lord Masham bought the estates in an auction at The Bull Hotel in Wakefield in 1891 and stayed there until the 1920s.

I was astonished then when my research led me to find the last man to be born in that house. My friend Derek Pearson, who still lives in North Featherstone, told me his family the Dransfields moved there with two other families, the Bowmans and the Blankleys to grow their own food and keep a few animals.

Derek told me he was 11 in 1951 when the families had to leave because the council had acquired the land for house building. He said: “Why it got knocked down I’ll never know, it was a grand old house.” He recalled the size of the rooms: “I learnt to ride a bike round the kitchen and at one point we had 26 soldiers on camp beds in one room during the war. My gran also took in Bevin Boys as lodgers.”

He also told me that his older sister had stories passed down to her about Sir Thomas Fairfax, the commander of the Roundhead army and Cromwell himself staying there during the English Civil War. I can well believe this, they were both active in this district at that time, Fairfax fought a skirmish at Glass Houghton and was of course at the sieges in Pontefract.

The Hippon family were known supporters of the Parliamentary cause, John Hippon in court described himself as a “Catholic and Parliamentarian.” We can still see that history in the names on the council estate that replaced the Manor, there’s a Fairfax Avenue and a Manor Drive.

So, just an old rotten wall then, but one with a lot of history behind it. It’s gone now, well most of it has. I noticed a few stones have been kept back to form a rockery. Perhaps that is what history becomes, a rockery in a council house garden. I want to do more research into this and other ancient houses in our area, I’ll keep you posted.