Ossett - the history of a Yorkshire town

Low Laithes, Ossett

Progress has no respect for history and car drivers speeding along the M1 near Junction 40 or golfers on the greens at Low Laithes are probably oblivious to the old mine workings hundreds of feet below them. Here, for a century or more, Ossett and Gawthorpe men toiled away in horrific working conditions hewing coal from a seam little more than three feet high to feed the voracious fossil-fuel appetite of Yorkshire's Industrial Revolution.

Hewing Coal 1875

The railways, the mills, the factories, the gas works and the iron foundries all ran on coal. Houses were heated with it and Britain was reliant on her coal mines. Miners were exempted from military service during WW1 and WW2, so important was their role to society. Yet they were treated appallingly by the private coal mine owners of the time.

View of Low Laithes Golf CourseThese days, Low Laithes is well known in Ossett as the home of Low Laithes Golf Club. The first nine holes of a challenging eighteen hole course were opened in May 1925 to a design by golf course architect Dr. Alastair MacKenzie. The rest of the course was opened in September 1926. The course at Low Laithes measures 6,463 yards from the tee on the first hole to the pin on the eighteenth and has a par of 71.

The main clubhouse is part of a timber-framed building that dates back to the 16th Century and Low Laithes was once part of the Manor of Wakefield New Park which was formed by the lord of the manor, the earl of Warenne, possibly in the reign of Henry III (1216-1272). The Low Laithes Farm and Estate was the property of the Earls of Cardigan, to whom it had descended by marriage from the Savilles of Howley Hall. The entire area around Low Laithes is steeped in local history with Smithson's pioneering tramway, dozens of coal mines, corn mills, quarries and farms, which are now all sadly long gone. Low Laithes was the home of the Smithson family from the 17th century and they are commemorated on mural monuments in Dewsbury Parish Church.

Low Laithes Golf Club is located on Park Mill Lane, and on the 1854 Ordnance Survey Map, Park Mill is shown as a working corn mill. Between Low Laithes Farm and Park Mill was a sandstone quarry in the vicinity of Mill Hill. There were at least four other pits located on land to the east of Low Laithes Farm, which is now the golf course and there was a large mound in the middle of the old 16th fairway, near to the old LNER railway, which covers the shaft of the old Thorn Tree Pit. There is also some evidence of the old coal road over the 2nd, 17th and 18th fairways.

Low Laithes in 1854

Above: Old OS Map of Low Laithes area from 1854 showing the 16th Century H-shaped Low Laithes Farm, as well as Park Mill and the sandstone quarry at Mill Hill. Several pits, forming the old Low Laithes Colliery are visible as well as Smithson's horse-drawn tram road dating from 1798.

The timber-framed farmhouse at Low Laithes was the central connecting part of a number of buildings grouped in the shape of a letter H. The east wing comprised a barn, an 18th century house and a cottage. The west wing was a long timber-framed barn, cladded externally with stone. Originally, the central house had seven bays, but four were demolished in 1930, leaving only bays five, six and seven. The number of bays can be identified from the joiner's fabrication marks on the eastern face of the principal beams, at the joints between tie-beam and brace. These marks are a guide to the date of the building. Similar ones have been found at "John Bunney's" house in Kirkgate, Wakefield, built in 1553. The standards of joinery suggest that Low Laithes was built in the mid sixteenth-century.

Low Laithes House (part) before alterations

Above: The Steward's house at Low Laithes and outbuildings before renovation work was carried out in the 1970s. Laithe being a barn and a Laithehouse being a house with barn attached to it. The name is exclusive to Yorks, Lancs and Cumbria. (thanks Martin Crabtree)

Low Laithes Farm - Construction
It may be thought that pre-fabrication is a modern technique, but it has been in use for centuries in the construction of timber houses, mills, dams, wharfes and ships. The method of building timber-framed houses is relatively simple. All the timbers are mortised and tenoned together and secured by tapered oak pegs, often 12 inches long and an inch in diameter. A complete truss could be built in the joiner's yard or even where the timber was cut.

After the joiners had finished the beam, fabrication marks were added and the truss could be dismantled, carried to site, re-assembled on the ground then hauled up into place on ropes. The main timbers with the roof timbers form a box-like structure. The spaces between the timber were filled with small studs or a plaster in-filling, supported by small pieces of split oak, jammed across between the studs.

When first cut, the oak is soft and easily workable. As it dries out, it becomes harder and can be as hard as concrete. Protected from the elements and such enemies as wood-worm, dry-rot or death-watch beetle, oak beams can last indefinitely.

After about 1600, when the great forests providing the oak were becoming depleted, houses were built increasingly from stone. By the eighteenth century, many of the timber-framed houses which had existed since the Middle Ages were becoming decayed. Many were demolished, but others were simply given a protective outside cladding of brick or stone and so survive.

The timber framed house at Low Laithes was protected on the west side by a barn and from the eighteenth century, by the house on the east. The northern face was the most vulnerable and was cladded up to the first floor level by an 18-inch thick wall. Above this, a single course of brick sufficed.

Low Laithes construction

Old Low Laithes Collieries
There have been many coal mines in the vicinity of Low Laithes over the last 250 years. Many old pit shafts and indeed, old collieries are marked on the 1854 OS map of the area: Barron’s Pit, By Pit, Bull Pit (with coke ovens), New Pit and several marked just as 'Old Coal Pit' surround Low Laithes Farm. These collieries were collectively known as 'Old Low Laithes Colliery' and were worked out by the mid to late 1800s.

The old colliery workings at Low Laithes came to national prominence in March 1973 when it was found that water build-up in the old workings at Low Laithes caused the terrible disaster at Lofthouse Colliery when seven men lost their lives from a huge inrush of water and sludge. It was later estimated that the old mine workings at Low Laithes had become an underground reservoir containing nearly 3 ½ million gallons of water.

Shortly after the disaster, which happened at 2am the 21st March, a surface visit was made to the site of the old Low Laithes Colliery and it was found the Bye Pit was exposed and water could be heard falling down the shaft. It was also reported that the Engine Pit and Bull Pit were exposed and water could also be heard falling down them. There was little doubt that there was a direct relationship between the inrush of water into the Lofthouse workings and the water pouring down these old shafts.

At New Park Farm, then owned by Mr. Norman Stead of Owlers Farm, Flushdyke who said that one of the old shafts on his land had collapsed at intervals and had been filled in by the National Coal Board: "We knew it was there because it was marked on maps supplied to us by the Board. We kept it under observation, and last September when it dropped about a yard, we called in the Coal Board who filled it up and put a wire fence around it. But this drop was far bigger, there was a gaping black hole, and you could hear water running at the bottom."

A decision was made to seal and fill them. Hardcore, baled straw and clay were used to obtain a water-tight seal near the bottom and filling to the surface was completed with hardcore. This work was finished by 11.30 p.m. on 23rd. March as was the filling of a large depression between the Engine and Bye Pits. After filling had commenced, the Bye Pit was plumbed and found to be 541½ feet deep to the top of the filling. The depth was later calculated to be about 660 feet.

Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson (1747-1800) was a gentleman farmer and maltster who leased Low Laithes Farm like his family had done for years before him from the Earl of Cardigan. In 1756, the rent payable to the Earl of Cardigan by Robert Smithson's father Joseph was £96.17.0d per annum. Smithson's great-grandfather, also Robert Smithson of Masham and Garsdale, came to live at Low Laithes Farm in the late 17th century and he was buried at Dewsbury church in 1693 aged 68. The Smithson family lived at Low Laithes until the 1820s, when Joshua, the son of Robert went to live in Northgate, Wakefield.

Robert Smithson married an heiress from West Riddlesden Hall, near Keighley and the couple had eight children. Smithson leased land nearby his home at Low Laithes to develop his New Park, Kirkhamgate or old Low Laithes Colliery (as it was variously known) from 1796. In 1798, he and his Wakefield associate, cloth merchant John Charnock (1752-1811), opened their version of New Park colliery and 'Smithson's Tram Road' connecting it with the Calder and Hebble Navigation at Thornes Wharfe, Wakefield. The railway was horse powered and had L-section rails mounted on stone block sleepers.

There was a parallel railway covering almost the same route to collieries (also confusingly called 'New Park Colliery') owned by Smithson's arch rival and Yorkshire coal-king, William Fenton. Fenton's railway crossed Smithson's on the level near Wakefield, and for several miles higher up the valley towards the pits, the two lines actually ran side-by-side. Fenton's railway was powered by bullocks rather than horses.

Robert Smithson died in 1800, and it is said that his early death was partly as a result of the bitter business rivalry with William Fenton, which continued after his death. For a few years, Smithson's collieries and tramway were run by a consortium of trustees headed by Smithson's well-to-do cousin William Smithson (1750-1830) of Ledston Hall and later Heath; his own brother Joshua Smithson and his brother-in-law Thomas Preston of Halifax. In 1818, Robert Smithson's farm and malt business (valued then at £8,906) was bequeathed to his son, also Robert. A three-quarter share in Smithson's collieries and tramway (and the debts due to them) was passed to Smithson's youngest son Joshua Smithson (1791-1867) who continued with the coal business under difficult circumstances until he failed financially in 1850.

Low Laithes Farm was eventually put up for sale at auction in 1889 as part of the Cardigan Estates. It was described as being tenanted by C.S. Robson at around £100 per annum and then comprised four sitting rooms, kitchen, scullery and larder, six bedrooms, malt kiln, rhubarb sheds, cow houses and barns. The land and buildings passed through several hands, being used for general farming and agricultural purposes until 1924 when it was bought by Mr. James W. Watson from Mr. G.L.T. Brudenell, who was a local mill owner and owner of most of the land in the Flushdyke and Alverthorpe areas. Brudenell was the family name of the earlier Earls of Cardigan who had owned these areas of land for many years.

New Low Laithes Colliery Map - 1908

Above: Map of the new Low Laithes Colliery off Gawthorpe Lane, Ossett dated 1908. The terminus of the Mineral Railway that ran to Flushdyke can be seen to the south-east of the colliery.

New Low Laithes Colliery
In 1890, two shafts were sunk for the 'new' Low Laithes Colliery, which was opened to the west of Low Laithes Farm, and east of the village of Gawthorpe, a few hundred yards along Gawthorpe Lane, which leads to Kirkhamgate. In 1851, just a short distance west of the site of the new Low Laithes Colliery was the New Lodge Colliery, owned by the Haigh Brothers, which had closed by the 1890s. Many Gawthorpe men were employed as miners in the 1881 census, so it is likely that New Lodge Colliery was open then. In 1894, the new Low Laithes Colliery site was shared with a brickworks and the colliery was much smaller than it was in 1908, indicating considerable expansion between 1894 and 1908.

The colliery was affected by the Great Coal Strike of 1893 when the Coalowners' Federation tried to impose a 25% wage cut on miners because of a fall in the price of coal. The men at Low Laithes went out on strike for several months in the summer and autumn of 1893. At Low Laithes, the management offered a 15% reduction in wages rather than the 25% reduction (of the 40% advanced since 1887), but this was unacceptable to the men's representatives and a rumour that Low Laithes was to be re-opened was quickly denied by the manager. On the 17th November 1893, a settlement was arrived at on basis of the old rate of wages being paid until at least the 1st February 1894, with a Conciliation Board to follow in at least one year. Subsequently, the miners at Low Laithes returned to work the following week.

In 1908, the colliery was managed by Mr. A.B. Blakely, followed in 1915 by Mr. David Arnold West, a mining engineer born in 1875 at nearby Birstall. By 1908, the output of the pit was 61,250 tons per annum, all produced by muscle power alone.

Low Laithes Coal Miners in 1905

Above: Coal miners from Low Laithes Colliery, Gawthorpe in 1905. They look like they endured a very hard life underground.

Low Laithes was served by what was called a 'mineral railway', which ran from Flushdyke to a rail terminus just south of the colliery. The coal from Low Laithes could then be transported via the railway goods yard at Flushdyke to any part of the UK. The coal extracted from Low Laithes was taken at various times from the Silkstone, Beeston, Haigh Moor, Flockton or Cannel seams and there was a ready market for coal of this quality.

In 1911, Low Laithes Colliery purchased a second-hand steam locomotive named "Mulciber" from the Aberford Railway. Mulciber (named after the Roman God of Forge and Fire) was a Manning-Wardle Class H 0-4-0ST saddletank engine built in 1870 and would have travelled hundreds of times between Flushdyke and Low Laithes pit with wagons laden with coal. It must have been a familiar sight to local Ossett residents.


Above: A rather grainy picture of the saddleback 0-4-0 steam locomotive Mulciber, used to pull coal wagons on the Mineral Railway between new Low Laithes Colliery and the goods yard at Flushdyke Station in Ossett.

The 'new' Low Laithes Colliery, now owned by W. and E.H. Middlebrook, ceased production in May 1927, and the sister colliery at nearby Wrenthorpe also closed. The 1920s Depression was in full swing at this time and trading was difficult with many coal miners either on shortened working weeks or already made redundant. The Ossett Observer in December 1928 noted that the chances of the Gawthorpe pit re-opening were remote and in fact it never did, despite probably being viable. In the event, the site changed hands, re-emerging as the Doric Kerb Works, making concrete kerb stones for road construction. The Doric works were derelict in the 1960s and it is believed that production ceased in the 1950s.

There is now little evidence of this once thriving local industry and much of the area that was new Low Laithes colliery, then later the Doric Kerb Works, has now been returned to agriculture with new the Ossett bypass passing close by to the south.

Low Laithes Golf Club
The first public intimation of a possible golf club at Low Laithes was in the 'Ossett Observer' on the 26th July 1924, when it was reported:

“local golfing circles are interested in rumours of a new golf course at Ossett. Dr Mackenzie of Leeds has been engaged and had suggested an eighteen hole course of some 6,460 yards in the Flushdyke area”.

The area to be used as the golf course was reported to be:

“undulating without being hilly, it had some excellent natural features and the cost of laying it out would be in the region of £2,000”.

The main driving force for the golf course was Mr James Walter Watson, a Heath member and resident at Flanshaw Hall in 1925, Mr Julian Thornton of Dewsbury and other gentlemen and golfers from the surrounding areas.

The club was officially formed on 15th January 1925 when it was registered as a Limited Liability Company and Low Laithes Golf Club Limited came into being. (As a matter of interest the term “laithes” is an old name for “barns”).

Low Laithes Golf Club logo

The British Golf Course Construction Company carried out the work on the course to Dr Mackenzie’s specifications and the eighteen-hole course was completed by September 1926.

Originally it was indented the course would be 6,460 in length but on completion it measured 6,299 yards (bogey 76). Today the course is 6,445 yard in length from the back tees, Par 72 (SSS 71) and still bears the trademarks of Dr Mackenzie’s layout, with a number of Mackenzie greens.

Golf was first played at Low Laithes in May 1925 when the first 9 holes were opened and the first full round of eighteen holes was played in September 1926.

In 1925 the suggested fees were four guineas for gentlemen, two guineas for ladies and one guinea for juniors under 21 years of age. The original membership was aimed at 200 gentlemen and 100 ladies and juniors in order to be able to run the club and break even or make a slight profit over the year. These numbers were never maintained during the early years of the club.

Initially the land and buildings were leased from the owner, Mr James Walter Watson, for a period of 21 years with option to purchase the estate at any time during that period. The owner extended the lease on a number of occasions over the years until eventually Mr Harry Watson, who had inherited the land from his father, suggested the club purchase the land and property. The land and property was valued at £6,500 and a loan was made available to facilitate the purchase it in the 1950s. Low Laithes Golf Club Limited was now the sole owner of the land and property.

The main building (which is now the clubhouse) was dated as mid sixteenth century.

Ken Bartlett's excellent Alverthorpe web site has a very detailed treatise on the construction of Low Laithes Farm with many old photographs. The line drawing of the Steward's House at Low Laithes Golf Club on the main page is his work. There is also some additional information on the Smithson family who lived for nearly 200 years at Low Laithes.

Old Coalmine

Fatal Colliery Explosion at Low Laithes - 1859
Mr. Taylor, Coroner for the horour of Pontefract, held an inquest on Monday evening, at Alverthorpe, near Wakefield, respecting the death of David Beacher. On the 28th November 1859. Beacher and another man, named Brown, were working together at a bank in the Bull Pit of the Low Laithes Colliery, belonging to Mr. Benjamin Roberts, under the direction of John Noble, the steward. Noble told the men to get the coal until they got to the old works ; but he gave no orders about lamps, and they worked with naked candles. Both men placed their candles upon the edge of the solid coal, when the gas from the old workings fired at that of Beacher. The two men were badly burned but Beacher most severely. A third person, a burrier, was also burned. Beacher died from his injuries on Saturday morning last. Verdict "Accidentally burned." - December 3rd, 1859.

Child Labour - 1842
Alfred Lord, aged 14, examined at Mr. Joshua Smithson's colliery, Alverthorpe, says, " I hurry from the dip; it is hard enough; I should not like it to be much harder; I began to go at five years old"

Lofthouse Disaster 1973
A borehole had been dug at Low Laithes Golf Club so that the greens could be watered regularly in summer. After the Lofthouse Colliery disaster in March 1973, the sudden rush of water out of the old mine workings under the course lowered the water table so much that the pump in the borehole was now several feet above the water level. Consequently, there was no water for the greens. After several months, the level of the water table did rise again, but several old mine shafts were revealed on parts of the course, evidence of the mining that had taken place many years before.

James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan 1797-1868
The owners of the land in Ossett where Low Laithes Farm is situated have been successive members of the Brudenell family, known in earlier times as the Earls of Cardigan.

The 7th Earl of Cardigan, James Brudenell (1797-1868) is famous for inventing the woollen knitted garment, the cardigan. He is even better known for leading the disastrous cavalry charge at Balaclava during the Crimean War in 1854, which the poet Tennyson immortalized in his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Charge of the Light Brigade

In the week following the battle of Balaclava the remnants of the Light Brigade were posted inland, to high ground overseeing the British lines surrounding Inkerman. Cardigan, who had spent most nights of the campaign aboard his luxury steam yacht Dryad in Balaclava harbour, found this move a great inconvenience and his leadership of the brigade suffered as a result.

A vain and arrogant man, James Brudenell believed in the preservation of the ancient privileges of aristocracy and was very much against the reformist climate of his time.