Castleford is a mucky hole, full of stinking pits’, a Victorian lady travelling through the town observed. She also observed that it could have no more than 7,000 souls all eagerly awaiting the new labour that would come with expansion of the coal-mining industry. They would sell the newcomers their wares and rent out their extra space, if they had any, to families coming from Scotland and particularly from the Rhondda Valley in Wales.
Our Victorian lady couldn't have known that a pre-industrial age had had a better opinion. Travel writers had written about the idyllic views across its waving bean fields. The two rivers that met there flowed into the breath-taking scenery of Airedale and Calderdale, a beauty that even the woollen mills set against the slopes of their valleys couldn't diminish. There had been an important Roman fort at Castleford and a Viking village too. Less 'mucky' times had been witnessed by the fair Castleford lasses, about whose beauty folk songs had been written.
“Castleford lasses need be fair
They wash in the Calder
and bathe in the Aire.
The town was a mere half a day or less on foot to the village of Kippax (nowadays 15-20 minutes by car) and between the two places lay Mary Panel Hill, named after the last witch in England to be burned; and she was burned in Kippax. This was an event that was re-enacted yearly by the village and legends grew up around the festival and Mary Panel herself. In the 20th century youths riding up and down Mary Panel Hill on their bicycles would claim to have seen her in the shadows, or even to have spoken to a strange old woman who seemed witchlike. Had the towns and villages ever had enough public revenue for serious archaeology, the area would have enriched the history of Northern Britain enormously. Not far from Kippax lies Sherburne in Elmet, erstwhile kingdom of Bruce Bloodaxe, and I needn’t spell out what he was famous for!
Castleford had had opencast coalmines since Roman times, and in times before everyone had a vote and power was concentrated in the hands of a few, they provided a convenient place to send those people who had displeased the ruling elite by opposing the actions of their ‘class’ or refusing to ‘swear the oath’ or go to church on Sundays, along with their families. There they could settle anonymously without disrupting the fluid conscience of the newly emerging empire, as none of the observers or writers of the time found Castleford to have anything to attract them–so who cared from where these earlier miners and their families originated? The exception to all these careless journalists was Daniel Defoe who describes walking through the bean fields of Castleford in a location that later became Beancroft Road. One positive outcome of all this is that Castleford folks inherited a questioning, sceptical perspective about the ‘powers that be.’ They also inherited a staunch position on equality summed up in what is, by now, a well-established maxim in the area:
“I’m no better than you
but tha’s no better than me.”
By the mid 1800s the urge of private owners, among whom one could count some of England's noted aristocrats, to exploit black gold, or coal, at least possible cost had led to the degradation of what had once been, notwithstanding the opencast blots on its wider landscape, an attractive market town surrounded by pleasant farming villages. The boom came when the most prominent among those aristocrats discovered that large tracts of his property had rich underground coal seams. This, followed by the invention of the steam engine and the building of the railways in a splurge of grandeur (that only the Victorians could justify against the incipient poverty of many of the towns and villages that became accessible by rail) led to a boom in the coalfields that needed increasing numbers of souls prepared to work themselves to death for a marginal prosperity over those who still worked on the farms.
From the men, women and children who came there to earn a crust from the mines from a variety of places, a culture was to grow; a culture that was based on a strong sense of community and on the supremacy of ‘king coal.’ In addition to the mines there were coke ovens to provide efficient fuel for the iron foundries and steel making and for making pottery. Castleford became a centre for glass manufacturing and some remains of it still appear in antique road shows and suchlike. At one time quite a lucrative trade existed between Castleford and Soviet Russia where the requirement of the comrades for slightly below standard drinking glasses was enormous–owing, no doubt, to the joyous Russian tendency to smash their glasses after each toast: an aristocratic tendency if ever there was one! Yet, despite the satanic mills of industry and those black holes that led into the bowels of the earth, people could still walk a short distance and see woodlands and wetlands full of wild life —attractions for poachers— and, if you wanted to make a day of it, the moorlands.
Billy Williams was a little more than seven years' old when, crouched outside his parents dishevelled stone shed — for a shed was all it was, a coal miner's shed—he realized his father was dying. He clung to the gaunt hillside that overlooked the Welsh mining village where he had been born, because he knew they couldn't stay.
Billy knew nothing of grandparents or cousins, aunts or uncles. His parents had been little more than children themselves when, forbidden to see each other by both families, they had run away together from some impoverished mountain farming village: they had been quickly made legal by the local minister after Billy had been born. No parent had been there to approve, but they had received the approval of God in the glowering guise of the minister.
Billy's Dad had a wonderful voice, all the miners said so. Billy was seven and he already knew his letters. Somehow everyone had put Billy's easy grasp of letters down to Dafyd Williams' wonderful singing voice. He didn't want Billy to go down the pit and had sent him to the village school almost from the time he could walk. Every pay day Billy's Da put the money away first for the school. Billy's Mam only worked the surface; his Da would only allow that. Underground, Dafyd held, was no place for a woman; at least not his woman.
Da had always dreamed of better days; and then his back had been broken in a cave-in. It wasn't just his back, his lungs had given out, and Billy knew he wouldn't last long now: young though he was he'd seen enough miners' deaths to know that this was one of them. What would Mam do now?
Mam, or Emma, a slight dark twenty-two year old couldn't think beyond Dafyd, her beautiful boy. They ran away after finding out she was pregnant. She'd been 15 and her lover 17. The coalmines in the Rhondda had been their only means of survival. As she sat by Dafyd's bed, Emma Williams wondered what would happen to her and her bairn[i]. The pit owners had no time for widows: they couldn't 'turn out' enough to merit their wages. It was just charity to employ them, or so they said. Then there was Billy, such a bright lad. He could go a long way, but how now with Dafyd shortly to leave them?