Situated amidst the moorland and nestling cosily beneath the hills, which form a portion of the Pennine Range, is to be seen the village of Meltham. The aspect presented from the high hills, “which bear evidence of druidical habitation, and traces of the Roman camp and forum,” is of such rare beauty that we do not wonder that this village has attributed to it such appellations as the “Honey Hamlet” and the “Happy Valley.”
Fifty years ago, the time from which our history dates, its inhabitants showed such signs of prosperity and happiness as were unknown at this period to the workers in our large cities and towns. Trade was good, work was plentiful, and good wages were earned by the workpeople.
The principal industries were the manufacture of woollen cloths, cotton threads, silk spinning, and the spinning of cotton and woollen yarns, also a minor industry of the manufacturing of sweets, employing a number of hands. The manufacture of woollen cloth was carried on by Mr. Joseph Hirst, Wilshaw Mills; cotton threads by Messrs. Jonas Brook & Bros., Meltham Mills; silks by Mr. Charles Brook, Bent Ley Silk Mills; cotton and woollen yarns by Messrs. Ainley & Taylor, Messrs. Goodey & Gordon, Mr. A. T. Woodhead, and Mr. James Ramsden. The woollen cloths produced at the Wilshaw Mills, known in the manufacturing world as “Turins,” “Seftons,” “Leopolds,” “Liverpools,” &c., were of such excellent quality and finish as to make them famous throughout England and many other parts of the world.
The cotton threads produced by Messrs. Jonas Brook & Bros, also gained a world-wide reputation, and were used in almost every household. The demand for silks, cotton and woollen yarns, &c., produced from the other mills was such as to keep them running regular time, and very often overtime.
This prosperous state of affairs, combined with the good feeling existing between masters and workers, also the excellent conditions under which they worked and the wages paid, accounted for the prevailing happiness of the people throughout the village. This was the pre-railroad period, there being no communication by rail nearer than Honley on the one side and Slaithwaite on the other. This necessitated the coal and raw materials required for the running of the mills, and goods required for consumption, having to be carted chiefly from these places, a good deal of the coal used by householders being brought into the village by vendors direct from the pits.
A service of omnibuses ran to and from Huddersfield, the nearest town, twice daily, one starting from the Rose and Crown Hotel and one from the Swan Inn. The mails were also delivered and despatched by mail cart. It was eight years after this that railway communication was opened out, the first sod being turned by C. Brook, jun., Esq., on April 4th, 1864, and the railway opened for goods and passenger traffic on August 10th, 1869
The population of the village at this time would reach about 4,000. The administering body representing the people and carrying out the work required in the good government of the village, was then called the Local Board, and was composed chiefly of the leading gentry residing in the village, and who took a deep interest in their work. The deliberations of this Board took place in a building occupied by them at Dry Well, situate where we now call the bottom of the town, on the site now built upon by Mr. Fred Earnshaw. They afterwards occupied rooms belonging to the Co-operative Society over the present Drapery Department, and at a later period held their meetings in the room now used as the Society’s Boot Repairing Department.
The religious and secular education of the people was not entirely neglected, religious instruction being taught at the Church and Wesleyan Schools. Secular education was taught in the day school belonging to the Wesleyans, the headmaster being Mr. Samuel Coldwell, also at the Public Subscription Schools, then occupying the place of the present Conservative Association, the headmaster being Mr. Thomas Henry Lawford. These two masters were advanced educationalists for their day, both learned men and strict disciplinarians, their tuition being the means of turning out many scholars who are to-day occupying high positions in the business world and other spheres of life, Mr. Lawford later opening a private school named “The Pan Villa Academy,” which was renowned as a seat of learning, students from far and near seeking to gain admission. Many successful men of to-day can trace their success to the tuition received at this academy.
With regard to the lighting of the village, it can be said that Meltham was not behind the times, gasworks being erected at the place and forming a portion of the gasworks of to-day. An adequate supply of gas was made at these works, quite equal to the demand and consumption. They were not as they are to-day, the property of the ratepayers, but were carried on by private enterprise.
Of the water supply we relate a different story. Water was a luxury, and valued. There was no reserve, and the inhabitants were entirely dependent on the springs and wells for their supply, and many had it to carry great distances, and it is said that during seasons of great drought many times the people have stayed up all night to secure sufficient water for the following day’s wash. How different from to-day, when all the inhabitants have their own supply!
The principal tradesmen carrying on the grocery business were Mr. Henry Brook, Mr. John Earnshaw, Mr. Walter Varley, and Mr. James Butterworth, and the principal butchers were Mr. Reuben Redfearn, Mr. John Bray, Mr. John Scott, and Mr. George Whittaker.
The social life of the majority of the people was of a simple and primeval kind. Living in a pure and healthy atmosphere, their bodies and minds were naturally pure and healthy. Far away from the “madding crowd” of town and city, they lived their lives in peace and contentment.
Such were the prevailing conditions in this small village at the dawn of an era hitherto unparalleled in the history of our country for advancement and progress. This coming age of discovery and invention which was to completely revolutionise the world of science and industry, also ushered in great philanthropic and industrial movements, which were to bestow incalculable benefits upon the working classes, and to entirely change and uplift their mode of life.
The great principles of combined effort and self-help, which we call the Co-operative movement, had become known throughout the land. Robert Owen, the founder of the movement, and George Jacob Holyoake, the veteran leader, had preached the gospel of Co-operation in almost every part of the country. It had been tried and failed, but it was not doomed to failure.
The Rochdale Pioneers, in the year 1844, opened a Store on a basis that met with such great success that from this time failure was practically unknown. Its principles were preached and Co-operative Stores established in every town and village. The leading men of thought in Meltham were alive to what was taking place in the outside world, and many were the discussions which took place as to whether a Store should be formed, and eventually, in the year 1861, it was concluded that a Co-operative Society should be established.