Why should men from all time attempt to poke fun at Slaithwaite Docks, because in former times these old quays in the village were famous for the commerce of a wide area. Say the time when the coaches ran on the Manchester Road. The Star Inn was then a great place, kept by the late Mr. J. Parkin, a fine old English gentleman, with his breeches, broad-brimmed hat, coloured waistcoat, and a jacket to fit him either for his butchering business, his spirit trade, his farming, or as mine host of the Star Hotel, for which he was known far and wide (without offence) as “Old Star,” full of gallantry and ready wit, well known, and appreciated.
What a busy place the Star was in those days! And what money the old gentleman made there! Mail coaches, all kinds of traffic, travellers, merchandise, shows, etc., travelled the road at all times of day and night. The changing of horses and the stabling of the period was a study. Since then many of these stables and the long chamber have been made into cottages for the growing population to live in.
Time was when this long chamber was the largest room in Slaithwaite, and was used for conceits, meetings, sales, etc., and it was in this room that the Wesleyan Reformers held their first anniversary services after they had been turned out or left the old Wesleyans. The Free Methodists then had a splendid preacher in the Rev. Mr. Woods, a most eloquent man; and the late Mr. Benjamin Shaw, of Crosland Moor, used to come and crash down on the Bible with weighty arguments to prove he was no mere local Dick, but a true minister of Christ. Many good characters were connected with the chapel in Laith Lane. Poor David Varley, who went after the faith he loved to a far-off place in America, where he soon died, and the children remained to look after a dear old mother living at this time, 80 years of age; Joseph Sykes, honest Henry Clay, John Hutchinson the tinner, John Varley the spinner, etc. Well do I remember when they converted Joe o’ th’ Tailor’s to a religious life from that of folly, and the great rejoicing in the village at the good they were doing. Bitter indeed was the parting from the old Wesleyans. It left breaks in friendships and homes which were never made up, and surely it was wrong on the part of those in authority not to concede the reasonable things asked for. How much stronger they would have been for good, and the world could not say as it did then and since, pointing with a finger of scorn, “See how these religious people love one another!”
But I am coming to later days, and must go back to the docks and canal. How the banks of the latter in and around Slaithwaite were crowded with men seeking work and looking on the busy scenes. The pond from the crane to what was called “Dartmouth Lock” was full of boats, loading and unloading, and passing to and fro with every kind of merchandise. Large casks were taken in and put out at the crane, stones laden and sent away to all parts. Varley’s, of the corn mill, had their own boats and warehouse; Sykes’ (Midgley’s) ran their coal boats to their own little wharf; Brierley’s, with others, did a general trade. It was indeed a busy place, with every kind of character on the work, but, if anything, rougher than you find them now.
Many were the battles of that age, generally fought in the field on which are built Commercial Mills, in the occupation of Messrs. Pearson Brothers. There were no police, and the constables did not take much notice of a fair fight. There was with nearly every barge a sort of cock bird, and in each village a number of men were only too ready for an engagement of this kind, smart, young, strong, and active. Dear me! how they used to fly at each other for the mere love of the thing, stripped to their waists, the very picture of health. Oh, how they brutally attacked each other, kicking, striking, wrestling all allowed, and fast followed in succession, until one or the other gave in. The wonder is that they did not kill each other, so brutal were the methods adopted. The late genial Mr. Thornton, of Thornton’s Temperance Hotel, Huddersfield, used to draw a little fun from the countrymen who visited his intelligent house about the man at Longwood Thump who, on being asked if he was not going home soon, answered, “Mr. — , how can I? I have not fughen (fought) yet.”
The River Colne and the canal run side by side through the valley. One dare not tell how much smuggling went on or how much trade was clone on the canal bank on the dark nights. There was no gas to light up the transactions, so they had better be kept dark to-day. Suffice to say. many a barrel of good rum was made lighter, and the whiskey did not grow on the way, or the wool bags multiply in the transit; at least so it is said, and as no one was much better or much worse by this nibbling, it shall rest here like one of the untold border tales of olden time.
It will be of some interest to the present inhabitants of this now popular little town to know the situation of the town to the canal at the time we are writing about. The two humped-backed bridges led to what was old Mr. Lightowler’s butcher shop and the old shavers, both lying well up to and in front of the bridge. The wonder is how large wagons got over the other side on the Carr Lane, or the other one into Slaithwaite. First thing on the left was Mr. David Meal’s house and canal warehouse; next came Mr. Farrar’s manure heap; and on the opposite side the barn and stables, with Mr. Sam o’ Billy’s white house and shop, well known for his large half-ounce of tobacco, because it was wrapped in a very peculiar way. All these things are swept away, and made into one wide and beautiful street; and, what is more, this pond was a death-trap for the people — scarcely a month passed without some one being drowned — by not being protected. Right from the middle of Carr Lane to the crane it was open. Drunken men had no chance. There was no light when Slaithwaite’s moon did not shine — only the dark waters of the canal hiring their victims on to sure and certain destruction.
Thanks to better government, to better times, and to better men, everything has been done to make the canal safe. Light has been given to the town, and more wisdom to the inhabitants. But what a change! The water silent and almost deserted, while everything goes by road, rail, or tram much quicker, much better, much more conveniently, and better for all.
Slaithwaite Notes: Past and Present (1905) by John Sugden