Edward Royle – ‘The town that bought itself’? New light on 1920 #hlhs2020

This talk is the first in the new series of lectures organised by Huddersfield Local History Society for the 2021 season the subject of this lecture is the society’s latest publication “POWER IN THE LAND THE RAMSDENS AND THEIR HUDDERSFIELD ESTATE 1542-1920” which is a book of seven chapters by different local historians to commemorate the centenary of the purchase of the estate by Huddersfield Corporation in 1920 my name is Edward Royle and I am the editor of the volume the idea for this book emerged from a committee meeting of Huddersfield’s Local History Society in May 2012 David Griffiths Brian Haigh and Hillary Haigh were appointed to develop the project for this book to mark the centenary of the purchase in 1920 and Hilary was asked to edit it she used her extensive knowledge of who was working on what concerning Huddersfield history compiled a list of probable authors and negotiated with Huddersfield University Press to publish it Brian, David and Hilary were all to produce their own chapters Hilary’s would have been on the Ramsdens and women I was asked to do the Ramsdens and religion Dennis Whomsley who over the years has researched the Ramsden family more than anyone else was asked to contribute and although he declined he helpfully made available his extensive unpublished research for David Griffiths and others to use and this we gratefully acknowledge in the book my own experience is that after the initial approach Hilary then left the authors to get on with the job and that was the position in late 2018 when Hilary’s sudden death intervened I’d already drafted my chapter knowing that I was about to go through the upheaval of moving house and leaving Yorkshire and so I was somewhat reluctant when David approached me to take over as editor as we stood outside the church in Middlestown following Hilary’s funeral service but I agreed with promises of support from Brian and David which I must say have been willingly and given and gratefully received in the months since then a search through Hilary’s papers showed that my draft chapter was somewhat ahead of its time Hilary had barely started her own and some of the other names pencilled in were there more in hope than in expectation but Brian and David were well on with the task John Halstead had a long standing interest in the Ramsden tenant right dispute and could be relied upon to deliver on that subject Christopher Webster was looking to develop his existing work on William Wallen Huddersfield’s first resident architect the man who designed the George Hotel as well as several other notable Huddersfield buildings and Meriel Buxton who is married to a great nephew of Sir John Frecheville Ramsden the man who sold Huddersfield she had recently published a biographical study of Sir John Frecheville and his father Sir John William under the intriguing title poverty is relative that was in 2017 and she agreed to draw on her research in the family archives for that book to give a more personal essay for the collection with around twelve and a half thousand words a chapter and an allocation by the publisher of ninety thousand works for the whole book that left room at most for one more chapter but there were many topics which were not covered the most obvious one was something about the actual sale of Ramsden’s Huddersfield estate to the corporation without this it would be as though Shakespeare had written hamlet without the prince

but was it necessary but not clever Stephenson already done all that back in 1972 with his booklet the Ramsdens and their estate in Huddersfield the town that bought itself perhaps all we needed to do in the absence of any obvious author was to revise that work and perhaps expand it but at that point Stephen Caunce agreed to tackle the subject taking as his starting point a critical review of the financial risks taken by councillor Wilfrid Dawson the uncriticised hero of Stephenson’s booklet the next step was to decide what shape the seven essays were to take was this to be a disparate collection of independent essays loosely grouped around a theme or was it to be a book with seven chapters and what was the market to be I decided it had to be an academic publication worthy of a university press but at the same time something with popular local appeal after all we did want to sell the book and give members of the local historical community and the wider public something they would want to buy and even to read to commemorate this important milestone in the town’s history at first I thought I could turn the essays into a book by means of a lengthy introduction but there were only a few words remaining and once I’d read the draft contributions by Brian and David I concluded that they had done the job for me albeit at greater length than I had originally allowed Brian had intended writing about Longley and Byram the two houses associated with the Ramsdens in Yorkshire but in the end he ran out of words and time and just dealt with lonely but in the course of this chapter he introduced many of the most significant people and events over the whole period being covered by the book and David had pulled together his vast knowledge of local government in Huddersfield in the 19th century to chart the changing balance in the relationship between the Ramsdens and the various rising municipal institutions which eventually developed into the corporation then the corporation of course bought out the Ramsdens one of the dangers in writing history is that too often we perpetuate myths some matters become such common knowledge that we cease to ask whether they are actually true my aim was to ensure that along with my fellow authors we were able not simply to say things which have been said before but to say things because we had seen the evidence to support them and I want to spend the rest of this talk on some of the myths which we have tried to avoid accepting uncritically in his chapter David confronts the widely held belief that the Ramsdens owned the whole of Huddersfield you will read his forensic account of this mistake and we all hope that the more sophisticated version offered by David and he doesn’t claim to be the first person to have realised this but the more sophisticated version of what the reality was will finally become the accepted view not only did the Ramsdens not own all ever even central Huddersfield where they were the largest landowner but such dominance as they had was acquired only during the lifetime of Sir John William Ramsden from the 1840s and that’s the period dealt with the most detail in the book as a whole the Ramsdens were lords of the manner and amongst the largest landowners in the area but they were not so dominant as to make Huddersfield a Ramsden town as is often thought and three other questions emerged in my mind as I read the draft chapters

as they came in during 2019 the first question was who was the older of the two brothers who founded the Ramsden fortunes at long name here you see an extract from the family tree of the Ramsdens Robert Ramsden is in the top line and then underneath his three sons and the arrows point to William on the left and to John in the middle and Robert is on the right an internet search comes up with a range of dates for their births William who was the first ransom to own Longley bought the old hall an estate from his brother-in-law in 1542 in 1967 Dennis Whomsley published an article in the Yorkshire archaeological journal in which he argued that William was born in 1513-1514 evidenced in a legal document dated the 21st of October 1546 where it was stated that William was 33 years old Clifford Stephenson and most other historians including myself accept Dennis’s suggestion as the correct date although on the internet you will find some suggestions that it could have been as early as 1510 John his brother who lived at Longley and was to build Longley new hall is usually named without any birthdate at all and I think this is wise but an apparently convincing source on the web using gravestone evidence shows that John was born in 1512 however with the temporary closure of the record office at Wakefield I haven’t been able to look at sources which might have verified this there’s no reason though why it might not be true John foster in his pedigrees of the county families of Yorkshire published in 1874 stated that John was the younger son and William the elder son but this was in order to remove what he felt was the misleading impression created by his genealogical table shown here which has John and his descendants on the left the arrow pointing to him that’s the usual position occupied on such tables by the eldest son and William is off to the right indicated by the other arrow and that’s the position for the youngest son but foster’s evidence for naming William as the elder son is not clear why shouldn’t John possibly have been the elder son William after all did not inherit Longley as an elder son he bought it from his wife’s sister’s husband Thomas Seville and John then inherited it from his brother not because he was older but because William had no children and John was already living in the hall as William’s tenant so whether he was the elder or younger is not shown at all by the fact that William owned Longley first and for lack of evidence either way about John’s birth I thought it was not only not to give it but to avoid any impression as to which one was the older of the two the jury must still be out on that one and I hope our book is suitably neutral on the question another question was when did the Ramsdens acquire Byram Byram in Brotherton parish was a manor house probably dating from the late 16th century with modifications in the early 17th century but subsequently remodelled as in this picture by John Carr and Robert Adam for the third and fourth baronets in 1762 and the 1780s exactly when was this property first

acquired by the Ramsdens the anonymous Wikipedia entry confidently states 1628 but a date as early as 1618 was suggested by the authors of a report on Byram for the Yorkshire gardens trust written in 2019 but this would make the purchaser not Sir John whose dates from 1594 to 1646 but to his father William whose dates are 1558 1558-1622 William the son of John the builder of new long name but I’ve deferred to Brian Haigh’s suggestion that the property was probably acquired by the Ramsdens not until the early 1630s around the time of Sir John Ramsden’s second marriage in 1633 because he is the first Ramsden to be referred to as being of lonely and Byram and not simply of lonely the confusion seems to have arisen in the minds of the Yorkshire gardens trust report authors because they appear to have mixed up the original purchase by Sir John with the repurchase of Byram in about 1645 by his son confusingly called William whose dates were 1625-1679 and this William bought Byram from those gentlemen to whom Sir John his father had transferred legal ownership of the property to avoid sequestration during the civil war so Byram was indeed bought by William Byram but it was Sir John’s son rebuying Byram not Sir John’s father also called William and then the big question when did Sir John Ramsden decide to sell Huddersfield and how did the corporation come to buy it this is the major issue we confront in the book the interpretation of the Huddersfield purchase of a hundred years ago as given by Clifford Stephenson and I am going to spend the rest of his talk thinking about Stephenson’s treatment of the issue Stephenson was chairman of the borough corporation estates and property management committee which in 1972 asked him to write this short history of the Ramsdens and their estate in Huddersfield I suspect the suggestion of this booklet came from Stephenson himself because when he was looking for material for an after-dinner speech in celebration of the jubilee of the purchase in 1970 a file of papers by chance came to light in the estate office which it seems in his own words reveal drama and coincidence which a writer of fiction would scarce dare to invent for fear of over stretching the credulity of his readers because here was a collection of 175 contemporary documents described by Stephenson as papers copy letters telegrams and manuscript notes in a dirty manila folder and they were concerning the sale of 1919 to 20 Stephenson identified this as the personal file of counsellor Wilfrid Dawson was what Stephenson was to call the mastermind behind the purchase the manila envelope had lain at the back of an old document safe in the assad office for years to perhaps be put there by Dawson himself who had been the first chairman of their state committee or perhaps it had been collected together after his death in 1936 its discovery by chance was a revelation and the inspiration for Stephenson’s booklet the file was copied and bound by Stephenson and placed in both the local studies library and the archives under the title the Dawson file Stephenson regarded this file as definitive which in many ways it was

his booklet was a bestseller and went through numerous reprints most recently online this year on the websites of Huddersfield local history society Huddersfield’s civic society and Huddersfield exposed has captioning not available of it cannot be taken at face value as the only one when Stephen Caunce took on the subject his concern was to correct the uncritically celebratory tone adopted by Stephenson this tone was understandable in the circumstances with the book subtitled the town that bought itself what is Stephenson mean by this primarily he was referring to the purchase of the Ramsden estate by the borough corporation in 1920 but on the back inside cover there are estate facts and figures to show that though the town had bought itself in 1920 this had in fact been with borrowed money largely borrowed commercially from Cardiff corporation and these loans had been paid off by the profits made on the estate in 1972 which is what Stephenson booklet was celebrating it’s the successful self-financing deal conducted at the start by Wilfrid Dawson and concluded 52 years later with Stephenson’s congratulatory booklet and this is clearly proclaimed in the graffiti in Stephenson’s own design for the front cover of the booklet now hindsight is a great thing but Stephen Caunce was concerned that the successful conclusion in 1972 should not mask the enormous risks that Dawson had taken in 1919 and 1920 his life’s ambition was that the corporation should buy out the Ramsden estate for Huddersfield to buy itself and become its own landlord enormous risks were involved for a start there was no certainty that the corporation would wish to buy the estate a motion in favor of such a proposal had been laid before the corporation in 1894 opposed and then withdrawn moreover there was no precedent for any local authority to spend public money on land purchase and certainly not on the scale involved in buying out the Ramsdens a special act of parliament was necessary and there was no certainty that parliament would grant this so Dawson had to find a private source of funds and then trust that the corporation would fall into line and that parliament would grant permission now in 1919 Dawson was involved in some speculative business activities concerning Lancashire cotton mills in the short-lived post-war boom and he eventually lost money on the deals his speculative activities in purchasing Huddersfield and the unorthodox financial methods he was prepared to use to fulfil his life’s ambition should be seen in this context he was taking an enormous gamble the fact that the gamble came off and so became a course for celebration and self-congratulation should not conceal from us the speculative nature of Dawson’s deal another weakness of Stephenson’s booklet is a weakness in the Dawson file itself because it covered only the months from March 1919 to September 1920 and so did not explain any of the events before March 1919 when Dawson first learned that the Huddersfield estate might be for sale and so began his negotiations to buy it for this earlier part of the story his main source appears to have been the notes for talks on the Ramsden estate made in 1946 by Harold Taylor then Huddersfield estate manager here we learn of the amazing coincidence

which set the whole story in motion and I quote Stephenson’s own words Wilfrid Dawson was a local stockbroker and financier with widespread interests which so often took him to London that he found it convenient to rent a flat there this year lent to friends when not expecting to need it for himself on one such occasion when his flat was alone Wilfrid had unexpected business in London but nowhere to stay he mentioned his dilemma to a group of friends amongst whom was a stranger the stranger introduced as captain leslie Melville offered Wilfrid the hospitality of a room in his flat a generosity which Wilfrid was glad to accept later as they chatted and it transpired that Dawson came from Huddersfield the captain surprised him by the question do you know anyone likely to be interested in buying a large estate there Wilfrid pricked up his ears as this could only mean the Ramsden estate and replied that if he could have particulars he thought he could find a buyer by this chance meeting springing from the wartime difficulty of finding Hotel accommodation in London lady luck forged the second link in the estate purchase chain of events now all this could have happened believe it if you like Stephenson did the Dawson file naturally represents Dawson as the leading actor in the drama the mastermind according to the graffiti on Stephenson’s booklet and this would certainly appear to have been the case but he was not the only actor to accomplish the purchase swiftly without consulting the corporation or the estate coming on the open market Dawson needed to find a financial backup such a person would have to put up the money for the initial negotiations and then if the corporation agreed hold the newly purchased estate until the necessary act of parliament was carried the risk was that if the corporation refused the deal or if the act was not passed then the financier would simply replace Ramsden’s as the owner of Huddersfield and the town would not have bought itself now by coincidence one of Dawson’s clients was a businessman who recently started his own bank as well as insurance businesses in London having made a speculative fortune in Australia and this was Samuel William Copley described by Stephenson as king pin financier coincidentally like Dawson he came from Berry Brow it was in 1974 only two years after Stephenson had published his highly successful and influential account but a visit by Stephenson to Copley’s bank in London to interview the Copley family Sam had died in 1937 but this interview produced a new source of evidence of what had happened to accomplish the purchase Stephenson said he thought this did not materially alter his account but I think here he was misleading himself this alternative account seen for the first time by Stephenson two years too late was contained in a memoir dictated by Sam Copley in 1934 much of what he had to say did confirm or at least did not contradict the story told in the Dawson file but it crucially provided a much more convincing explanation of the meeting between Melville and Dawson at the beginning of the story then subsequently taken up in the Dawson file correspondence it also gave Copley a larger and more independent role alongside Dawson than Stephenson had allowed this alternative account based on Copley’s statement still requires a great deal of imagination

to fill in the gaps in the evidence and there’s no reason to suppose that the credible is any more believable than the incredible but my preference is for the former and on this basis Stephen Caunce and I constructed an alternative version of how the town came to buy itself and moreover why the Ramsdens wish to sell there are two grounds for believing at least some of Copley’s aversion first although he was recalling events 14 or 15 years after they had happened a newspaper interview which he gave at the time expressed some of the views he later repeated in the memoir secondly Meriel Buxton provides important information in her book as to why Sir John Frecheville Ramsden may have wished to realise capital by selling Huddersfield and in her chapter she goes out to identify Captain Charles the dispensier Leslie Melville 1877-1929 a captain in the grenadier guards the man whom Stephenson called the mystery man Meriel explains his financial motivation and probable connection with Ramsden in her account Melville appears as a plausible but unscrupulous rogue a bankrupt younger son of the leslie Melville family anxious to escape the financial constraints imposed on him by his family trusts the alternative surmise that Stephen courts and I offer in our chapter therefore sees Melville is motivated by his desperate need for money he knew that Ramsden was likely to want to sell and he agreed with Ramsden that he should take a commission on the sale if he could find a buyer Melville then set about his research and found that both Dawson and Copley were interested and so set about creating the circumstances in which they would happen by chance to meet the key figure in this alternative account makes only one fleeting appearance in the Dawson file that is James White jimmy white the press report of Dawson’s funeral identifies white as another financier and it becomes clear that white Copley and Dawson were all close business associates involved in the cotton industry speculation of 1919 white had a London office and somehow Melville managed to arrive there while Dawson and Copley were also in the room and this was the crucial meeting accidental so far as Dawson and Copley were concerned but deliberate on the part of Melville and here the Huddersfield connection of the two men and the availability of the Ramsden Huddersfield estate were brought together by Melville who then negotiated his commission from Copley forty thousand pounds later reduced to twenty thousand and it was Melville’s lawyer Acland hood who then proceeded to carry the business through on Dawson’s behalf and supplied much of the documentation held in the Dawson file we quote in the book Copley’s account of this first meeting with Melville whom he remembered as being called Melrose and it’s worth repeating Copley’s dramatised version of what Melville said so these are Copley’s words of what Melville said on their first meeting my word I went to school with Sir John Ramsden who owns Huddersfield my god he would be glad to sell it he’s sick of it he’s sick of all the battling with the socialistic council they always honoured him about begging a bit of land here a bit of land there for town improvements they’re always quarrelling about raising rates and that sort of thing on the estate and he’s told me many times how sick he was of owning Huddersfield at this point Copley recalled offering to buy his native town he gave Melville his opportunity and again according to Copley Melville responded I believe he would

sell it cheaper to me than anyone else he knows I’m needing money badly and he would like to see me get my commission and we know this is certainly true so we have a choice is it a lucky meeting the offer of a room for the night a chance conversation or is it a deliberate setup by a clever operator who was short of money and was in a position to capitalise on his acquaintanceship with Ramsden as Stephenson himself noted in 1975 that Melville’s contact with Copley and Dawson was deliberately set up is an interesting speculation but if this letter is the more acceptable hypothesis then we might further speculate did Ramsden actually decide to sell Huddersfield or did Melville turn Ramsden’s general dissatisfaction with Huddersfield and desire for capital to invest in land in Kenya did he turn this into a willingness to sell once Melville had found him a buyer so did Melville manipulate Ramsden into selling just as he created the opportunity for Copley and Dawson to fulfil their ambition to buy not so much for the benefit of any of them but for his own gain that commission that he so desperately needed we argue that case in this book complemented by Meriel Buxton’s research it’s speculative admittedly and the reader must choose who to believe but what is clear is that as Stephenson himself realised too late in 1974 his 1972 account can by no means be said to be the last word on the subject and it should not be regarded as such for the latest if not the last word you must buy our book there is in our account perhaps less of that drama than romance which so attracted Stephenson but it remains an interesting if more complicated and realistic account and because the gamble did pay off thanks to Dawson’s energy and Copley’s willing financial support and a considerable amount of luck then we are able today to gather to celebrate the fact that Huddersfield was able to buy itself 100 years ago