OBITUARY: A tribute to my dad - tales of Gildersome mills and days gone by

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Arthur Whitehead died on October 6 at the age of 91. His passing ended a rare link with the textile industry of yesteryear. Here, his son Andrew pays tribute.

The death earlier this month of my father Arthur Whitehead - from a Gildersome mill family and a former Morley councillor - breaks another link with the textile industry which once defined the area.

With his passing, there are no longer any Whiteheads who worked at Whiteheads’ mill.

He was 91 and had for the last few years been living in Easingwold near York, but the greater part of his life was spent in Gildersome and Morley.

He married a Gildersome girl, Margaret Graham - born in Glasgow, her family moved to the village when she was a child - in the local Baptist Church in the coronation summer of 1953.

His grandfather Willie Whitehead, who began his working life as a loom tuner, established the mill just over a century ago.

According to family folklore, he borrowed money from an aunt who had inherited it after (accidentally) giving her husband disinfectant to drink.

In the 1920s, the business moved to purpose-built premises at Deanhurst Mill on Gelderd Road - a small worsted mill in an area more noted for shoddy and mungo manufacture.

Joseph Whitehead, my grandfather, was the main force behind the mill’s success.

He was a typical, strong-willed tyke and chairman of what was then the Gildersome Urban District Council.

His wife, Ethel Brooksbank - one of the first women graduates from Leeds University - was every bit as formidable.

Both served as magistrates in Morley and they were also active in Gildersome Cricket Club - and I remember as a child going with my father to see the occasional game at the ground at the back of Street Lane.

My father and his twin brother, Bernard - older than him by ten minutes - were born in Wibsey in Bradford and moved when very young to College Road in Gildersome, at the back of the family mill.

They went to Gelderd Road Pprimary School and Batley Grammar School; my father took a two-year wartime degree in the textile department at the University of Leeds.

During the war, he trained as a pilot in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

He was still there when the war ended - and can remember his instructor saying: “If you are signing up to stay in the air force we’ll keep on with the training, if not just clear off.”

On his return, he qualified as an accountant and worked in the family firm; so too did Bernard, who had a flair for design (Bernard died in 1984).

I remember visiting Deanhurst Mill as a toddler, and being assailed by the deafening clack-clack of the looms and delighting in tumbling around among the cloth off-cuts.

When my parents married, they moved to Bruntcliffe Lane in Morley.

My father was elected to the council - he was a Liberal.

I was born at Morley Hall maternity home in 1956 and my brother Malcolm came along three years later.

In 1960, the family moved back to Gildersome to Hilly Croft on Gildersome Lane, which like most of the more imposing buildings in the area had been constructed decades earlier with mill money.

That was my childhood home and my bedroom looked out to Harthill.

There were blackberries in the surrounding fields, partridges used to stroll across the lawn - it was a curiously rural corner of the West Riding.

At about that time, Joseph Whitehead took his family by surprise and sold the mill.

It continued to make fine worsted cloth for a while longer but my father left the business and went on to a highly successful career in carpets.

On retirement, he worked as an investment adviser to a leading enterpreneur.

And by a curious twist of fate, that took him back to Gildersome’s mills.

He tried against the odds in the 1980s to devise a recovery plan for the village’s last working mill - Booth’s Mill, also known as Moorhead Mill, which specialised in cloth for billiard tables and army uniforms.

That failed, and the mill closed - and with it a tradition of textile manufacture in Gildersome which stretched back over two centuries.

I have in my home in London the mill’s wind-up ‘clocking-in’ clock and a batch of time cards.

After 60 or so years in Gildersome and Morley, my parents moved to Hunmanby Gap on the coast near Filey.

My mother very sadly died three years short of their golden wedding anniversary.

My father then moved first to Huby, and for the last few years he has shared a home in Easingwold with a childhood friend and distant cousin, Betty Richards.

Arthur’s interests included painting in the style of Bridget Riley and tapestry.

He enjoyed good health almost to the end.

Friends have described him as a true gentleman - courteous, contented, kind and well-groomed.

On a couple of occasions in recent years, I drove him around Gildersome and Morley.

He wasn’t particularly sentimental and it was difficult to tease out tales from his younger days, but he enjoyed revisiting places which had been important in his life.

We knew that the woollen mills in Gildersome had long since closed - we hadn’t quite expected that all seven would have disappeared almost without a trace.

But there were some places where we could feel in touch with the mill era.

He relished having lunch at Woodlands off Gelderd Road, built in the 1870s as a local mill owner’s mansion and now a boutique hotel.

And we drove past the Baptist Church, which now has a good claim to being the grandest building in Gildersome.

My father wasn’t religious, but he - and I - have rekindled a link with Gildersome Baptists in recent years.

I’ve made my career as a BBC journalist and, when reporting on a visit to Martin Luther King’s Baptist church in Atlanta, happened to mention my family’s roots in Gildersome’s Baptist tradition.

The minister David Newton was listening and got in touch.

We’ve stayed in touch since and he passed on the congregation’s good wishes when my dad celebrated his 90th birthday - it was great to maintain that Gildersome connection.