Most people of the older generation will know of the strong link the famous comedy star Stan Laurel had with Dewsbury.
Although born in Ulverston, many of his relatives lived in Dewsbury, and until a few years ago there were more of Stan’s family members living in Dewsbury than anywhere else in the world.
Two of his cousins, Herbert and Henry Shaw, became mayors of Dewsbury, and his grandparents lived in Stoneyhurst Avenue, Crackenedge. One of Stan’s brothers, Teddy, lived with the Shaw family in Batley Carr and Crackenedge, and attended Warwick Road School, and Mill Lane School, Hanging Heaton.
I mentioned recently in this column that Stan had appeared at the Empire in 1909 with Charlie Chaplin when they were both young and travelling the country with Casey’s Circus.
Stan later became one of the biggest names in showbusiness, but continued to maintain a close relationship with his family in Dewsbury, visiting them whenever in England. He had six cousins - Mary, Elsie, Nellie, Jack, Charlie and George - all living in various parts of the Dewsbury district, including Staincliffe, Batley Carr, Woodkirk and Batley.
Sadly, Stan’s second cousin, Nancy Wardell, formerly of Bennett Lane, Dewsbury, recently passed away, and I believe she was Stan’s last link with the town.
At her funeral last week, two bowler hats made of flowers were among the bouquets gracing her coffin, a floral tribute from the ‘Sons of the Desert’, a group of dedicated Laurel and Hardy fans.
Nancy, who worked in the office of Dewsbury Education Welfare department, often spoke about her famous relative and the close relationship he had had with her mother, Mary, his first cousin.
They had been brought up together in Ulverston, forming a close bond from childhood.
Nancy, who I befriended many years ago, could recall almost everything her mother had told her about their childhood together and how happy they had been.
Nancy met Stan several times and once had dinner with him and Oliver Hardy and their wives when they were staying in Morecambe.
“We had a lovely day together,” she told me. “We were taken by chauffeur-driven car to see their show. It was a memorable experience.”
She recalled that Oliver Hardy, despite his size, was a very graceful man, rather quiet and very reserved.
He might have been the dominant one on stage, but in real life it was the reverse.
Nancy kept all of Stan’s letters and photographs as well as a cine film the family took of him in his dressing room.
It was a family film and he was quite natural throughout the filming of it until the last few seconds when he ruffled his hair like he used to on films.
The last time Nancy saw Stan was at a family party at her Aunt Nellie’s house in Birkdale Road, just before the Second World War, which was attended by nearly all the family.
Nancy recalled: “Stan came into Dewsbury in his chauffeur-driven car as far as the Empire theatre, which he knew very well, and then my uncle picked him up.
He talked a lot about the old days – but I never saw him after that, although we continued to write.”
After his death, Nancy kept in touch with Stan’s daughter Lois, who lived in America, and they also spoke regularly by phone.
Stan Laurel’s connection with the town began when a young man from Dewsbury named John Shaw married his mother’s sister.
The story begins in the late 1880s when John left Dewsbury to take up an appointment at a Co-operative store in Ulverston, in the heart of the Lake District.
This move resulted in John joining a family which would later produce one of the world’s most famous comedians – the thin half of the Laurel and Hardy duo.
Through marriage, the young John Shaw, became not only an uncle but also a lifelong friend of Stan Laurel.
John Shaw’s two nephews, Herbert and Henry Shaw (Stan’s cousins), were the ones who later became town mayors.
John Shaw’s new wife was called Sarah Ann Metcalfe, and shortly afterwards her sister Margaret Metcalfe married Arthur Jefferson, who owned a number of theatres. Stan Laurel was the second of their four children, born in 1890, and christened Stanley Arthur Jefferson. Like his father, he too was to enter the world of entertainment.
But, like his friend and contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, Stan had to go to America before being recognised as a world star. While Stan was making a name for himself in Hollywood, his uncle John returned to Dewsbury, later to be joined by his wife’s parents (Stan’s grandparents), his brother Teddy and other relatives of Stan’s on his mother’s side.
For it was the Shaw branch of Stan’s family tree, here in Dewsbury, which was to flourish and produce many offspring. The Jeffersons were not so fortunate. Stan had only one child, Lois, and his two brothers, Teddy and Gordon, had no children, nor did his sister Beatrice.
Most of Stan’s relatives by this time were those on his mother’s side of the family, all living in Dewsbury, including his grandparents, who are buried in Dewsbury Cemetery.