Creating Kirklees volunteer blog – exploring the records of Huddersfield’s Borough Engineer

The Creating Kirklees: 150 years of local democracy project currently underway at our Kirklees office aims to catalogue and celebrate the archives of the 11 local authorities that merged to form the Borough of Kirklees in 1974. You can find out more about the project in an earlier blog post here.

Since September 2021 a small but very dedicated team of volunteers have been working hard to repackage and catalogue a series of files relating to projects undertaken by the Huddersfield Borough engineer’s department in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period the borough engineer had a wide range of responsibilities from highways maintenance to street lighting, street cleaning, sewerage, road traffic management, building control, overseeing the construction and maintenance of civic buildings and council housing and planning major civic events. As such the files contain a wealth of fascinating material relating to the history and development of Huddersfield.

Creating Kirklees volunteers hard at work

To date our volunteers have made some amazing discoveries including records relating to much loved buildings such as the Lindley Clock Tower, the wholesale market on Byram Street and the post office on Northumberland Street. They have also found a wealth of fascinating material relating to social issues and new technologies which the borough engineer was grappling with during this period. These include early attempts to deal with motor vehicles on streets, gas and electric street lighting and waste disposal for a growing population. The records also provide a wonderful insight into the working lives of the borough engineer and his staff. One file relating to a request by the borough engineer for a new car and chauffeur dating from 1906 (ref. KMT18/EN/1/18) which includes detailed research into various vehicles and includes brochures from Bentley, Daimler, Rolls Royce and local company Rippon Brothers was a particular highlight.

One of our lovely volunteers Louise Sawyer has written a short blog piece (below) about her experience volunteering on the project and the personal impact of a particular file she catalogued relating to the construction of the Royds Hall War hospital during WWI (ref. KMT18/EN/1/91).

If you’re anything like me, you may often find yourself wondering about the past.  About the forgotten people who roamed the streets, worked hard, had friends, who lived a life much like and yet completely different to our lives today.  How many of these people had an impact, made a real significant impact in the community? The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick maker, who provided the basic necessities? The chatty old lady in the sweet shop with the funny earrings, or the couple that ran the bookshop that was always a little gloomy and smelt of that unexplainable smell of old? What about the teachers, who ensured people could live their life as well as possible?  The doctors who kept everyone fit and healthy? Do we stand on the same steps as a once local legend, unaware of the greatness that stood there before us? So many of these people are lost, reduced to nothing more than a whisper of a shadow, a blurry figure that once resembled a man.

The archives are filled with people like this.  My time there was spent learning about an extremely important job, with equally important people.  The Huddersfield Borough Engineer and his team, who shaped Huddersfield in the late 19th and early 20th Century, paving the way for the town that stands there today.  They had, arguably, the best jobs they could possibly have (except perhaps, the sewage related stuff), and yet they are now little more than names, scrawled at the bottom of letters, plans and reports. 

It isn’t however, the Huddersfield Borough Engineer I want to talk about.  It is another group of people, hidden away in a file I looked at for one session.  There were photos in this file, portraying men in grand uniforms as they stood, not looking at the camera on a seemingly nice day. There was little information in this file, and yet we pieced the story together as best as we could.  These people, the General and the Corporal and the Mayor, and whoever else happened to be there on that day in 1915, opened the Huddersfield War Hospital.

The War Hospital, in sorts, is still standing.  It’s now the site of Royds Hall Academy, a secondary school that’s been there since 1921. Before that, it was a hospital, and before that it was a grand house. But, whilst the school commemorate this history, the knowledge of its existence is wearing thin. At the time, the Hospital was remarkable; when it was built it was intended for 500 wounded men and yet, by 1919, it had 2,000 beds.  And if this growth wasn’t impressive enough, the Huddersfield War Hospital had the lowest mortality rate of any of England’s military hospitals.  The nurses there treated 22, 000 military personnel altogether and only 75 of them died. It’s an incredible achievement.

The archives enables the past to be remembered; for people like the Medical Corps officers and the nurses who worked so tirelessly throughout one of the greatest tragedies of World History to have life breathed into them once again. With every piece of dirt removed from any document, secrets are revealed, the past uncovered. The dirt disappears and with it it reveals the life’s work of these dedicated people who clearly cared, so so much.  These people who lived over 100 years ago, who touched the paper and sat and thought as their pens stood ready and waiting. Within the frail, folding pages is a history.  And it’s been such an honour to help uncover such a tiny portion of that.

A big thank you to Louise for writing this wonderful piece and for all of our amazing volunteers who have contributed to the project so far. If you would like to find out more about the Huddersfield borough engineers records mentioned in this blog post the first batch of records will soon be available to search via our online catalogue under the finding number KMT18/EN. We plan to add more as the project continues!

 In the meantime if you would like any further information about these records or the Creating Kirklees project please contact our Kirklees office at kirklees@wyjs.org.uk and staff will be happy to help.

Rosie Hall, Project archivist

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