A ripper and a rugby player - you can read about the figures standing in Northgate representing Dewsbury's past in our post entitled Flirting with the Past. But the human story that follows, told by a local resident about a local family, that emerged as the result of that post is even more fascinating.
As human beings we all experience beauty or maybe perceive quality in different ways. And our own very personal perception of what we see in the world around us may be reciprocated by others, or maybe not.
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In my case, when I first saw Jason Thomson’s sculptures of a ripper and a rugby player beside the railway arches in Dewsbury, I was immediately attracted to them due to my fascination with the history of my family in the town. I was curious about the statues, but driving by in the car with no chance to stop on the busy traffic junction where they are located I never had the chance to investigate further.
So I was wonderfully surprised recently to discover from a Facebook post that three of my relatives’ names are inscribed on the commemorative plaque set in the pavement.
Molly Blakeley, Stella Donohoe and Charles Gannon are all listed and are the children of my Great Aunt ‘Sissy’ Gannon; however, they were aunts and uncle to me. Stella and Charles have since passed away but Aunty Molly is “rocking” and so I arranged a meeting with her to unearth the particulars.
By Aunt Molly's account, the meeting with the sculptor was set up by Charles Gannon’s daughter, Susan Ellis, who was acting as liaison for the project with the sculptor, Jason Thomson; the intention being that he would gain better insight of the textile industry first hand from lifelong textile workers.
According to Molly, she was the one who highlighted to Jason just how important rugby had been, and still is, to the community through the various rugby league clubs in the area.
Jason was instantly taken up with this interesting combination and immediately visualised his potential sculpture representing a textile worker of the past looking towards the future, and the present day rugby player looking back to the past. Molly thought the idea was wonderful, and I must concur.
They discussed the textile industry extensively. Molly explained that she and Stella were “rippers” in the rag sorting area of Taylor’s Blakeridge Mill in Batley.
Each ripper had their own ‘riddle’, a large, deep, framed rectangular tray half of which was solid while the other half was an open grid through which the rubbish would drop. They each received about 50 to 60 baskets of rags per day and would place them in bundles on the solid half and then pull the fabric, as they worked, over the open mesh where it was ‘ripped’.
The mesh allowed the dirt and other pieces torn from the grubby cloth to drop through. At intervals, someone would collect the waste from underneath the grid.
Ripping was a filthy job; they had to quickly recognise and sort the different materials and rip the buttons, zips, linings, tags etc. from the rags with “rippers”, the common name for what we might call the “textile shears” - which feature prominently on the mill girl statue.
Molly then unearthed her own “rippers”, which she had kept for many years, and explained how they were used. She found it a little amusing now that all “newbies” would nearly always cut their hand at least once because of the way the shears were held. The hand was essentially wrapped around the blades which would often nip the palm. Jason actually used Molly’s shears as a model for his sculpture.
Once the rippers had ripped and sorted the rags, these were then taken to the grinding area, where Molly’s husband, Leslie, worked. It was here that the dirty, woven remnants were cleansed and ground down to the original fibers that could then be drawn and twisted back into a thread and spun on to large bobbins known as “cheesers” and then sent to the weavers where it would be wound onto smaller bobbins.
A ripper was paid on a weekly basis and wages depended on the amount of baskets they had handled. Aunty Molly was a good worker, so after a five day week, eight hour shift, she managed to earn a whopping £10 per week!
Uncle Charles was a skilled worker in the weaving department. He was a “tier on”. Before the automatic looms appeared on the scene, there would be one weaver in charge of one loom. Charles would sit at a warp and skilfully tie the new threads with his thumb and forefinger quickly and deftly before it was woven in to the cloth. A ‘tier on’ had to be quick and precise because otherwise the loom would have to be stopped which was definitely not to the weaver’s liking!
Charles initially worked in the mill industry but later opened his own butcher’s shop in Princess Street, Dewsbury, and then spent 27 years in the RAF as a chef in a military hospital. After he left the RAF he had an antique shop in Chickenley but his favourite job of all was working as a coach at a children’s home.
His charismatic, charming and generous nature made him welcome throughout the community. Known as “Charlie” by the locals, he was held in high regard; everyone knew that if they were in dire, financial difficulties, Charlie would help out.
Charlie's daughter, Susan, was working in Community Development with the council when she met Jason. Part of her job was to encourage community engagement and she was heavily involved from the beginning when the sculpture was commissioned. She was assigned to photograph and film the whole process and serve in an advisory capacity.
She insisted that if the sculpture was to reflect the history of the town and its people then Jason needed to meet and talk with locals with real experience of the lives he would be representing.
Jason was in agreement and left it in Susan’s capable hands to arrange the meetings with her family members with experience in the mills and shoddy warehouses and family friend and rugby player, Lee Gilmour.
Aunty Stella was also a ripper. She passed away in 2010 and at the time of Jason's research had been diagnosed with alzheimer and Uncle Charles had throat cancer.
Charles passed away in June 2004 before the statues were finished but he was duly commemorated, at Susan’s request, by the addition of the sculptured reef knot held by the rugby player.
Everyone who knew Charlie will also know of his obsession with the reef knot and how he would teach anyone who was willing to learn how it was done. I remember him teaching me too, but even though he made it look so easy, I never did get the hang of it. He could tie two knots simultaneously with each hand just with his forefingers and thumbs.
Every Sunday in Charlie’s home was “reef knot practice day” and since the knot was used on a daily basis in the textile mills too, it became quite symbolic to Susan and seemed only appropriate to integrate this emblematic feature.
Not only would this “tie” the future of Dewsbury to the past but it would also serve to remember a well loved fellow member of the Dewsbury and Batley community.
When I interviewed Susan, she expressed how much she had enjoyed working with Jason and how fascinating the actual sculptural processes were. She described the final stage of the statues being coated in the molten metal whilst they rose upwards as: “like the ground giving birth to a statue”.
Susan recalls when she was photographing Jason’s progress on the structural framework; “he was having trouble shaping the textile lady’s bottom, so, quite unashamedly, I showed willing to oblige and offered to model mine”; an offer which was graciously accepted.
Now there’s a legacy which few can claim!
She described how polystyrene foam was used in the initial framework and then clay was judiciously applied and formed. This was the longest stage in the sculpting process where details were added, proportions adjusted and the overall surface texture was shaped. Yet, it was the final stage that impacted her the most when the figures rose from the molten bath in all their splendid glory.
Lee Andrew Gilmour, a professional rugby league player born in Dewsbury, was the model for the rugby sculpture. Susan knew him well because he was friends with her son Andy Ellis who also played rugby in the same team.
Aunty Molly claims that Lee’s legs weren’t big enough for the image that Jason had in mind, so he modelled the legs from a different player, maybe Francis Cummins or Paul March who he also interviewed about the rugby scene and are credited on the plaque. Lee Gilmour played for Dewsbury Moor and Thornhill Trojans before signing up for Wigan.
This article wouldn’t be complete without a brief mention of Aunty Betty, the fourth sibling who has also passed away. She didn’t work in the mills but always had an obsession with uniforms instead.
She joined the Wrens and then became a bus conductor on the 281 and 282 routes. Her imposing uniform and matron like physique was enough to quieten any noisy school rabble like us on our way home from St. John Fisher’s. And God help us if we didn’t stand up for an adult to be seated!
For what it’s worth, I appreciate these sculptures, and although it could be argued that the money might have been better used on more pressing necessities within the area, it’s too late for that now.
So let’s just admire this interesting expression of strength and tradition by artist Jason Thomson, who invested a lot of time and effort into researching the lives of the people of our community in order to fully understand what was important to locals before conveying his perception of times in our home town with these distinctive works of art.
Anita Atkins was brought up in Birstall but spent her free time in Dewsbury where all her friends congregated. Emigrated to Spain in 1982 but returned to home turf in Birstall in 2014.