Irwin’s Story (part 1).

The small village of Steeton is located on the main road between Keighley and Skipton in Western region of England’s largest county, Yorkshire.   At Steeton Top a road branches off to the right from the main Keighley to Skipton route,taking a descent before crossing the double railway lines at the bottom of the slope.  The road continues to thread Its way towards Silsden, encountering the Aire bridge, where for centuries the river Aire has wound its trail through the valley.   It resumes its path before making its way over the humpback bridge, which crosses the Leeds to Liverpool canal, before depositing itself in the centre of the Mill town of Silsden.  Anyone following its route further would pursue the road through the centre of the town bearing right to visit the Spa town of Ilkley or left for a back route to the historical town of Skipton.      

The Mill Town of Silsden

The year was 1930 and Britain’s economy is in a mess, still struggling to pay for the effects of the first World War.  To compound the situation the USA stock market had crashed, and World Trade slumped.  In Northern Industrial England, as elsewhere around the country, the effects were felt in the rise in the rampant unemployment numbers.

At six years old Irwin was the youngest in a family of six living in a terraced house in Steeton located only yards from the main Keighley-Skipton road.  His parents Sydney and Elizabeth, elder brother Maurice and sister Eunice, made up their nuclear family whilst, their Grandmother Ethel, Elizabeth’s mother, was a somewhat vexing addition. 

The local Pub at Steeton.

In these days before retirement homes and other social services were on offer it was normal for grandparents to spend their final years housed with their families.  Regrettably, Grandma Ethel’s burden on the family was to have tragic consequences…

Elizabeth combined her mothering duties in tandem with her role as the main breadwinner of the family and made her way to Silsden each working day to labour in one of the Mills.  Her daily task was played out in the deafeningly noisy shed, where she earned her wages weaving textiles on the four looms which were designated to her.   Her husband Sydney was one of Britain’s thousands of unemployed workers but to worsen his plight he also carried the affliction of diminished eyesight.   This predicament, and his position as head of the family, all added further stress for him to contend with, thus contributing to his misery.

The clattering noisy weaving shed.

At fourteen years old Maurice left school and was set to work alongside his mother.   His monotonous job was to keep Elizabeth and other weavers supplied with bobbins of thread to maintain their looms, thus keeping them working and producing textiles.  However, Elizabeth and Maurice’s hard work and dedication to their task didn’t go unrecognised by the Mill’s management.

 Earlier in the Industrial Revolution, Mill owners recognised that if they were to amass their fortunes, they needed to accommodate their workers.  Consequently, numerous houses built from the stone hewn out of local quarries were constructed.   These almost identical buildings were laid out in long streets which lay near the five Textile Mills scattered around Silsden.     

One such abode was located at the end of Hothfield St, only a matter of a few hundred yards from where Elizabeth and Maurice spent their daily labours.   The Mill management offered Elizabeth this house when it became vacant and with its kitchen, living room and three bedrooms the place would suit the family’s needs.  No more making the daily haul from Steeton, this would save the stretched family budget a few shillings per week.

This house at the end of Hothfield St was offered to the family.

The decision to take the offer of the abode in Silsden was too good to turn down, however, two menacing obstacles stood on the horizon.   Because the family were from Steeton, in typical small town Yorkshire manner, the family would be regarded as “foreigners” or more bluntly as “off cumd ers” by the locals.   Even though Elizabeth and Maurice were employed at the Mill they would still be regarded as outsiders, and it would take a while for them to be accepted into the Silsden community. 

The other more menacing obstacle was in the form of Grandma Ethel.   Having grown up and lived in Steeton for all her life, uprooting and moving from her beloved village was to be more catastrophic than that of the sinking of the Titanic twenty years earlier.

As head of the family Sydney had little say in the decision to move, his eyesight failing and little chance of finding employment, he had to go along with a move which would benefit the family over the long term.   As the youngest and still attending Primary School, Irwin’s opinion wasn’t considered but he was quite excited at moving to a larger school in Silsden where he would be able to show off his football and theatrical abilities.

When the news of the move was finally broken to Grandma Ethel her reaction was not one of anger or protest. She became breathless, her face turned a pasty colour of grey and she staggered off to her room in distress.  


The family installed itself into the house in Hothfield Street, but it was by no means a comfortable transition.  Grandma Ethel took to her room and was very rarely seen out of it.  She adopted a mood of silence and resistance which affected the atmosphere of the household more adversely than if she had expressed her anger vocally.

Sydney’s predicament was also trying: his wife and son the bread winners while he remained at home doing a few chores around the place and putting up with Grandma’s petulant attitude.   At a time when men were expected to support their families, he felt much less of a man because of his wife and son having to provide for the household.   With this stress, along with Ethel’s obstinate attitude, things started to take their toll on him, making him irritable, and bad tempered toward the rest of the family.

As the months passed the atmosphere in the household worsened and Elizabeth felt the impact the most.  Not only had she to maintain the difficult workload of running four looms, but she also had to cope with other domestic chores that came with being a wife and mother in a household of six.         

The youngsters played their part and tried to support their mother but with the constant pressure of work at the Mill, combined with Sydney’s situation, worst of all the moodiness of her mother; all compounded to leave her with a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or the feeling of being trapped.

As Summer turned to Autumn, the destructive thoughts inside Elizabeth’s head progressively became as black as the nights on the approaching North of England winter.  The shadow side of her soul began to increasingly dominate her once benign nature, until there seemed to be only one way in which she could bring a conclusion to her daily anguish.

The end came one cold Saturday evening when Grandma Ethel was tucked in her room, the others out, with only Irwin left in the house.   Alone with her youngest child Elizabeth calmly hugged him for the last time and gently saw him to bed.

Calmly, and deliberately she drew her woollen shawl over her head and set off into the cold darkening evening, over the cobbled streets heading in the direction of the river….

Bridge across the river Aire


Irwin arose early Sunday morning for breakfast and to prepare for the 8am Church Service which he regularly attended with Eunice.   On entering the small kitchen, which also served as a living room, he was alarmed to find his sister at the kitchen table silently sobbing.  Before he could comment his Father spoke, “We don’t know what’s happened to your Mother.   She hasn’t been here all night”.

Irwin’s throat sunk into his stomach and his heart skipped a beat as he recollected the strange and distant expression on Elizabeth’s face as she tucked him into bed last evening.

Enquiries were quickly made with relatives and friends, all to no avail, before the police were notified of her disappearance.   The Silsden Constabulary with their limited resources of three ‘Coppers’ at the most, could scarcely be relied on for a full out search, therefore, Sydney took matters into his own hands.

Two days after Elizabeth’s disappearance Sydney’s brother Jim arrived with an almost priceless asset, a motor car.  Jim was Chauffer to one of the Mill owners who had heard of Elizabeth’s disappearance and had kindly lent the family car for the two brothers to go searching for her.

Whilst Maurice went to face up to all the gossip, rumour and chinwag circulating at the Mill, the two men with young Irwin in tow toured the area.   They called at farms, outhouses, vacant land, in fact any conceivable place where Elizabeth could possibly have wandered to, all to no avail.

Countryside around Silsden

Days of frantic searching by family and friends bore no sign of Elizabeth’s whereabouts.   Her disappearance was a complete mystery until the following Friday afternoon… 

A local tradesman driving his horse and cart was on his way back to Silsden from doing business in Keighley, on reaching the river bridge, he decided to give his weary horse a rest.   As he sat, nonchalantly puffing on his pipe, whilst the river slowly meandered under the bridge, he spotted the unmistakable sight of a human body floating in the water near to the edge of the riverbank.   On further investigation he recognised the swollen and bloated body of a middle-aged woman, quickly deducing that this could be the missing person that the whole town was talking about.  With no further ado he galvanised his reluctant horse into action making his way to the Police Station a mile further up the road.

Local Tradesman spotted a body in the river.

Elizabeth’s body was recovered, identified and the cause of death pronounced as suicide. Although foul play could not be completely ruled out there was no evidence to suggest that this was the case.   It was assumed that the sheer stress of being the main breadwinner, her husband’s unemployment, the negative effect of her mother’s attitude all combined to affect her psychological condition, resulting in acute depression.  These factors all coalesced in Elizabeth’s mind prompting her to end it all and to take her own life.

In the aftermath of all this emotional devastation substantial healing needed to take place for the family members.   This would take a considerable amount of time.

At school Irwin had to tolerate hurtful comments from insensitive school mates, causing him to become withdrawn and affecting his personality.   The whole tragic occurrence of his mother’s suicide broke his spirit.  This remained deep inside subduing his normal positive characteristics for quite a few years to come.

Silsden Primary School.