Exploring the rich history of Penistone

PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 April 2018 | UPDATED: 09:53 03 April 2018

Grade I St John's Church (parts of which may be Saxon) and the oldest building in the town

Grade I St John's Church (parts of which may be Saxon) and the oldest building in the town

Joan Russell Photography, Joan Russell Photography

There’s a wealth of history in Penistone, and not just in the range of fine structures in and around the market town but in the activities that make it a community

The Grade II listed Penistone viaduct that carried the Lancashire and Yorkshire RailwayThe Grade II listed Penistone viaduct that carried the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway

Penistone has got stick-ability. In spite of the combined efforts of William the Conqueror, whose army laid the place waste in 1069; allied forces during and after WWII that used nearby moorland (and some farm buildings) for tank training; industrial evolution and Beeching’s railway vandalism, the place is still thriving.

That stick-ability is visible architecturally and institutionally. Penistone Grammar School, founded in 1392, is still going strong; St John’s Church predates that, as does what’s now the White Heart [sic] on Bridge Street. Rather newer – built in 1914 as the town’s Assembly Hall – is The Paramount, a community cinema and theatre. ‘It’s a historic building central to the town, and a superb venue,’ says Martin Winnard, who heads a U3A (University of the Third Age) group that gathers to enjoy films and shows there. ‘We meet in the very civilised bar beforehand for a chat, and the traditional atmosphere enhances the shows.’ Recently they’ve seen The Nutcracker ballet, the musical Follies, and a live-feed of Carmen.

Martin’s is one of several U3A groups established last year in Penistone, others including crown green bowling, quilt making, ‘how our ancestors lived,’ and a vintage social that meets at St John’s community centre on the third Tuesday of the month at 7pm – the leading lights dress in 1940s gear, and they hope to get other participants to do likewise in due course, in keeping with the music they dance to.

The town’s agricultural show (this year’s takes place on September 8th) can claim a far longer antecedence. ‘It started in 1853, Penistone becoming one of the first towns in the country to establish an agricultural society,’ explains Jackie Clegg, one of the volunteers who organise it, ‘They began with cattle, horses and sheep in the main, and it developed from there, and now it’s probably the largest in the north of England.’ This year’s show will be very different to the early ones, with show jumping and plenty of interactive entertainment for younger visitors, but the organisers’ Victorian predecessors would have enthused about the number of shire horses in the grand parade, and recognised some of the hardy sheep on show. ‘We have a lot of the local Penistone sheep,’ says Jackie, ‘Elsewhere it’s classed as a rare breed but round here it’s anything but!’

Penistone Paramount Cinema built in 1914, has 350 seats and  witnessed silent movies, the early talkies and now the latest big screen blockbustersPenistone Paramount Cinema built in 1914, has 350 seats and witnessed silent movies, the early talkies and now the latest big screen blockbusters

St John’s Church, the oldest edifice in Penistone, has demonstrated a similar ability to stay true to its roots while adapting to the times. ‘The first part of the church building, the chancel, was built in the 1200s, then they added the nave later, then the tower, all from different periods,’ says the rector, Father David Hopkin. ‘But there are elements of a much earlier Saxon cross in the north transept.’ In 2005 the church began to make changes in its layout that have echoes of distant times. ‘We took pews out to provide community space, first some from the west part, then the rest. Now it’s a multi-use building with no fixed seating, like it would have been in medieval times, used for other purposes – like Art at the Altar. We even have a beer festival here every year!’

It’s not surprising that with such a rich history a society dedicated to exploring and preserving it should have been formed. Penistone History Group has published works on the town’s World War One fallen, and its poorhouse among others, and once or twice monthly hosts speakers – May 2nd’s talk is on RAF Wortley and Munition Dumps in World War Two. They’ve also worked with the Trans-Pennine Trail to arrange a monument, soon to be sited at the railway station, to the town’s steel industry. It was made by a local craftsman from old rails, which along with train wheels and axles were the major products of Camel Laird locally. Less visibly but just as important is their work collating archive material relating to the town. ‘It’s going well,’ says Richard Wright from the group. ‘We record artefacts, copy texts, take photos and have built up a massive collection already; they’re a rich source for people working on family trees, and have helped with our own publications.’

Richard highlights the diverse nature of the town’s history as an agricultural area that, thanks to the River Don, saw many water-powered textile mills built, followed by the steel industry, and a fascinating period mid-20th century when tank crews were trained on its moors in what became known as Little America. Old tank-ramps andspent shell cases and machine-gun rounds are still to be found by those who know where to look.

Cubley Hall, now a thriving pub, restaurant and wedding venue, encompasses many of those elements, says its co-owner John Whitfield. ‘It was a pocket farm for many years, then it became the home of a senior manager of steel company Camel Laird, who built about a quarter of a planned model village here before they went bust in the Depression. It went through various hands thereafter - during the war soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk were billeted here – officers in the house, men in a camp in the grounds.’ Some of the arched cellars date from the old farmhouse, but most of the elegant building – complete with mosaic floors by Italian craftsmen living locally, and fine stained-glass windows – dates from its 1901 conversion to a gentleman’s residence for a Mr Lockley.

According to John there’s another less tangible reminder of those days too. ‘We’ve got a ghost called Flora, the daughter of Mr Lockley, who’s said to haunt the place,’ he says. Maybe that’s one for the History Group to follow up.

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