Letter from Scar
Between 1896 and 1936, Bradford Corporation built three reservoirs in the Nidd Valley. Gouthwaite was the first to be built as a compensation reservoir built to ensure that the mills on the lower River Nidd received sufficient water to power their businesses. This was followed by Angram and Scar reservoirs, which provided water both for Bradford’s woollen mills and also for domestic use.
Gouthwaite and Angram were built under contract, but Scar was built directly by Bradford Water Corporation. As the location was so remote, it was decided to build a complete village near the site of Scar Dam to house the workmen, engineers and their families.
Isabella Ideson, a young girl sent down from Tyneside to work in one of the workmen’s hostels, writes home:
Dear Mam and Dad,
Now that I’m settled in, I can tell you a little bit more about what it’s like here.
The journey down was a real adventure. After leaving Newcastle Central Station, I had to change trains at Darlington, and then at York, and then at Harrogate before I reached Pateley Bridge. I was all right, though, as the porters were kind and made sure I was on the right train, even though I was only travelling 3rd class.
I felt a bit lost when the train pulled in to Pateley Station, and I didn’t know how I’d get up to Scar, all I had with me was a parcel under me arm, and no coat. but they had sent a horse and trap to meet me. The drive up to Scar was amazing – twelve miles, and it all looked lovely in the late evening sunshine. We passed one of the reservoirs that’s already been built, Gouthwaite, and the sun was sparkling on the water, shining like silver.
Do you remember when we looked for this place on Uncle Tommy’s map? You thought you were sending me to the back of beyond, but honestly, Mam, it’s that beautiful – there’s loads of birds, curlews, pee-wits and sandpipers and lots of others I don’t know the names of. There’s farms nearby that have cows, and of course, there’s lots of sheep, they’re all over the hillsides. It’s really nice in the evening when all the work’s been done and you sit out on the front step, and the sounds carry across the valley. You can hear the waters splashing down below, the birds crying up above you, but most of all, you can hear the sound of the ewes calling out for their lost lambs. Whenever I remember this place, that’s the sound that I’ll always think of.
We’re really busy. I’m working for Mrs Burton – Grandma Burton, we all call her – in D Hostel. There’s ten hostels altogether, each with about 60 men, all of them Navvies, most of them Irish. But you don’t have to worry, Dad, they’re full of fun, but they’re very polite with me, even though I’m still only 15, and they treat me like a little lady. They’re very good at leaving tips when they’ve had their meals – they get three good meals a day, which Grandma Burton cooks for them, and me and the other girls dish out – and they’re that generous, I can live on me tips and save me wages – I’ve never been so well off. That’s why I’m able to send you some money in with this letter, so I hope it helps out with looking after the rest of the bairns.
I’ve got me own room! You wouldn’t believe it, Mam, but I’ve got a bed all to meself (no more sharing with three other girls like I was at home). And we have bathrooms with real baths in them where the water comes through the taps into the bath, not like the tin bath me Auntie Florrie has to fill with cans of hot water from the hob when Uncle Sam gets in from the pit. And there’s inside netties! You don’t have to go into the yard in the middle of the night. It’s real luxury. Grandma Burton was talking to a relation in Pateley, and most of the folks down there are living in two rooms with outside netties and a standpipe in the yard for their water. We feel really posh – there’s folks have relatives come to visit just so’s they can have a bath.
Oh, aye, and we have shops for all sorts – a grocers, a butchers, a fishmonger, a draper, a post office, honestly, Mam, it’s like the Bigg Market in Newcastle, there’s that much to choose from. I’ve got meself a coat. There’s a school for the bairns, and a dance hall, and a cinema, and a really nice little church – the ‘Tin Tabernacle’, we call it – so I haven’t let me chapel slip. I go twice on Sundays, and I’m going to be helping at Sunday School, cause I do miss all me little brothers and sisters. The Missioner, Mr Coplestone, is really kind, and he and his wife are keeping an eye on me.
Like I said, the men work hard, and they like a drink. There’s a canteen with a bar, and at the weekends they go down on the train to Pateley and visit every pub in the town. The pints are lined up on the bar waiting for them. They don’t get into much trouble, though. If there is a fight, it’s always amongst themselves.
And there’s that much to do in the evenings: we’re always having dances (I won a third prize at the Women’s Guild Fancy Dress Ball last week). As well as the Chapel, I’ve joined the ladies choir. Tonight there’s a big meeting with Mr Newlands, the Water Engineer, to organize the trip to the seaside. Just imagine, a hundred and twenty of us all going to Scarborough on the train, all travel and meals paid for by Bradford Corporation. Apparently, they lay on a Christmas party for all the bairns at Scar and from round about – Middlesmoor, Lofthouse, Ramsgill and Pateley. They bring them up on the train, and have a really big party, and all for free!
I must get on with me jobs. First thing to do this morning will be to serve the breakfasts, then clear away and wash up, and then put the brush round. I always like that, cause young Jack Haines (he’s 4, like our Albert) likes to ‘help’ by sitting on the brush head and getting a ride around the polished floor while I brush. He’s a real scamp, and like all the bairns here, he’s very safe. All the lads look out for them, and they have the run of the dale. What a way to grow up! – not like the shipyards and coal staithes at Blaydon, with all the muck and dirt.
Mind you, it’s proper noisy here when all the machines are going. They blast the rock from the hillsides, so there’s explosions going all the time, as well as the cranes lifting stuff into place and the railways shunting backwards and forwards on site (they’ve got railways all over Scar to carry cement and stone and such like around).
But it’s nice in the evening, when it’s all quiet. I was passing one of the huts the other night, and I heard one of the Navvies singing a song he’d made up. He’s asked me to write down the words as he can’t write. Here’s the first verse:
High above on the Nidderdale moors
The sandpiper gives the alarm
The sun slips below the rim of the hill
And peace like a blanket falls down
The curlew gives his mournful cry
Wheeling and circling in the sky
There’s calm all around the Nidderdale dams
And the ewes are calling out to lost lambs
Even though everybody is kind and helpful, I do miss all the bairns and our night time stories. Give them a big cuddle, as well as one each for yous two. But don’t worry about me, I’m very, very happy here.
from your loving Isabella
Although Isabella Ideson really did travel from Blaydon to work in one of Scar’s hostels, this memory is a composite built from the reminiscences of many others. Thanks go to Joe Shackleton (sadly, recently deceased) and his sister Vera, Isabella’s son and daughter, for permission to use Isabella as the catalyst for the letter. Jack Haines also passed away recently: born at Scar, he lived there as a child, then latterly at Bouthwaite at the head of Gouthwaite reservoir. He was is a real expert on the dams, and a fine storyteller with a fund of wonderful stories, and this storyteller is forever indebted to him for sharing his memories.
©Nevin Ward 2008 & 2016
Letter from Scar was written by Nevin Ward, who wrote the words and music for The Dam Play – the Story of Nidderdales’ Reservoirs and the People Who Built Them. The play was presented in The Playhouse, Pateley Bridge, in 2007 and was an outstanding success; in response to public demand, it was repeated with equal success in 2009. Further details can be found at: www.pateleyplayhouse.co.uk or contact Nevin Ward: mail [at] nevinward.net