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Feather's Miscellany: Godfather

...He always wore his flat cap on the side of his head both when he was working and inside at home in the little house next door. But when he dressed up and went out he wore a bowler and a shirt collar and tie. In the brewery office, just off the main street, he played host to a variety of folk who dropped in daily to see him – and sample a glass of King’s Ale which was renowned for its health-giving properties...

John Waddington-Feather pays glowing tribute to his brewery-owning godfather.

Keighley, the mill and engineering town in Yorkshire where I grew up. had two breweries. Taylors Ales are still going strong but some years ago they took over my godfather’s brewery which brewed King’s Ales. The owner and brewer was John Hird and I was named after him.

John was of Irish stock. His grandfather Aaron King, had come over from Ireland and set up his brewery in town. Although Yorkshire to the core, John Hird looked Irish. He was a well-built, powerful man of average height, but his round, smiling face and twinkling brown eyes were typically Irish. However, unlike most Irishmen he was very shy.

He always wore his flat cap on the side of his head both when he was working and inside at home in the little house next door. But when he dressed up and went out he wore a bowler and a shirt collar and tie. In the brewery office, just off the main street, he played host to a variety of folk who dropped in daily to see him – and sample a glass of King’s Ale which was renowned for its health-giving properties. One of John’s regulars swore it had brought him back to life on his sick-bed when the doctor had given up on him!

The brewery owned several pubs in the town and supplied ale to many clubs, including the famous Cycling Club which was one of my regular haunts when I lived in Yorkshire. The brewery stood on Cooke Lane (long demolished) right in the middle of town and next door to the Conservative Club; another old haunt of mine, for social reasons, I might add, not political.

The brewery and John’s home were demolished in the 1960s to make way for a grand, glass-canopied, new market with a cosy open-air café in the centre, where, when I’m visiting Keighley, I can look across to where the old brewery once stood and dream of the good old days there over a cup of coffee.

In younger days I visited the old brewery regularly with my father especially in spring and autumn, the seasons of blood-change according to my mother; when I broke out in rashes of itchy heat-lumps. They always disappeared after my visit to the brewery and a dose of brewer’s yeast. My godfather would go to his largest wooden vat, lean over it and scoop a helping of froth from the top in a small pewter mug. He’d return to the office and I had to drink it there and then. It tasted bitter and made me shiver as I gulped it down, but behold! a day or two later my heat lumps had all gone.

Another fond memory of my godfather and his brewery was the annual Gala Day, held in June to raise money for the local hospital. I’ve written at length about it in another article, but suffice it to say here that the highlight of Gala Day was a long procession of floats and fancy dresses, many local organisations like the Scouts and Guides through the town, all of which passed the brewery down Cooke Lane.

There were several bands in the procession, including the Black Dyke Mills Band and local Prize Bands. And as they drew level with the brewery, where I stood in the office with my family watching through the window, each band would halt for a while outside and play one of my godfather’s favourite hymns; a moving experience for the crowd outside lining the street would join spontaneously in singing the hymns. The bands halted at the request of the Gala Day Committee, for John gave liberally to the hospital and many other charities. As far as I know he didn’t attend church regularly, but he loved church music.

He gave to needy individuals, too. My father was very ill in the 1930s before I was born. Money was short in the Depression of the time and my mother was frantic to pay the doctor’s bills. (There was no NHS then) One day after John had visited my sick father, she found £50 in notes under his pillow. John never admitted giving it, but it could only have been him as he was the sole visitor my dad had that day. And I know there were others in need who benefitted from his shy giving.

My father, John and another elderly friend used to travel up the Yorkshire Dales by bus each Saturday as far as Grassington, stopping off at intervals to drop the odd pint at pubs en route. Then, before it got too late, they’d travel back to Keighley, changing at Skipton. They did this for years and the routine never changed. The trio were comically known as Bass, Worthington and Guinness to the publicans who hosted them.

Apart from these weekend jaunts, John led a solitary life after a hard day’s work, listening to the radio or watching television in his snug, little home next to the brewery. When I came on leave from the forces during my National Service (1954 -6) I visited him there. He was very interested in all I did and over a beer we’d chat about what I was up to in the army: parachuting, playing rugby and boxing and about life in general. They were cosy, warm-hearted visits which I look back on with great nostalgia.

He died intestate in 1957. Many in Keighley thought he’d left me his fortune, for I was his only godson and he was a very rich man. After his death, I didn’t know I’d so many friends in town, who stood me a drink, till it was revealed he’d died without making a will. However, he left me wealth of a different sort, more lasting and more valuable: happy childhood memories, memories of Gala Day and those visits to his home when I’d grown up, having such a worthwhile and Godly man as my godfather.
John Waddington-Feather ©

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