Wednesday, July 21, 2021

“History opening up”: Transcribing the Sykes Visitor Book

In 2019, Wakefield Museums & Castles acquired a very special object: a Visitor Book from William Sykes Ltd in Horbury, Wakefield.

William Sykes Ltd was a sporting goods manufacturer, based in Horbury, Wakefield. In 1870, William Sykes used all his life savings to buy his own saddlery. After 10 years in business, he turned his leather working skills to making footballs and soon expanded into making goods for a wide range of different sports. William Sykes Ltd went from strength to strength and was soon selling equipment all over the world and supplying major tournaments like the FA Cup. William Sykes Ltd eventually merged with rival firms, Slazenger and Dunlop, but Horbury remained the centre of production until the factory’s closure in 1986. Find out more about William Sykes Ltd.

In 2021, Anne Dawson, one of our wonderful volunteers, took on the challenge of transcribing the Visitor Book and researching the names within it. After 6 weeks, and 12 pages, Anne shares what she has found so far…

Have you ever been asked to sign a Visitor Book?  Maybe you have been to another office for a meeting.  Perhaps it was that lovely little B&B where you flicked back a few pages to see what everyone else had written before adding your "great breakfast" to the comments section.

You probably didn't think that a hundred years later, someone would be trying to decipher your name and working out where you were from.

The Sykes Factory was a major manufacturer of leather footballs, expanding to golf and cricket and other sports - at one point making 21 models of tennis racket. During World War II, it switched production to the war effort. It merged with Slazenger it 1942 and in 1959 was bought by Dunlop. 

When I started to look at the Visitor Book, which started in 1930, I expected to see a list of (indecipherable) names, their hometown and the odd comment.

What I found was a truly fascinating historical document.  The first thing that struck me was that people had come from all over the world - South Africa, Australia, Canada. There were place names which we don't use now, like Bombay and Malaya... And the people......

The names on the page became real living people again.  The first page dated 1931 has a visit from H.R.H. George, Duke of Kent.  But you sort of expect royalty to visit factories - there are often plaques to visits from Dukes and Princesses, so that wasn't unusual.

Then names that I recognised started to appear. Len Hutton, who is described as one of the greatest cricketers of all time, and Dan Maskell, who I knew as a commentator, but he also played and coached tennis. Whole teams came to visit, including the Australian Rugby League Touring Club, Bristol City Football Club and the New Zealand Cricket team. Sometimes the visitors seem to have no connection to sports, such as a group from Castrop Rauxell, a mining town in Germany that was twinned with Wakefield in 1949.   

As well as signing their names, some visitors also made annotations in the book. Bob Andrews put an arrow up to the visitor above him with the words "what a great act to follow" – that previous visitor was Don Bradman, one of the most famous cricket batsman of his time. Sykes had a partnership with Bradman, who visited the factory in November 1934 and again in June 1948. They produced a ‘Don Bradman’ series of cricket bats and Bradman used a Sykes cricket bat to hit every one of his record achievements – something Sykes were keen to promote!

I think what really made me feel I was looking at history though was the comment made on 10 August 1945, when Japan offered to surrender to the Allies during World War II. The comment reads: "10th August 1945!  What a day!... we are going to start business again. I was lucky enough to be here that day and I'll never forget it..."  Unfortunately in his excitement, his name is illegible.

So next time you are asked to sign a Visitor Book, think of the person in the future trying to decipher your name and write legibly!

With thanks to Anne for all her hard work in transcribing the Visitor Book. If you're interested in volunteering with our collections, please get in touch with Leah Mellors, Collections & Exhibitions Manager, on

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Volunteer with us!

Our volunteers are vital in supporting our work. We have a range of exciting opportunities for you to get involved, both with the public and behind the scenes.

All our opportunities have flexible commitment requirements and aim to provide a rewarding and enriching experience.

If you're passionate about culture and heritage and have some free time to offer, why not volunteer with us and be part of something extraordinary? Take a look at our current opportunities:

Collections Move Volunteer

We are looking for volunteers to
assist us with a large-scale project to move our collections into a new storage facility. 

The project will involve helping our team to carefully pack objects, move them to the new extension, and keep accurate records of movement, ensuring that all objects remain safe at all times. 

This is an exciting opportunity to work within a friendly and supportive team on a major project, getting hands-on with a variety of objects and contributing to the important behind-the-scenes work of our museum service.

This opportunity is based at our museum store in Ossett. The museum store is a COVID-secure site. 

For more information about this opportunity, please email Leah Mellors, Collections & Exhibitions Manager, on  

Exhibition Invigilation Volunteer

We are looking for Exhibition Invigilation Volunteers to invigilate ‘Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements: The Travel Posters of Charles Pears’, our new exhibition at Pontefract Museum. 

You will welcome visitors to the exhibition space, provide information about the objects on display, and help our Visitor Experience Assistants to monitor the security of the exhibition, which includes a number of loaned objects from national museums. You will help us to ensure that every visitor to the exhibition feels welcome, learns something new, and has an enjoyable visit.

This opportunity is based at Pontefract Museum, 5 Salter Row, Pontefract, WF8 1BA. Pontefract Museum is a COVID-secure site. 

For more information about this opportunity, please email Leah Mellors, Collections & Exhibitions Manager, on  

Charles Pears exhibition, with thank to the Royal Society of Marine Artists

Thursday, July 8, 2021

We’re recruiting! Could you be our new Learning Officer?

Are you passionate about culture and heritage?
Can you develop and deliver engaging stories using museum objects?
Would you like to create memorable experiences and learning opportunities for all ages?

If so, then this job may be for you.

We are looking for a dynamic individual to develop, embed and expand our Learning and Engagement offer within the operations of Wakefield Museums and Castles. As one of two Learning Officers, you will be working across both formal and informal learning. The role will see you taking the lead on co-ordinating the informal learning offer, including families, adults, reminiscence and the Early Years programme. 

We would welcome applications from people with experience in developing, organising, delivering and evaluating learning content. The role requires you to research and create innovative, participatory learning and engagement opportunities across our sites and in the wider community.  

The Learning Officer will play an essential part in engaging and connecting people of all ages with the varied and fascinating heritage of the Wakefield district, drawing on our diverse collections.

The closing date for applications is Friday 30th July 2021 (Midnight)

Interviews will be held on Thursday 19th & Friday 20th August 2021


Should you wish to discuss this post, please contact Louise Bragan, Senior Officer: Programming and Learning

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements: The Travel Posters of Charles Pears

We are very excited that Pontefract Museum has now reopened with a major new exhibition of artwork by Pontefract-born artist, Charles Pears (1873-1958). Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements: The Travel Posters of Charles Pears is the first retrospective of Pears’ work in his hometown. The exhibition focuses particularly on his prolific career as a commercial artist and will transport you back 100 years to the golden age of rail tourism, the British seaside holiday and poster design. 

National and leading art collections have kindly lent posters and original artworks to the show, including some that might even have been seen on platforms at Pontefract’s three rail stations in the 1930s. The exhibition also includes expert commentary from a leading authority on 20th century posters, as well as an exclusive new poster artwork for Pontefract. 

A marine master

The exhibition takes its title from the slogan of a poster promoting the 'Bracing Air' and 'Abundant Amusements' that holiday-makers and day-trippers could look forward to in Southend-on-Sea in 1927. Pears provided the artwork for the poster, showing yachts on the Essex waters. He was an enthusiastic sailor himself and had established a reputation as a leading marine artist, having served as an official Naval war artist during the First World War. 

Pears would go on to capture the Second World War on canvas too and later became the first president of the Royal Society of Marine Artists. He eventually retired to spend more time at sea and settled in Cornwall, where he painted his self-portrait, kindly lent to the exhibition from the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth. It is the first time it has been exhibited in Pears' hometown, where he had first honed his artistic talent whilst growing up.

Self portrait, 1944-46 by Charles Pears (1873-1958)

Poster perfect

Pears went to school in East Hardwick and attended Pontefract College. As a young man, he moved to London and began his career as a cartoonist and illustrator, becoming a regular contributor to Punch and illustrating famous titles by authors like Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens. 

Pears-illustrated books from the Wakefield Museums & Castles collection on display in the exhibition

Illustration in a 1907 edition of Alice in Wonderland, from the Wakefield Museums & Castles collection

In the 1920s and 1930s Pears perfected his trade as one of the travel industry’s go-to poster artists and enjoyed a successful commercial career. At this time, new public holidays and paid annual leave meant that people were enjoying more leisure time and heading off on holidays and day-trips. 

Most holiday-makers at the time travelled by train, taking advantage of summer timetables and special fares. In only the early days of radio and before television, the poster was the most effective means of mass communication and became the rail companies’ primary marketing tool. They turned to leading artists like Pears to produce the most appealing representations of resorts.

Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements includes many examples of Pears' most vibrant posters, alongside some of the original artworks. 

Twickenham, Walton and Windsor, Charles Pears, 1935

© TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Spring on the River Thames, the original artwork for the poster, is on show in the exhibition.

Pick of the painters

It was Frank Pick, the Publicity Manager at London Underground, who initially recognised the potential of the travel poster. Pears was one of the first artists Pick worked with on an initiative to promote travel by public transport in leisure time as well as for commuting. As a marine specialist, Pears’ posters often promoted daytrips away from the hustle and bustle of the city along the picturesque banks of the River Thames. 

Between the wars, London Transport also ran special excursion services to Southend, the nearest beach resort to the capital. Pears produced no fewer than 14 different poster artworks for Southend, showing boats on the waves, water sports, local landmarks and all the attractions on offer. Visitors can see two examples in the exhibition, including the original oil painting for this sun-soaked scene.

Southend-on-Sea, Charles Pears, 1934

© TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Inspired by Frank Pick’s successful poster campaigns in London, railway companies also began to invest in the best artists for their adverts. After Britain’s many individual rail lines were grouped into the ‘Big Four’ in 1923, the newly formed regional companies each established advertising departments. They were competing with each other to attract tourists to the resorts on their lines, and only the most persuasive artworks would do. As an expert sailor and marine artist, Charles Pears was in high demand to provide seascapes that would tempt holiday-makers to the coast. 

This relaxing representation of Filey must have been an appealing image for passengers at Pontefract, which was served by LNER at the time. For the price of a rail ticket, they could escape the daily grind and get away from it at all on the East Coast. 

Poster, LNER 'Filey for the Family' by Charles Pears, 1930

Science Museum Group

© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

A fun family day out

Certainly, at this time more people than ever before were flocking to the seaside with their buckets and spades. Families made sandcastles, wrote postcards and returned home with plenty of snapshots and souvenirs. As well as admiring Pears' posters, visitors to Pontefract Museum can also enjoy a trip down memory lane with retro holiday essentials and mid-century beach attire from the Wakefield Museums & Castles collection.

Elsewhere in the museum, you can admire even more of Charles Pears' skill and artistry. He enjoyed a prolific career and we weren't able to display all of his many designs in the exhibition but our slideshow includes posters for destinations all over the country and beyond. 

Inspired by Pears' example, graphic designer Georgina Westley has created a stunning new poster artwork for Pontefract. Adding a modern twist to Pears' style, she has produced a colourful celebration of his hometown today. Visit the exhibition to see the iconic view of the Buttercross and St Giles' Church in a new light!

There's also plenty for little ones to enjoy. Look out for the special family-friendly object labels and pick up your Take and Make activity bag, packed with seaside themed crafts inspired by the posters on display. 

Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements: The Travel Posters of Charles Pears is at Pontefract Museum, 24th May 2021 – 25th February 2022. 

The exhibition was made possible with a grant from the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund.

To enjoy more of Charles Pears' work, check out our Curation on ArtUK for an overview of his celebrated career. 

Read more about Georgina Westley's poster in this special guest blog post

Monday, May 10, 2021

New to our collection: First World War bandolier

We are always looking for objects with a strong local story to add to our collection. Although our museums have been sadly closed for most of the last year, behind the scenes we have still been busy acquiring exciting items. One recent addition is this top notch example of Horbury leatherwork from the First World War (1914 – 1918). It shows another way that the town contributed to the war effort.

Bandolier, 1916, made by William Sykes Ltd. in Horbury

A bandolier is an ammunition belt, worn by soldiers over the shoulder and across the chest to carry extra bullets. This example is composed of a leather strap with a buckle and has five rifle bullet pouches sewn into it. 

It is a 1903 pattern used by British soldiers during the First World War.

Soldiers wearing bandoliers in the Queen's Own Yorkshire Dragoons. They are P.H. Charlesworth, A. Beilby and Mr Cooper, 1914 - 1918

Soldier in the Royal Artillery with a bandolier, 1914 - 1918

The bandolier is stamped with the name Sykes and the year 1916. Sykes refers to the local company, William Sykes Ltd. At the time, the company was on its way to becoming one of the largest sports manufacturers in the world. Skilled leather and wood workers made all manner of bats, balls, rackets, pads and gloves for every kind of player, amateur and professional, all from Sykes’ Yorkshire Athletic Manufactory in Horbury.

They also adapted their skills to make equipment for the military. As early as the Boer War (1899 – 1902), Sykes fulfilled orders for the War Office. As well as sports equipment for basic training, they made kit such as this bandolier and other leather strapping worn by soldiers.

By the Second World War (1939 - 1945), the Sykes workforce of a thousand local people produced an array of equipment, from bayonets and ammunition boxes to sand goggles and skis. The factory made over a million sets of wooden rifle furniture at a peak rate of 11,000 sets a week.

Workers making rifle furniture at Sykes' Albion Mill in the Second World War

The bandolier is the first example of William Sykes Ltd First World War work that we’ve ever seen and acquired. It will become part of our Playmakers collection, which represents and celebrates the incredible contribution to international sport made by skilled workers in Horbury from the late 1800s to late 1900s.  

Sykes produced a vast range of goods for a huge variety of different sports. When the company later became part of the Dunlop Slazenger group, Horbury remained the centre of production and innovation. Thousands of people enjoyed playing sports using Horbury-made goods. Equipment developed locally starred on the world stage at major sporting events. Many elite sports people chose pioneering Horbury products to help propel them to the top of their game.

Why not head over to our Twitter page to see more recent additions to our collection and plenty of old favourites. 

Monday, January 25, 2021

Rachel List: We're All In This Together

At the end of 2020, we were privileged to install a new exhibition at Pontefract Museum, the first ever solo show by local lockdown artist, Rachel List. Sadly, Covid restrictions mean we haven’t yet been able to welcome visitors to the exhibition in person so we thought we’d bring Rachel’s colourful and poignant work to you online instead.

When lockdown began, like many of us, Pontefract artist, Rachel could no longer go out to work. She normally spends her days painting murals in people’s homes, which was not allowed under the restrictions. But even though she was unable to do her day job, Rachel still had an urge to make art.

‘For me work is not just work, I’ve got that drive to create.' 

Rachel List

So she took her brushes with her on her daily exercise and started painting her murals outside instead, livening up walls around Pontefract while most of us were still sleeping. Her bright, colourful works brilliantly capture the spirit of that first lockdown when we clapped for the NHS.

‘A lot of us had been furloughed and were sitting at home feeling pretty useless … and it just seemed important to show support.’

As a museum service we also want to collect objects that capture and tell the stories of Covid and lockdown in our communities. But of course we can't collect a huge mural on a pub wall. So we are immensely grateful to Rachel for recreating some of her work in a more manageable format for the exhibition. These paintings will also become a permanent part of the museum collection, preserved to tell the story of Pontefract’s lockdown for future generations.

‘It’s all about how something good can come out of a bad thing. There will be a rainbow after the storm.’
Rachel List

Film produced by Voices and Video -

To see Rachel's murals in their original locations and enjoy more of her work, why not explore our StoryMap:

Have you enjoyed Rachel’s work on your lockdown walks? We’d love to see your photographs. Join in the conversation on social media using the hashtag #RachelList:

Twitter @WFMuseums, @Rachellist9
Facebook @PontefractMuseum 
Instagram @wakefieldmuseums, @rachthepachel

Digital Engagement Consultancy Opportunity

Wakefield Museums & Castles is looking to appoint a freelance digital consultant to develop a digital engagement strategy and action plan for the next three years. We want to review our current position, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the heritage sector, and develop an ambitious yet realistic strategy that will enable us to engage people with our collections in new and innovative ways.

In 2018, Wakefield Museums & Castles became a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) funded by Arts Council England, to help them deliver their goal of ‘great art and culture for everyone’. Our current funding is in place until March 2023. One of the key aims of our NPO Business Plan is “to build a strong and diverse digital offer to raise our profile and improve the visitor’s experience and access to our collections and sites”. 

Over the past two years, we have made progress in achieving this aim; developing content for a new stand-alone website, developing the digital skills and expertise of our staff, and starting a programme of digitisation for our collections and historic documentation. However, it was the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent closure of our museum sites that really pushed us forward in our use of digital. We quickly transitioned to a virtual offer, repurposing our Discover the Extraordinary blog to serve as a central hub for all our digital resources, and significantly increasing our social media output. We experimented with different types of content and platforms, always with the aim of maintaining access to and engagement with our collections and sites and keeping them at the heart of all of our content.

We would now like to undertake a review of our progress and use the valuable lessons and skills we have learned to develop an ambitious yet realistic digital strategy that will focus on digital audience development and engagement with our collections in new and innovative ways, over the next three years and beyond.

We want to:

  • Understand, increase and diversify our digital audience;
  • Increase engagement with, and accessibility of, our collections and sites through digital and be able to measure this;
  • Encourage creativity and community involvement with our digital activities;
  • Explore how we use digital interactions at our museum and castle sites;
  • Provide an online museum experience for those unable or unwilling to visit our sites in person;
  • Enhance the digital skills, expertise and confidence of our team, and effect a culture change in our organisation whereby digital becomes part of everyone’s role.

We are looking to appoint a consultant to help us devise a digital strategy and action plan, including:

  • Analysis of our current and target digital audiences (as distinct from our footfall audiences), and a methodology for measuring and evaluating digital impact, which might include benchmarking, analytics, KPIs etc.;
  • A strategy and streamlined process for developing and creating collections-based digital content, to reach new and more diverse audiences. This could include virtual tours, digital exhibitions and learning resources, videos, podcasts, games, mobile apps, live-streaming etc., featuring on our own website and/or third-party websites, including social media platforms;
  • An options analysis for future use and development of our Collections Online facility, including the introduction of open licensing;
  • The potential for user-generated digital content, including curated collections, exhibitions, tours, contributions of memories/information;
  • Digital interpretation techniques for use at our museum and castle sites, or at alternative sites in our communities, which could be anything from virtual reality experiences to touchscreen kiosks, and may involve third party developers;
  • The technology, hardware, software, tools and equipment needed to achieve our digital goals;
  • Staff training and skills development, ensuring everyone has the right level of digital capability and competency.

How to apply:

Please submit to the following documentation:

  • A CV or resume of your previous experience, qualifications, skills, references etc.
  • An indicative project plan, showing how you would meet the objective and outputs of the project. This should be no more than 4 sides of A4.
  • A simple budget showing how you will be using the available budget and how you will fit the timescale for delivering the project.
  • You may also include photographs or testimonials from previous projects if you feel they will be relevant to your application.

If you are shortlisted, you will be asked to attend an interview, via Skype, where you can expand upon your proposal and give a presentation to the project board.

Closing Date: Monday 15 February 2021, 9am

Interviews will take place in the week commencing 22 February 2021.