Sunday, July 12, 2020

Making a Racket

On what should’ve been Wimbledon finals weekend, we thought it was the perfect time to serve up some aces from our Playmakers collection of locally made sports products. Did you know that many a Wimbledon legend’s racket was made in Horbury? Find out about our proud tradition of sports manufacturing and how local innovation made its mark on the courts of SW19.

Breaking into the game

In 1870 a saddler’s apprentice from Horbury risked all his life savings to buy his own business. It was a gamble that would pay off handsomely. After 10 years in saddlery, William Sykes turned his leather working skills to making footballs in the start of a venture that would see Sykes become chairman of a major international company, and turn Horbury into a centre of high tech, high quality sports manufacturing, home in its heyday to possibly the largest sports equipment factory in the world.

William Sykes Ltd soon expanded from football into other sports, beginning with cricket and tennis. In 1896, having outgrown his original premises, Sykes proudly opened the Yorkshire Athletic Manufactory. By 1903 the new factory’s production lines included 21 different models of racket.

Handicap racket, William Sykes Ltd, c. 1880-1920. The wooden grip, small racket head size and convex wedge are characteristic of rackets from the turn of the century.

The star of the tennis range was the company’s premium racket, the EDB, named for and produced to the instructions of Ernest Douglas Black. Known as Edmund, Black had competed in Great Britain’s first ever Davis Cup tie, playing the competition founder, Dwight Davis of the USA, in Boston in 1900. The EDB was one of the earliest in a long line of Sykes products to be endorsed by elite sports people. Further tennis stars would follow suit in future.

EDB Special racket, William Sykes Ltd


Business continued to thrive after William Sykes Snr’s death in 1910, his two sons overseeing further expansion. In 1926 the company acquired the London-based tennis firm, Jefferies, extending their racket range further.

Raleigh Super racket, late 1920s. This racket from shortly after the acquisition of Jefferies is marked with both companies’ names.

Advertising poster for the William Sykes Ltd racket range. The company is now located in Horbury & London.

By 1933, as attendance at Wimbledon exceeded 200,000 and TV cameras were allowed at the All England Club for the first time, Sykes were able to meet rising demand from tennis fans with production now running to 50,000 rackets a year. With business booming, it was necessary to move into bigger premises again. Production at Albion Mill began in 1936 with an ever increasing range. In fact, Sykes supplied everything you needed for a match, from the balls to the net and posts.

Rallying the troops

Only shortly after the publication of the summer 1939 catalogue, the outbreak of the Second World War in September disrupted Sykes’ production as the company turned almost all of its capacity to the war effort, its leather and woodworking expertise in particular proving vital. The 1000 strong workforce at Horbury produced a dizzying array of equipment from bayonets and ammunition boxes to sand goggles and skis. Among the many and varied products supplied to the War Office were snow shoes, made using the same steam bending technique as the wooden frame of a tennis racket.

An example of a snow shoe

Sykes’ competitors, Slazenger, were also affected by the war, with their London based factories suffering serious bomb damage. In 1942 the two former rivals joined forces. The merger of Sykes and Slazenger married the massive manufacturing capacity at Horbury with Slazenger’s brand power, not least its long standing association with the Wimbledon championships. Although the first products made after the merger kept the Sykes logo, the Slazenger name soon took over. Shortly after the war, Slazenger moved all of its production to Yorkshire. Its long established and prestigious Challenge and Demon rackets were among the many ranges now made in Horbury. Indeed, the only Slazenger products not made at the factory were tennis balls, and these were produced down the road at Barnsley.

Slazenger made Demon brand rackets from 1880 – 1966.

Slazenger Challenge, c. 1975

Innovation and domination

In 1959 Slazenger was bought by Dunlop. Throughout the 1960s, the vast majority of professional tennis players opted for Dunlop Slazenger rackets to propel them to top of their game.

The June 1962 edition of the Dunlop Gazette staff magazine included an in-depth look at the Horbury factory.

By the 1970s though, sales of wooden rackets were in decline, with players favouring new, lightweight materials like aluminium and carbon fibre. In response, Dunlop turned to its new state of the art Research and Development Centre, opened in Horbury in 1978. Its team of expert engineers were tasked with revolutionising the tennis racket and re-establishing Dunlop as the go-to brand for amateurs and Wimbledon champions alike.

Their pioneering solution was an injection moulded racket using a material known as Grafil, a hard-wearing compound of graphite and nylon. Melted Grafil was injected into racket moulds around a metal core. The core had a lower melting point than Grafil and, once the outside frame was cooled and set, the metal was heated and melted out of the mould to leave behind a hollow frame.

The result was a racket that was both robust and lightweight - 50% stronger and 12% more powerful than traditional wooden frames. The Dunlop Max 200G was ground breaking. No surprise then that it received several prestigious engineering awards and attracted such giants of the game as Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova. Graf played with the 200G when she won her first Grand Slam title at the French Open in 1987. In total she won 22 major singles titles and she is the only player to have achieved a calendar Golden Slam, winning all four major titles and an Olympic gold medal in the same year. Her triumphs kept the 200G in the news into the 1990s.

Dunlop Max 200G

In 1983, John McEnroe switched to the 200G. The racket’s association with his star quality saw sales rocket from 20,000 to 200,000. By 1988 there were no wooden rackets in use at Wimbledon.

I used to think that I might’ve been stringing one of John McEnroe’s rackets. I was so proud of that. It made Wimbledon exciting for me. When he used to smash his rackets, I would think of how much trouble had gone into making it!
Lynne Holroyd, former Slazenger employee

End of an era

After more than a century at the cutting edge of sports manufacturing, the Horbury factory finally closed its doors in 1986. Tennis racket production continued at new premises in Wakefield until 1992 when production moved abroad. Today, the Slazenger Sports Club is the surviving legacy of the company. Founded in 1950, the Sports and Social club became the hub of the Slazenger community. Mrs Slazenger officially opened the pavilion and sports ground, with the tennis courts being christened by none other than Fred Perry.

Fred Perry playing at the Slazenger Sports and Social Club and signing autographs, 1950

Why not have a go at recreating some classic Sykes rackets in digital jigsaw form?! Our latest puzzle is this 1920s William Sykes Ltd advert.

preview35pieceChoose a Sykes Model

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Festival of Archaeology: Chasing walls

For the Festival of Archaeology this week, we need your help! Find out how you can get involved in some practical archaeology and help us to better understand our local environment.

Victorian archaeologists are sometimes called wall chasers. This is a little rude and refers to how they were sometimes only interested in finding ruined buildings and less concerned with the artefacts that reveal what life was like in the past. For this project though, we are going to join them in their quest for wall hunting and see if we can map all the walls in Pontefract that are made from medieval stone.

What do we mean by medieval stone - isn’t all stone much older?

We are looking for walls that are made from stone that might have been taken from one of Pontefract’s medieval buildings. The most likely buildings that stones might have come from are the castle, St John’s Priory, St Richard’s Friary, or one of the three medieval hospitals on Micklegate. We should see a cluster of medieval stone walls around those sites, but do we? That’s where you come in.

We want you to go out with your mobile phones and help us map all the walls. You can send us the location of the walls using the app, What3words. The app is free to download and use, and splits the whole world up into one metre squares named with three normal words.

We want to know about any wall that looks old and has stones in it - it doesn’t have to be all stone (as long as the stone isn’t just on the top.) The stone needs to look weathered (rounded or flat, or dished.) Here are two examples. One is just stone and the other very worn stone that has been partially rendered and mixed with bricks. It could even be a dry stone wall - that’s a wall that isn’t fixed together with mortar.
A picture containing building, outdoor, person, road

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Example of a wall with mixed stone and brick, as well as a render repair

A person standing in front of a brick wall

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An example of a wall with infilled features - note the colour of the stone.

We're not asking you to be certain (we will check them later); we don’t want you to leave the footpath or other public area; and we don’t want photos of the wall (unless it’s on your land and we can’t see it ourselves to verify it later.)

We just want:

One set of What3words per wall 
Only walls in Pontefract 
Only walls that are visible from public land or on your own property

A screenshot of a video game

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This screen shot shows what the app looks like - you can have map view or aerial photography, and it can centre on your location. The location of our second example here is at 'mile.kicks.nobody'. It’s that simple!

You can send your locations in one at a time or as a list, either using Twitter, Facebook or as an email to:

With your help we will then hopefully be able to display the results in October when (fingers crossed) the Festival of Archaeology returns.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Pontefract Allsorts: How liquorice got its roots in Pontefract

Liquorice - whether you love or hate the taste, there's no denying the plant has long been synonymous with Pontefract. But how did a middle Eastern herb become embedded in our town's history? We've had a root through our liquorice collection and dug up some treasures. 

Liquorice was probably first brought to Pontefract either by medieval knights returning to the castle from the Crusades, or by the Dominican monks who settled at the neighbouring priory. Pontefract proved to be fertile ground for liquorice, the plant's long roots thriving in the deep loamy local soil. 

Liquorice fields in the Nevison area

Liquorice growing and harvesting in the Friarwood area

A spoonful of sugar

Prized at first for its medicinal properties, liquorice began to be grown across the area. The sap was extracted from the root and used to treat coughs and stomach complaints. By the 1700s, there were liquorice garths springing up all around and even the castle yard was being cultivated. Local chemists, the Dunhill family, rented the land there and used the castle cellars to store their harvested roots. 

It is George Dunhill who is credited with first adding sugar to liquorice to transform the medicine into the sweet delicacy we still know today. He is believed to have pioneered the production and marketing of the now iconic Pontefract Cake as a commercial confectionery.

Handstamp for marking Pontefract Cakes, Dunhills Ltd, early 20th century
A worker stamping Pontefract Cakes at W. R. Wilkinson & Co. Ltd, 1950s

And so Pontefract became inextricably linked with liquorice. By the 1900s, treats made in one of Pontefract's many factories were enjoyed by those with a sweet tooth all around the world. At the industry's height there were 13 factories in the town. The rival companies all produced a wide array of different liquorice variations: 


From 1887 Ewbanks' production was based at the Eagle Liquorice Works in Friarwood. The factory was surrounded by orchards. During the Second World War, Eagle Works suffered bad bomb damage and some production moved to other local companies.



John Hillaby established his Lion Liquorice Works, a four storey steam-powered factory, in 1850. The company grew its own crops and by 1893 had become the largest producer in the world. In 1925 they achieved a further claim to fame, producing the liquorice boot eaten by Charlie Chaplin in the film, Goldrush.

J. H. Addingley & Sons

Baghill Refinery was a three storey building boasting steam-powered machinery, offices, a warehouse and packing room, and mechanics and joinery shops.

W. R. Wilkinson & Co.

Originally started in 1884 at a malt kiln in Southgate, Wilkinson's expanded several times, first to the Britannia Works on Skinner Lane and then again in 1925 to a 'garden factory' in Monkhill, where employees enjoyed workers' housing, tennis courts and allotments, as well as outings to the seaside.

Robinson & Wordsworth

Founded in 1871, the company was based at Victoria Works. In 1893, the recently expanded factory welcomed the curator of Kew Museum, who visited to research liquorice cultivation. Robinson & Wordsworth also had a display at the Kew Botanic Gardens.


Eventually, Pontefract's prolific business began to exhaust the local crops. With supplies struggling to keep up with demand, the firms instead imported liquorice from Turkey and Spain. Liquorice is still affectionately known as Spanish by locals. By the end of the 19th century, most of Pontefract's liquorice fields were gone, although it continued to grow at Stump Cross until the mid 20th century. 

Liquorice growing near Stump Cross Lane in 1960s

Spade for harvesting liquorice root

Liquorice legacy

Over time, Pontefract's confectioners began to close, merge with one another, or be acquired by their larger rivals. Today, there are two producers remaining in the town. The German giant, Haribo, arrived in Pontefract in the 1970s when they first acquired a stake in Dunhills Ltd, the original pioneer of the Pontefract Cake. Tangerine Confectionery's roots in the town can be traced back to W. R. Wilkinson & Co.

Pontefract Museum's liquorice displays, including scales used by liquorice growers in the early 20th century

Wakefield Museums & Castles are very privileged to care for our large liquorice collection. We proudly display a selection of highlights at Pontefract Museum but there is even more to enjoy on our online catalogue - why not have a root around today yourself? Or get your teeth into our liquorice inspired jigsaw: 

Friday, June 26, 2020

Rome From Home: The Bath House

Bathing was an important part of Roman life. Rome itself had nearly a thousand bath houses in the 4th century AD, the largest of which had room for 3,000 bathers. The Romans took this enthusiasm for bathing all across their Empire, including to Castleford.

Roman forts had a standard layout, from Hadrian’s Wall to the deserts of Egypt. And wherever possible this design included a bath house just outside the main fort for the soldiers to use. Hygiene was a key part of keeping them healthy and fit to fight. The leisure element was also important, especially for morale. The troops in Castleford had signed up for 25 years’ service and were hundreds of miles from home; many would never have returned home or seen their families again.

After the fort was demolished, the bath house was left standing and then kept running for over 200 years, becoming a valued asset for the new Roman town.

Illustration of Romans inside a bath house

Revealing the bath house

Castleford’s bath house was discovered in 1978 by Ron Jeffries, an enthusiastic local amateur archaeologist. It is next to (and partly underneath) the Savile Road / Church Street roundabout, so it couldn’t be completely excavated, but enough was found to be sure of its layout.

Amateur archaeologist, Ron Jeffries at a dig in Castleford

Digs revealed the almost complete ground plan of the Castleford bath house

It was in an annexe to the main fort and was originally built by and for the army. The whole building was built of brick and stone and probably decorated with statues. It would have been one of the more impressive buildings in town.

Clever engineering

Roman soldiers usually built their own barracks and forts but the bath house was a specialist project, probably built by professional engineers, not the local troops. We think this because the tiles in it are stamped with the mark of the 9th Legion Hispania, the main legionary unit based in York, rather than the 4th Cohort of Gauls, the unit based at Castleford.

The building itself was about 25 metres long and followed a standard design. Roman baths were more like Turkish baths than modern swimming pools, based on relaxation and perspiration. The first room you entered was the changing room. There were then three rooms that got hotter as you went on. The last of these probably had a hot bath in it. Finally there was a much larger cold water plunge pool after you left the hot room, made of a special concrete that looked like marble.

The rooms were heated by large furnaces, which piped hot air through a clever series of ducts under the floors and in the walls. Fresh water probably came from a spring, and the dirty water could be piped away to the nearby River Aire. A stone tablet dedicated to water nymphs suggests that the local spring was special, maybe having magical healing powers, making the baths even better.

Bathing and beauty

To get clean in a Roman bath you would have rubbed oil into your skin. Then as you got hotter and hotter, and started sweating, the dirt and sweat would have mixed with the oil. This mix of oil, dirt and sweat would then be scraped off with a special curved blunt blade. At the same time you could have other cosmetic and beauty treatments. These tweezers for plucking hairs were found in the bath house.

Fun and games

Roman bathing was about far more than just getting clean. It was also for relaxation and especially for socialising. There would have been drinks and snacks available while you chatted with friends, or networked and did some business with associates. A gaming counter found in the bath house shows you would also have played games and gambled.

Roman gaming counters and die, made from bone

You can have a go at bathing like a Roman at home. Join archaeologist, Sally Pointer, to find out how to make your own rose scented bathing oil, inspired by the Lagentium bath house.


Can you recreate the scene from inside the bath house? How long will it to take you to complete our Rome From Home jigsaw?

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Rome From Home: Discovering Lagentium

This week we are celebrating the fascinating story of Castleford’s past as the Roman fort and settlement, Lagentium, and sharing many of the treasures from our Roman Castleford collection. But how did these ancient objects come to be in Castleford Museum today? And, given that the modern town has been built on top of the Roman remains, how do we even know about Lagentium?

Archaeologists arrive

Although people had taken an interest in Castleford’s Roman origins as early as the 16th century, it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that any modern archaeological excavations took place. However, some chance finds were presented to the museum collection, then part of Castleford Library, in the 1920s and 1930s. This roof tile found on Carlton Street and an oil lamp discovered at Albion Street were some of the first Roman objects to be preserved in the collection. 

In the 1960s significant redevelopment work in the town led to the discovery of many more Roman objects. Finds made during work to build a new bus station and bowling alley prompted a new interest in Castleford’s Roman heritage and the first systematic excavations took place. Initially these were mainly carried out by amateur archaeologists such as the Castleford and District Historical Society, until the late 1970s when their valuable work was continued by full time archaeologists from the West Yorkshire Archaeological Unit. 

Volunteers excavating in Castleford

The excavations in the second half of the 20th century revealed the remains of Roman buildings and structures and uncovered many Roman items and thousands of further fragments of objects. These allowed experts to piece together a plan of what Roman Castleford had looked like and helped to build a picture of what life was like at the time. They revealed the existence of two forts and a nearby town. The finds were donated to the museum collection to be preserved. Many are on display today and allow us to tell the story of life in Lagentium.

The first fort, AD 71-86

Whilst the exact footprint of the first fort is still unknown, excavations have uncovered the remains of several buildings from inside the fort’s defences.

The discovery of leather fragments believed to be from soldiers’ tents suggests that the first Romans in Castleford didn’t have permanent sleeping areas. However, there is evidence in the form of foundations and post-holes to suggest that the army did go on to construct barracks and other timber buildings, including a granary to store the vital supplies of grain needed to feed the troops.

Archaeologists excavating near Back Bank Street discovered a large building believed to be at the centre of the fort. It had several rooms arranged around a central courtyard. A building of this size in a key location could have been the army’s local headquarters but the mix of military and domestic items found at the site suggest it was more probably the house of an army commander.

Foundation trenches for the timber walls of the house

A load of rubbish?

We owe lots of what we have learned about the first fort at Lagentium to a rubbish dump! Near to Church Street, a pile of Roman waste had been preserved due to waterlogging. Normally, organic material would have rotted away but here archaeologists found leather remains, including these remarkably well preserved shoes.


The volume of leather offcuts discovered here along with metal remnants suggests it may have been the site of an army workshop or fabrica.

The many other finds also provide an invaluable insight into life in the fort. There is evidence also of medical provision, army administration and soldiers’ leisure time.

A scoop or probe, possibly used in the fort's hospital

The second fort, c. AD 86

The first Lagentium fort was eventually demolished and the ground at the site levelled in preparation to build a new set of defences. Archaeologists have been able to identify the size, layout and location of the second fort at Lagentium because their excavations in the 1980s uncovered evidence of the fort’s defences, including ditches, ramparts, a gate and parts of the Roman road network. From this they have worked out that the fort stretched 8.4 acres from Back Bank Street in the north to Carlton Street in the south, and from Bradley Street in the east to Church Street in the west. Within these defences, they have identified the site of barrack blocks, warehouses and stables.

Artist's impression of how the gate and defences may have looked

Archaeologists studied the pattern of post-holes for the timber uprights.

The excavations revealed the existence of many timber buildings but also showed signs of a move within the second fort to more substantial structures, including stone foundations, tile roofs and even a large granary with stone walls.

Excavating the vicus

As well as the two forts, archaeological excavations have also revealed the existence of a nearby civilian town, or vicus. The town would have provided the soldiers of the army garrison with goods and leisure services. Over time though, it grew into a significant trading centre and an important staging post on the Roman Empire’s message network. It seems to have been ideally located for this, focused mainly on the road leading to the River Aire crossing point.

Plan showing the vicus to the south west of the fort on the Roman road
Archaeologists have discovered that the vicus appears to have been arranged according to a planned regular layout. The buildings were constructed in rows to a standard size and floorplan, probably decided by the army. In these uniform buildings were workshops for craftsmen and shops for traders.

Life of luxury

There is evidence of significant redevelopment work in the vicus following the army’s eventual exit from the fort. The original timber buildings were replaced with larger premises and sometimes stone structures. Archaeologists have been able to identify gravel pathways that linked the buildings to each other and to the main road, and have even uncovered rut marks from the cartwheels that travelled over them.

Unlike other Roman settlements, Lagentium continued to develop after the garrison left, thriving as a manufacturing and commercial centre in the early 2nd century. Excavations of the vicus produced large quantities of luxury items. The high standard of the finely crafted jewellery and metalwork, and imported glassware, kitchenware and tableware paints a picture of a civilised population that had embraced Roman lifestyles. The discovery of many fragments of vessels known as amphorae tells us that the townspeople were enjoying food and drink from the continent. Amphorae would have been used to import fish sauce and olive oil from Spain and wine from France.

An example of an amphora

It is also clear that Castleford had extensive trading links. Over 700 fragments of samian ware, a shiny red glazed crockery from France, were found in a single location. The sheer size of this find makes it one of the most important discoveries of samian ware in Britain and suggests that the excavated building was most probably a shop or warehouse, from which the surrounding area acquired its sophisticated tableware for impressing dinner guests at special occasions.

Examples of samin ware reconstructed from excavated fragments
Thanks to the excavations of the late 20th century, we are able to better understand life in Castleford at the height of its Roman history. At Castleford Museum today we are proud to tell this story and to display objects that our predecessors in Lagentium crafted, bought and sold - items that they wore, used for eating and drinking, for bathing and cosmetics, or for fun and relaxation. Only some of the Roman area has been excavated so far and there is yet more to discover in future.