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What I found was a truly fascinating historical document.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 lmellors@wakefield.gov.uk.

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