The town that bought itself

“Ownership is about more than deeds and titles – it’s about responsibility.”

When we started researching land ownership information, we realised what a complicated business it can be. If you’re trying to figure out who is responsible for doing something with a particular plot of land, this might be affected not only by ownership, but by leases, covenants and other legal agreements.

It was whilst discussing some examples of cases that our land ownership team have dealt with in the past that we first got talking about the Ramsden Estate, and we heard the story of Huddersfield: “The town that bought itself”.

The short version is that on 29th September 1920 the Huddersfield Corporation paid the sum of one million two hundred and fifty eight thousand and five hundred pounds to Sir John Frecheville Ramsden, for interests and estates in land in Huddersfield. The Ramsden family had owned the town for the previous three hundred years, and with this purchase the Huddersfield Corporation was able to finally start to manage its own affairs – to take both ownership and responsibility for the town.

But like most things involving land ownership, it wasn’t quite as simple as that.

Huddersfield couldn’t have bought itself without the efforts of two men from Berry Brow, Councillor Wilfrid Dawson and Samuel Copley, who played a big part in the story. Their involvement was crucial to sealing the deal when the Ramsden family put their Huddersfield estate up for sale in 1919.

Councillor Wilfrid Dawson

Councillor Dawson, who was elected to the Huddersfield Corporation for the Newsome Ward in1917, was a stockbroker. On one of his regular business trips to London, he had a chance meeting with the man acting as the Ramsden family’s agent for the sale. He started negotiations to buy the estate – at the same time keeping the fact that the Corporation was the interested party a closely guarded secret (for fear of the price going up or the Ramsden family refusing to sell to the town council).

However, there was a problem. An act of parliament was needed to give Huddersfield Corporation the power to buy the estate – that would take time and jeopardise the deal.

Councillor Dawson turned to a business acquaintance, Samuel Copley, the self-made son of a barber from Berry Brow who had made his fortune in Australia in insurance and by forming Copley’s Bank, which had branches in Perth and London. Samuel Copley loved the town so much that he had even given the name Berry Brow to a housing development he had built in Australia. So he agreed to help, and it was he who bought the town from the Ramsdens. Then, nine months later on 29th September 1920, following the required Act of Parliament, he sold it on to Huddersfield Corporation, now Kirklees Council, for the same price.

The Indenture (the document that originally transferred ownership of the land to Sir John Frecheville Ramsden) describes the land and interests as:

“….. ALL THAT the Manor or Lordship of Almondbury in the County of York and also ALL THOSE the Advowsons and perpetual rights or presentation of and to the Rectories or Vicarages of the Churches of St. Peter’s Huddersfield All Saints Almondbury and St. John’s Birkby in the said County of York and the rights and appurtenances thereto belonging and also ALL THOSE lands situate in or around the Town of Huddersfield and in the Townships of Huddersfield Almondbury Lockwood Honley and Dalton or the Parishes of Huddersfield Almondbury Dalton Kirkheaton and Fixby in the said County of York comprising in the whole Four thousand three hundred Acres or thereabouts …..”

Of course, that description tells you what Huddersfield bought (i.e. itself), but it doesn’t tell you the story of those two men who found a way to make it happen.

We know that there are lots of people who care about the places where they live and work, who have ideas about what they might become in the future, or memories of how they were used in the past. This is why there are two essential parts to Who Owns My Neighbourhood? – the ownership information, and contributions from local people who have something to say (and to share) about these places.

Descendants of Samuel Copley with local councillors at Huddersfield Town Hall

We launched this site on 10th January 2011. Two months later, on March 11th 2011, a commemorative plaque was unveiled in Huddersfield Town Hall to celebrate the contribution that Councillor Wilfrid Dawson and Samuel Copley made to securing Huddersfield’s future. On the same day, a blue plaque was placed on the house on Stockwell Hill in Berry Brow where the young Samuel Copley lived.

This story is all the more fascinating to me because it was the work of dedicated individuals and community groups in Huddersfield (particularly in the Newsome Ward) which inspired me to help create Who Owns My Neighbourhood? Amongst those inspirations were people from Berry Brow in the Newsome Ward who have created new allotments, re-started the local carnival, organised local history events and taken part in community photography projects.

One of the things you can’t usually tell by looking at a piece of land is who has walked on its earth over the centuries, or what their experiences were. This project has already taught me things that I didn’t know about the people of Huddersfield, because together we have started to tell the stories behind the land ownership data. And I think those stories are something worth hearing.

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Somewhere to stand…

Do you know who owns the land beneath your feet? If you could find out who owns a plot of land in your neighbourhood, would it change the way that you think of that place in any way? Would it change the way that you behave? As we move through the places where we live and work every day, are we affected by land ownership?

At first glance, you might think not.

Land ownership is one of those things that determines what happens (and what doesn’t happen) in our neighbourhoods. It can affect our lives in many ways – yet ownership itself is often invisible. You can’t usually see by looking at a field, a yard, an empty building or a woodland who actually owns it. So if you’d like to use that field for a community picnic, paint a mural in that yard, find out the history of that empty building or set up a friends group for that woodland… where do you start?

Who Owns My Neighbourhood? aims to give people a starting point for getting things done in their own neighbourhoods. We hope this service will make it easier for people to have conversations about their local area and for us to answer each other’s questions by sharing what we know. We want people to think about what personal responsibility we are each willing to take for the place where we live, and how we might be able to help each other to look after it.

Some of the things we hope to work out together are:

  • How can we make it easier for community groups to use public spaces?
  • Should any part of a neighbourhood be unused?
  • Who’s responsible for keeping our neighbourhoods clean?
  • Who decides how land is used?

If you have an interest in a particular plot of land, you can sign up to become a ‘community contact’ and keep in touch with other people who care about the same area. You can also tell us your latest news about local places, or share local history and local places names. We hope this will be a good way of gathering together our local knowledge and using it to get things done.

The foundation of this site is Kirklees Council’s land ownership information, which we’ve made available online for the first time as part of this project. We’ll be using this blog to explain some of the issues about land ownership and to let you know how the project is going. We intend to add other types of information to Who Owns My Neighbourhood? in the future, in response to what local people tell us is useful. If you have ideas or suggestions then please let us know.

We realise that there are lots of things you can’t see just by looking – you can’t see someone’s memories of a place or someone’s aspirations for what it might become in the future.

Who Owns My Neighbourhood? is about uncovering that hidden knowledge, as much as it is about opening up land ownership information.

This is a shared space – what grows from it is up to you.