#TeamPontefract: The Pontefract Volunteers

by Jayne Poppleton

Pontefract recently hosted two hugely successful events of national interest – the Tour de Yorkshire and the Liquorice Festival. Locals, visitors and viewers enjoyed a taste of all that the town has to offer. Much of the success of these and other events is down to volunteers, community groups, and businesses cooperating as #TeamPontefract – a designation that might upset the more traditionally-minded!

Sadly, like other efforts to improve the town, the decorations for both these events were subjected to mindless acts of petty vandalism and arson. This prompted much debate and polemic about the disintegration of modern society. One thing is certain though, that #TeamPontefract will not be discouraged.

Perhaps the story of a celebration from Pontefract’s past illustrates the sheer bloody-mindedness of Pomfretians when it comes to organising a party.

Over 120 years ago, the town came together to mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. Businesses, volunteers and community groups raised funds to provide a day of celebration.Volunteers worked alongside professionals to decorate the town, including two enormous monograms of ‘VR’ on both the Town Hall and the Buttercross, illuminated by ‘the magic of gas’, and probably the equivalent of a laser display today.

An enormous procession consisting of the Borough Band, schoolchildren, Borough worthies and a host of local organisations gathered in Cornmarket. They were accompanied by the local cyclists’ group, some of whom had decorated their bikes in honour of the occasion – another image echoed recently. In place of honour at the head of the procession were the Pontefract Volunteers,  representing those groups who had given most to realising the celebrations; who had been up since  dawn to decorate the town, and to put finishing touches to the climax of the day – a giant bonfire in the Park to be lit by local dignitaries at 10pm.

Unfortunately, as the procession reached Pontefract Castle that afternoon, word came that vandals had lit the fire prematurely, it was already blazing furiously and would be burnt out long before the planned finale. The materials had taken weeks to collect, much having been donated by local industry. Most of the crowds gave a collective shrug of the shoulders and went off to the various refreshments on offer.

The Pontefract Volunteers however, refused to be beaten. Foregoing their suppers, and press-ganging other citizens with a mixture of charm, favours called-in and appeals to better natures, the volunteers worked together against the clock to restock the fuel for the bonfire. This is in the time where few people had cars, and even fewer had phones. Pretty much anything that could be burnt and was going begging was found, collected and transported to the Park, where others were gauging the fuel available against the burning time required.

As the start of the evening finale was signalled as planned at 10pm by a display of rockets, the bonfire was burning magnificently; so much so that many in the crowd were unaware of the attempt to ruin the celebrations. The act of vandalism/arson had failed, thanks to the tenacity and resourcefulness of the volunteers.

Thankfully, although the recent hostile acts have been annoying, #TeamPontefract has not had to match the determination of their symbolic ancestors; the Pontefract Volunteers, but should they ever be required to do so, there’s little doubt that they will live up to their example.

And then we can all complain that modern society is going to the dogs, just as we did in 1897.

Jayne is Chair of Pontefract Heritage Group. 

For more information about the group, visit www.pontefractheritagegroup.org.uk.

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