History Huddersfield

(Laughter). The Story of David Dawson “the Milnsbridge Poet”, & Incendiarism By An Insane Woman

Perkins’ Violet. Image by JWBE (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

This week, I went in search of my relative David Dawson, father of Dan Dawson. I had spotted David’s name cropping up frequently on Dan’s various patents, for improved dyeing processes and machinery,  as”David Dawson, gentleman”.

It turns out David credited himself with the development of magenta as a synthetic dye, and the 21 year old Dan was carrying on experiments alongside his father, when they accidentally dyed the bread red for weeks, after experimenting in their oven, at home. Magenta was the second aniline dye to be developed; and unlike Perkins’ mauvine, which is now largely consigned to the history books; magenta (fuchsine) is still in use today, in textiles and ball point pen inks.

Dan was fascinated with chemistry and synthetic dyes and worked with his father to develop magenta. David had other sons, but Dan seems to have been the prime mover.

David was born in Longwood, near Huddersfield, in 1808 into a Non-Conformist family of clothiers and dyers and wool trade folk generally. As a boy, he loved music and hit on a scheme to get music lessons for free:

“In a humourous speech he gave an account of the difficulties he had had to contend with when a boy, in order to obtain instruction in singing. This was only done by a number of boys subscribing 2d per week in order to send him to take lessons from a singing-master at Elland, he in return teaching the subscribers all that he learned from the master. (Laughter).”

The Huddersfield Chronicle , Saturday, April 10th, 1858

David was a devout Baptist, and often played the piano, sang or – he became famous for this – delivered speeches in rhyme, earning himself the name “The Milnsbridge Poet”. Sometimes he preached, but he was very active in education – being a prime mover in the Mechanics’ Institute movement, and the Baptist Sunday school movement, so working class children and young people were able to access an education.

Mechanics’ Institutes were set up across the West Riding, to provide evening classes, and circulating libraries giving access to books and education to working class people. The Bronte sisters were members of Keighley Mechanics’ Institute – even nominally middle class people might struggle to access expensive books – and they attended lectures at the Mechanics’ Institute. David Dawson seems to have been feverishly active in the set-up of various Institutes in the Huddersfield area; serving on committees and lecturing about being a manufacturing chemist, himself.

Whilst still at Longwood, he took on an orphaned 13 year old boy, Richard Heaton, and Richard proved so able he moved rapidly up the ranks to become the dyeworks foreman. Later, he worked for and part-owned a neighbouring dyeworks at Milnsbridge, owned by Haigh.

He started his first dye works in the village of Longwood, although later when the business was burgeoning, moved to Milnsbridge.

David married fellow non-conformist, Selina Cotton in September, 1833 and they went on to have a large family – as is usual, in my family, mainly sons. Later, his sons were to be active in the dyeworks; some staying in Milnsbridge; Dan studying in Berlin under the famous dyer, Hofmann, and other sons setting up a dyeworks in Philadelphia, US – although they returned when import duties crushed the business.

Politically, David was Liberal and one of Huddersfield’s most keen Anti-Corn Laws campaigners, petitioning the House of Commons and the House of Lords for reform.  Landlords wanted to keep corn prices falsely high, imposing heavy duties – but many of the new middle and mercantile classes wanted restrictions lifted, to relieve poverty (The Corn Laws had contributed to the Irish Famine, and scarcities of grain in the UK, too), but also so that their factory workers’ wages could be lower as bread was the Englishman’s staple diet – high grain and bread prices meant higher wages.

The Huddersfield Chronicle reported the Longwood Mechanics’ Institution’s annual soiree, every year without fail and every year, Mr David Dawson would deliver a witty speech in rhyme:

“Mr DAVID DAWSON, who has earned for himself the title, the “Milnsbridge Poet”, subsequently gave a rhyming description of the past and present history of Milnsbridge, in which he alluded to the sports once enjoyed by the occupants of Milnsbridge-house, and in laudatory terms referred to the great amount of good brought about in the village throught the instrumentality of the present occupier of Milnsbridge-house, and his much-respected father. The audience heartily applauded David’s rhyme throughout its delivery.”

The Huddersfield Chronicle , Saturday, May 14, 1864

He seems to have been a jovial man, who brought laughter wherever he went.

One newspaper account is of a talk his son Dan gave. Dan set up experiments and in the interlude when the experiments were being set up, ‘The Milnsbridge Poet’  took the piano and played music to amuse the audience.  David’s relative – my dad – would have loved this as he was also a keen and classically trained pianist (who came by a lifetime’s fere piano lessons from musician Lloyd Hartley, by winning a Leeds piano competition. Not the Leeds piano competition – this one was a precursor!)

From ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield”, David and Dora. Artist Frank Reynolds, Wikimedia Commons

David’s life wasn’t all laughter and happiness.  In 1856, son Dan, aged only nineteen, married 26 year old Mary Ferrar. Mary came from Northamptonshire, and so her family’s background probably wasn’t well known to the Dawsons. Mary’s father, Samuel Ferrar, was down as ‘Ag Lab’ on the 1841 Census, but his job description on the marriage certificate is “sailor”. Often, people would switch between being inland mariners and farm labourers.  Inland mariners had a reputation for hard living, in the 19thC, and were often seen as slightly dodgy types.  A Samuel Ferrar served a week in Northampton jail in 1819, for Larceny (theft).

Dan and Mary’s marriage produced one child, Lily, in the summer of 1863. I had wondered how Dan  coped being apart from his wife and child when he went to Berlin to study dyeing with Hofmann.

Here is one experiment on a patent for a fire extinguisher, David and Dan brought out in 1866, when Lily would only have been three. This is the kind of experiment that would be banned on Health and Safety grounds now!

“On Wednesday evening about 1,000 persons assembled in the vicinity of the chemical works of Messrs Dawsons Bros., to witness an experiment made by the patentees of “an improved means of extinguishing fires in steam ships, mills, manufacturing and other buildings” The scene of the experiment was the upper storey of one of the buildings occupied by Messrs. Dawson. In the centre of the room, a large quantity of wood, &c, was placed, and a little after nine o’clock a light was put to the materials, and in a few minutes the whole of room appeared to be a mass of flame, and some present were fearful that the fire would go too far before the apparatus was brought into action. This fear was, however, groundless, as the machinery was set to work, and in about half a minute the flames were entirely subdued, and the room was in darkness. A hearty cheer greeted the successful termination of the experiment. The process adopted consists of the application of gases, devoid of oxygen, which are conducted into the room where the fire exists, by means of flues … combustion is at once arrested. The necessary gases can be obtained in great abundance… at a very short notice, and a very low cost, three or four tons not costing more than a few shillings. The patentees are Messrs David Dawson, Dan Dawson, and Thomas Broadbent, all of whom are resident in the village.”

The Huddersfield Chronicle, Saturday, July 28th, 1866

Setting fire to a first storey room with 1000 people present wouldn’t be considered entirely safe now. You have to admire the confidence David and Dan had in their invention.

Amongst that crowd, presumably, was Dan’s wife, Mary. And no doubt an idea was forming because, amongst all the newspaper accounts of the Dawsons being witty and entertaining, and inventive like a bolt from the blue, comes this. I make no apologies for quoting in full, this journalist writes it with more immediacy than I ever could:


MARY DAWSON, wife of DAN DAWSON, manufacturing chemist, was charged, at the Borough Court, on Saturday, with setting fire to a building the property of David Dawson, chemist, Milnsbridge, on the 12th May. The prosecutor stated that the prisoner was his son’s wife, and that she had latterly conducted herself in a very strange manner, and that there had been great unpleasantness in the family. On Wednesday, May 12th, she stated that the property would be in danger. On Tuesday, 11th of May there was a haystack set on fire, belonging to Messrs Haigh & Heaton, adjoining his property. Therefore on Wednesday night, 12th May,  about twelve o’clock, he placed himself in a position where he could see the house where the prisoner lived. He saw the police, and made a certain communication to them, and remained watching about half an hour, when he saw the prisoner come out of her house. He was concealed within eight yards of her door. She looked in various directions. He crouched down, and saw the prisoner go in the direction of his property. She was out of his sight for half an hour, and he saw her return to her house. A few minutes after the factory clock struck one, smelling something burning, he looked round, and saw a straw shed and a joiner’s shop on fire. The police and his son were there, and they soon put the fire out. Mr Armitage’s engine arrived. The damage was upwards of £5. The building belonged to witness, and he let part of it to another tenant, Sarah Stansfield, wife of Police-constable, W. Stansfield, said they lived next-door to the prisoner. About half-past six o’clock on Wednesday evening the prisoner came to their house and asked if Mr Stansfield was in; and the witness replied that he had gone to bed. Prisoner said she would go and see Mr Armitage, and appeared to be in a wild and unsettled state. About eight o’clock, the prisoner called witness into her house, and said that she had been recommended to take out a warrant against her husband. She asked if witness thought she could get a warrant that night, and witness replied she thought not. Among other things, the prisoner stated that the property woud be burnt up, and that would be the way that badness would come on them. She said that Richard Heaton had had his stack set on fire, all from badness, in the same way; and (she said) they would be left quite penniless – Mary Sykes, single woman, stated that on Wednesday evening, she went to see the prisoner, who wanted her to go with her to a house she had recently left. Witness went with the prisoner, who said she wanted to take some things from that house to the one she was then living in. The prisoner found in the house a box of matches on the sink stone, and after striking a light, she put the match box in her pocket, and took it to her own house. She heard the prisoner say something about Richard Heaton’s fire, – and that it was all with neglect, and, if they did not mind, theirs would be done the same way. Police-constable Stansfield said, about half-past twelve o’clock on Wednesday night, he and Police-constable Redman went to look around the prosecutor’s property. Witness saw a shed on fire and assisted in putting it out. He had passed the shed about three-quarters of an hour before, and all seemed right then. Afterwards he went to the house of the prisoner, and found her in bed. When charged by him with setting fire to the property, she replied: “I went to bed about eleven o’clock, and I have never been out of the house since.” He found a box of matches on the head of the bed. There was a second charge against the prisoner of having set fire to a stack, the property of Messrs. Haigh and Heaton, but the depositions were not read.  – Mr. Clarke, surgeon, said he examined the prisoner on the previous day, and came to the conclusion that she was not sane, and not responsible for her actions. The magistrates made an order for the removal of the woman to the lunatic asylum.

The Huddersfield Chronicle , Saturday May 22nd, 1869

The ‘Heaton’ in Messrs Haigh & Heaton is Richard Heaton, David’s former protege. Whether Mary picked up on some bad blood between the Dawsons and the neighbouring dyeworks, who had presumably poached his very able foreman years earlier, we can’t say.

However, a few years later, Haigh’s dyeworks went into administration and from all accounts, David was very active in making sure the company was liquidated but his old rival was not bankrupted – a kind act that seems typical of the man.

So far I have been unable to find poor Mary Ferrar Dawson on any Census, post this date.  However, sometimes enumerators protected the identity of lunatic asylum inmates; recording them as merely initials. I will look for Mary, and hopefully, find her.

Dan and Lily  lived with David and his mother, Selina – in later years their home was named “Hoffmann Cottage”, presumably in homage to the famous dyer.  Their lives returned to a more even tenor after the disastrous marriage.

David died in 1884. He’d been retired for many years but had remained active in the Mechanics’ Institutes movement, in Huddersfield, and Sunday schools for his Baptist church. He also seems to have accompanied Dan, now one of the most well known dyers in Europe, on his various talks and lectures.  So closed the life of a generous, kind gentleman. What’s not to love about an industrial chemist who played the piano in the interludes between experiments being set up during lectures?  Here’s his obituary:


On Wednesday forenoon, Mr David Dawson of Milnsbridge, died suddenly at his residence. The deceased gentleman, who was 76 years of age,  had been out for a walk in the morning as usual, and on his return went into his garden with his spade. It is supposed he exhausted himself before he was aware of the consequences, and died, as a result of his undue activitiy, a couple of hours afterwards. In his earlier years he was a dyer at Longwood and, we believe, claimed to be the discoverer of the then new dye, magenta, and turned his attention to the chemistry with considerable effect; in fact , founding the chemical manufacturing concern at Milnsbridge, now carried on – considerably enlarged from time to time – by his sons. He retired from business many years ago. In politics, he was a Liberal, and religiously he was a Baptist, occasionally officiating as a local preacher. He early interested himself and others in the advocacy and support of the Mechanics’ Institutions in his own and surrounding villages. The first Mechanics’ Institution festival reported in the first number of The Huddersfield Chronicle was held at Longwood, and Mr David Dawson was there described as giving one of his characteristic witty, grave, and humorous speeches. During the anti-corn law agitation he took an active part in obtaining the repeal of the corn laws, celebrating the passing of the final Act with an original compostion, entitled ‘Corn is free’, which was sung to a popular tune of the time.

The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle (West Yorkshire, England), Friday, August 22, 1884


One reply on “(Laughter). The Story of David Dawson “the Milnsbridge Poet”, & Incendiarism By An Insane Woman”

I have been tracing the dawsons for many years, my great aunt married John Dawson son of David. My grandfathers cousin married lily dawsons daughter.
I would be interested in making contact and discussing the family.

Regards. Steve whitwam


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