A fascinating insight into the daily life of the people of Oulton and Woodlesford in the middle years of the 19th century is revealed in the diary of Edward Metcalf. The youngest of eight children he was born in Oulton on 4 June 1834, the son of a waterman on the Aire and Calder Navigation. He started his diary in earnest when he was 22 years old in 1856 continuing until a few years before his death in 1892. The handwritten pages also include references to family and village events before he was born and there are entries made by other family members after his death until 1918.
From birth Edward was disabled and never had the ability to walk. As he grew older he managed to move about in a series of wheelchairs which were specially built for him. An illustration of what they resembled was pasted from a newspaper on to the front page of the diary which is dated 1 May 1856. It also includes a cutting from the Leeds Times about the death, in 1868, of John Calverley of Oulton Hall who probably paid for the construction of the chairs, one of which was made by Admiral Brear, the Oulton joiner and wheelwright, at his workshop on the corner of Quarry Hill and Aberford Road.
In 1853, at the age of 62, Edward’s father, Joseph Metcalf, gave up the arduous work of a waterman and became the lock keeper at Woodlesford, moving with his family into a tied cottage on the Swillington side of the lock. The diary includes many entries about life on the canal where Edward’s two brothers worked on the fast barges or flyboats shipping goods between Leeds and the coast.
References to "the Lakes" in the diary probably mean Lake Lock neat Stanley where the Navigation had its workshops. One character mentioned several times is William Hamond Bartholemew, the Navigation’s general manager, famous for inventing Tom Pudding coal compartment boats.
Another larger type of boat with sails, known as a Billy Boy, caused problems at Woodlesford lock in November 1861. The boats were over 60 feet long and apparently this one was too big for the lock. After several days of trying which included taking the boat back to Waterloo to turn it where the canal was wider, it had to be partly dismantled before it could pass through. “The captain was the patientest man I ever saw, and a nice man too,” notes Edward.
As well as recording births, marriages and deaths in the extended Metcalf family the diary refers to the parties and other festivities which made up the social life of Oulton and Woodlesford. The first major event after Edward started writing regularly was a peace celebration in June 1856 to mark the end of the Crimean war.
Over three days all the men, women and children in the township were given a meal in a large tent. On the first day 270 men sat down to dine and between them they consumed 380 lbs of beef and 50 plum puddings which had been prepared in the maltkiln at the brewery. Each man was allowed a quart of beer and in the evening a dance was held in the tent.
On the second day there was a tea for all the women and on the third day a party was held for the children attended by Edward. “A man the name of Joseph Whittaker brought me home at 12 o’clock at night of the last day, it having been pouring with rain all the evening from 7 o’clock,” he wrote.
Although he doesn’t mention it explicitly it's possible Edward may have been a teacher at Oulton school where his grandfather, George Metcalf, a former linen weaver had been schoolmaster. In an entry in August 1860, a few days after he had his first photograph taken, he refers to a feast held for the scholars and teachers at Oulton Hall. “It was a grand do,” he wrote. “Children had their tea in the front, and teachers in one of the rooms. There was 3 balloons let off by Mr. Scott, and all sorts of amusements in the park. I was there too and got my carriage broke by a boy that was blind folded. He was running with a barrow and nearly upset me.”
Mary, Edward’s oldest sister, born in 1815, went blind when she was 19 years old and there are several references to her disability in the diary. For instance in November 1859 the Oulton parson, a Mr. Harrison, visited and gave Edward and Mary five shillings each. A year later Isabella Lowther of Swillington House, whose husband, Sir Charles Hugh Lowther, was also blind, was teaching Mary and three other local women to read. Its likely she used books set in a system of embossed print invented by her husband’s friend, Dr. William Moon.
The diary entries continue frequently throughout the 1860s until 1868 when Joseph Metcalf’s increasing infirmity meant he had to give up as lock keeper. After petitioning W.H. Bartholomew Edward’s brother, Robert, was allowed to take over and on 9 March 1868 he moved into the lock keeper’s house. His father and mother, with Edward and his two unmarried sisters, moved to a house he had been living in at what became Bentley Square in Oulton.
To help both families move they were lent a brewery cart by Henry Bentley. “We have been 15 years all but 2 months at the lock. My nephew William took my hens, 8 of them, and cock. Mr. Tom Shaw helped us to flit, and set all our things up and let us have a man too, and Bob one,” wrote Edward.
After that the diary entries dwindle to practically nothing in the 1870s when Edward was probably depressed by a series of events which hit the family. First, in August 1873, his 84 year old mother, Elizabeth, fell on the doorstep and “lamed” herself. Then just over a year later, in November 1874, there was a double tragedy when both Robert Metcalf and his wife Sarah drowned in the lock at Woodlesford. At the inquest it was thought she had gone to help after he had fallen in whilst opening the lock gates at night but she had also slipped and drowned as well.
Edward’s father passed away in 1878 at the age of 86 but much worse was to come in 1879 when Edward’s uncle 85 year old uncle, William Metcalf, was murdered at Oulton Lodge. His killer, John D’ Arcy, was quickly caught but it must have been a traumatic and worrying period for Edward.
The frequency of the entries picks up again in the early years of the 1880s with the last written by Edward on 21 June 1886 when there was a public tea party to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. “All scholars and teachers had a medal given in Oulton. It was held in Mr. Ellis’s field, Farrer Lane,” were his final words.
The next entry reads: "Edward Metcalf died in June 1892. He was buried at Oulton on 2 July 1892."