In the living room of Jack Haines’ stone cottage, in between various cross-stich embroideries and hand painted plates, hang two watercolours. The first shows the Nidd Valley prior to the 1920s, all rolling hills and dales. In the other, the giant Scar House dam, which took hundreds of men 15 years to build stands in the middle of the green fields.
The reservoir, built to supply water to the burgeoning population of Bradford, has been a backdrop to Jack’s life for as long as he can remember. When his father secured a job as one of the site’s engine drivers, the family left behind soot-clad Leeds and moved into the temporary village which overnight had sprung up just a few miles from Pateley Bridge. When the project was finally completed, the village was dismantled and most of the men found work elsewhere. Jack’s was one of the few families who decided to stay and he eventually settled in Bouthwaite, just a short drive from his childhood home.
He’s 85 now and suffers from arthritis, but every so often he takes his 4x4 back to Scar House to reminisce.
“It was marvellous, just a terrific place to grow up,” he says. “I’m still in touch with a few of the other children from Scar House. We are all getting on a bit, but if we could rebuild that village and bring back all the people who lived there, we’d all go back tomorrow.”
The building of Scar House reservoir was a major feat of engineering and at the peak of construction the worker’s village swelled with 2,000 men, women and children. Families had travelled from across the country to find employment at the dam and while the work was tough and not particularly well-paid, most found themselves living in undreamed of luxury.
While Britain’s cities were overcrowded with the working classes often resigned to slum conditions, at Scar House each house had an inside toilet, a bath with hot running water and in between the semi-detached bungalows and spacious houses, the village boasted its own butcher, newsagent and post office. Best of all for a young boy like Jack, it also had a 600-seat cinema.
“I remember asking my mother why it was that people we knew would come to our house for a bath. Looking back I can see just how lucky we were. No one like us had proper bathrooms or inside toilets, but up at Scar House we had everything we could have ever wanted. I guess they reckoned that if they looked after the workers they would repay them with hard work and I guess they were right.”
The project was paid for by Bradford Corporation. These were good times for the city – the mills were booming, textile exports had rarely been better and the building of the reservoir was not only a necessity, but a grand statement of intent and another feather in its cap.
“Every December we would shout our Christmas lists up the chimney in the village hall and a few weeks later our presents would be delivered courtesy of the Corporation,” says Jack. “We knew not to ask for anything expensive like a bicycle, but they would send us wonderful toy soldiers and games. They looked after us well.”
Work on the reservoir, which would eventually see water transported via the Nidd Aqueduct began on October 5, 1921. The Haines family arrived soon afterwards and as Jack grew so did the dam, every year adding another 35ft to its height.
The men worked from sunrise to dusk with just half an hour for lunch and the construction was back-breaking. Stone for the dam was quarried from two sites on either side of the valley and when the rock proved too hard for the steam-driven breaking machines, it was down to the men, armed with hand drills and explosives, to finish the job.
“Health and safety these days would have had a field day,” says Jack, whose home is filled with memorabilia from those early days, from the funnel of his father’s engine to the original plans for the reservoir’s pipeline. “I remember one man who died after he pushed the explosive powder into the rock face with a piece of steel. He’d lost the rod he was supposed to use and a spark from the metal ignited the whole thing.
“Of course it could have been avoided, but for a project on that scale and at that time they lost very few men.”
Compared to the navvies who had to provide their own pick and shovel, Jack’s father had it relatively easy. It was he and the other engine drivers’ job to transport tonnes of cement from Pately Bridge to Scar House and move the rubble from the trenches to the various spoil heaps.
“Two engines used to go down to Pateley, one to pull the cement back up and the other to push it. Sometimes they just couldn’t shift enough cement to keep up with the demand and every so often the engines would have to work through the night.
“It was seasonal work and during the winter a lot of the navvies were laid off. However, in the spring a message would be sent out to Ireland to say the cement mixers were working again and the bunks were empty,” says Jack, whose grandma ran one of the hostels at Scar House. “They labelled the bunk houses from A to Z, but they used to joke there was never an I because it would confuse the navvies.
“These men hadn’t had much of an education, but they were decent people. At dinner I used to help dish out second helpings and clear away the dirty plates. The navvies didn’t have much, but every Saturday when they had been paid some of them used to put a penny in their cups as a tip. I never saw any of it mind, it went straight to my grandma who used to tell me she’d put it towards new winter boots.”
Discipline was paramount during the building of Scar House. Workers were warned that bad behaviour was punishable by sacking and the village had a dedicated police constable who Jack remembers was the only PC in Britain to carry a pistol.
“There were fights between the men, of course they were, but it was only ever with fists never with weapons and if they saw a child coming they would stop and wait until they had passed by before starting again.
“There was only one time when I found myself in big trouble. Every day after school a few of us would rush down to the shops to get a newspaper. There was a barrel of apples outside and one day we decided to help ourselves. We thought the chap who ran the shop would be too busy to notice, but the next day he caught us red handed. We were terrified because we thought we might have lost our dads their jobs and our mums their home.
“For the next two weeks he made each of us deliver groceries, clean windows and we jumped to his every command. One day after working us particularly hard he just turned to us and said, ‘I think you’ve learnt your lesson, don’t you’. He never did tell our parents and we never did steal from him again.”
Aside from the occasional run-ins with the village’s authority figures, what Jack remembers most about life in Scar House was the fun. Weekends normally meant a dance, a performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or an invitation to a whist drive – Jack’s father and aunty Amy were so formidable a pair at the card table they were prevented from playing as partners.
For the children, the whole of Nidderdale was one big playground. “After we had our tea all the kids would arrange to pull the toilet chain at the same time,” says Jack describing one particularly memorable nightly entertainment. We’d then rush out of the front door and down to the treatment works and stand on the two big spinners. As the water rushed through it was like standing on a giant roundabout.
“We would spend hours sliding down the piles of crushed gravel and only ever went home to sleep or eat. One day a few of us decided we were having so much fun outdoors that we were never going to go home. Each of our mothers came out to call us in for the night, but we just kept on walking. It wasn’t long after a young lad had got lost on the moors. Search parties were organised, but by the time they found him it was too late, he had died from exposure. Our parents were out of their minds, but it didn’t take us long to realise that running away wasn’t really up to much and I managed to be in bed before my father came home.”
Jack’s idyllic days at Scar House came to an abrupt end. In 1936 the final stones of the dam were laid and Bradford Corporation sent out the final pay packets.
“The end came very quickly,” says Jack, whose story will be one of the first to feature on the new Nidderdale Pages website, which has been set up to celebrate the area and the characters who live there. “There were supposed to be crests of Bradford carved on the dam, but by the time they realised they hadn’t been done the monumental mason had already been laid off. It was sad really, but it was always going to come to an end.”
Jack was 10 years old when the portable homes were sold off in lots but by then Scar House had already found a place in his heart. It took two days for the entire village to be dismantled and today all that remains, aside from the foundations of the various homes, is the cinema storeroom.
“Back then nitrate film was highly explosive so they kept it in a special room which had walls made out of steel,” says Jack, who after a spell in the Army, returned to Nidderdale where he followed his father into the engineering business and later married a girl who he had first met at primary school in Pateley Bridge. Eileen died a few years ago, but its memories of her and of his childhood in Scar House which keep him going.
“It is a little sad when you go up there because it makes you think about what could have been. I think they could have left the village as it was, but before anyone could say anything it had gone. However, I still have my memories and no one can take those away.”