In an extract from a new book celebrating a peculiarly Yorkshire tradition, Chris Heath looks back at the Denby Dale pie which refused to budge.
Every so often, the sleepy village of Denby Dale loses its anonymity and achieves national and even worldwide attention. Every generation or so, an enormous pie is baked in a tradition which began more than 200 years ago.
One of the first in 1788 was baked to mark the return of King George III to sanity, the one in 1815 marked Wellington’s victory at Waterloo and there was another to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and in 1896 the villagers celebrated the 50th anniversary of the repeal of the Corn Laws the only way they knew how. They fired up the oven.
After that it took the people of Denby Dale a long time to decide to bake another pie. By 1928, some 32 years had passed since the success of 1896 and a new generation had never experienced this most singular of village traditions.
The time had never felt quite right. Queen Victoria’s long reign had ended with her death in 1901 and two further coronations had followed, those of Edward VII and later that of George V in 1910. Neither occasion had led to a Denby Dale pie being baked. When the First World War saw millions of young men leave home shores never to return, the carnage of the trenches left few with any desire for such levity.
However, 10 years after the war, Huddersfield Royal Infirmary urgently required funds to improve its services, which was the major factor in the decision to venture forth and bake again. At a public meeting it was decided that a much belated Victory Pie would best show Denby Dale’s appreciation for the work of the hospital.
The whole village became involved with the preparations, every house was decorated with a view to get it looking its best for the estimated 60,000 visitors expected. Tickets for the field were being sold in London, Newcastle, Hull and Birmingham and Denby Dale’s two public houses requested extended opening hours.
Because this was going to be the biggest pie to date, the old dish was now redundant and a new one was built. It measured 16ft long, 5ft wide, 15 inches deep and an oven to house it was built at the corn mill on the corner of Wakefield Road and Miller Hill.
To fill this giant dish the quantity of ingredients had to be increased to four bullocks, 600lb of beef, 15 hundredweight of potatoes 80 stone of flour, 2 hundredweight of lard and 2 stone of baking powder. This meant that there was enough pie for 20,000 people to have nearly ¼ lb each.
Responsibility for cooking the pie fell to five local butchers. The meat was cooked in the ambulance hall, next to the oven while the pastry, which had been rolled into small portions, was made in the Salvation Army building across the road. It took a week to cook the meat in batches and on the night of Thursday, August 26, the dish was filled with its pre-cooked delicacies.
“A local man, Joseph Kaye, wheeled away six barrow loads of what would have been bad pie that night,” noted David Bostwick. “Nothing was said to the Public Health Inspector. Nor was he told that the pie dish leaked, and that to stop the gravy trickling away a poultice made of oatmeal and other things was stuffed into the dish to plug the gap.”
The monstrous dish was mounted on wheels to enable it to be pushed in and out of the fire to observe the baking process. The 30 hours of baking ticked away, but there was little sleep for those on guard to prevent the unforeseen.
Finally at 1pm on Saturday the 28th, the pie was adjudged to be well done and it was then the first official problem occurred, it was stuck in the oven. The wagon was waiting, the processions was due to begin at 2.15pm, what to do?
“A large importation of mounted and foot police was unceasingly on alert to keep avenues clear,” ran the report which appeared in the following day’s Sheffield Daily Telegraph. “As the time passed and the fragrance was emitted in little clouds of vapour from the oven, excitement became more intense and the press of people in the immediate vicinity of the oven continued to grow.
“To a burst of cheering the huge dish was seen to be moving smoothly from its darkened recess. Then the unforeseen happened. The pie stopped dead, and try as they would the helpers could not budge it. There followed an hour of tense and nerve wracking suspense. The pie, half in and half out of the oven, was an object of pity instead of gladness.
“It appeared that sufficient rollers had not been placed in position and the enormous weight of the pie and its dish – something like five tons – had scorned one of its timber supports and crushed it. All kinds of expedients were tried without avail or at most by the gaining of an extra inch.
“Men with perspiration pouring down their faces wrestled with iron bars. Jacks, roller and iron girders were brought into play and at one time there were over a score of panting helpers struggling to free the Denby Dale pie.
“The bustle continued for over an hour and then by strategy and sheer strength the attackers were rewarded by getting a real move on the part of the pie...
“Aided by jacks and using short lifts, the pie was at last persuaded from its tomb, even then only after knocking part of a wall down.
“One local man, when asked by a reporter what was wrong, replied ‘too many bosses’. The delay in removing the pie from the oven had thrown the day’s timetable completely out of gear. Two hundred and fifty helpers in all kinds of costumes armed with large spoons awaited the rush.”
Despite the delay, good humour prevailed. Just before reaching Norman Park as the band was playing Ilkla’ Moor Baht’At there was another little mishap. The decorated wagon carrying the pie got caught in the foliage of the overhanging trees and was badly crumpled, giving it a slightly shoddy appearance on arrival in the park.
When it finally arrived at its destination, onto the lorry stepped Mr John Hinchliffe, the chairman of the Urban District Council: “This is a red-letter day in the history of the district,” he said. “We have delivered the goods in fine condition.”
“Not before time awther!” was the bawled comment from a vociferous member of the 40,000 crowd.
“In spite of the criticism addressed to us,” Mr Hinchliffe continued. “I can assure you we have got sound stuff behind me (meaning the pie). I have never in my time seen such enthusiasm and endeavour shown for an object. You will never see another pie like this one.”
William Wood, a former secretary of the Pie Committee was appointed to the task of cutting the pie. He took from their case the giant pair of carvers and wielding them aloft for all to see, stabbed the great pie to the accompaniment of a roar of cheers. In a few seconds the attack of the 20,000 hungry souls who had waited so long for their precious pie had commenced in real earnest.
An army of 256 servers was needed to distribute the pie, including 32 to carry full bowls, 40 to apportion pie crusts and 12 boys to carry empty plates.
The day had been, eventually, a great success. It was estimated that between 12 and 3pm on Saturday between 6,000 and 7,000 people had arrived at Denby Dale station – the bookings from Huddersfield alone totalled 4,016 – and £1,147 had been raised.
However, not all the revenue taken managed to make its way to good causes.
“Joss Bedford was the local character who noticed that the entrance fee to the Pie Field was 1s 6d,” went a report, published some time after the event in the local press. “With an ingenuity only surpassed by Robin Hood, Joss betook himself to a secluded part of the other end of the field and, having created a hole in the wall where none existed before, proceeded to admit the pleasantly surprised public at a third of the official price.
“It was some time before his nefarious activities were spotted, but finally, realising discovery was imminent, he pocketed his ill-gotten gains and fled to the railway station.
Long after the pie festivities were over, Joss returned to his native heath, but one question still remained, just how much had Joss milked from the kitty? The question was eventually put to Joss himself in the local public house after he had consumed a suitably tongue-lossening pint or two.
Joss looked around furtively: “can ta keep a secret?” he asked
“Ay lad I can,” said a fellow regular. Joss drank the remains of his ale.
“Sooh can ah!,” he said and left them still wondering.
TEN GIANT SLICES OF LIFE
Since the tradition began in the 18th century, the villagers of Denby Dale have made 10 giant pies.
The last pie, made to mark the millennium, was the biggest, beating the previous world meat pie record by 10 tonnes.
However, the pie baking hasn’t always run smoothly. In 1887, when the first cut was made a stench of rotten meat filled the air and the pie had to be emptied into a pit and buried in quick lime.
The Denby Dale Pies – Ten Giants, by Chris Heath, is published by Wharncliffe Books. To order through the Yorkshire Post call 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk