The day Buffalo Bill rode into Yorkshire

The new book by acclaimed author Ian Clayton is a collection of stories about the weird and wonderful goings on in his corner of Yorkshire. Here are two extracts.
Writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton at his home near Featherstone. Picture Scott Merrylees.Writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton at his home near Featherstone. Picture Scott Merrylees.
Writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton at his home near Featherstone. Picture Scott Merrylees.

Wild West Yorkshire

I WAS coming down Mary Pannell Hill, driven by a friend of mine who doesn’t know this area too well. As we came over the canal I pointed to our right and said, ‘I would have loved to have been on that field when Buffalo Bill came over here to do his Wild West Show.’

Jane gave me one of those looks that says, ‘You are winding me up aren’t you?’ I carried on, ‘Aye, rode up this lane in his buckskins on a fine white horse followed by over one hundred Native Americans; Sioux, Cheyenne, Lakoto and Arapaho...’ She gave me that look again, then said, ‘Don’t talk so silly, you’re having a laugh.’

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I giggled, she thumped me on the arm. It’s true though, Buffalo Bill did perform on Lock Lane. It was October 1, 1904, on his last ever tour of Europe. He brought with him over 500 horses ridden by Cossacks, Arabs, Gaucho from Argentina as well as Native American braves, some of whom had been at war near Wounded Knee only a decade before. They recreated Custer’s Last Stand and the capture of Sitting Bull, but the star of the show was Carter the cowboy cyclist and his ‘Wonderful Bicycle Leap Through Space’.

When I worked on a book called Castleford Heritage Trails, I met a man called Jacob Land. Jacob’s family have lived in the Lock Lane area for centuries and he told me that the Wild West Show set up camp near the river and erected a huge spit for roasting beasts and that his dad, George Land, who was nine at the time, got threepence for helping to water the horses twice a day.

They say that there is a woman in Leeds who still has a bloodstained handkerchief that has been passed down through her family. It was used to wipe the face of Buffalo Bill after he got into a scrap with some local toughs when the show moved to Cardigan Fields on Kirkstall Road. They also say that in the Horse and Jockey pub in Cas, the landlord put up a sign that read ‘Do not serve firewater to the Indians’. But, like my doubting friend Jane, I’m not sure that even I believe that one.

A local Wild West gunslinger

WHEN I wrote about Buffalo Bill’s visit to Castleford it reminded me that one of the legendary folk heroes of the Wild West was born in our midst. Ben Thompson – who became Marshall of Austin, Texas after a career of gun fighting, drinking, brawling and hustling for a living all over the Midwest – was born in Knottingley in 1843. He was baptised at St Botolph’s church and left for a new life in America with his family when he was eight-years-old.

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Ben was a close friend of Buffalo Bill and when Bill’s congress of rough riders show visited Austin, the two met outside the city limits to put on a display of sharp shooting the like of which had not been seen before or since. Someone threw seven silver dollars into the air and between them they managed to hit six before they hit the ground.

In December of 1880, the city fathers of Austin caught Ben Thompson using street lamps for target practice. So impressed were they by his accuracy that they promptly offered him the job of town Marshall. It’s reported that the crime rate was halved almost immediately. At his inauguration he was honoured to receive a target pistol with solid gold mountings and a pearl handle, a present from Buffalo Bill.

In 1997 I toured America making documentary films about people from the Yorkshire TV region who had made a new life stateside. One story we didn’t follow up, and I regret it to this day, concerned a woman from Austin who was a direct descendant of Ben Thompson. Over the phone she told us that she still had Ben’s teapot in her china cabinet. That’s one teapot I would have loved to have seen.

Right Up Your Street by Ian Clayton is published by Route Publishing, priced £9.99.

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