After 330 years as a private residence, closed off to the world, Holdsworth House opened its doors to the public for the first time in spring 1963. It was the vision of one family, to build a successful business, that kicked off the most recent chapter in the house’s history.
The Swinging Sixties
Our story begins in 1962, one of the coldest winters on record, when the Pearson family, headed by Freddie and Rita, arrived on the Halifax estate. A local couple with two young children, Gail and Kim, they embarked on their ambitious plans to convert this beautiful 17th century house into a stylish country club, revamping it whilst retaining the integrity of the building.
The house lent itself to the conversion remarkably well and, apart from a few oak doors that warped thanks to the introduction of much needed central heating, the main rooms in the original house remain very much as they have for centuries.
Freddie (pictured left late 1930s) was the youngest of seven children. As a boy he helped his father, a local fruit and vegetable trader, with deliveries on the family’s horse drawn wagon. A photo of the Walter Pearson cart at the Halifax Piece Hall can be seen in a photo in the hotel bar.
But as a young man, Freddie saw his fortune in the bright lights of London. It was here that he became known for his canny ability to spot a deal, his friendly personality, his charm and his snappy dressing. He was a great raconteur and in years to come, his stories of wartime London, Maharajahs and the colourful characters he had encountered would enthral many a guest.
Freddie met Rita (left) in 1949 on a trip back to Yorkshire. Rita was working as an accounts clerk at Harella, a Halifax clothing company which would become one of the biggest names in fashion during the Sixties. She was a colleague of Helena Whitbread, now famous as a writer and her work on decoding and transcribing the fascinating diaries of Anne Lister of Shibden Hall. Helena remembers Rita well and recently told Rita’s daughter, Gail, that as a junior at the firm she was a little in awe of Rita who was part of the Halifax ‘fast set’!
The Making of The Cavalier Country Club
Freddie and Rita soon married and settled in Halifax. Freddie had always wanted to replicate the sort of night life he had enjoyed in London. Halifax was a wealthy town and he saw his opportunity when Holdsworth House came up for sale.
They purchased the five-bedroom, three-bathroom house set in three acres of land from Tommy Hoyle, a local mill owner and quickly threw themselves into converting the house. They used local craftsmen and suppliers and scoured the north of England for oak furniture that would blend in with the historic building. Luckily, oak was not in fashion at the time and they managed to buy beautiful chairs, trestle tables and settles, many of which are still in use, for next to nothing.
Rita chose to furnish the house with antiques, oil paintings and tapestries, always sympathetic to the age and charm of the building. We still have some of the original bills for curtains, carpets and cutlery; they certainly didn’t hold back on the money spent to create a luxurious setting (see pictures at the bottom of the page).
Astonishingly, Freddie and Rita had absolutely no experience of employing catering staff. They used a London agency to hire a young chef, Pepe Palomar, and a restaurant team directly from Spain. They chose well and the brigade worked brilliantly, giving the restaurant a touch of continental pizzazz… although it’s not hard to imagine what the team thought about the Yorkshire winter weather.
On the 11th April 1963, the Cavalier Country Club opened. The name had been chosen to reflect the era of Charles I, who reigned when the house was built. The club was an instant hit and membership soon numbered over a thousand. With an annual fee of seven guineas, it was most definitely the place to be seen. Gentleman members were awarded a club tie, sadly we no longer have any and would love to know if there are any members who have held on to theirs?
On many an evening the historic halls were filled to the rafters with people enjoying large banquets and fine dining. Rita and Freddie knew how to put on a good party and as the club’s fame spread, a whole new social scene developed with regular dinner dances, charity events and a stream of celebrity guests.
It’s not ‘What You Know’ but ‘Who’
It wasn’t long before Freddie’s biggest stroke of genius ensued. Freddie had a contact behind the scenes with The Beatles and he managed to persuaded Brian Epstein to bring the group to the house after their performance in Bradford. It is a fine example of Freddie’s brilliant insight: who’d have guessed that we’d still be talking about the Fab Four’s stay to this day?
On 9th October 1964 (John Lennon’s 24th birthday), The Beatles arrived after playing a sell-out concert at the Gaumont Theatre in Bradford. On the journey to the Cavalier Country Club, the police set up a diversion, fooling fans as to the true destination of the band’s overnight quarters. Rita was terrified that her prized gardens would be trampled by thousands of adoring followers, but the police diversion worked, and The Beatles’ driver pulled into the gravelled turning circle with ease.
That evening, Freddie and Rita and their two daughters had to vacate their own bedrooms to accommodate the band. Brian Epstein slept on a camp bed in what is now the De Aldworth Room. They ate in a private room before drinking in the bar with the few members who were in the know. The Spanish maître d’ wrote their food order–including turtle soup, steak tartare and fillet steak–misspelling them as ‘the Beetles’. You can see a copy of this original ticket near reception on your next visit.
As a typical teenage fan, Gail Pearson had been sworn to secrecy. It was far from easy facing school friends the following Monday and telling them she hadn’t been able to share the news that the biggest band in the world had stayed overnight at her house!
Gail recalls, “I wasn’t allowed to go to the concert and didn’t even catch a glimpse of the band the night they arrived. The next morning, they slept in, had breakfast in their rooms and when my mother caught me loitering on the corridor, visibly upset, she decided to take the initiative. She rapped sharply on Paul and George’s bedroom door, said, ‘Are you decent? My daughter has been waiting all morning to see you‘. Then she opened the door and pushed me in–much to my embarrassment!”
Gail continues, “The Beatles couldn’t have been nicer. They chatted very politely to me. Paul McCartney asked if I wanted a cigarette and I said that I didn’t smoke. How I wish I had said yes and saved that cigarette for prosperity! My younger sister Kim also met the band and had her photo taken on Paul McCartney’s knee. I had my photo taken too but my father forgot to put the flash on, so sadly it never came out!”
Blonde Bombshells and Showbiz Stars
After The Beatles’ stay, a number of high-profile guests followed throughout the Sixties. Many world-famous faces were appearing on the northern club circuit, like the Batley Variety Club, and the Cavalier Country Club became the place to stay.
In 1967, blond bombshell, Jayne Mansfield, was a guest, a mere six weeks before her tragic death. Gail’s late uncle Geoffrey Laycock, who lived locally and frequented the club, always recalled her ‘flirtatious manner’ with a raised eyebrow!
The Pearsons were glad to welcome many famous faces of the day including Cliff Richard and The Shadows, Cilla Black, The Bachelors, The Small Faces and even Indian royalty–the Maharajah of Baroda who was a personal friend of Freddie.
As the success of the club grew, members encouraged the family to offer overnight accommodation. So, a number of prefabricated rooms were added to the rear of the property before a permanent, award-winning structure was added in the 1980s. Décor was typical of the ‘60s and ‘70s, if a little eye-watering by today’s styling.
A Long-Term Plan
Rita Pearson died, aged just 52, in 1981. Freddie passed away in 1989 and the estate was taken on by Gail and Kim who renamed it Holdsworth House Hotel & Restaurant to reflect its historical significance. But many lessons and the essence of the Cavalier Country Club remained.
To this day, the sisters continue the tradition of exemplary hospitality and fine dining, welcoming guests from all over the world and famous faces through the doors: from politicians Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the ’60s to Tony Blair in 2017; musicians from R.E.M and Dave Stuart to Florence and the Machine; stars of stage and screen such as Rudolf Nureyev, Victoria Wood, Sir Derek Jacobi, Anne Reid, James Corden, Jamie Oliver, Suranne Jones and many of the Gentleman Jack cast.
Today, the guest experience remains at the heart of the hotel’s ethos and is what sets the business apart, assuring its success and longevity. Preservation of the building’s fabric–and the responsibility that goes with such a local landmark–is never underestimated. Holdsworth House remains family owned and now the third generation is ensuring it remains fresh, relevant and ready for you to return to.
We hope to see you soon. Be sure to add your name to the guest book to be cherished for future generations of historians!