A photocopied page from a family diary began a written journey linking New Zealand to 19th century Rawdon.

As a child growing up on a farm north of Auckland, Judith Gardiner used to listen to her mother’s maiden aunts talking about the ‘old country.’ But they would never elaborate about their family who lived in England.

Now 53, Judith has set out on a quest to discover the history of her family stretching back to the Aireborough of the 1800s.

And a copy of the booklet tracing the history of the Dawson family, who owned what was to become Kirkstall Brewery, has been given to Rawdon Library.

The booklet – Knottfield House and Knottfield Lodge – also looks at the history of their family home and of the other people who lived there.

The house, which was demolished and became the site of Rawdon Crematorium was the home of her English forebears who founded an important 19th century brewery. But it was also home to other families, and their servants.

Now Judith is hoping other family researchers may add to the story of those who have lived at Knottfield House.

The mother and grandmother can trace her family’s routes back to the Rawdon mansion through her great grandfather Benjamin Percy Dawson.

He emigrated to New Zealand in 1881 after taking his trust money at the age of 21, following the deaths of his parents.

He bought land and several houses in Auckland.

Judith said: “New Zealand was a developing nation and there were very lucrative financial gains in the business and land industry. They lived very comfortably for eight years, producing another five children, six in total.

“The youngest was my grandfather. He developed cancer and returned back to England, to Leeds for an operation, which was not successful – as one would expect in 1890 – and died three days after the operation in June. He is actually buried in Leeds at St Stephens church yard in Kirkstall with his parents and baby brother.”

“Several other members of his family followed him pre-1900. There are no direct Dawson lines left here in New Zealand, only the female line of the family continues.”

Judith, who stayed with her extended family while travelling in Britain in the 1970s decided to take up family research while her husband, who was in the army, was posted abroad.

She said: “My mother had three maiden aunts who used to talk about the ‘old country’. These aunts, although born in New Zealand, held very much on to their ‘old country’ ways. One made an appointment to see them, and when we visited we wore our Sunday best.

“Whenever my mother would ask them about their parents and the two sisters who married and returned to live in England, they would pass the question over as, “you don’t really want to know about the old days.” Sadly my mother never received that information to hand on to me, so therefore I have taken up the task to do what they felt was not important.”

She said: “During my first overseas experience I did not engage in any family research. In 1997 after being given a photocopy with names, dates of birth and deaths from a page out of the family bible, I began the ‘written journey’.”

Judith who works as a teacher’s assistant said: “I cannot claim to be an author, a writer or seasoned genealogist. I just want to leave a written legacy for my family.”

And her work will be of interest to other families whose ancestors’ lives have been connected to Kirkstall Brewery or Knottfield House.

The grand Victorian mansion off Leeds Road was built in about 1848 and was home to the Dawson family during the 1860s.

It was an impressive house, with four entertaining rooms, a large billiard room, and 11 bedrooms. Its land included three lodges, hothouses, a conservatory and stables.

The family, who already had a corn mill, had bought a brewery in 1845 which was to become known as Benjamin Dawson and Co Brewers of Kirkstall Lane.

The brewery thrived and the family began to look further afield to expand their business interests.

In her booklet Judith describes how one of the Dawson brothers, Benjamin, had gone to London to oversee an office there.

She added: “The boys wasted no time in setting up other offices. In Hull they had a freehold steam cooperage, maltings at Stowmarket and Stonham in Suffolk, and leasehold stores in Goole and London Bridge, and a leasehold private wharf known as British Wharf at Clinck Street, Southwark, Surrey.

“Two steamships, the SS Charante and SS Kirkstall, which were chartered and specially adapted for the canals, were used to ply goods between Goole and London.”

She said: “These vast supplies of India pale ales, strong ales, mild ale, light bitter, imperial stout, double stout and porter were not only sold in Leeds and throughout Yorkshire but were carried to much more distant locations, chiefly to Australia and New Zealand.”

But despite impressive business success, the family was hit by tragedy when Judith’s ancestor, John Dawson, and his wife, Annie, who had lived at Knottfield House, both died in their early 30s, leaving a brood of young children who needed to be provided for. Benjamin died within two years of his brother, leaving the last remaining brother, Edwin, in sole charge of the business.

The business was transferred to a limited company and after being sold it became the Kirkstall Brewery in 1871. The workers of the Dawson Brewery transferred their services to the new company Judith said: “Sadly, the brewery was closed in 1983, bringing to an end a 150-year tradition of brewing in the Kirkstall Valley.”

Knottfield House, which had been the home of a John Booth before the Dawsons, went on to become a home for other families after them.

Export merchant Hermann Averdieck and his family are listed as living at the house in the 1871 census.

Abraham Grandage, Bradford Stuff Merchant, is listed in 1901. His company, W Grandage & Co Ltd of Bradford, were dyers.

Judith said: “Abraham was also a keen horse breeder and it was noted that he bred ‘some of the finest draft horses’.”

A house like Knottfield will have needed plenty of servants, and among those who lived at the lodge are James Slack, coachman; Thomas and Ball, coachman and domestic servant; and George Reid, gardener.

Judith says: “I only wish I had been able to provide and gather more research material as to the other families who have lived at Knottfield House, however this does not have to be the only booklet produced and as time goes by some other family researchers may like to take up the challenge and expand on it.”

The house went on to become a home for disabled ex-servicemen of the First World War and was planned for use as a reform school, until it was earmarked as a crematorium site.

An article from the Wharfedale and Airedale Observer of Friday, July 15, 1954, notes: “This may well be one of the last photographs to be taken of the Rawdon mansion, nowadays known as the Mitchell Memorial Hall, which stands in pleasant grounds off the Leeds Road.

“The site is to be used for joint crematorium for Wharfedale and Airedale, and, by order of the Joint Crematorium Committee, which includes representatives of the various local authorities in the area, the Hall itself is to be sold piecemeal by auction for demolition.

“The sale, by Dacre, Son and Hartley, will be on Wednesday, July 21. There are 337 lots, and buyers will undertake to remove their purchase, commencing with loose fitting, doors, fireplaces, baths and so on, and proceeding through roof slates, floorboards, water piping, etc. until dismantling of the fabric itself commences in August.”