The History of Wakefield
West Yorkshire, England
The Chantry Chapel on Wakefield Bridge
Wakefield Before 1066
The Conquest & Domesday Book
In prehistoric times, the area around what is now Wakefield would have been a constantly changing landscape. Hot and cold climates gave Wakefield its bed of sandstone rock, the coal measures and the river Calder.
Various stone, flint and bronze implements have been found, indicating human occupation – axes, knives, arrow heads etc. Many of these have been unearthed in the Lee Moor and Stanley areas, as well as Lupset.
In the Iron Age, the West Riding was settled by the tribe of the Brigantes. Stone hand mills from this period have been discovered in various places around Wakefield.
Although the Roman invasion of Britain began in A.D. 43, the defeat of the Brigantes did not occur until some years later. No Roman camp was built in Wakefield, as at nearby Castleford, although it is said that there was a villa at Snapethorpe. However, much evidence of the Romans occurs. It is thought that they built roads to approach Wakefield from the north and south as well as from the west. Many coins and coin moulds from this period have been found at Lingwell Gate and Stanley.
The first permanent settlers at Wakefield were the Angles, from Germany and Denmark. They would have been able to sail up the river Calder from the North Sea. The site was on a hill, above the river, yet watered by springs and becks, and with an area of dense forest to the north (the Outwood). It was a prime defensive settlement, with good soil and easy communication by other settlers by land or river.
One theory of how Wakefield gained its name is that it was named after the Anglo-Saxon settler who first made his home there – a man named Waca – and that the name derives from Waca’s feld or field. Therefore the first spelling would probably have been Wacanfeld.
The settlement grew up around a little church and preaching cross at the top of the hill, where three lanes met – to be known as Westgate, Kirkgate and Northgate. These had gates which were shut at 8pm each night to prevent stray animals entering.
In the year 867 A.D., York was captured by the Vikings, and the county came under Norse rule. These settlers introduced the three Ridings, and their sub-division into Wapentakes. Wakefield was mainly settled by Danes, and was the centre of the wapentake of Agbrigg. The local court met around the Heath Common area. It has been claimed that Wakefield was the Scandinavian capital of the whole of the West Riding.
The influence of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings is evident in many place names in and around Wakefield e.g. -ley (Anglo-Saxon) and -thorpe (Viking)
The Norman Conquest in 1066 brought another new race of rulers to Wakefield. However, fierce resistance to the new overlords resulted in the ‘Harrying of the North’ in 1069, where much land in Yorkshire and northwards was laid waste and the inhabitants slain. Wakefield, one of the richest towns in the north, was all but destroyed and no land was ploughed there for nine years.
The Domesday Book entry for Wakefield in 1086 is the first written record of the settlement:
In Wachefeld with nine berewicks, Sandala, Sorebi, Werla, Feslei, Miclei, Wadesuurde, Crubetonestun, Langfelt and Stansfelt there are sixty carucates, and three oxgangs and the third part of an oxgang of land to be taxed: thirty ploughs may till these lands. The manor was in the desmene of King Edward. There are now in the King’s hand four villanes, and three priests, and two churches, and seven sokemen, and sixteen bordars. They together have seven ploughs. Wood pasture six miles long and four miles broad. The whole is six miles long and six miles broad. Value in the time of King Edward sixty pounds, at present fifteen pounds.
- About the year 1090, the vast Manor of Wakefield was granted to the Earls Warenne (a family from Varenne in Normandy). They held the manor until 1347.
- Earthworks and castles were constructed in the 12th century at Lowe Hill and Sandal, either side of the river Calder, to reinforce the presence of the Norman overlords. Lowe Hill was abandoned and Sandal castle became the headquarters of the Manor.
- In this period Wakefield grew in size and prosperity. In 1180 Earl Warenne granted a Charter to the freemen for each one to hold a house with an acre of land for 6d. per year. These formed the long narrow burgage plots stretching from the main streets of Westgate, Northgate, Kirkgate, and now, Warrengate.
- The bars or gates across these streets were situated: Westgate (near the Opera House); Northgate (near the Grammar School); Kirkgate (William Street); Warrengate (junction of what was Pincheon Street). At 8pm each night, the curfew bell was sounded, all trading ceased, and watchmen or waits were posted at each gate to keep the peace.
- A Charter to hold a Fair on the eve, feast and morrow of All Saints was granted by King John in 1204. The right to hold another annual Fair, on the eve, feast and morrow of St. John the Baptist, was granted in 1258 by Henry III. Regular markets were held during the week.
- The Market Place was situated to the west of the parish church and the Market Cross – in the vicinity of the Bull Ring. Stalls and booths were clustered around the area, eventually becoming houses, and forming the narrow lanes of Little Westgate, Bread Street, Silver Street and Butcher Row. Most buildings were made of wood.
- Wakefield became notable as a centre for the woollen and tanning trades, and cattle dealing. Coal was mined on the outskirts of the town. Many inns were established to cater for visitors and merchants to the fairs and markets. The earliest such tavern in the town was the Cock and Swan Inn in Westgate, existing in 1393. Most local brewers in this period were women, the wives of tradesmen.
- The pinfold and waver (water troughs) were situated in the Springs.
- With such activity came the filth and stench of medieval town life. Householders were ordered to pave in front of their doors, but the state of the streets, lanes and becks no doubt contributed to the spread of the Black Death in the mid-14th century. At least a third of inhabitants died.
- The administration and jurisdiction of Wakefield was enforced by the Manor Court, the Burgess’ Court, and the Rectory Manor Court. The Wakefield Manor Court Rolls, which exist from 1274-1925, give immense detail about people, places and events in and around Wakefield. The court house (Moot Hall) was situated opposite the south side of the parish church.
- There were two cellar Prisons in the town – between Silver Street/Marygate, and in the Market Place, where the stocks were also to be found. The various Courts also enforced the baking of bread in the Manor Bakehouse, and the grinding of corn at the Soke Mill. In addition, they regulated prices, weights and measures.
- Many craft and religious gilds flourished. Together they organised and performed the annual Mystery Plays, on the feast of Corpus Christi. These pageants, depicting Biblical stories, were formulated in the 15th century by an unknown local author.
- Added to the Mystery Plays, various games and revelry during other events - e.g. Shrove Tuesday and May Day – helped to give the town the title of ‘Merry Wakefield’.
- A school was in existence in 1275, held in the parish church. Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School was built in 1598 in Goody Bower, with stone from the nearby quarry.
- South of the town were the Ings – low lying ground, where cattle were grazed.
- On the outskirts of Wakefield lay the Lord of the Manor’s hunting grounds – the Outwood to the north, the Old Park to the east (Eastmoor), and the New Park to the west (Thornes).
- The parish church of All Hallows (renamed All Saints from the 16th century) underwent systematic rebuilding and modification throughout the medieval period, due to fashion, structural disasters, and the growing wealth of the town.
- There were four chantry chapels in Wakefield – St. John the Baptist (Northgate); St. Swithin (Stanley Road); St. Mary Magdalene (Westgate End); and, the most important, St. Mary the Virgin on Wakefield Bridge. This was the main route from the south, crossing the river Calder. Originally made of wood, the bridge was rebuilt in stone in the mid-14th century and the chapel erected at the same time. Travellers paid a toll to use the bridge.
- In this period Wakefield was wealthier and more populous than Leeds or Bradford, but not Pontefract.
- In 1538, Henry VIII’s chaplain and antiquiary, John Leland, described Wakefield as, ‘a very quick market town and meately large; well served of fish and flesh…there be few towns in the inward parts of Yorkshire that hath a fairer site or soil about it.’
At the centre of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Wakefield, where Westgate, Northgate and Kirkgate met, stood a small church and a preaching cross. The church was dedicated to All Hallows, and was possibly built on an earlier pagan ritual site.
The church of Wakefield was mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Around the year 1100, the church was rebuilt in the Norman style – in the shape of a Latin cross with a central tower.
Only fifty years later, the new church was extended with the addition of a north aisle, for processional purposes.
In 1220, due to the growing population and increasing importance of the town, a south aisle was built, encroaching on the graveyard.
Disaster occurred in 1315, when the central tower, weakened by structural alterations, collapsed and destroyed part of the church. It was decided to almost completely rebuild Wakefield’s church - larger, higher and wider. The central tower was not replaced.
As was the fashion of the time, a new tower and spire were constructed at the west end of the church, completed around 1420. Its height was 247 feet, the tallest in Yorkshire.
In the second half of the 15th century Wakefield parish church was altered yet again. A nave clerestory was added to let in more light, the chancel was extended and the side aisles lengthened to the far east end. North and south porches were added. Thus the church lost its cross shape.
In the medieval period there were several chantries in the church, endowed by wealthy locals, with altars dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, St. Nicholas, St. Katherine and Corpus Christi. The high altar at the east end was dedicated to All Saints.
The interior splendour of the medieval Catholic church – with stained glass windows, wall paintings, many altars and statues of saints – was swept away in the Reformation. The new Protestant church was much plainer with whitewashed walls, one wooden communion table, and a pulpit.
In the seventeenth century galleries were installed all around the church, and private box pews in the nave. The church was damaged by Parliamentarian troops in 1643 during the civil war, when the font and organ disappeared.
Repairs were undertaken throughout the eighteenth century, but they did little to improve the perilous state of the church, which, due to so many alterations and additions, was unsafe.
From 1860-74, the parish church underwent an extensive restoration, directed by George Gilbert Scott. The spire was rebuilt, and the interior altered to give a feel of the ‘medieval’.
In 1888 Wakefield parish church became the cathedral of the new diocese of Wakefield, and the town thus became a city.
An extension to the east end of the cathedral, as a memorial to its first Bishop, William Walsham How, was completed in 1905. The architecture complemented the style of the rest of the church, and increased both its size and dignity.
The Bishop Treacy Memorial Hall, designed like a chapter house, was opened in 1982.
The town of Wakefield - detail from a map by John Dickinson 1728
Stuart and Georgian Wakefield
The 17th century
- In the early part of the century, Wakefield was a very prosperous town. It was one of the principal centres for the marketing of wool. There were stone quarries within the town and on the Outwood. Brickmaking was carried on at Eastmoor, coal was being worked around the outskirts, and pottery was being made at Potovens in Wrenthorpe. However, agriculture was the most important occupation in the district. There were still large stretches of open moorland and woods – Westgate Moor, Thornes Moor, Whinney Moor and the Outwood. The town was also a major market for farm produce and cattle.
- Living conditions in Wakefield were still extremely unhealthy, and there were several visitations of the plague throughout the 1600’s.
- The West Riding House of Correction (prison) was constructed at the beginning of the century.
- The long and bloody Civil War in the middle years of the century resulted in divided loyalties amongst Wakefield townsfolk. It was held by the Royalists, but, after a battle fought around Warrengate and Northgate on Whitsunday (21st May) 1643, Wakefield fell to the Parliamentarians.
- Cases of witchcraft occurred. Jennet Benton of Newton was known as the ‘wise woman of Wakefield’. However, she was aquitted at York Assizes in 1656.
- Several Wakefield families adopted Quaker beliefs. In 1695 they bought a plot of land beside Doncaster Road, to the south of the town, for a burial ground.
- There were two ferries across the river Calder, one at Bottomboat and the other at Stanley.
- The Aire and Calder Navigation was formed in 1698, to make the rivers navigable from the North Sea to Wakefield. Wakefield merchants had complained that goods sent by road were often delayed due to the poor condition of the highways. Highwaymen were also a frequent menace.
The 18th century
- This century saw the height of Wakefield’s material prosperity. The woollen industry became even more profitable. Wakefield was not particularly a weavers’ town, but rather a trading centre for both raw materials and finished cloths. The main ‘merchant princes’ were the families of Milnes, Heywood and Naylor, who built large houses in Westgate.
- Wakefield was still centred around the parish church, the surrounding streets and yards filled with shops, houses and workshops. The regular markets sold all manner of goods – from eggs and butter, to earthenware and clothing. Even wife selling occurred at the Market.
- The West Riding Registry of Deeds, the first in England, was established in Kirkgate in 1704.
- A new Market Cross was built around 1707, a square open colonnade with pillars supporting a domed chamber.
- This was the century of charity schools, providing free education for poor children. Wakefield’s Greencoat School was founded in 1707.
- Wakefield’s Cattle Market was established in 1765, and became the one of largest in the north of England.
- Nonconformity flourished, and John Wesley preached in Wakefield in 1774.
- Wakefield was ordered to paved from 1771. Oil lamps to light the town were introduced from 1796.
- In 1793 the Wakefield Inclosure Act was passed which enabled the division and enclosure of the open common fields, ings and waste ground. This amounted to 2,633 acres.
- The Barnsley Canal was opened in 1799, allowing access to the growing coal mining areas to the south of Wakefield.
- Horse racing was held at Outwood and the Ings, and cock fighting was popular at the inns.
- The bridge over the river Calder was widened twice, in 1758 and 1797, giving the whole width as 34 feet.
- Turnpike roads were constructed – Leeds, Bradford, Aberford, Doncaster, Barnsley, Horbury and Dewsbury Roads. with toll gates such as those at Newton Bar, Lofthouse Gate and Lupset Bar. This was the age of the stage coach, and Wakefield became a major centre for travel to London. The main coaching inn was the Strafford Arms, although there were many others in the town.
- At the end of the century, the St. John’s area to the north of the town was laid out as a fashionable housing development. St. John’s church was opened in 1795, to serve the growing population.
Victorian & Edwardian Wakefield
Census returns show the growth of Wakefield’s population in this period: 1801 = c.8,000; 1851 = c. 17,000; 1891 = c.23,0000.
In 1800 Wakefield was still a very prosperous market town. It benefited from being on the border of the textile towns to the west, and the coalmining villages and farming communities to the south and east.
Wakefield grew in stature as well as size. It became a parliamentary borough (with one M.P.) in 1832, a municipal borough in 1848 and a city in 1888.
A directory of 1823 includes the following places as being situated in the parish of Wakefield: Alverthorpe, Brandy Carr, Horbury, Lingwell Gate, Newton, Stanley, Thornes and Wrenthorpe, amongst others.
As the administrative capital of the West Riding, Wakefield housed many major county buildings – the Court House (1810); the Lunatic Asylum (1818) and the new Prison (1848).
There were two cholera epidemics in Wakefield – 1832 (62 deaths) and 1849 (100 deaths).
In the Victorian period, burials took place, not in the overcrowded parish churchyard, but in either the Vicar’s Croft in the Springs, or, increasingly, the borough cemetery at Belle Vue - opened in 1859. In the early part of the 19th century, body snatching was quite common in the Wakefield area.
Wakefield Union Workhouse was built on Park Lodge Lane, Eastmoor in 1853, with space for 360 paupers.
The Corn Market was still very important to Wakefield’s prosperity, and a new Corn Exhange was built at the top of Westgate in 1837 (enlarged in 1864).
The traditional raw and finished cloth wool trade declined in the early 19th century, to be replaced by large worsted spinning mills such as Marriott’s and Stonehouse’s in Westgate.
The main centre of industry in Wakefield was around the river Calder at Fall Ings, Calder Vale and Thornes, with many textile and grain mills, maltkilns, chemical and dye works and iron foundries.
At the beginning of the century travel by stage coach was at its most popular. This was completely overturned by the coming of the railways. Kirkgate station was opened in 1840, Westgate station in 1867. An electric tramway system was in use in and around Wakefield from 1904, allowing greater communication with the growing suburbs.
Wakefield had many inns. In 1820 they numbered 72; in 1870 there were 107; in 1900 this had fallen to 97. There were eight breweries existing in the late 19th century, one being Beverley’s.
The novelist George Gissing, was born in a house in Thompson’s Yard, Westgate in 1857. Many of his books contain references to Wakefield and the surrounding area.
Wakefield’s new Town Hall was opened in 1880; the County Hall in 1898.
Wakefield’s stocks were used for the last time in 1841.
The old yards in the centre of town became crammed with slum housing. The Eastmoor, Primrose Hill and Belle Vue areas were also developed to house the working-classes.
The livestock market continued to thrive. It was recorded that in 1835, 170,000 sheep and 13,500 cattle were sold here.
Wakefield’s market moved in the mid-19th century from its traditional space to the west of the parish church, to its present site, complete with Market Hall.
The first newspaper in Wakefield was published in 1803. The Wakefield Express began in 1852.
There have been several banks in the town – e.g. Ingram, Kennett & Ingram; Townend & Rishworth; Leatham & Tew; and the Wakefield Penny Bank.
Wakefield’s streets were lit by gas from 1823.
New churches, chapels, day schools and Sunday schools were built to cater for the growing population – e.g. Holy Trinity, off George Street (1839), St. Michael’s, Westgate End (1858), the Methodist School, Thornhill Street (1846), and Eastmoor Board School (1876).
Wakefield held an Industrial and Fine Art Exhibition in 1865. It attracted 189,000 visitors in forty days.
Wakefield’s first hospital was the House of Recovery at Westgate Common, established in 1826. Clayton Hospital, Northgate, was opened in 1879.
The Industrial Revolution altered Wakefield, but its basic shape remained the same as it had been in Saxon times. Modern re-development has caused the greatest change.
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