An outline history of Wakefield
by John Goodchild, M Univ
The ancient town of Wakefield lies on the north bank of the river Calder, at a point where a principal road from the Midlands into the North is met by another coming in from the Pennine foothills to the west. It is a market town and administrative centre; it is the place which gives its name to a vast manor stretching up to the boundaries of Cheshire and Lancashire, and probably the largest such administrative unit in the country, whose prolific records, now partially printed, survive from 1274. Wakefield’s ancient and essential position as a market town survives and is augmented by its two modern shopping centres, the Ridings and Trinity Walk, which, like the market, draw their customers from far beyond the town.
The first documentary reference to Wakefield, as so commonly occurs, is in the Domesday Book of 1086. The town became a partially self-governing borough perhaps before the first surviving borough charter of about 1190, and some of the medieval borough’s records survive too, prior to the collapse of its jurisdiction in or about 1580. It became again a (now municipal) borough in 1848, a city in 1888, and a county borough in 1915, until absorbed into the new Wakefield Metropolitan District in 1974. It became a Parliamentary borough in 1832.
The medieval layout of Wakefield survives recognisably today, with surprisingly modest more modern amendments. The downstream half width of its stone bridge over the Calder was built from 1342, and on it is one of the few surviving bridge chantry chapels, although unfortunately this one was rebuilt above footway level in 1847-8. The town’s great parish church, mirroring presumably its piety as well as its wealth, was completed in much of its present form after 1500, but altered, extended, and recased later. With its magnificent tower and spire, the highest in Yorkshire, it became in 1888 the cathedral church of the new Church of England Diocese for the Calder valley. That same year also saw the first provision of a modern water supply for Wakefield, and the establishment of the great West Riding County Council, which ultimately chose Wakefield as the site for its County Hall, opened in 1898.
Wakefield became in late medieval times a cloth finishing and merchanting centre which served a wide handloom weaving area, and increasingly, too, it was a raw wool merchanting centre; some of its cloth merchants’ houses and its woolstaplers’ warehouses survive. Along with Wakefield’s predominance in corn merchanting and livestock dealing in the 19th century, factory based worsted spinning and woollen cloth weaving were developed in the town, and one important yarn-processing firm survives. Coal has been worked in the vicinity since at least Roman times, and from the 18th century and into recent decades it was an important product even of the town itself, not only giving much employment but also fostering the success of associated industries in engineering, boiler and steam economiser making, and ropemaking.
The growing coal and textile industries benefited from the arrival of cheap water transport on the Calder, upstream to Wakefield in c1702, upstream further from 1761, and making through connections into the industrial North West via the Huddersfield (opened 1811) and Rochdale (1804) canals, while the Barnsley Canal, opened in 1799, extended southwards from Wakefield too. These waterways successfully competed with the new railways, a system of which developed through Wakefield from 1840, and the waterways ceased to carry quantities of heavy goods after the Second War. A system of local turnpike (or toll) roads developed from 1740 and also provided transport facilities, and, with the construction of the entirely new Aberford, Ings, and Denby Dale turnpikes, altered the town’s peripheral layout radically. The vicinity had provided the first exemplar world-wide of a public railway company in 1798, and Wakefield developed a number of other world ‘firsts’. The M1 and M62 now provide further improved highway facilities, and numerous large industrial estates have been developed as a result.
When the first regional elected parliament, the West Riding County Council, was elected in 1889, it took over some existing public services which had been administered from Wakefield as the county town for the Riding and was soon given powers to establish others – two of which were the highly significant ones over public health and education. At Wakefield had been established the county prison (1596), the Registry of Deeds (1704), the Pauper Lunatic Asylum (1818) and so forth; Wakefield Corporation had a more limited role before 1915, but thereafter developed housing estates of a size and number of houses which was remarkable for a borough with a population as late as the 1970s of only some 60,000.
The town has had a weekly newspaper since 1803, and for some decades in the late 19 century had four weeklies representing different political, and hence associated religious, sympathies.
Although prehistoric and Roman finds have been made in and close to Wakefield, there is so far no evidence of any ancient settlement on the site of the town. The very significance of the name Wakefield is uncertain: experts in such matters suggest either the clearing (field) where the festivities (wakes) were held, or the clearing of someone of a name like Wacca.
Modern Wakefield is a town with a thriving cultural life. Not only are there almost innumerable pubs (as a market town always needed) and night clubs, but there are also societies dealing with almost any interest one can name.