History of Mirfield
Read a brief chronological history of Mirfield from the Romans to the Middle Ages, from the Luddites to the Brontes. Written by David Pinder, Chairman of Mirfield History Society, this is a comprehensive guide to the history of Mirfield.
At the time of the Roman invasions of Britain the whole of this area was a part of the confederation of British tribes known as the BRIGANTES. The Gauls and Britons, unlike the Greeks and Romans, did not exclude women from power and everyone has heard of Boudicca but few have heard of the much greater Queen of the Brigantes. Boudicca was only queen because she was the wife of a king but Cartimandua was queen in her own right. The Brigantes owned a vast territory stretching from west coast to east coast and as far north and south as the north midlands and the present Scottish borders. Cartimandua signed peace treaties with the Romans and when Caractacus (the charismatic British war leader) fled north from Wales to ask for her aid against the Romans she handed him over to them as a prisoner. The Romans hated women rulers so it says a lot for her that they left her in power for so long. She was obviously a bit of a player because at one stage she kicked her husband out (he was never made a king) and took up with his armour bearer. One of the largest Brigantes hill fort/towns is near here (Castle hill) - so she will undoubtedly have spent time in this area. The Romans feared the Brigantes and after they had subdued them they built at least four military forts within a ten mile radius of here - one just away from the river beyond Battyeford, which may even have been a ford in those days; the road from this fort is thought to have been along Northorpe - where roman coins have been found.
The hill below Liley Hall, known locally as the Oppits is thought to be a corruption of the latin Oppidum (a fortified settlement or wood) some even believe that Liley itself is a corruption of the military Latin ‘lilia’, a kind of mantrap used in defence of such defence works. The hill known as the pinnacle also has possible Latin origins (collis - hill) and (pinna - a wickerwork extension to a defensive position to be used as a forward lookout).
No Saxons came here but Angles did, as evidenced by many place names. Maerfield/ Mirfield - a pleasant clearing; Oder’s field - Huddersfield; Wacci’s field - Wakefield; Flocci’s tun - Flock ton; Hop ton - a settlement in a hill cleft; Aemma’s lea - Emley. During 9th and 10th centuries came the Danes adding suffixes such as -by - Denby and thorp or torp - Earthorpe and Northorpe; and Norri’s Thorpe.
Christianity makes great progress with early 6th C . Paulinus, Bishop of York, preached in Dewsbury and converted many under the rule of King Edwin of Northumberland. The local tradition of Toffee Sunday comes not from toffee but the old Danish/German word taufen - to baptise.
When Harold died at Hastings Mirfield was under the ownership of Alric, an Angle and a King’s thane (an Earl) - under him seem to have been three lesser thanes with Danish names - Gerneber, Haldane and Gamel. William gave all the land hereabouts to one of his close companion knights - Ilbert de Lacy. During the Rebellion of the North against William much of this area was laid completely to waste, as evidenced by the fall in rents etc; but old Alric’s family were obviously pretty astute for Alric’s son, Sweyn, seems to have continued to live in the burgh or castle by the present parish church. One of his descendants (his sons and daughters cleverly married Normans) married John de Heton (who may have also been an Anglo-Saxon as Heton means a high settlement in that language). It is his wife who is supposedly responsible for the original parish church. According to the story she was attacked in Ravens Thorpe whilst on her way to worship in Dewsbury and one of her manservants killed. According to legend her husband, John, petitioned the Pope to be allowed to build and have consecrated, a church or chapel near to the castle - the motte and moat of which can still be seen next the present parish church. The old church whose tower can still be seen was built around 1261.
In the grounds of what was once Kirklees Priory is reported to be the grave of the famous outlaw, Robin Hood, who was supposed to have been murdered there by his cousin the Prioress. Intriguingly, recent research lends credibility to this legend as it is now believed that a man called Robert de Kyme, a ward of the Earl of Huntingdon, twice outlawed and a relative of the said Prioress was the original for the legend. If so, the dates fit as he would have lived during the years 1240-97 approx.
The poll tax of 1378-79 levied on those over 16yrs of age recorded 25 married couples and 47 single people. The total tax was £2 8s 8d, whilst Bradford paid only £1 3s 0d and Huddersfield 19s 4d; and some 200yrs later when the Spanish Armada threatened Mirfield was obviously still wealthier than other townships in the area for whilst Huddersfield was ordered to provide only 6 pikemen, Mirfield was to provide 9 and the Saviles to provide horses. Archery practise was compulsory and the butts were at Battyeford.
It is often said that the Wars of the Roses passed Mirfield by but that is not entirely true. Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), was for many years ‘Lord of the North’ ruling from his home in Middleham. One of his trusted household supporters was one William Mirfield. Following the great rebellion of the Duke of Buckingham, Richard placed many of his principal supporters in positions of authority (a move not popular with southerners):
Mirfield became keeper of Portchester Castle and governor of Portsmouth and was given lands in Wiltshire and Hampshire worth 100 marks. Another local man, Sir John Savile of Thornhill was made Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight with a fee of £200 per annum, lands also in Wiltshire and Hampshire and was made a justice and commissioner of array in Hampshire - where Richard originally expected Henry Tudor to land in 1485. As you know, Richard was defeated and killed at Bosworth in August 1485. We do not know if the two were with him at the end; as household knights they might have been expected to be with him but many were not as the Northern leaders and levies were mainly deployed in Northumberland’s division which stood by during the battle. At all events, the Mirfield family continued in possession of their manor at the top of Hopton for many years after Bosworth - so perhaps they made their peace with Henry Tudor even before Bosworth - I prefer to think not but……
I am grateful to an old friend Vivien Tomlinson (nee Eley) for the following last will and testament from the 1500s which has a ring of Shakepeare’s 2nd best bed about it; it concerns one of her distant ancestors, Robert Shepley, who appears in the Mirfield Parish records of 1559. It appears he died on May 18th 1571 and was buried on May 23rd. He leaves to John Walker (it appears his brother-in-law) with whom he was lodging, his wife apparently having pre-deceased him, ‘his cloke, best hose, dublet and jacket, some bedding, 12 sheep and £12; another jacket and a pair of hose to Matthew Raynor; his workaday jacket and dublet to Edward France. His main wealth appears to have been upwards of 50 sheep however.
The great plague hit Mirfield in 1631, when a stranger, Elizabeth Price, arrived with it and died on April 25th - 130 people subsequently died. Mention is made of the plague field at Little Moor where many hurriedly-interred bodies were found. In the civil war Mirfield aristocracy were divided; Sir George Armytage - Mirfield’s patron - was a royalist along with Sir William Savile (whose uncle, Sir John Savile, was a prominent parliamentary commander); but it was the senior parliamentary commander, Sir Thomas Farfax who, on 19th January 1642, summoned the Mirfield levy to assemble ‘…..all able bodied men between 16 and 60 and command them to repair to Almondbury or some other place near Mirfield, upon Saturday next (29th Jan) by 9am, each with the best weapons they can procure and those that can with 4 or 5 days provisions (the constable to find rations for those that could not). Fail not at your peril!’
There was a skirmish in Kirklees woods by the river when parliamentary troops of General Lambert, after winning the battle of Alwalton Moor, marched through Gomersal and Hightown and (reinforced by the militia of the Spen Valley weavers) encountered royalist cavalry moving along the river Calder. All the royalists were killed or captured, except a few who successfully swam the river.
In 1667 Richard Thorpe endowed a grammar school in Mirfield for the education of 15 poor children and the original building (now a private house) still stands.
Daniel Defoe passed through Mirfield in 1726 and wrote that the region was ‘.. so furnished by nature that practically every hill top has a spring and a coal mine… such that every one is gainfully employed at either mining or in the wool trade’.
In 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie came South and the good people of Mirfield were thrown into a panic. Sunday, 30 Nov 1745, became known locally as ‘Runaway Sunday’; The local vicar recording that ‘..few women attended church that day for want of apparel’ having hidden it all in the local mines. One local legend indicates that Lady Wood is also where they hid themselves from whence the name. Amusingly, the reason they thought the rebels so near was the arrival in Huddersfield of the Lancashire Militia whose strange accents they thought to be Scots! It is recorded that one old lady in Huddersfield was so shocked that she collapsed and died of fright.
In 1758 the Calder was made navigable as far as Soweby bridge and in 1776 a link canal was made through Mirfield - this gave a great boost to the malting industry (there were 6 malting houses by 1800) which in turn led to the considerable expansion of the Mirfield boatyards and their capacity to build and repair barges - there were was enough work to keep three thriving boatyards busy.
There was a cottage textile industry from very early on. The Wakefield Court Rolls of 1297 show that Mirfield had a fulling mill, the miller‘s name being Roger - we know this because there is an entry of him complaining that William Scot, one of his (presumably disgruntled) workmen wounded him in the head with a sword during an argument over what we should now call pay and conditions. Two tailors are recorded in the above-mentioned 1378 Poll Tax. Water mills were also necessary, both for agriculture and for industry and by 1755 Mirfield is listed as now having 3 fulling mills and some 400 people engaged in carding, spinning and preparing wool for some 200 weavers working 100 looms (2 people being required to work the shuttle until the flying shuttle was invented in 1733). By 1802 there were 5 fulling mills and mechanisation was in full swing. The introduction of new machinery led to the Luddite riots of 1812 in which Mirfield men were involved and there was a famous incident at the Dumb Steeple (probably originally a roman milestone) when a large group of croppers (men who manually trimmed the raw wool) met there and headed off to destroy the machines in Rawfold’s Mill at Cleckhheaton - this is the attack which is described by Charlotte Bronte in her novel Shirley - on their way back they met and murdered William Horsfall, a prominent local mill owner, for which three of them were later hanged at York. A later group at the Dumb steeple on Good Friday evening (mar 31st) 1819, meeting, armed with shot guns and other weapons, to go an destroy other machinery in Huddersfield, were attacked and dispersed by the local Yeomanry and hussars, many of whom were the sons of the local gentry and mill owners - it is noted that the Mirfield contingent of Luddites were conspicuously absent or hiding in trees. Paradoxically, in 1815 it is recorded that three Mirfield men were present at Waterloo, one survived but two brothers, Edward and John Sykes of Earthorp did not.
In 1802, in addition to the cottage industries there were 5 large woollen mills in Mirfield, plus 5 other mills producing wire, oil or milling corn. Until 1896 Ravensthorpe was classed as a part of Mirfield and was called the New Town area. Cotton spinning began in Mirfield in 1857 and several new mills were built. These also diversified and James Walker opened a mill making blankets and rugs. Other industries followed with machine making, leather working, soap making, brick making, dying and oil refining all being mentioned. In the early 1900’s jute, brushes, bungs and chemicals are all listed in the Mirfield area. At Nun Brook Longbottom, Sykes and Dyson began car production with their LSD (!) winning the gold medal in the London Edinburgh Reliability Trials.
The Bronte family have long and close associations with Mirfield. All three sisters having lived, been educated at Roehead and worked here - Charlotte being a teacher at Roehead. Anne Bronte was governess to the Ingham family of Blake Hall in 1839 - obviously unhappily, as she was dismissed as being unable to control the young Inghams - her novel Agnes Grey describes her experiences. The Hall was demolished in 1954 when its impressive staircase was exported to America ‘complete with its resident ghost!’
The new religious movements impacted on Mirfield. John Wesley preached here several times and noted that the locals were some of the wildest and roughest he had come across - it didn’t stop him opening a preaching house here in 1780. James Montgomery, author of some 4,000 hymns, including ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ lived in Mirfield in the late 18th C. The College of the Resurrection is famous world-wide, one of its most famous sons being the late-Bishop Trevor Huddleston.
Herbert Henry Asquith, the future prime minister, grew up (the house now being the internationally famous award-winning spar and health clinic) and was educated in Mirfield.
William Rhodes, the Yorkshire and England cricketer (1877-1973) was a Mirfield man and worked at the engine sheds. It is said that when he asked to leave early to catch the train to go and play his first match for Yorkshire he was sacked - only to be reinstated because of public outrage. More recently Mirfield joined the space race when the actor Patrick Stewart, a Mirfield boy, played the role of Captain Jean-luc Picard, in the world-renowned TV series - Star Trek.
Chairman of The Mirfield History Society