West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History


500th MAYORAL YEAR, 1970



It gives me great pleasure to introduce this Brochure prepared in commemoration of the 500th Mayoral Year.

In doing so, I should like to take the opportunity of thanking the members of the Committee convened at the beginning of the year to co-ordinate special events during the celebrations, and to all those members of the various organisations, who contribute so much to the life of our town, and who organised or took part in those events. I thank them all for making this such a memorable year.

Pontefract is an ancient Borough, holding a distinguished place in the annals of English history, the first Charter of Incorporation being granted by Richard III in 1484.

This brochure is a pictorial glimpse into the history of the Borough, and endeavours to encompass, in such a form, events and places which I hope will be found both interesting and enlightening to the general reader. It is impossible to include all facets of the life and times of Pontefract but the brochure will, I am sure, jog the memories of the elder citizens and encourage in the younger generation an interest in the history of our town.

J. Blackburn, Mayor 1969-70


Little is known of the early origins of Pontefract. Prehistoric and Roman remains have been discovered in the town, but the important development came in the Norman and Medieval periods.

The first documentary evidence records a Saxon manor in the area of Tanshelf c.625. Ethelburga, the wife of King Edwin of Northumbria, received Taddenescylf, or Tateshale, as part of her dowry ; and it is known she built a ‘court’ on the site now occupied by the South Yorkshire Motors, between Halfpenny lane and Front Street.

The name Pontefract began to appear in the town’s charters and documents in the first quarter of the 12th century and gradually came to replace the Saxon name of Kirkby. Pontefract, the ‘Broken Bridge’, has always created problems for the historian and no completely incontrovertible explanation has been established for the absence of a river, and the need for a bridge seems to contradict the etymology of the name. It is now evident that there were two rivers, one to the north and one to the south of the town, which were able to drive two water mills. The rivers met at the eastern boundary at a point called the Wash, which must have been a large tract of water, or marsh often impassable in wet weather. It was at this place that the Great North Road entered Pontefract and must have needed a bridge to cross this water. Evidently it caused difficulties, because great efforts were made to drain the area, but had to be abandoned in the latter half of the thirteenth century. The old north road was diverted to Ferrybridge, which later proved to be a disadvantage to Pontefract. The site of the bridge is first mentioned in the reign of Edward II when John Bubwith held a seventeenth part of a Knights fee ‘juxta veterem pontem de Pomfret’, near to Bubwith House, Knottingley Road, farm. The will of John Skipton, Alderman, dated July 1555, left six shillings and eight pence for its repair, but by the time of Leland the bridge was in ruins. Today a mere culvert takes its place.

The geographical position of Pontefract was ideal – on the main road to the North, half way between London and Edinburgh, and conveniently positioned on the east-west route. Development of the town was hampered towards the east by the Wash, and only expansion westwards and northwards was practicable. Urban Pontefract started in Tanshelf and covered a broad area N.W. of the town and was much more extensive than it is today. The area extended from the castle in the north and spread southwards to Carleton.

Ailric, the Saxon lord, defended his town by means of an earthen mound surmounted by a wooden tower. After the 1066 Conquest of England, Ilbert de Lacy, the new Norman owner, transformed the wooden tower into a stone donjon, and enlarged this fortress to defend the new town of Kirkby which developed to the west of the castle. The Great Street, called Micklegate, and later Horsefair, spread from the Castle and was enveloped by Northgate and Walkergate, which joined Horsefair as Finkle Street and Baxtergate. These followed the walls of the town and can be clearly seen on the Jollage map dated 1742.

The thirteenth century extension had created an overspill outside the Westgate of the old town, which became known as the New Market. This extended from the top of Horsefair and radiated into the extra-mural streets around the chapel of St. Giles. This town is one of the finest examples of the Medieval development of a town centre still to be found in England.


Pontefract was aptly named KIRKBY because it was a significantly religious town, containing an important Priory, Friaries, Collegiate Churches, Colleges, Hospitals, an Anchoress and Hermit, in addition to the parish Church of All Hallows’.

The Church of Tanshelf mentioned in the Domesday Survey, 1086, was in all probability the Old Church, situated near the Castle, and was rebuilt about 1361. Most of the building as it now stands can be dated from the 14th and 15th centuries.

An unusual feature is the blocked double staircase in the Tower ; the only other British example being at Tamworth. The tower prior to the 14th century rebuilding was surmounted by a coronet similar to the one on St. Giles. It served to hold a basket of fire, which was used as a beacon to guide travellers along the Old North Road and through Pontefract’s marshy ‘Wash’.

The carvings which have recently been rebuilt into the nave exterior are from the front erected at the re-opening. The Church was destroyed during the Civil War, 1646-49, and the remains of the lantern fell down in 1660, completely demolishing the carvings of the Saints and Apostles which decorated the tower.

The town demanded that Parliament compensate them for their loss of the Parish Church, and it was agreed that sums from the proceeds of the sale of the materials of the Castle, should be used to rebuild the Church.

Through collections, £1,500 was raised for the repair of All Saints’ and the money was entrusted to the safe keeping of Dr. Nathaniel Johnson who promptly embezzled nearly all of it. He is reputed to have poisoned the Vicar and was forced in to hiding in London to escape the irate townsfolk of Pontefract. He later moved to the estate of the Earl of Peterborough in order to plot the overthrow of the monarchy.

The chapel of St. Giles became the Parish Church in 1789, and it was not until 1838 that the Old Church was partially repaired by Chantrell, also architect for Leeds parish Church and others.


Erected in September 1818, this column commemorated the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. It stood in the grounds, south of the town, of Edward Trueman, a partner in the bank of Leatham, Tew and Co. (now Barclays). A five-times Mayor of Pontefract, Trueman was reputed to have lost a son in the Battle and to have been the main subscriber to provide the Monument. The urn at its top  - although stated to contain gold coins - was of solid local stone, gilded, and later became a favourite target for irresponsible marksmen. The urn fell off in a storm just before the demolition of the Monument about 1946 to make way for the Council housing estate which absorbed Monument Lane. The urn has recently been presented to the town by Mr. Pease, whose family have long owned the land formerly held by Mr. Trueman, and it is to be preserved at the old people’s home at The Circle, Chequerfield.


St. Giles, the Parish Church of Pontefract, dates from about 1100, and was originally a small chapel called St. Mary de Foro, but gradually gained importance due to the development of the town from the east to the west. Its name was changed because of the association with the market of St. Giles, which was outside its south door.

The chapel had a broach spire similar to the Church at Womersley, this was replaced in April 1707 by a square tower built for £100 by Sir John Bland, Mayor of Pontefract. This was replaced by the present one in 1779.

Pontefract had been an important clothing town before the Domesday Survey, but grew into one of the most important market towns in Yorkshire.

Henry de lacy succeeded in obtaining the right to hold an eight-day fair called St. Giles fair, from King Henry II when he visited the town in C. 1811. This was of great significance to Pontefract because it was the only fair to be allowed in the County on that day. Some idea of the size can be gained from the delivery of 2,000 head of cattle, with butter and cheese, driven over the Pennines from Lancashire to Pontefract.

Wool was an important part of the economy of the town. The monks of St. John, exported wool to the continent of Europe, and Pontefract was included in the 13 wool merchants who represented England.

Tanshelf obtained the right to hold a fair in July 1258, and another in Pontefract in 1294, until the number of fairs in Pontefract grew to eleven. This compared most favourably with other Yorkshire towns, Leeds 2, Doncaster 2, Barnsley 3, Halifax 1, Sheffield 2, Wakefield 6. The cloth fairs were strictly controlled and Pontefract was one of the fifteen allowed to sell wool and cloth in Yorkshire.

The Poll Tax returns of 1377 reveal that Pontefract was the largest town in the West Riding and that it had an abundance of cloth makers, tailors, glovers and weavers.

The Star Inn was the most spacious inn in Pontefract, a coaching inn that catered for the gentry of the town and stood on the site now occupied by Boots Chemists and Rowlands Outfitters.

In 1738 the gentlemen of Pontefract challenged the gentlemen of Leeds to a cock fight. Thirty-one fighting cocks were to fight for the sum of 5 guineas a battle and 50 guineas for the main bout.

In 1776, one John Nutt delivered his wife in halter to the Market Cross and sold her to Mr. Ryder, Staymaker, for the sum of five shillings "when all persons seemed perfectly satisfied." This practice must have continued, for we learn that in 1815 regular wife sales were held in the square, the bidding starting at one shilling until one lady was sold for eleven shillings.


An Elizabethan Manor House built in 1591 by Lord Talbot ; Architect : Robert Smythson. The builder, Edward Talbot, was accused in 1594 of plotting to kill his brother Gilbert. It was alleged that Edward had arranged for his physician, Wood, to poison the gloves of Gilbert in order to allow Edward to gain the earldom. Wood was condemned to imprisonment and the loss of his ears. Edward escaped punishment, but on gaining the earldom in 1616 found that Gilbert had disposed of most of the Talbot property.

The New Hall was probably not built under the supervision of Smythson but was entrusted to a local builder, who did not follow the plans in detail. It was an important house being the start of a new Architectural development. The stone was obtained from the dismantled Priory of St. John and carted by the townsfolk for the sum of £200.

It had a magnificent ballroom, 90 feet in length, decorated with moulded Talbot dogs, plaster friezes and coves : State apartments and a grand staircase six feet wide which is now at Harewood House.

The roof was removed in 1812 and the gatehouse and North Tower fell in a gale on the 19th January 1828.

The place was partly demolished by 1961 and was finally brought down by explosives after many attempts to destroy it by tractors and hawser in 1962.

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