West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History


By JOHN O. E. HOLMES – 2004



Pontefract, together with much of the surrounding area was given to Ilbert DeLacy and became "The Honour of Pontefract". This was divided into "Manors" and each Manor had its own Lord, Steward and Manor Court. In the Manor all the land belonged to the Lord, and when he wished to change ownership he had to attend the Manor Court and if the new owner was suitable he was admitted and a fine paid to the Lord. If a tenant died without heir then the land reverted to the Lord as "Escheat" and a new tenant had virtually to buy from the Lord.

Other land was "Glebe" land and this was owned and worked by the Lord, and tenants of the remainder of the manor usually had to do a certain amount of work for the Lord as part of their tenancy. In time this would become an Annual Payment.

The former borough of Pontefract was made up of four parts. First, what became the Borough in 1484; Secondly, the more important (at the time) the Manor of Tanshelf; Thirdly, the Manor of Monkhill and fourth, the Pontefract Park. Part of Tanshelf was Carleton and the usual title was "Tanshelf cum Carleton".

Each Manor has had a different History and this article is an attempt to outline what has been discovered by the Author. Since writing about the Manors other information has come to light and this has been added.


Originally the area of the town was known, at least in part, as West Chepe. For a history of the change, "Pontefract, its Lords and its Name and its Castle" (recently re-printed) gives much detail that need not be repeated. In 1484 the locals bought from the Lord (by this time the King) the right to be virtually self-governing. In return they had to make an annual payment, called "The Fee Farm Rent", based on a charge of one shilling (5p) per toft or croft. This rent gave the Burgage holder the right to vote for the election of the Burgers (twelve in number) who ran the affairs of the town, and the two members of Parliament. The Burgers appointed as their leader a Mayor, often against his will, who was responsible for the town money and also the Election of the members of Parliament.

While the annual rent remained the same, and was devalued by inflation, its collection was important because of the right to vote. Thus the town kept rent books, some of which have survived to this day, and provide, possibly the only central record of land ownership in Pontefract going back to the seventeenth century.

In the seventeenth century various local gentry bought land freehold and sold it leasehold, thus retaining the right to vote, but "re-cycling" their money to buy more burgages. These leases were usually at a pepper-corn rent and could only be broken if the leaseholder did something to disqualify the freeholder from voting.

The Fee Farm Rent books were saved among the Borough records, the earliest one found being for 1679, although others are listed and Richard Holmes prints an assessment for 1657 in his Book of Entries on page 54. The Fee Farm Rent Book for 1679 has been transcribed by the Author who also has copies of the remainder. Perhaps the best Fee Farm Rent Book is the one for 1814/15 which is amongst the St. Giles Records. This not only lists the properties, but the neighbours on North, South, East and West, although one side is usually the road. The Books list the Burgage Owners in "Walking Order" usually starting at the South Western side of Ropergate, going straight to Gillygate, down then up Gillygate then along the North of Market Place up into Cornmarket and so on. Many of the entries will list one or two of the previous owners, thus it is possible to follow back the chain of ownership for many properties.

These leases did mean that the freeholder had to retain the deeds to prove ownership, and when these became of no value as the rules for voting changed in 1830, they were put on one side and have now found their way into collections which in their turn have been sold or lent to various record offices.

Various Lord Galways accumulated deeds and these are now with Nottingham University Library. The Frank family accumulated many muniments over about three hundred years and these are now with Sheffield Libraries. Viscount Winn of Nostell and his ancestors accumulated various deeds and papers and most of these are now at Leeds Libraries at Sheepscar. These papers are mainly indexed and can be seen, on request. The Author has obtained copies of many, and has also indexes to more. A great deal of time is needed to study them.

The 1484 Charter basically made the Lord the Mayor, the Steward became the Town Clerk and the Jurors (12) became the Burgers. There were various local privileges attached to the charter rights and these were usually let out by tender to locals who then had the right to collect and would be supported by the Council when appropriate.

The Borough had the right to the Windmill, which was however situated in Tanshelf Manor, they also had various tolls on sales of Wool, Hides, etc. Also the Town’s bakehouse (situated in Salter Row) and the right to charge outsiders for passing down Penny Lane (now Wakefield Road) for the privilege. Another duty was the town’s water which again originated in Tanshelf, but was fed into tanks which are still in Market Place adjoining the town pump (although now dry).

A considerable amount of the running of the town rested with the Church Vestry Meeting who were responsible for the Poor Law money collection and also various other matters. As the Vestry could levy a rate they had possibly more power than the Council, although there was never the same pomp with their meetings.

The Council achieved real power under various acts in Victorian times and the minute books of the time show how the Council took on various powers and had to modernise their way of managing the affairs of the town.

At different times there were various minor scandals when it was discovered that monies had not been collected, or that officials had been slack in their duties. Another source of income for the Lord of the Manor was the selling of "The Waste" of the Manor. This was, basically, land which had no tenant, which automatically belonged to the Lord. We thus find that at various times the Council sold off land in "The Butts" in "Beech Hill" and off Harropwell Lane where a path was closed and the adjoining owner bought it. Usually it was a case of merely reducing the width of the road, but in Victorian times the minutes record that the owner of land adjoining the Mill Pond at Mill Dam enclosed the pond, but the Councillors "As Lords of The Manor" claimed it and were able to sell their rights.

Tenants were not able to enclose or fence their land without permission of the Lord of the manor. In Charles II time the Council bought a new Charter. This cost £150 and the money was advanced by John Frank, who was Mayor at the time. The money had to be repaid, with interest and it was decided at a "Town’s Meeting" that the Council should sell, firstly the right to enclose, and secondly that the Annual rents could be commuted by the payment of a lump sum. Copies of many of these deeds are preserved in the Corporation Deeds and make interesting reading. Particularly interesting is one in which an occupier in Friar Lane (now Bluebell Yard) was empowered to enclose a manure heap in Friar Lane, but he was not allowed to put a fence round it! In addition, if the Council decided to make Friar Lane into a proper road, the licence to enclose should be null and void. It was in fact, a way of removing an unpleasant pile from his front door.

Various maps exist of the Borough, the earliest found was the lands of Mr. Pierrepoint (an ancestor of the Harewoods) which showed lands he owned in 1704. This is at the Leeds Library at Sheepscar amongst the Harewood Papers. There is also with it a list of the owners of the strips shown in the fields. Perhaps the most interesting point is that Cobblers Lane, Water Lane, Mill Lane and Holmfield lane are clearly marked as "The Ancient Way from London to Edinburgh". This route crosses the beck just below the three arched bridge and supports the suggestion that this was the broken bridge from which Pontefract gained its name.

In 1742 Paul Jollage published a map of the town which is probably quite accurate in that many enclosures can still be identified to this day. It has been re-printed by Pontefract Museum in two sizes.

Other maps are Hepworth’s of 1777 which has a key, but which is difficult to follow for the town centre. There is also an enclosure map of 1800. Copies of this are at Wakefield, but an enlarged scale copy of the town centre is at Pontefract Library. There is also a list of owners to go with this, which some years since, the Author Indexed by field number, as the Enclosure Act book lists by owner only.

A little later than this is Shipton’s survey of 1821. This was commissioned by the Vestry meeting and the survey that goes with it not only shows owners but lists tenants of individual properties. The same field numbers are used as for the enclosure map. (Not surprising since Shipton also drew the enclosure map). The records of St. Giles included a copy of the survey, whilst the map is again at Sheepscar.

In 1849 came the first large scale Ordnance Survey town map at a scale of 1/1050 which gives excellent detail. This was followed in 1896 by maps which show most of the town at a scale of 1/500. Details on this goes down to gullies in the roads. Since then there have been various Ordnance maps and the area covered has been extended.


At this point it is perhaps appropriate to note the Town Charters. The Charters were the result of the need for the King or his underlings to raise capital, and the desire of the inhabitants to be free to do as they wished.

The first Charter dated 6th June 1194, was granted by Roger DeLacy and empowered the Burgesses to buy, sell or bequeath Manor land subject to the payment of a fine payable to the Headborough or Praetor for the DeLacy’s. The Burgesses were also empowered to try their own delinquents and they were also free to move merchandise for sale without Toll or tax within DeLacy lands. The cash payment was 300 marks plus the fines and rents paid from time to time.

Charter No. 2 was dated 1st May 1278, from Henry DeLacy and gave the right to the Burgesses to erect stalls in Market Place, for which they paid a rent to the Praetor. This cost forty pounds.

The next Charter was granted by Henry VI as successor to the DeLacys, and confirmed the grants of the previous charters. In 1477 Edward IV declared that all Henry IV’s lands and privileges had been without proper legal right and were therefore confiscated. He then confirmed to Pontefract their former privileges, but without stating what payment was made.

The next charter is possibly the most important. Dated 28th July 1484, it granted the rights of a Borough, replacing the Headborough with a Mayor, and empowered the townspeople to appoint com-burgesses who correspond to the later Councillors. Other privileges were granted to hold their own Watch and have a gallows and gaol as well as Markets. There was some doubt as to the legality of this so it was confirmed on 9th August, the same year.

On 1st December 1488, Henry VII confirmed the privileges of the earlier charters. The Fee Farm rent was fixed at £49 13s 4d per annum, which never increased, and was in fact later reduced. This was finally commuted in 1967 when the Corporation paid a lump sum of £795 6s 8d. The next Charter was from Edward VI on 15th May 1550 and simply confirmed the earlier privileges.

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he also confirmed the earlier privileges and also defined the procedure for electing the Mayor. This charter also added the right to collect tolls on certain roads.

After the Civil War when Charles II was on the throne the privileges were confirmed on 20th February 1676. It was also stated that the Town Clerk and the Recorder should both have their appointments confirmed by the Crown.

The last Charter was granted by James II on 23rd march 1684, and made little new matter. Since the above, any changes to the administration of the town have been by Acts of Parliament.


The Park was for many years a separate District in spite of the fact that there were only three houses in it. For many years it was leased to Viscount Galway’s family, a copy of the lease for The Honour of Pontefract, 1729 is amongst the Frank papers at Sheffield (BFM972).

The Park Hill has been used for a water tower and underground reservoir since Victorian times. During the digging of the reservoir, Roman artefacts were found and it was thought that it could have been a Roman signal Camp.

Mention is made in Lord Galway’s Lease of the right to mine coal, but it would appear that this was of a minor nature in the 18th Century. On the division of the Park between the Duchy, the Park Trustees were prohibited from digging for any minerals. About 1871 the Trustees obtained powers to dig for coal and by 1872 Mr James Rhodes had reached the Haigh Moor bed of coal at 495 yards, the start of the Prince of Wales colliery. For many years until Nationalisation the Pontefract Ratepayers benefitted from the sale of coal from beneath the Park, although it was all removed by underground tunnels. There was at one time, a brick quarry just inside the gates. This became a pond, but was filled in and now is part of the playing field area.

Rights for Pontefract and Tanshelf landowners to graze their animals were a disadvantage to cultivation. The land was owned by the Duchy of Lancaster and when it became more useful to have land enclosed, agreement was reached for the town of Pontefract to have some 362 acres as their own, while the Duchy became absolute owner of the remaining 600 acres or so of inferior land. About the same time new roads were made, the first is now Park Lane (going to Featherstone) while the second runs to Glasshoughton and avoided the rather difficult route now known as Monkhill Lane and Spital Hardwick Lane.

At first the Park was administered by Commissioners, four of the biggest Ratepayers in Pontefract, and two of the biggest Ratepayers in Tanshelf. Later Acts of Parliament placed it under the control of The Pontefract Street Commissioners and then under the Borough when they took over the powers of the street commissioners. At the time of the division a survey was made and with it was a map showing owners and what the fields were used for.

Again there is a copy of the survey amongst the Harewood Papers at Leeds, which the Author has transcribed and typed out. At one time there were many trees in the park and at the time of the Division these were carefully divided up and reserved. There were two lodges at the gates - these were rebuilt in the 1930s, but have since been sold. A further house was down by the lake and was used for the sale of Ice Cream and sweets, but was demolished some years since.

The lake is entirely artificial and was dug in two parts. Boating has taken place for many years, as has fishing. At one time swimming was allowed at the northern end and there was a wooden hut for changing. This was discontinued many years since, as was the paddling pool near the entrance opposite the Prince of Wales access road.

During the Civil War and later, mention is made of racing in the park, and an eighteenth century deed of the Council reserves the right of access from Halfpenny Lane at race times. In 1919 The Pontefract Race Company were granted a new lease and since then racing has become more professional. The company is still "Private" and has become a National Institution although the dividends are only token compared with the assets and turnover.

Parts of the Park were ploughed up during the war, then some parts were used for the tipping of domestic rubbish before being soiled over, and parts made into playing fields. In recent years numerous trees have been planted.

©John O.E. Holmes, 2004


Other studies by John Holmes

Pontefract Elections
Pontefract Mill Hill Sand Tunnels
Pontefract and its Manors Part Two - The New Hall


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