A Brief History of Business in Wakefield

In 2015, I was asked to write a short history of Wakefield’s business-life for TopicUK magazine – which made sense given that the magazine is aimed at Wakefield’s businesses today. However, the word limit I was asked to work to – just 400 words, would barely scratch the surface, so it was agreed that I should write a series of articles. These are reproduced together here for the first time. I make no claim to be an historian – but I have read a lot of books and articles about Wakefield written by others including JW Walker, John Goodchild and Kate Taylor.

A Brief History

Look up in Cheapside, or Thompsons and Woolpack Yards, and you will see the vestiges of numerous hoists jutting out from the top of buildings; buildings that are now often smart offices but which were originally built as warehouses for storing grain and wool.

While Wakefield may be known today for its association with rhubarb, its early commercial activity was centred on textiles, agriculture and mining. Raw wool from the surrounding area was brought into Wakefield to be sold at market or to be processed – there were fulling mills (where wool is treated with detergents to remove the oil) along the banks of the River Calder and local weavers could use the treated wool to produce cloth. The Tammy Hall (between Wood Street and King Street) was built for the trade in cloths (a tammy is a type of worsted cloth), and opened in 1778. Unfortunately, the trade was relatively short lived in Wakefield as business moved to Leeds, Bradford and other places in the West Riding. The building was acquired by Wakefield Corporation who demolished part of it to create a site for the current town hall and converted what was left into a police and fire station.

Wakefield was, nonetheless, an important market town and administrative centre by the turn of the 19th Century. With good links by turnpike (toll) roads and, later, canals (the River Calder had been made navigable to Wakefield from around 1702), traders converged on the town to buy and sell raw materials, finished goods, grain and livestock: some readers will no doubt remember, for example, the cattle market that stood on Market Street (where the Royal Mail building is now) and which closed for business as recently as 1963, after nearly 200 years of operation. The Graziers pub on George Street takes its name from the men who grazed their cattle to get them ready for market.

What is perhaps less well known is that, before the coming of the railways in 1840, Wakefield had become a busy inland port: it was, of course, easier to carry large bulky loads by water than by road and the canals gave access to both the east and west coast ports so goods and materials were brought to Wakefield for onward transport, something which is still happening today, although nowadays principally by rail and road: witness Wakefield Europort and the many distribution warehouses located adjacent to the district’s motorway network.

Although by the 19th Century, Wakefield was a successful market town and inland port, by the middle of that century, it had started to lose ground to others as some of its traditional textile markets declined.
Fortunately, new businesses emerged in both the manufacturing and service sectors: yarn spinning, coal mining, brewing, brickmaking, soap-making, printing, glass-making and market gardening all flourished. The waterfront was busy with boat building and repair yards and the coming of the railways saw new markets developing as it became possible to bring more goods and raw materials into and out of the town.

Chemical works, engineering and rope making businesses were established or expanded. Joseph Aspdin’s cement works in Kirkgate invented Portland Cement. Some Wakefield businesses were successful enough to exhibit at the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in London in the Crystal Palace. In August 1865, Wakefield staged its own Industrial and Fine Arts Exhibition in a purpose built exhibition hall in Wood Street, attracting up to 10,000 visitors a day during the seven weeks of its opening.

These industries required people, creating job opportunities that led to an influx of working men and their families. Many of the people who moved here in search of work came from outlying rural areas and even further afield with many coming from Ireland. This incoming population had to be housed and catered for, in turn creating further commercial and job opportunities.

Meanwhile, the business of money – not just making it but keeping it safe and encouraging people to save – was ever more important and a number of independent banks were established. Some of these failed, merged or were taken over, yet they often leave their mark on the buildings we see around the city today. On the corner of Westgate and Bank Street are the former premises (now a night club) of banking firm Ingram and Kennet. They were taken over by Leatham, Tew and Company who had premises on the corner of Wood Street – look at the sun dial on the Marygate façade and you’ll see their initials. This building later became home to Barclays Bank after Leatham and Tew were amalgamated with that company. Meanwhile, the former Wakefield and Barnsley Union Bank had premises a little further up Westgate. The building may be yet another night club but the bank’s initials can still be seen in the arched pediment over the door. Other examples of former bank buildings include Bank House in Burton Street, now the offices of a firm of solicitors, but formerly the premises of the Wakefield Savings Bank.

A brief history of Wakefield as a centre for administration

No one knows for certain when people first started to live in what we now call Wakefield. There is some evidence of Stone Age activity in the area around Wakefield and a Roman road from Pontefract to Manchester came through Wakefield – fording the River Calder at the bottom of what is now Kirkgate, before branching off to the north and the west, roughly along the lines of the present day Northgate and Ings Road. We do know that the first written record of Wakefield (recorded as Wachfeld) appears in the Domesday Book of 1086 by which time it was already one of the largest manors in the country.

It is thought that the area was first settled by the Angles in the 5th and 6th centuries and that the name Wakefield is derived from the name of a prominent Anglo-Saxon chieftan by the name of Waca (literally meaning Waca’s field). After the Viking invasions of the 9th century, the land under Viking control (known as the Danelaw) was divided into administrative areas called shires. The county shire of York was further divided into three ridings (literally meaning a thirding) and these ridings, were subdivided into wapentakes which took their names from the principal places that were used for village meetings (or moots). Wakefield was part of the Wapentake of Agbrigg and Morley (which was later split into two). This indicates that the main meeting place of the wapentake in Wakefield was actually at Agbrigg, rather than in what we would regard as today’s city centre.

Following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror (himself of Viking descent) set about bringing the country under Norman control. It was he who commissioned the creation of the Domesday Book, actually a great survey that would be used by the crown to calculate taxes. Although not completed until after the king’s death in 1085, the book records the ownership of all lands, buildings, livestock, meadows and woodlands, as well as details of the people whether they be landowners or tenants, free men or slaves.

The Manor of Wakefield was granted by William II to William de Warrenne, created first Earl of Surrey, probably in 1088. The Earl, who died later that year, had supported William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings and had been loyal to the king’s son, William II. Possession of the Manor, and responsibility for its administration, passed down the de Warrenne line and it was they who built Sandal Castle in the 12th century, originally in wood but later consolidated in stone. (They also built another castle at Lowe Hill, now in Wakefield park, but this was abandoned shortly afterwards).

Although the de Warrennes did not spend much time at Sandal castle, they did install Constables to keep the peace (the castle also housed a gaol) and to administer the area on their behalf.

The Manor returned to the control of the crown in 1347 with the death of the seventh Earl of Surrey who had no legitimate heirs but the castle retained its function as an administrative headquarters until Tudor times. However, with the rebuilding in the Moot Hall in upper Kirkgate in the first half of the 16th century (during the reign of Henry VIII) as a place for the Steward of the Manor to live, and the building of a new prison in Wakefield in the 1590s, administrative matters moved away from the castle and into the town centre.

Wakefield – A regional centre for over five hundred years

As well as being an established centre for local administration and commerce, Wakefield has a long history as a centre for regional administration. Indeed, Wakefield can claim to have played its part in regional government for over five hundred years.

In 1472, King Edward IV, England’s first Yorkist king, established the Council of the North to implement better government control and administration of the north of England and to bring about economic growth within the area. The Council of the North was firmly rooted in Yorkshire. Originally based at Sheriff Hutton Castle and Sandal Castle (just over a mile from today’s city centre) and later at King’s Manor in York, it had jurisdiction over all six of the northern counties that existed in England at that time, viz. Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, Westmorland, Durham and Northumberland. One of its principle functions was to restore law and order and impose the impartial justice of the crown in the northern regions. In fact, the Council’s main purpose over time was to evolve into being that of a recognised court, with social and local administration being left to the church, local councils, guilds and JPs. The Council was abolished in 1641 but Wakefield was to continue its involvement in regional matters.

As we saw in my last article, following the Viking invasion of the 9th Century, Yorkshire had been divided into three parts, or Ridings, for administrative purposes. However, until the 1832 Reform Act, it was the County of Yorkshire that was represented in Parliament (by just two MPs). The 1832 Act divided the county into three parliamentary constituencies for the first time and these were based on the North, East and West Ridings with each of the three resulting constituencies being represented by two MPs from in the years between 1832 and 1865.
In 1865, the constituency of the West Riding was further divided into those of the Northern West Riding of Yorkshire and the Southern West Riding of Yorkshire, each with two MPs. Further changes introduced by the Local Government Act of 1888 established an administrative boundary centred on the West Riding and led to the creation of the West Riding County Council (WRCC) to administer it. The new County Council came into being in 1889.

To begin with, the WRCC met at the recently opened Wakefield Town Hall in Wood Street at the invitation of the then Wakefield Council, but it was not long before the WRCC started looking for accommodation of its own. The WRCC already owned Rishworth House, a Georgian house built in 1812 with a large garden, situated on the corner of Cliff Parade and Bond Street. Although there was a debate at the time that could have led to the new headquarters being sited in Leeds, it was decided to erect the new council building in Wakefield, cementing Wakefield’s reputation as a regional centre for another hundred years.

Rishworth House was demolished and in its place rose the building that we now know as the County Hall. Built in the Renaissance style with Art Nouveau decorative treatments, construction of County Hall commenced in 1894 with the building officially opened in 1898. It was the first of Wakefield’s civic buildings to be wired for electricity. The building was extended between 1912 and 1915.

The WRCC continued in operation until local government reorganisation saw county councils being abolished. It was replaced by the newly created West Yorkshire County Council in 1974 (with a different geographical area). When that organisation was itself swept away following yet more local government reorganisation in 1986, County Hall was put up for sale. It was subsequently acquired by Wakefield Metropolitan District Council in 1987. Wakefield Council now uses the council chamber in County Hall for meetings of the District Council, as it is a larger space than the former council chamber in the Town Hall (the Kingswood Suite).

As the above potted history demonstrates, when it comes to regional government, nothing seems fixed for long. Politics, economics and population growth drive constant change. Although the West Yorkshire County Council was abolished in 1986, it seems as if we might be coming full circle in some respects. There is now a West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA), established in April 2014, which brings together the councils of Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds, Wakefield and York as well as the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to create a united force for economic growth. It is currently chaired by Councillor Peter Box CBE, leader of Wakefield Council.

And with the possibility of elected mayors for city regions also under discussion, it seems we may have not yet seen the end of the changes in our regional government. It would be nice to think that Wakefield will continue to play its part in whatever political and administrative structures emerge.

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