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1812 ... Britain’s bleakest year, especially in West Yorkshire

Wakefield Court Rolls Photo of a Wakefield Court Roll. Credit: Yorkshire Archaeological Society.

Thu, 27 Feb 2014 13:05:00 GMT

University historian unravels the Wakefield Court Rolls 1812-1813 – recognised by UNESCO as “of outstanding value and importance to the United Kingdom”

‌‌GLOBAL warfare, economic catastrophe and destructive rampages by protestors meant that 1812 would be branded as Britain’s bleakest year, especially in West Yorkshire.  But, fascinating court documents edited for publication by a University of Huddersfield historian show that in spite of all the turmoil, cutting-edge steam technology was beginning to transform industry and not even an attack by violent Luddites prevented a mill-owning family from doing property deals. 

Dr John Hargeaves ‌Dr John A. Hargreaves has edited Volume 16 of the Wakefield Court Rolls series.  It details proceedings of the courts of the ancient Manor of Wakefield, which originated in the early Middle Ages.  The rolls survive in an almost unbroken run from 1274 to the 1920s and are recognised by UNESCO as being “of outstanding value and importance to the United Kingdom” and have been placed on the Memory of the World Register. 

The new volume is a breakthrough because this is the first time that a manorial court roll from the 19th century has been made widely available.  Until now, scholars have concentrated on transcribing and publishing mediaeval material from these sources, but Dr Hargreaves found that the early 1800s also yielded intriguing material.  The volume is a richly-annotated digest of proceedings in the courts Baron of the Manor of Wakefield from 19 October 1812 to 15 October 1813.  It also includes details of 21 wills. 

‌Wills and property deals 

The commercial dislocation, caused by the Napoleonic Wars, has caused 1812 to be described as the worst year to date in British history.  And in West Yorkshire, it saw the destructive activities of the Luddites plus mounting unemployment – due in part to technological change – and wide-scale bankruptcies.  Yet the records show that for many, life went on as normal. 

The courts dealt with the transfer of property held by copyhold tenure from the Manor of Wakefield.  This was a means of registering changes of ownership and, at the same time, bringing an income to the Manor from the fees paid to gain the title. 

Many of the copyholders were engaged in the textile industry.  One of the first transactions records the property of Wakefield woolstapler Michael Bentley changing hands due to his bankruptcy.

Other bankrupts whose property transfers went through the courts were John Watkinson of Ovenden, who has been a manufacturer, dealer and chapman, and three Mirfield men – Joseph Walker, Joshua Ingham and Benjamin Smith. 

Volume 16 of the Wakefield Court Rolls series ‌The evidence in the rolls suggests that the Luddite attack on the mill of Joseph Foster of Horbury on 9 April 1812 did not have lasting impact on the family business.  The 1812-13 volume includes a reference at the court on 13 November 1812 to the newly-built house of one of the sons of the business, Joshua Foster, and to his making substantial purchases of land in the Horbury area. 

Among many other references to the textile industry are ones to ‘tenter fields’, where cloth was hung to dry on tenters; fulling millers – engaged in the scouring and pounding of cloth; woollen yarn spinners; and worsted manufacturers.  New technology was being introduced, with some mills powered by steam engines rather than waterwheels, and a number of men are described as engineers. 

Women's rights 

References to women will be of huge interest to feminist historians.  There are transcripts of the wills of women themselves and of those of men who made detailed provision for their widows and daughters.  James Hoyle of Soyland, who held stock in a ‘navigation’ – a company running a navigable waterway – left a very substantial £400 a year to his wife, Betty.  William Ingham of Ossett aimed to ensure that his legacy to his daughter Mary went to her alone by providing in his will that it was ‘for her sole use, without direction from her present or any future husband’. 

Richard Smith, a glazier of Wakefield, left £320 plus whatever he owed her in wages, to his servant, Mary Kemp.  The widowed Sarah Best of Stanley, near Wakefield, left forty shillings a year, to be gathered from rents on her property, to the Overseers of the Poor for Stanley Township to be distributed among needs widows living locally. 

  • The Manor of Wakefield stretches from Normanton in the east to Todmorden in the west. Its unrivalled collection of court rolls is now in the possession of Yorkshire Archaeological Society.  Comparatively few have been published. This is because of the costs of conservation before a roll can be used at all, the time taken to transcribe and edit the text, and the problem of finding scholars with the time and skill to do the work. 
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