Picture credit: Tim Green geograph wikipedia creative commons.

“O Pomfret, Pomfret! O Thou bloody prison! Fatal and ominous to noble peers! Within the guilty closure of thy walls Richard the Second here was hack’d to death.”

– Richard II by William Shakespeare

Pontefract is a market town in the West Riding of Yorkshire with a population of 28,250 people. It’s famous for its castle, confectionery industry, coal mining, and horse racing.

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Pontefract Castle

Pontefract Castle was once one of the biggest and most feared fortifications in Yorkshire. Much to the joy of the locals, it was destroyed after the Civil War and lay derelict for many years.

In the 19th Century, the castle was used by liquorice growers. Nowadays it’s a tourist attraction.

The castle ruins are free to enter. Visitors are able to take a guided tour of the ruins and famous dungeons where prisoners carved their names into the stone walls. There is also a visitors centre and fun quiz trail for children.


In 2015, Wakefield Council, who owned the castle, began work with its £3m lottery grant. The money would be used to improve facilities and visitors’ experience. 

The remains of the Gascoigne Tower at Pontefract Castle. Picture credit: Jonathan Rudd
The remains of the Gascoigne Tower at Pontefract Castle. Picture credit: Jonathan Rudd

Work stopped in 2016 when the construction company fell into administration. Work began again in 2018 and was fully completed on Yorkshire Day in 2019.

Visitors could now visit parts of the castle that hadn’t been accessible since 1649. This included the Gascoigne Tower and old Victorian footpaths.

Three new viewing platforms were also added. Access was also improved to sally port where the troops would exit the castle.

Places to Visit in Pontefract

Pontefract Museum is located in the heart of the town. It charts the long and interesting history of the town and its people.

Visitors can view exhibitions about the history of the castle. They can also admire the extensive collections of Knottingley glass and photographs of the town’s history.

Sunset over Pontefract Park, Photo credit J Milo (IFY Community)
Sunset over Pontefract Park, Photo credit J Milo (IFY Community)

The museum features displays on how the town grew through both the liquorice trade and coal mining. For those interested in architecture, the museum building still has its original fittings from when it was constructed in 1904.

Just outside of Ponterfract is Farmer Copleys. In the summer, there is a corn maze where visitors have to find their way out of the seven acre cornfield with crops growing to 8ft high.

Designs over the years have ranged from a cow shape in 2011 to a dinosaur in 2014. There is also a cafe and farm shop on site as well as a reward for completing the puzzle.

Pontefract Park is located next to the racecourse. It has an angling lake, nature reserve, and two miles of footpaths for walking, cycling, or running.

There are also sporting facilities. Visitors can enjoy the tennis courts, golf course, and a play area for the children.

Entertainment in Pontefract

Pontefract doesn’t have a theatre in the town. However, this doesn’t stop them from enjoying performances.

There are a number of performance companies and amateur dramatics societies who regularly perform at the community centre. These are Stagecoach, Time 2 Shine, and Carleton Theatre Group

Pontefract Town Hall

In 1785, Pontefract Town Hall was built. The building stands proudly in the heart of the main street.

During a by-election in 1872, the first Parliamentary secret ballot in the Northern Hemisphere happened here. This was a giant step towards the modern democracy we know of today.

Before then, those who were lucky enough to vote would have done so in public. However, this was often open to bribery and influence.

The first ever secret ballot box was sealed with liquorice made in a local factory, naturally. Nowadays the hall is used for community events, conferencing, and weddings.

Festivals in Pontefract

The Pontefract Liquorice festival is extremely popular with both residents and visitors alike. It takes place every year and celebrates its confectionery heritage.

There are various workshops that children can enjoy. These include liquorice jewellery and puppet making amongst others.

Street entertainers also dress up as favourite liquorice characters. There are also many sweet stalls to try.

At the library, there are many talks about the crop’s history by local scholars.

Pontefract Nightlife

The Nightlife in the town mainly revolves around its thriving pub scene. Some of these include The Robin Hood, The Broken Bridge, and The Blue Bell Inn.

Nightclubs in Pontefract are popular with its students. The most notable clubs being Big Fellas and Silks.

Travelling In & Out of Pontefract

The town of Pontefract is very well connected to all major Yorkshire motorways. To the East is the A1, to the West is the M1, and to the North is the M62.

Remarkably for its size, Pontefract has three railway stations. These are Monkhill, Baghill, and Tanshelf.

Pontefract Monkhill is the oldest of the three. Built in 1848, it is on the Goole to Wakefield line.

After becoming a goods only station, it served the nearby power stations. Then, in 1992, it reopened it’s passenger services with journeys to Leeds, Castleford, and Goole.

In 2009, Pontefract Monkhill went through a significant change. It became part of the Bradford to London Kings Cross service giving the town a link to the capital for the first time.

Built in 1871, Pontefract Tanshelf was built for the now demolished nearby community of the same name. It transported coal miners to and from the colliery for the beginning and end of their shifts.

In the 1960’s it closed only to be opened again in 1992 to serve the racecourse. Other services run to Wakefield Kirkgate Station where passengers can get a connection to Leeds, Halifax, and Bradford.

Pontefract Baghill was built in 1879. It runs on the Dearne Valley line.

This connects the town to Sheffield and York. This railway station is one of the least busiest train stations in Yorkshire.

Pontefract bus station has nine stands. It runs services to places such as Leeds, Castleford, Selby, and Wakefield.

Shopping in Pontefract

Pontefract has had a long tradition in market trading. Even today the town has some kind of stall operating in the town nearly every day of the week.

Its outdoor market days are Wednesday and Saturday. These stalls range from fresh fruit and veg to fish, ladies clothing, and confectionery.

The small Friday market has an emphasis on food, produce, and flowers. There is also a covered market which operates from Monday to Saturday.

Shopping in Pontefract revolves around the Salters Row Precinct. This area boasts several high street names.

One of the town’s most unique shops is Hariboland. It sells all of the products made in the town’s factories and around the world.

Sport in Pontefract

The grandstand at Pontefract racecourse. Picture credit: Dave Pickersgill geograph wikipedia creative commons.
The grandstand at Pontefract racecourse. Picture credit: Dave Pickersgill geograph wikipedia creative commons.

The town is well known in horse-racing circles. Its course is the longest continuous flat racing circuit in Europe at 2.5 miles.

Despite this, Pontefract racecourse doesn’t hold a classic race. However, it does still manage to pull punters from all over the county.

While the town’s historic castle was being torn down by its people, many of the town’s residents were out enjoying themselves. The first horse races were staged in the surrounding meadows which attracted quite a crowd.

These were discontinued in the 18th Century but revived again in 1801 at the racecourse itself where meetings have carried on ever since. It became the first British race track to have dope testing facilities.

Other sports in Pontefract include squash. It’s centre is used by professional players for training.

The town’s football team, Pontefract Collieries FC are an amateur team. They compete in the Northern Counties East League and play at Skinner Lane next to where the coal mine used to be.

Education in Pontefract

Pontefract New College provides a high education in town. It was founded in 1987.

The college offers a range of A-Level and B-Tec courses. There are also courses in areas such as sport, IT, and business along with more traditional subjects.

The historical market town of Pontefract is a unique place on the Yorkshire map. There’s plenty to see and do for both its residents and visitors alike.

History of Pontefract

The town of Pontefract is made up of two ancient settlements. These are Tanshelf and Kirkby which merged together to form the town we know today.

Evidence of human life in the area has been found. This dates back to Neolithic times with the discovery of a henge or earthwork at nearby Ferrybridge.

Old Roman Road

The location of Pontefract lay on a ridge as part of the old Roman Road which is now known as the A639. This is used as an alternative route from Doncaster to York via Castleford.

Originally this route may have been used to avoid crossing the Humber Estuary. Especially during periods of bad weather which could be dangerous.

Two Settlements

In Anglo-Saxon times, the two settlements of Tanshelf and the smaller Kirkby developed into separate villages. Tanshelf was used as a meeting point.

Northumbrian councillors pledged allegiance here to their Anglo-Saxon King, Eadre during his war against the Vikings. They would later break their oaths and accept the Norseman, Eric Bloodaxe, as their monarch.

The settlement of Tanshelf was recorded as having a population of 25 villages, fourteen ploughlands and a priest. Kirkby on the other hand is not mentioned by name and was classed as part of the same manor.


In 1090, Pontefract was originally called “Pontefracto” which means broken bridge. It is believed to be named after an Anglo-Saxon uprising against Norman rule in 1069.

They broke the bridge whilst crossing the River Aire. This prevented the French from accessing York and other towns in the area.

Norman Rule

Once the Normans had brought the North of England under control, they began to build castles. They asserted their authority against the local population and defended the town from invasion.

The lands around the area were given to Norman Baron Ilbert De Lacey who built Pontefract Castle. This became notorious for its key position in the North, its strong defences, and its dark history.

The Feared Pontefract Castle

This famous painting by Alexander Keirincx shows how Pontefract castle would have dominated the landscape. Picture credit: wikipedia public domain
This famous painting by Alexander Keirincx shows how Pontefract castle would have dominated the landscape. Picture credit: wikipedia public domain

Over time, the castle was feared by both natives and invaders alike. One of its most famous incidents involved the death of King Richard II in 1399 where it’s said he starved to death in the castle’s dungeons.

It became one of the largest fortifications in Yorkshire and a prominent feature in the region’s history. The castle saw action during the War of the Roses and the Civil War where it was of Royalist persuasion.

A Growing Town

The town around the castle grew. It became the fourth largest settlement in Yorkshire and a major town in the West Riding.

Market days were granted on a Wednesday and Saturday. This meant that Pontefract became a thriving trading town.

The castle’s vast lands covered Leeds, Bradford, and areas towards Huddersfield. All of these were far smaller settlements at the time.

However, having one of the North’s most impenetrable and desirable castles on your doorstep is not always such a blessing.


The War of the Roses took place sporadically from 1455 to 1487. It saw fighting and constant disruption to the town with many soldiers ending up in the castle’s dungeons.

Moreover, during the Civil War, both the castle and town were besieged by Parliamentarian forces. Eventually they won but only after the Royalists had held out for longer than anywhere else in the country.

Trouble in Pontefract

Pontefract Castle brought a lot of trouble to the town and to Oliver Cromwell’s forces. This led to the castle being destroyed just three days after the end of the siege.

The villages celebrated the destruction of the castle. It may also explain why the ruins of the castle, which is more devastated than most, lay forgotten from many centuries afterwards.

An Unknown Plant

After the demolition of the castle, Pontefract needed a new identity. The hub of the community shifted towards its marketplace and previously unknown plant.

The plant which had been introduced during the time of Crusades would prove to be incredibly popular. It even became Pontefracts largest industry.

Liquorice has had a long history in other parts of the world since ancient times. It was often used as a medicine in Asia and Africa to cure coughs. The plant was brought back by soldiers who had fought during the crusades in the 11th and 12th Centuries.

Originally, the plant was grown by monks at their monastery in the town. Liquorice production was revived during the Tudor period but caught on in the 18th and 19th Centuries when it became the town’s main industry.

Pontefract’s sandy soil was enriched by the waste which flowed down the River Aire from Leeds and Bradford. This made the soil the perfect condition for liquorice plants to grow.

The Northern climate also ensured that the plant did not flower. Its roots kept a sweet flavour as a result of this and could therefore be manufactured into sweets.


Originally, liquorice sweets started out as lozenges to ease colds and coughs. Around 1750, sugar was added to these recipes to make Pontefract cakes.

By 1885, there were ten liquorice manufacturers in Pontefract and the surrounding fields. The site of the old castle was also used to grow the crops.

Pontefract became well known for its licquorice production. Picture credit: pikaluk wikipedia creative commons.
Pontefract became well known for its liquorice production. Picture credit: pikaluk wikipedia creative commons.

Business was booming and the demand was high for these new sweets during the early part of the 20th Century. However, the inevitable decline soon followed.

People’s taste in sweets were changing. Chocolate was becoming more popular and affordable.

Family run liquorice companies were taken over by larger ones which meant production moved elsewhere. For example, Bassett’s of Sheffield bought Pontefract’s Wilkinson’s in 1961.

Liquorice never was a native plant of cold West Yorkshire. It derived from much hotter climbs such as Turkey and Iraq.

In Yorkshire, it took up to five years to grow the plant from seed to harvest. Whereas in its native countries, this process only took two years. It became much easier to import liquorice rather than wait for the Pontefract crops to ripen.

Liquorice Manufactureres

Nowadays, there are only two sweet manufacturers in Pontefract. These are Haribo and Monkhill Confectionery which are both owned by Cadbury.

Liquorice crops are still imported from hotter locations. However, the plant is on the comeback in Pontefract.

Local farmer Robert Copley announced in 2012 that he would be growing the crop on his farm just outside of the town. This would create the country’s only liquorice manufacturing centre in the country.

Mining Town

Pontefract was not only known for its confectionery industry. The town was also a mining town during the Industrial Revolution.

It was home to the country’s oldest working coal mine, the Prince of Wales Colliery. This was to be one of the last to close in 2002. The site where the colliery proudly stood is now a housing estate.

The pit-workers lived in the ancient village of Tanshelf. This was a close-knit community of 1870’s back to back houses which were demolished in the late 1960’s.

Market Town

Nowadays, Pontefract is a market town. It has stalls that trade on most days of the week.

The town’s main employment comes from the town itself or local areas. These are Ferrybridge power station, its two confectionery factories, and service industries such as supermarkets which have sprouted up around the town.

Pontefract has had a unique history. It’s one of the few places in Yorkshire which killed a king, wilfully destroyed a castle, and manufactured a plant more at home in the Mediterranean.

Pontefract Trivia

Pontefract Castle was one of the most fearsome fortifications in the country and was built on the site of an ancient Anglo Saxon burial ground.

During a visit to Pontefract Castle in the 16th Century, Catherine Howard, the 5th wife of Henry VIII, supposedly started her affair with Thomas Culpepper. Both were beheaded for their alleged act of infidelity.

In 1648 during the Civil War, a group of Royalists tricked their way into the castle as bed-collectors, only to take over the whole fortification!

Its name comes from the Roman words, “Ponte Fractus,” which means “broken bridge”.

Liquorice is a plant which normally grows in the Middle East, in places such as Iraq, Turkey, and Spain. 

The liquorice plant was introduced to Pontefract by monks who found the soil around the town to be just as good for growing it.

Ballot boxes in the town are sealed with a Pontefract cake.

Pontefract Baghill station is in the bottom ten least used railway stations in the country.

Pontefract’s motto is “Post mortem patris pro filio,” which means, “After the death of the farmer, support the son”.