Pontefract

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



The town of Pontefract is made up of two ancient settlements, Tanshelf and Kirkby, which merged to form the town we know today. There is evidence of human life in the area, dating back to Neolithic times with the discovery of a “henge” or earthwork at nearby Ferrybridge. The location of Pontefract lay on a ridge as part of the old Roman Road, known nowadays as the A639, which was an alternative route from Doncaster to York, via Castleford. This route may have been used to avoid crossing the Humber estuary during periods of bad weather.

In Anglo-Saxon Times the two settlements of Tanshelf and the smaller, Kirkby developed into villages separate from each other. The former was a meeting point where Northumbrian councillors pledged allegiance to their Anglo-Saxon King, Eadred, in his war against the Vikings only to break their oaths and accept the Norseman, Eric Bloodaxe as their monarch.

The settlement of Tanshelf was recorded as having a population of 25 villagers, fourteen ploughlands and a priest, while Kirkby, not mentioned by name, was classed as part of the same manor.

The name “Pontefracto,” first recorded in 1090, means “broken bridge” and is believed to be named after an Anglo-Saxon uprising against Norman rule in 1069. They broke the bridge crossing the river Aire to prevent the French from accessing York and other towns in the area. Once the Normans had brought the North of England under control they built castles in order to assert their authority against the local population and defend 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, with its strong defences and dark history. 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 is 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 and saw action during both the Wars of the Roses and English Civil War; where it was of a Royalist persuasion.

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

 

The town around it also grew, becoming the fourth largest settlement in Yorkshire and a major town in the West Riding. Market days were granted on a Wednesday and Saturday, meaning that Pontefract became a thriving trading town. The castle’s vast lands covered Leeds, Bradford and areas towards Huddersfield, all of which were far smaller settlements at the time. Having one of the North’s most impenetrable and desirable castles on your doorstep is not always a blessing. The War of the Roses, which took place sporadically from 1455 to 1487, saw much 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, who eventually won but only after the Royalists had held out for longer than anywhere else in the country.

The trouble that Pontefract castle had brought to the town and to Oliver Cromwell’s forces saw it being destroyed just three days after the end of the siege, with much celebration throughout the town! It may also explain why the ruins of the castle, more devastated than most, lay forgotten for many centuries afterwards.

After the destruction of its castle, Pontefract needed a new identity. The hub of the community shifted towards its marketplace and a previously unknown plant, which had been introduced to the town during the time of the Crusades suddenly, became its largest industry.

Liquorice has had a long history in other parts of the world since Ancient Times and was 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. It was originally grown by monks at their monastery in the town. Liquorice production was revived during the Tudor period but really caught on in the 18th and 19th Centuries when it became the town’s main industry.

Pontefract’s sandy soil, enriched by the waste which flowed down the River Aire from Leeds and Bradford, made the ideal conditions for liquorice plants to grow. The Northern climate also ensured that the plant did not flower, meaning that its roots kept a sweet flavour and therefore could be manufactured into sweets. Originally starting out as lozenges to ease colds and coughs, sugar was added to these recipes around 1750 to make Pontefract cakes.

By 1885 there were ten liquorice manufacturers in Pontefract and the surrounding fields, plus the site of the old castle were full of these crops. Business was booming and demand was high for these new sweets during the early part of the 20th Century. However, the inevitable decline soon followed.

Firstly sweet tastes were changing and chocolate was becoming more popular and affordable. Secondly some of the family-run liquorice companies were taken over by larger ones such as Bassett’s of Sheffield’s acquisition of Pontefract’s Wilkinson’s in 1961 meaning that production moved elsewhere. Furthermore the fact that liquorice never was a native plant of cold West Yorkshire and derived from much hotter climes, such as Turkey and Iraq had an effect too. In Yorkshire it took up to five years to grow the plant from seed to harvest, while in its native countries this process took only two years. Therefore it became easier to import liquorice from these places than waiting for the Pontefract crops to ripen.

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

 

Nowadays there are only two sweet manufacturers in Pontefract, Haribo and Monkhill Confectionary, owned by Cadbury’s. Their crops are still imported from hotter locations such as Italy and Turkey. Liquorice though is on the comeback in Pontefract. Local farmer, Robert Copley announced in 2012 that he was to start growing the crop on his farm just outside the town and create the country’s only liquorice manufacturing centre in the country.

As well as the confectionary industry, Pontefract also became a mining town during the Industrial Revolution. It was home to the country’s oldest working coal mine, the Prince of Wales Colliery, which was also one of the last to close in 2002. The site in which the colliery once proudly stood is set to be turned into a housing estate and park. The pit-workers lived in the ancient village of Tanshelf, a close-knit community of 1870s back-to back houses, which were demolished in the late 1960s.

Nowadays Pontefract is principally a market town, with trading on most days of the week. Employment comes from the nearby Ferrybridge power station, its two remaining confectionary factories and service industries, such as supermarkets, which have sprouted up around the town.

Pontefract has had a unique and colourful history, one of the few places in Yorkshire which killed a king, wilfully destroyed its castle and manufactured a plant more at home in the Mediterranean. There aren’t many other towns like Ponte!


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

Pontefract Castle was once one of the biggest and most feared fortifications in Yorkshire. It was destroyed after the Civil War, much to the joy of the local population and lay derelict for many years, used only by liquorice growers in the 19th Century.

Nowadays it is a growing tourist attraction. At the time of writing the castle ruins are free to enter and there are guided tours 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. The site is now owned by Wakefield Council and the attraction has recently received a £3m lottery grant to improve its facilities and visitor experience. Construction work will continue into 2015 in order to open up parts of the castle which has not been accessible since 1649, including the Gascoigne Tower and old Victorian footpaths. Three new viewing platforms, improved access to the sally port, the part where troops would exit the castle, more information boards and path resurfacing are all part of the new plans amongst others.

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

 

The Pontefract Museum is located in the heart of the town and charts the long, colourful history of the town and its people. Visitors can view exhibitions about the history of the castle, admire extensive collections of Knottingley glass and photographs of the town’s history. There are also displays on how the town grew through both the liquorice trade and coal mining. For those interested in architecture the museum building is of an art noveau design with original fittings from when it was constructed in 1904.

Just outside the town is Copley’s corn maze , a summer attraction, 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 are also a cafe’ and farm shop on site as a reward for completing the puzzle.

Pontefract Park, located next to the racecourse boasts an angling lake, nature reserve and two miles of footpaths for cycling and running. There are also sporting facilities in the shape of tennis courts, golf course and a play area for the children.

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

 

Although there are no theatres in Pontefract the town does have a number of performance companies and amateur dramatics societies, such as Stagecoach, Time 2 Shine and the Carleton Theatre Group, who regularly perform at the Community Centre.

Pontefract Town Hall was built in 1785 and stands proudly in the heart of the main street. It was the scene of the first Parliamentary secret ballot in the Northern Hemisphere during a by-election of 1872. This was a giant step towards the modern democracy which we know today as before then those who were lucky enough to vote would have to do so in public which was 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.

The Pontefract Liquorice festival is an annual event which takes place every year and celebrates its confectionary heritage. There are various children’s workshops including liquorice jewellery and puppet making amongst others. Street entertainers also dress up as favourite liquorice characters and there are many sweet stalls to try. At the library there are talks about the crop’s history by local scholars.

Nightlife in the town revolves around a thriving pub scene in hostelries such as “The Robin Hood,” “The Broken Bridge,” and The Blue Bell Inn,” plus nightclubs such as “Big Fella’s” and “Silks.”

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

Remarkably for a place of Pontefract’s medium size it has three railway stations, with Monkhill, Baghill and Tanshelf suffixes respectively. The former, Pontefract Monkhill is the oldest and was built in 1848 on the Goole to Wakefield line. After becoming a goods only station, serving the nearby power stations, passenger services re-opened again in 1992 with journeys to Leeds, Castleford and Goole. Significantly in 2009 Pontefract Monkhill became part of the new Bradford to London Kings Cross service giving the town a link to the capital for the first time.

Pontefract Tanshelf was a station built in 1871 for the nearby (now demolished) community of the same name to transport coal miners to and from the Colliery, timed for the beginning and end of their shifts. After its closure in the 1960s it was re-opened again in 1992 to serve the racecourse. It also runs other services to Wakefield Kirkgate Station, where passengers can get a connection to Leeds, Halifax and Bradford.

Baghill was built in 1879 and runs on the Dearne Valley line, which connects the town to Sheffield and York. Pontefract Baghill is one of the least busiest train stations in Yorkshire.

The nine-stand Pontefract bus station runs services to places such as Leeds, Castleford, Selby, Doncaster and Wakefield.

Pontefract has had a long tradition in market trading and even today has some kind of stalls operating in the town nearly every day of the week. Its outdoor market days are Wednesday and Saturday, with stalls ranging from fresh fruit and veg to fish, ladies clothing and confectionary. The smaller Friday market has an emphasis on food, produce and flowers, while the covered market operates from Monday to Saturday. Shopping in Pontefract revolves around the Salters Row precinct which boasts several high street names. One of the town’s most unique shops is “Hariboland,” which sells all of the products made in the town’s factories and around the world.

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 and its course at 2.5 miles is the longest continuous flat racing circuit in Europe. Despite this, Pontefract racecourse does not hold a classic race, but still manages to pull in punters from all over the county. As the town’s historic castle was being torn down by its people the first horse races were being staged in the surrounding meadows. 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, where its centre is used by professional players for training. The town’s football team, are an amateur team who compete in the Northern Counties East League and play at Skinner Lane, next to where the coal mine used to be.

Other sports in Pontefract include squash, where its centre is used by professional players for training. The town’s football team, Pontefract Collieries FC are an amateur team who compete in the Northern Counties East League and play at Skinner Lane, next to where the coal mine used to be.

Pontefract New College provides higher education in the town and was founded in 1987. It has a range of A-Level and B-tec courses amongst others in areas such as Sport, IT, Business along with more traditional subjects.

The historical market town of Pontefract is a unique place on the Yorkshire map with plenty to see and do.



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 is where Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII 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.

Licquorice is a plant which normally grows in the Middle East, in places such as Iraq, Turkey and slightly closer to home in Spain. The 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 Ponterfract 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.”