Holne, Holme and Holmfirth in history

These names have different meanings in different contexts. To understand them we have to go back to at least the Norman conquest.

Holn/Holne/Holme – township and village

Before the Norman conquest the Anglo-Saxons had introduced townships (also called vills) as a unit of land division. Townships were substantial areas of land – in many cases manors and/or parishes are coterminous with them. Holne was one of these townships and the name also became applied to the village which forms its main settlement. It can be spelled with or without an ‘e’ at the end and eventually evolved into Holme. The word derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for holly.

Holnfrith/Holnfirth/Holmfirth – the forest

We know from the Domesday Book that before the Norman conquest there was a royal estate stretching from Cartworth township to Wakefield and beyond. Part of this was a hunting ground called Cartworth Chase extending along the right bank of the river as far as Thurstonland. The townships such as Holne on left bank of the river comprised a separate, privately owned estate.

After the conquest this royal estate was included in the huge manor of Wakefield. The manor was granted to the Warren family although there was subsequent reversion and regranting. Somehow – there’s no record of the process – the townships on the left bank, Holne etc, were incorporated in the manor and added to what had been the Chase and Thurstonland was removed form it. It was still a hunting ground but known by the Norman term of forest or frith. The name had also changed to that of Cartworth to Holne: the forest of Holne or Holnfrith. This evolved to Holmfirth.

In modern terms (and running more or less anti-clockwise from the north) the forest consisted of Upperthong, Austonley, Holme, Cartworth, Hepworth, Wooldale and Fulstone. Forest was a legal term. It didn’t mean woodland and Holnefrith didn’t mean Hollywood; it meant an area to which forest law, protecting game, applied. Forest use coexisted with a local, agricultural population. The use as a forest appears to have come to an end in the 1560s.

In some respects the whole forest area was treated as a township: in at least two medieval taxations Holmfirth, in whatever spelling, is recorded as a whole although individual townships elsewhere were recorded individually. Similarly, a single constable of Holne was appointed rather than one for each township. The honorary post of chief constable of the graveship of Holme still exists. The holder is elected for an indeterminate duration by such inhabitants as choose to attend the election.

Holne/Holme – the graveship

The manor was so large that it was subdivided for administrative purposes. One of the manorial tenants was appointed on a yearly basis to oversee the administration of each subdivision, particularly the collection of money due to the manor. In most of England this official would have been called a reeve but in Wakefield he was a grave and the area he administered was a graveship.

The seven townships of Holmfirth were combined with another six, Thurstonland, Shepley, Shelley, Burton (Kirkburton), Emley and Flockton to form a graveship. This graveship took its name from Holne as the graveship of Holne. The latter six townships had become sub-manors, granted as parts of their fees to knights who would support the lord of Wakefield in the service he had to provide the king under the terms of the feudal grant. Although the sub-manors collected their own rents and other property charges they fell within the jurisdiction of the manorial court as far as offences such as affray were concerned.

In the C17th the crown sold the manor. It was resold several times and ended up in the possession of the Duke of Leeds. In 1709 a survey was conducted for the Duke. In that survey the graveship was restricted to the seven townships of the old forest. The thirteen township entity that constituted the old graveship was described as the Holmfirth branch of the manor.

In the manorial records Holne can refer to the township, the forest or the graveship according to context.

Holme – the river

Use of Holme for the name of the river is surprisingly recent. In many sources it was called the Colne and this name was used in manorial records as late as the 1810s. It was also referred to by such terms as the Holmfirth water. It appears on the first 6″ OS map as the Holme, however, and it seems likely that this usage would have cemented from then on.

Holmfirth – the chapelry

Like the manors, parishes in the Pennines were large. The forest fell within two parishes, Almondbury for the three left bank townships and Kirkburton for the rest. Kirkburton, township and church actually lay within the graveship but Almondbury wasn’t even in the manor; it was part of the other major landholding in this part of Yorkshire, the Honour of Pontefract. Kirkburton established a chapel of ease in Wooldale township on the site of the present Holmfirth church, close to the river, the manorial mill (on the site of the present bus station) and the boundary with Cartworth. The chapel served all townships of the forest in both parishes except for Fulstone which was close enough to Kirkburton for the inhabitants to use the parish church. The chapel was known as Holmfirth chapel and the name also applied to the Holmfirth chapelry, the territory it served. The chapelry was eventually broken up in the C19th by the establishment of separate parishes, the chapel itself eventually becoming the parish church.

Holmfirth – the town

Settlements in the area were historically located on the higher parts of the valley sides. There is little flat ground in the valley bottom, certainly not enough to establish the common fields that might support a medieval village. The valley sides have flat steps and there are flat ridges between the side valleys. It was on such sites that the townships’ hamlets were established.

Despite the narrowness of the site the church and mill, located on either side of a route used for cross-Pennine trade formed a natural focus for the community. A small settlement grew up there but the name of Holmfirth only appears in this sense in the parochial records in the late Tudor times and in other writings by the mid-C17th; by the 1720s and ’30s this more limited usage had finally overtaken the more general one. It still had no legal meaning as a settlement – someone living behind the church, for example, would be an inhabitant of Wooldale for all official purposes. In the mid C19th the town was growing rapidly and, despite a lack of official status, were taking more responsibility for its development.

Holmfirth – the local government area

In the late C19th there were a series of initiatives to provide local government. In the 1860s the townships were represented by local boards, including one for Scholes which had previously been divided up between several townships. In the 1880s Upperthong, Wooldale and Cartworth joined to become the Holmfirth Local Board. In the 1890s they were joined by Austonley to become Holmfirth Urban District Council. Fulstone, Hepworth and Scholes became became New Mill UDC and Holme Local Board remained separate as Holme UDC. In 1937 all these UDCs plus Netherthong, Honley and part of Thurstonland and Farnley Tyas merged into an enlarged Holmfirth UDC. The old townships survived as electoral wards.

In 1974 the Holmfirth UDC was absorbed into Kirklees Metropolitan Council, a local government unit named after a locality that lies outside its own boundary. The townships after about 1000 years of existence became extinct, only a few of them, such as Holme, being remembered in the names of their principal settlements