The Holmfirth Coat of Arms

We’re not sure of the origin of Holmfirth’s arms which are used as the logo on our site. They were probably granted to the original Holmfirth Urban District Council. They do, however, remind us of the history of our district.

First quarter

This appears to be a sheep, uncomfortably suspended from its middle. In fact this is the heraldic device for a fleece. It’s in yellow, for which the heraldic term is “or” – it’s a golden fleece. This reflects the significance of wool – and the raising of sheep which inevitably accompanies it – in the economy of the Holme valley over along period.

“Sheep” is a fairly obvious element in the name of neighbouring Shepley; the word tells us it started in Anglo Saxon times as a clearing for sheep. So, less obviously, does the name of another neighbour, Shelley. Two Shaleys more or less face each other across Holmfirth itself, Victoria Park occupies one and the other, Shaley Top lies between Cliff and Totties. Finally, Scholes is said to be derived from a Danish word for shepherds’ huts, the same word is probably found in the name of Scaly Gate, a lane in Fulstone. These place names tell us that producing wool was an important part of life in our valley well before the Norman invasion while Washpit marks just one of the many places where sheep were given an annual wash right up until more recent times.

The name of Scholes suggests that the hamlet might have had its origins in a seasonal encampment for transhumance when sheep were brought out to pasture during the summer months, looked after by some of the older boys. Scholes and, post-enclosure, Scholes Moor were a patchwork of lands associated with all the townships south of the Holme so it appears that the Moor was common land shared by all of these townships.

After the Conquest the taxation records of 1297, which still survive show that out of seven men who were taxed in Holmfirth three had sheep in their possession, a total of 14 although a little later the manorial court record implied that Richard de la Grene, who in the taxation roll appears to have no sheep, had 24 and the following year John de Holne, who was taxed for 6 sheep, was fined for the escape (straying) of another 24. Although the taxation roll has slightly more bovines, including oxen, than sheep and every one of the seven men had some, it seems likely that there may have been rather more sheep than cows in the valley.

Any sort of farming is a way of life and one of the ways in which this was reflected in local custom was the traditional gift or bequest of a ewe lamb to a child. The lamb wasn’t a pet. It was hoped to grow to become a breeding ewe so that by the time the child grew up he or she might not only have profited from the yearly fleeces, they would have a small flock of the lamb’s progeny, even if the original animal was no longer alive.

Shepherding in hill country meant that sheep were able to roam over the unenclosed hills. Although sheep characteristically keep to their own territory they do tend to stray. In fact those of us who live where sheep are supposedly kept in enclosed fields can testify that more 700 years after the early manorial records, sheep still escape. This meant that sheep were and still are marked with their owners’ identification marks. This lead to the development of shepherds’ organisations to arrange for sheep to be periodically returned to their rightful places.

The raising of sheep is still part of the farming economy of the valley although now for meat rather than wool.

Second quarter

A sheaf and agricultural implements – a rake, a flail and a sickle. Although flocks of sheep can still be seen on the hills there is little clear evidence nowadays of the cultivation of crops. Nevertheless when conditions are right it’s still possible to see medieval ridge and furrow in the fields and quite often field walls are aligned with this long disused cultivation.

The sheaf should be seen as oats rather than wheat. The 1297 taxation record mentions oats and no other grain. In fact only John d Holne seems to have had none. Where other crops were grown these were so unusual as to merit a place name such as Ryecroft or Wheatclose. In the C18th the diarist Arthur Jessop mentions the cultivation of oats and Friezland oats several times. Although he himself was an apothecary he was cultivating these, or at least having them cultivated, for himself although he also makes it clear that this was common in the district. Despite Dr Johnson’s comment oat was not just food for horses, the oatcake was a staple in the West Riding.

In 1716 the agricultural revolution started to make its mark. A Terrier of Kirkburton parish for that year records in relation to tithes “Of late some persons have sown Turnips and Rapes and have payed for them as the Vicar and they could agree” although there’s no indication in what part of the parish these crops were grown. The industrial revolution also made its mark. Rural industries were generally carried out part time between the seasonal demands of cultivation and the clothiers were no exception. As the textile industry moved to the factory system the clothiers started to sell the farming side of their businesses. The growing population brought new markets; in the C20th many farms ran dairy herds, bottled at least some of their milk and ran milk rounds until growing regulation made the processing requirements unaffordable at small scale. Dairying is now concentrated on a single large scale dairy product business.

One of the consequences of grain cultivation was the establishment of corn mills. In particular a manorial mill was established more or less where Holmfirth Post Office stands today. It took advantage of the natural drop in the river as it flows round Mill Hill, the site of the bus station and car park, helped, at least in later times, by a weir. The name of the mill, Cartworth Mill, despite its being in Wooldale township, suggests an early date; in Domesday the townships on the right bank of the river are collectively described as “Cartworth” but the earliest written mention of “Holmfirth” is in the 1270s although there’s an implication that the name could have existed from the late C12th.

The mill was rented to a miller and all the inhabitants of this part of the manor were obliged to have their corn ground there. Until the establishment of a second mill at New Mill this made the mill a central location for the whole of the district. The miller took a share of the product, one sixteenth from August 1st to Christmas and one twentieth otherwise, as the price of grinding the corn which he would have been able to sell. Hollowgate and Towngate form part of a longer distance trading route from the salt wiches of Cheshire into the West Riding. The traders may have bought oatmeal to trade on and maybe stopped here to eat and rest after crossing Holme Moss or, on their return, before recrossing it. The mill, fed by the agricultural produce, and the trade it brought was probably the seed from which Holmfirth developed as a town.

Third quarter

The spinning wheel represents the history of textiles in the valley. This goes back to the middle ages. Wool was a source of much of England’s wealth for centuries but a lot of it was exported as raw wool especially to the low countries where value was added by weaving it into cloth. A domestic industry would have been encouraged by the manor. By the end of the C13th there were fullers and dyers down the Calder valley and a fulling mill at Alverthorpe and/or Wakefield. There was a dyer at Kirkburton by 1307 but no early indications of a fuller closer than Emley. Specialist weavers are less common; there was a family in Hipperholme by the 1270s and at least one in the Holmfirth area by the teens of the next century. The dyers and fullers would have been supported by unrecorded part-time weaving as a cottage industry. The industry might have been introduced from the low countries. There was a family of Flemings around Rastrick by the 1270s who acquired the lordship of Clifton and a de Gaunt [Ghent] family around Austonley and Upperthong as early as 1307.

Weaving may have started as a natural adjunct to the raising of sheep but at some point local wool production would have become insufficient and wool was bought from more distant sources. This brought us our best early glimpse of the Tudor manufacturers, caught in the preamble to an Act of Parliament of 1555: “the same inhabitants altogether do live by cloth making, and the great part of them neither getteth corn, nor is able to keep a horse to carry wools, nor yet to buy much wool at once, but hath ever used only to repair to the town of Halifax, and some other nigh thereunto, and there to buy upon the wool-driver [i.e. a travelling middleman which an Act of 1552 had banned], some a stone, some two, and some three or four, according to their ability, and to carry the same to their houses, some three, four, five, and six miles off, upon their heads and backs, and so to make and convert the same either into yarn or cloth, and to sell the same, and so to buy more wool of the wool-driver“.

By this time these men were called clothiers; they also described themselves as yeomen in their wills. They would have depended on the women and children of the household to prepare the wool for weaving. The clothier would have woven the cloth. Those who took larger quantities of wool might have also had weavers working for them for a wage.

The next good account is from Defoe in the early C18th. He came into the Calder valley over Blackstone Edge in a snow storm in mid August and then worked his way northwards across the grain of the country to Halifax. “the nearer we came to Hallifax, we found the houses thicker, and the villages greater in every bottom…the sides of the hills, which were very steep every way, were spread with houses…the land being divided into small enclosures, that is to say, from two acres to six or seven acres each, seldom more; every three or four pieces of land had a house belonging to it….wherever we pass’d any house we found a little rill or gutter of running water…and at every considerable house was a manufactury or work-house, and as they could not do their business without water, the little streams were so parted and guided by gutters or pipes, and by turning and dividing the streams, that none of those houses were without a river…running into and through their work-houses….the dying-houses, scouring-shops and places where they used this water, emitted the water again…thro’ the lands to the next…every clothier must keep a horse, perhaps two, to fetch and carry for the use of his manufacture, (viz.) to fetch home his wooll and his provisions from the market, to carry his yarn to the spinners, his manufacture to the fulling mill, and, when finished, to the market …every manufacturer generally keeps a cow or two, or more, for his family, and this employs the two, or three, or four pieces of enclosed land about his house, for they scarce sow corn enough for their cocks and hens…Among the manufacturers houses are likewise scattered an infinite number of cottages…in which dwell the workmen which are employed, the women and children of whom, are always busy carding, spinning….if we knock’d at the door of any of the master manufacturers, we presently saw a house full of lusty fellows, some at the dye-fat, some dressing the cloths, some in the loom, some one thing, some another, all hard at work, and full employed upon the manufacture, and all seeming to have sufficient business.

Evidently things had developed since Elizabethan times. The individual clothiers carrying out the work within the household had been replaced by entrepreneurs employing journeymen and outworkers. They could also afford horses. In fact there were still clothiers operating as individual weavers as well as those with larger businesses and despite his account weaving was combined with agriculture.

During the C18th yarn preparation became mechanised with specialist mills alongside the fulling mills. In the early C19th Defoe’s account of water management is echoed in the 1815 Will of John Goddard of Long Ing, Austonley. “I [leave to] my son Jonathan [the] dwellinghouse barn stable cowhouse dyehouse stove and outbuildings … garden and all t[the fields] reserving [for] my son George [the] water [overflowing] at the south east corner of the reservoir in the … close called the Long Ing and … the water flowing from the … reservoir into the … dyehouse which after being … used for the … dyehouse shall … be … diverted … at the south corner of the said dyehouse into a field … of my … son George called the Shroggs … I also give and devise unto my son George Goddard all that … messuage …with the barn cowhouse and coalhole … now in his own possession … at Booth House in Austonley … and also the vacant piece of land … between the coalhole and the necessary house“.

Nevertheless Jonathan then sold his share to George and left both farming and textiles and George sold the property for agricultural use and invested in a share of a mill. In the latter part of the C18th spinning and the processes up to it had been mechanised with powered machinery in specialised mills so that clothiers could buy yarn rather then raw wool. The more entrepreneurial clothiers moved into the mills, adding the finishing processes and also marketing their increasingly fancy products as far away as London. By the early C19th the mills were now the centre of the industry.

Looms had also been improved and power looms were weaving worsted, cotton and silk but the traditional woollens still had to be hand woven. Hand weaving was carried out by hand and houses were built or adapted with the characteristic rows of windows illuminating weaving windows. Although these domestic weavers were largely working for the mills John Goddard’s grandson Spencer was still describing himself as a clothier as late as 1871.

By the mid century steam power was introduced, initially to supplement water power during dry periods but eventually taking over as mills got bigger and more power looms were added and the valley acquired its once characteristic tall mill chimneys. The population increased with an influx of people from other parts of England and the rest of the UK. In the late C20th the mills suffered as production moved abroad. The textile industry is a fraction of what it was. The chimneys have been felled and the mills have been occupied by other businesses or replaced by houses.

Fourth quarter

This celebrates the musical tradition of the valley. The heraldic trumpets represent brass bands, the lyre the choral tradition and the laurel wreath the role of competition, three of the most important aspects of music making in the Holme Valley.

From the middle 1800s bands, both brass and silver, flourished with village bands being established, in Holme (1860), Wooldale (1864), Wooldale Town End (c 1870), Hinchliffe Mill (1872), Hepworth (1898), Hade Edge (c1885) and Holmfirth Temperance Band and Holmfirth Old Band (sometime between 1840 and 1850).

Singing in a chapel or church choir was and continues to be enjoyed by many people taking part in both religious services and social events and as members of Holmfirth Choral Society. It has always been that both brass bands and choir participated in the celebrations on village feast days and chapel and church Sings. Feast and Church Sings were held out of doors and not only the choirs but the general public could participate.

Vocal and instrumental competition at local, county and national level was and still is a most successful part of valley music making.