A Brief History of the Fairburn Area.


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We know from one or two historical records that even 1000 years ago the land bordering the river Aire between Ferrybridge and Castleford was marshy and subject to flooding. The Battle of Winwoed in 655 between Penda, King of Mercia, and the Christian King Oswi of Northumbria was fought north-east of Leeds, about where Seacroft is now. Penda was killed and his forces fled south, taking the easy passage of the Roman Road through the forest which filled the valley of the Winwoed (The Aire), reaching the river between Castleford and Ferrybridge where the marshes, at that time, were flooded. The Venerable Bede writes: "More of the Mercians were drowned, as they fled, in the river Winwoed, then overflowing its banks, -than had fallen by the swords of the Northumbrians." In the long struggle between Saxons and Danes in the north it is recorded kat the Danes attacked King Eadred on his retreat "at Chesterford as he and his men were crossing the River Aire."

        In 1069, as William the Conqueror was marching his army north to York, he was held up for three weeks on the Pontefract side of the river because Brotherton marsh and the area which is now the Reserve were inundated. Both the ford at Castleford and the ferry, some three miles down river, were it seems occasionally useless.

        Fairburn was a Saxon village, although Danes must have settled in the neighbourhood. Many of the field and stream names are of Scandinavian origin. In the year 1030 the village was called Farenburne (the stream amongst the ferns). By the time Doomsday Book was compiled (1084-86) the name had become Fareburne and the village was held by a Saxon chief Ligulf - who also held Ledsham - under the Norman overlord, Ilbert de Lacy. A man with the Scandi- navian name of Haelward (Seafowl's son) had a manor at Newton.

        During the next century a good deal of land at Fairburn and Ledston, together with Ledsham church, were granted to the monks of St. John at Pontefract, which was then known as Kirkby. This grant also included fishing rights along the river from Wheldale to Castleford, now the southwestern boundary of the Reserve.

        By 1159 the manor at Newton belonged to the Walleys family, and for at least seven generations this family occupied the moated manor house which became known as Newton Abbey (ab-bé is a house surrounded by water). The last fragmentary ruins of this building have now almost dis- appeared in the marsh of the Reserve.

        About the year 1300, Newton Manor had 84 acres of arable land; a ferry over the Aire worth two shillings a year; and fishing rights worth sixpence a year. There was also a dovecot yielding two shillings yearly from the sale of doves' dung - a product which was still profitable almost 500 years later. There was one freeholder, seven bondsmen and six "cotters" or cottage holders; and each year on St. Oswald's day the lord of the manor had to pay to a man called Sir William Clarel either two shillings or one sparrow hawk.

        In Fairburn itself, several families owned land during the 12th and 13th centuries, including the de Birkins and the de Farburns. In 1212 Symon, the prepositus or teacher of the village, was concerned in a feud and was apparently murdered by Nigel de Farburn. Nigel, it seems, had sworn vengeance on Symon for previously drawing a dagger on him. Symon seems to have been something of a rogue because in 1170 he was "amerced" (punished or fined) for a default. We read: "Nigel de Faribum was appealed (called to witness) by Ranulph, son of William Young .... that being in a certain ship with Symon, to cross over the water of Eir, he took the said Symon and threw him into the water so that he perished." Nigel denied the felony, stating as his defence that Symon was drowned on Palm Sunday and he was not accused until Michaelmas. A few years after this, it is recorded that there was a chapel-of-ease at Fairburn, dedicated to "the blessed Thomas" and in charge of Germanus, son of the chaplain of Ledstone. How long this chapel was maintained we do not know - possibly until the Reformation. The present Church of St. James was not built until 1846. For centuries, when Fair- burn had no church of its own, the coffins of the dead were carried along the Corpse Road through the fields to Ledsham for burial.

        Early in the 14th century a good bridge was built alongside the ferry where the Great North Road crossed the Aire north-east of Pontefract. and thus Ferrybridge came into existence. (There may have been a foot or pack horse bridge thereabouts from early times. The road beyond the bridge to the north had to cross Brotherton Ings, which were equally as rich in bird life as the present Reserve until they were used by the Y.E.B. for tipping ash from their Ferrybridge power station).

        Because of the marshy character of this area just north of the river, the Bishop of Durham announced the granting of Indulgences or pardons for sins, to those who contributed money or labour towards building a causeway between Brotherton and Ferrybridge. The causeway was mentioned 200 years later by the famous traveller, Leland, whose itinerary reads:
"Thus by the strait crest of Watheling Street a three miles or more, and then leaving it on the right hand I went to Brotherton (where Thomas, sunne to King Edward the first, was borne, the Quene by chaunce laboring as she went on Hunting) a three miles; and then by a Causey of Stone with divers Bridges over it to dreane the low Medow Waters on the left hand into Aire River, about a mile to Ferry-Bridge where the first Lord Fitzgualter of the Radecliffes was killed, flying from Cokbeg felds. Then over Fery-Bridge of Vij arches, under which rennet Aire."

        The causeway, the marshes and Ferrybridge itself were all of considerable strategic importance during battles in the area, both during the War of the Roses and the Civil War.

        The Ledsham-with-Fairburn parish registers which date from 1538 and are among the oldest in the country, tell us that churchwarden James Hewit of Fairburn was killed at the bottom of a pit in 1613. Fields in Fairburn about this time included: New Close, Meddle Ghylles Close, the Wet Field, the Shrogge Field, Town Close, Littlefield Close, Gylles Inge, Low Gylles, Lamberkin Close and Dovecote Field.

        One curious fact evident from the parish registers was the large proportion of cordwainers (shoemakers) who lived and presumably worked at Fairburn during the last century. Coal- miners in Fairbum are not named specifically in the register until 1838, after which they are mentioned regularly. Mining subsidence must not have occurred to any appreciable extent until about 60 years ago. Sometime between the 17th and 19th centuries the marshy land at Fairbum and Newton appears to have been drained and turned into farmland which only flooded when the river was exceptionally high.

        It appears to have been in the early 1600s that another geological feature off the district was first exploited. At that time, a man named Thomas Fuller wrote: "At Fairborne, near Ledsham by Leeds, are several quarries of Alabaster - the finest is used for images and funeral monuments - for which are dug up pieces of a tun weight - sometimes two or three tun weight." A well-known antiquarian of the 18th century, George Vertue, stated that the magnesium lime- stone in the neighbourhood was also widely used for agricul- ture.

        Names taken from the parish registers of 1723 and 1732 include: Fairborn Ings; Limpool Close; Coal Close; Willow Beck Close; Caudle Hill Close; Swinmarch; Horse Close; Holm Lane or Holmlake Close; Little Garth; Rye Garth; and Millergarth.

        In a dictionary of places in Yorkshire, dated 1822, we read:
"Farburn is in the parish of Ledsham. Population 426. A tunnel of upwards of 300 yards in length is about to be driven under this village ... to communicate with a canal to facilitate the Lime Works of Lord Palmerston."
The canal was the "Cut" on the Reserve leading to the river Aire which, from Ferrybridge to Allerton Bywater, had been incorporated into the Goole to Leeds canal and was, therefore, a canalised river. At that time the, river was frequented by many sailing boats. Now it forms part of the important waterway connecting the West Riding with the Humber ports.

        A survey published 16 years later shows that since 1822 the population had risen to 465, the tunnel was in full operation, and the village was "noted for its extensive quarries of excel- lent limestone and alabaster suitable both for plaster and funeral monuments." It also states that Lord Palmerston gave coals and £10 per year to the village school. There are records, which we have not been able to confirm, that limestone quarried at Fairburn was used in the re-building of the Houses of Parliament during Lord Palmerston's lifetime. His shooting lodge, above Caudle Hill Wood, is still named Palmerston Lodge.

        The railway which bounds the eastern end of the Reserve was opened in 1840, and was part of the pet scheme of the 14 railway king," George Hudson, whose motto was: "Mak 'em all cum to York." It was the first line to connect York with London, joining with the North Midland Railway at Altofts. After about 20 years, rail transport superseded the canal so far as the quarries and lime works were concerned; the tunnel ceased to be used and became the derelict curiosity whose entrance can still be seen beyond the top of the "cut." The hummocks in the orchard nearby are the remains of lime kilns. During the general strike of 1926, the solid cone of stone, part of the winch by which trucks were pulled through the tunnel, was hauled up by horses and mounted on a plinth to become the, village cross.

        On the other hand, the river was becoming more and more important to the collieries along its banks, but subsidence and frequent flooding were causing problems. In 1892 the Calder Navigation and the Wheldale Coal Company agreed to build a watertight flood bank of colliery waste along the bank of the river between Wheldale Farm and Wheldale Basin, and this was successful for a time. In 1898, three brothers called Greaves rented the Fairburn Estate shooting rights from the trustees of Lord Palmerston's estate. The youngest of these brothers has recorded that the effects of mining subsidence began to show at the turn of the century by increased areas of marsh and open water. Land between the Newton - Fairburn road and the river became the haunt of swans and wildfowl - at first only surface feeders. Diving ducks arrived when the stretches of open water became deep enough.

        By 1913 the maintenance of the canalised river was again proving difficult and in November another agreement was made between the Calder Navigation and the Wheldale Coal Company - this time for slag banks to be built all along the northern bank of the river from Wheldale to the railway viaduct. With further subsidence the extent of marsh and open water increased and the Coal Board acquired the land which was by then regarded as fit only for tipping. Its increasing importance as a wildfowl refuge, unique in Yorkshire, was only recognised by naturalists in Yorkshire in the late 1950s.

        Newton was formerly Newton Wallis and references to "Waleys" start in 1283. Newton was held along with Burghwallis by the family of Waleys. Interesting local names include Holy Rood Lane, Ledsham Beacon, Madbanks, Newton Abbey (Newton Abberth in 1771), Plaster Pits (Middle English plaister, gypsum), Wormstall Wood (worstall was a shed for cattle to use in hot weather to avoid flies). Field names include: Breary Furrows, Butter Staddles, Hell Com- mon, Hospital Flatt, Hurl Hill, Nooking Close, Outgang Close and Woman Roodis.

        The little pit-head hamlet of Newton, connected by shaft with the pit below, consisted of three rows of cottages, two other cottages, and a farm. This small community had its own school and its own chapel which was a room above a barn at the farm.

        The pit-shaft became disused long beyond living memory. The shell of the school is still there and the farm still flourishes. At the time when the Nature Reserve came into being, the three rows of cottages (locally nick-named "Heaven, Hell and Paradise") still stood at Newton, but one by one they have been abandoned and demolished.

Source: An extract from"Fairburn and its Nature Reserve, An account of the History and Natural History of the Area"
ISBN: O 85206 188 9

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