West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History



The following account, published in Local History Magazine, March 1990, found Eric sharing his interests and skills in a way which will enthuse others to follow his example. The Great North Road, he suggests, once followed a route which took travellers through Pontefract. The change in the roads course may have had something to do with the weather.

POntefract Broken Bridge

This painting of the site of the broken bridge as it appeared a century ago accompanied Eric’s article in Local History Magazine and was reproduced by permission of J. Whitehead

Archaeology is a series of techniques which recover and make available to historians data from non-written sources. As such it is an invaluable adjunct to local history. The historian who ignores the mass of unwritten evidence does so at his/her peril, and at the considerable risk of negating many of his/her subsequent conclusions.

Local history is limited only by the skill and expertise of its exponents. It is often thought of as the study of the recent past of a locality, but this seventeenth to twentieth century fixation is quite likely to be the result of sheer laziness, as recent sources are easier to read and understand. The ideal combination of skills seems to be embodied in the local historian who has studied archaeology to a reasonably high level, or an archaeologist who takes an interest in local history. In the absence of such a person, collaboration between two specialists can be extremely fruitful. Having worked with a gifted local historian on a number of problems, I have come to believe strongly in this approach.

The most notable occasion was when we solved the problem of Pontefract’s name. The etymology is pretty obvious – Ponte Fractus means broken bridge in both Latin and Old French, but the real problem is that no river has flowed sufficiently close to the town in recent times to make a bridge necessary! The river Aire passes at Castleford about three miles to the northwest, and at Knottingley, three miles east. One antiquarian suggested, not very convincingly, that the name was originally applied to sub-Roman Castleford (LAGENTIUM) and transferred to Pontefract when the whole population moved there in the (conveniently) Dark Ages.

As modern travellers will know the Great North Road, (A1M) crosses the Aire at Ferrybridge. My historian colleague, the late Harry Battye, found several references to the old Great North Road in Pontefract. My own archaeological aerial photography had already suggested a minor Roman road running north/south across the eastern side of the town. Were these two routes, separated by a millennium, the same? Further research in the archives showed that both Camden and Leland visited the town during the sixteenth century, and both described the site of the Broken Bridge as tradition located it. Camden’s description is long and wordy, and so Leland’s is quoted here in full…

"Sum old people constantely adfirme that the Rigge of Watelyng Streate went thorough the Park of Pontfract. As far as I can gether this is the Toune caullid Legeolium. After it was caullid Brokenbridg. Ruines of such a bridge yet ys seene scant half a mile Est owt of old Pontfract; but I cannot justely say that this bridge stoode ful on Watheling Streate." Leland’s Itinery, p 40.

Convincing as this sounds, only one historian before the present century has believed it, chiefly because the location is today so far from the present town. This documentary evidence and further research in the field all pointed at an area known since at least the sixteenth century as The Wash. This is where the present east/west road and the theoretical north/south road would both have to cross a small watercourse called Washbeck. This spot already had historical significance for two reasons; a farmhouse near the present beck bridge was reputed to be the place where Edward IV spent the night before the battle of Ferrybridge (two days before Towton, 1461), and very close by, a romanesque cross-shaft fragment was discovered in the presence of the present writer, in 1960.

At this point chance took a hand. In 1969 a deep building-foundation was excavated at the precise spot in question. There, in section, was the undoubted evidence of a north/south road, banked against flooding, and linking with an extant lane, alongside which the base of the above mentioned cross-shaft still stands!

So far, all our evidence for this north/south road was pre-c1320. After this period the village of Ferrybridge begins to be mentioned, which implies that the route was diverted three miles east. What event, culminating in the reign of Edward II, could cause a diversion in the kingdoms main highway?

This time palynology supplied the answer. Palynology is pollen-analysis, a branch of environmental archaeology which supplies approximate dates and accurate climatic information for periods as far back as the last ice age. It tells us that at various times in the recent past there have been wet periods during which rainfall has increased considerably. The historical results of these wet phases are too complex to discuss here, but researchers seeking a reason for, say, a run of bad harvests or a series of floods, should consult their regional unit’s palynologist for expert help.

In the case in point, there is a clearly defined wet phase beginning about AD1200. Obviously the effect would be cumulative. Historical records tell us that drains were dug as the Wash area became increasingly susceptible to flooding. When the approach to the vital bridge became impossible, travellers diverted east to Ferrybridge. Interestingly, there was another, more recent wet phase between 1900 and 1940. Many old residents of the Wash area, including the writer’s parents and grandparents, describe floods during that period. At least one old photograph shows the water backing up over half a mile towards the town. So, from about 1320 only those sections of the old road which were of local value remained in use.

This short article probably gives the impression that everything fell nicely into place. In fact our research took place intermittently over a period from the mid-1960s until 1979 when my friend and colleague died. By then, we were both certain of our conclusions, and had presented them in public lectures and in Harry’s recently published book, which sadly, he never saw in print.

I hope that in this short article I have shown that no single research technique could have proved conclusively where the broken bridge actually stood. What none of them do is to tell us why the bridge was broken in the first place. I feel that at some time in the future, some researcher will stumble upon the answer; I hope I am there to see it.

Eric Houlder


Shortly after this article had been first published, new road works to eliminate flooding during wet weather at the Broken Bridge site, revealed an intact stone arch deep beneath the road. Unfortunately it was destroyed without record other than a description given by a witness!


Site constructed and maintained by Michael Norfolk
This website is Copyright © 2005-2013 [www.pontefractus.co.uk] All Rights Reserved