West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History



In Tateshale there are 16 carucates of land without geld where 9 ploughs may be. Now Ilbert has 4 ploughs there are 60 small burgesses and 16 cottars and 16 villaines and 8 bordars having 18 ploughs. A church is there and a priest. 1 fishery and three mills rendering 42 shillings and three acres of meadow. Wood for pasture 1 leaguer in length and half a leaguer in breadth. The whole manor 1 leaguer and a half in length and half a leaguer in breadth. TRE (tempera Rex Edwardus) 400 shillings, now 300 shillings. Within this limit is also contained the almsland of the poor.

This is the entry for Pontefract translated into modern English. Before the excavations of the mid 1980s, no one knew the locations of any of the buildings mentioned in the entry. However, the fishery, a series of ponds designed to supply fish for Fridays, had been located by Richard Holmes in what is now Grace’s scrapyard along the line of the Washbeck at the base of Baghill. Two of the watermills (this was before the introduction of the windmill) were almost certainly sited where the medieval watermills survived into recent memory: in Mill Dam and beneath the railway embankment behind The Cobbler’s.

The ‘80s excavations found the remains of the first Norman township along Tanner’s Row and up the Booths. Beneath this was a cemetery containing 178 complete skeletons and the fragmented remains of a further 55. As it continued out of the excavation area, and was found beneath the buildings of the Castle, it must have been very extensive. C14 tests of two of the skeletons supplied dates of AD 690 and AD 950, both with standard deviations of 10%.

In the centre of the cemetery were the foundations of a stone church, with traces of a previous wooden structure beneath. Standing on this spot it is possible to see that Baghill Lane above the railway bridge, and Monkhill Lane, are both aligned on this building.

The Skeletons

Average height of the adult males was 5’7", and the females 5’3". Evidence of disease was found in several individuals, including one child with scurvy. 25 people suffered from iron deficiency, evinced by pepperpot pitting in the root of the skull.

One child only suffered from Ricketts, resulting from calcium deficiency. Lines and pitting on the teeth showed that several other individuals had a lesser degree of calcium deficiency.

Fifty two percent of all births failed to survive past the age of ten! Even this danger-decade had its black spot: the years between two and five when nearly 20% died. Thereafter, mortality declines steeply to the relatively safer years between sixteen and twenty-five when only 7.7% died.

Twenty-six to thirty-five had a 21% mortality, presumably because the females were in the dangerous childbearing years whilst the males were of military age. And, of course, most people were already dead! Only eight percent of births lived to see forty-five!

The Norman Conquest

When Ilbert de Lacy arrived to take over his lands, he probably found a thriving town surrounding the church and cemetery. However, he had to cut away much soil and rock on the east of his new castle to make a steep scarp slope. This removed much of the cemetery. The spoil was replaced further down the hill, covering the now demolished church. A new church was built where All Saint’s now stands, and a completely new street pattern laid over the fill. This was the street pattern of Tanners Row, The Booths and Beech Hill.

Thus, the main street of his town was The Booths, leading from the castle’s east gate to the church. Only in the following century did the town expand into what we now call the Market Place. For many years this was called the New Market. Even as late as the seventeenth century, the Booths area was called the Old Town. Its eastern limit was probably Grange Lane (now called Box Lane). Most of the earliest settlement was probably squeezed into the area between the two branches of the Washbeck which meet close to the confluence of Bondgate and Box Lane.

So, the area surrounding All Saints was almost certainly the earliest settlement of the area: the original Tateshale, (Tanshelf). This became Pontefract some time in the twelfth century: the first mention of the name is 1138. Pons Fractus means broken bridge in Old French (and Latin). That bridge has been proved to lie beneath Knottingley Road where the Washbeck runs under it at Bubwith Houses Farm.

Eric Houlder

Further Articles by Eric Houlder

Search For The Broken Bridge


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