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Historical notes by Prof Mike Dixon - 3 articles
Ilkley History before the Victorians
Victorian Ilkley
Modern Times

These historical notes were originally published as "A Brief History of Ilkley" for the benefit of Christchurch church. They were written by Prof Mike Dixon with the help of Miggie Bailey, Robert Lantaff, Mollie Renton and Hugh Steele-Smith.

Mike Dixon has lived in Ilkley for 25 years. His interest in Victorian Ilkley has made him something of an expert. He has a large collection of antiquarian books and old photographs, and is well known for his illustrated talks on various aspects of Ilkley's past, its buildings and in particular "the water cure". He has kindly made his historical notes available to Ilkley.org for publication via the internet.

Ilkley Through Time (1)

By Prof Mike Dixon

  1. Carved Rocks on Rombalds Moor
  2. Roman Ilkley
  3. The coming of Christianity
  4. The Domesday Record
  5. The Scots Raiders
  6. The Lord of the Manor
  7. The foundation of Ilkley Grammar School
  8. John Wesley preaches in the Valley
  9. The Woollen Industry
  10. White Wells
  11. Ilkley - rustic and inaccessible


1. Carved Rocks on Rombalds Moor

Rombalds (Ilkley) Moor is one of the foremost sites in Europe for carved rocks. The most famous of these is the intriguing Swastika Stone, but there are hundreds of others bearing simple "cup and ring" marks or more complex patterns of connecting circles and lines. The carvings are thought to date from the Early Bronze Age, around 1800 BC. Their purpose remains a mystery. It is certainly curious that identical carvings can be found at remote sites throughout Northern Europe; for example, another Swastika stone can be seen at Tossene north of Gothenberg in Sweden. Some authorities have used this as evidence of ornamentation of rocks by migrating Nordic peoples, but others attribute them to religious practices or even to crude representations of planetary movement !

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2. Roman Ilkley

After the Roman invasion during the first century AD a ring of forts were constructed across the North of England in order to control the area occupied by the Brigantes under their formidable Queen, Cartimandua. Ilkley (Olicana) occupied a strategic point on the crossing of the Wharfe by two roads, one from York to Ribchester and the other from Manchester to Aldborough near Boroughbridge, so it was a logical choice for the construction of a fort. The first fort was founded by Agricola about 80 AD and was largely constructed of wood. This was later abandoned but following a revolt by the Brigantes a second fort was erected on the same site around 161 AD. The fort only survived for 30 years, probably being burnt down by tribes of marauding Scots, and was replaced by a stone fort which survived until the end of the Roman period. The Romans finally abandoned the fort in the late 4th or early 5th century but left behind a substantial civil settlement, the vicus, which formed the nucleus of the Anglo-Saxon village that followed.

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3. The coming of Christianity

Christianity was first brought to the northern Anglo-Saxons by St. Paulinus who baptised King Edwin of Northumbria in 627 AD. In the 5 years that followed Paulinus, his assistants, and St. Aidan along with members of his Scottish church preached the gospel throughout the North, principally in the towns established by the Romans. Their travels must have brought them along the Roman roads to Ilkley where the British inhabitants might already have been under the sway of Christianised Anglo-Saxons. It certainly seems reasonable to date the arrival of Christianity in Ilkley to this early missionary period. No record survives to tell us about this early Christian community. The sculptured crosses in All Saints church indicate that a church was here in the 8th and 9th centuries. The village probably escaped the ravages of the heathen Danish invaders, certainly Archbishop Wulfhere of York thought it safe enough in 870 AD to take refuge in Addingham. Thus the likelihood is that the Christian church has been in continuous existence in Ilkley since the 7th century, at least.

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4. The Domesday Record

After the Norman invasion, William found some difficulty in bringing the people of Northern England to heel, but following his "Harrying of the North" a measure of calm was brought to these turbulent parts. In 1085 he sent his clerks out, no doubt with an armed escort, to make a full inventory of his captured territory. We read in the resulting record, the Domesday Book, "In Ilkley, Gamel (a Saxon Thane) had three carucates of land to be taxed where there may be two or more ploughs. William (de Percy) now has it and it is waste (uncultivated). Time of King Edward it was valued at twenty shillings. There is a Church and a priest......". The latter detail is interesting because one of the few tangible links we have with the Norman period is the fine archway with its tooth-work ornamentation over the main door of All Saints church.

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5. The Scots Raiders

Following their military success at Bannockburn in 1314, bands of Scots raiders roamed throughout the North of England stealing livestock and laying villages to waste. In the summer of 1316 they burnt Northallerton, Boroughbridge, Knaresborough and Skipton, and made such havoc in Archbishop Melton's Manor of Otley that he cursed them with bell, book and candle. These plundering raids naturally swept through the main river valleys and the Wharfedale villages suffered frequent attacks - that is all except Thorpe, the "hidden village", which seems to have escaped by virtue of its unique situation. The granges of Bolton Priory at Embsay, Carlton and Halton were destroyed and the cattle driven up to Scotland. There is no record of the fate of Ilkley but we must assume widespread destruction from the decline in the value of the Church living which fell from £17-6-8d in 1291 to £8-13-4d in 1322.

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6. The Lord of the Manor

Following the Norman Conquest, the Manor of Ilkley and its sub-Manors of Nesfield and Langbar, Middleton and Stubham, were awarded to William de Percy. The manor remained with his descendants for almost 200 years although not intact - some land was given to the abbey at Sawley in Lancashire, and in 1245 land was given to the abbot of Fountains. In 1253 Peter de Percy was granted the right to hold a market in Ilkley on Wednesdays and an annual fair on "the vigil, feast and morrow of St. Luke and the five days following", (Oct 16th-23rd). Peter de Percy II died in 1315 and his heiress, Eustacia, married Walter de Heslerton and the manorial rights passed through Walter and Simon de Heslerton until 1400 when they were granted to a Robert de Plesyngton and his heirs. In 1465 Margaret Plesyngton quitclaimed her right to the manor to William Vavasour and Robert Roos who in turn (in 1484) granted it to Nicholas Middleton and his brother Richard, two of the sons of William Middleton of Stockeld. The Middleton family held the Manor directly until 1763 when another William Middleton died with no heir. The Manor passed to his sister's grandson, a William Constable, who then changed his name to Middleton ! His son Peter died in 1866 and it was probably because of his extravagance that his heirs had to sell off parts of his estate. The site of the Grove Church was purchased in the first of these sales in 1867. Charles Marmaduke Middleton sold Ilkley Moor to the Local Authority in 1893. He left Middleton Lodge and Ilkley shortly afterwards and died in Ripon in 1906. His death marked the end of a 400 year family association with the Manor of Ilkley.

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7. The foundation of Ilkley Grammar School

In May 1607 Thomas Fairfax of Denton and Sir Mauger Vavasour of Weston determined that the sum of £100 left by George Marshall of Ilkley should be devoted to the maintenance of a schoolmaster and grammar school in Ilkley. However a building didn't appear until 1636 when the small two-roomed schoolhouse (now an antique silver shop) was erected in Addingham (Skipton) Road. A further endowment of £200 by Reginald Heber of Hollin Hall followed in 1696 and this and other monies were used to purchase land, the rental from which put the school on a reasonably sound financial basis. The school was essentially under the control of the parish church, indeed the Vicar was responsible for hiring and paying the schoolmaster. This arrangement was a constant source of friction over the following two centuries - the quality of the education on offer being largely governed by how much the Vicar was prepared to pay for a teacher! In 1866 the school was inspected as part of the Schools' Inquiry Commission and found wanting in several respects. It was forced to close and in 1869 the pupils were absorbed into the newly opened National School in Leeds Road. Nevertheless, the desirability of an independent Grammar School was widely acknowledged and in 1872 the link with the church was severed and a proposal for a new building put forward by a board of governors nominated by the Schools' Inspector. After much wrangling and financial manipulation over the next 20 years the present school was erected in Cowpasture Road and opened on 20th September 1893.

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8. John Wesley preaches in the Valley

John Wesley was a frequent traveller through Wharfedale. In his Journal for 1761 we read, "July 6 Monday; In the evening I preached at Otley and afterwards talked with many of the Society. There is reason to believe that ten or twelve of these are filled with the love of God." Again in 1764 he visited Otley after preaching in Skipton travelling by the old road over Draughton Heights. In 1766 Wesley preached to a large gathering at Pletts Barn in Grassington. His Journal entry for July 26th 1766 reads,"I preached at Addingham at about nine", and there are several entries relating to preaching in Skipton. On one of his journeys through Wharfedale he drank tea with Mr and Mrs Moon at Ling Chapel Farm, Langbar. Part of the tea service used on that occasion is preserved in Beamsley Methodist Chapel. Wesley's frequent visits to Otley in the 1770's and 80's were inspired by his friendship for Dr John Ritchie and his daughter Elizabeth. On the 19th April 1780 he writes," I went to Otley but Mr Ritchie was dead before I came. Mr Wilson, the Vicar, after a little hesitation, consented that I should preach his funeral sermon". In April 1790 he spent three days visiting Elizabeth Ritchie in Otley. Wesley died less than twelve months later, on March 2nd 1791.There is no mention of Ilkley in Wesley's Journal yet he must have frequently passed through the village on his travels through Wharfedale. Perhaps he stopped for refreshment and had a word or two with the locals. Certainly there was a small Society of ten members in Ilkley in 1777 - from tiny acorns...

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9. The Woollen Industry

The Pennine foothills have long been known for the manufacture of textiles, the plentiful sources of strong flowing water being used to power the machines. It is conventional to think of the northern limit of the woollen industry as Airedale, and cotton manufacture to be limited to west of the Pennines, but both were represented in Wharfedale. In the eighteenth century wool was the predominant industry, mostly at the domestic level. The preamble to a 1755 Turnpike Act states that woollen manufacture was carried out in Addingham, Ilkley and Kildwick. "There are three or four hundred weavers or more and great numbers of inferior workmen employed under them. The families weave usually on their own accounts and dispose of their goods in Halifax or Colne." Later on woollen manufacture became concentrated in the two great mills at Addingham founded by John Cunliffe of Ilkley. In Ilkley itself domestic weaving went into a rapid decline. By the 1820's all that remained of the textile industry was a small cotton mill on the site of Wells House cottages but by 1850 this too had disappeared.

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10. White Wells

The old White Wells building on the moor side seems to encapsulate the spirit of Ilkley, and this is entirely appropriate. Not only does it represent a picturesque landmark, it marks the site of the first bath-house and the foundation of Ilkley as a spa town. The bath-house was built around 1690 close to the spring which supplied the town brook . The buildings were restored and enlarged in 1780 thanks to the "munificence" of William Middleton. There were two baths, the present one, a "Roman" style plunge bath which held 1150 gallons of almost ice-cold water (40ºF) into which the intrepid bather would descend in order to experience the manifold benefits of cold water immersion, and a second lower room where a bath, shower or douche of equally cold water could be taken. Many people would visit the Wells to drink the water which issued from the hillside into a drinking fountain at the rear of the building. The water was frequently analysed but found to contain no dissolved minerals, so it was promoted because of its softness and purity which "makes it more efficacious by passing sooner to the utmost and finest limits of the circulation than any water known"!

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11. Ilkley - rustic and inaccessible

In the 1820's Ilkley was described as "one of the most rustic, inaccessible and primitive little places in the country. The streets are full of ruts and holes and lined by stinking refuse." This latter point is borne out by Robert Collyer who tells us that Brook Street was lined by a choice collection of middens. In addition to ruts and holes Brook Street also had the brook running down its middle ! The village and its environs had around 500 inhabitants at this time and most of them lived in simple single-storey stone cottages with flagstone floors and heather thatches. More substantial houses were to be found in Bridge Lane and Church Street where, along with the church, the two hostelries, the Rose and Crown and the Wheatsheaf, were situated. The Grove was a narrow leafy track, Green Lane, in which only two dwellings, Hartley's farmhouse and an old thatch, were to be found. A few thatched cottages stood where the Midland and Station Hotels now stand, and there were two corn mills higher up the brook. Such was Ilkley before Victoria's reign.

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 June 2010 08:00