Heckmondwike in 1881

Sketched by E. D. Brook in 1874

A simple, modest book, tucked away nice and safely in the corner of Cleckheaton Libary’s excellent local studies section, can give a profound and interesting account of Heckmondwike in its prime – an up-and-coming town on its way to make history.

Also sketched by E. D. Brook in 1874

The aforementioned book is the 1881-1882 Heckmondwike Local Board Handbook. It clearly has a purpose and intended audience (generally the middle classes) and was not designed entirely to be a historical document. Focusing on Heckmondwike’s local governance and public services, it certainly will not illustrate the horrors of Victorian poverty or delve into the highlights of the same period’s prosperity. Still, it provides a different perspective of our town’s overlooked history.

A Little Context

The handbook provides some interesting data that can provide a little context for Heckmondwike’s situation in 1881.

The Township of Heckmondwike covered 697 acres 1r. 3p. and in the 1881 Census had a population of 9326. I was in two minds about whether to include the chart from below as it certainly isn’t a scientific population pyramid. The data was near impossible to read, and I think about 100 odd people are missing off the chart. Still, it is quite a good indication of how society was structured in Heckmondwike in 1881, but please treat it with caution!

A very poor and inaccurate Population Pyramid of Heckmondwike in 1881. Treat it more of a general overview of how society was structured.

The following graph also gives an overview of how society had grown over time from the 1801 census. This data was taken directly from the handbook and cross-referenced with other sources.

Popualtion data from the Censuses for Heckmondwike between 1801 and 1881

The population rose from around 1,742 people in 340 inhabited houses in 1801 to 9,326 in 1881, with there being 1679 inhabited houses in 1871. There were 2,141 ratepayers in 1880. The most extensive period of percentage growth was between 1851 and 1861, with a 39.7% growth in population.

Just take a moment to consider the fact that the town, over a period of just ten years, had a population that surpassed a third of the population of ten years ago. It is unimaginable.

Who and what was in charge then?

Despite what you might think, local governance is quite an interesting historical topic, especially in the Spen area. There is no need to go into much detail, but after an inquiry in 1852, Heckmondwike was the first area of the Spen Valley to adopt the Local Government Act, forming a local board in 1853.

The Local Board had many tasks from day dot, and its creation arguably was one of the most important events in Heckmondwike’s history. If anything, it allowed the prosperous men of the day to begin societal reforms and develop public services, some of which remain to this very day.

Frank Peel, famous Local Historian and key figure of the history he wrote, especially in Heckmondwike.

The following men sat as members of the Local Board in 1881: J. Leadbeater, Frank Peel (author of SVPP), John Stansfield, Benjamin Firth, Edward Armitage, J. Tattersfield Jnr., Samuel Wood, John Wood, Joss Walshaw, George Keighley, Alfred Crabtree and John Kelley.

In terms of individuals in relation to the Poor Law (loosely the welfare state of the day but by no means anything at all like our Welfare State) – J. B. Oates and William Wood Bousfield were the Overseers of the Poor, with Herbert Armitage being an Assistant Overseer. Joshua Leadbeater and Matthew Firth acted as guardians, whilst John A. Erskine Stuart was the Poor Law Medical Officer of the Heckmondwike Township.

A key individual for local family historians, the Registrar of Births and Deaths, was a Mr. John Robinson of the nearby Littletown, Liversedge. Thomas Taylor of Wood Street, Wakefield, was not far removed from Robinson’s role being the local Coroner.

Thomas Freeman Firth

The town was lucky to have a magistrate in its bounds, namely the illustrious Thomas Freeman Firth, one of fourteen magistrates for the Dewsbury Division of the West Riding.

The Town’s Chief Constable in 1881 was John Crowther, who had first picked up the role in 1876.

What about Parliament?

Parliamentary reform was quite literally just about to happen at the time, so consequently, the landmark Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 had not yet passed, meaning the familiar Spen Valley or equivalent constituency did not yet exist. Instead, Heckmondwike had two Members of Parliament, being part of the West Riding’s Eastern Division. The members were two liberals – Andrew Fairbairn and Sir. J. W. Ramsden.

Talking about electoral reform, the numbers of those who were able to vote is quite telling. For example, in Heckmondwike, a town of over nine thousand individuals in 1881, only 407 men were eligible to vote. That represents just over a mere 4% of the total population – there was democracy for some, but not for the many.

Planning to go out at Night?

Heckmondwike had gas street lighting from March 1844 onwards, and the following table lists the times street lighting would commence and would be extinguished.

DateTo commence lighting atAll to be extinguished by
Aug 15 to 317.30 pm4.30 am
Sep 1 to 157.30 pm4.30 am
Sep 15 to 307.51 pm5 am
Oct 1 to 156.30 pm6 am
Oct 15 to 315.45 pm6 am
Nov 1 to 154.45 pm6.30 am
Nov 15 to 304.15 pm7 am
Dec 1 to 154.15 pm7.15 am
Dec 15 to 314 pm7.15 am
Jan 1 to 154.30 pm7.15 am
Jan 15 to 315 pm7 am
Feb 1 to 155.30 pm6.30 am
Feb 15 to 286 pm6.30 am
Mar 1 to 156.15 pm6 am
Mar 15 to 316.45 pm5.30 am
Apr 1 to 157 pm5 am
Apr 15 to 307.15 pm4.30 am
May 1 to 157.30 pm4 am
“Time for Lighting and Extinguishing the Public Lamps, 1881-1882”

It should be noted that on the night of the full moon and two nights before and after, special instructions were issued from the Market Office at 3.30 pm daily regarding the timings.

What about Religion?

The old West Riding of Yorkshire has been described as the heart of religious dissent, and Heckmondwike, and the wider Spen Valley, certainly didn’t buck this trend. The figures below speak for themselves.

Places of WorshipWill Seat.No. of Sun. Scholars on the books
Upper Chapel1300520
George Street Chapel1050410
Westgate Chapel1000338
Wesleyan Chapel810213
St. James’ Church (CofE)600432
Primitive Methodist370258
United Free Methodist Church450269
Moravian Chapel300160
Roman Catholic30040
Christian Brethern100
“Religious Accommodation of the Town, 1881”

There is a note stating that at St. James’ Church, 324 “sittings” were free and unappropriated.

Education and School Boards?

Heckmondwike’s old Town School, demolished in the 1870s.

Heckmondwike was a pioneer of education in the Spen Valley, constructing a now long demolished Town School in 1809 by public subscription. There should be no surprise then that the groundbreaking 1870 Elementary Education Act, commonly referred to as Forster’s Education Act, was quite quickly adopted by the Heckmondwike Local Board. After an intense period of public debate, it was decided in favour of establishing a school board which came into existence after a hotly contested election in 1871.

The board managed the day-to-day of Heckmondwike’s education and paved the way forwards for education in the town. However, its triennial elections brought up many divides locally between those in favour of the bible being read at schools and those not.

The Seal of Heckmondwike School Board

In 1881 there was no fierce debate on the Board, as the Non-Bible readers (generally religious dissenters) had won a complete sweep of the seven seats on the Board in the 1880 election. The members were George Burnley (the Chairman), Alfred Crabtree, Thomas Redfearn, Mark Howard, Samuel Wood, Charles John Atkinson and Benjamin Firth.

In 1881, the Board met every third Thursday of the month, at 6 pm. The Clerk was a Mr. W. Walker and the Attendance Officer was a Mr. R Parkin. Furthermore, in April 1881, the Board was granted a precept of £1,300. Below is a table which shows the accommodation of schools in Heckmondwike in 1881 that were passed by the Education Department as “efficient”.

SchoolsBoysMixed (or Girls)InfantsTotal
St. James’ National Schools29450354
Upper Schools (Board)28268350
Roman Catholic Schools151110261
Battye Street Schools (Board)200200175575
Central Infant School (Board)150150
“Day School Accommodation of the Town, 1881”

Societies and “Public Institutions”?

Now, the Handbook describes the following as “Public Institutions”, but I feel like that description only fits a few. Perhaps treat this then as the extra-curricular section, where we can prove to an extent that us Spen Vallyers (a term never used before and hopefully never again) have never shied away from community led groups!

The following list is only a summary:

  • Chamber of Commerce. Established 1873. Meetings every second Tuesday of the month.
  • Naturalists’ Society. Established 7 Sep 1861. Meetings held every fourth Saturday at 8pm.
  • Local Naturalists’ Association. Estavlished at Heckmondwike in 1879. Monthly “rambles and meetings” from April to September.
  • Juvenile Naturalists’ Society. Established 7 Sep 1877. Meetings every fourth Thursday at 7pm.
  • Working Men’s Club. Established 1868.
  • Mechanics’ Institute. Established Sep 1873.
  • Literary Club and Institute.
  • Antiquarian Society. Established 1880. Meetings held every first Monday of the month at 8 pm. Special note that famous local historian Frank Peel was Vice President for Heckmondwike.
  • Choral Society. “Instituted, A.D. 1859”.

Road Works?

Perhaps seeming a little too current, the Heckmondwike Local Board performed roadworks on a variety of different roads in the township. The following list of the lengths of roads repaired by the Board was maybe included as a little boast – who knows – but provides some interesting reading.

Also, I wonder if this may also shed some light on when certain roads were named.

Oldfield Lane194
Railway Street392
Market Street246
Walkely Lane980
Pinfold Hill (Road made across, 22 Mar 1858)64
Jeremy Lane1,075
High Street1,000
Out of High Street onto Oldfield Lane20
High Street, Branch into Batley79
Kilpinhill Roads563
Chapel Lane (Adopted 18 Mar 1861)404
Albion Street (Adopted 5 Sep 1860)268
Cemetery Road (Adopted 4 Nov 1861)742
Brighton Street (Adopted 3 Jan 1870)500
Dale Lane (Repaired as Highway, 13 Dec 1858)800
Low Lane, Little Green (Ditto – Dale Lane)395
Leeds Old Turnpike Road (Trust expired, 1 Nov 1871)1,055
Leeds New Turnpike Road (Trust expired, 1 Nov 1871)1,323
Holme Lane (Gomersal Road)314
Regent Street (Adopted 1 Dec 1874)171
Cooke Lane (Adopted 3 Apr 1878)319
Oak Street (Adopted 1 Apr 1878111
Beck Lane (Adopted 24 Oct 1878)260
Total Yards ….12,272
“Length of Roads Repaired by the Heckmondwike Local Board”

1 Written exactly as it appears in the 1881-1882 handbook


  • The 1881-1882 Heckmondwike Board’s Handbook – located at Cleckheaton Library
  • Photos obtained at Heckmondwike Library
  • Frank Peel’s Spen Valley Past and Present
  • Local reporting from the Batley News and Reporter, Leeds Mercury, Cleckheaton Advertiser
  • Histpop for Census Data
  • Fifty Year’s Journalistic Experiences and Chronicles of a Typical Industrial Area
  • Wikimedia Commons

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