Yorkshire, England in the 17th-19th Centuries; Expansion, Opposition, and the Industrial Revolution

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The medieval village of Wharram Percy

Yorkshire, England in the 17th-19th Centuries: Expansion, Opposition, and the Industrial Revolution

Yorkshire in Northern England is the United Kingdom’s largest historical county. Within it are the famous idyllic countrysides of the North York Moors and Yorkshire Wolds, the county sandwiched between the Pennines and the North Sea and bordered by the historic counties of Durham (north), Westmorland (northwest), Lancashire (west), Cheshire and Derbyshire (southwest), and Nottinghamshire and Lincolshire (southeast). In this article, we will focus on the more recent part of Yorkshire’s long history, covering the 17th to 19th centuries and the effects of the Industrial Revolution.

Yorkshire, England Map
Map showing the size of Yorkshire, England (circa 1850s). Photo source: Wikimedia Commons/Dr Greg, Nilfanion and MRSC.

This article is based on Ingrid Barton’s The Little History of Yorkshire (The History Press, 2018) and other resources linked throughout the piece.

This is written as a backgrounder for our small group tours. Our Wainwright Walking Trail tour for the active senior has been especially designed for those with the stamina to follow the Wainwright Walking Trail but also allows for those interested but are unsure of their ability to cover the whole distance to walk as much or as little as suits their individual interests and ability. We begin our adventure in Carlisle and finish in York, crossing the country from the west coast to the east coast along a path devised by Alfred Wainwright, early 20th century English fell-walker, guide book writer, illustrator and cartographer.

Robin Hood's Bay North Yorkshire, England
A view of Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, England

On our walk, which deviates a little from Wainwright’s original trail and takes us through three national parks, the Lake District National Park, the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the North York Moors National Park, English history is ever present and makes for a truly fascinating and memorable walk.

The program Queen Victoria’s Great Britain runs for 21 days and visits 23 contributing locations that provide participants with an understanding of Queen Victoria’s reign and the Industrial Revolution. Our trip visits some 30+ places and includes talks and short lectures from knowledgeable guides. We will look at the important developments in technology, science, medicine, politics, social life, art and architecture, with an examination of Gothic Revival and the iconic Arts and Crafts movement, including works by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. On this tour, we travel to the Lake District via the Yorkshire Dales.

England village tours
Kilnsey Crag is a limestone cliff in the Yorkshire Dales region

Just click through this link to see the collection of tours of England that you may join.

Yorkshire in the Middle Ages

“Shire”, deriving from Old English, is an administrative term introduced to England by the Normans after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Another term deriving from Old English is “ridings” meaning “a third part” or “thirds”, and Yorkshire was historically divided into three: North Riding, East Riding, and West Riding, with the ridings converging on the historic city of York.

Yorkshire Administrative Map (1832)
Yorkshire Administrative Map (1832) showing the convergence of the three ridings. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons/XrysD

Yorkshire’s emblem is the white rose of the House of York, which fought the House of Lancaster in the historic War of the Roses. The dynastic war, which lasted 30 years, is named after the badges of the opposing houses: white rose for York, and red rose for Lancaster.

Plucking the Red and White Roses by Henry Payne
“Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens” after the original 1910 fresco painting by Henry Albert Payne (British, 1868-1940). Based upon a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Photo source.

Two of the most important battles of the 30-year war happened in Yorkshire: the Battle of Wakefield (1460), where Richard, 3rd Duke of York, was killed, and the Battle of Towton (1461), where the Lancaster forces were defeated by the Yorkists. Henry Tudor of the House of Lancaster (later Henry VII) united the warring houses by defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and marrying Elizabeth of York the following year. (Read more in our previous article.)

The English Civil Wars

One of the crucial battles of the English Civil Wars, which (among many factors) arose when Charles I decided not to convene Parliament and instead imposed “personal rule”, was fought in Yorkshire in 1644. In the Battle of Marston Moor, the Parliamentarians (supporters of Parliament) defeated the Royalists (supporters of Charles I), leading to the Royalist retreat from Northern England.

The civil wars ended with Parliamentarian victory and the trial and execution of Charles I in 1651. This was followed by peace and the migration of people from the countryside to the towns. According to Ingrid Barton in her book The Little History of Yorkshire (The History Press, 2018), while identity “was bound up with locality…Being a Yorkshire man or woman didn’t mean a lot yet” (p. 138). However, there was growing artistic and scientific interest in Yorkshire. Economic opportunities led to the growth in population in West Riding, becoming the home of half of the entire population of Yorkshire by 1672 (p. 139).

Yorkshire Industries

After the Black Death ravaged England and killed off a third of Yorkshire’s population in the 14th century, much of Yorkshire’s land was converted to sheep pasture to produce wool. As we’ve written before, wool was England’s major source of wealth until the 18th century and was produced by a literal “cottage industry”: a network of locals working from their homes to supplement their earnings from farming. This was how goods were produced before the advent of factories: food, clothes, furniture, and other necessities were made at home or by skilled artisans in small-scale production.

These handwoven textiles used to be sold outdoors, but to protect merchants and artisans from the elements, Halifax unveiled the Piece Hall in 1779, now considered Yorkshire’s most important secular building. It was named after a “piece“, which was the term used to describe “a 30 yard length of woven woollen fabric produced on a handloom”, and was built in the Georgian style of architecture. You can read more about the Georgian style of architecture in our article here. Trade inside the Piece Hall took place only for two hours each week, between 10 am and 12 noon on Saturdays.

The Piece Hall, Halifax, West Yorkshire, England
The Piece Hall is a Grade I listed building in Halifax, West Yorkshire, England.

Other towns in Yorkshire followed suit, and brought trading indoors. Leeds, also in West Yorkshire, experienced growth as well during this period, thanks to Parliament bills passed making it easier to reach Leeds via the Aire and Calder rivers (Barton, 2018, p. 140). The discovery of sulphur in the 17th century turned Scarborough in North Yorkshire into a spa town, even rivalling Bath (p. 143).

Leeds Clarence Dock - England
Leeds Dock is a mixed development with retail, office and leisure presence by the River Aire in central Leeds, West Yorkshire, England.

Sheffield in South Yorkshire grew rich from the cutlery industry, as fork became fashionable (p. 140). It may be hard for us now to think of the fork as a “new” object, but it was indeed, as Sara Goldsmith on Slate says, “a latecomer to the table“. In ancient times, we only had the knife, the spoon, and our hands; a fork-like tool began to be used first by the Persians, then the Byzantines. The fork didn’t have a good reputation at first–a Byzantine-born Venetian princess was even criticised by the hermit and ascetic St Peter Damian for using a fork and being excessively delicate. When the fork travelled from Italy to France via Catherine de’ Medici and eventually came to the British Isles, it was initially seen as nothing but a “foreign fad” (p. 140) by British people. But this foreign fad took on, and Sheffield must have been thankful for it. The Sheffield Town Hall has a publicly displayed collection of silverware.

Sheffield Town Hall, Yorkshire, England,UK
Sheffield Town Hall


With all of these developments, the volume of traffic increased on the Yorkshire roads. Before the English Civil Wars, parishes maintained their own roads, but the increase in traffic made this difficult. Private trusts were then set up to look after the highways that were seeing increased traffic (p 145).

Clay was plentiful in Yorkshire, and by the mid-18th century, brick (made from clay) replaced timber as building material for homes. Two great houses emerged in Yorkshire during this period: Wentworth Woodhouse and Wentworth Castle. Standing only six miles apart in Stainborough, South Yorkshire, the two houses were in a way built by “political and family rivalry” (p. 149).

Wentworth Woodhouse is believed to be Britain’s largest stately home; with 365 rooms spanning 87 acres, it is nearly twice the size of Buckingham Palace, the London residence of the British monarch. It was once the home of Thomas Wentworth, the 1st Earl of Strafford. The childless 2nd Earl of Strafford passed the home and his fortunes to his wife’s nephew, Thomas Watson-Wentworth, a Whig member of Parliament (later 1st Marquess of Rockingham), in 1725.

Front of Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire, England
Wentworth Woodhouse. cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Hall Family – geograph.org.uk/p/1052427

This infuriated his cousin Thomas Wentworth, Baron Raby (later 1st Earl of Strafford, 2nd creation), who was not only opposed to Thomas Watson-Wentworth’s politics–Baron Raby was a Tory–but who also believed Wentworth Woodhouse was his birthright. In retaliation, Baron Raby purchased nearby Stainborough Castle and renamed it Wentworth Castle in 1731.

Wentworth Castle, Yorkshire, England
Wentworth Castle. cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Graham Hogg – geograph.org.uk/p/6239046

Both properties have gone through modern renovations and can be visited by the public.

Coal was still a small-scale industry in Yorkshire due to the cost of transport, but of course this would soon change.

Industrial Revolution

The Georgian period ended and Queen Victoria ascended the throne. Years before her coronation, the Thirteen Colonies, later the United States of America, declared themselves independent from British rule in 1776 and became a formidable economic rival.

Cotton, a hard-wearing fabric made from raw materials imported from the United States, grew in popularity. The increasing demand for the fabric inspired English inventors to find ways to speed up the labour- and time-intensive process of cleaning and spinning raw cotton into cotton thread. We’ve outlined these developments in a previous article: the spinning jenny and the power loom. These machines demanded more space than a single household could ever provide. “Manufactories” (later, “factories”) were built to house the contraptions and the workers who would oversee them. Innovations in steam technology also marked the shift from the old power sources of waterwheels, windmills, and horsepower to coal-powered steam engines. The steam engines also provided power to the factories and brought innovations to transportation.

Antique steam engine

Factories rose in Yorkshire, and weavers became full-time employees. Factory work, despite the conditions, attracted workers to Yorkshire from all over England, and by the 19th century the West Riding textile industry was the most prosperous in Europe (p. 157). Sheffield pivoted from cutlery to steel production, and it supplied 90 percent of Britain’s steel (p. 159). The railways were initially opened to carry coal, but in 1825 Yorkshire saw its first public-carrying railway (p. 161), making it possible to travel from York to London in a matter of hours instead of days.

Yorkshire-born George Hudson used a sizeable inheritance he received from a great-uncle to invest in railways; he was later dubbed the “Railway King”. The York and North Midland Railway company, of which Hudson was the first chairman, was formed in 1836, turning York into a railway hub (p. 161).

Leeds and Selby, York and North Midland railway maps
Leeds and Selby, York and North Midland railway maps. Photo source.

Coal mining became an attractive investment, and the coalfield in Yorkshire stretched from Halifax to Doncaster (p. 162).

Machine manufacturing and the mass production of goods led to an increased supply and a decline in cost, allowing more people to buy more items that enhanced their quality of life. “Common” people–or those who did not belong to the aristocracy–were able to save money and build personal wealth. However, the age of machines also put more emphasis on efficiency and profit than on the safety of human beings. Child labour was rampant. The mass migration of people from the countryside to urban areas resulted in overcrowded housing, pollution, and unsanitary, disease-ridden living conditions.

“Northern Toughness”: Opposition in Yorkshire

Barton talks about “northern toughness” in Yorkshire, and it was certainly on display during the Industrial Revolution.

In 1812, a group of cloth workers sworn to a secret society known as the “Luddites”, named after the mythical king Ludd, destroyed the machines and burned down the factories that they feared were replacing their livelihoods (p. 165). The violent attacks included the murder of a mill owner, William Horsfal. Seventeen Luddites were hanged at York in 1813, and seven were sent to the penal colony in Australia (p. 165). (We still use “Luddite” as a derogatory term for a person who is opposed to technology.)

Luddites smashing a loom
Luddites smashing a loom. Photo source.

A Miners’ Association was formed in 1843 to demand better wages and better working conditions. The strikes halted work in the coalfields of West Riding. Coalfield owners evicted strikers from their rented properties, but the struggle did not stop until Parliament Acts were passed that improved working conditions.

Indeed, during this period, wages in Yorkshire were higher compared to London or other counties in the south, even for farm labourers (p. 169). West Riding opposed the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, in which poor but able-bodied citizens were not given financial assistance but forced to work in workhouses “where the regime was deliberately harsh and often cruel“. While other counties followed Parliament, Yorkshire objectors refused, saying the county had no existing workhouses, and to build them just to follow the Act would be expensive and pointless (p. 169).

The Yorkshire Unions also formed the roots of the Labour Party, which was founded in 1900 (p. 177). The Liberal government with Labour supporters passed revolutionary Acts including “old-age pensions and unemployment insurance” and the Parliament Act of 1911, which “removed the law-making veto of the House of Lords” (p. 178).

Dora Thewlis, a 16-year-old weaver from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, was an active member of the local branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which supported the Suffragette cause (p. 186). A photo of her arrest made it to the front page of the national newspaper, Daily Mirror, and became an iconic image of the women’s fight for suffrage in England.

1907 arrest of Dora Thewlis
The 1907 arrest of Dora Thewlis. Photo source.

Thewlis moved to Australia before she could witness the passage of women’s suffrage in England. The women’s right to vote was granted to women over 30 in 1918, and women over 21 in 1928.

Rural Yorkshire

Rural Yorkshire, despite the upheavals in the towns, maintained its traditional way of life. These villages were largely self-sufficient, with thriving local and family businesses. You may be familiar with rural Yorkshire’s depictions in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Charles Dickens Nicholas Nickleby (1838).

Pennines, Yorkshire, England
View of the Pennines, near Stainmore, Yorkshire, England, UK, looking south from the A66 road.

Another feature shown in these novels was the Yorkshire dialect. The Yorkshire Dialect Society was established in 1897 and is the world’s oldest surviving dialect society.

According to the Society, what people think of as the “Yorkshire” dialect, as depicted in British TV and radio programs (such as Downton Abbey), is the West Riding (West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire) dialect, while

“the traditional speech of the old North and East Ridings (North Yorkshire and Humberside / East Yorkshire) is quite different and has a much stronger Scandinavian influence…The main differences between the two areas relate to the pronunciation of certain verbs. School, for example, is traditionally pronounced skoo-il or skoil to the south and west, and skeel or skale to the north and east.”

You can read more on the Society’s website here. A new Yorkshire dialect dictionary with more than 4,000 words was also published in early 2019.

If this article piqued your interest, find out more in Ingrid Barton’s The Little History of Yorkshire (The History Press, 2018). You may also read our article Exploring York, which is focused on the historical city, and the following:

The following links to our previous articles may also be of interest:

Don’t forget that we also have a number of tours of England that you may join!