Skip to content Skip to main navigation Skip to footer

The origins of the name of the village are unclear although it is thought that the name may have derived from one of two sources; the first from the Anglo Saxon words ‘Ake’ or ‘Aken’ meaning ‘oak’ and ‘uurt’ with the word ‘worth’ meaning an enclosure or homestead; the second is that it could derive from the Anglo Saxon name ‘Acca’ which when added to the word ‘worth’ could mean ‘Acca’s worth’ or ‘Acca’s enclosure’. A number of place names around the area show that the Anglo Saxons had influence in the region. Words such as ‘worth’ and also ‘tun’, meaning an enclosure or farmstead, are repeatedly found in place names around the area such as Badsworth, Hemsworth and Wentworth as well as Fryston and Allerton. The name was first recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Aceuurde and it is thought it became more formalised to ‘Ackworth’ in the 1800s.

Early History
Considering the Anglo Saxon origins of the name, the area around Ackworth could have been settled in around 500–600 by settlers from modern day Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands following the departure of the Romans from Britain.The Romans were active in the area around Ackworth with the nearby town of Castleford being the location of Lagentium, a Roman fort. The A639, the Roman road to York also runs close to modern day Ackworth with a Roman milestone having been found near the junction of the road and Sandy Gate Lane on the parish boundary between Ackworth and Pontefract.In terms of Christianity it has been thought that the first church may have appeared in Ackworth between 750–800 with a well established tradition being that the monks of Lindisfarne, escaping the Norse invasion, stopped there in around 875 bringing with them the body of Saint Cuthbert.Evidence of Norse settlement can also be found within the local area with place names such as ‘Thorpe Audlin’ and ‘Grimethorpe’ possibly descending from the Norse term ‘thorpe’ meaning a small settlement or a farm.

Domesday Book
The first mention of the village can be found in the Domesday Book of 1086 which says “Manor in Ackworth. Erdulf & Osulf have six carucates of land to be taxed, where there might be five ploughs. Humphry now holds it of Ilbert. [Humphry] himself has there one plough and a half, and fourteen villains, and two boors. There is a Church there, and priest; one mill, of sixteen pence. Value in King Edward’s time four pounds, now three pounds. Domesday Book 107. Land of Ilbert de Lacy”Ilbert de Lacy was according to the Domesday Book the Lord of a Manor which was capable of employing five ploughs. His vassal was the ‘Humphrey’ mentioned in the book who himself owned one and a half ploughs (approx a quarter of the manor) with the rest of the manor being apportioned between two farmers who in turn acted as Humphry’s tenants. De lacy himself was a Norman knight who had received the land as a reward for his services to William the Conqueror and who had also built the first earth and timber ‘motte and bailey’ style castle in nearby Pontefract. The entry in the Domesday Book suggests that the settlement of Ackworth would have been quite small as it recorded only 14 villagers and two smallholders. However, as only the heads of families were recorded, the more likely figure in terms of population at this time would be around thirty to forty people.

Ackworth in the Middle Ages
Estate accounts for 1296 showed that Ackworth had developed in the time since the Domesday Book. The records showed that the Lord now had 240 bondsmen working for him and the value of the mill had gone up. It showed that Adam de Castleford had to pay 10 shillings (50p) rent for his land. His wife Isabella would go on to found the Chapel of Our Lady in Ackworth Church in 1333. In 1341 the Inquisitiones Nonarum stated that the only people living in Ackworth were those working in agriculture. It has been speculated that the village cross in the centre of the village was constructed by the same Isabella de Castleford who built the chapel in the church possibly dating the cross at around 1340. The cross itself was listed as a grade II building in 1968 with a description of being “late medieval” and describing the construction as being a “medieval shaft with tudor ball on top” and being “prominently sited near junction with Pontefract road”.

The Black Death, Bubonic Plague and The Ackworth Plague Stone
One reason given for the construction of the cross is that it was built as a memorial to a plague, possibly the Black Death of 1349, which will have killed many inhabitants. The black death had arrived in Southern England in 1348 and by 1350 had killed a third of England’s population. In nearby Pontefract it was estimated that around 40% of the population had been killed. A reminder of how communities communicated and traded in spite of plague remains in Ackworth to this day in the form of the Ackworth plague stone although it is thought that the stone dates from yet another outbreak of plague in 1705. Situated at the junction of Sandy Gate Lane on the road into Pontefract, the stone is also a grade II listed monument. Plague stones were described as “receptacles for sterilising coins in vineagar, normally at or close to parish boundaries.” Indicating that the current location of the plague stone was the outer rim of the parish. The plague in 1645 was said to have killed 153 with the bodies been buried in a ‘burial field’ “crossed by the footpath from Ackworth to Hundhill.”The area had possibly already been used as an area of mass burial after a skirmish earlier in the year between Roundhead and Royalist forces as part of the English Civil War. The bubonic plague of 1645 was not confined to Ackworth, in Leeds over 1,300 people died and a further 245 were thought to have died ‘in and around the Wakefield area’ with one theory being that the plague had been brought into the area by soldiers fighting in the civil war. Another story of how the plague came to Ackworth was retold by Henry Thompson in the book ‘A History of Ackworth School in its first 100 years’. He recounts the story of how a popular and well-loved monk went to Rome and became “smitten by the plague and died”. The monk, from the priory at Nostell would preach at the medieval cross in the centre of the village and was described as a “noble soul with a kindly heart” who was admired by young and old alike. After succumbing to the plague in Rome, his body was brought back and passed through Ackworth at which point “nothing could satisfy the ignorant but faithful love of the old hearers” and the coffin was opened. The village was then stricken with plague and the stone on Castle Syke Hill became “for many months the only contact between them and the outside world”. Describing a transaction the book says “upon that stone the Ackworth purchaser dropped his money into a vessel of water, for which, a few hours afterwards, he found his return in merchandise.” Of this tale the author comments “we make no idle comment on this history. We tell the tale as it was told to us.”

Battles and Conflicts
The area around Ackworth has been the scene for a number of historically important battles, the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 and the Battle of Towton in 1461 were important battles in the Wars of the Roses. In 1489, four years after the end of the War of the Roses, the new king Henry Tudor levied a tax which caused an uprising in parts of Yorkshire. Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was sent to quash the uprising after the Earl of Northumberland had been killed by the rebels. Howard managed to subdue the uprising and hanged the leaders in York. In 1492 a further uprising occurred in Ackworth of which little is known except that Howard once again subdued the insurgents. A further link to a historical battle could possibly be made with the Battle of Winwaed in 655 between Penda of Mercia and Oswiu of Northumbria, King of Berenicia. The battle was mentioned by Bede although the exact location of the battle is not known. Options include Oswestry in Shropshire, Winwick in Lancashire, Whinmoor north east of Leeds and between Wentbridge and Ackworth where the modern day A639, a former Roman road, crosses the River Went. The battle was seen as pivotal in English history in that Penda had been a powerful Pagan king and the victory of the Christian Oswiu could be seen as having effectively ended Anglo Saxon paganism.

The area around Ackworth was also a hotbed for dissent against the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. A rebellion led by Robert Aske and styled the Pilgrimage of Grace was thought to have marched through Ackworth on the way to capturing Pontefract Castle in 1536. They were eventually defeated by an army sent by Henry with the leaders hanged at Tyburn. amongst the hanged included a Sir Nicholas Tempest of Ackworth.[26] The nearby Priory of St. Oswald at Nostell would later be dissolved in 1540 with the land being bought by Rowland Winn.[19] During the English Civil War, the area around Ackworth was seen as being strongly Royalist with four divisions of volunteers being raised from Pontefract and the surrounding villages to garrison the castle.[19] In 1645, Ackworth was occupied by Roundhead soldiers who caused some damage to the church and who were also responsible for replacing the cross at the top of the medieval cross in the centre of the village with the present ‘ball’ shape which now sits there.[19]

In more recent times the Ackworth war memorial opened in 1999 and commemorates the soldiers from Ackworth who died in the first and second world wars. From 1914–1918 80 soldiers were killed and in the war of 1939–1945, 40 people lost their lives.

The Church of St. Cuthbert in the centre of High Ackworth
The first recorded mention of a church in Ackworth was made in the Domesday Book of 1086 when it noted “There is a Church there, and priest.” Before this mention it is believed that there has been a church in Ackworth from around the year 750. Ackworth is noted in the porch of a church in Durham as being one of the places where the body of Saint Cuthbert was taken by monks from Lindisfarne as they journeyed around the country with his body from 875 to 882. The church of St. Cuthbert in the centre of High Ackworth is believed to have taken its name from the time when the monks stopped in the village on their pilgrimage. The original church from the time of Saint Cuthbert and the Domesday Book is believed to have been replaced in the 14th century with a stone church and tower. This tower still exists but the church was renovated and restored around 1852 to 1854 when it is thought that the roof was lifted and additional windows added; all the present stained glass windows also date from this time. The restoration was necessary when in 1852 a fire had damaged the nave and chapel. During the restoration the remains of an earlier Norman chapel were found. The church today is a grade II listed building which was listed in 1968.

Upon entering the church of St Cuthbert there is a stone font which bears a Latin inscription which when translated reads “Thomas Bradley D.D. Rector. H A. and T C, Churchwardens. This font, thrown down in the war of the Fanatics, was set up again in the year 1663.”Thomas Bradley was the chaplain to Charles I of England and it has been supposed that he attended the king at his execution in 1649. Bradley had been given the living of Castleford and Ackworth by the king but during the time of the Commonwealth of England this was removed from him and given over to Thomas Birkbeck and Mr H Moorhouse. Bradley had sided with the Royalists in the English Civil War and is recorded as being part of Sir George Wentworth’s division in the garrison of Pontefract Castle. The castle had survived three successive sieges before Oliver Cromwell set up headquarters at Knottingley and bombarded the castle. The castle was the last Royalist stronghold to surrender and only did so on 24 March 1649, two months after the beheading of Charles I. During the period of the Commonwealth it was reported that Bradley “suffered intensively”, his house was looted and “himself, his lady, and all his children turned out of doors to seek their bread in desolate places”. A library that he had entrusted to a John Lake of Castleford was also “betrayed into the hands of his enemies.” Following the end of the Commonwealth in 1660 the living of Ackworth was restored to him and Bradley became rector of St Cuthberts once more after Thomas Birkbeck was in turn ejected from the rectory. In 1666 he built two almshouses on the village green for two poor widows and he died on 10 October 1673.

Ackworth School and the Society of Friends
In the book ‘A History of Ackworth School’, written in 1853, Ackworth was described as a “neat agricultural village, situate(d) about three miles from Pontefract, and closely bordering on the great Yorkshire manufactories”.[39] When further describing the area, the book places great importance on the location of the school to the village saying; “It is so completely removed from any great line of road, either of the old system or the new, that but for the world-wide celebrity it has obtained from the Society of Friends from its association with their school, it is probable that, at least as it regards them, it would have slumbered in undisturbed repose amidst the well cultivated lands by which it is surrounded.”

The school was opened by John Fothergill who was described in the book as an “eminent physician of London and a man of much influence in the Society of Friends.” Originally built as a branch of the Foundling Hospital in London, work started on the building in 1757 and cost around £13,000 to build. The governors of the hospital, which was more accurately called the ‘Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children’ had already established branch hospitals in Shrewsbury, Chester and Westerham. Their move to Ackworth was as a result of the contemplation of the “great advantages from having one amongst the active and enterprising people of the northern counties.” The hospital eventually closed in 1773 and remained empty for a number of years during which time it seems to have avoided both being turned into a “lunatic asylum” and “being sold and taken down for the materials.” It was on hearing that the building may be “disposed of” that Fothergill made the purchase of not only the hospital but the 85 acres of surrounding lands for £7,000. The purchase in 1777 was then fully approved by the Society of Friends in 1778 and established as a school in 1779. Fothergill died in 1780 by which time 80 girls and 150 boys were being taught there.

The Foundling Hospital
Of its time as a foundling hospital, ‘A History of Ackworth School’ paints an unflattering picture of the conditions within saying “disease and death carried off great numbers annually”. Of the causes the book describes “starvation, and even murder, on the part of nurses who had the care of the infants, and of masters to whom the elder children were apprenticed”.  Children were sent to Ackworth from London and other areas in which there was a branch of the hospital with the children made to work as; “idleness was the parent of vice”, or so it was seen by the governors. In 1759 a “woolen manufactory” was established at the hospital with children spinning and weaving cloth which soon became in demand, so much so that in 1762 the profits were £500, a significant sum at the time. In addition to working in the woolen trade, other children worked on the farm and all were taught to mend their own clothes. Whilst at the hospital attempts were made to place the children as ‘apprentices’ for business owners in the local area. At times the demand for apprentices would be so high, the steward of the hospital, John Hargreaves, would have to write to the London board, asking for more to be sent. The high demand for apprentices in turn led to the checks on the people taking the apprentices being relaxed despite the instruction to ensure that all applicants for apprentices were tested to ensure suitability. As the demand grew and the checks became less “men unsuitable for the trust” were able to obtain credentials who were “treating the children they obtained on the strength of them, with little more with little short of barbarity, and in more than one case murderous cruelty.” Some children would be apprenticed out as young as 6 and 7 years old with an apprenticeship initially lasting until the child reached 24 although in 1768 this changed to 21.

John Fothergill
Following the closure of the foundling hospital in 1773, it was John Fothergill who arranged the purchase in 1777 which turned the building into a school for the Society of Friends. Fothergill was a prominent member of the society who was born in Yorkshire in Wensleydale, educated at Sedbergh School and served an apprenticeship as an apothecary in Bradford. He studied medicine in Edinburgh, graduating in 1736 before moving to London to set up practice. He was a keen botanist and developed an extensive garden at his home at Rooke Hall in Upton. A selection of sketches made of his flowers and plants, approximately 2000 of them, were sold after his death and eventually became the property of the Empress of Russia. Fothergill was also a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin and took a great interest in the relations between England and the American Colonies which were on the verge of war at the time. He had helped establish schools in New York and Philadelphia and despite never having visited the colonies often saw patients crossing the Atlantic to seek his advice as a physician. His relationship with Franklin was formed as on the eve of conflict Franklin visited Europe to try to find a settlement between the two countries. Fothergill wrote a paper on how the two sides might agree and although this was accepted by Franklin it was rejected by the British government. Fothergill set up Ackworth School with the intention of setting it up as a “boarding school for the education of children whose parents were not rich”. He took a great interest in the running of the school often travelling up from London to serve on the committee and to help with expenses before his death in 1780. A hall built at the school in 1899 with seating for 400 people was named Fothergill Hall.

Agriculture seems to have played an important role in the development of the area around Ackworth since the times when it was first settled particularly considering the meaning of the name ‘worth’ which was Anglo Saxon for enclosure or homestead. Other names around the area indicate that farming was a key feature of the economy during the development of Ackworth and the areas around Ackworth such as Badsworth and Hemsworth. Norse placenames in the region also indicate that this carried on into the period of Scandinavian settlement with places appearing with the name ‘Thorpe’ which meant a small homestead or a farm. In the Domesday Book of 1086 it noted that Ackworth had a mill and that the land was capable of employing five ploughs. Accounts from 1296 indicated that the mill was still an important part of the community as its value had gone up and in 1341 the ‘Inquisitiones Nonarum’ noted that the only people living in Ackworth were those working in agriculture. The census of 1831 showed that ‘agricultural labourer’ was the most common profession in the area with a total of 100 men over the age of 20 being employed in this area. The second most populous occupation was in the field of ‘retail and handicrafts’ with 90 people employed. There were also 29 people classified as ‘farmers employing labourers’ and 13 people classified as ‘farmers not employing labourers’. In the 1881 census agriculture was still a big employer, the second largest in the area, with 106 men and 1 woman being employed in this way. The largest occupation by this time for men however were those employed in the area of ‘workers in various mineral substances’. For women the census showed that the most common occupation was in the field of ‘domestic services or offices’.

Stone Quarrying
Quarrying was also an important industry with quarries around the areas of Moor Top and Brackenhill. There is a long tradition of quarrying and masonry in the area with the production of building stone and high quality grindstones produced used by the agricultural and tool making industries. Saywell (1894) describes Brackenhill as being “almost entirely inhabited by stoneworkers” and says that Moor Top consists of “several good houses, the rest are the cottages of miners and quarryworkers”. Saywell also describes “extensive quarrying” operations in the south and southwest of area around Ackworth with stone running “near the surface” in many areas. He describes the Ackworth Stone as “good, but in places it is exceptionally soft, and unfit for building purposes, which accounts for so many faults”. In 1848 ‘A Topographical History of Great Britain’ describes “extensive quarries” of stone to be found in Moor Top and describes an abundant supply of “freestone of excellent quality”.

The first stone quarry in the parish was said to have been opened by John Askew whose initials are said to be inscribed on the lintel of the Masons Arms pub in Moor Top, one of the oldest buildings in the parish. Green (1910), in his book Historical Antiquities of Ackworth, states the quarrying however was being carried out as early as 1611. In 1927 Kelly’s directory of the West Riding of Yorkshire confirmed that quarrying was still going strong and hinted that the stone was received by a global market saying “At Moor Top and Brackenhill are several large quarries, from which great quantities of stone are sent to all parts of England and abroad.”Brackenhill was still described as somewhere where men employed by the stone quarries lived as well as those working in the Hemsworth colliery. The working men’s club and institute in Moor Top was built in 1907 and was said to have cost £1,750.

Coal Mining
Saywell (1894) had said that “coal abounds in the vicinity” and told of how, in 1860, an experimental bore of 153 feet was drilled in Long Lane but coal was “not reached”. He also said that “rich veins of iron are known to exist, at certain points, especially in Low Ackworth, inasmuch as many of the natural water springs are strongly oxidised.” Picturing Ackworth in fifty years time he surmised that “it is not a too great stretch of imagination to predict that in fifty years’ time, or even less, the picturesque village of Ackworth will have become one of the busiest mining centres of the West Riding of Yorkshire.”

Hemsworth Colliery
The Hemsworth Colliery was sunk in 1876 and was initially called ‘Fitzwilliam Main’ By 1879 the pit employed over 300 men and boys who travelled from Kinsley, Hemsworth, Ackworth and Crofton to work. In 1879 an explosion killed five people including three men from Brackenhill. The Wakefield Express described the injuries of one of the men, John Mann, saying that he suffered a “compound fracture of the skull and also a scalp wound, his right arm had been fractured, and he was burnt in a shocking manner on the head, face, chest and back”. The paper reported that “the poor fellow expired about nine o’clock the same night.” Following the disaster the colliery was taken over by the Hemsworth Colliery Coal Company in 1880, went into liquidation in 1890 and was in turn bought by the ‘New Hemsworth Colliery Coal Company’. In 1904 the mine became ‘Fitzwilliam-Hemsworth collieries’ and in 1907 became just ‘Hemsworth colliery’. Kelly’s directory of 1927 noted that the area of Brackenhill was “inhabited chiefly by the men employed in the stone quarries and the Hemsworth colliery.” A colliery was also sunk in Ackworth around 1910–1912.


This page uses material from the Wikipedia article Ackworth, West Yorkshire, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

Back to top