Ossett’s place in the history of the North of England.

Our first knowledge of human settlement in Ossett is the recovery of Roman artefacts, such as Roman coins found at Streetside, which was on the Roman Road, the Via Vicinalis on its way from Manchester to Tadcaster and York, via Castleshaw, Huddersfield, Dewsbury and Wakefield. Streetside is thought to have been a hamlet on the Via Vicinalis.

 Aside: the author now lives in Saddleworth and, in certain lights at certain times of the year, the outline of this same Roman Road from Manchester to York can be seen in Castleshaw valley in Saddleworth, approaching the remains of the Castleshaw Roman Fort.

The name Ossett is older than Roman, however, and is probably derived from the Saxon language, meaning either “the fold of a man named Osla” or ” a fold frequented by blackbirds” or possibly from the Viking language, meaning “ridge camp”. In Saxon times, Ossett was on the edge of the large Saxon settlement of Dewsbury, which then encompassed Huddersfield, Mirfield and Bradford.

Domesday Book

After the Norman Invasion, the north took part in a revolt against the Normans, with Viking help, but the revolt was put down and King William took retribution on the North by laying waste the northern shires and killing the inhabitants. This “Harrying of the North” (see Brief notes on the History of Yorkshire) left many villages empty for a generation and large areas of Yorkshire and other northern counties were still laying waste in 1086, ‘wasta est’, as Domesday says. In that great Domesday survey of 1086, Ossett is named “Osleset” and was recorded as having three and a half carucates of land (420 acres), which is the amount that would need three teams of eight oxen to plough it. This was about 10-20% of the settlement that was set aside as arable land. Woodland pasture measured “half a league long as much broad” (roughly six furlongs by six furlongs). There were other areas of trees with paling to prevent animal entry. Only about 10% of the land was wooded, showing that much of it had been cleared before 1086 and the remainder was being managed. Animals grazed on “woodland pasture” and the trees were pollarded above animal height, allowing the sunlight to slip through and giving rise to the name “the Lights”. Ossett Lights, with 254 acres, was typical of common land at the time.

In 1086, Ossett had only seven families, headed by four villeins and three bordars. A villein was a tenant farmer in Feudal terms, who was tied to the Lord of the Manor. He was somewhere between a free man and a slave. The word is from a Roman word meaning “a man employed at a villa”. A bordar was a man ranking below a villein but above a serf. A bordar might hold enough land to feed a family and would be required to also provide labour for his Lord on certain days each week.

Many of the areas around Ossett were still laid waste. Even the Manor of Wakefield only had 9 villagers, 22 smallholders, 11 freemen and three priests. The value of Wakefield to the Lord of the manor in 1066 had been £60, but in 1086 was only £15.

By 1087, Ossett was one of 57 townships in the Manor of Wakefield. The Manorial system, which began in Roman times, was well established but the area but was still depleted of men, having not recovered from the slaughter of 1069-70. The villagers were allowed the rights of pasture for pigs and they could forage for wood, for kindling and to build houses and fences. Mineral rights remained with the Lord of the Manor. The rights and obligations of the villagers lasted for hundreds of years until the “Enclosures Act” of 1807.

Feudal laws remained in force under the Normans and, between the end of the 11th century and the middle of the 14th Century, the population of Yorkshire and of course, Ossett, only slightly increased. In the earlier part of this period, Britain was experiencing a climatic warm period which enabled good harvests and grapes could be grown even as far north as Yorkshire. From the beginning of the 14th Century, the country experienced the beginning of a period called “the Little Ice Age”, when the average temperature dropped by one and a half degrees Celsius and crop failure and starvation and disease became more common.

Ossett’s population rose only slowly at first from only about 30 in 1086; 55 in 1300 then more rapidly to about 1,200 inhabitants in 1700.

The Black Death

The Black Death swept across Europe was responsible for the death of more than a third of the whole population. The plague entered England in 1348 and had a devastating effect on the population. Spreading rapidly across counties, it would not be long before the people of the West Riding were affected and it would kill up to half of the population, bringing numbers down again to not much more than existed at the time of the Domesday Book.

Our first family surnames in Ossett    

The poll tax was a tax per head, rather than on goods. It was levied just three times, in 1377, 1379 and 1381. Each time the basis was slightly different. In 1377, everyone over the age of 14 and not exempt had to pay a groat (2p) to the Crown. By 1379 that had been graded by social class, with the lower limit raised to 16, (and 15 two years later). Exemption of the poor means that about 40% of inhabitants of any village or town were not counted. Because they were poor, they would not be recorded as making wills either. Perhaps Manor Court records might pick up a few errant poor people, but on the whole, unless a family had a certain level of means, they do not appear in records from this period.

I looked for some of my family surnames in the Poll Tax Rolls for Yorkshire. In Ossett, I did not find any Archer or Ellis. But I did find Wilson, Scott and Maunsfield, which are names of some of the Ossett families from whom I am descended, possibly establishing for me a family link with the town as far back as the fourteenth century.

Subsidy Rolls (Poll Tax) for the year 1379
Agbrigg wapentake, Dewsbury parish:

Thomas Wodhowse          iiij.d.
Willelmus filius Ricardi          iiij.d.
Thomas de Westerton, Marchant          xij.d.
Robertus Hyruyng’ & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Alicia filia ejus    iiij.d.
Johannes de ffernley          iiij.d.
Matilda de ffernley          iiij.d.
Willelmus de Hill’ & uxor ejus    iiij.d.
Thomas Hogg’ & uxor ejus    iiij.d.
Willelmus filius Hugoni & uxor ejus, Taillour          vj.d.
Adam Schephird’ & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Thomas de Hyll’ & uxor ejus    iiij.d.
Johannes Norwod & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Magota Wilborne          iiij.d.
Hugo Ranald’          iiij.d.
Matilda Swansoñ          iiij.d.
Adam filius Thome & uxor ejus    iiij.d.
Johannes Bull’ & uxor ejus, Soutter iiij.d.
Alicia Margery          iiij.d.
Ancilla Willelmi Richard          iiij.d.
Johannes Wod’ & uxor ejus, Wrigh’          vj.d.
Johannes Hardgat & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Willelmus filius Johannis & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Katerina ancilla ejus          iiij.d.
Ricardus filius Johannis, Smyth’ xv.d.
Alicia ancilla ejus    iiij.d.
Johannes Jodsoñ & uxor ejus    iiij.d.
Isabella filia ejus    iiij.d.
Thomas filius Willelmi & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Willelmus Butt & uxor ejus, Taillour          vj.d.
Ricardus Mawnfill’ & uxor ejus        iiij.d.
Hugu Malsoñ & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Henricus Hawkisue          iiij.d.
Elizabetha de Balne  iiij.d.
Alicia Hardgat          iiij.d.
Thomas Hyruyng & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Alicia Swaynsoñ          iiij.d.
Ricardus atte ye Thounhende          iiij.d.
Johannes de Clatoñ iiij.d.
Willelmus ffoster & uxor ejus    iiij.d.
Magota de Hetoñ  iiij.d.
Alicia filia ejus    iiij.d.
Johannes Wylbor junior          iiij.d.
Magota Scott’ iiij.d.
Johannes Mawsell’ & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Hugo Scot & uxor ejus        iiij.d.
Thomas Grene & uxor ejus, Walker          vj.d.
Alicia uxor Hugonis          iiij.d.
Ricardus filius Hugonis, Smyth’ vj.d.
Alicia de Morlay iiij.d.
Agnes Cowper          iiij.d.
Ricardus Hyrueryng’ (sic) & uxor ejus, Souter          xij.d.
Willelmus filius ejus          iiij.d.
Ricardus Malynsoñ & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Adam filius Johannis          iiij.d.
Johannes de Grene & uxor ejus, Wrygh’          vj.d.
Johannes Wilbore & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Willelmus Discheforth & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Johannes filius Thome & uxor ejus, Couper         vj .d.
Robertus Somañ & uxor ejus    iiij.d.
Matilda de Lokytoñ          iiij.d.
Thomas filius ejus    iiij.d.
Hugo filius ejus    iiij.d.
Johanna filia ejus    iiij.d.
Thomas Dyschforth’ & uxor ejus, Walker          vj.d.
Ricardus Willesoñ        iiij.d.
Alicia de Merlay iiij.d.
Johannes del Wodde & uxor ejus          iiij.d.
Johannes Hardgate & uxor ejus          iiij.d
Willelmus Jonesoñ et uxor ejus          iiij.d
Katerina ancilla uxor ejus (sic)          iiij.d

Summa- xxvij.s. x.d. (Sum 27 shillings and 10 pence)

The Archer Name

There are several references to men and women with the surname Archer appearing in the Manor Court Rolls of Wakefield from the 14th Century…but they were from Wakefield, not Ossett.  

The Wakefield Manor Rolls 1274-1279:

In 1297: “Wakefeud – A stray coyllard is in John Pollard’s custody and at William Archer’s house.” A coyllard…is a ram, from the French “coillart”.

Also In 1297: “Wakefeud – William Archer (?) gives 12d. for a stray coyllard; pledge, John Pollard.”

In 1285: “Wakefeud – William de Wrydelesforth, for dry wood, 6d; pledge William the Goldsmith. Richard Archur, for the like, 6d. same pledge.”

It is possible that out Ossett Archers are descended from and extension of this family. However, Archer is an occupational name and there is a more speculative possibility:

During the Wars of the Roses, both sides would muster troops from the general population to support their campaigns. Different estimates exist of how many men were mustered but a conservative estimate is that one in thirty of the population were mustered by both sides. We don’t know if the Lord of the Manor of Wakefield mustered troops from Ossett. However, since the battle of Wakefield was fought only three miles from Ossett and the local gentry were Yorkists, it would seem reasonable to surmise that men from Ossett might have been required to fight in the Yorkist army.

Of the men who were mustered into the medieval army, most would be archers or foot soldiers. The type of archers which were used in all out battle were long-bowmen, not crossbowmen. Archers with longbows were better suited to all-out battle than were crossbowmen. Whilst the crossbow was a formidable weapon and had enormous speed and power, the rate of fire was a distinct disadvantage. The crossbowman had to wind up the tension on his bow before he could release the trigger and fire an arrow. The crossbow was therefore more suitable to the siege situation. In England, up to half of the army may have been composed of archers.

A rough calculation from the population figures (above) might conclude that Ossett, by 1460, might have reached a couple of hundred inhabitants and, of those, some men would be of fighting age and might be mustered for military service in the Yorkist army. Some of those may have become archers. I wonder if the Wars of the Roses could be the origin of the Archer surname in the Ossett/West Riding area?

Archery was a necessary pursuit. In King Edward IV’s reign (1471-1483),  “an Act was passed decreeing that every Englishman should have a longbow of his own size, and butts should be made in every township, at which the inhabitants should shoot every feast-day, or face a halfpenny fine. A butt is a mound of earth built especially for archery target practice. These butts had to be kept in very good repair since the practice of archery was looked upon as a necessary part of every man’s training. There is an area in Ossett, off West Wells, called “Blue Butts”, and this may well be where Ossett’s longbowmen practiced their craft in medieval times.” in ossett.net/14-15th.html

In “The Medieval Archer”, John Gilligham says that the typical Archer was thought to be a relatively humble person “men without worth and without birth”. In 1453, Parliament had granted 20,000 archers to the King and many of those would be recruited on a national basis from the poorer elements of towns and villages through a “Commission of Array”. But an archer’s position in society was increasingly a respected one and, although archers did not generally reach the dizzy heights of the gentry, they were nevertheless seen in the rank of Yeoman.

By the middle of the 16th Century, we find Archer families established in Dewsbury parish (which then included Ossett)…and a century later they have enough means to own or lease property and become respected artisans in the town.

The Woollen Industry in Ossett

It is unclear when the woollen industry began in Ossett, but the northern towns, especially in Yorkshire wove wool from very early days. In Charles Knight’s Pictorial History of England, it is stated that wool became an important export product and:

“…in 1341 a government estimate was formed of the amount of wool or money which each county of England should pay to the crown, and the three Ridings of Yorkshire could afford to pay towards the first tax of 20,000 sacks of wool, then valued at £4 per sack…No other county came near to this amount.”

Much of the wool was shipped to Antwerp and Bruges, to the clothiers there and were sold on to clothiers all over northern Europe.


To be continued…