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  • How the people of pre-industrial Castleford tilled the village fields in accordance with ancient rules and customs.

For at least 700 years – from soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the end of the eighteenth century – Castleford was a typical small English village in which the lives of most inhabitants were defined by, and their working lives preoccupied with, agriculture. Even as the early potteries and bottle works sprung up around its outskirts and the first wave of incoming workers began its nineteenth century population boom, the age-old routines of ploughing, sowing, harvesting and livestock rearing continued within yards of the furnaces and the hovels in which their operators lived. Indeed, it was not until the final quarter of the nineteenth century that industry and housing finally obliterated all traces of the old ways in which the people of Castleford had eked out a living.

Agricultural practice in medieval and pre-industrial Castleford followed that found in the majority of lowland English communities, where the village fields were divided into arable for growing crops, pasture for grazing livestock and meadow to provide winter fodder. Castleford’s fields mostly lay to the south and east of the settlement: to the north, the river formed the township limit; to the west, the boundary with Whitwood Mere (and Featherstone parish) lay very close by – present-day Aketon Road follows its course, as does the footpath which continues its line to the north across the railway footbridge behind Pauline Terrace and then once ran through the former glass works site to emerge on Methley Road near the Shoulder of Mutton. The eastern and southern boundary of the township ran from the River Aire at Wheldale, south towards what is now Queen’s Park, then turned at an abrupt angle to head in a generally south-westerly direction, crossing the present-day Pontefract Road near the Magnet Hotel (where a boundary marker stone survives, half-hidden by a privet hedge), before continuing on a more westerly course until it met the western boundary at Cutsyke.

Save for one intriguing thirteenth century reference to be mentioned later, no records have survived to record directly how these fields were divided up between the villagers and worked in medieval times – but in places where such documents do exist, they almost invariably show that arrangements and practices seldom changed to any significant degree over the centuries. This being so, it is safe to assume that Castleford’s fields of the eighteenth century (the earliest period for which sufficiently detailed documents exist) and the rules and customs associated with them at that time were much the same as had been in force since the village and its surrounding agricultural landscape were established back in the late eleventh century.

Castleford township covered 564 acres, of which around 500 were devoted to agriculture, the rest comprising orchards and gardens in and alongside the village itself, plus small patches of marshland near the river. The majority – somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters – was given over to arable husbandry: this, in effect, being the land required to grow sufficient food to allow the population to feed itself as well as meeting its obligations to hand over a proportion to the church in the form of tithes (of which more in a subsequent article). These were the classic medieval open fields with their long ploughed ridge-and-furrow strips, cultivated on the three-field rotation system whereby in three successive years a field would first be sown with cereal crops; then peas or beans; and finally left fallow for a year for the soil to regain fertility. Each landholder was granted the same acreage of land, evenly distributed through the fields to ensure everyone received equal proportions of more and less favourable soils to cultivate.

In the great majority of townships, this division and distribution of land was done on a purely geographical basis. However, it may be that Castleford was one of a small number of villages which used a system known as sun division, whereby land was shared out according to how much, and at what time of day, it received sunlight: an agreement made in October 1226, between landholders Walter and Cicely de Casterford and tenants Randle and Christian de Casterford, referred to the half of the land “next the shade”. This method of land allocation was also known by the Scandinavian name ‘solskifte’, which suggests it had been introduced by the Danes who settled in Yorkshire in the ninth century.

Although a three-field crop rotation worked at its simplest if there were, indeed, three fields, for many villages, especially in northern England, the arrangement was more complicated. Castleford was a typical example of this more complex tendency and had five arable fields. West Field (also known as Jane Ridge Field) covered the area from the western edge of the village itself to the Castleford–Whitwood Mere boundary; Beancroft Field extended from the ‘back lane’ (now Carlton Street) on the southern edge of the village to the eastern half of the Castleford–(Glass) Houghton township boundary; Roundhill Field lay further to the south of the village up to the western half of the boundary with Houghton; Heald Field (the word heald indicating a slope) was a smaller field in the south-eastern corner of the township, south of the present Healdfield Road; and East Field was another small field adjoining the eastern edge of the village bounded on its north by the River Aire and on its south by Heald Field, with the present-day Eastfield Lane maintaining the line of the access road which cut across the middle of this field. Other present-day roads which preserve links with the old village fields are Beancroft Road – formerly Beancroft Field Lane, the track which led from the village into that field – Roundhill Road, the line of which follows the northern boundary of Roundhill Field, and Ridgefield Street, the western end of which looks as if it may coincide with the eastern edge of Jane Ridge (or West) Field and suggests that land ownership at the time the nineteenth century builder bought the plot still reflected centuries-old divisions.

The village pasture lay in the east of the township, beyond East Field Lane, and was bounded to the north by Wheldale Lane (now Wheldon Road), to the south by Heald Field and to the east by the Castleford–Water Fryston boundary. The meadow was in the north-eastern corner of the township, between Wheldale Lane and the River Aire (effectively the area covered by the former Hicksons chemical works) in an area named Castleford Ings owing to the frequency with which it flooded in wet conditions and in winter. The name and line of the access road into the meadow is maintained by Green Lane, which runs north from Wheldon Road just beyond the rugby ground.

Castleford boundary and fields

Everyone who cultivated strips of land in the arable fields or grazed livestock on the pastures was bound by a set of rules, many of them unique to the particular township, which drew upon customs and practices that had been followed for centuries. It was very much a self-policing system, although there would often be a scale of fines and forfeits levied by the landowner on anyone who stepped out of line. Many of the regulations which applied to Castleford (and, as previously stated, had probably done so for half a millennium or more) are revealed in an agreement made on 1 November 1753, by which a local man named John Gawthorp rented land from Lancashire-based landowner, William Sagar, for eleven years at a cost of £14 per year.

The way in which Gawthorp’s allocated land was scattered across the township is shown by the fact that his holdings comprised 1½ acres in “a place called Beancroft”, another 1½ acres “being in a Field or Close called Roundall Field” (i.e. Roundhill Field) and three acres “being in a Field or Close called West Field”. A close was an enclosed area of land, suggesting that by this time the formerly vast open fields surrounding the village were starting to be divided up and enclosed by hedges. Gawthorp was also allotted “one parcel of land called Lime Garth” and “one other Garth … adjoining one Mr. Wiggon’s orchard”, while he also received an allocation of meadow “in a place called Castleford Ings” amounting to 4½ roods. A garth was a garden or orchard, most likely within the boundary of the village itself, while a rood was an area of land equivalent to a furlong (220 yards) in length and one rod (5½ yards) in width – that is, a quarter of an acre. The word furlong is derived from “furrow long”, this being the usual length of one of the cultivation strips in the open fields.

As well as land – which also included a total of four acres in the fields of Whitwood (Mere) and Houghton – John Gawthorp also took on the tenancy of a house, barn and stable: the house was described in the deed as a “farmhouse” but would have been located in the village rather than standing on its own surrounded by agricultural land. The agreement he signed with Sagar (which, incidentally, he marked with a cross, indicating he was unable to write) obliged Gawthorp to “uphold and keep in good repair the said … farm house, barn and stable and other buildings with moss [this would be for the roof covering], mortar and glass. And all the hedges, ditches, walls, pales, rails, wears [weirs?], water courses and fences”. The reference to hedges is another sign that some of his land was in smaller enclosed fields, while a pale was a fence made of thin wooden stakes and, in this case, was probably erected as a temporary barrier when livestock was being grazed on fallow strips for the purpose of manuring the soil.

As regards the cultivation of the land itself, he was required to “plow and fallow … in such sort and manner as is usual and customary … within the said Township of Castleford” and “from time to time … spread and bestow upon some part of the above premises all the hay, straw, dung, compost or ashes that from time to time renew or be bred upon the same”. In other words, Gawthorp was obliged to follow the three-part rotation system on his arable holdings and to fertilise them with the animal and plant waste produced on his land – and to do so in the same way as his neighbours did and his forebears had done since time immemorial.

There were many things a tenant was forbidden to do, too. Gawthorp was not allowed to cut down, or cut wood from, any tree “other than necessary for making new or repairing the Fences or Water Ways belonging to the said premises”, nor could he “plow, grave, rive up or sow with any kind of grain or corn … any part of the above premises which is now Ing or Meadow Ground”, this latter clause demonstrating the importance of pasture and meadow for livestock grazing and fodder. If he was tempted to turn his allocation of grassland over to crops, he would have to pay Sagar £5 an acre – although respect for centuries-old customs and, it can be imagined, the wrath of his neighbours within a highly co-operative system of agriculture would most likely be the strongest deterrents.

John Gawthorp was one of the last generation of Castleford people to till the land in this time-honoured way, for increasing industrialisation and, in 1822, the final enclosing of the remaining open fields spelled the end of old-style agriculture in and around the village and brought down the curtain on centuries of tradition.