A History of Bradford

By Tim Lambert

Bradford in the Middle Ages

Bradford began as a village by a ford. Brad meant broad. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, the village by the broad ford had grown quite large (by the standards of the time) with perhaps 300-350 people.

Bradford was turned into a town when the villagers were allowed to hold a weekly market. In those days there were few shops and anyone wishing to buy or sell anything had to go to a market. Once the market was up and running craftsmen would come and live in Bradford and sell their goods at the market.

Medieval Bradford would seem tiny to us, with a population of no more than several hundred but towns and villages were very small in those days. There were only 3 streets, Kirkgate, Westgate, and Ivegate. (The word gate does not mean a gate in a wall it is derived from the old Danish word ‘gata’ meaning street).

In Bradford in the Middle Ages, there was a leather tanning industry. There was also a wool industry in Bradford. Wool was woven in the town. It was then fulled. That means it was cleaned and thickened by being pounded in a mixture of water and clay. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by a watermill. When it dried the wool was dyed.

Bradford slowly grew more important and in 1461 it was granted the right to hold 2 fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. Bradford fairs would attract buyers and sellers from all over Yorkshire.

According to legend, the boar became Bradford’s emblem because of an incident in the Middle Ages. A boar was terrorizing a wood near the town. (Wild boars were vicious animals). The Lord of the Manor offered a reward to anyone who could kill it. A hunter named John Northrop saw it drinking at a well. He killed the boar and cut out its tongue to prove it was dead.

A wild boar

However, a little later another hunter saw the boar. He cut off its head and took it to the Lord before Northrop could get there. However, he could not explain why the boar’s tongue was missing. Northrop then turned up with the tongue and he was given land as a reward.

Bradford 1500-1800

During the 16th century Bradford grew much larger and more important. This was despite outbreaks of plague. It struck Bradford in 1557-58.

The wool industry continued to grow. By the 16th century, many people in villages near Bradford wove wool. It was then taken to the town to be fulled and dyed. There was also a considerable leather tanning industry in Bradford.

About 1540 a writer named Leland described Bradford as: ‘A pretty busy market town, about half the size of Wakefield. It has one parish church and a chapel dedicated to St Sitha. It lives mostly by (making) clothing and is 4 miles distant from Halifax and 6 from Christhall (Kirkstall) Abbey. There is a confluence in this town of 3 brooks’.

By 1500 a grammar school existed in Bradford and in the late 16th century the wooden houses in the town were rebuilt in stone.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. The people of Bradford solidly supported parliament but the surrounding countryside sided with the king. In October royalist troops made their first attempt to take Bradford but the townspeople easily drove them off. The royalists returned in December 1642 but again they were driven off. In January 1643 a force of parliamentary soldiers was sent to occupy Bradford.

In June 1643 a royalist army was sent to take the town. Before they arrived the parliamentary commander decided Bradford was too difficult to defend and he decided to slip away. However, his men were intercepted by the royalists at Adwalton Moor. The royalists were victorious.

The defeated parliamentary army fled back to Bradford. After 2 days they decided to escape at night. Most of them fought their way through the royalist lines and escaped. The royalist soldiers then entered Bradford and sacked it. Bradford remained in the royalist’s hands for a short time but they abandoned the town at the beginning of 1644.

In March 1644 the parliamentarians again entered Bradford. It remained in parliamentary hands till the end of the civil war. However, the suffering of the people of Bradford was not over. There was another outbreak of plague in Bradford in 1645.

However, prosperity returned to Bradford in the late 17th century when the townspeople began to make worsted instead of woollen cloth.

In the early 18th century Bradford was a small market town with a population of, perhaps, 4,000. However, in the late 18th century, Bradford was transformed by the industrial revolution.

The textile industry in the north of England boomed. The first bank in Bradford opened in 1771. Bradford Canal was built in 1774 and in 1777 it was connected to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. The improvement in communications boosted industry in the town.

In 1793 a Piece Hall was built where cloth could be bought and sold. However, after 1800 the handloom weavers, who wove cloth in their own homes were replaced by mills in which machines were worked by steam engines.

Conditions in these ‘dark, Satanic mills’ in Bradford were dreadful. A 12-hour working day was common, even for young children. Overseers carried leather straps to hit children who were lazy or careless.

However, in the late 19th century conditions improved. Working hours were reduced and mill owners were banned from employing very young children.

Bradford in the 19th century

In the late 18th century and early 19th Bradford grew very rapidly. In 1780 it had a population of about 4,500. By 1801 it had more than 6,000 inhabitants. By 1851 the population of Bradford had reached an incredible 103,000. The huge rise in population was partly due to immigration from Germany and Ireland.

The very rapid growth of Bradford meant houses were built haphazardly. There were no building regulations until 1854 and most working-class housing was horrid. There were no sewers or drains and overcrowding was common.

Worst of all were the cellar dwellings. Whole families lived in damp, poorly ventilated cellars. Often poor families had no furniture. They used wooden boxes as tables and slept on straw or rags.

However, there were some improvements in Bradford in the 19th century. In 1803 an Act of Parliament formed a group of men called the Improvement Commissioners who had powers to clean the streets and light them with oil lamps. They could also provide a fire engine and a dust cart. After 1823 the streets of Bradford were lit by gas. In 1847 a corporation was formed to run Bradford.

However, like all industrial cities in those days, Bradford was dreadfully unsanitary. In 1848-49 420 people died during a cholera epidemic.

However, life in 19th century Bradford gradually improved. In the 1860s and early 1870s, the corporation created a network of drains and sewers. From 1744 a private water company supplied piped water to anyone in Bradford who could pay. The council purchased the company in 1854.

After 1854 building regulations improved the quality of working-class houses. (Although appallingly bad dwellings built before then remained for decades). In 1877 Bradford Corporation began the work of slum clearance.

In the 19th century, it was common to adulterate foodstuffs by adding cheap substances. Calcium sulphate was added to peppermints. In 1858 a sweet maker in Bradford sent somebody to obtain some from a druggist. However, by mistake, the druggist’s assistant picked up some arsenic thinking it was calcium sulphate. The arsenic was added to the sweets. As a result, 200 people became seriously ill and 20 died.

Meanwhile in 1853-71, Titus Salt built a model village at Saltaire. The village had decent working-class homes, schools, and a church. n There were other improvements to Bradford during the 19th century. In 1843 an infirmary was built. The first park, Peel Park, opened in 1863. The corporation purchased Peel Park in 1870. The first public library in Bradford opened in 1872.

Meanwhile, the railway reached Bradford in 1846, and from 1882 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets. Electricity was first generated in Bradford in 1889 and in 1898 the first electric trams ran in the streets. The first motor buses in Britain began running in Bradford in 1897.

Meanwhile, in 1882 the boundary of Bradford was extended to include Allerton. Then in 1897, Bradford was made a city and the boundary was extended to include Idle and Eccleshill.

Furthermore, a Wool Exchange was built in Bradford in 1864. City Hall was built in Bradford in 1873.

Bradford in the 20th century

In 1904 an Industrial Exhibition was held in Bradford. Cartwright Memorial Hall was built in 1904. The Alhambra Theatre opened in 1914.

The first council houses in Bradford were built in 1907. Many more were built in the 1920s and 1930s to replace demolished slums. In 1919 the Church of St Peter was made Bradford Cathedral. Bradford Royal Infirmary was built in 1936.

However, on 21 August 1916 explosions in a munitions factory killed 39 people and damaged 2,000 houses. Meanwhile, in 1910 Benjamin and William Jowett started making cars in Bradford. The Jowett company made cars until 1954. In the 1920s and 1930s, the textile industry declined sharply and there was mass unemployment in Bradford.

However new industries came to Bradford such as engineering. Printing also flourished and there was a big increase in the number of clerical jobs. Many more people worked in banking, insurance, civil service, and local government. Nevertheless, in 1939 the textile industry was still the largest employer in Bradford.

After 1945 the textile industry in Bradford gradually declined. However, Bradford’s economy boomed in the 1950s and 1960s. Tractors and televisions were made in the city. However that all ended in the late 1970s and 1980s when a recession bit and mass unemployment returned.

In the late 20th century tourism became a major industry in Bradford. Bradford Industrial Museum opened in 1974. The Colour Museum opened in 1978 (it became The Colour Experience in 2007). Bradford National Science and Media Museum opened in 1983. opened in 1983. The Peace Museum opened in 1997.

In the 1950s Bradford was changed by large-scale immigration from the West Indies, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Bradford became a multicultural city.

In the 1950s and 1960s, many more council houses were built and the city centre was redeveloped. Bradford University opened in 1966. The Kirkgate Centre opened in 1971 and in 1974 Bradford was made a Metropolitan District Council.

Meanwhile, in 1977 a Transport Interchange was built in Bradford. Bradford Law Courts were built in 1990.

At the end of the 20th century, several modern sculptures were erected in Bradford including ‘Camera Lucida’ (1985), Ivegate Arch (1988), ‘Grandad’s Clock and Chair’ (1992), and ‘Fibres’ (1997).

Bradford in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Bradford is still thriving. In 2009 Bradford became a UNESCO City of Film. Bradford City Park opened in 2012. The Broadway Shopping Centre opened in 2015.

In 2024 Bradford had a population of 550,000.