Document from 1798 sheds new light on Oakwell history

editorial image
Have your say

Fascinating historical documents have emerged relating to the history of Oakwell Hall in Birstall, near Leeds.

The cache includes a land agreement dated 1798 and a collection of black and white pictures from the late 19th or early 20th century, when the hall was still inhabited.

The land agreement is a lengthy legal document governing the usage of the two fields which adjoin Oakwell Hall house and which today form part of the country park which is administered by Kirklees Council.

In the document, they are referred to as the ‘great field’ and the ‘little field’, those being in the ‘townsfields of Birstall in the county of York’.

It appears that the document was an attempt by various landowners at the time to bring some semblance of order to what was, by all accounts, a chaotic system of cattle grazing.

It calls on the 15 signatories of the document to maintain their fences to prevent cattle from roaming onto neighbouring land, adding: “The said fields have for a number of years past been greatly injured by cattle being turned into them at unreasonable times... and by respective owners of such land neglecting to keep their fences in proper repair.”

It goes on to stipulate numberous conditions - 11 in all - to rectify the situation by the first day of October of that year.

The signatories are named as Will Batby, Elias Firth, Sam’l Clapham, Geo Gooder, Jean Dixon, John Woodhead, Joshua Charlesworth (for Judith Charlesworth), Will’m Hitchingson, Thos Clapham, W’m Crossly, John Mortimer, Jane Holmes, John Armitage, John Holmes and John Garrett.

The conditions stipulate the employment of a superintendent to enforce the conditions of maintaining the fences and where necessary to “impound cattle” but warns that he would be replaced forthwith upon “dying or misbehaving himself in his office”.

It is also stated that all parties would agree to meet on the first Monday in October at the house of Thomas Wood at the White Bear, Birstall, agreeing to pay the superintendent no more than one shilling per acre of land per year.

It would seem that each person named in the document was also liable to pay the sum of twenty pounds should they forfeit their part of it.

The document has been obtained by members of the Friends of Oakwell Hall, who were recently in contact with a relative of one of the hall’s former occupants.

A number of old pictures were also passed on, several of which show the interior of the hall before it became a museum and one shows a young boy sitting by a tree on the front lawn, with the hall in the background.

It is thought the pictures date from the time when the hall was in danger of being demolished and shipped, stone by stone, timber by timber, to America.

Popular myth has it that two local businessmen caught wind of the trans-Atlantic bid to steal one of the county’s most treasured houses and they whipped up a campgaign to raise the £2,500 needed to buy it.

The Hall dates back to the 15th century and has connections to the English Civil War and the Brontes. It became a museum in the early 1900s.