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Introduction to Marsden

Marsden is a small town, with a population of 4,532 in 2011, which lies seven miles west of Huddersfield, close to the Pennine watershed. Situated on the junction of the River Colne and the Wessenden Brook, it is surrounded by steep hillsides running up to moorland plateaux. Most inhabitants now live in the town centre, which largely consists of nineteenth and early twentieth century terraces and is dominated by several very large woollen mills, the last of which closed in 2003. Much of the population now commutes to work in Huddersfield, or further afield in Leeds and Manchester.

In the period of the Marsden Manorial Court probate documents - 1655 to 1855 - the population of Marsden was much smaller - it rose from about 400 in 1666 to 1,958 in 1801 and to 2,665 in 1851 - and was mainly scattered in hillside farms and cottages. People made their living by combining small-scale farming with home production of woollen cloth, which was carried along pack-horse routes to markets in Huddersfield, Rochdale and even further afield. The east-west Pennine crossing here is narrow, so it has always been well-used, and Marsden inns profited from both local and long-distance travellers.

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries transport links were revolutionised. The Wakefield to Austerlands turnpike road was built after 1758 (and later twice improved), and the Huddersfield Narrow Canal had reached Marsden by 1804. The railway, connecting Marsden to Leeds and Manchester, opened in 1849. These links allowed Marsden to take part in the woollen industry boom of the late eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth century to develop into a mill town.

The land owned by the Manor of Marsden fell at this time into two different parishes: land south of the River Colne and east of Red Brook belonged to the parish of Almondbury, while the land north of the Colne and west of Red Brook belonged to the parish of Huddersfield. As a result there were two Townships - Marsden in (the parish of) Almondbury, and Marsden in (the parish of) Huddersfield.[1] In 1866 these townships became civil parishes, which were united as Marsden civil parish in 1898. In 1888 the ecclesiastical parish of Marsden St. Bartholomew's was created.

The Manor of Marsden

The Manor of Marsden was granted by William the Conqueror to Ilbert de Lacy, a Norman baron, in the year 1067, under the umbrella of the Honour of Pontefract. The subsequent history is complex, the Manor changing hands on numerous occasions.[2] It became part of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1462. The names of some of the Lords and Ladies of the Manor, and of their Stewards, are recorded in probate bonds in the Marsden Peculiar Court series. The best-known names is that of Joseph Radcliffe, who was created a baronet in 1813 in gratitude for his duties as magistrate in the Luddite uprising. Land in the Manor was gradually sold off, and in 1955 the remaining land was passed to the National Trust and is now their Marsden Moor estate.

The Manor, as a feudal survival, was an administrative as well as an economic unit. The proceedings of the Manor Courts were recorded in the Court Rolls, and the earliest of these to survive are dated 1628-1632.[3] Those dating between 1654 and the last record in 1920 are held in the West Yorkshire Archive Service at Leeds.[4] For most of our period they were written on both sides of huge sheets of parchment, which were tied together at one end and stored by rolling them up - hence the name 'court roll'. During the nineteenth century, this practice ceased, and records were written into large ledgers.

The business of the Manor Courts, with a jury drawn from the tenantry, included the transfer of land between tenants. Most Marsden property was held by copyhold tenancy, so-called because the 'title deeds' were a copy of the entry in the court roll. The Manor of Marsden Court Rolls are stored at the West Yorkshire Archive Service, Leeds. On the death of a tenant, a 'heriot' was payable, either the 'best beast' (usually a cow) of the tenant, or a money payment in lieu. A new tenant paid an admission 'fine'.

Marsden Peculiar Court of Probate

Marsden Manorial Court was also a Peculiar Court of Probate, meaning that it had acquired the right to prove the wills of those living within the Manor. The origin of Marsden Peculiar Court is unknown,[5] but the earliest surviving probate document is from 1655, under the Lordship of Edward Firth, who purchased the Manor of Marsden in 1654 and was an active and involved Lord.[6] The wills of Marsden residents who owned property in Marsden only were proved at the Manorial Court, but if they owned any property elsewhere, their will had to be proved at a higher court. Some wills proved elsewhere may have been brought to Marsden Manorial Court to support an admission to a copyhold tenancy, and there seem to be some of these in the series.

The surviving probate documents from Marsden Manorial Court are dated between 1655 and 1855. They concern 285 decedents (people who died), of whom only twenty-four were women. There are 209 wills, 182 inventories and 86 bonds. In 141 cases we posess the will and the inventory, in 68 cases the will without the inventory, and in 41 cases the inventory without the will.

Farming, the Woollen Industry and the Dual Economy

Marsden began life as a farming community; in the twelfth century, Fountains Abbey held pasturage at 'Marchesdene', and in the fourteenth century it was described as a forest (an area for the protection and hunting of game) where cattle were also grazed. The original seven divisions of the land, the 'Booths', were subdivided among tenants who worked to break in the land and fence their holdings. By 1628 there were 80 copyhold tenants and a survey describes scattered dwellings with small fields on the valley sides, where the poor fertility and cold climate only allowed for the growing of grass, oats and peas. Over centuries, fields for arable and pasture spread up to the edge of the moorland, and in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries parts of the moorland pastures were enclosed by agreement; however, Marsden never had an Inclosure Act. The evidence from the probate documents and elsewhere suggests that arable farming was very small-scale, and that small herds of dairy cattle were most important to Marsden yeomen. The moorland pastures - stinted with 'gates' to prevent overgrazing - were important for the grazing of sheep, the summer grazing of cattle, and as a source of peat for fuel.

Farms were very small - smaller apparently than in the Calder Valley and Saddleworth - but people made an additional living by the home production of woollen cloth. It seems that Marsden lagged a little behind neighbouring townships, as it did not have its own fulling mill until 1710; the probate documents have provided evidence of another early Marsden fulling mill, in operation by 1748 at Wood Bottom. However, the dual economy of farming and textiles was well established, as inventories show, by the 1680s. Up to 1759, we find evidence that worsted as well as woollen yarn was prepared, perhaps for mixed cloth, but after that woollens predominated. While there is the expected evidence of most processes of woollen manufacture - carding or combing, spinning, dyeing, warping, weaving, and tentering (stretching to dry) of cloth - it seems likely that Marsden clothiers sold their cloth on to be cropped and finished elsewhere. When William Horsfall bought cropping-frames for his mill at Ottiwells, and was murdered by the Luddites in 1812 for doing so, he may have been the first to introduce finishing processes to Marsden.

The probate documents may underestimate the wealth and size of operation of Marsden yeoman-clothiers, since richer inhabitants may have owned property outside Marsden, so had their wills proved elsewhere; and at the point of death, many elderly people will have already disposed of some of their working tools and stock. With that caveat, the documents do suggest that few if any clothiers were operating on a large scale, and this is typical of the Yorkshire woollens district as compared with the worsted districts. There is, for example, no evidence of large loom-shops, and many clothiers owned, at their death, only one loom. Most of the richer inhabitants of Marsden represented in the probate documents were not yeoman or clothiers, but tradesmen such as chapmen, shopkeepers, innkeepers and masons.

The second half of the eighteenth century was the hey-day for Yorkshire woollen clothiers, who will have sold their cloth at the Huddersfield Cloth Hall, built in 1766. But worse times were coming. Clothiers in Marsden, as elsewhere, made some adaptation to technological change: for example some of them acquired spinning jennies. However, although some of them became small 'manufacturers' in the early nineteenth century, Marsden clothiers were under-capitalised - most of their capital, it appears, was invested in land - and it was outsiders who built and expanded new woollen mills in the early nineteenth century. Eventually hand-loom weaving - the last process to be mechanised - became almost obsolete, and the day of the domestic clothier was over. In Marsden, those who had called themselves 'clothiers' in the eighteenth century now called themselves 'farmers', and indeed the growing population working in the mills will have provided a larger market for farm produce.

Other aspects of Marsden life

Over seventeen per cent of the decedents in the probate documents were tradesmen, craftsmen and gentlemen. The documents give us some insight into life before the turnpike roads were built, and salters, woollen drapers and chapmen, leading strings of packhorses, served the village. Innkeepers benefitted from both local and from through trade. Masons did well in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as houses were extended and rebuilt, new mills were built, and masonry work was required on the canal and railway. Blacksmiths, joiners, shopkeepers, a corn miller, a butcher, a baker, a cooper and a shoemaker also left probate documents.

The probate documents from Marsden tell us a great deal about domestic life - how rooms were arranged in houses, what people ate and drank, their fireplaces and furniture, and their comforts and few luxuries. We can also find out about common inheritance practices, the position of Marsden women, religious observance and level of education. All this and more is fully explored in Marsden History Group's 2013 publication by Hazel Seidel, Laithes and Looms, Cows and Combstocks: Living and Dying in Marsden between 1655 and 1855, based on the research carried out into the probate documents. See Publications for full details.


[1]     The ecclesiastical parish of Marsden was not created until 1888. The townships of Marsden in Almondbury and Marsden in Huddersfield became civil parishes in 1866, and in 1898 were united as Marsden civil parish. See A Vision of Britain through Time, (20 Sep 2013).

[2]     Whitehead, P. (2013) 'Marsden Manor', <> (forthcoming publication).

[3]     These court rolls date from a period when Marsden Manor was owned by the City of London, and are to be found in London Metropolitan Archives, CLA/044/01/143. Marsden: Court roll of courts Baron with view of Frankpledge re.

[4]     West Yorkshire Archive Service, Leeds, WYL280, Radcliffe of Rudding Park, Family and Estate Records, acc1818 Manor of Marsden Court Rolls 1654-1920.

[5]     Blanshard Withers, C. (2006) Yorkshire Probate, Yorkshire Wolds Publications, p.49.

[6]     Whitehead, P. (2013) 'Marsden Manor', <> (forthcoming publication).