Municipal Borough of Pontefract

Coordinates: 53°41′28″N 1°18′43″W / 53.691°N 1.312°W / 53.691; -1.312


The Old Town Hall (1745)
West Yorkshire
Population 28,250 
OS grid reference SE455215
Metropolitan borough City of Wakefield
Metropolitan county West Yorkshire
Region Yorkshire and the Humber
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Postcode district WF8
Dialling code 01977
Police West Yorkshire
Fire West Yorkshire
Ambulance Yorkshire
EU Parliament Yorkshire and the Humber
UK Parliament Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford
List of places

Pontefract is a historic market town in West Yorkshire, England, near the A1 (or Great North Road) and the M62 motorway. Historically part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, it is one of the five towns in the metropolitan borough of the City of Wakefield and has a population of 28,250.[1] Pontefract's motto is Post mortem patris pro filio, Latin for "After the death of the father, support the son",[2] a reference to English Civil War Royalist sympathies.


Early history

The name "Pontefract" originates from the Latin for "broken bridge", formed of the elements pons ('bridge') and fractus ('broken'). Pontefract was not recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book, but was noted as Pontefracto in 1090, four years after the Domesday survey.[3] There is a theory that the bridge alluded to was one which crossed Wash Dike, a small stream on the north-eastern edge of Pontefract, running alongside what is now Bondgate (the modern-day A645). Such a crossing point would have been important in the town's early days, providing access between Pontefract and other settlements to the north and east, such as York.[4]

The town is situated on an old Roman road (now the A639), described as the "Roman Ridge", which passes south towards Doncaster. The Roman Ridge is believed to form part of an alternative route from Doncaster to York via Castleford and Tadcaster, as a diversion of the major Roman road Ermine Street, which may have been used to avoid having to cross the river Humber near North Ferriby during rough weather conditions over the Humber. The area which is now the town market place was the original meeting place of the Osgoldcross wapentake.[5] There are the remains of an Anglo-Saxon church and cemetery at The Booths, off North Baileygate, below the castle. The oldest grave dates from around 690. The church is likely to be at Tanshelf, recorded variously as Tateshale, Tateshalla, Tateshalle or Tatessella in the 1086 Domesday Book, but Pontefract is not mentioned.

In 2007 a suspected extension of Ferrybridge Henge — a Neolithic henge — was discovered near Pontefract during a survey in preparation for the construction of a row of houses. Once the survey was complete, the construction continued.[6]


  • Main articles: de Lacy and Pontefract de Lacys' family tree

After the Norman Conquest in 1066 almost all of Yorkshire came under the ownership of followers of William the Conqueror,[7] one of whom was Ilbert de Lacy who became the owner of Tateshale (Tanshelf) where he began to build a castle.[7] Pontefract Castle began as a wooden motte and bailey castle, built before 1086 and later rebuilt in stone. The de Lacys lived in the castle for more than two centuries[8] and were holders of the castle and the Honour of Pontefract from 1067[9] until the death of Alice de Lacy in 1348.[10]

King Richard II was murdered at the castle in 1400.[11][12] Little is known of the precise nature of his demise; in particular Shakespeare may have "adjusted" the facts for his own purposes.[13] There are at least three theories which attempt to explain his death:[14]

He was starved to death by his keepers,
he starved himself to death or
he was murdered by Sir Piers(Peter) Exton on 14 February 1399 or 1400.[15]

In Elizabethan times the castle, and Pontefract itself, was referred to as "Pomfret".[11] William Shakespeare's play Richard III mentions the castle:

Pomfret, Pomfret! O thou bloody prison,
Fatal and ominous to noble peers!
Within the guilty closure of thy walls
Richard the second here was hack'd to death;
And, for more slander to thy dismal seat,
We give thee up our guiltless blood to drink.[11]


Pontefract was the site of Pontefract Priory, a Cluniac priory founded in 1090 by Robert de Lacy dedicated to St John the Evangelist. The priory was dissolved by royal authority in 1539. The abbey maintained the Chartularies of St John, a collection of historic documents later discovered among family papers by Thomas Levett, the High Sheriff of Rutland and a native of Yorkshire, who later gave them to Roger Dodsworth, an antiquary.[16] They were later published by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society.

Civil War

Pontefract suffered throughout the English Civil War. In 1648-49 the castle was laid under siege by Oliver Cromwell, who said it was "... one of the strongest inland garrisons in the kingdom."[11] Three sieges by the Parliamentarians left the town "impoverished and depopulated".[17] In March 1649, after the third siege, Pontefract inhabitants, fearing a fourth, petitioned Parliament for the castle to be demolished.[17] In their view, the castle was a magnet for trouble,[17] and in April 1649 demolition began.[17] The ruins of the castle remain today and are publicly accessible.


For local government purposes the town lies in the City of Wakefield, coming under the governance of Wakefield Council. For this purpose it is divided into two electoral wards, Pontefract North and Pontefract South. Pontefract South is currently represented by two Labour councillors and one Conservative, with North ward represented by three Labour councillors [as of May 2012]. South ward is a marginal ward, containing relatively affluent suburbs of Pontefract and outlying villages such as Darrington, combined with less wealthy areas such as Chequerfield, whilst North Ward includes parts of Monkhill, Ladybalk and Myson Chair.

From 1978 to 1997 the local ex-miner and former local NUM branch leader Geoff Lofthouse(18 December 1925 – 1 November 2012) was MP for the former constituency of Pontefract and Castleford. During this time he rose to the position of Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. When the general election of 1997 was called he stood down to allow Yvette Cooper to be selected as the Labour Party candidate for that election. He was made a peer on 11 June 1997.

Yvette Cooper MP, was elected MP for the Pontefract and Castleford constituency at the 1997 general election. She is currently Shadow Home Secretary and Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities. Pontefract and Castleford was merged with the Normanton constituency in a boundary change before the 2010 general election.

In her maiden speech to the House of Commons, Cooper said:
It is true that my constituency is plagued by unemployment, but I represent hard-working people who are proud of their strong communities and who have fought hard across generations to defend them. They are proud of their socialist traditions, and have fought for a better future for their children and their grandchildren. In the Middle Ages, that early egalitarian, the real Robin Hood, lived, so we maintain, in the Vale of Wentbridge to the south of Pontefract. It was a great base from which to hassle the travelling fat cats on the Great North Road.

The seat, which has a history of mining and industry, has consistently returned Labour MPs at general elections. Yvette Cooper polled 48.1% of the vote in the 2010 general election.

Pontefract today

Pontefract has been a market town since the Middle Ages; market days are Wednesday and Saturday, with a smaller market on Fridays. The covered market is open all week, except Thursday afternoons and Sundays. Thursday afternoon is half-day closing in the town. The town is called 'Ponte'/'Ponty' by its citizens and sometimes jokingly referred to as Ponte Carlo, in reference to Monte Carlo. This theme is continued in the name of bars in the xscape complex, Glasshoughton between Pontefract and Castleford, referred to locally as 'Cas Vegas'. It is reported that Pontefract once held the British record for the town with the most pubs per square kilometre[by whom?]: indeed, numerous pubs still survive in the town centre in particular, for example Beastfair Vaults, the Liquorice Bush, the Red Lion, the Malt Shovel and the Blackmoor Head. A Wetherspoon public house opened on Horsefair in 2010.

Pontefract's deep, sandy soil makes it one of the few British places in which liquorice can successfully be grown. The town has a liquorice-sweet industry; and the famous Pontefract Cakes are produced, though the liquorice plant itself is no longer grown there. The town's two liquorice factories are owned by Haribo (formerly known as Dunhills) and Monkhill Confectionery (part of the Cadbury's Group - formerly known as Wilkinson's), respectively. A Liquorice Festival is held annually. Poet laureate Sir John Betjeman wrote a poem entitled "The Licorice Fields at Pontefract".

Close by is the coal-fired power station at Ferrybridge, although the local coal mines had largely closed by the 1990s, contributing to high unemployment in the local area.[18]

There are Tesco and Morrisons supermarkets, and most recently Asda, which changed hands from Netto in 2011. The secondary schools in the town are Carleton Community High School in Carleton, and The King's School on Mill Hill Lane, both for pupils aged 11–16. A sixth-form college, NEW College Pontefract, is located on Park Lane.

The old Pontefract General Infirmary on Southgate (pictured) was a general hospital; it is the place at which serial killer Harold Shipman began to murder his elderly patients. Beneath this building is an old hermitage, open to the public on certain days. Pontefract Museum, from which the hermitage schedule can be obtained, is in the town centre, housed in the former Carnegie library. (A new, considerably larger, hospital was built on Friarwood and opened in 2010 with the new name of Pontefract Hospital and there is now a modern library building.) Pontefract has three railway stations: Pontefract Baghill, on the Dearne Valley Line, which connects York and Sheffield; and Pontefract Monkhill and Pontefract Tanshelf, which connects with Leeds and Wakefield. There are also rail services to London from Pontefract Monkhill.

The local police force is West Yorkshire Police, with the town's police station being situated in Sessions House yard, adjacent to the Magistrates' Court.

Fire cover is provided by West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue with one pump (sometimes two) based at Pontefract fire station. Formerly located on Stuart Road in the town centre, the station has now moved to a new site at Stumpcross Lane, by the A645 road at the town's eastern edge. The new fire station also provides cover for Knottingley, that town's fire station having been closed as part of the merging of fire cover for Pontefract and Knottingley.

The Territorial Army, Army Cadets and Air Training Corps all have a presence within the town and are based at the historic barracks building on Wakefield Road. This used to house the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI). It now houses a Rifles Regiment Recruitment team.

Media, arts and entertainment

The local newspaper is the Pontefract and Castleford Express. Pontefract is known for its 'down-to-earth' nightlife.[19] Venues include Big Fellas, the Counting House, the Elephant, the Green Dragon, the Tap and Barrel, Wetherspoons, the Malt Shovel, and the Blackmoor Head. In September 2012 one of Pontefract's old Nightclubs, Kiko's, re-opened its doors to the public after being closed for many years.

Novelist Jack Vance, in the "Demon Princes" cycle has named the capital of Aloysius, the main planet in the Vega system after Pontefract. The hero of the series, Kirth Gersen, has his residence there.


The town is home to many major sports including cricket, football and squash. Prominent squash players Lee Beachill and James Willstrop both train at Pontefract Squash Centre. Notable institutions are horse racing at Pontefract Racecourse and Featherstone Rovers, the area's professional rugby league club.

Pontefract Racecourse is the longest continuous horse racing circuit in Europe at two miles and 125 yards (3,300 m).[20] It stages flat racing between the end of March and the end of October. Nearer to the town centre are the Valley Gardens, with a love garden, an aviary, and an avenue of cherry trees, which bloom in the spring. Although the trees continue to attract admiration, the gardens have become quite depleted and the aviary has been vandalised. Pontefract swimming pool is on Stuart Road.

Pontefract has its own non league football club, Pontefract Collieries F.C., which was founded in 1958 and plays adjacent to the former Prince of Wales Colliery off Beechnut Lane. The team, known locally as "Ponte Colls" play in the Northern Counties East Football League Pontefract is also home to the Pontefract knights rugby league football club.

Notable people

Location grid

See also



  • Ayto, John and Crofton, Ian, Brewer's Britain & Ireland, Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
  • Fletcher, J. S. (1917), Memorials of a Yorkshire Parish (facsimile), Old Hall Press, Leeds 1993
  • Hey, David, Medieval South Yorkshire
  • Holmes, Richard (editor) (1887), The Sieges of Pontefract Castle (facsimile reprint), Old Hall Press, Leeds 1985 ISBN 0 946534 02 0
  • Mills A. D., Oxford Dictionary of British Place-Names, Oxford University Press.
  • Padgett, Lorenzo (1905), Chronicles of Old Pontefract (facsimile), Old Hall Press, Leeds 1993

External links

  • Local history
  • Priory of St. John of Pontefract, British History Online
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