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Pontefract in 1840

PONTEFRACT, an ancient borough, a market-town, township, and parish in the upper division of the wapentake of Osgoldcross, in the honour or liberty of Pontefract, and in the West Riding of Yorkshire. By the Reform Act the borough includes Ferrybridge, the castle precincts, Pontefract Park, and the townships of Tanshelf, Monkhill, Knottingley, and Carlton. These places, with the exception of Pontefract Park, which is extra-parochial, form the parish of Pontefract, contain nearly 10,000 inhabitants, and send two members to parliament. The parish extends over 7,790 acres. Pontefract Park comprises 1,300 acres. The municipal borough is still confined to the township of Pontefract, and has four aldermen and twelve councillors. The honour of Pontefract belongs to the crown, as part of the Duchy of Lancaster ; it has local courts, and a debtors gaol. The Court Baron for the recovery of debts under five pounds is held at Pontefract once in three weeks, and by adjournment from thence, at Huddersfield, Bradford, Leeds, and Barnsley. The debtors' gaol is at Rothwell. Pontefract is 173 miles north-north-west of London, and twenty-four miles south-south-west of York.

This town is of great antiquity, and of considerable historical importance. Its origin and the etymology of its name are alike unknown. The legends of ancient historians and the conjectures of those of later date are equally unworthy of notice. According to Camden its name was changed to Pontefract by the Romans. The place was called Kirkby by in the time of the Saxons, and it is not improbable that it was one of the first places in England at which a church was erected and Christianity preached.

After the Conquest, Ilbert de Lacy received a grant of the place ; in the tenth year of William, his vast possessions were confirmed to him. Soon after he began to build his castle, which partook of the features of castle, fortress, and palace. He is said to have called the name of the town Pontfrete, from some fancied resemblance to a place so called in Normandy, where he was born. The castle was built on an elevated rock, and it had a most extensive and picturesque view of the surrounding country. It was not commanded by any contiguous hill, and could only be taken by blockade. The wall of the castle yard was high, and flanked by seven towers. A deep moat was cut on the western side, where were also the barbican and drawbridge ; there were other gates, which might be used as watch-towers, and some of them were protected by drawbridges. The dungeons were of a frightful nature. The area covered and enclosed by this immense building was about seven acres.

Ilbert de Lacy was a great favourite with William, and received from him as a reward for his adherence and services one hundred and fifty manors in the west of York shire, ten in Nottinghamshire, and four in Lincolnshire. These vast possessions were confirmed to his son Robert, called Robert de Pontefract, by William Rufus ; they descend ed from him to his son Ilbert, and continued in the family till 1310, when Henry de Lacy, having no male children, left his estates to his daughter Alice, who was married to Thomas, earl of Lancaster, uncle to Edward II. In the quarrels between that weak-minded prince and his nobles, the Earl of Lancaster acted a very conspicuous part. He was taken prisoner with many other barons, and brought to Pontefract Castle, which had fallen into the hands of the royal army. Here he was imprisoned for some time, tried by his peers, some of whom were his mortal enemies, was convicted without being heard in his own defence, suffered many indignities, and was afterwards hurried away to execution. He obtained the favour of dying on the block, whilst the barons who were his adherents were hanged. Pontefract Castle was afterwards the scene of Richard II's imprisonment and death ; but whether he was murdered or starved to death has not hitherto been satisfactorily decided. Here the Duke of Gloucester, afterwards Richard III, shed the blood, without any legal trial, of Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, Richard lord Grey, Sir Thomas Vaughan, and Sir Richard Hawse, in order to make easy his accession to the throne. In the reign of Henry VIII the fortress surrendered to the famous Robert Aske, captain-general of the Pilgrims of Grace ; and during the civil wars between Charles I. and the parliamentarians the castle was frequently besieged and defended by both parties. The garrison, after having been reduced from 600 men to 100, surrendered in 1649, to General Lambert, having first proclaimed Charles II successor to the throne of his father, and done all to defend it that a garrison of brave men could do. Shortly after it was dismantled by order of parliament, and all the valuable materials were sold. For 600 years the castle of Pontefract was the ornament and terror of the surrounding country ; at the present day little even of its ruins remain. The area is now chiefly occupied by gardens, and a quarry of filtering-stones, which are in great request in all parts of the kingdom.

The parish church of Pontefract, dedicated to St. Giles, is small, and has no great pretensions to notice. The more ancient church of All Saints, the original parish church, is in the form of a cross, with a handsome tower in the middle : it is mentioned by Rickman as deserving of attentive examination. This church probably dates as far back as the time of Henry III ; it is altogether in the style of that period. The other places of worship are the Roman Catholic chapel, the Friends' meeting-house, and the Independent, Wesleyan, and Primitive Methodists' chapels.

The town has a subscription library, a mechanics' library, and a news-room. The free grammar-school was established in the reign of Edward VI ; it fell into neglect, and was complained of to the chancellor of the duchy in the 6th Elizabeth, and again about a century afterwards. It was re-chartered in 1792, by George III, and placed under the visitorial control of the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. It is one of the twelve schools that send candidates for Lady Elizabeth Hastings's exhibitions at Queen's College, Oxford. The master is allowed to take boarders.

The other charity-school of Pontefract is now merged in the national school ; it has an endowment of £85 a year, and receives ten guineas a year from the charity of Lady E. Hastings. This income is again augmented by annual subscriptions. ‘When the king's grammar-school was re- founded in the reign of George III, the trustees of this charity (the charity-school) appropriated £150 from its funds towards the erection of the said grammar-school.' (Boothroyd's Pontefract.) The British school, which is supported by small payments from the children, and subscriptions, was commenced in 1831, and re-established in 1837 ; the theatre having been purchased and divided into two rooms capable of accommodating 400 pupils of both sexes. The town-hall is a handsome building, which was erected on the site of the old moot-hall, at the joint expense of the county and the corporation ; the borough and petty sessions are held in it. The spring quarter-sessions are held in the court-house during the Easter week, a commodious modern building, which was built at the expense of the West Riding. The gas-works were constructed in 1832, at an expense of £4,200. The races, formerly held yearly in September, are extinct ; the course occupies a portion of the park district. There are at Pontefract a number of endowed alms-houses or hospitals, which mostly bear the name of their founders ; they afford the usual benefits, and are open to the common objections made to such charities. The market is held on the Saturday, and is well supplied, and there are eight annual fairs for the sale of cattle. The general aspect of the town is neat, airy, and spacious ; it is chiefly celebrated for its extensive gardens, nurseries, and liquorice-grounds ; its soil is rich and deep. Great quantities of vegetables are supplied by Pontefract to Leeds, Wakefield, and other populous towns in the county.