The History of Bradford
Bradford’s history takes it from a Saxon settlement by a broad ford (hence the name) to a major industrial city, the woollen capital of the world at one time, and today to a place building a future that embraces tourism and cultural development.
The Saxon village of Bradford was laid waste in 1170 during William the Conqueror ’s Harrying of the North, and in the Domesday Book in 1086 it was still in that state. The manor was held by the de Lacy family until 1311, thereafter passing through various hands until 1620 when it became free of such control. And it was to prove a manor worth controlling in medieval times: by 1147 it had a market, gaining a further market charter in 1251. We know that wool was worked in Bradford by 1277, but it is likely that the market meant such trade predates that record.
In spite of a raid by the Scots in 1316, lawlessness in the following decade, and the effects of the plague in 1379, the 14th century saw Bradford’s economic advance continue: dyeing, tanning, surface coal mining all recorded then. The next century saw official recognition of its progress, with two fairs being chartered in 1461, three years after the parish church was completed.
Bradford’s economic reach meant that in the early Tudor period outlying villages provided it with woven cloth for processing in the town: the wealth this brought meant wooden houses were replaced by stone structures there. A grammar school is thought to have existed in Bradford from the early 16th century, and one was chartered in 1633; the school is still in existence today.
During the Civil War Bradford was a Parliamentary stronghold, though it did fall into Royalist hands briefly in 1643 : Charles ’s men sacked the place, not a move likely to encourage loyalty.
The woollen industry that had prospered in medieval times flourished further in the 17th century and boomed in the 18th and 19th: there was plentiful wool locally (though eventually imports would be needed); the local soft-water provided power and facilitated processing; and sandstone found there was to prove perfect for constructing mills. When the industrial revolution gained pace, Bradford also had coal resources to fire steam-driven machinery.
Such activity required infrastructure to support it: in 1774 the Bradford Canal opened; in 1760 the town got its first bank; and in 1769 Piece Hall was finished, a place to trade cloth (and control pricing). Later Bradford was in 1844 an early adopter of railways. But rapid change inevitably brought problems: the town had a workhouse of sorts as early as 1738; and it saw Luddite riots in 1781 and 1793 as technology made hand-weavers redundant.
A problem not related to the changing times was flooding: 1775 saw a terrible inundation of the town; and this was repeated with awful regularity: in 1832; 1914; 1946 and 1968. Ironically given that situation a further continual problem in Bradford was fires in mills, warehouses and factories.
The textile mills were a ready market for engineering companies, and Bradford developed in that direction as the 18th century ended, in turn supplied by firms like The Bowling Iron Works and the Low Moor Iron Company.
In the 19th century the dark side of industrial development came to the fore: workers reacted to appalling treatment and conditions by striking in 1825, and rioting the following year. But the conditions changed little, and a cholera outbreak in 1832 claimed 30 lives; another in 1849 killed more than 400. At one point Bradford had the lowest life expectancy in Britain, just 18 years. As workers took to the bottle for escape mid-19th century Bradford unsurprisingly gave birth to what are claimed as the first temperance society and the first temperance hall.
The population of Bradford topped 100,000 by 1851. Moves to help its workers continued: the Bradford Industrial Co-Operative Society formed in 1860; in 1874 the first cycling club in the country; and the notable experiment by Titus Salt who built his model village Saltaire in this period.
But still industrial unrest often took hold: for example in 1880 the dyers struck and rioted; in 1909 the wool-combers withdrew their labour. Bradford was given city status in 1897, and already was noted for its educational reform: it was the first place in England to give school milk; the first with school baths. It led the way too with the first trolleybus in England in 1911.
The 20th century saw the decline, albeit gradual, of the textile industry in Bradford, replaced by engineering factories that in the middle of the century drew many immigrants from the Asian sub-continent. While this has enriched the city’s culture and economy, it has not been without problems, epitomised by the Manningham riots in 1995.
Bradford has changed enormously over the centuries, and in the second half of the 20th it added a university, and various museums such as The National Media Museum which now draws large numbers of visitors. And it has seen sporting triumph via Bradford Northern, now Bradford Bulls ; but also tragedy in 1985 when 56 died in a fire at Bradford F.C. ’s Valley Parade ground.