The other day I was allowing my mind to wander, as it does …
Sorry, where was I …? Oh yes! I was going to tell you I’d been thinking back to a moorland and quarry walk we WARTS (my walking group) carried out overlooking Hathersage just west of Sheffield. There were dozens of abandoned millstones just lying where they’d been left, presumably after the need for millstones had passed. You could have one, if you asked nicely and had a bloody big wheelbarrow and a couple of stout lads to help.
After recalling these millstones on the moors, I allowed my mind to wander further, as It does …
Sorry, where was I this time? Oh, yes! I had begun to think of inventions and notable people that had shaped our world and, in particular, shaped our world in Yorkshire.
Key inventions that shaped the modern world
We could say that the wheel had the greatest influence in progressing humankind’s ability to transport things. Not wheels like the ones in the photo above of course – it would take a hell of a big horse to pull four of those on each corner of a cart. I of course mean normal wheels, probably starting with a log, then cutting a slice off a bigger log and fastening it to the end of the smaller log, and so it began. I might also humbly suggest that it wasn’t the wheel that was the most influential invention, but the second wheel.
The control of fire and water was of course a huge benefit to our wellbeing. Fire developed naturally through volcanic eruptions and lightning. But the control of water as a power source required human intervention. It was harnessing the power of rivers – a fairly modern development – that drove the waterwheels that powered many types of mills, including the mills using the millstones in the photo above.
Humans then went on to develop the technology to build relatively safe dams for reliable year-round drinking water. They also fed canals which, together with the controlled creation and harnessing of steam, went a long way to making the industrial revolution possible. I would argue that string, yarn and rope were greatly influential as well. The development of methods for extracting long hemp and flax plant fibres enabled the production of strong and durable string, rope, sacking and linen cloth (see Matthew Murray in the list of notable people below). Also, flax made excellent bowstrings, which in turn made Henry V and King Harold very famous.
Yorkshire people who shaped our political world
Yorkshiremen and women have had a key role to play in shaping our political history, with two notable prime ministers. Herbert Henry Asquith, prime minister from 1908-16, was born in Morley, while Harold Wilson, in office from 1964-70 and from 1974-76, was from Huddersfield.
William Wilberforce 1759–1833, a Yorkshire MP from Kingston Upon Hull, was a pioneer and the leader of the movement to abolish slavery. He was able to see it become law a few days before his death.
Betty Boothroyd, born in Dewsbury, broke ground for female MPs in 1992 by becoming the first woman to be elected Speaker of the House of Commons.
Guy Fawkes, born in York, did his best to change the country’s politics in 1605, but came to a very sticky end. After a lengthy period of torture, he was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Disappointingly for the judiciary of the time, he died early in the sentencing being carried out, but they continued anyway. They had to make sure he didn’t do it again.
Yorkshire inventions and inventors
Flamborough Head saw England’s first lighthouse in 1669.
As mentioned above, Matthew Murray’s factory in Leeds pioneered machinery for separating flax fibres and manufactured parts for the first steam locomotive in 1790.
Harry Brearley of Sheffield invented ‘stainless steel’ in 1913. Sheffield also saw the first kickerball club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857. More importantly, of course, in 1895 Rugby League began life in the George Hotel Huddersfield. Folklore suggests that William Webb Ellis ‘picked up the ball and ran’ during a kickerball game, thus inventing the game of rugby, though in fact several forms of rugby had been around long before kickerball.
Percy Shaw of Halifax patented the ‘cat’s eye’ a very important road safety device in 1934.
And, of course, Yorkshire pudding. Invented by angels sent from the heavens to show just the deserving people of Yorkshire how to make the best puddings in the world.
Writers and their characters
Perhaps most famous of the Yorkshire writers, the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and their brother Branwell were born in Thornton, later becoming associated with Haworth. Past poet laureate Ted Hughes (1930-98) was from Mytholmroyd. The current holder of the post, Simon Armitage, was born in Huddersfield.
While his creator Bram Stoker was Irish, Dracula first set foot in Whitby in 1890. Daniel’s Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe set sail from Kingston upon Hull.
And many more
The county has produced a host of other notable characters, for example Captain James Cook FRS (1728–79) explorer, navigator, cartographer – born in Marton, near Middlesbrough. Kingston upon Hull saw the birth in 1903 of the famous aviator Amy Johnson, while the first European woman in space, Helen Sharman, was born in Sheffield.
Remembered for somewhat less glorious reasons, Yorkshire woman ‘Old Wife Green’ was the last witch to be burned in England, an event that took place in Pocklington in 1630. Perhaps, as with the ducking stool test for suspected witches, the locals were watching to see whether she survived – which would have confirmed that she was a witch – or not – somewhat belated proof that she wasn’t.
Finally, we should mention Barry Cryer, born in Leeds, 1935–2022. A very funny fella. Apparently, and more importantly, a pleasant chap to boot. RIP. This is one of his:
A Yorkshire lad was celebrating his diamond wedding anniversary and was describing to his friend the secret to a long marriage. He claimed it was that the fact that they had nothing in common that kept them together, and they argued about everything, upon which his wife said, “No we don’t”.