History of Holmfirth
Holmfirth’s rich tapestry lives on in film and TV
The town of Holmfirth in West Yorkshire traces its long origins right back to over a thousand years ago, when the first people began to move into the area and settle. The lords of Wakefield, during the Saxon and Medieval eras, used the forested land for the sport of hunting.
In fact, the name Holmfirth derives from ‘woodland belonging to Holme’, as in old English, ‘firth’ means ‘wood’ or ‘woodland’. Over the years, the area grew in appeal and by the 13th century increasing numbers of people were arriving to live in the place. It was starting to grow to resemble a small village or at the very least a hamlet: records show a corn mill and a bridge were built, around which a number of houses sprang up.
By the end of the 1300′s, around the time that King Henry IV came to the thrown, Holmfirth had 175 taxable inhabitants, a married couple counted as one.
In 1642, Holmfirth declared its allegiance to Oliver Cromwell when the English Civil War began by sending 100 Musketeers to join the ‘Roundheads’, to fight against the Royalist armies (Cavaliers) of Charles I. After the restoration of 1660, Holmfirth lost its status as a separate parish, probably as a punishment for its role in the Civil War.
As the number of residents grew and the village proper began to be established, more and more of the people decided to live not on the valley floor but higher up the sides, a trend that continued into the 1700s. The growing population was predominantly rural, running farms and cottage businesses in their dwellings up in the valley, and it went on like this for some time to come.
It wasn’t until the close of the 18th century that the rural domination of life in Holmfirth started to alter. A shift occurred with the arrival of John Fallas, a woollen clothier who purchased a number of properties on the valley floor, including the mills.
In order to operate, the mills were built on the rivers, and so the people required to run the mills would have to live nearby, which is exactly what happened. This change in Holmfirth heralded its transformation from rural village into a successful mill town of the Industrial Revolution.
But the crucial waters that brought prosperity to Holmfirth also brought tragedy, in the form of a flood that occurred in 1852 that claimed around 81 lives. Caused when Bilberry reservoir burst its banks, spreading devastation all the way through the Holme Valley. The Holmfirth Flood disaster attracted national news coverage and the attention of the whole nation, including Queen Victoria.
Because of the Industrial Revolution, the majority of the area’s residents were no longer up the valley, farming and running their small home businesses, but were down on the valley floor, where they lived and worked, in the mills and other places. That put a great many people at risk of the dangers of flooding.
Flooding was also commonplace in 1738 and 1777, and the village was often inundated, (the latest flood being 1944). But the flood of 1852 was a monster in comparison, decimating properties and entire were families were lost; many thousands were rendered homeless and without any work. For the once-thriving village, it was tragedy on a grand scale. People thought Holmfirth would never survive, but survive it did.
From the end of the 18th century up to the 20th, the textile industry was still the mainstay in Holmfirth and the surrounding areas, with many residents making their living from it. Right up to nearly the middle of the last century – to 1941 at least – the Holmfirth was known as a “town busy with wool”.
Local resident James Bamforth was a portrait photographer. At one point in the late 1800s he started making lantern slides, which were mounted transparencies that were projected using a magic lantern, which was just a basic form of projector. This endeavour eventually gave Bamforth the moniker the ‘king of the lantern slides’ – and a few years later he had progressed to making silent films, using Holmfirth as his backgrounds.
Bamforth and his film company became the first in Britain to make films that were solely for entertainment. When he was out and about filming in Holmfirth, the local residents were amazed, and the entire town practically came to a halt during shooting as they witnessed acted-out scenes of people having custard pies slammed in their faces or being doused in water or whitewash.
In the early 1900′s Bamforth started making illustrated ‘saucy’ seaside postcards which, like his films, were exported worldwide for sale. By 1905 he had branches in New York and London, although the head office remained in Holmfirth. By the end of World War 1, 20,000,000 cards were being printed every year. By 60′s Bamforth Postcards had become the world’s largest publisher of comic postcards.
Things change, and in Holmfirth it has been no exception. To this day, the town is still linked to the textile trade, but in recent times it has found a new, more glamorous kind of prosperity: on television. The BBC comedy programme Last of the Summer Wine was based in Holmfirth and has given the place national and international appeal, drawing people from all over to come and have a look at where the series was filmed.
First broadcast in 1973, Last of the Summer Wine went on to become the longest-running sitcom in the world, with a total of 31 series commissioned and broadcast, the last programme of which was aired in 2010. It chronicled the lives of three old friends in the autumn of their lives and the things they got up to.
The programme turned Holmfirth into a tourist attraction in its own right, but well before the series was even dreamed up, the cameras were shooting in the picturesque town.
Today, with cobbled streets and former weavers’ cottages provide an attractive backdrop for the numerous cafes, art and craft galleries as well as the familiar TV locations. Holmfirth has solid artistic credentials with the Holmfirth Musical Festival, Folk Festival, Holmfirth Choral Society and the Holme Valley Brass Band Contest being long established. Holmfirth Artweek is one of the largest public entry art exhibition in England and a number of nationally recognised artists live and work in the valley. Holmfirth still enjoys healthy tourism visits and is a beautiful place to live.
The multi-hued fabric of life in Holmfirth has been as rich as it has been spectacular.
Holmfirth History Timeline
1000–1200: First recorded settlers, but it’s likely that the area was inhabited before this time. Ironically, this period coincides with the discovery of coffee in Ethiopia.
Late 1300s: There were 175 taxable inhabitants in Holmfirth.
1476: The first stone church was built. It’s probable there was a wooden one on the same site prior to this.
1500: A chapel-of-ease is built. Worshippers no longer had to travel the four or five miles to Almondbury Parish Church.
1642: The English Civil War begins. Holmfirth sends 100 musketeers to join Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads.
1651: Holmfirth becomes a separate parish following residents petition.
1660: After the Restoration (Charles II) Holmfirth loses its status as a separate parish. Perhaps a punishment for Holmfirth’s role in the Civil War!
1738: Sunday, May 7 – first recorded Holmfirth flood, with no loss of life.
1777: Wednesday, July 23 – a thunderstorm causes the River Holme to burst its banks. Three lives were lost as a result of this flood.
1788: The Holy Trinity Church is built.
1801: Th’owd Genn is erected to mark the end of the war with France.
1821: September 21 – heavy rainstorms cause yet another flood. Again there was no loss of life.
1838: The Town Hall is built.
1850: Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company open branch line to Holmfirth.
1852: Feb 5th – `The Great Flood’. Described as `probably the greatest single disaster ever to befall the Holme Valley’, claiming 81 lives.
1858: The population in Holmfirth had increased so much that it once again became an independent parish.
1860: Victoria Bridge is built. Prior to this, Upper Bridge and Toll House were the key entrances to Holmfirth.
1865: A wooden railway viaduct at Mytholmbridge collapsed causing the Holmfirth railway line to be shut for one and a half years.
1870: The firm Bamforth & Co is established by James Bamforth.
1911: Death of James Bamforth. He was described in one local newspaper as `one of Holmfirth’s most honoured townsmen’.
1913: The Valley Theatre opens its doors.
1914: Steam wagons from B Mellor & Sons help with the transportation of troops.
1944: Whit Monday. The last of the Great Floods. Called the `Forgotten Flood’ because it occurred a few days before the Allied invasion of Normandy. There was a news blackout.
1959: October 31 – Holmfirth passenger line closes. The goods service ceases six years later.
1999: July 12 – Bill Owen, who played Compo in Last of the Summer Wine, died. His character died as well. He is buried at St John’s Church, Upperthong overlooking Summer Wine Country.
Other interesting if not random facts about Holmfirth
1. Granada Television used several location around Holmfirth filming ‘Where the Heart Is’
2. Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn opened one of the more unusual looking buildings, owned by retail group Lodges at the time. After being sold in 1990′s, the Co-op group closed it in 1997. It later featured in the Channel 4 programme ‘Demolition’.
3. Renowned local artist Ashley Jackson has been the feature of several TV shows since in 1968, such as ‘A Brush With Ashley’. His gallery can still be visited in Holmfirth.
5. Home to The Picturedrome (originally The Valley Theatre), which hosts music events. Acts such as Adam Ant, Bad Manners, Hawkwind, John Martyn, Ocean Colour Scene, Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Belinda Carlisle, Suzi Quatro, and The Beat have performed.
6. The Holme Moss transmitting station is the highest in England and provides VHF coverage of both FM and DAB to a wide area around Holmfirth including Derbyshire, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire.
Share your stories and memories of Holmfirth here.
Shared by John Stokes: I moved to Holmfirth in 1982 from Newcastle. It was a different place then. New domestic building projects just started and have continued since. What I love about this village, well technically a town, is that it’s still a beautiful and friendly place to live. It features a host of nice eating establishments, decent bars, plenty of arty activities and the festivals are superb. I used to enjoy seating myself on the bridge at the end of Hollowgate watching the filming of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ on what I recollect were sunny Sunday’s. I even met Bill Owen and Cathy Staff one. Very nice people. I intend to reside here for a long time to come. You’re on the doorstep of some spectacular walks, it’s handy for Manchester, Leeds and (well almost) Sheffield.
Shared by Joanne Green: I’m Holmfirth born and bred. I love it here. I’ve lived in London and overseas but both times missed the Holme Valley too much so moved back. My best childhood memory was having a picnic as a 15 year old with my first love on the fields which are now the back gardens of Longlands Bank in Thongsbridge. Magical day and memory. We got married 5 years later and are still blissfully happy.
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