Barnsley in the mid 18th century

The Barnsley Economy in 1747

Barnsley in 1747 was not the major centre for coal mining, linen manufacture and bottle making that it was to become – though each of these industries existed in a small way in and around the town. Rather, Barnsley was a market town and much of local industry was to be found outside its immediate boundaries in places like Gawber, Hoylandswaine, Silkstone and Wortley. Manufacturing happened in a largely rural setting. Men and their families were often engaged in a combination of general labouring, agricultural work and one of the crafts essential for rural life. Most wealth was dependent upon agriculture and extractive industries, both of which provided rents to a number of well-to-do landed families such as the Spencers of Cawthorne, the Savilles and the Wentworths. A class of artisans and small businessmen made a living from various craft-based activities such as tanning, leather work, pottery, wagon building, plough making, metal goods and various building trades.

Barnsley and the area roundabout were not marginalised from a wider economic life however. Since the late 17th century the Spencers of Cannon Hall near Cawthorne had been part of a syndicate of iron and steel entrepreneurs with trading links as far away as Sweden and St Petersburg in Russia.

There is evidence that increasing numbers of ordinary working people were moving into the area by the middle of the 18th century in search of work. The Silkstone parish registers demonstrated a rapidly increasing number of marrying couples who both originated from outside the parish, whereas it had been the common practice that only one partner was an outsider. At least one fairly ordinary family during this period, the daughters of William Bashforth of Dodworth, tenant farmer and wheelwright, married out as far away as Edinburgh. The same William Bashforth, along with his son John from Darfield, was the subject of a court case in London over the patent of a plough design. More locally it was common practice for people to travel to markets at Wakefield and Penistone, as well as Barnsley, or even to cross over into north Derbyshire or to visit Sheffield. Whereas once it had been common for young people to travel for work within twenty miles or so of their original parish, increasingly they began to seek work further afield towards Leeds, York, Doncaster, Hull, Manchester and Liverpool, with London always a magnet for the most adventurous (or desperate).

Poverty in Barnsley in 1747

Six weeks prior to the Society’s foundation, at the West Riding Quarter Sessions at Doncaster on 20 January 1747/8 a petition (itself dated the previous May) was heard before the magistrates with regard to provision for the poor of Barnsley[1]. It read:

Upon the Appeal of Michael Rooke and Gervas Rooke Inhabitants of the Township of Barnsley in the said Riding against an Assessment made for the Relief of the Poor of the Said Township the nineteenth day of May One thousand seven hundred and fforty seven. It is ordered, That the said Assessment be quashed and that a new Assessment be made upon the Inhabitants of the said Township and as well upon personal as upon real estates therein and in a fair & equal manner according to Law.

Barnsley in the middle of the 18th century, as well as the area surrounding, was experiencing marked economic problems. There had been problems with cattle disease causing the local markets to be closed by the authorities. Frequent bad weather affected crop yields. The welfare system was coming under increasing pressure. The poor law had evolved through piecemeal reform since 1601 and was increasingly considered no longer fit for purpose, with each locality responsible for its own poor. Hence this appeal was made by two of the prominent local inhabitants, one of whom would be involved within a few weeks in the establishment of the Cordwainers Society. Michael Rooke was a churchwarden at St Mary’s Barnsley around this time and would have been involved in administration of poor relief. Gervase Rooke was instrumental in the foundation of the Cordwainers Society.

The Population of Barnsley in 1747

There was little attempt during the 18th century to make an exact count of the inhabitants such as became familiar in the ten-year Census during the 19th century. We are dependent for an estimate of population size upon estimates of the number of families in each parish sent by local clergymen to the Archbishop of York on the occasion of the latter’s occasional surveys of his diocese. These are known as ‘Visitation Returns’.

There was one in 1743 on the appointment of Archbishop Herring and one in 1764 on the appointment of Archbishop Drummond. On each occasion, the curate of St Mary’s Chapel in Barnsley was called John Mence[2]. In 1743 John Mence senior omitted to send in a return answering questions such as the number of families in his parish. In 1764 John Mence junior estimated in round figures that there were 350 families. One can then use various disputed multipliers (4.25 to 4.75) to estimate how many men, women and children this amounted to.

I have estimated the population of Barnsley in 1764 to be up to a maximum of 1,663 as compared with the population of the wider Silkstone parish of 2,375 using this method, but the original figures are distinctly suspect[3]. What is interesting is the comparison between the urban population, which seems little more than a village by modern standards, and the more dispersed rural population to the west of the town. Barnsley was growing in the mid-18th century but it was no bustling metropolis, though it would more than double within forty years, outstripping its rural neighbour[4]. For rough purposes, we can reasonably assume a population for Barnsley in 1747 of between 1,500 and 1,600 people. From among these a mere sixteen men would create the Cordwainers Society.



[1] West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield: West Riding Quarter Sessions Order Books QS10/20/page 87

[2] Barnsley was, strictly speaking, a chapelry subordinate to the main parish church at Silkstone, but in fact tended to operate quite independently by this time. The Reverend John Mence senior died in 1761 and was succeeded in the incumbency by his son, who was also called John Mence.

[3] RM Bashforth, Social Networks in a Pre-Industrial Society: The Pennine Barnsley Area c. 1650-1750, unpublished MA Thesis, University of York 2002, chapter 3. There is a copy in Barnsley Archives and Local Studies.

[4] The 1801 census gave a population of 3606.