Local History

early photograph of Dewsbury Market Place and Town Hall

An early view of Dewsbury Market Place and Town Hall

The Heavy Woollen District

GoDewsbury covers Dewsbury and surrounding area which was historically known as The Heavy Woollen District. It acquired this name because of the heavyweight cloth manufactured in the area covering principally Dewsbury, Batley, Heckmondwike and Ossett.

Satellite towns of Liversedge, Gomersal, Gildersome, Birkenshaw, Mirfield, Cleckheaton, Morley, Tingley, East Ardsley, Birstall and Horbury are often included. The manufacture of wool for clothing and blankets and rope and twine continues in the area though at a much reduced level.

Yorkshire woollen mill

There is still a Heavy Woollen District football association and junior cricket association, both with representative teams - and, of course, a Heavy Woollen Branch of CAMRA, The Campaign for Real Ale!  The area was one of the key textile centres in Yorkshire, famed for its production of "shoddy and mungo".

map of The Heavy Woollen District

The Heavy Woollen District

Shoddy & Mungo

​​​​For years companies had tried to re-use woven fabrics without success.

Eventually, a process and the necessary machines to deal with soft woven fabrics was invented in 1813 by Benjamin Law at Howley Mill in Batley.

This became known as Shoddy.  The ability to grind and process tight woven fabrics had to wait until 1835.  

photo of Machell Bros Mungo and Shoddy Mill in Dewsbury

Machell Bros Shoddy and Mungo Mill overlooking Dewsbury Market

There is some confusion over the name Mungo though the most authoritative explanation (given that it is the most contemporary being dated 1882) seems to come from Spons' encyclopaedia of the industrial arts, manufactures, and commercial ... By Edward Spon, Francis N. Spon, 1882 

Finally the perseverance of the brothers Parr vanquished all difficulties. The article, called "mungo" from an ejaculation of one of the brothers that " it mun go," has since become an important source of supply of raw material to the union woollen manufacture, and to several other branches as well.

Spons' encyclopaedia can be accessed from www.archive.org.

The following description of shoddy and mungo is taken from a Report of the Annual Meeting, Volume 45, Part 1874 By British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Meeting On the Shoddy Trade. By Samuel Jubb.

Shoddy is produced from soft rags, such as cast-off stockings, flannels, carpets, etc.; and mungo from hard rags, such as worn-out dress-coats, tailors' cuttings, disused fine tablecloths, &c. Both these kinds of rags, which formerly were nearly valueless, are torn or ground up by a machine, the principal feature of which is a cylinder set with sharp iron teeth, and which revolves at a rapid rate; this machine is known locally by the name of "devil." The effect is, that the rags are converted into a kind of wool or flock, and hence capable of being mixed with sheep's wool.

The supplies of rags are drawn partly from the large cities and towns of the United Kingdom, and also from various foreign countries. London is the principal market. Shoddy and mungo, viz. the rags in the prepared state, are largely imported from the continent of Europe.

You can find the whole article here

Industrial Power

photo of a mill engine

The large mills needed power to drive the hundreds of looms and other machinery within them.  

This was produced by large steam engines with the steam produced from boilers fired by the coal mined locally.  Hence the forest of tall mill chimneys that characterised every industrial town.

The engines were traditionally given female names frequently that of the mill owners wife. 

This engine was called Helen in the Sam Ellis Mill in Thornhill.

The image was provided by John Blackburn who's grandfather was photographed by his uncle while his 10 year old father held a one inch strip of burning magnesium in pliers to provide the lighting!  More than a little ingenuity required to get the shot in those days.

Transport Connections

The nearest transport link out of what became known as the Heavy Woollen District was the Savile Town canal wharf in Dewsbury.  With canal connections to Liverpool in the west and Hull to the east Dewsbury was therefore in a very favourable position for transport to both coasts and at the very beginning of the environmental recycling movement as rags were collected and shipped back to the area for reprocessing from all over the British Empire of the time to be remanufactured into the recycled cloths of Shoddy and Mungo.

The cheaper cost of the recycled material meant that it found a ready market with the growing working class and for export world wide to the British Empire.

The majority of mills have now either closed or have been put to other uses, but some shoddy/mungo mills remain (e.g. Edward Clay & Son Ltd. in Ossett).

Click this link for a potted history of Dewsbury and particularly of the Mansion House in Crow Nest Park and its former owners.

Conservation Area

The Dewsbury Conservation Area was designated in March 1981 and includes most of the historic core of the town.

It covers almost 11 hectares and contains approximately 280 pre-1939 buildings – of which 57 are Listed as of Architectural or Historic Interest.

You can click on this link to see and download the Kirklees Conservation Area Appraisal.

map of Dewsbury Conservation Area

More practically, try looking UP at the buildings instead of at the ground floor shop fronts to see the imposing style of the Victorian architecture.  The 4-storey height of many of the buildings indicates how important it was for merchants, brokers and traders to be close to the centre of the action in this important commercial location.

Listed Buildings in Dewsbury

Click on this link to find more information about the Listed Buildings in Dewbury from the Historic England website.

Dewsbury Town Hall - a Visitors Guide

Click on the image to download the pdf version of Dewbury Town Hall Visitors Guide.

cover image of Visitors Guide to Dewsbury Town Hall


Dewsbury Heritage Walks

You can learn much of the historic importance of Dewsbury by following one of the several Blue Plaque Trails described in Dewsbury Heritage Walks booklet.  

Important historical buildings in the town are marked by Blue Plaques organised by local historical society, Dewsbury Matters, and provide an intriguing insight into the history of this old mill town.​

You can pick the Dewsbury Heritage Walks leaflet up from the Town Hall or any local library or download it here

Heritage

Dewsbury played a major part in the industrial revolution and retains substantial heritage particularly in the architecture remaining in the town both splendidly Victorian and sometimes downright industrial ugly - but all representative of an thriving, industrial era.

​We hope to improve access to Dewsbury's history by providing more information on the Heritage pages about what is currently being done to preserve the past and what might be planned in the future to retain the distinctive character of the town while benefiting the residents of today.

Now check out what is being done about The Future of Dewsbury.

And some posts about the heritage of Dewsbury

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