For many, the name Hartshead will only be familiar via the motorway service station on the M62, just before the junction 25 turn off for Huddersfield. However, this quiet little corner of West Yorkshire guards a deep sense of history.
The first known church to be built here was a Norman church, built in at least 1120 when the Earl of Warren granted the site to the Priory of Lewes. Some elements of the Norman stonework still survive. This may have replaced an earlier Saxon chapel. In a field nearby lies the Lady Well, where it is thought that Paulinus may have performed baptisms and hints at a much longer tradition of worship here, going back well before Christianity reached Britain. The church was remodelled in 1662 and was extensively renovated in 1881, which is the structure that we see today.
In the churchyard stands the remains of an ancient Yew tree, which is probably at least as old as the church itself. Local folklore tells that Robin Hood cut his final arrow from this tree before his arrival at the nearby Kirklees Priory (Nunwood in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Shirley’). It is said that he was the nephew of the Prioress and sought refuge here to be bled (a common medieval cure for ailments). Upon his arrival with his companion Little John, he was installed in the gate house, where either by accident or design the Prioress bled him to death. His grave is still reputedly in the grounds of Kirklees Park (another version has his final resting place at Hartshead Church). Little John left casting a curse on the Priory and it is said that the Prioress’ ghost still stalks the grounds.
Patrick Brontë served as vicar here from 1810 to 1815, at a time when the Huddersfield area was in the grip of revolutionary Luddite uprisings that so scared the authorities, 1000 troops were garrisoned in the town. While at Hartshead, Brontë met his wife Maria and had two children, Elizabeth and Maria, neither of which survived infancy. Charlotte Brontë later based her book ‘Shirley’ on the area, with Hartshead Church being cast as Nunneley.
On the night of 11th April 1812, between 150 to 300 Luddites gathered near the waymarker known locally as ‘Dumb Steeple’ in Cooper Bridge. They set off across Harthead Moor with the intention of storming William Cartwright’s Mill at Rawfold, near Cleckheaton. Cartwright had received a tip-off and had fortified his mill in preparation, arming a handful of employees and appealing to the Cumberland Militia (stationed just a mile away) to provide men. What followed can only be described as carnage.
As the Luddites attempted to break in, they were fired at from the mill and were eventually forced to withdraw, leaving behind two seriously wounded men. The wounded were taken to the Star Inn, Roberttown, were both died from loss of blood. Many others were wounded and it is said that trails of blood and flesh, even a finger were found in the area around the mill. It is known that several Luddites died later from their wounds, some reputedly being buried in secrecy in Hartshead Churchyard. Patrick Brontë was opposed to the Luddites, but did not stop the funerals.
The Luddite losses at Rawfold led directly to an act of revenge, with the shooting of William Horsfall, the owner of Ottiwell’s Mill in Marsden, while en-route over Crosland Moor back to Marsden from Huddersfield*. The Milnsbridge Magistrate, Joseph Radcliffe pursued the case vigorously and three men were hung at the New Drop at York Castle for their supposed part in Horsfall’s murder. A further thirteen men hung, for their part in the raid on Rawfold’s.
Although the authorities managed on this occasion to stamp out the threat of the Luddites, resentment burned for generations to come and this was just the first of many uprisings and campaigns in the area, that eventually led to the formation of Trade Unions and better working conditions.
*To be covered in detail in a separate article to come.