The History of the Township of Meltham, Near Huddersfield (1866) by Rev. Joseph Hughes
As the object of the following pages is to supply all the information which has been collected from various sources, and at different times, respecting the village of Meltham, and the district immediately surrounding it, the probable derivation of its name is the first thing that claims attention. On this point a difference of opinion exists among etymologists; some contending that, like the names of several villages in the neighbourhood of Leeds, corresponding ones to which are to be found in Germany — a proof that they were imported by the Saxon invaders — that of Meltham has been derived probably from the same source, and that its counterpart may still exist in the German fatherland ; while others, and by far the greater number, refer it to a Roman origin, and maintain that it is either a contraction of Melitton signifying a place where beehives stand, or a corruption of Mel-tun, that is, the Honey Hamlet. In support of this, they assert, that from time immemorial, beehives were brought from all parts of the country, during what was termed the heathing time — that is, when the heather was in bloom — and placed in long rows upon the moors lying all round the village. The universality of this custom has been handed down from father to son ; and its existence, even after the enclosure of extensive portions of the moors in 1817, is still fresh in the memory of many of the inhabitants. There is no doubt that the heather is almost indigenous to bog soil, and its flower very attractive to the bee, and that it yields more honey than almost any other to that laborious insect. The immense quantities of fir and oak wood, more particularly the former, dug out of the moors surrounding Meltham, give abundant proof that at some period, the date of which is unascertainable, extensive forests of these trees must have covered the hills, that they eventually yielded to the destroying hand of time, and falling where they once grew, sank into the soft ground, and were in the course of ages buried deep beneath the vegetable matter constantly accumulating over them. This fir wood, afterwards dug up out of the moors in hundreds of cart-loads, was used as torches by the cottagers within the last seventy years. They cut it into long splinters, and made it serve for candles. The bituminous matter contained in it, gave out a strong bright flame, which had the twofold virtue of diffusing heat as well as light throughout their dwellings. A curious tradition is extant among some of the older inhabitants of the village, respecting certain strange wild beings, probably outlaws, who once skulked in these woods, and for a time managed to subsist on such, roots as they found in them. These miserable creatures, from the colour of their skin, received the name of “Redshanks,” but nothing is known as to the period of their existence, or the cause of their exclusion from civilized society. The aspect now presented by the moors is that of high, bare, flat-topped hills, and underlying tracts of broken ground, occasionally interspersed with huge masses of grey stone, the surface covered with heather of two kinds, as also with the bilberry plant, which seems, like the heath, indigenous to the soil, and the berry of which may be considered the fruit of the country. On the high moors vast numbers of red grouse are found, while on the plains below, the larks are so numerous that their notes not unfrequently form a chorus of song. The blackbird and thrush also abound in the neighbourhood.
Into the Botanical history of the district it is not necessary to enter, but, in passing, it may be remarked, that the whin-bush, fern, harebell, and ground cistus, are common, and that a great variety of beautiful mosses are to be observed on the moors. The soil is particularly favourable to the growth of the holly and the yew, while the oak most frequently forms the undergrowth of those sheltered parts where wood is found, and which it is to be hoped the axe of the woodman may yet spare.
A vein of small coal runs through some part of the adjoining hills, from which the several brooks, with their respective tributaries, which water the township, flow down towards Meltham Mills, and, after merging into one stream and taking a north-easterly direction, run into the river Holme at Steps Mill, below Honley.
It is to be regretted that the district immediately surrounding Meltham, as well as the tract of moors lying near Crosland, have never yet been properly explored by antiquaries. In similar situations in other parts of the kingdom, a rich harvest of discoveries has rewarded the researches of archaeologists, and furnished conclusive evidence of the occupation of those vast tracts of moorland by our Celtic forefathers.
In some localities numerous small barrows or demolished kistvaens have been discovered, and in others, circles of stones, and traces of ancient British encampments. Dr. Walker, a learned antiquary, affirms, that he has himself seen the remains of a kistvaen not far from Blackmoor Foot. One remarkable and most interesting relic of Celtic times was to be seen about forty years ago, on a part of the moor called Brow Grains, lying between West Nab and Deer Hill. This Druidical stone, for such it unquestionably was, familiarly termed a "Rocking Stone," was destroyed in the year 1827 or 1828 ; but its existence on the moors at that time furnishes an undeniable proof of their previous possession by the ancient Celts. Future researches will show whether the speculations of antiquarians on these topics are not borne out by the facts to be deduced from them, and probably the rising generation of archaeologists, now labouring in a work of so much interest, may succeed in bringing to light important remains, illustrative of the manners and customs of the early Britons, once occupants of the romantic country lying in the immediate vicinage of Meltham.
The flint weapon found on the breaking up of the moor above Wilshaw by James Redfearn, and now in the possession of the historian of "Kirkburton and the Graveship of Holme," adds another to the proofs already given of the residence of the Celts in this district. "While the remains of a Roman encampment below West Nab, on the property of Uriah Tinker, Esq., in which querns or hand-mills for grinding corn were found, give indisputable evidence that the Romans were at one time living in close contiguity to the village.
But to descend to later times. From this period until 1080, in which the Domesday Survey was commenced, there is not a single historical record to aid the inquirer in his researches respecting this district. From that document, however, it appears, that in Edward the Confessor’s reign, Cola and Suuen, or Swayn, had four carucates of land in Meltham and Haneleia — Honley — subject to guildage, or an annual tax imposed in the time of king Ethelred II., 991, on every hide of arable land in the kingdom. It is added, Ilbert has it and it is waste. Its value in King Edward’s time was forty shillings, a considerable sum at that period.
The next piece of information furnished by the Domesday Record is the dispossession of the two joint Saxon thanes, and the substitution of Ilbert de Lacy, the Norman lord, in their stead. Of one of these individuals, Cola, no further mention is made, and his fate is not known, but not so that of Swayn. In some instances where the Saxon thanes had possessed lands before the Conquest, they continued to hold the same afterwards of a Norman lord or baron, as tenant in capite, and in others, after being deprived of large estates in one place, had still larger bestowed on them elsewhere. This was the case with Swayn, one of the joint Saxon thanes of Meltham and Haneleia already named. From what can be collected after examining the names of the Saxons dispossessed of their manors by Ilbert de Lacy, as well as of those who had been removed to other manors, it would seem that this powerful Norman lord had already decided on the erection of Pontefract Castle, and observing that the round hill above Almond bury was also a desirable site for another of his strongholds, had resolved to plant a castle there, and regulated his measures accordingly. Meltham was not the only place of which Swayn was deprived; for the manor of Almondbury itself, part of which was in his hands, was given to another; and yet this could hardly have arisen from any bias unfavourable to Swayn, as he was still allowed to retain possession of a considerable number of manors elsewhere.
In Leland’s "Itinerary" it is stated that Alric, or Aluric, a Saxon, the father of Swayn, possessed the Castle of Kirkby, or Pontefract, before the Conquest, which being a place of strength fit to protect the northern parts, William gave to Ilbert de Lacy.
It is not improbable that as Swayn was the son of Alric, the crafty Norman might deem it impolitic to confide the keeping of two of the strongest positions in the West Riding of Yorkshire to him and his father; yet both these Saxon nobles continued to hold vast estates under Ilbert at the time of the general Survey, of which some of their descendants possessed parts as heirs general for many ages after the Conquest — the family of the Askes existing in the county till the time of Charles I.
Not many years after Pontefract Castle was built, or more properly rebuilt or strengthened, by Ilbert de Lacy, Almond-bury Castle was erected by King Stephen, who took possession of the throne in 1135, and was granted by him to Henry de Lacy. From this period a great part of the parish of Almondbury was under feudal bondage of the most rigorous description.
In the reign of Edward II., Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster, was returned Lord of Huddersfield, Holme, Meltham, and Almondbury. This powerful nobleman, the first prince of the blood, and one of the most potent barons in England, was beheaded in 1322, at his own castle at Pontefract. His death involved many others in the same fate, and the estates of all those suffering with him were confiscated. Among others, Richard Waleys, the Lord of Honley barely escaped with his life. A bond was entered into under the seal of this nobleman, Lord of Honley, by which he acknowledges, that having adhered to the great men in rebellion against his sovereign, he had submitted himself to the king’s will, and that the king, out of his graciousness had accepted a ransom for his life, lands, and tenements. In return for this great mercy and beneficence, the said Richard "Waleys, of his own free will, and without any coercion, hath made oath that he will henceforth be a faithful and obedient subject, and defend the king against all men, and maintain his emprises to the death ; that he will not enter into any alliance or confederacy against the king, his crown and dignity. If he make default in any of the forementioned points, the king may imprison him at his will; and he submits to a fine of 2,000 marks to save his life.
The next historical notice of Meltham is found in the Inquisition relating to Almondbury in the reign of Edward III., which lasted fifty years, from 1327 to 1377. In that document two tenants from Meltham are named as paying rent to the Lord of Almondbury. And again in the Inquisition made in the twenty-sixth year of Elizabeth, 1584, it is recorded that "John Beaumont, of Meltham, holdeth certain lands and tenements within the said manor of Meltham by copy of court roll of her majesty as of the said manor of Almondbury." This gentleman’s descendants continued to reside, and held considerable landed property in Meltham for many succeeding generations, as will be seen in a subsequent notice of them. The same feudal law, which in Elizabeth’s reign connected Meltham with Almondbury, still continued in force during that of James I., from 1603 to 1625 ; nor are there grounds for believing that it had undergone any particular change in the time of his unfortunate son, Charles I. The archaeological and historical account of the district given in this chapter furnishes a brief outline, or a sort of bird’s-eye-view, of its existence and condition, for little less than two thousand years, beginning with the Druidical epoch, before Christ, and including the Roman, Saxon, and Norman, as well as what may be termed the Tudor period.