Images of Yorkshire

Images of Yorkshire

The map of Yorkshire has played an important part in the way the county has been represented to and by the outside world. From the late 16th century onwards maps became increasingly important for governments and for the county gentry. Under the influence of the cartographer, Christopher Saxton, the counties became the basic units for surveying and also for the published map. On maps of England and Wales, each county was given different a colour and the image of the country made up of separate counties became commonplace. The map of Yorkshire became more widely known through packs of playing cards which had a representation of a different county for each ‘individual card and also by being reproduced on tapestries; thus throughout the 16th century the visual image of the English counties, with Yorkshire the most prominent, enjoyed widespread popularity. The work of Saxton was continued by John Speed, in whose map of 1627 Yorkshire was described as ‘this Nation … Yorkshire, farre greater and more numerous in the Circuit of her miles than any Shire of England’.

At the same time, however, the county was considered to be part of a wider region—the North of England, which, while more difficult to define in terms of boundaries, carried with it various meanings and associations which influenced the ways in which Yorkshire itself was perceived. Yorkshire, along with other northern counties, experienced political decline in the 17th century, since the region no longer served as a barrier against the Scots and was therefore losing its military role. At the same time, in spite of the economic growth of south Yorkshire and the West Riding, the hub of the Nation’s wealth, and of its religious and cultural life, was London. In the English Civil War the North was regarded by Parliamentarians as one of the ‘dark corners of the land’. At the beginning of the 18th century, when it took several days to travel from London, the North of England was still considered to be a backward region; Dr. Johnson said that to be out of London was to be out of the world. In 1724 Daniel Defoe wrote that when he traversed the river Trent on his tour of England, he had ‘Passed the Rubicon (Trent) and set my face northward’. It was such images of remoteness that persisted long after the Victorians began to ‘discover’ the county through tours and ‘sightseeing’ of historical and archaeological remains, and which can be said still to inform commonly held opinions about the north/south divide.

Far from breaking down regional identities, the Industrial Revolution revived and strengthened them. During the 19th century Yorkshire became firmly identified as one of the chief areas of industrial growth. Towns, cities and regions came to be known through their associations with particular trades and industries; the West Riding, notably Bradford, with woollen textiles; the south of Yorkshire, notably Castleford or Barnsley, with coal; Sheffield with steel and the cutlery trade. These linkages contributed to the creation of images of the working class which were associated with such industries and locations and which entered the popular consciousness.

One example of this has been the creation of various images of the Barnsley miner, who was celebrated in a dialect almanac of 1873, the Barnsla’ Folks Annual, for the value and dignity of his labour. In fact perceptions of the town and its mining industry have come to encapsulate certain characteristics of ‘Yorkshireness’ which have changed through time; more recently Barnsley became the ill-deserved butt of the club comic’s repartee and represented in the popular media the lumpen and lumpish North—the ‘mateyness’ of Barnsley people; fish and chips and the Barnsley Chop. However this image has been recently tempered since the collapse of the mining industry. In part ‘Barnsley’ now conjures up images of a dead industry, a defeated mine-workers’ union and unemployment, all of which are testimony to the abiding sense of the dignity of labour.

The dialect almanac was the typical form of dialect literature which became very popular in the mid-19th century. The Barnsley one, already mentioned, first started in 1840; others soon followed and by the 1870s the English Dialect Society counted a total of 40 across the country, with 36 of them published in the West Riding. An indication of their popularity is the sale of 80,000 copies of Hartley’s Halifax Illuminated Clock Almanack in 1887.’ The almanacs were comic but also moralising, with an emphasis on the virtues of leading a decent

I life, working hard and also dignity in the face of adversity. These were some of the qualities which defined the Yorkshireman [sic], whether as Dalesman, unadulterated by industrialisation, or the Yorkshire ‘Tyke’ who was character­ised as possessing a dry sense of humour, being rough-mannered, independent, and a poor loser.

‘Typical’ Yorkshire folk were also portrayed through ballads and the music hall, where social identities were reinforced. Dialect was one of the means by which different parts of Yorkshire gained their sense of identity and represented themselves to the outside world. The provincial press played a similar role after the abolition of the newspaper taxes in the 1850s. The ‘explosion into print’ meant that the cities and larger towns of the county could communicate all that was newsworthy to the local inhabitants, thus -reinforcing a sense of community, and to the surrounding areas, proclaiming their existence, not least through the very titles of the newspapers. The press went further than this, and in many instances became a driving force for ‘improvement’; the Bradford Observer, edited by William Byles, frequently reminded its readers of its own importance and the Leeds Mercury, under the editorship of Frederick Baines, was most active in the campaign for sanitary reform. The Sheffield Independent, commenting on the death of Byles, said that ‘the similarity of [the editors] enthusiastic advocates of the tenets of Liberalism—gave the Leeds Mercury, the Sheffield Independent and the Bradford Observer … characteristics which naturally grouped them in an undesigned alliance of colour and purpose whose influence on the thought and feeling of the West Riding has been very deep’.

The local newspaper was one source of pride; there were, increasingly, others. As local authorities gained more powers to conduct local affairs, the sense of civic pride developed. The outward manifestation of this is still largely present in some of the most prominent architecture of the county. Leeds Town Hall is a magnificent symbol of the confidence and pride of the city. The granting of a knighthood to the Mayor of Leeds, Peter Fairbairn, by Queen Victoria when she officially opened the building in 1858, was a public acknowledgement of the achievement of Leeds as a municipal authority.

If the Town Hall, in whichever town or city, was a reminder of the pace at which most of Yorkshire had developed in the industrial age, it was in the archi­tecture of previous times that people found stability and came to terms with the forces of change. ‘What would Leeds be with ten Town Halls and no Kirkstall Abbey’, wrote Jeremiah Odham in 1868, emphasising the importance which a sense of the past, as revealed through archaeological discoveries and the relics of previous eras, now had for people surrounded by the evidence of a modern age.

Kirkstall Abbey was sold by the Cardigan Estate in 1889 and eventually bought by Colonel John T. North, who presented it as a gift to the people of Leeds. The municipal authority prevented it from falling into further ruin and in 1895 the grounds were opened to the public.

The City of York had not experienced the impact of industrial change to the extent that Leeds did, and a successful campaign to prevent the destruction of the York city churches, proposed by a committee in the 1870s which evaluated the state of the Church in York and its obsolete parish boundaries, served to emphasise the importance of the city in representations of historical Yorkshire. York was an historic town and its architecture was seen as part of the rich heritage of the county now being increasingly explored by bodies such as the Yorkshire Architectural Society, formed as early as 1845. The Huddersfield Archaeological and Topographical Society, founded in 1863, soon extended its interests to the whole county and eventually became the Yorkshire Archaeological Society in 1893, playing a part in unearthing and preserving the Roman and Medieval history of Yorkshire. Other societies concentrated more on local history and topography; the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society dates from 1878, the Thoresby Society, Leeds, 1889, and the East Riding Antiquarian Society, 1893. As more became known about the county’s history, books began to be published which chronicled the findings of historians and archaeologists, through which pride in the county and a knowledge of ones ‘roots’ were further strengthened.

Certain representations of Yorkshire occur through sport. Cricket in particular is a sport from which local and regional identities are drawn and through which people know the county. Most of the county players started their career in local clubs and leagues and many went on to greater fame as members of the English team, where the likes of Herbert Sutcliffe, Len Hutton, Fred Trueman and Geoffrey Boycott stamped their Yorkshire identity. Sport reporting and commentary have also played their part in reinforcing contemporary associations of ‘character’ with place; the image of Rugby League brings the two together, personified, perhaps, by Eddie Waring, the late television commentator, who signified for many people both the voice of the game and a caricature of northern, and particularly York­shire, man.

The work of novelists, playwrights and artists continues to play an important part in various representations of the county. J.B. Priestley’s Bruddersford (an amalgamation of Bradford and Huddersfield) has been known to generations of readers for its cloth cap image it is a country, whether it expresses itself in fields or streets, moors or mills, that puts man on his mettle. It defies him to live there, and so it has bred a special race that can live there, stocky men with short upper lips and jutting long chins, men who roll a little in their walk and carry their heads stiffly, twelve stones of combative instinct.

The Brontë Parsonage, in Haworth, Yorkshire

The town of Haworth and the surrounding moors are now known as ‘Bronteland’, often to the exclusion of Thornton, in Bradford, which was the actual birthplace of the Bronte sisters. Indeed many writers, particularly journalists, assume that the Bronte sisters were born in the Howarth Parsonage, such is the association of place with people. ‘Herriot Country’—the North Riding setting for James Herriot’s episodes in the life of a vet, and ‘Summer Wine Country’­Holmfirtb and the surrounding areas associated with the ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ television series, are also products of a tourist industry eager to capitalise on those associations, however fictional, which are somehow meant to encapsulate aspects of real Yorkshire life. These associations are, in turn, used and extended by the advertising industry, for whom ‘Yorkshire’ denotes tradition and craftsmanship, as in beer which is ‘Yorkshire born and brewed’ or ‘old-fashioned Yorkshire Biscuits from the village of Haworth’.

In the inter-war years Yorkshire, and, more generally, northern representations on radio and film were influenced by the music hall—the most famous comedian of the early days of radio was John Henry, a henpecked Yorkshireman who had all the qualities of the ‘Tyke’. Post-war film, like television and radio, has continued to intensify certain images of Yorkshireness. For example, the realist ‘kitchen sink’ films of the late 1950s and ’60s were often based on the works of Yorkshire writers who Used northern, and particularly Yorkshire, ‘characters’ and places to great effect. Room at the Top, John Braine, Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse, This Sporting Life, David Storey, or A Kind of Loving, Stan Barstow, all reinforced and extended a poetic vision of Yorkshire people and places.

If we still need to be convinced of the importance of the images of the county and of Yorkshire people, we need look no further than the entries under ‘York’, ‘Yorkist’ and ‘Yorkshire’ in the Oxford English Dictionary. Alone of all the counties, Yorkshire is allocated a section on the characteristics of its people. Reference is made to the ‘boorishness, cunning, sharpness, or trickery attributed to Yorkshire people’. If one cheats, it is to ‘put Yorkshire on one’; if something is worthless, it is ‘a pair of Yorkshire sleeves in a goldsmiths shop’. Such phrases may or may not be believed, but they have entered into the popular idiom and have shaped percep­tions of Yorkshire and its people. There are of course other images and this book has attempted to illustrate the way in which Yorkshire people have through the centuries made the great history of the county, and often, the nation itself. Without the contribution of Yorkshire people, the cultural, intellectual, commercial and political life of the region, the country and beyond, would be the poorer.