The Map of Yorkshire

The Map of Yorkshire

The external boundaries of Yorkshire remained virtually unchanged for over a thousand years, following the pattern established by the Danes in the ninth century, although from time to time during the succeeding centuries minor changes were made as some parishes were added or subtracted for the convenience of admin- 146 The lost towns istrators, ecclesiastical authorities or powerful local magnates who had the ear of of the Yorkshire coast the monarch.

Map of the lost towns of the Yorkshire coast
The lost towns of the Yorkshire coast

The name ‘shire’ pre-dates the Danish invasions, being derived from the Old English word ‘scir’, a division. In Domesday Book, Yorkshire was called Eurvic Scire, and associated with this already ‘ancient’ shire was an area known as Amounderness, which covered parts of what are now northern Lancashire and Cumbria. Yorkshire’s connection with Amounderness was severed when Lancashire emerged as a separate unit in the 12th century.

The three great internal units, the Ridings were also contained within the original division of the Danish Kingdom of York. The name Riding is derived from an old Norse word meaning a third part, and appears in Domesday Book as Treding (e.g. Est Treding, Nor Treding). The term Riding was in use in the 12th century and remained as a modern, adminis­trative unit but with deep historical roots, until the reorganisation of local government in 1974.

Within the Ridings the old Danish divisions (wapentakes) remained substantially within their original boundaries into the 20th century although their administrative and judicial functions changed. In recent times some have retained only a vestige of their former importance as areas under the jurisdiction of a coroner’s court. In the East Riding the older Anglo-Saxon term ‘Hundred’ was used, as was the case in most of EngLand south of the Trent, where Scandinavian influence was less than in the north.

The pattern of local government which evolved to meet the changing needs of society during the period of dynamic growth and movement of the population from the 18th century onward resulted in many new administrative divisions of the county. This was particularly so with the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies, although at first it was difficult to change constituency boundaries because of vested interests deeply attached to the old dispensation, but this resistance was overcome by the Reform Act of 1832. Today there is a regular revision of par­liamentary boundaries and few constituencies in Yorkshire, even if they retain their original name, actually cover the same area as they did half a century ago.

There have been frequent changes in local government boundaries, none more radical than those which occurred in 1974 when the whole administrative map of the county was re-made. The Local Government Acts of 1888 and 1894 created a pattern of local administration which, whilst including the ancient boroughs and ridings, established new units such as urban districts, county boroughs and municipal boroughs. At the lowest level were the rural parishes, based on old ecclesiastical divisions which owed something to the ‘vills’ or townships of pre-Norman times and to the manors which emerged in the 11th century. The structure created in 1888 remained as the framework for local government until 1974, although there were of course boundary changes and changes of function.

The whole edifice was swept aside by an Act of Parliament in 1972, which came into operation in 1974. Under the old system Yorkshire had 12 county boroughs of which the North Riding had one (Middlesbrough), the East Riding one (the City and County of Kingston-upon-Hull) and the West Riding 10, three of which, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield, were cities with Lord Mayors, and one other, Wakefield, a city with a Mayor. The borough of Ripon, based on an ancient borough founded in A.D. 886, was also known as a city, although its local government status was only that of a municipal borough.

There may have been some anomalies based on historical accidents in the style and nomenclature of some of the ancient boroughs, like Ripon in the West Riding, Richmond in the North Riding and Hedon in the East Riding, but on the whole these eccentricities did not greatly detract from their 20th-century functions, and may even have helped to sustain civic pride and a sense of community.

The 1974 reorganisation abolished the three Ridings and created several new types of local authority. The West Riding was dismembered and two new authorities, the Metropolitan Counties of West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire, were established. These were divided into Metropolitan Districts, based on the old County Boroughs, to which were added their neighbouring Municipal Borough and Urban and Rural Districts. In West Yorkshire the new Metropolitan Districts were based on Bradford, Leeds, Halifax (Calderdale), Huddersfield and Wakefield (Kirklees), Dewsbury and Wakefield. In South Yorkshire there were four new districts centred on Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster.

The boundaries of Yorkshire with its neighbouring counties were substantially altered. The East Riding lost Filey and Norton and the easteri half of the Vale of York to the new county of North Yorkshire. The rest of the East Riding, together with the Goole area, which were taken from the West Riding, was joined with the Isle of Axholme, and the North Riding area of Lincolnshire, including the steel town of Scunthorpe and the port of Grimsby, to form the county of Humberside. It was hoped that the construction of the Humber Bridge, completed in 1976, would knit North and South Humberside together into a viable economic, social and political unit. A similar riverside county was formed by joining Middlesbrough and adjacent areas of the North Riding to Hartlepool and other parts of South Durham, to create the county of Cleveland.

Map of the administrative areas of Yorkshire, 1974 - 1986
Administrative areas, 1974 – 1986

The North Riding also lost border areas in the west to Cumbria (Sedbergh), Lancashire (Bowland, Barnoldswick and Earby) and Greater Manchester (Saddleworth). What remained of the North Riding became the new county of North Yorkshire, to which was added a salient projecting south from York to take in Selby and part of the Yorkshire coalfield near Knottingley; and a large slice of rural Nidderdale and the mid-Pennines, from Harrogate to Settle. For reasons of administrative convenience the headquarters of North Yorkshire remained at Northallerton, of West Yorkshire at Wakefield. Barnsley became the centre for the government of South Yorkshire.

Barely ten years after the new arrangements had been implemented it was decided to abolish the Metropolitan Counties and redistribute their powers either to the Metropolitan Boroughs or to newly-constituted nominated boards. The other changes introduced in 1974, including the external boundary alterations, remain.

The redrawing of the administrative map is not the only change which has occurred to the outlines of Yorkshire over the millennium since the county was first delineated. The steady processes of nature, sometimes modified by human intervention, have wrought significant alterations to the shape of Yorkshire.

The Holderness coast between Flamborough Head and Spurn Point is slowly crumbling into the sea as the soft boulder clay cliffs disintegrate under the impact of the North Sea waves, and every year a little more land slips into the sea. Expensive public works have been undertaken, especially near the holiday resorts along the coast, during the last century, but they have only retarded rather than halted the inexorable advance of the sea. Since Roman times, a strip of land 35 miles long and between one and two miles wide has been lost. Houses, churches, farms and roads have disappeared. Between Old Bridlington and Ravenser Odd some thirty lost villages have been recorded. Old Kilnsea, near the root of Spurn Point, is mentioned in Domesday Book and a church and a few houses stood there as recently as 1822. In 1831 the church tower was undermined and fell into the sea. By 1852 only the foundations of the church could be seen at low tide, and now there is no visible trace of them. At Owtborne near Withernsea the church steeple stood a cricket-pitch length from the cliff top in 1805, but in 1816 this toppled into the sea. Auburn, a few miles south of Bridlington, which some think may be the site of the deserted village in Goldsmith’s poem which begins ‘Sweet Auburn! Loveliest village of the plain’, consisted of one ruined house in 1900, and today nothing remains. From time to time mile posts are dredged up from the sea bed. They cover the period from Roman times to the 18th century, and are evidence of former roadways, such as that which once formed part of the Beverley to Bridlington highway.

The material washed out from the cliffs is transported by tides and currents, much of it is redeposited in the mouth of the Humber, where it forms the three­and-a-half mile spit of sand and shingle known as Spurn Head. The Spurn Head of today is two miles further inshore than the one which was recorded in 1066. Between these two are traces of two others, on one of which the seaport of Ravenser Odd flourished between 1235 and 1360 and on the other Richard Reedbarrowe ‘Heremyte of the Chapell of our Lady and Seint Anne atte Ravensporne’ built a lighthouse in 1428. The modern Spurn Head assumed approximately its present form about 1830. If past history is repeated, it should last about 250 years before it is cut in two by the sea, probably during a storm. The island thus created, on which stands the remains of John Smeaton’s light­house built in 1776, will then be washed away, and Spurn will re-form itself further inland. This life cycle has been followed at least during the 900 years for which records are available.

The westward movement of Spurn created problems for ships navigating the entrance to the Humber, and the position of the lighthouse had to be changed from time to time. The ancient parliamentary borough of Ravenser was of greater size and importance than Hull in the 13th century, and for a time sent two members to parliament. Shakespeare mentions it as the place where Henry of Lancaster, later Henry IV, landed in 1399 during the Wars of the Roses.

If land is being lost to the sea along the coast, it is being won back from the Humber estuary both immediately inside the protective arm of Spurn, and also further inland along the north shore of the Humber. This is partly a natural process of deposition, but it can be assisted by human effort. The emerging bank of river silt and sand known as Sunk Island, a few miles upstream from Spurn, was mentioned in 1660 in the records of the East Riding Court of Sewers. Embankments were constructed to assist the work of nature and, in 1695, 12 acres had been reclaimed for fanning. By 1668 it was important enough for the king to claim it as his property, and a century later 1,600 acres were under the plough. During the next century a further 7,500 acres were reclaimed. In the early 19th century Sunk Island was joined to the mainland, and to the nearby area called Cherry Cobb Sands. To maintain these large tracts of land in a good condition for fanning, constant effort was required to consolidate the embank­ments and to keep the drains in good repair, but, if this was done, the farmers were rewarded with valuable agricultural land, which William Cobbett described in 1830 as amongst the richest and most fertile land to be seen anywhere in England. Here the farmer’s gain has been the fisherman’s and sailor’s loss, as the growth of Sunk Island contributed to the silting up of the ports of Hedon and Patrington. Hull, which was once less important than Hedon, benefited because the deep water channel runs close to the site of the old port of Hull.

Similar reclamation work was carried out on the salt marshes and waterlogged clay lowlands at the southern end of the Vale of York, near the mouth of the river Derwent. Although some reclamation work had taken place in earlier centuries, even as far back as Norman times, the massive efforts made in the 18th century by the construction of drainage channels and protective embankments transformed the area from a marshy wilderness, where the boundary between land and water was indeterminate and fluctuating, into rich pasture with grazing land for cattle and sheep, and fertile arable land growing wheat, root crops and vegetables. Defoe, writing in the early 18th century, described the Derwent as ‘a river very full of water’, which ‘overflows its Banks and all Neighbouring Meadows, always after rain’.

Another area where land which was once under water has been recovered for agriculture lies south of the Humber, between the Trent and the Don. Part of this is called Hatfield Chase. Here, in 1609, the Prince of Wales went hunting red deer, in a boat. The people of Thorne and Hatfield were fowlers and fishermen, living on patches of dry land among the fens and marshes. King Charles I was Lord of Hatfield Chase, an area of some 180,000 acres, largely marsh, extending into the counties of York, Lincoln, and Nottingham. He decided to drain the marshes, and called in the famous Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden. Vermuyden came over with scores of Dutch and French Protestants, who settled in the district and began the work of drainage. There are still a few French and Dutch surnames among the Yorkshiremen living in Hatfield Chase. At Sandtoft the strangers built a church which the local folk wrecked, because they objected to the changes in their way of life which were brought about by the work of the foreigners. Later engineers continued the work of Vermuyden (Chapter 16), and in the 19th century many square miles of new land were brought into cultivation. By the method known as ‘warping’, a new soil was laid over the peaty moors, and the wastes of Charles I’s time now produce rich crops.

The county of Yorkshire as we know it today is a creation of nature and society interacting over the millennium which has elapsed since the idea of a county called Yorkshire first emerged—and of course during the many millennia before the name was given. In the past, by trial and error, and often after disastrous mistakes, a fragile relationship has developed between society and environment. The map of Yorkshire will change in the future as much as, or even more than, it has in the past; not only in the superficial pattern of administrative boundaries, but also in the more permanent changes which are wrought on the physical geography of the county. One can only hope that Yorkshire people learn bow to co-operate with nature to improve the environment, rather than seek to dominate it in the interests of short-term gain.

Area and Population of the new Administrative Units

Name of Unit Area Population
1973 (est.) 1991
West Yorkshire 503,700 acres 2,079,530 1,991,500
South Yorkshire 385,400 acres 1,319,180 1,254,000
North Yorkshire 2,011,600 acres 644,830 703,100
North Humberside 579,118 acres 551,130 560,000