Poppies cascade down
Otley Parish Church
Otley is where I was born and raised! I was born in the house, on Weston Estate, where I lived with my parents until Anne and I were married in 1980. From there we moved to Yeadon, then to Guiseley, before ending up where we are now in Morton on Swale in North Yorkshire.
Otley is a market town and civil parish at a bridging point on the River Wharfe, in the City of Leeds metropolitan borough in West Yorkshire, England. Historically a part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, the population was 13,668 at the 2011 census. It is in two portions – south of the river is the historic town of Otley and to the north is Newall, which was formerly a separate township. The town is in lower Wharfedale on the A660 road which connects it to Leeds.
Otley’s name is derived from Otto, Otho, Othe, or Otta, a Saxon personal name and leah, a woodland clearing in Old English. It was recorded as Ottanlege in 972 and Otelai or Othelia in the Domesday Book of 1086. The name Chevin has close parallels to the early Brythonic Welsh term Cefn meaning ridge and may be a survival of the ancient Cumbric language.
There are pre-historic settlement finds alongside both sides of the River Wharfe and it is believed the valley has been settled at this site since the Bronze Age. There are Bronze Age carvings on rocks situated on top of The Chevin, one such example is the Knotties stone. West Yorkshire Geology Trust has reference to Otley Chevin and Caley Crags having a rich history of human settlement stretching back into Palaeolithic times. Flint tools, Bronze Age rock carvings and Iron Age earthworks have been found. In medieval times the forest park was used as common pasture land, as a source of wood and sandstones for buildings and walls.
Saxon and Medieval
The majority of the early development of the town dates from Saxon times and was part of an extensive manor granted by King Athelstan to the see of York. The Archbishops of York had a residence and were lords of the manor. Their palace was located on the site occupied by the Manor House. Otley is close to Leeds and may have formed part of the kingdom of Elmet. Remains of the Archbishop’s Palace were found during the construction of St Joseph’s School.
As in other areas of the north, the Norman conquest largely laid waste this area. The Saxon church (All Saints, Otley) was replaced by a Norman one, but this contains much Saxon sculpture. Thus in the 11th and 12th century Otley would have been a loose congregation of buildings around the two focal points of the manor house by the bridge and the church. An important reason for the town’s location was a water supply, the Calhead Beck (now covered over) which ran down from Otley Chevin over Whitley Croft, a little East of the church and then to the river near the bridge. The town grew in the first half of the 13th century when the archbishops laid out burgage (freehold) plots to attract merchants and tradespeople. The burgage plots were on Boroughgate, Walkergate and Kirkgate. This began to create the layout of today, based on a triangle of these plots forming the streets. Bondgate was for the workers: bondsmen and tenants. A leper hospital was founded on the road to Harewood beyond Cross Green.
As well as farming and use of woodland, important local activities were quarrying stone, and the manufacture of potash from bracken, used to make a soap which therefore supported a community carrying out fulling, the cleansing and finishing of woollen cloth on Watergate. The Chevin provided stone for building (and millstones) as well as bracken, wood and common grazing, while the river provided reeds for thatching houses.
The woollen industry developed as a cottage industry but during the Industrial Revolution and the mechanisation of the textile industry, mills were built using water then steam power. A cotton mill and weaving shed for calicoes were built by the river in the late 18th century. Later woolcombing and worsted spinning were introduced. By the mid 19th century 500 inhabitants were employed in two worsted-mills, a paper-mill, and other mills. A tannery was established in the 19th century. At this time the opening of the new Leeds Road and Bradford Road greatly increased access for trade. Many houses were built from the middle of the 19th century onwards, including the first row of terraces by the newly formed Otley Building Society from 1847. Otley railway station opened in 1865 connecting goods and people to Leeds, with a connection to Bradford in 1875. At its peak it had 50 trains a day, but it was closed in 1965 under the Beeching cuts. Kirkgate was the first street to be paved in 1866, followed by sewers in 1969.
The Wharfedale Printing Machine was developed in Otley by William Dawson and David Payne. An early example can be seen in Otley Museum. By 1900 the printing machinery trade, with over 2,000 people employed in seven machine shops, was Otley’s most important industry.
20th century onwards
After the First World War there was a general shortage of housing in Britain, and much of it was crowded slums. Otley Council prepared one of the first subsidized housing schemes, commencing with relatively open land in Newall on the North of the river in 1920. The 1920s also saw the beginnings of the conversion of properties to a sewer drainage system, and electric lighting instead of gas on the streets. Further estates followed and by 1955 there were more than 1000 council houses. Private housing was also expanded during this time, but was greatly reduced the Second World War. House building revived in the 1960s to 1980s, but industry declined, with many factories closing, including the printing machine works in 1981.