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Sowerby Bridge West Yorkshire England


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History of the Town
Much of the following information is based on the book
"Sowerby Bridge in Old Photographs"
by John A. Hargreaves. Published by Smith Settle Ltd.

Bolton BrowThe name "Sowerby" is probably derived from the old Norse "Saur-by" meaning "farmstead on sour ground". "Sorebi" is recorded as an area of the manor of Wakefield in the Domesday survey of 1086. Further references to cattle rearing and sheep pasture occur in 14th century manorial records.

The nearby village of Sowerby was a medieval centre of textile production, the climate and geography of the area making arable farming difficult and domestically based cloth making a necessary activity. For the centuries after the medieval period the area grew in prosperity as much of West Yorkshire became a world centre for the manufacture of all forms of textiles and clothing.

The first evidence of a stone bridge across the River Calder dates from 1526 although earlier wooden structures existed in medieval times. Daniel Defoe passed over a "stately stone bridge of several great arches" at Sowerby Bridge in the early 18th century.

Wharfe StreetIt was not until the early stirrings of the Industrial Revolution that Sowerby Bridge could be considered to be anything more than a hamlet. Textile production was scattered amongst hillside dwellings where the majority of the areas population was based. The land in the valley bottoms was considered worthless, being marshy and insect ridden. It was the exploitation of water power, leading to the construction of ever larger mills, which led to a population shift away from the hillsides. The mills in Sowerby Bridge occupied a prime position in Upper Calderdale and by 1758 were operating as fulling and raising mills. Families who previously operated a home-based production process could not compete with large scale manufacturing and were forced into employment in the water-powered mills.The first fully integrated woollen mill complex in Yorkshire was established at Sowerby Bridge by the Greenup family between1778 and 1792.

It was further rapid developments in transport and communications during the 18th and 19th centuries which really contributed to the growth of Sowerby Bridge as an industrial centre. The first stretch of road to be turnpiked in West Yorkshire, and one of the earliest in the country, led from Rochdale to Sowerby Bridge. The turnpike roads were a system of toll paying routes but their improved quality ensured a much faster means of transportation.

Wharfe StreetIt was the ideal position of the town as first, a canal terminus and later a railway junction which ensured its prosperity. The 18th and 19th century boom in canal building for the distribution of industrial goods in bulk was a crucial factor in the early phases of the Industrial Revolution. The Rochdale Canal, opened in 1804, was the first and most successful of the trans-pennine routes, transporting much of the towns produce through the Pennines to Manchester. Pre-dating it by some 34 years was the Calder and Hebble Navigation, an extension of the Aire and Calder Navigation, which provided links to other parts of the West Riding and the East Coast port of Hull. The Calder and Hebble and the Rochdale Canal met at Sowerby Bridge, making the town a vital transport centre.

Steam power and the railways provided a further boost, the tracks often built alongside the canal routes although simultaneously contributing to the decline in canal usage. Heavy engineering prospered in the area with the firm of Pollit and Wigzell Ltd. gaining a worldwide reputation for the manufacture of steam engines.

Town HallAfter 1820 numerous public buildings were constructed in Sowerby Bridge, testifying to its growing prosperity. Various large churches, an ornate Tudor-Gothic railway station and a mechanics institute were built, the institute staging an exhibition of arts and sciences in 1839 which attracted 29,000 visitors. "Whites Directory" of 1853 described Sowerby Bridge as a large and well built village with about 5,000 inhabitants and "extensive cotton, worsted and corn-mills, commodious wharfs, several chemical works, iron foundries" and a gas works established in 1835.

After the rapid growth from hamlet to thriving working class community Sowerby Bridge continued tp prosper throughout much of the 20th century. The foundrys manufactured munitions and maritime engines through both world wars and textile making remained a staple industry. Although the canals continued to decline, (the last commercial trip from Manchester to Sowerby Bridge was in 1937 and the Rochdale Canal effectively closed in 1952) the town remained a flourishing local centre until the 1950s and 60s.

Foreign competition, particularly in the field of cloth manufacture, led to a serious decline in the towns economy which continued into the 1970s and 80s. Between 1971 and 1988 Sowerby Bridge lost a quarter of its shops and half of all its food shops.

Today there are various initiatives to regenerate what has for several decades been a town in decline. The Rochdale Canal has been restored for recreational use and the historic Sowerby Bridge Mills complex is now the home of many small businesses. There are plans to relieve traffic congestion in the main street and the Sowerby Bridge Forum is an initiative between local business and community to improve the profile of the town under a five year regeneration plan.