Nothing in Common

It was essential for any agricultural community to have an effective means of addressing local disputes. The Alwoodley Court Baron met once a year to deal with a range of minor issues from blocked ditches and trespass to broken fencing and poaching. It was a formal occasion with a scribe carefully recording all decisions. About thirteen members of the township were chosen to serve, encouraged to attend with the promise of a hearty dinner at the end of the proceedings. A foreman was then nominated and sworn in by the steward, who solemnly declared:-

 ‘You as foreman of the Jury shall diligently inquire and true presentment make of all such things as shall come to your knowledge and be given you in charge. The Counsel of yourself and your fellows you shall will and truly keep secret – you shall present no person out of malice, hatred or ill will nor spare any person out of fear, favour or affection but in all things shall truly present as the same shall come to your knowledge so help you God. 37

Some years there was little to do other than to decide who was to be pinder, a post that involved rounding up stray cattle and driving them into the pinder fold, located just off King Lane, opposite where Alwoodley Garage is today. He had to ensure that any animals were fed and watered and then fined anyone who claimed a stray beast as their property. At other times there was a great deal of business to get through.

One of the important duties undertaken by members of the Court was ‘walking the bounds’ of the lordship that were often disputed by inhabitants of adjoining manors. Alwoodley tenants maintained a series of gates across all the main roadways that clearly showed the traveller that they were entering their township. Fines were regularly levied on people who left these gates open. Among the surviving papers is a particularly detailed account of this activity:-

The Jury Haveing this Day Viewed the More Stones and Boundarys of the Lordship and Manor of Alwoodley do find and present the same be as followeth (viz) from Marley Gate Eastward by the fence Adjoining the Intakes formerly called Eccup Great Moor to Alligar Nook Down by the South End of the said fence as farr as Leigh Field Gate, so following the fence aforesaid to …Wigton Beck and then pursuing South east by Sleights Gate to Alwoodley gates and to the Lane leading from Harwood to Leeds, and crossing the Said Lane going on the South side of there in Thomas Ambler Intack and Pighill which divides the township of Alwoodley and Wigton to the South east Corner of the said Pighill and from there directly South up the Intack lately inclosed and in the possession of the Revd Mr Bainbridge, Curate of Chapel Allerton, his undertenant, and through the wall towards the top of the said Intack to …Oxcarr Hill, and from thence through on the Intack now in the possessionof Jeffray Prnce to an old More or Boundary Stone called Harwood Cross and westward to Pikely Hill and from thence to the Standing Stone, and Down the Comon Graving Bricks Lane on the right Hand to Thorner Ford and then running Northward up Addle beck by Starifoot bridge as far as the North west Corner of that piece of Ground Adjoining upon the Intack inclosed from the said Eccup Great Moor and turning Eastward by the said fence to Marley Gate aforesaid.’ 38

In theory these bounds were clear but the inhabitants of Chapel Allerton also claimed ownership of the common land described in this survey as being in Alwoodley. On 28 March 1707 Mathew Bywater, William Haste, George Hargreave, James Prince, William Briggs, Jonathan Briggs, William Pickering , William Tottie and his son, Samuel, set out to challenge the residents of Alwoodley over access rights to the common. They gave orders to their surveyors to wall up two gateways that had recently been made onto the moor and to destroy the bridge at ‘Slipp Gate’ to stop access to the peat deposits. They also asked for them to report anyone found ‘graving turf, peat or sods.’39

Peat cutting
Peat provided an essential free source of fuel for the inhabitants of Alwoodley. They used graving spades to dig out the peat and chop it into pieces about the size of a brick. It was then piled in small heaps to dry before being carted home. This delightful print is taken from George Walker's 'Book of Yorkshire Costume' 1814.

Yet a worrying aspect of life for all residents of Alwoodley at this time was the dwindling peat stocks on Black Moor and the Mosses. As a tenant this was a much-valued privilege as it provided free fuel for heating and cooking in an area denuded of trees and with negligible deposits of coal. 

cranberry girl
The Common provided a hunting ground for rabbits, hares and wildfowl In addition it supplied the populace with a free supply of fruit, including raspberries, bilberries, cranberries and blackberries as well a ready source of peat for fuel, gorse for kindling, bracken for cattle bedding, ling for roofing material and grazing for sheep. Its enclosure by the Lane Fox family must have been a bitter blow to many local householders. The print is taken from George Walker's 'Book of Yorkshire Costume' 1814.

Heavy fines were laid on anyone who tried to dig turves in restricted areas. Typical of this was the fine of £1 19s 11d levied in 1731 upon ‘any person whatsoever who do grave turves upon any part of Common belonging to this Manor with a pareing (sic) spade.’ This was a fortune! The jury also took a particularly dim view of anyone from an adjoining manor using the common as a source of free building materials and they regularly summoned people from Wigton, Potter Newton and Chapel Allerton for ‘leading away’ sand and rocks.40

 Nevertheless this paled into insignificance compared to the audacious attempt made in 1766 to enclose the common itself. The chief protagonist was Jeremiah Dixon, a successful woollen merchant from Leeds, who had just purchased the adjoining Manor of Chapel Allerton from the Killingbeck family.41 Like many of his class he saw the title of ‘Lord of the Manor’ as a tangible sign of improved social status but as a shrewd businessman he was aware that the estate had been much neglected and that there was a clear opportunity to increase its value.  First of all he needed to establish the true bounds of his property. As one of the contemporary legal documents acknowledged, his predecessor had been lax, as ‘…the indolence and inattention of the Lords and freeholders of Chapel Allerton in the support or their rights and in the prevention of encroachments have been notorious for a great many years past.42    Dixon immediately claimed a vast section of Black Moor, about half a mile wide and a mile long, which is today covered by housing, stretching from the Buckstone estate across to the Belvederes. He ordered his workmen onto  the ‘waste’ to cut down gorse for kindling, and then wrote an inflammatory letter to Lord Bingley offering to ‘…determine the dispute in question either by interview and friendly conversation…or by suit at Law.43

Dixon was extremely influential in Leeds but he was not used to dealing with members of the aristocracy and Lord Bingley’s response was blunt and uncompromising. His steward’s letter, dated 30 November 1766, gives a wonderful insight to the lifestyle and manners of the age.

If Lord Bingley had been well He wou’d  have been at London attending the House of Lords: but his Lordship is prevented by being laid up in the Gout, and, not being able to write Himself, I am ordered to acquaint you that His Lordship (having been here all Summer) thinks you might have made your claim with him. He was able to Sir, and had Time to look after His Rights himself: and that He looks upon the steps you have taken to be very abrupt and uncivil, and that you need not be surprised that Lord Bingley views this as a Breach of privilege, and must acquaint the House of Lords of the Insult upon their privilege.’ 44

This threat alarmed Jeremiah who was already involved in a similar argument with Lord Mexborough over the boundaries on Chapeltown Moor between the manors of Potternewton and Chapel Allerton. He could not afford to alienate two influential landowners and so temporarily withdrew his claim to the Alwoodley common land. In 1773, however, the dispute with Lord Mexborough was finally settled and Dixon immediately put his energy into once again claiming the Alwoodley section of Black Moor. By this time Lord Bingley had died and so Dixon applied to the trustees of his estate hoping for a speedy resolution, but they failed to respond.

He had to wait for Sir John Goodricke, the new owner of the Bramham Park, to return to England. Sir John and Dixon did meet together on at least three occasions over the next few months as both were investors in the Aire and Calder Navigation and met at board meetings. Yet Jeremiah appears to have shied away from direct confrontation, preferring instead to raise the matter with Thomas Heelis, Sir John’s deputy steward, who was based at Horton, near Skipton. His letter of 21 July 1774 made numerous excuses for not having contacted him earlier complaining that ‘…an attack of the gout, and by being a very bad traveller on horseback’ had prevented him from travelling out to discuss the matter, adding ‘I am afraid that company at my house here at Gledhow, going to York races, and some other engagements…prevent my getting into Craven…. but if you come into this neighbourhood, I should be happy to see you at Gledhow.’  A fine list of excuses! Dixon did eventually meet up with Sir John in Leeds and Thomas Heelis noted optimistically that  ‘…an amicable End is to be made.45

Ironically, whilst the elite argued over legal ownership of the moor, the local press were in no doubt as to whose land it was. In a touching article in the Leeds Intelligencer, dated 5 January 1779, the paper records, ‘Yesterday se’night a poor Scottish woman (the wife of a soldier now a prisoner in America) on her road to Scotland…. was delivered of a male child upon Black-Moor in the township of Alwoodley: the inhabitants as soon as information was given they immediately conveyed her and her new-born child in a cart to the nearest public house and it is thought they will be able to proceed on their journey in the next few days.’ 46

But Jeremiah was a stubborn individual, unwilling to compromise. He instructed Francis Walker and Benjamin Burland, his surveyors, to gather evidence from elderly residents of the district supporting his case that the moor was indeed part of Chapel Allerton. These old people came up with an impressive list of ‘facts’ including sworn statements that the bounds had regularly been beaten, that no one from Harewood had challenged that these lands formed part of the parish of Leeds, that tenants from Chapel Allerton had regularly repaired the roads and fences on the moor and that in 1716 the Curate of Chapel Allerton had actually enclosed 24 acres in the disputed area and had never paid any rent to Lord Bingley! 47 One can only imagine the anger felt by Sir John when this evidence was presented to him via his steward. The matter still remained unresolved when Jeremiah died in 1782!

In 1786 John Dixon, his son, sent a stinging rebuke to Richard Leak, Overseer of the Poor for the Township of Alwoodley, for starting to build on disputed land. John demanded that the structure should be pulled down immediately ‘…otherwise I shall take such steps against you as I am authorised to do by law for so trespassing on the Manor of Chapel Allerton without my consent.’ 48

But three years later Robert Stockdale, steward of the Bramham Estate, threatened action against Robert Field of Chapel Town.

He had been very active gathering support for the retention of the 24 acres enclosed seventy years earlier by the curate of Chapel Allerton. He had been interviewing people, including the oldest resident, then aged ninety. Field argued that this gentleman whose ‘…recollection was as perfect as any man can have’   was twenty three years of age when the enclosure was made adding ‘…but it was considered in the chapelry. 49 However, Field must have known that challenging ownership of land claimed by one of the most powerful families in Yorkshire was extremely risky, so tactfully added ‘…I will acquiesce rather than have a Law-suit with Sir John.’  Stockdale’s response was courteous but pointed.

…I think myself much obliged by your politeness and attention and rejoice for your own sake that you have determined to acquiesce with Sir John’s demand, as he would otherwise have been under the disagreeable necessity of bringing a suit… I will take the first opportunity of calling upon you to fix a rent.’ 50

This victory must have ended John Dixon’s hopes of claiming the land and it is probably no coincidence that the same year enclosure of the former common land began in earnest. The Court Rolls record ‘ John Todd hath been let into the occupation of a parcel of waste of this Manor by consent of the Rt. Hon. Sir John Goodricke, Baronet, late Lord of the Manor, containing about an acre, and that the sum of six pence a year will be a proper rent.’ 51 We are fortunate to have W.A.Todd’s recollections of the origins of Buckstone Farm. He recalled ‘The story of Buckstone Farm goes back generations. A couple of hundred years or so back, John Todd moved from Bramley to the moorland at Alwoodley, and obtained permission from on the Fox family to break the land up. He built a little wooden hut on the fringe of the moor, and set his spade into the heather. John Todd saw the fight with the moorland well on its way before he died, round about the age of 90.’ 52

In 1791 John Richardson, James March, Richard Lupton, William Smithson, Joseph Harding, Christopher Hanson and Joseph Rowling also sought official acknowledgment of their encroachments. The common land of Alwoodley, so long a source of peat, gorse, sand, rocks, berries, rabbits, hare and wild fowl and a useful area of additional grazing land, began to be enclosed and ‘improved.’

It is very significant that the original name for Nursery Lane was ‘Lime Kiln Lane’ referring to the structure that once burnt the limestone to make lime used by farmers to improve the acidic soils of the former moorland.53 Even more remarkable is the fact that the Lane Fox family had over-ridden their tenants 'common rights' and enclosed the land without an Act of Parliament!


37. WYAS LF129/7.
38. WYAS LF129/7.
39. WYAS LF129/7.
40. WYAS LF129/7.
41. R.G.Wilson, Gentleman Merchants: The Merchant Community in Leeds, 1700 – 1830, (Manchester, 1971) p.233, 242-3.
42. WYAS LF 129.
43. WYAS LF 129.
44. WYAS LF 129/7.
45. Leeds Intelligencer, 5 January 1779.
46. WYAS LF129.
47. WYAS LF129.
48. WYAS LF 129.
49. WYAS LF 129/7.
50. WYAS LF 129/7.
51. WYAS LF125.
52. Yorkshire Evening Post, 14 September 1926.
53. WYAS LF/117/4.


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