Events that have shaped Bradford’s past and present

A new book takes a look at some of the key dates in Bradford’s past and reveals a history that many people might not be aware of. Chris Bond reports.

David Hockney, one of many notable people who have come from Bradford.
David Hockney, one of many notable people who have come from Bradford.

IT’S perhaps hard today, with our smartphones and ipads, to imagine how a canal could change a place’s history.

But in Bradford it did just that. Apart from some interesting episodes during the early part of the English Civil War, the city had little to shout about in terms of noteworthy history prior to 1774 and the opening of the Bradford Canal.

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It was a remarkable feat of engineering but I doubt whether many among the estimated 30,000 onlookers who turned out to watch the first barge pass through the locks, could ever imagine the impact it would go on to have.

But it not only helped catapult the town headlong into the Industrial Revolution, it was a catalyst for Bradford to become one of the wealthiest places in Europe by the end of the 19th Century.

That’s not to say the history of Bradford started in 1774, just as sexual intercourse didn’t begin in 1963, “Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP”, as Philip Larkin famously wrote.

It was way back in 1212 that Bingley Market was granted its charter by King John, making it the oldest market with a royal charter in the Bradford district.

This is the first entry in Alan Hall’s new book, Bradford in 100 Dates, which charts the city’s history from its humble origins right through to last year’s “topping-out” ceremony of the Broadway Shopping Centre.

It is a history that includes plenty of heartache such as the Valley Parade fire and the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, which left every officer in the First Pals Battalion either dead or injured.

The city also has a lot to be proud of and has produced countless notable people over the years, including Sir Titus Salt, Frederick Delius and David Hockney.

But there are other, lesser known, people whose names are woven into the fabric of the city’s past. People like Mary Sykes. On March 18, 1649 she was brought before the justice, Henry Tempest, at Bolling Hall and accused of witchcraft by several of her neighbours, who claimed she flew off on a cow.

There was a spate of witch-hunting that gripped England at the time and when a strange wart was discovered on her body it was seen as a sign she was in league with the devil. She was sent for trial in York but thankfully was acquitted.

But while she was lucky, victims of what became known as the ‘Bradford Sweet Poisonings’ were less fortunate. On October 18, 1858, William Hardaker, known as ‘Humbug Billy,’ sold sweets from his market stall as usual. His sweets were bulked out by adding plaster of Paris but on this occasion his associate had been supplied with 12 pounds of arsenic by accident.

Within days 20 people, mostly children, had died while 200 others fell seriously ill. The incident sparked a public outcry and eventually led to the Pharmacy Act of 1868, which imposed tighter controls on pharmacies.

For Hall, an author and chairman of Bradford Civic Society, it’s one of several events he hadn’t come across before. “As a native of Bradford I always assumed that I knew quite a bit about the city’s history and heritage, but I had never heard of the deadly sweet poisoning, or the 1804 Festival of Bishop Blaise; nor did I know that people like Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had all appeared here,” he says.

“It was the fastest growing city in the UK during the 19th Century and it’s one of those places where there’s never a dull moment. It’s had an interesting up and down history, but also what strikes me is that people in Bradford are very proud of the place, warts and all.”

* Bradford in 100 Dates, published by The History Press, is out now priced £7.99.