A Brief History of Early Modern Yorkshire

We last left of surprisingly epic (but still rather brief) history of Yorkshire series, in 1652. Always leave them wanting more, eh? Still, we though it was high time we finished off our series and brought you up to date with the history of this great county in early modern times. Unfortunately – or fortunately depending on how you look at it – the 1700s was not a hugely exciting period for the Yorkshire area. Most major events of this century centered around Britain’s colonial efforts and overseas war. For sure, Yorkshire born men probably fought in some of these wars. But all the action took place on foreign soil, so those bloody pieces of history find no place here.

Conversely, the 1800s were a hugely transformative time that saw the British Empire, partly powered by Yorkshire industrial production, consolidate its grip on nearly a third of the entire world. Thus, we begin our story in 1784.


This marks the year in which one of Yorkshire’s most celebrated political figures, William Wilberforce, was elected as the Member of Parliament for Kingston Upon Hull in East Yorkshire. He eventually went on to be a crucial figure in the abolition of slavery across the British Empire. His legacy was enshrined into law in 1833, seven years after he resigned from parliament. In Yorkshire, developments in metalworking in Sheffield around this time were solidifying the city’s position as one of the world’s premier exporters of steel and other metals.


The 1840s began a real period of rapid change in many Yorkshire towns. By 1838, conditions at the Sheffield textile mills had reached breaking point. German political philosopher Frederick Engels, a compatriot and associate of the famous Karl Marx and hugely influential in his own right, visited the city. He wrote an entire book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, based upon his experiences there. It is seen today as one of the most insightful critiques of 19th century working class life produced in its time. Indeed, not ten years previously, the working and living environments had become so poor for steel workers that a Cholera epidemic killed nearly 400 people.


Another cholera outbreak in 1848, and The Great Sheffield Flood of 1864, killed a thousand people between them. These events, and general deprivation of the area, led to increased calls for better conditions from the workforce. The steelworkers of Sheffield, Rotherham and other industrialising towns began campaigns to this effect. In 1866, The United Kingdom Alliance of Organised Trades (which would eventually become the Trade Union Congress of today) was formed in Sheffield.

However, this time also saw some conflict as the Unions grew in power. The Sheffield Outrages of the late 1860s involved a dozen or so bombings, murders and assaults that have been laid at the door of the union movement. Regardless of the morality of their tactics in some cases, life did improve for industrial workers across the Yorkshire area from 1870s onwards, with cleaner water supplies and sewage facilities being installed across the bigger cities. And still the Industrial Revolution rumbled onwards…