Ossett - the history of a Yorkshire town

From the Romans to the Vikings

RomansA Roman road, Via Vicinalis, ran from Manchester through Kirklees, Dewsbury, Wakefield and Pontefract to Doncaster (Danum). There is some evidence of Roman settlement in the area of Ossett, for example Roman coins were reputedly found at Streetside and Roundwood.

More recently, there is also some evidence of Roman settlement in the Gawthorpe area of Ossett. Local Wakefield magistrate Ronald Swinden mentioned in his book "The Origin & History Of Kirkhamgate" the following:

"Our Roman road passing through Kirkhamgate has, to my knowledge, never been given a similar archaeological dig, but in the course of some of my more recent cases vs West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council I can disclose that such evidence was discovered but never acted upon. I refer first to Lingwell Nook where cobbles were revealed, but then to Chancery Lane, Gawthorpe, exactly on the road surface where trial pit 2 disclosed gravel and cobbles, and trial pit 3 disclosed stone, gravel and sandstone blocks."

Swinden is talking about what evidence he came across while carrying out his duty as magistrate, and the Roman road which was believed to cross Kirkhamgate via Gawthorpe.

The Ossett Roman Coins
In 1963, 10 year-old Andrew Lister moved with his family to a new house at Deneside, off Kingsway in Ossett. The gardens at the Listers' new home were littered with builders debris and the previously untouched farmland had been turned upside down by diggers when the house footings were constructed. Andrew and his father Ken made a start laying out the new gardens and young Andrew was given the job of digging out the bricks, stones and rubbish left by the builders. One day, hidden among the stones and soil, Andrew found two very old bronze coins or folles, which subsequently turned out to be of Roman origin.

Andrew kept quiet about his find until very recently. Understandably, as a 10 year-old, he was worried that his "treasure trove" would be taken away from him. I'm grateful to him for sharing details of his discovery some 45 years later!


Above: One of the coins depicts Constantius II (317 - 361 A.D.) the longest lived of Constantine the Great's sons and successors who ruled from 337 - 361 A.D. The coin dates to about 331 A.D. before the death of Constantine the Great and after Constantius II was given the rank of Caesar or junior emperor at the age of seven.

The second Roman coin has been identified as a commemorative coin minted around 335 A.D. to celebrate the founding of the city of Constantinople between 324 and 330 A.D. by Constantine the Great, who reigned as Roman Emperor until his death in 337 A.D. Constantinople, which is located in modern day Turkey was renamed as Istanbul in 1930, but was the capital of the Roman Empire between 330 and 395 A.D.

Both coins were minted at the Treveri mint at Trier in Germany. In the early 320s A.D. with the provinces of Britain now secure for the time being, much of the Roman garrison was withdrawn to reinforce the Rhinelands. Consequently, the London mint was closed in 325 A.D. just before these coins were produced. Sadly, the coins have no great value and similar specimens can be bought cheaply on Ebay or at coin fairs around the country. Had the coins been minted from gold, as some Roman coins were, they would have been worth several thousand pounds each. However in one sense they are priceless because they prove the existence of the Romans in Ossett or at least the existence of trade links with the Romans. It is of course possible they were dropped much later than the Roman period, having fallen into the hands of a former Saxon warrior, who had settled down perhaps as a farmer and who clumsily dropped them while crossing a field.

Roman coins were reputed to have been found at Streetside and the Roundwood areas of Ossett and of course, Deneside is not far from Streetside. One theory is that Love Lane, which joins the Ossett - Dewsbury road at Pildacre, was a carting track in Roman times, passing the area where Deneside was eventually built and then onwards to Streetside. If that was the case, there may have been a few settlements along Love Lane or perhaps the coins were simply lost from a tired traveller's purse? In the event, they lay in the Ossett soil for 1700 years until Andrew Lister dug them up in 1963.

It is thought that Streetside was a small hamlet alongside Via Vicinalis, the Roman road from Dewsbury westwards towards Wakefield, and provided amenities required by travellers. However, it is unlikely that there was any large scale Roman settlement at Ossett.

Angles, Saxons and Vikings
When the Romans finally vacated England in about 430 AD, the area was invaded by the Angles, the Saxons and other peoples from North Germany. By about 500 AD, they are thought to have penetrated as far as York and Ripon using the rivers to navigate further inland. This colonisation went on for more than 400 years and the invaders either killed or drove out the previous inhabitants as they established a firm foothold in and around what would become Ossett. It has been suggested that the variation in our local, broad Yorkshire dialect speech is a result of settlements of different Anglo-Saxon groups.

VikingsDuring the ninth and tenth centuries, the Vikings were the principal invaders. They were greatly influential in the colonising of York (Jorvik) and gained easy access along the river Ouse via the Humber estuary. York was the capital city of the Kingdom of Northumbria and would have been attractive to the Vikings with its flourishing community of trades people and merchants. The river Calder would have given the Vikings easy access to Wakefield as would the Aire to Leeds. There were first the years of tumult culminating in the conquest of York and then, although the Norwegian king Eric Bloodaxe lost the city in 954 AD, the Scandinavian influence continued and is said to have been dominant as late as 1000 AD. During these years York prospered and it is reckoned that it had around 10,000 people within about 200 acres. King Canute was a strong ruler from 1016 to 1035 and under him and under Edward the Confessor from 1042 to 1066, there was relative peace and a degree of stability which was unusual for those days.

There was therefore the opportunity for growth and development and the results are strikingly set out in the Domesday Book. It shows that nearly all the existing local towns and villages in the Ossett area were in being at the time of the Confessor. The relative peace and stability of the previous 150 to 200 years had been put to good use. The whole area was permanently settled and politically organised.

A survey by the Northern Archaeological Associates (NAA), Durham based consultancy in 2008 revealed evidence of early settlements in the Healey/Mitchell Laithes area of Ossett, close to the river Calder. The survey uncovered Neolithic period pottery and flint remains, evidence of Bronze Age burial grounds, remnants of Roman field systems and medieval sandstone quarries.

It seems likely that Ossett came into existence some time during the second half of the ninth century, possibly earlier, but most probably about 870 or 880 AD. The compilers of the Domesday Book referred to Ossett as Osleset and then Ossete two hundred years later. It has often been suggested that some chieftain named Osla gave his name to his sett or his home, thus giving rise to the name of Osleset, but an alternative theory is available and it relates to the meaning of the prefix Os.

In the old Norse language, the word As means a ridge; in Swedish Osar means a ridge, i.e. of a roof or a hill. The online dictionary defines Os and Osar as follows:

Os - Os-, noun.; pl. Osar. [Swedish] ridge, chain of hills

The conclusion drawn is that the prefix Os, or some variation of it was used by Viking invaders to indicate the position of one of their camps. It was the sett on a ridge of high ground and this certainly describes Ossett.

An additional point is the probable behaviour of any force of invaders coming up the rivers from the North Sea with the intention of attacking or colonising the Ossett district. At Castleford, they would divide their boats into two groups. One group would ascend as far as possible the River Aire, which would take them to Leeds. The other group would be able to ascend the River Calder as far as Wakefield and the two forces would then be able to make a sort of pincer attack, favoured by military men. Ossett's high ground would be the obvious point for both groups to meet and establish a defensive position. It would therefore be the camp or sett on the hill.

Another theory is that the name of Ossett perhaps stems from the Norse word "Ousel" meaning thrush, suggesting that it was a place frequented by thrushes. Sadly, all of this is unproven and although based on known facts, it does seem a more probable theory than the notion that there was once a person called Osla.

Constantine the Great was proclaimed Roman Emperor in York in 306 A.D. and there is a sculpture of Constantine in the grounds of York Minster.

Constantine the Great at York

Later on, he became the first Roman Emperor to adopt the Christian faith, although he was well into his forties by then. All of Constantine's sons adopted the faith of Christianity. However, in early 326 A.D. Constantine had his eldest son Crispus seized and poisoned to death at Pula in Croatia for treason.

In July 326 A.D., Constantine then had his third wife, the Empress Fausta killed at the behest of his mother Helena, reputedly for being unfaithful. Poor Fausta was left to die in an over-heated bath. So much for his Christian values.

From "Glimpses of Ossett's History" by John Pollard first published 1983 by the Ossett and District Historical Society

"In 1981 a party of tourists, which included people from Ossett, were travelling up the west coast of Norway by mail steamer when one of them tried to get into conversation with a dockside worker by addressing him in English. The tourist failed completely and feeling somewhat irritated by his inability to make himself understood, vented his displeasure by making some pointed and uncomplimentary remarks in his broadest Yorkshire dialect. The dockside worker promptly turned on him. He had not understood it all, but he had understood sufficient to make him resentful. Thereafter, when calling at other places on the Norwegian fiords, the party made careful use of broad Yorkshire and whilst not being able to hold conversations, they did discover quite a few words, which both they and the Norwegians understood; an interesting confirmation of the reality of the link between us."