Birstall is a large village in the metropolitan borough of Kirklees, West Yorkshire, England and situated roughly 6 miles south-west of Leeds. It features a quaint triangular Victorian marketplace, which replaced an earlier market on High Street in the Georgian area of the village further up the hill. There is still a market on Thursdays.
Situated centrally between Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield and Wakefield close to the M62 motorway, Birstall has always benefited from good transport links but more recently has seen massive growth because of the expansion of Leeds resulting in a growth of commuters wishing to live in more rural surroundings. At its outskirts, there is also a retail park featuring an IKEA store, Toys R Us, Next and Showcase Cinemas complex.
Birstall does not feature in the Domesday Book but is alluded to as one of two main settlements within Gomersal, and was listed in 'Pigot's National Commercial Directory for 1828-29' as one of the four villages which make up the township of Gomersal.
Prior to 1937, Birstall had its own Urban District Council when financial discrepancies forced an unpopular merger with the UDC of neighbouring Batley. Just over 30 years later, this, in turn was merged into Kirklees when the metropolitan councils were formed.
The town has a reputation for discretion and silence. Locals insist that it is because no Birstall Luddites were ever arrested.
Birstall's name means either "the fortified place" or "the place where the fort is". It is popularly thought that the original location of the Burgh-Stall (Burgh meaning a fortification and Stall meaning place) is where the St Peters Church is located. However it is more probable that the Church was built at the bottom of an ancient hill fort site. The church site was, in fact, built above a sharp bend on the Birstall Beck, below Gomersall, pre-Conquest known as Guthmers Hahl or (a nook or corner of land). This area is also thought to be an Anglo-Saxon burial ground.
The hill fort itself would have been situated high above the village, to one side of the present-day Raikes Lane, which heads towards Gildersome, and onto Leeds. In prehistoric days, trackways ran in various directions from one British settlement to another, one such settlement being on the top of Birstall Hill. This site was chosen for its central location amongst the nearby waterways and its accessibility to and from other nearby hill forts, such as Castle Hill at Almondbury in Huddersfield and Barwick-in Elmet, near Leeds. Following the course of Fieldhead Lane towards Drighlington is the Roman Road of Tong Street. This location would give Birstall a great geographical advantage, making it within easy reach of the main thoroughfares of ancient Yorkshire.
A Roman tiled mosaic was unearthed at Birstall Smithies, a former early industrial slag smelting site, during excavations in 1965. This and a hoard of Roman coins discovered at the foot of Carr Lane, on what was then Birstall Recreation ground indicate quite succinctly as to the prehistoric origins of Birstall. These coins, which were discovered in the 18th century, dated from 192 to 268 AD.
A quarter of a mile up the hill from Birstal on Leeds Road, there was once a Roman Watch Tower. This observation point was built on the Ridge or "Brae" of the hill. One side overlooked the Birstall area, while the other looked downwards from Howden Clough and the Valley towards upland Morley. This Watchtower was known in the early 20th century to the local inhabitants as the Brass Castle, a corruption of Brae Castle. It followed the line of other such structures built in West Yorkshire, atop prominent projecting ridges.
Moving further forward in time, but only a few hundred yards in location, there is the site of Moat Hill. This also just off Leeds Road was once the site of an important meeting place. An Anglo-Saxon parliament would meet here several times a year to discuss laws and "mete" out punishment. For the word moat (meet?) is a corruption of an ancient word, pronounced "mute", meaning a meeting place for official decisions. There were only a handful of these places in Anglo-Saxon Britain, with Birstall having been host to one of them. Others were in Scotland and at Tynwald Hill, on the Isle of Man, which still meets annually to this day, and forms the historic place of Parliament for that independent island.
Birstall is most famously the birthplace of Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of Oxygen amongst many other things. Priestley was tutored extensively by the then Vicar of Birstall, a highly educated Edinburgh man with a keen interest in science. He was also a pupil at Batley Grammar School for Boys, founded in 1612 by the Rev. William Lee, and the school still remains on Carlinghow Hill (approximately one mile from Birstall).
Birstall enjoyed prosperity even before the Industrial Revolution, being within a small area that was a centre of excellence for the English white cloth industry. However, the Industrial Revolution saw massive growth, and the architecture of the period still dominates today. The wider area became known as the Heavy Woollen District, although the decline in textile production has led to a decline in its usage; it is still used in local sport however. Most notable of the features of this period is the cobbled market place sporting a statue of Priestley, which was erected in 1912 by public subscription and sculpted by Frances Darlington. It is one of very few pieces of her work on public display.
The local council's area committee has recently invested £900,000 in refurbishing the Birstall marketplace and "regenerating" the village after a long, hard campaign by locals. The refurbishments are now complete with most of the original cobbles being taken away and only the odd few remaining. The statue of Joseph Priestley wasn't moved and is still in its original place. (See below, Town Centre Upgrade.)
Birstall features the picturesque St Peter's church dating to the time of Henry VIII, although the original tower is much earlier and may have been part of the original "Burgh Stall" or "Fortified Place". A family reconstitution of the parish registers of St Peter's Birstall (1595–1812) was undertaken by Harvey Thwaite, and is one of the group of twenty-six family reconstitution studies that have been extensively used by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure.
Anyone interested in the history of Birstall should pay a visit to the Black Bull Inn, situated directly behind St Peter's church on Kirkgate. The pub has dozens of photographs of the village, most dating from around the 1900 to 1930 period, and its upstairs room once housed a debtors' Court room for Birstall and Batley.
Birstall is known for its large retail areas adjacent to Junction 27 of the M62, Birstall Shopping Park (also referred to as West Yorkshire Retail Park), although most of the business' on the park (including Ikea and the Showcase Cinema) claim to be trading in Leeds. The town at one stage contained a large night club called 'Barcelona', however this closed down and is now a DW Sports shop and fitness club. In addition to Birstall Shopping Park there is the Junction 27 Retail Park, which specialises in bulky goods and electronics and is under different ownership to Birstall Shopping Park.