Wath can trace its existence back to Norman times, having an entry in the Domesday Book as 'Wad'. For hundreds of years it remained a quiet rural settlement astride the junction of the old Doncaster-Barnsley and Rotherham-Pontefract roads, the latter a branch of Ryknield Street. North of the town was the ford of the River Dearne by this road that gave the town its name: the origin of its name has been linked to the Latin vadum and the Old Norse vath (ford or wading place). The town received its Royal Charter in 1312 – 13 entitling it to hold a weekly Tuesday market and an annual two-day fair, but these were soon discontinued. The market was revived in 1814.
Until the mid-19th century the town was home to a racecourse of regional importance, linked to the estate at nearby Wentworth; the racecourse later fell into disuse although traces of the original track can easily be found between Wath and Swinton and its memory is left in local street names. There also was a pottery at Newhill, close to deposits of clay, although this always lived under the shadow of the nearby Rockingham Pottery in Swinton. Around the turn of the 19th century the poet and newspaper editor James Montgomery, resident in Wath at that time, described it as "the Queen of villages". This rural character was to change rapidly in the 19th and 20th century with the development of the deep mining industry.
The town lies within the South Yorkshire Coalfield and high quality bituminous coal had been dug out of outcrops and near-surface seams in primitive bell pits for many hundreds of years. Several high-grade coal seams are close to the surface in this area of South Yorkshire, including the prolific Barnsley and Parkgate seams. The industrial revolution and consequent massive increase in demand for coal led to a rapid industrialisation of the area in the 19th and early 20th century. The population of the area swelled and the local infrastructure was developed for the coal industry. The local economy became overly reliant on this one single industry; this was to store up problems for the future.
The Dearne and Dove Canal, which was opened in stages from 1798 to 1804 to access the local collieries on the southern side of the Dearne Valley, passed through the town just to the north of the High Street on a large embankment and then turned north into the valley; this wide section was known locally as the 'Bay of Biscay'. The canal finally closed in 1961 after many years unused and in poor repair. Much of the line of the canal in the town has since been used for new roads, one called 'Biscay Way'.
By the 20th century, heavy industry was evident in the area with many large, busy collieries operating. Wath Main and Manvers Main were the two usually associated with Wath. After the Second World War the collieries clustered around Manvers were developed into a large colliery complex, coal preparation, coal products and coking plant, which were not only visible, but also detectable by nose from miles around.
Rail took over from the canal as a means of transporting coal out of the area, and Wath-upon-Dearne became a railfreight centre of national importance. One of the biggest and, for its time, most modern railway marshalling yards in the UK, the Wath marshalling yard was built north of the town in 1907. It was one of the eastern ends of the trans-Pennine Manchester-Sheffield-Wath electrified railway (also known as the Woodhead Line), a project which spanned the Second World War, and was in part justified by the need to transport large amounts of coal mined in the Wath area to customers in North-West England.
Wath once had three railway stations, all on Station Road – Wath Central, Wath (Hull and Barnsley) and Wath North in order of distance from the town centre. This most distant station was the last to close in 1968 as a part of the Beeching Axe. The town no longer has a direct rail link, although there has been talk of opening a station on the Sheffield-Wakefield-Leeds line at Manvers, roughly a mile from the town centre.
The decline of coal
The local coal industry was at the forefront of the sudden dramatic decline of the British coal mining industry, which was precipitated by a change of government economic policy in the early 1980s. This had very severe knock-on effects in the many reliant local industries, and caused much local hardship. The 1985 miners' strike was sparked by the impending closure of Cortonwood Colliery in Brampton Bierlow, a neighbouring village often considered a part of Wath. Along with the whole of the Dearne Valley, Wath was classified as an impoverished area and received much public money, including European funds. These were put into regenerating the area from the mid-nineties onward causing a certain amount of economic revival, and changing the character of the area to be more rural as large areas of ex-industrial land to the north of the town which were once collieries and railway marshalling yards were turned back into scrubland and countryside, dotted with light industrial and commercial office parks. This regeneration has now progressed such that the reclaimed countryside, as it still classified as brownfield land, has been built over with various industrial and commercial parks, and large housing developments have also been started.