It is within the Metropolitan Borough of the City of Bradford and before 1974 was an urban district in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The town forms a continuous urban area with Bradford. It has a population of approximately 28,162.
The name 'Shipley' derives from the Old English scīp ('sheep', a Northumbrian dialect form, contrasting with the Anglian dialect form scēp which underlies modern English sheep) and lēah ('open ground, such as meadow, pasture, or arable land'). Thus it means 'sheep-clearing' or 'sheep-pasture'.
Its early history relies on the records of a succession of Lords of the Manor, not all of whom were in permanent residence. The rolls of the manor court have been missing since the 18th century, leaving the records incomplete. In the 12th century, 'Adam, son of Peter', an early Lord of the Manor, granted grazing and iron ore mining rights to the monks of Rievaulx Abbey. Through the Middle Ages the Lords were the 'Earls of Ormande' (sic), possibly the Irish Earls of Ormond, followed by the Gascoigne family. In 1495, Rosamund Gascoigne, a daughter of one of the William Gascoignes who held the title, married Robert Rawson, thought to be related to the Rawson family of Bradford, after whom one of the city's markets is named. Their son, William, married a cousin, Agnes Gascoigne, and through the marriage the Rawson family inherited the manor in 1570.
The Rawsons lived at Over Hall known as the Manor House, on the site of the current town hall. The manor estates extended to Northcliff. The family had interests in Halifax and moved there in the early 18th century, retaining their Shipley estates until the last male heir died in 1745.
By the 19th century the Rawson estates and those of the Fields, another prominent land-owning family, had become the property of the Earl of Rosse who had extensive holdings in Heaton. His legacy has endured in the name of a public house on Saltaire Roundabout, and Rossefield School in Heaton. Of the lower orders at this time not much is known, but there was relief housing offered at the town's expense near Crowghyll.
Shipley was shaped largely by the Industrial Revolution and, in particular, the growth of the textile industry. Textile manufacture dates from pre-industrial times. As the place name indicates, Shipley had a history as sheep grazing land, so wool was plentiful, and the River Aire was a ready source of water for powering water mills and cleaning processes. There was a fulling mill in Shipley by 1500 and two more by 1559. Another mill was built by the Dixon family on the banks of the Aire in 1635. New Mill on the far side of Hirst Wood was built in the 1740s and by the late 18th century between 9,000 and 10,000 pieces of broadcloth were being fulled annually at Shipley's mills. Much work was undertaken in workers' which had 'loomshops' for spinning yarn. Home workshops were once a common site along the River Aire and often had external flights of steps. Examples can be seen in the cottages at Jane Hills along the canal in Saltaire.
The industrial era ended cottage industry. Providence Mill, one of the first steam driven mills was built for Denby Bros. in 1796. Other spinning mills followed, including Ashley Mill, Prospect Mill, Red Beck Mill on Heaton Beck (c. 1815), Well Croft Mill (c. 1840s) and Whiting Mill on Briggate.
The smaller mills gave way to larger premises which could combine all the processes of worsted production on one site. The first was Joseph Hargreaves' Airedale Mills (demolished 1970s), Salts Mill (built 1853 and now a gallery and restaurant complex), an enlarged Well Croft Mill (demolished 1950s) and Victoria Mills near the canal... Hargreaves employed 1,250, Salt initially 2,500 and by 1876 total employment in the mills was 6,900.
The growth in textile production stimulated the growth of associated supply industries. Other local employers included loom makers, Lee and Crabtree, WP Butterfield's galvanised containers and J. Parkinson and Sons machine tool makers.
The other major effect of industrialisation was the vast expansion in housing stock. Titus Salt's Saltaire is an example of a model village, and Hargreaves had cottages built for his workers around the town centre and his mill. He built 92 back-to-back houses along Market Street and Central Avenue in an area which came to be called Hargreaves Square or The Square. The houses were built by filling in the old courtyards. The population of the township grew from 1,214 in 1822 to just over 3,000 in 1851 to 10,000 by 1869.
It was then the landowning families – the Rosses, the Crompton-Stansfields and the Wainmans – took advantage of the demand for housing by selling their less productive land on Low Moor and High Moor. Houses for the better off were built in Sunny Bank and Hall Royd in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s. Kirkgate was lined with villas from the 1860s, some of which still stand. Middle class houses were built in the Nab Wood and Moorhead districts. In 1870 a tranche of land in Moorhead was sold by the Countess of Rosse to build five streets of terraces. The public house on Saltaire Roundabout that bears her name dates from that time.
The decline of the textile industry saw the demolition of many mills, only Salts Mill and Victoria Mills remain and have been converted to other uses.
Of more concern in the immediate post-war period was the deteriorating housing stock. In the 1950s, the back-to-backs of Hargreaves' Square were condemned as slums and the site redeveloped. The redevelopment removed several historic buildings – Shipley Old Hall (1593), at the junction of Kirkgate and Manor Lane and of which a few fragments of roof drainage and a roof truss survive in Crowghyll Park, Shipley Hall (1734), which stood at the junction of Market Street and Otley Road became the headquarters of Windhill Cooperative Society and possibly Hudson Fold House (1629). Of the major Victorian town centre buildings, only the Old Bradford Bank (now Barclays) and Sun Hotel remain. The slums were replaced with low-rise modern retail outlets, a central square serves as an outdoor market and an underground indoor market is situated beneath a tall, brutalist market hall tower which is a visible landmark for many miles around. Until recently the tower had a 'man' striking a bell to mark the hours.
A second phase of clearance in 1978 saw the construction of Asda, a library, swimming pool and health centre. Croft House (1729), a stone built farmhouse which was converted to a school and the subsequently used as the Labour Party headquarters was a casualty of this development. By 1970 2,900 slum houses had been demolished.
The Otley and Leeds Roads were widened in the early 1970s, at the expense of the Fox and Hounds Hotel after which Shipley's main road junction, Fox Corner, was named.