It’s in the very nature of this green and pleasant land
you’re bound to find a watercourse runs very close at hand—
our rivers and canals are full of good ol’ English rain,
but if you come to Bradford you will look for one in vain!
From somewhere up near Allerton, I tumble down to town
but the pleasure ends near Four Lane Ends as I’m shoved underground.
And what goes on as I flow on
nobody gives a damn
Instead of being a chuckling stream
a sewer’s what I am!
Lyrics from “Bradford Beck,” composed and sung by Eddie Lawler, 2002.
Bradford grew incredibly during the Industrial Revolution, exploding from a population of just 13,264 in the 1801 census to 104,000 by 1850. Historically a center for Yorkshire-region wool, it had started to become the national center for woolens and worsteds in the 18th century as new mechanical processing replaced the hand-spinning techniques that were still guild-protected in the older wool centers to the south. As steam power began to be used around 1800, Bradford and its neighbor Leeds also found themselves to be perfectly positioned “where the coal supply of south Yorkshire [met] the wool supply of north Yorkshire.” By 1819, Bradford was considered the “centre and principal seat of the stuff trade in the kingdom.”
The wool trade continued to centralize around Bradford and Leeds throughout the 19th century, each specializing in certain types of production—Bradford’s specialty was made clear by its nickname “Worstedopolis.” As the processing centers for most of Britain’s wool, it would be hard to overstate the importance of these two cities to the economy of the Empire. “Only light and frivolous persons,” one historian wrote sternly, “will consider wool as too slight a basis for the foundation stone of the empire on which the sun never sets.” Wool had long been the country’s chief export, and poetic descriptions from prior centuries had called it “the flower and strength and revenue and blood of England” and “eminently the foundation of English riches.” Wool from the British Isles had been valued on the Continent since Roman days, and since the 14th century the official seat of the Lord Chancellor of England has been the ‘Woolsack,’ quite literally a sack filled with wool as a symbol the nation’s trade and wealth. Through the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th, Bradford would have a key role in producing that wealth.