Between 1066, when the De Laci (or De Lacy) patriarch had come to the country with William the Conqueror, and 1311, when the last heir of the family died, the entire region under which we walked had been the estate of the De Lacis. The region was conducive to sheep farming and many of their tenants and burgesses raised sheep. In the first recorded use of the Bradford Beck to power wool-processing machinery, the De Lacis built a water-powered fulling mill, of which their many sheep-herding tenants and burgesses were permitted free use. Fulling was a difficult process of agitating and beating wool cloth to both lock the fibers together and to clean them; it was a vital finishing step for cloth woven or knitted from yarn, and was even more important in the process of making more primitive felted cloth.
The labor-saving water mill was the first step in the centralization of the region’s wool productions. Along with a mill for grinding grain (also built by the De Lacis, and powered by a waterwheel on the Beck), it was the focal point for a slow agglomeration of sheep-farmers and others into a village that would eventually grow into the world’s largest center for processing wool. By the early 16th century, Bradford had already begun to grow on the basis of its wool and cloth production. “[It is] a pretty, quick, market town….It standeth much by clothing,” the writer John Leland wrote in his Itinerary after a visit in 1536.
In many respects, Bradford was ideally located in terms of its natural resources. The Bradford Beck, though the largest, was not the only stream serving the town; there were more than a dozen tributaries that fed into it, ranging in size from the large Bowling Beck to small streams known as “sykes.” As in Nottingham, this plethora of watercourses assisted in irrigation and in raising livestock, and because they were generally fast-flowing, with large vertical drops from the surrounding hills, these streams also easily served to power watermills. The many streams also helped in washing wool, a process that required constantly moving water to carry away the large deposits of grease, lanolin, and dirt that accumulated on sheep. More importantly, the water of the region was particularly soft, which was ideal for washing wool. Along with these natural advantages, “the persevering industry of the inhabitants, and the abundant supplies of water-power, of coal, and of building stone….maintained Bradford in its position as one of the great manufacturing towns of West Riding,” wrote the historian Thomas Baines about 17th- and early 18th-century Bradford.
However, Bradford lacked a navigable watercourse. The Beck was rapid but shallow, despite its many tributaries. Leeds was less than ten miles away from Bradford, but it was connected to the coast by the large River Aire, and this was probably a factor in the huge success of its cloth market—described by Daniel Defoe in 1724 as “a Prodigy of its Kind, and perhaps not to be equaled in the World.”
Doubtless inspired by the success of its neighbor, Bradford began two ambitious projects in the 1770s: the construction of Piece Hall, where weavers and merchants could buy and sell “pieces” of finished cloth, and the Bradford Canal, which would connect the city to the River Aire and to the Liverpool & Leeds Canal. Piece Hall, finished in 1773, was one of the first dedicated marketplace buildings of its kind in the country, though soon similar venues would be built in many other cities as well. Even more important was the Bradford Canal, completed in 1774. It ran four miles to the Aire, and was probably the most vital infrastructure investment that Bradford could have made for its future. Via the Aire, the canal connected to the Humber Estuary on the east coast, and in 1816, the completion of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal connected it with the Liverpool’s port on the west coast as well. The water of the Bradford Beck was diverted into the canal to fill it, and the cheap waterborne shipping the canal provided—on Bradford Beck water—was in a large part what paved the way for the explosion of population and industry over the next seventy-five years.