Kirklees Cousins – Archers of Ossett

The talk for the Society’s meeting 7th May was provided by Christine Widdall, a photographer, archivist and author. Her maiden name was Archer and was the basis for her research into the origins of this name and the eventual link with Ossett. With the aid of a wonderful set of photos, maps and historical drawing, Christine was able to illustrate the origins of this name from the Norman Conquest to today’s main concentration of Archers in the West Riding and London.

The Bayeaux Tapestry clearly illustrates the use of archers that William the Conquerer used in 1066. This led to Edward I to make a ruling that all males from the age of 11 to 60 train in archery which he used extensively in his conquest of Wales in the 14th century. Long bows made of yew and which had a range of about 240 yards, were later effective at Agincourt when the English had an overwhelming victory over the French in the Hundred Years War.

It was mainly during this period that surnames became widely used that often reflected the skills or craft of an individual. Christine showed an extract taken from the Wakefield Manor Rolls in which the name Archer crops up several times. Ossett even has a place named The Butts, these being a site set aside for archery practice in most Medieval villages and towns.

By the 16th century Parish Registers made researching family history a lot easier and Christine was able to trace the Archers and their links with Ossett. A 10 times Grandfather has an entry from 1557. By the 17th century it was noted that the Ossett Archers were blacksmiths, who often had many other roles including being an Undertaker, a doctor even a Magistrate. A John Archer, by 1757, became sufficiently wealthy to become a landowner. New skills were developed by succeeding generations of Archers which included mechanical engineering. It was during the Napoleonic Wars that one of the Archers ran into trouble with the law for creating and then selling a machine used in the textile trade to the French. This was illegal.

However, these new skills developed by members of the family during this early period of the Industrial Revolution, led to a breakthrough in the shoddy and mungo aspects in textiles in the West Riding and in particular in Batley and Dewsbury. Business in the manufacture of machinery used in shredding and carding even extended to New York and other parts of the USA.

Matters did not always run smoothly for the next generation of the Archers when one, Robert, developed some form of mental illness and who was to become an inmate in the relatively newly built West Riding Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield. Later in the early 20th century Christine’s grandfather George, who left school at 12 and worked in the family business in the manufacture of blankets. He was only five- foot- tall and during World War One, when conscription became compulsory for those between 18 to 41 in 1916, George became a member of the newly formed Bantam Regiment which took in all males who were between 5 foot and 5 foot 3 inches. He eventually fought in France at Passchendaele under terrifying and horrible conditions and was wounded twice. But he survived and Christine has fond memories of her Grandfather and particularly the trips to Blackpool with him.

This was an extremely informative and interesting tale and one that will surely encourage family historians in pursuing further their research into the origin and history of their surname.