Burley in Wharfedale village history

Burley Local History Group


A Brief History of Burley


by Margaret and Dennis Warwick

Lying in mid-Wharfedale between Ilkley and Otley, the village of Burley–in–Wharfedale and the associated hamlets of Burley Woodhead and Stead formed an eighteenth Century Township. The boundaries gave it a roughly lozenge shape. The longer axis running NE to SW from the river Wharfe to the boundary stone at Lanshaw Lad on the Burley Moor escarpment, is 5 Kms in length. The shorter axis running NW to SE is 2.5 Kms.

At the riverbank the height above sea level is 60 metres and Burley Moor reaches over 380 metres.

The slope along the SW to NE axis, from the moor to the river, is not even. It is a step–like slope, which is a consequence of the layers of hard and soft Millstone Grits. The surface was also altered by glaciers flowing from the NW in the Pleistocene Ice Age. After the ice melted large volumes of material carried by the ice were dumped unevenly. Generally this is stony clay which forms the surface of the valley under the escarpment. Streams flowing from the moor towards the river Wharfe have created the gently undulating slope on which the main village is built.


Bronze Age settlers, some three to four thousand years ago, probably preferred the moor tops. Burial mounds (tumuli) from that time have been found there. By Roman times, two thousand years ago, settlements were mainly in the valley. The Bur in Burley and the bor in Scalebor (similar in origin to burgh and borough) are possibly reminders of a small Roman fortification. The place names in this part of the Wharfe valley dating from post Roman times are mainly Anglo–Saxon in origin, though Vikings passed this way. The Domesday Book of 1087AD mentions Burley (Burghelai) as part of the Manor of Otley.


By the medieval period an irregular field pattern typical of mixed farming in the Dales developed. Much of the present woodland is a consequence of plantations, and the creation of hedgerows and field boundaries at this time.

The moorland tops and the steepest slopes have remained beyond the limits of cultivation at least since this time and have become areas of peat accumulation and typical upland vegetation, used as rough pasture for sheep. Mixed farming with cattle and sheep on meadows and upland pastures and some cultivation of cereals in suitable fields nearer the valley bottom was carried on with little change for centuries. There were some supporting trades such as smiths, farriers and millers, and some domestic textile working.

The village of Burley was centred on a small chapel, which was part of the parish of Otley. Near it was a corn mill on the riverside powered by a water wheel driven by the damming of a small stream from the moors. A manor house (Burley Hall), a smithy and an inn (formerly The Malt Shovel and now, after two changes of name, The Original Malt Shovel) were the other main buildings. It lay on the route from Skipton to Otley, the nearest market towns.


Before the 18th century the village had grown away from the central core to the west along that route, now called Main Street. There were farm houses and their adjoining barns and cottages as well as other houses. Several are 17th century in origin, like Dial House, dated 1690, and are still in occupation. Elsewhere in the township were scattered farms stretching up to the moors.

An old moorland track, possibly an old route avoiding the wet valley bottom, passed near to some of the upper farmsteads and a roadside inn (now the Hermit) and a few cottages formed the nucleus of Burley Woodhead. Stead also lies along this track.

Cotton mills were established alongside a small canal (goit) taking water from the Wharfe in the 1790s and this led to the development of an industrial village in the nineteenth century. In the 1830s nearly 400 operatives worked in these mills. Later after William Fison and William Edward Forster took over ownership of Greenholme Mills in 1850, the mills were extended and worsted yarn and cloth became the main products. There was employment for over 700 workers in the later nineteenth century, when the population reached 3000.

Smaller textile mills were also established at Woodhead, but employment was limited and all except for the Bleach Mill failed long before the end of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century the textile industry suffered from reduction in markets and investment. By the mid-1960s all local mills were disused but small businesses mainly of a sales or service nature have more recently located themselves in the old mill buildings. The building of the trunk road by-pass with good access to the site of Greenholme Mills may stimulate further development.


Much of the village character derives from the early settlement and its development in the 19th century, which established the streets, and buildings that lie within the Conservation Area. Transport was improved in the mid–nineteenth century when two companies built railways through Wharfedale. Apart from helping the movement of goods in and out of the village, they began to attract commuters to live in Burley while holding jobs in the West Riding conurbation. Regular bus services through the village in the twentieth century and the decline of employment in the mills turned the village into a dormitory.


At the beginning of the 20th century, what had been the grounds of an old house at Scalebor were bought by the West Riding County Council. On them they built Scalebor Park Hospital, which provided psychiatric care and treatment for over 200 fee paying patients. The hospital gained a great reputation under the direction of Drs Gilmour and Valentine. It became a National Health Service Hospital after World War II. Many people in Burley were employed there and this was very beneficial as the mills declined. Changes in National Health provision led to the closure of the hospital in the 1990s, since when the site has been developed as a residential area.


The after–effect of two world wars on the village is best seen in the replacement of some of the older cottages by Council houses. In the 1920s over 80 houses were built by the Burley Urban District Council, and in the 1950s Ilkley Urban District Council (taking over from Burley in 1937) built many more houses and flats. The population grew in the 1960s and 1970s as car ownership increased and this led to the significant enlargement of the built-up area as owner-occupiers moved into private estates. The 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s styles and materials provide a diversity, which combines into a pleasing whole.
The village now lies within the Bradford Metropolitan District Council, but has had its own statutory Parish Council since 2006.


The 2001 Census gives a total population of 6446, with the largest age groups being the 35 to 44 and 45 to 54 year olds. Burley is attracting people at present.

Despite the diversity and the changing social structure and culture, the village has a strong sense of community.


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