Friday, July 3, 2020

Pontefract Allsorts: How liquorice got its roots in Pontefract

Liquorice - whether you love or hate the taste, there's no denying the plant has long been synonymous with Pontefract. But how did a middle Eastern herb become embedded in our town's history? We've had a root through our liquorice collection and dug up some treasures. 

Liquorice was probably first brought to Pontefract either by medieval knights returning to the castle from the Crusades, or by the Dominican monks who settled at the neighbouring priory. Pontefract proved to be fertile ground for liquorice, the plant's long roots thriving in the deep loamy local soil. 

Liquorice fields in the Nevison area

Liquorice growing and harvesting in the Friarwood area

A spoonful of sugar

Prized at first for its medicinal properties, liquorice began to be grown across the area. The sap was extracted from the root and used to treat coughs and stomach complaints. By the 1700s, there were liquorice garths springing up all around and even the castle yard was being cultivated. Local chemists, the Dunhill family, rented the land there and used the castle cellars to store their harvested roots. 

It is George Dunhill who is credited with first adding sugar to liquorice to transform the medicine into the sweet delicacy we still know today. He is believed to have pioneered the production and marketing of the now iconic Pontefract Cake as a commercial confectionery.

Handstamp for marking Pontefract Cakes, Dunhills Ltd, early 20th century
A worker stamping Pontefract Cakes at W. R. Wilkinson & Co. Ltd, 1950s

And so Pontefract became inextricably linked with liquorice. By the 1900s, treats made in one of Pontefract's many factories were enjoyed by those with a sweet tooth all around the world. At the industry's height there were 13 factories in the town. The rival companies all produced a wide array of different liquorice variations: 


From 1887 Ewbanks' production was based at the Eagle Liquorice Works in Friarwood. The factory was surrounded by orchards. During the Second World War, Eagle Works suffered bad bomb damage and some production moved to other local companies.



John Hillaby established his Lion Liquorice Works, a four storey steam-powered factory, in 1850. The company grew its own crops and by 1893 had become the largest producer in the world. In 1925 they achieved a further claim to fame, producing the liquorice boot eaten by Charlie Chaplin in the film, Goldrush.

J. H. Addingley & Sons

Baghill Refinery was a three storey building boasting steam-powered machinery, offices, a warehouse and packing room, and mechanics and joinery shops.

W. R. Wilkinson & Co.

Originally started in 1884 at a malt kiln in Southgate, Wilkinson's expanded several times, first to the Britannia Works on Skinner Lane and then again in 1925 to a 'garden factory' in Monkhill, where employees enjoyed workers' housing, tennis courts and allotments, as well as outings to the seaside.

Robinson & Wordsworth

Founded in 1871, the company was based at Victoria Works. In 1893, the recently expanded factory welcomed the curator of Kew Museum, who visited to research liquorice cultivation. Robinson & Wordsworth also had a display at the Kew Botanic Gardens.



Eventually, Pontefract's prolific business began to exhaust the local crops. With supplies struggling to keep up with demand, the firms instead imported liquorice from Turkey and Spain. Liquorice is still affectionately known as Spanish by locals. By the end of the 19th century, most of Pontefract's liquorice fields were gone, although it continued to grow at Stump Cross until the mid 20th century. 

Liquorice growing near Stump Cross Lane in 1960s

Spade for harvesting liquorice root

Liquorice legacy

Over time, Pontefract's confectioners began to close, merge with one another, or be acquired by their larger rivals. Today, there are two producers remaining in the town. The German giant, Haribo, arrived in Pontefract in the 1970s when they first acquired a stake in Dunhills Ltd, the original pioneer of the Pontefract Cake. Tangerine Confectionery's roots in the town can be traced back to W. R. Wilkinson & Co.

Pontefract Museum's liquorice displays, including scales used by liquorice growers in the early 20th century

Wakefield Museums & Castles are very privileged to care for our large liquorice collection. We proudly display a selection of highlights at Pontefract Museum but there is even more to enjoy on our online catalogue - why not have a root around today yourself? Or get your teeth into our liquorice inspired jigsaw:
preview35pieceDunhills Pontefract Cakes

Friday, June 26, 2020

Rome From Home: The Bath House

Bathing was an important part of Roman life. Rome itself had nearly a thousand bath houses in the 4th century AD, the largest of which had room for 3,000 bathers. The Romans took this enthusiasm for bathing all across their Empire, including to Castleford.

Roman forts had a standard layout, from Hadrian’s Wall to the deserts of Egypt. And wherever possible this design included a bath house just outside the main fort for the soldiers to use. Hygiene was a key part of keeping them healthy and fit to fight. The leisure element was also important, especially for morale. The troops in Castleford had signed up for 25 years’ service and were hundreds of miles from home; many would never have returned home or seen their families again.

After the fort was demolished, the bath house was left standing and then kept running for over 200 years, becoming a valued asset for the new Roman town.

Illustration of Romans inside a bath house

Revealing the bath house

Castleford’s bath house was discovered in 1978 by Ron Jeffries, an enthusiastic local amateur archaeologist. It is next to (and partly underneath) the Savile Road / Church Street roundabout, so it couldn’t be completely excavated, but enough was found to be sure of its layout.

Amateur archaeologist, Ron Jeffries at a dig in Castleford

Digs revealed the almost complete ground plan of the Castleford bath house

It was in an annexe to the main fort and was originally built by and for the army. The whole building was built of brick and stone and probably decorated with statues. It would have been one of the more impressive buildings in town.

Clever engineering

Roman soldiers usually built their own barracks and forts but the bath house was a specialist project, probably built by professional engineers, not the local troops. We think this because the tiles in it are stamped with the mark of the 9th Legion Hispania, the main legionary unit based in York, rather than the 4th Cohort of Gauls, the unit based at Castleford.

The building itself was about 25 metres long and followed a standard design. Roman baths were more like Turkish baths than modern swimming pools, based on relaxation and perspiration. The first room you entered was the changing room. There were then three rooms that got hotter as you went on. The last of these probably had a hot bath in it. Finally there was a much larger cold water plunge pool after you left the hot room, made of a special concrete that looked like marble.

The rooms were heated by large furnaces, which piped hot air through a clever series of ducts under the floors and in the walls. Fresh water probably came from a spring, and the dirty water could be piped away to the nearby River Aire. A stone tablet dedicated to water nymphs suggests that the local spring was special, maybe having magical healing powers, making the baths even better.

Bathing and beauty

To get clean in a Roman bath you would have rubbed oil into your skin. Then as you got hotter and hotter, and started sweating, the dirt and sweat would have mixed with the oil. This mix of oil, dirt and sweat would then be scraped off with a special curved blunt blade. At the same time you could have other cosmetic and beauty treatments. These tweezers for plucking hairs were found in the bath house.

Fun and games

Roman bathing was about far more than just getting clean. It was also for relaxation and especially for socialising. There would have been drinks and snacks available while you chatted with friends, or networked and did some business with associates. A gaming counter found in the bath house shows you would also have played games and gambled.

Roman gaming counters and die, made from bone

You can have a go at bathing like a Roman at home. Join archaeologist, Sally Pointer, to find out how to make your own rose scented bathing oil, inspired by the Lagentium bath house.


Can you recreate the scene from inside the bath house? How long will it to take you to complete our Rome From Home jigsaw?

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Rome From Home: Discovering Lagentium

This week we are celebrating the fascinating story of Castleford’s past as the Roman fort and settlement, Lagentium, and sharing many of the treasures from our Roman Castleford collection. But how did these ancient objects come to be in Castleford Museum today? And, given that the modern town has been built on top of the Roman remains, how do we even know about Lagentium?

Archaeologists arrive

Although people had taken an interest in Castleford’s Roman origins as early as the 16th century, it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that any modern archaeological excavations took place. However, some chance finds were presented to the museum collection, then part of Castleford Library, in the 1920s and 1930s. This roof tile found on Carlton Street and an oil lamp discovered at Albion Street were some of the first Roman objects to be preserved in the collection. 

In the 1960s significant redevelopment work in the town led to the discovery of many more Roman objects. Finds made during work to build a new bus station and bowling alley prompted a new interest in Castleford’s Roman heritage and the first systematic excavations took place. Initially these were mainly carried out by amateur archaeologists such as the Castleford and District Historical Society, until the late 1970s when their valuable work was continued by full time archaeologists from the West Yorkshire Archaeological Unit. 

Volunteers excavating in Castleford

The excavations in the second half of the 20th century revealed the remains of Roman buildings and structures and uncovered many Roman items and thousands of further fragments of objects. These allowed experts to piece together a plan of what Roman Castleford had looked like and helped to build a picture of what life was like at the time. They revealed the existence of two forts and a nearby town. The finds were donated to the museum collection to be preserved. Many are on display today and allow us to tell the story of life in Lagentium.

The first fort, AD 71-86

Whilst the exact footprint of the first fort is still unknown, excavations have uncovered the remains of several buildings from inside the fort’s defences.

The discovery of leather fragments believed to be from soldiers’ tents suggests that the first Romans in Castleford didn’t have permanent sleeping areas. However, there is evidence in the form of foundations and post-holes to suggest that the army did go on to construct barracks and other timber buildings, including a granary to store the vital supplies of grain needed to feed the troops.

Archaeologists excavating near Back Bank Street discovered a large building believed to be at the centre of the fort. It had several rooms arranged around a central courtyard. A building of this size in a key location could have been the army’s local headquarters but the mix of military and domestic items found at the site suggest it was more probably the house of an army commander.

Foundation trenches for the timber walls of the house

A load of rubbish?

We owe lots of what we have learned about the first fort at Lagentium to a rubbish dump! Near to Church Street, a pile of Roman waste had been preserved due to waterlogging. Normally, organic material would have rotted away but here archaeologists found leather remains, including these remarkably well preserved shoes.


The volume of leather offcuts discovered here along with metal remnants suggests it may have been the site of an army workshop or fabrica.

The many other finds also provide an invaluable insight into life in the fort. There is evidence also of medical provision, army administration and soldiers’ leisure time.

A scoop or probe, possibly used in the fort's hospital

The second fort, c. AD 86

The first Lagentium fort was eventually demolished and the ground at the site levelled in preparation to build a new set of defences. Archaeologists have been able to identify the size, layout and location of the second fort at Lagentium because their excavations in the 1980s uncovered evidence of the fort’s defences, including ditches, ramparts, a gate and parts of the Roman road network. From this they have worked out that the fort stretched 8.4 acres from Back Bank Street in the north to Carlton Street in the south, and from Bradley Street in the east to Church Street in the west. Within these defences, they have identified the site of barrack blocks, warehouses and stables.

Artist's impression of how the gate and defences may have looked

Archaeologists studied the pattern of post-holes for the timber uprights.

The excavations revealed the existence of many timber buildings but also showed signs of a move within the second fort to more substantial structures, including stone foundations, tile roofs and even a large granary with stone walls.

Excavating the vicus

As well as the two forts, archaeological excavations have also revealed the existence of a nearby civilian town, or vicus. The town would have provided the soldiers of the army garrison with goods and leisure services. Over time though, it grew into a significant trading centre and an important staging post on the Roman Empire’s message network. It seems to have been ideally located for this, focused mainly on the road leading to the River Aire crossing point.

Plan showing the vicus to the south west of the fort on the Roman road
Archaeologists have discovered that the vicus appears to have been arranged according to a planned regular layout. The buildings were constructed in rows to a standard size and floorplan, probably decided by the army. In these uniform buildings were workshops for craftsmen and shops for traders.

Life of luxury

There is evidence of significant redevelopment work in the vicus following the army’s eventual exit from the fort. The original timber buildings were replaced with larger premises and sometimes stone structures. Archaeologists have been able to identify gravel pathways that linked the buildings to each other and to the main road, and have even uncovered rut marks from the cartwheels that travelled over them.

Unlike other Roman settlements, Lagentium continued to develop after the garrison left, thriving as a manufacturing and commercial centre in the early 2nd century. Excavations of the vicus produced large quantities of luxury items. The high standard of the finely crafted jewellery and metalwork, and imported glassware, kitchenware and tableware paints a picture of a civilised population that had embraced Roman lifestyles. The discovery of many fragments of vessels known as amphorae tells us that the townspeople were enjoying food and drink from the continent. Amphorae would have been used to import fish sauce and olive oil from Spain and wine from France.

An example of an amphora

It is also clear that Castleford had extensive trading links. Over 700 fragments of samian ware, a shiny red glazed crockery from France, were found in a single location. The sheer size of this find makes it one of the most important discoveries of samian ware in Britain and suggests that the excavated building was most probably a shop or warehouse, from which the surrounding area acquired its sophisticated tableware for impressing dinner guests at special occasions.

Examples of samin ware reconstructed from excavated fragments
Thanks to the excavations of the late 20th century, we are able to better understand life in Castleford at the height of its Roman history. At Castleford Museum today we are proud to tell this story and to display objects that our predecessors in Lagentium crafted, bought and sold - items that they wore, used for eating and drinking, for bathing and cosmetics, or for fun and relaxation. Only some of the Roman area has been excavated so far and there is yet more to discover in future.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Rome From Home: Made in Castleford

Even many hundreds of years before the Industrial Revolution, Castleford was an important manufacturing centre.

Made for the military

Roman Castleford began in about 71 AD as a fort built as part of the violent invasion and conquest of northern England. A garrison of 600 soldiers was based in the fort and very quickly their money attracted local traders. This usually happened at Roman forts - a small settlement grew up nearby that provided the troops with food, drink, entertainment and so on. 

When the civilian area outside the Castleford fort was excavated, it revealed a number of hearths, lots of remains from smelting, and bits of military kit. This clearly suggests that there were workshops making and repairing equipment for soldiers. They would certainly have been doing this for the local garrison but maybe also for the army supply network more widely.

Illustration showing how the inside of a Roman military workshop or fabrica might have looked.

Flourishing after the fort

These workshops were probably why the town continued to thrive after the fort was abandoned around 100 AD. It was perfectly normal for the Roman army to build forts and then demolish them when the area around was pacified and a large occupying garrison was no longer needed. But when this happened, the settlements alongside the forts usually disappeared too, as there was no more need for their shops and services.

Castleford is unusual because, when the fort was vacated, the town continued to prosper and even flourish. Wooden buildings were replaced with stone ones and expensive statues were placed in the town. Part of this success may have come from its handy location; it was a port trading with the wider Empire including the Mediterranean, and a convenient stop on the main road between London and York. But it was also an important manufacturing centre.

Mass production

Fragments of spoon moulds found in Castleford

One specialist industry in Roman Castleford was spoon-making. Hundreds of bits of moulds made from local clay have been found. These moulds would have been bundled together so that up to 16 spoons could be made at once by pouring molten bronze into them. Once the metal had cooled, the clay moulds were broken open to get at the spoons, and the broken pieces of the moulds thrown away. Castleford is the only place in Britain where this kind of complex mould has been found, and the only spoon-making centre in the Western Roman Empire.

Castleford was also a centre for making enamelled metal objects, often objects connected to the army. The bronze objects were cast in distinctive clay moulds which left depressions in the metal. These depressions were then filled with a special paste which turned into a glassy enamel when heated. The things made were a fusion of Roman metalwork with British decoration, producing a striking, colourful look.

Souvenir shopping

Bronze fibula brooch

This half-finished brooch found by archaeologists gives us evidence about some of the objects made in Castleford. For the Romans brooches were functional, used by everyone, including soldiers, to fasten clothing before buttons and zips were invented. But brooches were also decorative and some were even souvenirs. The bright colours of the enamel would have been very striking. Another brooch found recently in Lincolnshire had an inscription on it saying it came from Lagentium, the Roman name for Castleford.

The Romans liked these sort of souvenirs, and we know of some unusual cups and bowls with the names of forts on Hadrian’s Wall on them. One example found recently was the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan.

Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England / CC BY ( 

Interestingly these too are enamelled metal objects - were they made in Castleford? We know the Romans were definitely making similar things in Castleford because, as well as spoon moulds, the moulds for elaborate enamelled bronze water flasks have also been found. You can see a complete flask of this type in a museum in Vienna. It’s fascinating to think that products made in Roman Castleford may have travelled to the continent.

If you have enjoyed finding out about Roman Castleford's manufacturing heritage, why not have a go at recreating the fabrica scene in our digital jigsaw? Or even follow our vlog to create your own brooch at home.

preview35pieceInterior Workshop

Friday, June 5, 2020

Growing for Wellbeing

An introduction to the garden from our historic herb vlogs by Ian Downes, Programme and Events Officer

My day job involves organising the major events at Pontefract Castle, alongside the programme of talks and lectures, informal learning activities, and helping to interpret the ruins of our two castle sites.

I like to spend my spare time in my garden, which is about a quarter of an acre, filled with nearly 400 herbs and useful plants. It has everything from apples, bananas, tomatoes and blueberries, to chives and rue.  This keeps me busy - weeding, keeping things tidy and of course the addictive bit, finding new plants!

The herb garden

All this work is what keeps me physically and mentally healthy.  Just last weekend I dug 16 holes for courgette, pumpkin squash and tromboncino plants; cut down a stump from an old hedge we are taking down; and potted up 50 baby plants I had grown from seed.  In the heat this was quite an achievement, and all that’s before you eat anything from the garden.

The veg garden

Young plants growing in the greenhouse

Mentally, it gives me inconsequential things to worry about, pleasant things to think about, and a nice environment to just sit down quietly, something that has become all the more important during lockdown.  

Dragonfly spotted in the garden

The garden also sits nicely alongside my day job.  As an archaeologist, it’s often interesting to watch out for the things I am digging up.  Over the three years we have lived here, we have found numerous pieces of dressed stone, fragments of medieval pottery and Victorian coins. Only this weekend I found a perfume bottle with a Bakelite lid and a shard of 16th to 17th century pottery! 

16th-17th century pottery shard

The links go deeper than that though. Many of the herbs have traditional uses, particularly the medicinal ones, and some date back to Roman times. A few would have been grown in the herb gardens in and around Pontefract. One that Pontefract is famous for and grows really well in our garden? Liquorice!

Liquorice growing in the garden


Recently that has meant I have used the time in lockdown to record a series of vlogs about the uses of herbs in the past, with the herb garden as the studio. We are looking at herbs that might have been used in Pontefract Castle.  To give you an idea of what the garden is like, here is a quick tour.

For more from Ian's garden, check out the Medieval Herbs playlist on our YouTube channel.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Enjoy the Family Friendly Museum from Home...

... and nominate us for an award!

Nominations are now open for the Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum Award From Home.

Charity Kids in Museums is inviting families and museums to share what they think is the best virtual activity created by a museum, gallery, historic house or heritage site. They are celebrating the most creative ideas keeping families occupied and entertained during lockdown and we hope you might have loved one of our activities enough to put us forward!

Not had a go at our resources yet? Head over to our Activities at Home page to see what you’re missing! We’ve picked out a few highlights here to get you started.

We miss welcoming you all to our museums so our team have been beavering away to bring the collections to you here on our blog and on our social media. With games, quizzes, crafts, crosswords and more, we hope you’ll find something for everyone this half term and beyond.

Although the kids can’t come and play in our kitchen at Wakefield Museum right now, they can have fun colouring in our Victorian range, or spotting the differences in some retro toys that they might recognise from the museum.

Our friendly local dragon, Ilbert misses showing you and your Mini Museum Explorers around Pontefract Castle and wants to say hello online instead! You can also check out our fun paper craft activities inspired by the castle. What will you make first – a Tudor kitchen, a siege cannon, or your very own fiery dragon?!

Are there any budding curators in your family? Have a go at designing your own displays inspired by Pontefract Museum and show us how it’s done!

If you’re missing Castleford Museum, how about making a Roman soldier finger puppet inspired by the town’s history as an important fort. Or follow in the footsteps of local photographer Jack Hulme and start snapping! You can discover Jack’s fantastic photos, have a go at taking your own, and get an Arts Award Discover for your efforts with our new specially designed resource pack.

And if that’s not enough to keep you going, for even more fun with our weird and wonderful collections, check out our regular creative challenges on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Dig the paints and crayons out for #WFMuseumsArtFun on Mondays and get the creative juices flowing with our #PonteCastleBeCreative and #WFMuseumsBeCreative writing prompts on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

After you’ve had fun with our collections, if you would like to support us and share an online activity you have particularly enjoyed with your family, please nominate us on the Kids in Museums website: 

The deadline for nominations is 5pm on 30 June 2020. 

Thank you! 

An expert panel will meet in mid-July to whittle entries down to a shortlist. These activities will be reviewed by family judges. Their feedback, combined with the views of an expert panel, will decide the award winners.

For more information visit the Kids in Museums website: