Birstall’s name is derived from the Old English byrh and stall meaning a fortified site. The town is not mentioned in the Domesday Book but is alluded to as one of two settlements in Gomersal. Pigot’s National Commercial Directory for 1828–29 listed it as one of the four villages which make up the township of Gomersal. The hill fort itself would have been situated high above the town, to one side of the present-day Raikes Lane, which heads towards Gildersome, and onto Leeds. In prehistoric days, trackways ran in various directions from one British settlement to another, one such settlement being on the top of Birstall Hill.
This site was chosen for its central location amongst the nearby waterways and its accessibility to and from other nearby hill forts, such as Castle Hill at Almondbury in Huddersfield and Barwick-in-Elmet, in Leeds. Following the course of Fieldhead Lane towards Drighlington is the Roman road of Tong Street. This location would give Birstall a great geographical advantage, making it within easy reach of the main thoroughfares of ancient Yorkshire. A Roman tiled mosaic was unearthed at Birstall Smithies, a former early industrial slag smelting site, during excavations in 1965.
This and a hoard of Roman coins discovered at the foot of Carr Lane, on what was then Birstall Recreation Ground indicate quite succinctly as to the prehistoric origins of Birstall. These coins, which were discovered in the 18th century, dated from 192 to 268 AD. A quarter of a mile up the hill from Birstall on Leeds Road, there was once a Roman watch tower. This observation point was built on the ridge or “brae” of the hill. One side overlooked the Birstall area, while the other looked downwards from Howden Clough and the valley towards upland Morley.
This watchtower was known in the early 20th century to the local inhabitants as the Brass Castle, a corruption of Brae Castle. It followed the line of other such structures built in West Yorkshire, atop prominent projecting ridges. Birstall is the birthplace of Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen. Priestley was tutored extensively by the then Vicar of Birstall, an Edinburgh man with a keen interest in science. He was also a pupil at Batley Grammar School for Boys, founded in 1612 by the Rev. William Lee.
Also born here was John Nelson, a stonemason who was converted by John Wesley to Methodism whilst working in London and who returned to Birstall and became one of Wesley’s most important preachers. Birstall was prosperous before the Industrial Revolution, being within a small area that was a centre for the English white cloth industry. However, the Industrial Revolution saw extensive growth, and the architecture of the period still dominates today. The wider area became known as the Heavy Woollen District, although the decline in textile production has led to a decline in its usage; it is still used in local sport, however.
Of this period is the cobbled marketplace with a statue of Priestley, which was erected in 1912 by public subscription and sculpted by Frances Darlington. An 18th-century windmill stands in the grounds of Windmill Church of England Primary School (formerly St Saviour’s Junior School) and has provided local names such as ‘Windmill Estate’ and ‘Miller’s Croft’. The Black Bull Inn is situated behind St Peter’s Church on Kirkgate. Its upstairs room was once used as a magistrate’s court for Birstall and Gomersal, and is now Grade 2 listed.