Historically a part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, after undergoing a period of major growth in the 19th century as a mill town, Dewsbury went through a period of decline. More recently there has been rapid and ongoing redevelopment of derelict mills into luxury apartments and other projects concerned with regenerating run-down or deprived areas.
There are some other theories on the name's origin:
Dewsbury Minster lies near the banks of the River Calder, traditionally on the site where Paulinus preached. Parts of the church are said to date to the 13th century. It houses the "Devil's Knell", a bell rung each Christmas Eve, one toll for each year, in a tradition dating back to the 15th century. It was donated by Sir Thomas de Soothill, in penance for murdering a servant boy in a fit of rage. The tradition was commemorated on a Royal Mail postage stamp in 1986.
Dewsbury Market was established in the 14th century for local clothiers. Occurrences of the plague in 1593 and 1603 closed the market until it was reopened in 1741.
Throughout the Middle Ages Dewsbury retained a measure of importance in ecclesiastical terms, collecting tithes from as far away as Halifax in the mid-14th century. John Wesley visited the area five times in the mid-18th century, and the first Methodist Society was established in 1746. Centenary Chapel on Daisy Hill commemorates the centenary of this event, and the Methodist tradition remained strong in the town.
1770, a short branch of the Calder and Hebble Navigation Canal was completed, linking Dewsbury to the main canal system and giving access to distribution centres in Manchester and Hull. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, Dewsbury was one of the centres for the "shoddy" industry, the recycling of old woollen items by mixing them with new wool and making them into heavy blankets and uniforms. The town benefited economically from the canal, its location at the heart of the Heavy Woollen District, and its proximity to the coal mines. The railways arrived in 1848 when Dewsbury Wellington Road railway station on the London and North Western Railway opened; this is the only station which remains. Other stations were Dewsbury Central (Great Northern Railway) which closed in 1964 and Dewsbury Market Place (Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway) which closed in 1930; a fourth goods-only station was built in the early 1900s at Savile Town (Midland Railway). In 1985 a road bypass was built on the site of Central Station and its adjacent viaduct, and nothing remains of Market Place Station. The 1800s saw a great increase in population, rising from 4,566 in 1801 to around 30,000 by 1890.
The town’s rapid expansion and commitment to industrialisation was not without problems, resulting in social instability. In the early 1800s Dewsbury was one of the centres of Luddite opposition to industrialisation in which workers retaliated against the onset of mechanisation and smashed the new machinery which threatened their way of life. In the 1830s Dewsbury was also one of the centres of Chartist agitation. The C vote to the working classes. In August 1838, after a speech by Chartist leader Fergus O’Connell, a mob of between five and seven thousand people besieged the Dewsbury Poor Law Guardians in the town’s Royal Hotel. The mob had to be dispersed by troops. Trouble again flared in 1840 when radical agitators seized control of the town, again troops were called in and stationed in the town to maintain order. This radical tradition left a legacy in the political life of the town, in fact the town’s first elected MP in 1867 was John Simon, a Jewish lawyer from Jamaica and a Liberal.
The mills were still often run as family businesses, and continued manufacturing after the wool crisis in 1950-51, which saw Australian sheep farmers begin to charge higher prices. However, the recovery of the late 1960s was reversed by the 1973 oil crisis, and the textile industry in Dewsbury declined, with only bed manufacturing remaining a large scale employer.
On February 19, 2008, Shannon Matthews disappeared from her home in Dewsbury Moor. 24 days after going missing, Shannon was found alive on March 14, 2008 hidden in the base of a divan bed in Batley Carr. A 39-year-old man, named as Michael Donovan, was arrested. The hunt for Shannon Matthews was the largest police search for a missing person since the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper nearly 30 years previously. Shannon Matthews' mother was subsequently arrested and charged with perverting the course of justice and child neglect.
In 1974 responsibility for local government passed to Kirklees Metropolitan Council, with its headquarters in Huddersfield. The population of Dewsbury has remained broadly static over the past century - the 1911 census recorded 53,351 people , and the 1971 census 51,326 people, making it the fourth least populous county borough in England (after Canterbury, Burton and Yarmouth).
Dewsbury is part of the West Yorkshire Urban Area, and the natural boundaries of the town are not well defined, with built up areas of the town running into neighbouring Batley, Heckmondwike and Ossett.
Geologically, the town is situated on rock dated to the Carboniferous Period, consisting of coal measures and gritstones. Quaternary Period rock, glacial deposits and gravels exist in the Calder Valley. Coal, stone and gravel have all been exploited commercially. Average rainfall is 100 cm per annum.
The town is dominated by hills, notably Earlsheaton, Dewsbury Moor, Staincliffe and Thornhill. The town centre is at 40 m-55 m above sea level, rising to 110 m at Earlsheaton and Batley Carr, and 230 m at Grange Moor. The approach down from Earlsheaton through the Wakefield Road cutting, constructed in 1830, is dramatic with the view of the town centre nestling in the Calder Valley opening up as you descend.
The majority of the older buildings were built in Yorkshire stone, many of which have recently been restored by sandblasting. Notable structures include the railway viaduct, and Machell's Shoddy and Mungo Mill, converted into apartments but still bearing the famous slogan of its original occupants.
Batley Carr, Hanging Heaton and Staincliffe have areas which lie in both Dewsbury and neighbouring Batley. Thornhill is sometimes classified as part of Dewsbury and sometimes as a separate settlement. It was annexed by the town's council in 1910, along with Briestfield and Whitley, but there have been no official definitions of Dewsbury's boundaries since the 1974 local government reforms.
The town has a large Asian community; this was estimated in November 2006 at 33%, but it is likely to be slightly higher. Savile Town and Ravensthorpe are populated mainly by Muslims of Indian and Pakistani origin. In recent years, there has also been an immigration of Iraqi Kurds and Hungarians into the town.. Dewsbury is known for having a Shariah arbitration court, which has caused some controversy. There has also been controversy over the town's Subway restaurant's decision to begin serving only Halal meats in late 2007. Many complaints began to surface over the fact that non-Halal meat was becoming increasingly hard to buy within the town centre. As a result of the following drop in sales, the new Subway restaurant at Ravensthorpe shopping park was opened as a "traditional" location, serving non-Halal meats including pork products.
The Dewsbury Moor, Ravensthorpe and Chickenley areas are classed among the 10% most deprived areas in the UK In contrast to some British towns and cities, the east side of the town is generally more affluent. The majority of houses in the town are in the cheapest band for council tax, for house prices are amongst the lowest in the country.
The town centre is starting to see a something of a revival, with large retailers such as Sainsbury's, Next and Matalan. The local market comprising 400 stalls is one of the busiest in Yorkshire and today draws coach-loads of visitors to the town; in April 2007, Dewsbury Market won the award as "Britain's Best Market". Wednesdays and Saturdays are the normal market days with the popular flea market on Fridays. Just south of the River Calder in the town centre was where the mills of the town were traditionally located. As the mills closed, this area became the largest brownfield site in the country. However, many of the units have now been reoccupied and the town's largest employer, Carlton Cards is based in this area. A large shopping centre, planned to occupy a large area of the town centre has as many supporters as detractors.
Ravensthorpe has also now started to see a new lease of life, in the shape of the district's new shopping park. Retailers on the development include Netto, Subway, Home Bargains, Au Naturale and Poundstretcher.
Dewsbury Museum in Crow Nest Park features a permanent children's history section, including a 1940s classroom and an extensive toy collection, alongside temporary exhibits.
The Dogs of Dewsbury is the title of a volume of poetry (now out of print) written by the poet Cliff Ashby. In Plainsong - Collected Poems (pub. Carcanet 1985) the poem "Dewsbury" appears and starts "Incite me to love/This shoddy town/And its inhabitants/Who surrounded by their ´Special Offer´homes/Dream of a city/Where there is no night."
The 1960 book A Kind of Loving is set in a fictional city named "Cressley", but its description was based upon Dewsbury. The author, Stan Barstow, was born in Horbury and grew up in Ossett - both of which are just to the east of Dewsbury.
As many people are unsure how to pronounce "Dewsbury", it was included in the Oxford B.B.C. Guide to Pronunciation, where it was defined as 'dju:zbəri.
In the 21st century press coverage of Dewsbury has been substantial and entirely negative.