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In his "Richard III", William Shakespeare mentions Pontefract Castle by its former name, Pomfret: "Pomfret, Pomfret! O thou bloody prison, Fatal and ominous to noble peers!". Many years later, the Pontefract General Infirmary proved fatal to its patients when Harold Shipman systematically murdered elderly patients there.

Pontefract also offers pleasure; it is sometimes called "Ponte Carlo" because of its numerous pubs. It is one of the few places in Britain where it is possible to grow liquorice. Although the plant is no longer grown here, there are several liquorice-sweet factories and Poet Laureate John Betjeman wrote a poem, "The Licorice Fields of Pontefract".

The town was a mining town and struggled after the closing of the collieries.

Pontefract Racecourse is the longest continuous horsetrack in Europe and the town also has a rugby league club, Featherstone Rovers.

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