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The name of the town is thought to be derived from the Old Norse word yarum meaning an enclosure to catch fish or from the Old English gearum with the same meaning. Yarm was first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and was originally a chapelry in the Kirklevington parish in the North Riding of Yorkshire; it later became a parish in its own right.

Domninican Friars, often called Black Friars or Friar Preachers, settled in Yarm about 1286 and maintained a Friarage and a Hospital in the town, until 1583. Their memory is preserved in the names of Friarage and Spital Bank.

Bishop Skirlaw of Durham built a stone bridge, which still stands, across the Tees in 1400 . An iron replacement was built in 1805, but it fell down in 1806. For many years Yarm was at the tidal limit and head of navigation on the River Tees.

On 12 February 1821 at the George & Dragon Inn, the meeting was held that pressed for the third and successful attempt for a Bill to give permission to build the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the world's first public railway.

In 1890 Bulmer & Co listed 12 Inns in Yarm; Black Bull, Cross Keys, Crown Inn, Fleece, George and Dragon, Green Tree, Ketton Ox, Lord Nelson, Red Lion, Three Tuns, Tom Brown, and Union. Also listed was Cross Keys beside the Leven Bridge.

In the 13th century Yarm was classed as a borough but this status did not persist. It formed part of the Stokesley Rural District under the Local Government Act 1894 and remained so until 1 April 1974 when, under the Local Government Act 1972 it became part of the district of Stockton-on-Tees in the new non-metropolitan county of Cleveland. Cleveland was abolished in 1996 under the Banham Review, with Stockton-on-Tees becoming a unitary authority.