Halifax’s economic growth was founded on textiles.A medieval grave cover in the south
porch of Halifax Parish Church, dating from c1150, depicting a crude pair of croppers’
shears alongside an elongated calvary cross, provides the earliest surviving evidence
of the textile industry in the parish of Halifax.Geographical factors explain the
emergence of Halifax as a centre for the dyeing, finishing and marketing of woollen
cloth during the later medieval period.The poor quality of the topsoil and the cold
and wet Calderdale climate created unfavourable conditions for arable farming and
stimulated the development of textiles as a supplementary economic activity to subsistence
agriculture.The evolution of a distinctive dual economy of farming and textiles in
this remote Pennine valley was assisted by another geographical advantage, a proliferation
of swift-flowing moorland streams, which provided abundant supplies of soft water
for the dyeing and finishing of the woollen cloth.
Halifax from Beacon Hill
From the outset, cloth appears to have been woven by handloom weavers from hand-spun-yarn
in their own cottages. It was then taken to a water-powered fulling mill, often
a converted corn mill, where the cloth was pounded, scoured and textured by heavy
wooden stocks, before being hung outdoors on tenterframes to dry. Thieves stealing
cloth from tenterframes in the bailiwick of Sowerbyshire were subject to summary
trial and execution on the Halifax Gibbet, a prototype guillotine, under the infangthief
jurisdiction of the lords of the manor of Wakefield. From 1286 to 1650 some 63 felons
were beheaded in Halifax, prompting the apocryphal beggars’ litany: ‘From Hull, Hell
and Halifax, good Lord deliver us’. In June 1839, labourers unearthed the remains
of the crumbling stone platform on which the four and a half metre high wooden gibbet
had stood, close to the site where the decapitated remains of the gibbet’s last two
victims may have been discovered. The original blade from the Gibbet has been preserved
at the Bankfield Museum.
The Halifax Gibbett
The early industrial development of Halifax was concentrated along the Hebble Brook
which provided water power for the Dean Clough, Old Lane and Bowling Dyke Mills,
where the giant Crossley and Akroyd empires developed as major centres of carpet
and worsted manufacture in the nineteenth century.In 1802, John Crossley, with two
other business partners, leased premises at Dean Clough, setting up his own business
when the lease expired in 1822, with the assistance of his wife, Martha, who rose
regularly before dawn to supervise the stitching of the carpets.Three of their sons,
John, Joseph and Francis, continued their father’s business after his death in 1837,
when the firm with some 300 employees, was the fourth largest in the country.By 1871,
they had increased their workforce to 5,000, and it was maintained at this level
until 1914, when Crossleys was the largest carpet-manufacturing firm in the world.
Dean Clough Mills in Halifax
The increase in road traffic by the 1930s brought prosperity to another local firm
which had pioneered the remarkable catseye reflecting roadstud. Founded in 1935 by
Percy Shaw, whose invention was hailed in the Housea of Commons as ‘the most brilliant
invention ever produced in the interests of road safety’, Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd
at Boothtown achieved peak sales during the early wartime blackout, though the Japanese
invasion of Malaya later restricted the availability of rubber and despite experiments
with synthetic rubber the firm’s output dropped dramatically.
Halifax’s vibrant economy and expanding population stimulated the development of
a highly sophisticated local retail trade in the nineteenth century. A commercial
handbook boasted that in 1915 Halifax offered ‘handsome and well-equipped business
establishments superior to those of many towns of considerably greater population’.
Developed on the site of the Georgian red-brick market in Market Street, the magnificent,
turreted, Victorian Borough Market, designed in a French Renaissance style by the
Halifax architects Joseph and John Leeming, were completed at a cost of £130,000
and officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of York in 1896. The market complex,
hailed by contemporaries as ‘amongst the finest in the country’, accommodated 19
shops and one public house on its outer perimeter and 43 shops and over 100 stalls
under its domed interior of glass and iron construction.
Halifax Borough Market
Following the incorporation of Halifax as a municipal borough in 1848 and the publication
of Ranger’s highly critical report on its sanitary condition in 1851, the physical
appearance of the town was considerably enhanced by two major phases of redevelopment
in the second half of the nineteenth century.The first phase in the 1850s and 1860s
saw the development of Crossley and Princess Streets; the construction of Charles
Barry’s magnificent town hall, opened by the Prince of Wales in 1863, and improvements
to Crown Street and Old Market.The second phase in the 1880s and 1890s included the
major Commercial Street development and the reconstruction of the borough markets.
However, the density of the building in the town provoked the novelist Charles Dickens
to denounce Halifax as ‘a dreadful place’ in 1860 and Holroyd Jackson, half a century
later, to deplore the bleak urban landscape where: ‘lines and lines of streets and
mills stretched and turned away in every direction’.
Halifax Town Hall
Other notable buildings and landmarks in Halifax
Now a museum, this was the home of notable diarist Anne Lister.
The Piece Hall
A Grade One listed building in the heart of Halifax, it is Britain's oldest remaining
cloth hall, where local handloom weavers came to sell their 'pieces' of cloth. It
now houses an eclectic mix of shops and cafes, as well as the art gallery.
One of the most prominent landmarks in Halifax, the tower was originally intended
as a chimney for a nearby dyeworks, but became redundant before construction was
completed. It is now the tallest folly in the world, and its 403 steps are open to
the public on certain days of the year. The tower was recently restored, and received
a Halifax Civic Trust Award in recognition of the work carried out.
54 years of celebrating, enhancing and safeguarding Halifax's built and natural environment.