Halifax History

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.

Percy Shaw

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

Shibden Hall

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.

Wainhouse Tower

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.