My first ancestors from the Halifax area were Thomas Sheard of Ovenden, who made his fortune as a Woolman in the 16th century and founded a dynasty of Sheards in West Yorkshire through his four sons… and the Hemingways of the Walterclough, Southowram, who also headed a family of cloth makers in the 1500s and who spread out from Halifax to Dewsbury and beyond… they were still making cloth in Earlsheaton (Dewsbury) in the 20th century.

Halifax, from Penny Magazine March 15th 1834

History Notes

Halifax did not exist at the time of the Domesday Book. The town’s name was first recorded in about 1091 as Halyfax, from the Old English  halh-gefeaxe, meaning “area of coarse grass in the nook of land”.

In its formation as a parish, the Earl de Warren allowed eight berewicks to be detached from the parish of Dewsbury. A berewick was a portion of farmland that belonged to a medieval manor and was reserved for the lord’s own use. The Earl de Lacy allowed North and South Owram, including Shelf, Hipperholme and Elland, to be separated from the parish of Morley, the only other settlement with a Saxon Church in the area, in addition to Dewsbury. Together these lands formed the new parish of Halifax. The Lacy portions were described as “waste”, having suffered at the hands of King William I in his harrying of the north. The Warrene portion was under cultivation, having escaped, or recovered from, the ravages of that time. The small townships making up early Halifax parish increased to 23 in number, by growth and subdivision. (History of Halifax; John Crabtree; 1836).

By the late 13th Century, Halifax had become the centre of a large parish, extending from Brighouse to Heptonstall. It was destined to become one of the most important centres for woollen cloth production over the next centuries and was to become the third most prosperous woollen manufacturing town in Britain.

Large quantities of soft water were needed to make and finish woollen cloth and Calderdale towns around Halifax were ideal for this purpose. The water from rivers also powered waterwheels to run textile machinery as the woollen industry moved from domestic premises to mills. One of the first fulling mills in the country was built in the 1290s at a village which became known as Sowerby Bridge, just outside Halifax. 

Halifax Gibbet Law

Thieves caught at Halifax were not hanged, but were beheaded on a machine called the Halifax Gibbet, a precursor of the French guillotine. The origins of the Halifax Gibbet Law are shrouded by the mists of time. Some say that the law dated from before the Conquest of 1066, others say it existed under Saxon rule, but no source gives a definitive date.

execution scaffold
Halifax Gibbet from Camden’s Britannia 2nd Edition

It is known, however, that a John of Dalton was beheaded on the gibbet in 1286 and he is the first recorded, so it seems probable that it is around this time that the Gibbet originated. It may have been a result of permissions granted by King Henry III, in 1286, to John de Warrene, Earl of Surrey, who was criticised by the archbishop of York, for the harshness of his treatment of his Yorkshire tenants. The Halifax Gibbet was a unique method of removing heads from bodies in a country not averse to beheadings. 

If a thief was caught in the Forest of Hardwick (a ‘forest’ was a measure of land, usually put aside for hunting and not, necessarily, densely wooded), with goods worth more that thirteen and one-half pennies, either handhabend (“re-handed” with the goods in his hand, or in the act of stealing), backberand (carrying the goods on his back) or confessand (having confessed to the theft), he would be brought before the Lord’s bailiff in Halifax. The manorial court had the right to execute anyone caught stealing woollen cloth, then known as “the Staple” because of its value to the realm.

If found guilty, the thief would be put in the town stocks for three market days (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday), accompanied by the goods he stole, for all to see. On the third day, after sitting in the stocks, he would be taken to the Gibbet and beheaded.

But nothing is more remarkable, than their method of proceeding against Felons, which was just hinted before, viz. That a Felon taken within the Liberty, with Goods stol’n out of the Liberties or Precincts of the Forest of Hardwick, should after three Markets or Meeting-days within the town of Halifax, next after his apprehension, be taken to the Gibbet there, and have his head cut off from his body. But then the fact was to be certain; for he must either be taken hand-habend, i.e. having his hand in, or being in the very act of stealing; or back-berond, i.e. having the thing stolen either upon his back, or somewhere about him, without giving any probable account how he came by it; or lastly confesson’d, owning that he stole the thing for which he was accus’d.

The cause therefore must be only theft, and that manner of theft only which is call’d furtum manifestum, or notorious Theft, grounded upon some of the foresaid evidences. The value of the thing stolen must likewise amount to above 13(thirteen pence) for if the value was found only so much, and no more, by this Custom he should not die for it.

He was first brought before the Bailiff of Halifax, who presently summon’d the Frithborgers within the several Towns of the Forest; and, being found guilty, within a week he was brought to the Scaffold. The Ax was drawn up by a pulley, and fasten’d with a pin to the side of the Scaffold.

If it was an horse, an ox, or any other creature, that was stol’n; it was brought along with him to the place of execution, and fasten’d to the cord by a pin that stay’d the block. So that when the time of execution came (which was known by the Jurors holding up one of their hands) the Bailiff or his Servant whipping the beast, the pin was pluck’d out, and execution done. But if it was not done by a beast, then the Bailiff or his Servant cut the rope. But the manner of execution will be better apprehended by the following draught of it.

Camden Britannia 1577
Halifax Gibbet

The region to which the law applied comprised the townships and hamlets of Halifax, Ovenden, Illingworth, Mixenden, Bradshaw, Skircoat, Warley, Sowerby, Rishworth, Luddenham, Midgley, Erringden, Heptonstall, Rottenstall, Stansfield, Cross-stone, and Langfield. In the Chronicles of Holinshed who, in his “Description of England, 1577”, wrote of the Gibbet Law:

Witches are hanged or sometimes burned, but thieves are hanged (as I said before) generally on the gibbet or gallows, saving in Halifax where they are beheaded after a strange manner, and whereof I find this report. There is and hath been of ancient time a law or rather a custom at Halifax, that who so ever doth commit any felony, and is taken with the same, or confess the fact upon examination; if it be valued by four constables to amount to the sum of thirteen pence half penny, he is forthwith beheaded upon one of the next market days (which fall usually upon the Tuesdays, Thursdays, & Saturdays) or else upon the same day that he is so convicted, if market then be holden.

The engine wherewith the execution is done, is a square block of wood of the length of four foot and a half, which doth ride by and down in a slot, rabbet, or regall (sic) between two pieces of timber, that are framed and set upright of five yards in height. In the nether end of the sliding block is an axe keyed or fastened with an iron into the wood, which being drawn up to the top of the frame is there fastened by a wooden pin (with a notch made into the same after the manner of a Sampson post) unto the middest of which pin also there is a long rope fastened that cometh down among the people, so that when the offender hath made his confession, and hath laid his neck over the nethermost block, every man there present doth either take hold of the rope (or putteth forth his arm so near to the same as he can get, in token that he is willing to see true justice executed) and pulling out the pin in this manner, the head block wherein the axe is fastened doth fall down with such violence, that if the neck of the transgressor were so big as that of a bull, it should be cut in sunder at a stroke, and roll from the body by an huge distance.

Chronicles of Holinshed, 1577

Almost 100 people were beheaded in Halifax between the first recorded execution in 1286 and the last in 1650. By 1650 public opinion considered beheading to be an excessively severe punishment for “petty theft” and use of the gibbet was forbidden by Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, and the structure was dismantled. In 1974 a replica was built and erected in Gibbet Street. It includes a casting from the original blade.

From Hull, from Halifax, from Hell, ‘tis thus, From all these three, Good Lord deliver us.

A Verry Merry Wherry-ferry-voyage, Or, Yorke for My Money: Sometimes Perilous, Sometimes Quarrellous, Performed with a Paire of Oares, by Sea from London
by John Taylor, the Water Poet, 1580-1653.

“There is a Proverbe, and a prayer withall,
That we may not to these strange places fall,
From Hull, from Halifax, from Hell, ‘tis thus,
From all these three, Good Lord deliver us.
This praying proverb’s meaning to set down,
Men do not wish deliverance from the Town:
The towns named Kingston, Hull’s furious River:
And from Hull’s dangers, I say Lord deliver.
At Halifax, the law so sharp doth deal,
That who so more than 13 Pence doth steal,
They have a jyn that wondrous quick and well,
Sends thieves all headless unto Heav’n or Hell.
From Hell each man says, Lord deliver me,
Because from Hell can no redemption be:
Men may escape from Hull and Halifax,
But sure in Hell there is a heavier tax,
Let each one for themselves in this agree,
And pray, from Hell good Lord deliver me.”

From: All the workes of John Taylor the water-poet Beeing sixty and three in number. Collected into one volume by the author: with sundry new additions corrected, revised, and newly imprinted, 1630.

Halifax Houses

By 1439, Halifax had 32 messuages (houses with land and adjacent buildings), one shop, one cottage, one fulling mill and there were 44 owners of “messuages, lands and tenements”. It has been calculated from rental records (in the book Yorkshire Coiners), that the town consisted of about 313 inhabitants. Local clothiers prospered in the 15th and 16th centuries, by combining their farming with cloth making. As these men became wealthier “Yoemen”, they began to build houses that reflected their worth. A style of house began to emerge in the district, to become known as “Halifax Houses”.

Broadlay Hall, Halifax

The Halifax houses had a “housebody” which was open from ground to roof and, at the sides, they built aisles for extra width and to show off their wealth.

Aisles also allowed the owner to create ground floor rooms with chambers above. A clothier might set up looms or store wool and pieces ready for market in the side aisles. Halifax houses typically had long mullioned windows and were built of dressed stone…sometimes they added a double-storey porch.

Shibden Hall

Shibden Hall was originally built in 1420 and comprised only the central part with timbered sections. It was first occupied by a wool merchant named William Oates and later came into the wealthy Lister family by marriage. The Listers were involved in farming, the cloth trade and coal mining.

Shibden Hall is now a Grade II listed historic house. The building has been extensively modified from its original design by generations of residents, including by Anne Lister (“Gentleman Jack”), but its original Tudor half-timbered frontage has been preserved. Shibden is set in a small park and is open to visitors for a modest fee. We visited in the autumn of 2019 and I took the following photographs.

Halifax Cloth

Calderdale weavers specialised in Kersey cloth, a kind of coarse woollen cloth that was an important component of the textile trade in Medieval England. It was used to make coats and jackets and was always in high demand. By 1475, the Calderdale region had become the largest producer and exporter of Kersey cloth in England. By 1500, Halifax cloth was widely exported to Europe and beyond. The Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers and the Eastland Company exported the woollen cloth and they were members of a merchant company.

There is nothing so admirable in this town of Halifax as the industrie of the inhabitants who, not withstanding an unprofitable and barraine soil, have so flourished by the cloth trade that they greatly enrich their own estates and winne praise from all their neighbours.

Camden Britannica 1586

18th & 19th Century

Old Stone Arched North Bridge at Halifax, built in the 1770s

On his visit to the area in the 1720s, Daniel Defoe had written that the Halifax area consisted of many scattered settlements on the steep hillsides. He describes an area still dependant on domestic industry…

The nearer we came to Halifax, we found the houses thicker, and the villages greater. The sides of hills, which were very steep, were spread with houses; for the land being divided into small enclosures, that is to say, from two acres to six or seven acres each, seldom more; every three or four pieces of land had a house belonging to it.

Their business is the clothing trade. Each clothier must keep a horse, perhaps two, to fetch and carry for the use of his manufacture, to fetch home his wool and his provisions from the market, to carry his yarn to the spinners, his manufacture to the fulling mill, and, when finished, to the market to be sold.

Among the manufacturers’ houses are likewise scattered an infinite number of cottages or small dwellings, in which dwell the workmen which are employed, the women and children of whom, are always busy carding, spinning, etc. so that no hands being unemployed all can gain their bread, even from the youngest to the ancient; anyone above four years old works.

Daniel Defoe 1724

By 1750, Halifax’s population had grown to about 6,000. It was still accessed by a network of old packhorse routes and many of its buildings were medieval in origin. Nevertheless, it was becoming a fast-growing cloth-making centre and the late 18th Century’s steam-powered mills transformed the landscape and environment and revolutionised cloth-making. The hillside settlements, outside the town, became left behind as textile production rapidly moved to the valley bottoms.

Piece Hall

The first cloth hall was built at Hall End. When it was outgrown, tressels had to be set up outside along the church wall, until larger premises, the Piece Hall, could be built. Dating from 1779, when it was built as a Cloth Hall for the trading of ‘pieces’ of broadcloth, Halifax Piece Hall is one of the most important buildings of its type and reflects the wealth of the town as a centre for cloth making and export at that time. See also the section on West Riding cloth markets and halls.

Halifax Piece Hall

Mechanised Mills and the Victorian Era

By 1850, there were 24 mechanised mills in Halifax and the population had risen to 25,000. The fast growth of the town was accompanied by worsening living and sanitary condition for the less fortunate citizens, with many people living in poverty and open sewers running through the town.

The streets of Halifax are disgracefully neglected. This applies especially to the courts and cul-de-sacs inhabited by the very poor – including of course the Irish. I inspected several very closely and found them reeking with stench and the worst sort of abomination. The ash-pits were disgustingly choked, ordure and filthy stagnant slops lay freely and deeply scattered around, often at the very thresholds of swarming dwellings; and among all this muck, uncared for children sprawled by the score, and idle slatternly women lounged by the half dozen.

The Morning Chronicle 1849

Geographical and Historical information from the year 1868

The access of Halifax to the communication network is highlighted in the following extract:

HALIFAX, a parish and market town, municipal and parliamentary borough, in the wapentake of Morley, West Riding county York, 7 miles S.W. of Bradford, 16¼, from Leeds, and 194 N.N.W. of London by road, and 203 by rail. It has stations on the Lancashire and Yorkshire, and on the Leeds, Bradford, and Halifax Junction lines, thus communicating with the Great Northern, London and North Western, and Midland railways. The town is situated on the river Hebble, a tributary to the river Calder, and has a canal connected with the Aire and Calder navigation, which, together with the Rochdale canal, affords great facilities of water communication with most of the important manufacturing towns in the north.

Geographical and Historical information from the year 1868
Machanised MIlls and the New North Bridge Halifax, 1871, from ‘Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History’

The Victorian Era was also to bring its benefits by way of roads, bridges, railways, public baths, schools and educational institutes, parks and hospitals…creating an infrastructure that can still be recognised in the town today.