Chairman's Report

Chairman's Report 2019

Halifax Civic Trust was delighted to receive a coveted national Civic Voice Award for Improvements to the Public Realm for its nomination of the reconfigured Halifax Piece Hall. This followed a successful application, submitted by the Secretary, June Paxton-White, on behalf of Halifax Civic Trust. The award was collected at the 50-storey Cheese Grater, Leadenhall Building, in the City of London, by Executive Committee member Alan Goodrum and Calderdale Council Leader, Councillor Tim Swift, who we are delighted to welcome as guest speaker at this year’s Annual General Meeting, to share more about future developments in Halifax’s urban townscape. Moreover, it was particularly encouraging to read in Philip Wilkinson’s publication for Historic England in 2018, entitled Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places, recognition that ‘there is no building in Britain like the Piece Hall’, not that we needed any convincing ourselves that this remarkable former cloth hall remains a unique survivor of a trade that was once vital to the ‘economy of Halifax, Yorkshire and the whole of England’. Indeed, we are pleased in the huge interest generated by the Piece Hall Trust in the building since it opened, which has exceeded all expectations in generating millions of visitors. We trust that now, splendidly conserved, with its adjoining re-furbished Calderdale Industrial Museum, its reconstructed Library and Archives and integrally linked Square Centre for the Arts, it will offer enhanced ‘commercial and cultural resources to Halifax’. We are therefore pleased to welcome the Mayor and Mayoress of Calderdale, in their official capacity to this annual general meeting, for the commitment they also have shown to the Piece Hall project both in an official and personal capacity, and to the considerable challenge of financing the project.

Halifax Civic Trust’s distinctive blue plaque scheme has continued to generate much interest throughout the year, commemorating the accomplishments of historically significant individuals associated with Halifax. Most recently, when a new plaque was unveiled at Shibden Hall to commemorate Anne Lister we reflected upon her extraordinary diaries, including the coded sections revealing her lesbian lifestyle, drawing upon the research of Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington, and recognising the significant designation of the five million-word diaries by UNESCO as part of the memory of the world. We were also pleased to welcome to this event the Deputy Lieutenant of West Yorkshire, Christine Harris and her husband Stuart, both Halifax Civic Trust members, and also the Mayor and Mayoress of Calderdale, Councillor Marcus Thompson and Nicky Chance-Thompson, on an afternoon of sharply contrasting weather, which required some spectators to take shelter from heavy rain. We also reflected upon Anne’s mountaineering and travelling expeditions, including the first recorded ascent of Vignemarle in the Pyrenees, and her sudden death after having been bitten by a fever-carrying tick in Georgia in the Caucasus, when her body was brought back to Halifax for burial at Halifax Parish Church by her devoted companion Ann Walker of Lightcliffe. Her business acumen had an enduring impact upon Shibden Hall and its grounds, now much cherished by Calderdale residents and increasingly, through Sally Wainwright’s biopic, by those from further afield. She commissioned the Lancashire-born architect John Harper (1809-42) to construct the imposing gatehouse modelled on Kirkham Priory, the three-storey crenelated gothic tower, the west wing, raised lawns and terraces, restored the half-timbered frontage, installed new interior panelling and a grand staircase, a new kitchen, servant’s quarters, dressing rooms and library. She turned 85 acres into a landscaped park encircling the hall, including fishponds, a high rock water cascade and a wilderness garden and planned the carriage drives from the new gatehouse round the park.

Earlier in August, Emily Brontë’s association with Law Hill House, Southowram, where she taught for several months, would have enabled her to become acquainted with nearby High Sunderland Hall, which is considered by some to have featured in her eponymous novel Wuthering Heights. Her short but influential stay in Southowram was the subject of a well-attended talk by Sue Newby of the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth in St Anne’s Church followed by the unveiling of a Halifax Civic Trust blue plaque and refreshments in the garden of Law Hill courtesy of the property owners. Later in August, Gwyneth Crawley, liaised with the landlord of the Standard of Freedom formerly the Waggoners’ Inn, to facilitate a further Halifax Civic Trust blue plaque unveiling by the Mayor and Mayoress of Calderdale commemorating the Skircoat Green Chartist, Benjamin Wilson, for whom the inn was a hub of activity for the Chartists who held mass meetings on Skircoat Moor in support of the Chartist campaign for universal suffrage. Indeed, Benjamin Wilson’s memoir The Life and Struggles of an Old Chartist which reveals how he became a life-long campaigner for political rights and social justice, is one of the most detailed and evocative autobiographical accounts of a Chartist and Co-operator published anywhere, as I suggested in an account of his life in the Standard of Freedom, whilst Gwyneth Crawley presented an attractively framed text to complement the standing exhibition of the pub’s radical associations.

Moreover, since the centenary of women’s suffrage was also being commemorated this year, two Halifax Civic Trust blue plaques were unveiled at an event organised by Surraya Bibi, in which Halifax Civic Trust was invited to participate in Park Ward, and for which they supplied plaques commemorating women involved in this campaign. The plaques were unveiled on sites where Adela Pankhurst addressed a rally and where Dinah Connelly cast the first vote recorded by a woman in Halifax. The former Halifax Labour Member of Parliament, Alice Mahon, headed a procession predominantly of women with suffragette colours, though the Halifax Civic Trust Chairman was invited to join the procession, also in appropriate colours. This was followed by a lunch at Halifax High School, Wellesley Park. Two other suffragettes, Laura Willson and Mary Alice Taylor, who had both previously lived in Park Ward until their houses were demolished, were commemorated with floral tributes. A Halifax Civic Trust blue plaque was also presented commemorating William Priestley, wool merchant, musician, antiquary and founder of the Halifax Choral Society, which I was invited to present to the artistic director of the Halifax Choral Society, John Pryce-Jones, on stage at the Victoria Theatre, on behalf of the Halifax Choral Society before its historic 200th historic performance of Handel’s Messiah, following their landmark bicentennial season of 2017-18. The plaque will be displayed near the entrance to the Victoria Theatre where, appropriately, the majority of the Society’s concerts have been held for over a century. Finally, we are pleased that the Halifax Civic Trust Plaque commemorating the late Nobel Prize Winner, Oliver Smithies, has now been incorporated into the newly reconstructed Copley Primary School building where generations of schoolchildren will continue to learn about their unique heritage.

Various members of the Halifax Civic Trust Executive including David Glover and David Hanson have guided tours of visitors from Chester and Leeds around Halifax, whilst Sue Russell has organised a guided visit to the Lloyds Building in Halifax. I was also privileged to lead a Remembrance Weekend Visit from Halifax’s twinned town of Aachen around Halifax, including the Minster, the Cenotaph, the Piece Hall and Woolshops, and of a large party from the United States led by a former student of mine from Huddersfield, Professor David Hicks, now a professor of history in Virginia, visiting the Calderdale Industrial Museum, the Minster, the Piece Hall, Halifax Town Hall, the Woolshops and Halifax Borough Market, where many sampled pie and peas for the first time and provided very positive feedback on their visit.

Halifax Civic Trust was well-represented at the well-attended Town Team meeting at Bankfield Museum which focussed upon development plans for the hugely popular Eureka attraction and also improving access to Halifax Railway Station by utilising the outstanding Victorian Station designed by Thomas Butterworth. This gave the opportunity to discuss the conservation of such historic features as the Coal Drops; the predecessor Shaw Syke Goods Station and Goods Sheds. Moreover, it is timely following the exciting developments at King’s Cross Coal Drops Yard signalled in Peter Darley’s The King’s Cross Story and the interest in linking the metropolis with its historic Great Northern nationwide network in order to better understand its significance. More urgently, we have also supported HADRAG’s campaign to improve current rail services. The Trust has also suggested to Councillor Collins that consideration be given to using Caygill Gardens as an alternative name to that of Piece Gardens for the proposed new landscaping between the Halifax Station and the Piece Hall, and has supported the listing of the ornate warehousing designed by the Halifax John Hogg for John Crossley, now listed by Historic England. We also prefer a more authentic designation to the bizarrely-named Piece Mill for the Leeds Becket University Business Centre, located in a former warehouse on Horton Street.

Executive Committee Meetings, held courtesy of CMBC at Halifax Town Hall have been well attended throughout the year and have attracted some new faces. The meetings, cover a wide range of issues relating to the Trust’s aims, many of them arising from the regular scrutiny of planning applications led by our devoted secretary June Paxton-White. These meetings, we wish to emphasize, remain open to anyone who wishes to attend, with opportunities to join various sub-committees, including most recently those concerned with buildings at risk and the annual awards adjudication, formerly led by David Hanson, who remains co-ordinator of our blue plaque scheme but has reduced some of his other commitments this year. We remain grateful to him for all his previous service to the Executive. The Halifax Civic Trust is also grateful to David Hanson for arranging the Halifax Civic Trust’s most enjoyable annual Christmas social at the Shibden Mill Inn, including a presentation of historical photographs of Halifax selected by Vice-Chairman, David Glover. We are also grateful to all the officers and Civic Trust members whose support has been invaluable in ensuring that we continue our vigilance in celebrating, enhancing and conserving Halifax’s remarkable heritage, not least to our devoted Secretary, June Paxton White, for co-ordinating the reports and Gill Hurl for producing the accounts. Finally, we express our condolences to the families of Eve Martin, a long-standing member of Halifax Civic Trust and Richard Lister, a former independent examiner of accounts, who have died recently. We remain grateful to all the officers and civic trust members whose support has been invaluable in ensuring that we continue our vigilance in celebrating, enhancing and conserving Halifax’s remarkable built and natural inheritance.