Historical Commentary on the Wakefield Gate
There is a long-standing confusion about the name of this medieval route running east from Halifax. The Magna Via usage crept in during the 19th c. and was later given prominence by John Lister and others, to the point where it had become the primary usage. However as it has no proper historical basis, we now reject Magna Via, and stick to the original name, Wakefield Gate. This name is derived from the Old Norse "gata", meaning highway or road, and it has a much older usage.[i]
We speculate that the "other" Wakefield Gate, which leads west from Skircoat Moor, might also have relevance here. Further research is continuing.
After the Norman Conquest
The most gradual incline approaching Halifax from the east is up the ridge from Hipperholme, and it seems likely that this route was followed from very early times, but it became important after the Norman Conquest. William the Conqueror made grants of land to his chief supporters. One of these was William de Warenne (de Varenne), and he became the 1st Earl of Surrey. His son was later given the large Manor of Wakefield by William Rufus. This manor extended beyond Halifax up the Calder Valley to Erringden, and the Earl set up a manorial court in Halifax, the parish being given to the Priory of St. Pancras at Lewes, which the first Earl and his wife Gundrada had endowed near his castle there. The Priory was the largest and richest in England, and the cathedral-scale development of the Priory church needed sustained funding from the many de Warrene manors and churches. The Cluniac (Benedictine) monks of Lewes Priory built a church at Halifax around 1120, and some of the stones from the original church were incorporated in the Minster when it was rebuilt in the 15th century. There was a constant flow of travellers on horse and on foot between Halifax and the Earl's castle at Sandal, near Wakefield. Hunting parties regularly rode through Halifax on expeditions to hunt deer, wild boar and wolves in the upper valley, and at Erringden (beyond Cragg Vale) a large deer park was established, which remained enclosed until the 15th c.
The Middle Ages and the Development of Trade
As the textile trade developed, traffic increased; supplies of wool had to be brought in, and finished cloth taken out, much of it by this eastern route. This and other merchandise, including salt from Cheshire, was carried on packhorses passing to and fro over the shoulder of Beacon Hill, so the route linked Halifax and its surrounding settlements with the east of the country, with York and London, and with Hull for trade with Europe.
The significance of the Wakefield Gate in the first Civil War, after the Battle of Adwalton Moor, 30th June 1643
One of the most poignant events in the subsequent history of the Wakefield Gate, was during the first Civil War, after the battle of Adwalton Moor, which was fought on the ridge running between Westgate Hill and the summit of Adwalton Moor, west of present day Drighlington, between Halifax and Leeds; the A650 now runs along the ridge. Halifax, along with other West Riding cloth towns, predominantly aligned with the Parliamentary, rather than with the Royalist, forces when the action moved to the West Riding. Indeed, the official dispatch to the Speaker of the House of Commons was sent from Halifax on the day following the battle, where no fewer than 500 men from the parish of Halifax fought with the Parliamentarian armies under Lord Ferdinando Fairfax, and his son Sir Thomas Fairfax. Lord Fairfax himself commanded the main Parliamentary force, which included the men from the garrisons of Halifax and its surrounding towns, and 700 Lancashire foot, divided into twelve companies. They were defeated by a larger royalist force, including pikemen trained to engage in close combat under Colonel Kirton. He sought and received permission from the Royalist commander, the Earl of Newcastle, to lead his pikemen in one last devastating attack against the enemy and this resulted in many Parliamentarian casualties. The survivors of the right wing under Sir Thomas Fairfax, cut off from their base at Bradford, retreated from the battlefield along the Wakefield Gate to Halifax.
The turmoil in the area continued. After the battle of Adwalton Moor, the Royalists gained control of Yorkshire except for Hull, and occupied Halifax. Following the failure of a Royalist attack on the hill top village of Heptonstall, a counter offensive by the Parliamentarians resulted in as many as 100 Royalist soldiers killed and 35 wounded. Furthermore, the Halifax parish register of 4 January noted that two Royalist soldiers were summarily "hanged on a gallows erected near our gibbet" to strengthen the Parliamentarian position. The Halifax registers recorded abnormally high death rates of young males during this period, presumably from injuries sustained in the Civil Wars. The conflict in Yorkshire also forced many Parliamentarian supporters, including the Halifax apothecary and antiquary, John Brearcliffe, to seek refuge across the Pennines, and the Listers of Shibden Hall to flee to Manchester, hastily concealing family treasures for safekeeping in the uncertain times.[ii] Parliamentary control of Yorkshire was re-established after the battle of Marston Moor (west of York) in 1644.
Daniel Defoe explains the problems of access in 1724
Even in the early 18th c. this was still the only way out of Halifax to the east; Daniel Defoe in his book "A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain", Volume I, first published in 1724, refers to it: "We quitted Halifax not without some Astonishment at its Situation, being so surrounded with Hills, and those so high, as (except the Entrance by the West) makes the coming in and going out of it exceedingly troublesome, and indeed for Carriages hardly practicable, and particularly the Hill which they go up to come out of the Town towards Leeds, and which the Country People call Halifax Bank, is so steep, so rugged, and sometimes so slippery, that, to a Town of so much Business as this, 'tis exceedingly troublesome and dangerous."
The Turnpike Acts of 1741, 1760 and 1824
In 1741 the Halifax and Wakefield Turnpike Trust was established by Act of Parliament and a completely new road was then made from Clark Bridge (on Bank Bottom) to Hipperholme along what are now called Old Bank, Listers Road, Shibden Hall Road and Halifax Old Road. It was soon found that Old Bank was still too steep for wheeled transport, and New Bank was started in 1760 to join Listers Road to North Bridge, which then became the chief outlet to the east instead of Clark Bridge. One of the old mile-stones is still in position on this road.
In 1824 another Act of Parliament authorised a new turnpike road between the top of New Bank and Hipperholme to reduce the gradient still more by making the Godley Cutting and using the spoil to build an embankment across the Shibden Valley. As Mr. James Lister of Shibden Hall refused to allow the new road to pass near Shibden Hall, it had to go via Stump Cross, and so the route of the present A58 was at last established. This greatly reduced the usage of the old medieval track of the Wakefield Gate, so that it remains essentially in its medieval state for us to walk along, almost into Hipperholme.
Towering 400ft above the town centre, the hill is on the dividing line between the millstone grit (Namurian) responsible for the dramatic landscape of the upper Calder valley and the coal-bearing shale (Westphalian) of the Shibden Valley. Coal was mined from shallow seams until early last century, and is again being mined to the east of the Valley; in the early Industrial Revolution, children from the age of five worked long hours underground hauling coal. Sandstone is quarried on the Southowram side; flagstone from here was used to pave much of the City of London, for example. The side facing Halifax used to be known as Clegg Cliff or Gletcliffe (clay-cliff) and fireclay was quarried until a few years ago.
In the early 1850's, railway links were constructed between Halifax, Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield, and the distinguished engineer John Hawkshaw (1811-91), who was responsible for tunnelling through Beacon Hill, designed a splendid Gothic portal, providing rail travellers from Leeds and Bradford with a sudden dramatic vista of Halifax's industrial landscape on emerging from the tunnel.[iii] One of the tunnel's ventilation shafts can be seen from the Wakefield Gate at Barrowclough Lane.
As recently as 1870, much of the hill was covered with trees, but these were then felled for timber, and to make way for the construction of Beacon Hill Road. Industrial pollution was very heavy however, and this prevented any natural regeneration. Following the Halifax centenary in 1948, the former Mayor of Halifax, the late Alderman Charles Holdsworth, organised a replanting campaign in 1949, and made generous annual gifts of money for it. The replanting started from the bottom of the hill, and was followed in the early 1970's with plantings arranged by members of Halifax Civic Trust [iv]. The Council continued this policy, and the hillside was gradually planted with a variety of shrubs and trees up to about 700ft above sea level; the very exposed situation has made their growth a slow process.
The beacon was one of the links in the chain which gave warning of the approach of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Watson (1775) quoted a deed dated at Southowram in 1553 which referred to "Le Bekyn super altitudine Montis de Gletcliffe" (the beacon on the summit of Gletcliffe Hill). At this time it was probably just a large fire built on the ground but by the middle of the 17th c. there was a beacon pan on a pole. This is clearly shown in views of Halifax drawn in about 1650. The West Riding Sessions Rolls of 1637 and 1640 record payments to the Constable of Southowram for "watching about the beacon".
There were at least two other occasions on which the beacon was used as a signal. It was lit in 1688 at the time of the landing of William of Orange and in 1745 to give warning of the approach of the invading Scottish army under Bonnie Prince Charlie (they came no nearer than Manchester). It is interesting to note here that 18 year old William Fawcett (born at Shibden Hall) was then a young ensign in General Wade's pursuing army; some 30 years later he became Adjutant-General (virtually Commander-in-Chief) of the British Army. The last time the beacon was made ready in earnest was in 1803 when there was the threat of invasion by French troops under Napoleon.
Since then, the beacon has been lit to celebrate many joyful occasions: the end of the Crimean War (l856), of the Boer War (l902), and of both World Wars (1919 and 1945); Queen Victoria's Jubilees (1887 and 1897), the Jubilee of King George V (1935), all the coronations in the last century including that of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the 400th anniversary of the Armada in 1988, the Millennium, and the Queen's Silver, Golden and Diamond Jubilees. Its very exposed situation has resulted in the beacon pan being blown down several times in the last hundred years, and one from Victorian times is kept at the Bankfield Museum.
Shibden Hall (Grade II*)
The original house was an early 15th c. timber-framed building; this was partly cased in stone in the 17th c., and there were later modifications and extensions, particularly in the 19th c., organised mainly by the owner, Anne Lister (who was made famous by the recent TV series Gentleman Jack). Her diaries were added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme in 2011. In 2019, Halifax Civic Trust initiated the placing of a blue plaque at Shibden Hall to commemorate Anne Lister. The Calderdale Museums Department has aimed at producing a "lived-in" atmosphere for the Hall. The outbuildings and barn house the Folk Museum of West Yorkshire. A recent very welcome addition is the Mereside café by the boating lake and main car-park
Anne Lister and Old Bank
The route up Old Bank and across Beacon Hill Road was frequently used by Anne Lister, to walk to and from town. Her return route to Shibden Hall diverged from the Wakefield Gate at the crest of the hill. Where the old route turns east, she would have continued forwards past the Walker Pit tower. The steep setted path was the closest way for Anne to get to church on Sundays, though it was frequently used by her on other occasions, such as when she was visiting her Halifax friends, her solicitor, or the Library. Many are the times that this route up or down Old Bank is mentioned in the famous Diaries. Perhaps the most amusing reference is that dated 12th August 1818, when Anne reported: “In the evening at 8.30 my Aunt and I went to the top of Bairstow to see the fireworks played off from the Piece Hall. Not seeming to be begun we returned home… At 9.20, my Aunt, Marian, and I set off. Finding we saw little or nothing from the top of Bairstow [we] dashed straight down the hill. My aunt, unable to keep her feet, slid down on her honourable part, Marian ditto, & we all laughed exceedingly.” [v] This ‘hill’ was Old Bank, and ‘Bairstow’ is the lower hilltop to the left of Beacon Hill. Note that Beacon Hill Road did not yet exist in Anne’s time.
Anne Lister, Upper Place, Lower Place and Dark Lane
Parts of the Wakefield Gate, including the Dark Lane, were and are known as Barrowclough (or Barraclough) Lane. (Barrowclough was a medieval hamlet there, now lost.) Upper and Lower Place farmhouses were Lister tenancies on the route, and Anne would visit tenants as required. Her tenant at Upper Place was George Naylor. On 16th December 1825, Anne recorded an interesting item about the Wakefield Gate in her diary: “To George Naylor’s; told him I had persuaded my Uncle to offer to the town [Southowram] as much ground off George Naylor’s side, all along Barrowclough-lane, as would make the road wide enough for two carts to pass, on condition that they would make a good straight wall the whole length, and agree among themselves and with the lord of the manor Mr. Christopher Rawson to let my Uncle have all the bit of waste next to Dumb Mill. I told George to tell his brother (one of the surveyors) this, and to bring it forward at a town’s meeting. George said it was a ‘grand offer,’ and seemed well pleased.” [vi] Upper Place fell into ruin in the later 20th c. Today little remains, and the name now applies to an unrelated farm further up the lane.
Anne would visit tenants when she wanted them to vote at elections according to her wishes. Henry Dodgson was the Lister tenant at Lower Place, and on 3rd August 1837, Anne sought his vote for the Tories. Having already visited Naylor at Upper Place for a similar purpose, she proceeded down Dark Lane. Anne recorded: “Then to Dodgson’s. The wife evidently had to manage. Dodgson wished not to vote at all. Explained that I would not neutralise my estate. I would rather he voted for the Yellow [Whigs] than not at all. I would do as fairly as I could with everybody; but I meant to have all my tenants vote my way. Stood talking three-quarters of an hour, chiefly to the wife.” [vii] Lower Place survives, much modernised, as Lower Place Farmhouse and barn, both Grade II.
Mining was carried out adjacent to the Wakefield Gate, and on 22nd January 1835, Anne heard rumours that some of her coal had been taken: “Had Joseph Mann at 7.30 ... asked if it was true that Rawsons had got my coal skirting along to Barraclough Lane head. ‘Yes! thought it true.’ Could I turn all the Shibden water upon them - i.e. round the nook [corner] of their coal - ‘Yes!’ he thought I could - but his brother knew better than he did & he would get him (his brother) to come down here with him - charged him not to name a word of all this to anyone but his brother.” [viii]
Halifax Civic Trust during the 1980s
That part of the route furthest away from Halifax is the celebrated hollow way known as Dark Lane and is one of the three best preserved hollow ways in West Yorkshire. In 1987 the Committee raised £14,000 from local donors and grants to repair the damage to Dark Lane caused by a bulldozer, to draw attention to the historical importance of the route, and to attend to certain maintenance. English Heritage designated the Dark Lane section as a Scheduled Monument, and its (non-statutory) citation ends by saying: “In short, therefore, this routeway is of considerable historical and traditional, as well as archaeological, importance”
The Wakefield Gate Project
In October 2020 the Executive Committee of the Halifax Civic Trust decided to revisit the work done 30 years ago by the then Committee, and to act if we felt there was work to be done. The result is a complete re-appraisal of the importance of the Wakefield Gate, a more probing account of the historical importance of the route, a new version of a Walkers' Guide using modern technology, and above all, clear signage from Bank Bottom to Dark Lane. We have been glad to work with Calderdale’s Countryside Team on the signposting. Financial support has been promised or already given by the Trustees of the Waterhouse Charity, the Friends of Calderdale's Countryside, and from two prominent members of the Anne Lister Trust; several members of the Committee have also given financial support and we are grateful for a grant from the W. Yorks. Combined Authority.
[i] W.B. Crump, ‘Ancient Highways of the Parish of Halifax: The Wakefield Gate’ Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society, 1924, pp 89-106
[ii] D. Cooke, Battlefield Yorkshire From the Romans to the English Civil Wars, Pen and Sword, Barnsley, 2006, pp. 129, 137-38 and 144-58; J.A. Hargreaves, A history of Halifax from prehistoric times to the present day, Carnegie Publishing, Lancaster, 3rd edition, 2020, pp. 74-79.
[iii] J.A. Hargreaves, A history of Halifax from prehistoric times to the present day, Carnegie Publishing, Lancaster, 3rd edition, 2020, p. 185
[iv] Malcolm Bull's Calderdale Companion
[v] Helena Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, 2010, p. 65
[vi] John Lister, transcripts Halifax Guardian 11 May 1889
[vii] John Lister, transcripts Halifax Guardian (date unknown)
[viii] Jill Liddington, Female Fortune, 1998, p. 146.
[The historical commentary is based on the text first published by Halifax Civic Trust in 1991 for Country Walks near Halifax No. 5 (available on the Archive page), edited and expanded in May 2021.]