The Haunted Mines of Hartshead-cum-Clifton

Situated atop rich deposits of high-quality black bed coal, the parish of Hartshead-cum-Clifton has a history of small-scale mining operations dating back to at least the Middle Ages. However, for roughly a hundred years between the early Nineteenth and Twentieth Century, the area became home to several much larger commercial mining enterprises. At one point, these collieries employed over five hundred people in the two villages, including boys as young as twelve who had been brought from Scotland or Ireland and were fostered by local families.

In 1838, the colliers of the district formed the Clifton Brass Band as a source of recreation. In his Story of the Ancient Parish of Hartshead-cum-Clifton, Reverend Harold Pobjoy recounts a story that once, for no adequately explained reason, all the Band’s instruments were thrown down an abandoned mine shaft at Gin Pit Hill (named after the horse-worked windless mechanism which brought up the coal), an area just adjacent to Clifton Common today. It was said that on certain nights, village children passing the workings would be terrified by the sound of ghostly music rising from the depths.

Evidently the mining families were a superstitious lot, as the following story from Hartshead Pit vividly demonstrates. This colliery once operated in the vicinity of Soap House Farm from 1861 until 1935 and was one of the largest in the area, employing over two hundred people below ground at the height of productivity in 1908. However, during the National Coal Strike of 1912 it fell silent like all the rest and in order to obtain fuel, the women and children of the surrounding villages were forced to spend their days gleaning coal from the waste tips of the pit.

One day, they had nearly finished bagging up all they could find when twilight began to fall. The Huddersfield Daily Examiner for 16th September 1929 recounts what happened next: “Suddenly a ‘ghost’ appeared at the edge of the tip, mouthing horribly and gesticulating with it shapeless arms. There was a scream, sacks of coal were dropped and the gatherers fled in terror… Half-an-hour later the more intrepid of them gingerly made their way back to the tip and went to retrieve their coal, the results of a day’s work. But it had gone—sacks and everything!”

Published in: on February 29, 2012 at 13:50  Comments (2)  
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Robin Hood’s Grave, Kirklees Park (Part Three)

Okay, this entry doesn’t actually contain any new information but that’s because all such material can be found in my recently published book “Grave Concerns: The Follies and Folklore of Robin Hood’s Final Resting Place”! This is doubtless an act of shameless self-promotion on my part but in these days of dwindling marketing budgets, what else is a poor author to do? Plus, if I can’t hawk a book I’ve written on my own blog, where else can I? I hope, however, that many regular readers of this site will find the tome extremely informative and as such, I pray nobody will mind me bringing it to their attention. To purchase a copy, please click here or on the cover image further down the page.

According to a review in Northern Earth Magazine Issue 129, “Kai Roberts unravels a highly tangled skein of fact, folklore, paraphenomena, assumption, reinterpretation, vampirism, ego and propertarianism to seek a single unified theory of Robin Hood’s supposed resting-place in West Yorkshire. It makes for an entertaining read, all backed up by thorough research and organisation of the material”.

And from the March 2012 issue of Valley Life: “Folklore enthusiasts will find much that enlightens and informs in a carefully researched book that examines every fact and fantasy connected with Robin Hood’s death. A little light reading it certainly is not but the reader who persists will, at the close of the last page, be able to claim an encyclopaedic knowledge of a British icon that still intrigues and enthrals to this day.”

Below, you’ll find a chapter breakdown, whilst here’s the blurb from the back cover:

“In the modern era, the narrative of Robin Hood’s death is increasingly one of the least familiar aspects of the outlaw’s legend. It is all too commonly assumed that as Robin Hood is a legendary hero in the vein of King Arthur, there must be numerous sites that claim to be his final resting place. Yet this is not the case. Kirklees Priory in West Yorkshire is the only place that has been repeatedly associated with the outlaw’s grave, in terms of both documentary sources and material remains, over several hundred years.

Studying Kirklees and the various legends to have grown up around it allows us an insight into the reciprocal relationship between people and place. Of particular interest is the extent to which the state of Robin Hood’s grave in the modern era and all the associated disputes have determined the interpretation of the paranormal phenomena witnessed in the vicinity of the site today. In this regard, it is a study in modern myth-making.”

Chapter One

A detailed examination of the narrative of Robin’s death from the earliest medieval ballads to romanticised Victorian sources, observing variations and continuity especially regarding the role of Kirklees Priory and the legendary location of the outlaw’s grave.

Chapter Two

A history of Kirklees Park from its earliest occupation during the Iron Age and Romano-British period, through the life of Kirklees Priory during the Middle Ages, the estate’s subsequent possession by generations of the Armytage baronetcy and its sale in recent years.

Chapter Three

A history of the monument known as “Robin Hood’s Grave”, endeavouring to show that whilst its origins may be shrouded in mystery it is far more than an 18th Century folly and interrogating the reliability of much of what has been written about the site since the 1600s.

Chapter Four

A discussion of how the narrative of Robin’s death and the material presence of a “grave” at Kirklees has been used to support arguments for the outlaw’s historical existence (or otherwise) over the centuries, including some comments on the character’s mythic aspects.

Chapter Five

A history of public interest in the site of Robin Hood’s Grave, from the Armytage’s early exploitation of the site to their disinterest in the late 20th Century and refusal to permit access, resulting in the controversial campaign of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society.

Chapter Six

A digression chronicling the events at Highgate Cemetery in the early 1970s, in order to provide a valuable comparison with later occurrences at Robin Hood’s Grave and introduce readers to the colourful characters of Bishop Sean Manchester and David Farrant.

Chapter Seven

A study of the reputed paranormal activity around Robin Hood’s Grave, from 17th Century folklore to the range of contemporary reports, with reference to the involvement of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society and the site’s role in the decades-old Manchester/Farrant feud.

Chapter Eight

An examination of the psychogeogaphical landscape of which Robin Hood’s Grave has become an important part, encompassing Castle Hill, Hartshead Church, the Three Nuns pub, the Brontë family, holy wells, Luddites, dragons, ghosts and a brief history of ley-lines.

Chapter Nine

A survey of folklore pertaining to Robin Hood elsewhere in the Calder Valley, with particular reference to its connection with sites of topographic or prehistoric significance, introducing a tentative hypothesis regarding what this might tell us about the monument at Kirklees.

Chapter Ten

An analysis of the sociological, psychological and folkloric processes which have influenced perceptions of Robin Hood’s Grave, introducing the reader to concepts such as fakelore, legend-tripping and ostension, and the roles they have played in the site’s curious history.

Finally, the acknowledgements were omitted from the book in error. They are published below until such as time as they can be included in a future edition.

For information and advice: Paul Bennett, Anna Best, John Billingsley, Calderdale Libraries, Jon Downes, Corinna Downes, David Farrant, Catherine Fearnley, Barbara Green, Michael Hartley, Anthony Hogg, Gareth J. Medway, Bishop Sean Manchester, Andy Roberts, Paul Weatherhead and West Yorkshire Archive Service.

For moral support and good sense: Jim Firth, Mark Firth, Tom Firth, Patrick Green, Mark Howells, Helen Roberts, Pat & Derek Roberts, Phil Roper, Samantha Rule and Quentin Whitaker.

Elizabeth Rayner, Clifton Woods

Even today, violent death in a small community tends to leave a substantial psychic scar and it is not surprising that a brutal slaying committed in Clifton in the early 19th Century remained ingrained in the folk memory for many decades after the fact. The murder in question occurred sometime between nine o’ clock on the night of New Year’s Eve 1832, when the twenty year old victim, Elizabeth Rayner, was last seen, and three o’ clock on the following day, when her corpse was discovered by three children, including her younger brothers John and Simeon.

According to a report in the Halifax Guardian dated 6th January 1833, the body was found in Clifton Wood, only two hundred yards from her home on Well Lane, a point which some sources locate near where Westgate turns onto Coal Pit Lane. Her throat had been cut, possibly by a left-handed assailant. However, no murder weapon was ever discovered and an inquest held several days later at the Armytage Arms by local magistrate, Sir George Armytage (of Kirklees Hall) established the circumstances of death but failed to identify a culprit.

Despite a reward of £200 being offered for information, nobody was ever prosecuted for the crime. Yet both local and family tradition hints at suspicious circumstances surrounding this failure to bring the murderer to justice, perhaps even a conspiracy. A curious fact of the case is that whilst Liz Rayner was unmarried, she was discovered to be pregnant when they examined the body. Rumours abounded that the identity of the murderer was well known amongst the community but for whatever reason was never officially revealed.

In a recollection of his childhood in Clifton during the late 19th Century, published in the Brighouse Echo on 4th October 1957, local worthy Albert Baldwin relates how many years after the murder, a relative of Liz by the name of Jack Rayner (possibly the brother John who found the body) ran a sweet shop from a cottage on Towngate. He often used to regale customers with the story of the murder and how he recalled hearing a “soughing noise like the squeal of a hare in distress” around the time when the killing must have occurred.

Baldwin explains that the spot near where the body was found was still regarded with anxiety by local folk, many of whom had not the courage to pass by it along Coal Pit Lane after dark. Given that this must have been so many years after the event, it cannot have been from fear that the murderer was still at large, but rather that the spot was considered to be haunted by the unquiet spirit of the murdered girl. He also mentions that a strange sound like the “squeal of a hare in distress” was often heard in the vicinity and regarded with some dread.

Even more curious is an apparition which has been encountered by at least five of the descendants of Elizabeth Rayner’s brother, John, and which was last seen at a house in Bradford Road during the mid-1980s. It is described as tall, cloaked silhouette, not unlike the figure on the Sandeman’s Port logo minus the hat. Given the attire of the figure and its connection with the family, some of the witnesses have speculated whether it might not be the spectre of their ancestor’s murderer, continuing to victimise the Rayner lineage even in death.

Anna Best’s book “Borrowers of the Night: The Clifton Wood Murder” contains a much greater wealth of detail concerning the incident. More information can be found on her blog, whilst her book is available here.

Published in: on August 4, 2010 at 10:03  Comments (1)  
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Hal of Kirklees

“Hal” was a generic term in days gone-by for an individual with learning disabilities and sometime in the early 18th Century, Sir George Armytage of Kirklees Hall befriended just such a person and gave him a position at the hall as a jester, for despite his affliction he was said to possess a sharp wit. It is sometimes said that his surname was Pierson and sometimes Wormald but both local historians J. Horsfall Turner and H.N. Pobjoy seem satisfied that he was a historical figure, living sometime around 1730.

Despite the patronage of Sir George, many of the other servants at the Hall would frequently torment Hal with a variety of practical jokes. On one occasion Robbie the estate carpenter told Hal that if he placed a half-crown in a hole, it would magically multiply. The jester complied and later, Robbie sneaked back and exchanged the coin for coppers, knowing Hal did not grasp the relative value of different coins. Hence Robbie’s victim was initially pleased with the outcome but when Hal discovered he’d been tricked, he swore he would get his revenge.

For a while Hal contented himself with hiding Robbie’s tools but one evening when the carpenter failed to turn up for dinner, people noticed that Hal seemed unusually pleased with himself. When questioned, he claimed to have hidden Robbie’s head under the wood shavings, “and when he wakens he’ll be troubled to find it!” The shocked servants rushed to the workshop and sure enough, discovered a decapitated body with its head concealed beneath a pile of shavings. Still failing to understand that he had killed Robbie, Hal attempted to reattach them.

Hal was tried for murder at York but was acquitted on the grounds of “weak-mindedness” and returned to the care of Sir George. However, finally cognisant of what he had done, Hal was never the same again. He was often found weeping by the beck and refused to go near the carpenter’s shop or touch an edged tool. The guilt of the experience prematurely aged him and he supposedly died a grey-haired man aged only thirty. However, his memory was kept alive in the phrase “worse than Hal of Kirklees” which for many years was a popular local dismissal for foolishness.

Clifton Traditions

The bizarrely-named Faffen-Fuffen Fair was a communal event held in Clifton at various points in the last century, usually in early September, dating back to the 1930s. The Clifton Prize Band would march through the town playing their usual brass alongside a variety of home-made instruments such as a comb-and-paper and papier-mache constructions, whilst children and decorated floats would parade behind them. It is thought the practice was initiated either to celebrate the local miners or to raise spirits during the Depression. The original fair ceased after 1953 but it was revived from 1977 until 1996 when it died out due to lack of participation. It has been held only once again since in 2002 to mark the Golden Jubilee.

An integral part of the fair involved the band marching past a pig placed atop a wall, although the reasons given for the origin of this tradition differ. One account in the Ilkley Gazette dated 4th February 2002 claims it was because the the Clifton Prize Band used to rehearse in a granary behind which was a farm and the farmer there would sit the animal on the wall to listen. Meanwhile, an account from the Brighouse Echo dated 9th September 1994 claims it originated when the cacophony from one of the early fairs startled a pig which leapt over the wall into their midst. In later years, the pig had been replaced by a man in costume due to the modern requirement for a license in order to move livestock.

A more sinister but equally raucous Clifton tradition from the 19th Century is recalled by a long-term resident in a Brighouse Echo article dated 15th June 1962. It involved the construction of a straw effigy in a barn on Highmoor Lane, which would paraded around the town to the din of beaten pots and pans, before being burned in front of the house of any woman believed to be cuckolding her husband. This custom is a variation on a once widespread north country practice called “riding the stang” or “rough music”. In certain areas and in earlier ages, it was far more brutal. In Scotland, for instance, it was not an effigy which was paraded around the streets but the unfaithful spouse themselves forcibly set astride a rough tree cutting.

Published in: on March 19, 2010 at 22:31  Leave a Comment  
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The Clifton Dragon

Prior to the construction of the M62 in the 1970s, where it scythes through Hartshead Moor there once stood a hamlet by the name of Blakelaw, the only surviving evidence of which is Blakelaw Lane which runs between Clifton and Hartshead, crossing the motorway as it goes, and which presumably once passed through Blakelaw itself.

In his chronicle The Story of the Ancient Parish of Hartshead-cum-Clifton, the Reverend Harold Pobjoy relates that whilst he was vicar at St. Peter’s Church in Hartshead between 1925 and 1930, he was told by a parishioner that a copse on the rise to the north of Blakelaw was once thought to have been home to a terrible dragon which menaced the area many generations ago.

The settlement of Blakelaw appears in the Domesday Book under the name of Blakhlawe and in an attempt to corroborate the tale of the dragon, Pobjoy suggests that this may have been a corruption of the Old English “Dracanhlawe” – meaning Mound of the Dragon – which if true would suggest that the story had a very old provenance indeed.

As well as being mentioned in the Domesday Book, the antiquity of the area is manifest in the presence of the Walton Cross at Windy Bank nearby. It is the base of an Anglo-Saxon preaching cross or way-marker (the name is recorded on old documents as “wagestan” meaning “way-stone”) dating from the 10th Century.

Dragons were certainly a major component of the Anglo-Saxon world-view, with winged dragons known as “drakes”, an example of which makes a memorable appearance in the contemporary poem Beowulf. The English landscape is full of place-names with a dragonish derivation such as Drakeholes and Drakelaw, the similarities of which to Blakelaw are obvious.

However, using place name derivations to account for local legends is a risky business and Pobjoy’s suggestion is by no means certain. In the arguably definitive source on this subject Place Names of the West Riding, edited by A.H. Smith and published in 1961, the derivation is given as “Blachelana” which has the more prosaic meaning “black hill”.

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 13:25  Leave a Comment  
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