Curiosities of Barkisland

A Grade 1 listed building, Barkisland Hall is generally regarded as one of the most interesting mansion-houses in the Calderdale region. Although in many respects it is typical of vernacular architecture in the district during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century (such edifices are often dubbed “Halifax houses”), it has several additional features which make it unique. These include the three-storied F-plan structure, the two orders of fluted columns which frame the doorway, and the rose window above it, believed to be the earliest example of such a detail in the domestic architecture of England.

The Gledhill family had long occupied an earlier house on the site, but the extant building was constructed for John and Sarah Gledhill in 1638. John’s brother, Richard also resided at Barkisland Hall for a short time between its construction and his early death. The Gledhills were noted Royalist supporters during the English Civil Wars, and in the First Civil War (1642-1646), Richard served as Captain of a Troop of Horse under the uncompromising Sir Marmaduke Langdale, earning a knighthood for bravery from the Marquess of Newcastle.

However, Sir Richard’s contribution did not last long, as he was fatally wounded at Hessay, near York, during the fateful Battle of Marston Moor. According to historian Edward Lamplough, writing in 1891, “Gledhill… died in his own house an hour after he succeeded in gaining its shelter. He had received twenty-six wounds”. It is not clear if by “his own house” Lamplough means Barkisland Hall. Travelling the distance from Marston Moor with such grievous injuries seems to preclude it, as does the fact that Sir Richard is buried at the Church of St. Martin on Micklegate in York, rather than locally.

Yet if he had died at the Hall, it might explain why so many generations of Barkisland folk believed his restless spirit haunted the building and its environs. Sadly, accounts of his phantom are vague and by the early Twentieth Century the story seemed to exist as nothing more than a indistinct notion in the local psyche. There are no first or even second-hand accounts of encounters with the revenant, only a brief mention in a newspaper article from 1931, which simply states “Richard Gledhill’s ghost is said to haunt the area around Barkisland Hall”.

In 1636, Richard Gledhill’s sister, Elizabeth, had married another significant local landowner, William Horton, who in addition to Howroyd Hall and Firth House at Barkisland, also took possession of Coley Hall following its sale by Langdale Sunderland to pay the decimation fines imposed on Royalist supporters by Parliament following the Civil Wars. In this capacity the Hortons came to know the Non-Conformist firebrand, Rev. Oliver Heywood, who in periods of adversity often lodged with Captain Hodgson who was tenant at Coley Hall between 1654 and 1672.

Following the extinction of the Gledhill line, the Hortons took up residence at Barkisland Hall and upon the death of Elizabeth, the house was once again associated with supernatural activity. Rev. Heywood records in his diary for 2nd February 1671: “Mistress Horton the owner of this hall were we live died on Thursday night last… she lay from Tuesday to Thursday night speechless, not at all stirred, none were admitted to see her, many things considerable about her, several of the servants were affrighted with a great knocking and variety of music the night before she died”.

Domestic staff employed at Barkisland Hall were accommodated in a separate building erected in 1642 on Stainland Road nearby. By the early Nineteenth Century, this had been converted into a public house called the Griffin Inn and in recent decades, the established has also acquired a reputation for being haunted. The ghosts of an old man sitting by the fire and an old lady dressed in white, carrying a bunch of keys, have been witnessed on several occasions, in the taproom and cold-storage area of the cellar respectively.

As a relatively isolated hilltop village, superstition seems to have endured well into the Twentieth Century in Barkisland. A short distance from the Griffin Inn on Stainland Road stands Stocks House, so called because it was formerly the village lockup and an old set of stocks still survives beside it as a memorial to its former role. At some point it was converted into a private residence and it was probably during this process that a “witch-post” was added to the hearth to deflect the influence of baleful magic known as maleficium.

Chimneys and fireplaces were regarded as a vulnerable location by which witches could gain access to a house and so to the superstitious mind, demanded such apotropaic contingencies. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud explain, “In Yorkshire farmhouses of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, hearths were screened by partitions ending in posts of rowan wood carved with cross-shaped patterns, called ‘witch posts’… Belief in their protective power continued into the 1920s, when Yorkshire builders made new ones when old houses were being rebuilt”.

Meanwhile, Peter Brears notes a further tradition associated with witch-posts, “A crooked sixpence was kept in a hole at the centre of the post. When the butter would not turn you took a knitting needle, which was kept for the purpose in a groove at the top, and with it got out the sixpence and put it in the churn”. Sadly, it is not clear if such a custom would’ve been practiced at Barkisland or exactly when the witch-post was added to Stocks House; whether it was an original feature invested with genuine belief or a later recreation of the vernacular style.

The Screaming Skull of Sowood House

Constructed in 1631 by the prosperous Whitley family of Northowram, Sowood House in Coley is an imposing edifice typical of many buildings erected in the region during the Seventeenth Century. By 1968, the house had fallen into a dilapidated condition and its new owner, Mr. Frank Drury, set about renovating it. During this process, workmen stumbled across a mysterious iron box concealed in the brickwork behind a chimney. Upon opening it, they made the macabre discovery of a human skull, prompting an investigation by the West Yorkshire Police to ensure that it was not evidence of a recent murder.

Forensic examination of the skull, however, revealed that it dated to the Seventeenth Century and was probably placed in the chimney when the house was built, as “protection against witches”. That period saw an effusion of such superstitious beliefs and countless objects have been discovered in buildings of the time, bricked up in threshold locations such as chimneys or roofs for talismanic purposes, including shoes, horse skulls and witch bottles. Mummified cats were particularly popular in the Calderdale area, with instances recorded at Slead Hall in Brighouse and the now demolished Mitre Hotel in Halifax.

Human remains are much rarer and more significant. This was confirmed by a letter published in the Evening Courier on 5th September 1968 from an eighty year old Southowram woman: “I remember my mother telling me about the skull over seventy years ago. She said the skull was found in an iron box in the chimney breast. It was taken to Coley and buried in the churchyard. Afterwards the house began to be haunted by cries of ‘Where is my head?!’ When, on the advice of the vicar, it was replaced in the chimney the cries ceased. My great-grandfather was a churchwarden of St. John’s, Coley and was present when the skull was put back”.

This places the Sowood House skull in that class of relics known as “guardian skulls” or more luridly, “screaming skulls”. In all cases, their legend is the same. The skull protects the house and family from malign influences and preserves their prosperity, as long as it is treated with due respect. But if it is slighted in any way, or removed from the house, misfortune and paranormal activity invariably ensue. The supernatural aspect typically manifests as uncanny auditory disturbances, hence the term “screaming skull”. Such troubles always persist until the skull is returned to its rightful position in the house.

There are several famous examples of guardian skulls throughout the country, including those at Calgarth Hall in Cumbria, Burton Agnes Hall in East Yorkshire, Tunstead Farm in Derbyshire and Wardley Hall in Lancashire. The Sowood House skull has been overlooked until recently and whilst it lacks the developed legend of other examples, it is rendered interesting due to the wider usage of images of the human head for apotropaic purposes in Calderdale during the Seventeenth Century, such as the archaic stone head at Coley Hall nearby. Sadly there is no record of what became of the skull following the police investigation of 1968.

For more information on the Sowood House skull, please refer to my extended article in Northern Earth Magazine, Issue 124 available here.

Slead Hall, Brighouse

Situated in extensive private grounds at Slead Syke between Brighouse and Hove Edge, Slead Hall is almost entirely obscured from prying eyes. Its profile once dominated the hillside but as the trees and housing around it have grown increasingly dense, the ivy-swathed gates facing onto Halifax Road are the only public evidence of its existence. A house was first recorded on the site in 1316, although the present Slead Hall is thought to have been constructed in 1636. It was divided into two private dwellings in 1910 and later used to hold Italian PoWs during World War Two.

Sometime during the 1960s or 1970s, this building was the scene of a grisly discovery, when during renovations, workmen exposed the desiccated but perfectly preserved corpse of a cat which had been bricked up in the walls, presumably since the house was originally build in the 17th Century. The find was recalled by a member of Brighouse Historical Society and related to the author John Billingsley, who mentions it in his publication, West Yorkshire Folktales.

The profusion of such articles unearthed in the walls or roof-spaces of buildings constructed between the 16th and 17th Century indicates that they were placed there deliberately, not just animals that became trapped and died. Some examples even had their legs bound together to prevent escape, as the desiccation process was effected by placing the cat in an airtight cavity and allowing it to suffocate or starve to death. Such discoveries are often erroneously referred to as mummified cats, but the term “dried cats” is more accurate.

Dried cats are only one of a variety of apparently protective talismans interred in buildings during this period, with witch bottles, horse skulls and even human skulls also popular. A couple of hundred dried cats have been documented across the country, their frequency only outstripped by old shoes. However, oral accounts suggest that countless more have been discovered over the years but not properly recorded, as superstitious owners may leave them in place, whilst others simply do not recognise the significance of such a find.

Indeed, the exact significance of dried cats is still hotly contested amongst academic folklorists and social historians. A number of examples have been found deliberately positioned to look as if they were on the hunt, which has led some deflationary scholars, such as Richard Sabin of the Natural History Museum and curator of an exhibition of curiosities in this vein, to suggest that cats were placed in the walls in the belief that they would deter mice, like some macabre domestic scarecrow.

Yet this theory fails to account adequately for all the facts. It ignores associated finds such as shoes or horses skulls and that such items are typically found concealed near liminal points, especially doorways, windows, gables and chimneys. This seems to favour the more common interpretation that the function of all these items was indeed talismanic, designed to prevent malignant forces gaining access to the house, especially witches, fear of whom was at its height during the 17th Century.

The significance of a cat specifically in this context also remains debated. One theory holds that their use stemmed from the magical principle “like cures like”, aimed at the popular belief that witches kept cats as familiar spirits. Another school of thought suggests that it is a corrupted remembrance of the much older tradition of foundation sacrifice, well attested in Britain during the Iron Age, whereby animals and even humans were killed as an offering to the gods in order to secure protection for the building and their remains laid beneath the foundations.

Published in: on August 4, 2010 at 09:53  Leave a Comment  
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St. Helen’s Well, Stainland

The eastern portion of the hilltop village of Stainland, above Elland, is known as Holywell Green, on account of St. Helen’s Well, a renown healing well the sad remnants of which can be seen beside Station Road. The well stood near a former Catholic chapel also dedicated to St. Helen, which by the 18th Century had been converted into a private dwelling, although a carved cross was still built into its walls.

In 1597, a charity inquiry recorded “St. Ellen Chapel, Stainland” as already “decayed”, suggesting it was probably abandoned during the Reformation earlier that century. The well itself was first recorded in print by Dr. John Watson in his 1775 work “The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Halifax”, in which he also mentions record of a Henry de Sacro Fonte de Staynland (Henry of the Sacred Well of Stainland) living in the area in the 13th Century.

It is likely that the chapel was dedicated for the well, rather than the other way round as St. Helen was a popular patron of holy wells in Britain, and seems to have been imposed on those wells which already had a reputation for sanctity long before the coming of Christianity. The exact traditions of the well have been lost, although Watson records that Catholics were still making pilgrimages to it in the late 18th Century.

The Victorian fashion for spa-waters saw a resurgence in the popularity of the well, when crowds would gather at  such springs on the morning of Spaw Sunday (the first Sunday of May) to “take the waters” for therapeutic purposes. As a result of this revival, a spring beside Station Road was restored in 1843, although a late 19th Century woodcut shows that by that period it had once more been left to fall into ruin.

Today, this well is something of a pitiful prospect. Whilst it was again restored in 1977 and still stands today, the spring itself has long since dried up due to building work in the area lowering the water table. It is now little more than a trough used for flowers, whilst the views it once commanded across the valley have been disfigured by an ugly estate of modern bungalows. A hostelry named Holy Well Inn still stands nearby.

Curiously, however, there is no historical basis for the original holy well at the extant 1843 site, despite the name of this part of the village. Local antiquarian J.A. Heginbottom argues that the original site is more likely to have been just over half a mile away at Helen Hill Farm on Jagger Green Lane in the valley below. Here, there is a stone cistern with three compartments dating from approximately the late 18th Century, still fed by a spring rising nearby.

Archaic Stone Heads

These distinctive stone carvings of the human head can be found distributed throughout the South Pennines and represent a unique centuries-old tradition, the exact origins and purposes of which has been the subject of considerable debate amongst folklorists and historians since the custom was first noticed by academia in the mid-20th Century. Lying at the very heart of the region, Calderdale is especially abundant in such images with approximately 150 documented and whilst the upper valley tends to be richer (as is so often the case), prominent manifestations of the art have been recorded on a building at Pinnar Lane in Southowram, on the gateway at Coley Hall and in a courtyard at Shibden Hall, whilst free-standing examples have been uncovered at Shibden, Greetland, Brighouse and Elland.

These carvings have been dubbed “archaic heads” by folklorist John Billingsley (who has written extensively on the subject) to distinguish them from the more obviously representational and finely worked “Classical” head. Archaic stone heads are primarily features of vernacular architecture and whilst they vary in style most appear to be rather coarsely rendered, although this is often a case of deliberate stylisation rather than any lack of skill on the part of the sculptor. Typically, the face is circular or ovoid with relatively flat features, whilst a triangular nose is carved in relief continuous with the eye ridges. Eyes tend to be amygdaliform and lentoid; the mouth a slit or “cigarette hole” lacking lips or teeth. Other characteristics such as the representation of facial hair are occasionally found, whilst some instances are janiform or tri-cephalic.

Common locations to find archaic stone heads on buildings include above doorways and windows and on chimneys, gables and eaves. They are also found on gateways and bridges, occasionally built into field-walls and sometimes buried, especially in the case of the free-standing examples. Their precise function has been the subject of much speculation, but it is generally thought that they are associated with pre-modern concepts of liminality, as they are so often found at threshold locations. As such, they act as boundary guardians and mediators, a physical representation of a tutelary spirit. The fact that many such carvings are found in positions where they are difficult to see supports the theory that they were primarily “magical” devices rather than decorative motifs.

The phenomenon of archaic stone heads first came to public attention in the 1970s when the Director of Bradford Museums Service Sidney Jackson mounted an exhibition of examples he had collected during his tenure. By the time of his death, he had catalogue over 600 instances. Jackson himself dubbed the carvings “Celtic” stone heads, whilst noted Celtic scholar Dr. Anne Ross proclaimed the exhibition represented evidence of a remarkable continuity of tradition in the South Pennines. However, the Celtic designation has been the source of some controversy since Jackson’s exhibition. Certainly Celtic cultures are known to have venerated the image of the head, similarly believing it to possess an apotropaic function and some of the examples uncovered in the region may indeed date to the Iron Age or Romano-British period.

Other examples, however, are much more recent and the tradition was still thriving in Calderdale and surrounding areas up until the 19th Century. Whether this is evidence of a surviving Celtic tradition in the South Pennines as Anne Ross suggests is hard to assess. Some historians such as Ronald Hutton have entirely dismissed the idea of survivals of this nature and antiquity, asserting that many traditions dubbed Celtic by mid-20th Century folklorists are unlikely to be older than the late medieval period. If this hypothesis is correct, then the archaic head represents not a uniquely Celtic icon but one that has arisen in the folk tradition of many different periods and cultures, suggesting a commonality in the collective human psyche which some find just as interesting.

On the other hand, historians base their findings purely on documentary evidence, whilst the whole crux of the folklorists’ arguments is that the oral tradition may have preserved beliefs for centuries before they were written down. Moreover, if archaic stone heads were an isolated phenomenon, then the Celtic theory might not seem so feasible. But the South Pennines is an area teeming with customs for which a Celtic origin can at least be suggested from well-dressing to sacred stones, and there are numerous examples of that other manifestation of head-lore, the screaming skull. It is also relevant that until the 7th Century AD the region formed the heart of Elmet, the last surviving Celtic kingdom in England and that prior to the Industrial Revolution, the area was profoundly isolated from outside influences.

Further support is lent by the justification for the carvings offered by local residents. Some carvings were thought to represent an individual who’d died during the construction of the building on which the image is found, and it has been suggested that this echoes the Celtic practice of foundation sacrifice to ensure the “luck” of the dwelling. A more common explanation is that heads were carved on the building to ward off evil spirits and whilst this is a rather simplistic interpretation of the heads’ liminal tutelary role, it suggests a persistence of the apotropaic function in the local folk memory. As late as 1971 the landlord of the Old Sun Inn in Haworth was advised by one of his regulars to place a carved stone head above the doorway to lay a ghost which was supposedly haunting the establishment.

Ultimately, it will be impossible to “prove” whether such a belief system could have survived for over two thousand years and arguably, it is most prudent to adopt towards the question an attitude of what the poet John Keats called negative capability, whereby you entertain all possible theories without feeling the need to settle on any definitive answer. However, when all the various factors are accounted for, the possibility of an enduring Celtic tradition does not seem so unlikely. There can be no doubt that the design of archaic heads known to date from the 17th Century is remarkably similar to those of heads known to date from the Iron Age, whilst their ritual function has much in common with certain types of magical, pre-modern thinking which were especially characteristic of Celtic culture.

Copyright Kai Roberts

St. Peter’s Church, Hartshead


Although this church lies on the very border of Calderdale with Kirklees, its status as an integral part of the ancient parish of Hartshead-cum-Clifton means that its associations with the region are strong enough to warrant its inclusion here. It is one of the oldest churches in the district and a place of worship is first recorded at the site in 1120 when the Earl of Warren granted it to the Priory of Lewes, although it was possibly the location of an earlier Saxon chapel. Although the church was extensively restored in 1881, the chancel arch, west tower and south door are believed to be remnants of the 12th Century Norman structure.

Arguably, the church’s greatest claim to fame is that Reverend Patrick Brontë, father of the famous literary sisters, was incumbent here between 1810 and 1815. The Luddite attack on Cartwright Mill at Rawfolds occurred during his tenure and his memoirs from that period provided his daughter Charlotte with material for her novel “Shirley”. Although Brontë was an opponent of the Luddite movement, it is said that one night he witnessed some of the men killed during the failed assault receive a surreptitious burial in the south-eastern corner of the churchyard and did not intervene. There is still a space where their unmarked graves lie.

It was a curious local superstition for Hartshead folk to hold a vigil in the porch of the church every year on St. Mark’s Eve (24th April) from 11pm to 1am. The vigil had to be carried out for three years in succession and on the third year, the watchers were supposed to witness the spirits of all those who would die in the year ahead process into the church. It is said that if anybody whose name was mentioned as amongst those seen on St. Mark’s Eve fell ill during the course of the following year, they often despaired of recovery and some are actually supposed to have died as a result of their anxiety arising from such gossip.

Given the proximity of Kirklees Park and the long association of the Armytage family with the church, it is unsurprising that a couple of Robin Hood legends have attached themselves to it. It is said locally that he cut his last arrows from a yew tree in the churchyard, the dead trunk of which can still be seen standing there today. Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society has suggested that the original stone from his grave — recorded by Nathaniel Johnston and others in the 17th Century but which some believe vanished from the grave site long ago — may be the medieval slab inscribed with a simple Calvary cross lying next to the south-east door of the church. However, this has been disputed.

Just to the north of the church, now almost entirely concealed beneath a hawthorn tree, lies the Lady Well. The origin of the name is likely to be Our Lady’s Well, referring to the Virgin Mary, which suggests it was once an important holy well used for baptisms in the earliest period of Christianity in England. Local historian H.N. Pobjoy thinks it possible that the 7th Century missionary and first Archbishop of York Paulinus may have performed baptisms here and like many such wells, it was probably regarded as sacred long before the arrival of Christianity. It’s presence certainly attests to the antiquity of worship around the site of the church.

The Pace Egg Play

Whilst the Pace Egg Play in Calderdale is nowadays confined to the upper stretches of the valley, especially Midgley, Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall, the tradition was recorded in Brighouse, Hipperholme, Elland and Greetland during the 19th Century. The Play, a form of folk drama performed on the streets of such towns by a troupe of local actors annually on Good Friday, is a distinctive version of the Mummers Plays which have been performed across England for centuries during religious festivals, chiefly at Christmas or All Souls Day in many areas. The Pace Egg variant is found primarily in West Yorkshire and Lancashire and is characteristic in occurring at Easter, typically on Good Friday. Indeed, the name “Pace” is a corruption of the Latin word “Paschal” which is a liturgical term for Easter.

The basic structure of the Pace Egg narrative is consistent with mummers plays across the country. The hero, usually portrayed as Saint George, confronts a number of antagonists, represented in the Calder Valley by the Black Prince of Paradine, Hector and the Bold Slasher. George boasts of his prowess in combat but is nonetheless slain or mortally wounded in a duel with the Bold Slasher and subsequently resurrected by the medicine of the Doctor. There are also a number of incidental characters in the drama, including a Fool figure known as in the Calder Valley as Toss Pot, who rejoices when George rises from the dead and generally capers throughout the play. Following the performance, the participants circulate collecting donations from the onlookers.

A number of factors distinguish the Calder Valley version besides the date of its performance. The first is the elaborate costumes and headgear worn. The players are typically attired in red tunics and most uniquely, teetering hats garlanded with flowers, the design and construction of which is a matter of some pride. The second is the performance of the Pace Egg Song sung by the cast at the end of the play, the melody and lyrics of which are unknown elsewhere. Meanwhile, it is recorded that in the 19th Century, the Brighouse and Hipperholme presentation of the play was accompanied by dancing to an air known as the Kirkby Malzeard Sword Dance tune, a tradition which seems to be unique to those settlements in the lower valley and not documented even elsewhere in Calderdale.

The precise origin of Pace Egging is controversial. Throughout most of the 20th Century, folklorists under the influence of Victorian anthropologist Sir James Frazer believed the play to have pre-Christian origins. Prior to the circulation of a standardised text in chapbooks during the 1830s, the script of the play had been passed down orally and it was often assumed that such oral transmission could extend far back into the midsts of time in isolated communities. Moreover, the apparent theme of death and rebirth, echoing the cycling of the seasons, was – according to folklorists in the Frazerian tradition – a form of ritualised sympathetic magic, designed to ensure the continued coming of spring. This interpretation is still believed by many today, often including the players themselves, appearing in their promotional material.

However, more recently scholars such as Eddie Cass in his book The Pace Egg Plays of the Calder Valley have argued that such a reading is fanciful. Although the narrative of the play is thought to be based on a story in Richard Johnson’s 1596 work History of the Seven Champions of Christendom, no reference to the play has been found prior to the early 1700s. Whilst such references suggest it was already well-established by that time and it was not common for earlier commentators to discuss what they perceived as vulgar folk traditions, many social historians now doubt that it existed much before the 18th Century. Rather than a ritual drama, the play is now believed to be a “legitimised wealth transaction,” essentially a socially acceptable form of begging in a form enjoyed by both rich and poor and confined to appropriate times.

Such sober, deflationary accounts of calendar customs are very much in academic fashion at the moment and as academic fashion changes as often as the wind, the truth may be altogether more obscure. Even assuming the play doesn’t significantly pre-date the 18th Century, a continuity of tradition over three hundred years through such upheavals as the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars is not to be sniffed at. Whilst Pace Egging did substantially die out following the Great War, it was successfully revived in Calderdale during the mid-Twentieth Century and endures today. The play was still performed in Brighouse by the Brighouse Children’s Theatre from 1949 but alas faltered during the 1990s. However, in the upper valley it is still going strong in the hands of the pupils of Calder Valley High and should continue for years to come.

Published in: on April 2, 2010 at 21:35  Leave a Comment  
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Elland Traditions

Today, the practice of mumming or guising is primarily confined to Halloween. However, in earlier centuries it was much more widespread. Writing in 1901, the Elland historian Lucy Hamerton recalled that on New Year’s Eve in her youth “unless we kept our doors locked, our houses were invaded by troops of mummers, who, dressed in various odd costumes and armed with brushes, came to ‘sweep the old year out'”.

Folklorist Bob Pegg records this as a popular tradition in the South Pennines during the 18th and 19th Century. and although Ms. Hamerton does not mention the fact, it is probable that the “sweepers” would demand a few pennies for their trouble once the custom had been enacted. Despite its ritual character, such behaviour was essentially a legitimised form of begging, rather like mummers plays such as the Pace Egg.

Mummers or guisers would’ve been a common site in northern Britain during the 18th and 19th Century at religious festivals, when it was considered acceptable for the poor to solicit alms from their wealthier neighbours. Their outlandish dress and coal-blackened faces were adopted as a disguise, designed to have a liberating effect and permit the wearer to behave in ways which in other circumstances would’ve been frowned upon.

However, such traditions were still regarded as a nuisance by the richer families, as is clear from Hamerton’s quote. Their sinister appearance led to them being regarded with fear by the children of such families and as the daughter of a wealthy physician with a grand house on Westgate, Hamerton would certainly have fallen into this category in her childhood during the 1820s and 1830s.

Meanwhile, a more benign popular tradition in Elland in the 1830s would see youths gathering on public holidays at The Cross in the centre of the town and pair off to stand side by side in as long a double line as could be formed by the numbers participating. Each couple would stand approximately five yards apart, holding a brightly coloured handkerchief or other piece of cloth between them.

At the signal, they would raise their arms so the handkerchiefs were held aloft forming a colourful arch and at a further signal, the rearmost couple would run hand-in-hand down the centre of the two rows beneath the garlands. When they reached the front, they would adopt a new position in the line and the whole process would start again from the back.

It thus formed a sort of running procession, with the outer ranks apparently stationary and a flurry of activity going on at its core. The practice was to travel all the way around the central streets of Elland up Ainley Road and finally return to the starting place at The Cross. The tradition is known as “garland dancing” and was popular in many Pennine mill towns during the Industrial Revolution.

Local mill owners encouraged the dance for the morale and health of their workers, and the event apparently attracted a large number of spectators who would cheer the parade on. It was clearly a very popular display and a writer in the Halifax Guardian in the early 20th Century recalled seeing “the colourful silk handkerchiefs, the girls’ comely forms and vigorous frames” with unsurprising fondness.

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 22:01  Comments (2)  
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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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Brighouse Rush Week

The custom of rush-bearing, once widespread in north-west England in the 18th and 19th Centuries, was a religious festival in which rushes were gathered to cover the floor of local churches in preparation for the wet winter months ahead, typically on the date of the festival of the saint to whom the parish church was dedicated. The rushes would be elaborately thatched on a wagon dubbed the rush-cart which then processed through the district distributing rushes to the churches, accompanied by various festivities. Although the tradition largely died out in the early 20th Century, it has been revived in a number of towns in recent years, including Sowerby Bridge from 1977 onwards, where it is now performed on the first weekend in September.

Brighouse rush-bearing occurred on the first Saturday after the second Thursday in August and the celebrations traditionally lasted for four days, with maypoles, folk-dancing and probably a great deal of drunkenness. Curiously, the ceremony is known to have taken place long before a church was built in Brighouse (St. Martin’s was not constructed until 1831), yet there is no record of rush-bearing at Lightcliffe, Coley, Rastrick, Hartshead or Southowram, where churches did exist prior to this date. Given that there was no church to be dedicated to any particular saint, it is also unclear exactly how the remarkably precise date was arrived at. Nor is the exact purpose of the rush-cart obvious in the absence of a church, so it may be that Brighouse folk simply adopted the idea from neighbouring communities in Calderdale as an excuse to have a big party.

The original rush-bearing festival in Brighouse had died out by the middle of the 18th Century. However, a fair on the associated dates continued to be held in Swan Field, which lay alongside the still extant Black Swan pub. The feast would attract such an influx of gipsies, fortune-tellers and peddlers that by 1855 it had outgrown Swan Field and was moved to the Black Bull cricket field. Now all manner of attractions began to appear, including Hudson’s Waxworks, Claver’s Marionette Theatre, Wilde’s Australian Troupe and Calvert’s Exhibition of Automata. Meanwhile, in 1865 a rush-cart was built again for the first time in seventy years and paraded around the town led by a man wielding a five-foot long whip. Despite this brief revival, however, rush-bearing in the town seems to have died out again shortly afterwards.

The fair usually began on a Thursday and lasted four days until Thump Sunday, a name which apparently derived from the notion that it was permissible on this day to thump somebody who entered a pub and refused to pay for his drink. People from across the district would descend upon the town with the railway company estimating some three-thousand passengers alighted at Brighouse on Thump Sunday in 1859. The railway would also organise an outing by local Sunday school groups. Another Thump Sunday custom was the consumption of Thump Pudding, a dessert similar to plum pudding or Christmas cake which was consumed with custard.

As the years went on the fair began to extend beyond Thump Sunday into the following week, paving the way for Rush Week, the traditional “Wakes Week” in Brighouse which would take place on the Monday and Tuesday after Thump Sunday. Wakes Weeks were established in the 1880s when parliamentary legislation guaranteed mill workers two days holiday and so all businesses in the district closed. The tradition was not officially adopted in Brighouse until 1908.  Thump Sunday had became known as the day on which people would set off for seaside holidays and horns would sound at dawn to rouse those embarking on such journeys. However, by the 1960s Rush Week had all but died out as workers were guaranteed more holiday time across the year and local firms fell into the ownership of outside companies who did not recognise the tradition.

The custom of rush-bearing in general is thought to have developed in the late Middle Ages. Whilst it is not recorded until the Elizabethan Reformation, it was clearly already well-established by that time. In 1571, the Archbishop of York condemned the practice as irreligious and it was outlawed by local Justices of the Peace, with two spinsters in Lancashire prosecuted for “carrying garlanded rushes” in 1590. In 1617, however, King James I gave the custom his personal blessing and was expressly legalised in the “Declaration of Sports”. Inevitably, the tradition was again banned by the Puritan Westminster Assembly of Divinites following the Civil Wars of the 1640s but the prohibition lapsed in 1660 and so it continued. However, even at its 18th and 19th Century zenith, the festival was frowned upon by the social elite, who disapproved of the attendant debauchery.

Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 21:38  Leave a Comment  
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