Curiosities of Coley Hall

The earliest references to settlement at Coley are found in the Wakefield Court Rolls in 1277 and 1286, pertaining to land owned there by Sir John de Coldelay, whose surname the word Coley was no doubt corrupted from. Later, in 1326, Brother Thomas Larchier, prior of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem recorded that Henry de Coldelay “held a certain tenement in Coldelay of their house,” which is to say that de Coldelay rented the land from the Knights, for the sum of five shillings per annum. For such a tenure, the de Coldelays would have enjoyed certain privileges including not having to submit their corn to be ground at the mill of the Lord of the Manor, or “do suit at his court”.

The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights of Malta or the Knights Hospitaller, were a Christian military order originally established in 1080 to care for sick pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, their martial designation stemming from the frequent need to provide an armed guard during the Crusades. The Knights were granted an exemption from all but papal authority and from the payment of tithes, whilst they were gifted land across Christendom from which to draw an income. In England, however, all property of the Knights was confiscated during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540 whereupon their land at Coley passed to the Manor of Batley.

The 17th Century Nonconformist preacher and diarist Oliver Heywood, who was for a time incumbent at Coley Chapel wrote that Coley was “once a priory in popish times” but whilst the Hospitalalers certainly owned the land, there is no primary historical or archaeological evidence to suggest they actually maintained a community on the site (although neither has it been strenuously sought). However, certain clues do remain in the name of nearby Priestley Green and the preponderance of holy wells in the area, including Helliwell Syke, Lister Well and St. John’s Well which was believed to possess healing powers and can still be found in a field above the hamlet at Coley Hall.

Nonetheless, several remembrances of the Hospitallers’ ownership of Coley do still endure. The patron saint of the Order was John the Baptist and in addition to St. John’s Well, Coley Church (built in 1812 on the site of the earlier 16th Century chapel) is similarly dedicated, whilst preserved inside the church is the original cross from Coley denoting its tenure. It is also interesting to note that John the Baptist was often depicted as a severed head and the gateway to Coley Hall features a particularly fine example of the archaic stone head motif. Although the relief was carved in 1649 more than a century after the Hospitallers had lost the land, that fact does not preclude the persistence of the image in the local psyche.

The land at Coley passed into the hands of the Sunderland family (of High Sunderland) on 29th April 1572 and it is thought that the body of the current Hall was built by Samuel Sunderland around 1640, passing to his nephew Langdale in 1646. During the Civil Wars, Langdale fought for the Royalists as a Captain of a Troop of Horse under the Earl of Newcastle and whilst he was resident at the Hall, it suffered badly from bombardment by passing Parliamentary troops, necessitating the rebuilding of its south frontage. The victorious Commonwealth later imposed a decimation tax on Langdale forcing him to sell Coley along with the family estates at High Sunderland.

In 1657 the new owner William Horton leased the Hall for fifteen years to Captain John Hodgson, who’d fought for the Parliamentarian cause in the Civil Wars. For a period, Hodgson gave refuge there to Oliver Heywood whose uncompromising Nonconformity had seen him driven out as vicar at Coley Chapel, jailed under the Acts of Uniformity in 1659, prosecuted for riotous assembly and twice excommunicated in 1662 and 1685. Heywood’s controversial reputation was such that he was even accused of witchcraft, when John Hanson declared that following a visit to Heywood’s house the wife of one B. Jagger had “got power” over a maid of Anthony Waterhouse, who soon died.

Over the next few hundred years, Coley Hall passed through the hands of a succession of owners until 1961 when it was bought by Richard Pickles who found it in a near-derelict state and set about restoring it. In articles for the Brighouse Echo dated 24th February and 24th March 1962, Mr. Pickles describes experiencing a number of hauntings at the Hall. In one particular room the bed seemed vibrate for no reason and his dog would growl at some invisible presence moving around the room, whilst a motor mechanic working in a garage converted from old stables adjacent to the Hall was the victim of poltergeist activity which saw him showered with soil and stones.

However, it was Mrs. Pickles who witness the apparitions most associated with the Hall when she was confronted by the figure of a Cavalier leaning against the mantle. This experience was echoed by testimony from Mr. G.E. Gudgin, trustee of the estate of the late John Herbert Fletcher whose wife Anne Sunderland had been the last member of that family to reside at Coley. Gudgin recalled being told by Fletcher that on one occasion he had descended for breakfast to find the ghostly figures of two cavaliers in the morning room. A neighbour also recalled Anne Sunderland once showing him a priest-hole in the Hall, where there was a bloodstain reputed to belong to a murdered cavalier found hiding there.

Some have speculated that one of the Cavalier ghosts was that of Langdale Sunderland, expressing his displeasure at the Hall’s later occupancy by his Parliamentarian rivals John Hodgson and Oliver Heywood. However, this doesn’t entirely fit as Langdale dies in 1698, long after Hodgson’s tenancy had ended and ownership of the Hall returned to the Sunderland family in 1775. Nonetheless, the Cavaliers were the most frequently seen spectres, even though there were supposedly others; Anne Sunderland also used to speak of the ghost of a white lady known as Caroline Anne who would appear from the oak panelled bedroom at the top of the main staircase.

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High Sunderland, Shibden

A vast castellated edifice festooned with grotesque carvings, perched high atop a hillside overlooking the Shibden Valley, High Sunderland must have been an imposing sight. It was surely one of the most remarkable buildings in Calderdale. Descriptions and surviving photographs of the hall make it seem the very epitome of the Gothic mansion so it is hardly a surprise that ghost stories attached themselves to such a place. Indeed, every rambling pile in the valley has probably had a good haunting attached to it at some stage in its history. But aside from the idiosyncrasy of the building itself, High Sunderland and its spectre are significant in having most likely been the inspiration for not only the eponymous dwelling in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights but also one of the most memorable episodes in the novel (a degree of verisimilitude entirely lacked by the better-known candidate, Top Withens).

A house is first recorded at High Sunderland in 1274 and the Sunderland family not long after that. The elaborate façade which so dominated the valley was probably an older medieval timber-framed structure encased in stone, completed in either 1587 for Richard Sunderland or in 1629 for his grandson Abraham. This building was justly famed for its crenellations and ornately carved stonework, including a veritable bestiary of grotesques and numerous Latin inscriptions. One such engraving over the south door bore the legend, “This place hates negligence, loves peace, punishes crimes, observes laws, honours virtuous persons”; whilst another over a window on the south front read “May the Almighty grant that the lineage of Sunderland may quietly inhabit this seat, and maintain the rights of their ancestors free from strife until an ant drink up the waters of the sea, and a tortoise walk around the whole world”.

Despite such entreaties, the history of the hall was not a particularly happy one. It slipped from possession of the Sunderland family in 1646 during the Civil Wars when the Parliamentary forces imposed a decimation tax on Langdale Sunderland for his role fighting for the Royalists as Captain of a Troop of Horse under the Earl of Newcastle, forcing him to sell the family estates. Over the centuries it passed through a succession of owners and by the early 20th Century it had been divided into separate tenements. During the 1940s mining activity in the area caused substantial subsidence and the house was declared unsafe. The owner at the time attempted to sell it to both the Halifax Corporation and the Bronte Society, but the cost of repair was estimated to be greater than the value of the property itself and so it was demolished in 1951, a sad end for such a singular and significant building.

High Sunderland’s Wuthering Heights connection dates to 1838, when Emily Brontë found work as a teacher at Law Hill School in Southowram, little over a mile from where High Sunderland stood. Although Emily’s time at Law Hill was not a happy one, it seems she was fond of the landscape – which had much in common with her beloved Haworth – and would often ride around the district, making it certain that High Sunderland was known to her. In the opening chapter of her famous novel, when Mr. Lockwood first approaches Wuthering Heights, he observes “a quantity of grotesque carvings lavished over the front…a wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys above the principal door,” a description which perfectly corresponds to the doorway at High Sunderland. It has also been ascertained that the floor-plan of the building had much in common with Brontë’s portrayal of the interior layout of Wuthering Heights.

If the correspondence between the floor plan of the real and imaginary building was indeed more than a coincidence that suggests Emily must have been a guest at High Sunderland on at least one occasion. Doubtless on just such a visit she would’ve been regaled with the ghost story, later recorded by R. Thurston Hopkins in his 1953 volume, Ghosts Over England. It tells how anybody sleeping in a certain room in the hall would awake in the dead of night to hear footsteps along the corridor outside and a fumbling at the door. Once the door had proved secure, the rattle of the handle would be followed some moments later by a tap at the window and if a person was brave enough to look out, they would see a disembodied hand rap against the glass several times before a peal of hideous laughter was heard. It was said the hand had once belonged to an “estimable and virtuous lady” unjustly accused of infidelity by her husband, who had then cut off the appendage in a fit of jealousy.

The story bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Lockwood’s ghostly dream in Chapter 3 of Wuthering Heights, when unable to return to his home at Thrushcross Grange due to a storm, he is forced to spend the night at Wuthering Heights. “I heard also the fir-bough repeat its teasing sound… it annoyed me so much that I resolved to silence it, if possible; and I thought I rose and endeavoured to unhasp the casement. The hook was soldered into the staple… ‘I must stop it, nevertheless!’ I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me. I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in — let me in!’ ‘Who are you?’ I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself.  ‘Catherine Linton,’ it replied shiveringly.”

The fields and lanes in the vicinity of High Sunderland in the hours around midnight were also reputed to be the haunt of a phantom white horse. A reference to this in the Evening Courier in April 1973, along with speculation that the apparition was largely folkloric and had not been seen by anybody in living memory, prompted a response from a Robert Whitehead of Illingworth who believed that he and his wife might have witnessed it twenty years previously when they had been walking home one night along Claremount Road towards Godley Bridge. He claims they saw a white horse running down the middle of the road and fearing that it could prove a danger to traffic, contacted the police. However, despite the squad car taking little time to arrive and proceeding to conduct a thorough search of the surrounding streets, Mr. Whitehead recalls that the horse was never found, having apparently vanished into thin air.