Coldwell Hill, Southowram

One day in 1896, labourers quarrying stone around Coldwell Hill—on the north side of Southowram, overlooking the Shibden valley—made an unexpected and macabre discovery. Buried deep beneath the field, they uncovered a stone vault containing an unusually large coffin, and within, the well-preserved skeleton of an adult male with “an exceedingly good set of teeth on the upper jaw”. A plate on the coffin lid bore an inscription informing them that they had stumbled on the resting place of “Jonathan Walsh—Born 1741—Died February 11th 1823—Aged 82 years”.

Although the history of Calderdale is not exactly short of colourful characters, few seem quite so Dickensian as Jonathan Walsh, who once owned the now-demolished Coldwell Hill and Lower Dove House farms at Southowram. A landowner, money-lender and textile manufacturer, Walsh was notorious in the district for his eccentricity, meanness and temper. Caroline Walker, resident at Walterclough Hall during his later years, bluntly refers to him in her diaries as “an old usurer” and “extremely importunate”.

Walsh indulged in frequent bouts of litigation against his neighbours, and was believed to spend at least a hundred pounds a year pursuit of this passion, a considerable sum at that time. It was said that he would “rather spend a pound for law than a penny for ale”. He was also known to ride around the area on a mule, bearing a whip which would be used on anybody who displeased him, whilst his speech was so uncouth and haranguing that Dr. Henry Coulthurst, the esteemed Vicar of Halifax from 1790 to 1817, used to hide if he saw the man coming. The clergy were apparently a favourite target for Walsh’s ire.

Perhaps his animosity towards organised religion accounted for his unusual mode of burial. Rather than choosing to be interred in consecrated ground, he left instructions that he should be laid to rest on his own property. Thus, after his death at a house on Horton Street in Halifax, the pall-bearers set out at midnight, carrying Walsh’s coffin back to his home at Southowram. As he had been a man of some considerable stature—well over six foot tall, by all accounts—it cannot have been an easy task to haul that burden up Beacon Hill, some years before the construction of the Godley Cutting.

Walsh’s inhumation was conducted by candlelight at four o’ clock in the morning, and in further defiance of religious convention, he’d directed that he be buried with his head to the east. The spot he had chosen was in the corner of a field near where Pump Lane meets the ancient holloway variously known as Dark Lane, Magna Via or Wakefield Gate, still a well-used route into Halifax at the time. His wife had previously been buried in the same field; however, Mr. Walsh had also given instructions that he was to be planted in the opposite corner!

The reason Walsh had selected for his grave a spot so close to the former highway seems typical of his perverse character. In 1924 (whilst wondering whether Walsh’s biography had been related to Emily Brontë in 1837 when she taught at Law Hill School nearby), the venerable Halifax historian T.W. Hanson noted: “The old packhorse road passed through his land, and Walsh was provoked many times because the weavers and others would trespass over his fields instead of keeping to the road. Tradition says he was buried close to the road so that his ghost might haunt the travellers”.

Sadly, no sightings of Jonathan Walsh’s irate revenant have been recorded, but it seems inevitable that for some time after his interment, the superstitious locals will have regarded the area with dread, especially as the grave was on unconsecrated ground. For instance, Philip Ahier mentions that during the Nineteenth Century, a stretch of woodland near Kirkburton was avoided by locals, who feared they would meet the ghost of a woman who had received an unconsecrated burial there. Perhaps it was not just the construction of the Godley Cutting which caused Wakefield Gate to fall into disuse…

However, it seems that the local folk Jonathan Walsh so despised had the last laugh. Although Walsh’s land originally passed to his grandson, it was eventually absorbed into the Shibden Hall estate and then leased to the quarrying company, Maude & Dyson. Following the discovery of Walsh’s mortal remains in 1896, the enterprising firm saw no need to respect the dead and instead, placed the bones on public display, charging the spectators two pence each to inspect them. Over the following days, thousands of people visited the grisly attraction, until finally the skeleton was “kicked to pieces by drunkards”.

6 Law Lane, Southowram

On 25th September 1948, this terraced cottage in Southowram, also known as Craggan, was the scene of most brutal murder. The seventy year old occupant, Ernest Hargreaves Westwood, was discovered by his neighbour just before noon of that day, lying on his bed with severe head injuries. He was rushed to Halifax Infirmary but died later in the afternoon. The crime outraged the hilltop village. Westwood had been a well-respected member of the community, serving as organist and choir master at the nearby Methodist church and despite having retired from his main career, he continued to work collecting small debts in the district.

Police did not have to wait long to find their culprit, who turned himself in the following Monday pleading “I didn’t mean to kill him. I lost my temper.” The murderer was Arthur George Osborne, a twenty-eight year old originally from Bognor Regis, who’d been living locally for several years. He was recently unemployed, whilst his wife had been committed to Storthes Hall mental hospital in Kirklees. He claimed that the murder was the result of a burglary that had gone wrong and he had only killed Westwood accidentally during a confrontation, striking him on the head several times with the handle of the screwdriver he’d used to effect entry.

During the trial, it emerged that not only was Osborne a murderer, he was also a potential bigamist. A second marriage to a girl in Chichester had been due to take place on the day of the murder but it was cancelled when he failed to appear. Despite a recommendation by the defense that he be charged with the lesser crime of manslaughter, the jury returned a verdict of murder on December 1st. At this time, all such verdicts carried a mandatory capital sentence and whilst the judge appealed for clemency, the Home Secretary saw no reason to make an exception and Osborne was hanged at Armley Jail on December 30th 1948.

The house on Law Lane in which the murder had taken place remained empty for a couple of years after the act, during which time it acquired something of an evil reputation amongst local folk, scarcely surprising for a building with such a macabre history and air of abandonment. When Police Constable Vincent Egan moved into the cottage with his wife in 1950, they were fully aware of its past but remained undeterred. Nonetheless, prior to their subsequent departure from the village in January 1954, Mrs. Egan told the Brighouse Echo of a mysterious disturbance she’d experienced during her first week in the house.

It was a dark and stormy night, as is so often the case in such stories, not to mention in the hilltop village of Southowram. Her husband had gone out to walk his evening beat so Mrs. Egan was alone in the house, which still lacked a “warm, occupied atmosphere”. No sooner had she gone to bed than she her heard a rapping from above her head and from the corner of her eye saw the trapdoor into the underdrawing seemingly rise and fall of it own accord. As it continued to do so, she fled the building to search for her husband. He assured her that it must be a draught but given the reputation of the house, many at the time thought otherwise.

Published in: on September 10, 2010 at 19:25  Comments (12)  
Tags: , ,

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

Daisy Croft, Brighouse

The cottages at Daisy Croft, named after a corn mill which had stood on that site beside the River Calder since the Norman period, were probably already a couple of hundred years old when they were demolished in 1905 to make way for the Brighouse Assembly Rooms and they would once have adjoined the Anchor Inn and faced the Black Swan in Queen Anne’s Square. Sadly this formerly thriving area between Brighouse and Bridge End is today little more than a traffic thoroughfare and car-park in the shadow of the derelict silos of Sugden’s Mill. But in July 1887, Daisy Croft was the location of a curious and macabre episode in Brighouse social history.

At the time, the cottage Number 23, was occupied by Mrs. Sykes and her teenage son, who’d moved into the dwelling a couple of years previously. One day whilst the boy was cleaning in an upstairs room, his attention was drawn to a small vent hole in the ceiling. Squeezing himself through the narrow aperture into the void beyond, amidst the darkness and centuries’ accumulated detritus he was soon startled to run his hand over something which felt very much like bone. Unnerved, he hurriedly returned to the light of the room below, carrying his discovery with him and sure enough, on closer inspection he realised he’d found a human arm and leg bone.

A local physician, Dr. Bond, was summoned and concluded they belonged to the right side of a young human female. He also speculated from the state of preservation that when they were concealed, they probably still had human flesh upon them. The discovery and Bond’s subsequent conjectures caused a great stir in the town. Rumours circulated that it was the skeleton of a young woman who’d disappeared some years previously and that when she was found, she was still wearing a jewelled ring on her bony finger. The frenzy was stoked by the fact that Mrs. Sykes began to display the bones in the cottage and charged admittance to see them, attracting hundreds of visitors per day until the police removed the remains for reburial.

Subsequent investigation revealed, however, that the truth was less grisly than many had supposed at the time, although no less bizarre. It transpired that in the early 19th Century the cottage had been used as the surgery of one Doctor Hopkinson. He was regarded in his day as a specialist in a number of diseases but he was also known for having a drink problem and a morbid sense of humour. Some of the older people in the town recalled that he kept a human skeleton in his consulting room and when he was under the influence of alcohol, would delight in using it to terrify his young and elderly patients. Unsurprisingly, the police concluded the bones were most likely to have been left there by Hopkinson, maybe by accident or maybe as some further practical joke from beyond the grave.

The exhibition of human remains was evidently a common practice in Brighouse during the late 19th Century. An article in the Brighouse Echo dated 18th July 1952 records that more than half a century previously a coffin had been unearthed during quarrying at Southowram.  It contained the skeleton of a local landowner named Dan Maude, who’d died at least fifty years before that, leaving instructions that he was to be buried on his own land. The bones were exhumed and placed on public display, with local people charged two-pence each to view the macabre spectacle. However, it is recorded that it was “eventually kicked to pieces by drunkards”. One doubts the outcome would have been any different had the skeleton been displayed in the district in more recent times.

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Southowram

An article published in the Evening Courier on 29th June 1983 recounts the story of a mysterious apparition which apparently manifested following the wedding of Martyn Rhodes and Jacqueline Longstaff at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Southowram. As the couple departed from the church following the ceremony, they were filmed by the groom’s uncle, Derek Rhodes, located in the gallery above and whilst they were posing for photographs at the entrance, an old woman in black mourning attire including a veil was allegedly caught on the film, appearing to speak before fading away.

Nobody in the wedding party recalled seeing such a person, who would surely have been conspicuous in the small chapel, whilst the church steward of 25 years, Arthur Coates, denies knowledge of any such woman in the regular congregation. However, it is interesting that according to the Courier article, nobody other than Mr. Rhodes – who was “on holiday” at the time – had seen the film when the report was published and there appears to be no follow up article. Efforts by author Andy Owen to trace the Rhodes have proved unsuccessful, whilst the chapel closed due to dwindling congregations in 2005 and was converted into apartments.

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 15:46  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Blaithroyd Farm, Southowram

In his 1983 book “Yorkshire’s Ghosts and Legends,” Terrence Whitaker relates the story of a haunting at a property near Bank Top (the area of Southowram before the hill descends towards Halifax) in February 1962. The tenant Mr. John Harris was alone in the house whilst his wife was in hospital after having a baby. and one night at around eleven o’ clock  when suddenly he heard “a resounding crash… the cat leapt up and appeared to fly around the room several inches from the ground, howling in terror,” followed by the sound of “giant footsteps crossing the room overhead, from one corner to the other, slowly and very loud”. Harris investigated but found nothing which might account for the phenomena. Upon discussing the experience with his neighbour the following morning he was told that he would have to get used to such disturbances, as she had heard them herself many times over the years.

Subsequent research by Mr. Harris revealed that the house he occupied had once been part of Blaithroyd Farm, formerly Blaithe Rood, where accordingly to John Crabtree in his “Concise History of the Parish and Vicarage of Halifax” occupancy dates back to at least the 14th Century. Crabtree goes on to claim that in the late 16th Century, during the reign of Elizabeth I when the practice of Catholicism was banned, papists would gather to worship there in secrecy. He also says “a little distant from the house was also some ground in the delph-brow called the burying-place”. In apparent confirmation, Whitaker writes that builders excavating land behind the house prior to the tenancy of Mr. Harris had in fact disturbed a mass burial site which they took for a plague pit or an internment following the 1643 Civil War skirmish at Bloody Field on the lower flanks of Beacon Hill nearby. Such history is certainly ripe with potential for unquiet spirits.

Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 21:18  Comments (4)  
Tags: , , ,

Boggart House, Southowram

Standing all alone at the end of Ashday Lane which runs down from Southowram and overlooking Cromwell Bottom, Boggart House is certainly evocatively located. In an article from the Brighouse Echo dated 11th September 1981, even their bluff local history correspondent “Rowan” is moved to admit “the magnificent sweep of land up to Ashday… (has) a peculiar brooding beauty”. It is also interesting to note that in other columns pertaining to his childhood in the early 20th Century, Rowan refers to this small tributary valley as the “Fairy Glen”. Whether this name suggests any authentic local tradition or just an Edwardian penchant for artificial romanticism is not clear.

Boggart House was originally constructed in the early 19th Century to serve as a gatehouse for Ashday Hall, which stands some little way above it. Ashday Hall itself is a venerable structure, with land connected to the de Astay family first recorded there in 1275. In the 14th Century, the tenancy fell into the hands of the Holdsworth Family and the present Hall was constructed by William Holdsworth between 1713 and 1738. Due to debt, it passed into the hands of the Drake family in 1792 and it was Thomas Drake who in the 1830s improved the estate, erecting the residence today known as Boggart House and an observatory on the hill behind it. Rowan recalls the house standing derelict by the 1920s and remained so until 1961 when it was purchased by Mr. Peter Turner and renovated.

It is uncertain exactly when Boggart House gained a reputation for being haunted. The recollections of Barry Chapman in “Childhood Memories of Southowram Village in the 1950s” suggest it was certainly known to children as such in that decade, whilst an entry in a series entitled “Country Walks Around Brighouse” first published in the Echo by the Brighouse Civic Trust in the early 1970s claims the house “once had a reputation for being haunted.” Equally, the exact nature of the haunting is vague. Speaking in the 1981 Echo article, Rowan blithely describes it as “a house legend claims is shared with spectres, goblins and bogeymen,” whilst Peter Turner revealed that a relative had witnessed a “little man with a ginger beard” in a cupboard and describes “strange noises which I have been unable to trace and lights going on and off for no apparent reason”.

However, perhaps the name of the house suggests an even older provenance. “Boggart” is an ancient Yorkshire dialect word for a capricious household spirit (a cousin of the Scottish brownie) who would help with domestic chores providing they were rewarded with a bowl of milk each night. But if the boggart felt unappreciated it would often take umbrage and start to display poltergeist-like characteristics, whilst several regional folk tales emphasise just how hard they were to get rid of. As a result “boggart” tended to be used idiomatically to describe any sort of unusual activity from the structure of a house settling at night to a horse inexplicably taking fright. Certainly, there are no shortage of boggart place names in the Calder Valley, including a Boggart Chair at Ellen Royde in Midgley, the Boggart Stones above Widdop and Boggart Well near Ogden Reservoir.

Boggart House, Ashday Lane, Southowram