From Halifax to Tuscany: The Piece Hall


The Piece Hall, Halifax: part of the 66 000 foot square piazza

In the September blog, “The Passage of Desire, behind every title a story, Part 1”, I talked about the book’s French connexion. While Part 2 is gently marinating, I’d like to share a bit of history about Halifax, the Yorkshire town where I was born, which lies 8 miles away from Haworth, the principal setting for the novella.

August 1st this year (Yorkshire Day) marked another Halifax ‘birth’, this one (unlike mine) accompanied by great fanfare and media attention: the newly-restored Piece Hall was at last revealed to the public. The Historic England website describes it as a Grade 1 listed building of ‘dramatic design’, a ‘rare surviving example’ of its kind, drawing particular attention to ‘the scale and architectural grandeur of this monumental cloth hall…’

North Entrance. Big.

We were on a visit to the UK, so went to see what all the fuss was about and found ourselves having a ‘back of the wardrobe’ experience. Stepping out of an ordinary street in a northern town, we emerged in Renaissance Italy. On the other side of  the immense North Gate, a dramatic vista opened up, a 66, 000 square foot piazza, enclosed by two- and three- tier arcaded galleries in glowing honey-coloured sandstone. To the east, a perfectly Tuscan, curly-treed hill rose in the background, pierced by the dark Gothic spire of the Square Church. In the cafes spilling out on to the gleaming flagstones, shoppers and tourists sipped their coffee whilst admiring the play of light and shade.

The surrounding moorland is still dotted with sheep, those hardy creatures on whose fleecy back the wealth of the region reposed from medieval times to the Industrial Revolution. Wool became big business: today in the House of Lords, the Lord Speaker still sits on ‘the woolsack’, symbolising the importance of the commodity at that time.  In the mid-18th century,  cloth making was the biggest trade of three West Riding towns-Halifax, Huddersfield and Bradford. It was a cottage industry, with spinners and weavers working at home on handlooms, then taking the ‘pieces’ – 30 yards of woven cloth – across the moors, often by packhorse, to markets or cloth halls.

In 1774 a group of wealthy manufactures in Halifax met to discuss the creation of a new hall, a monument that would not only honour their flourishing commerce but also pay homage to Britain’s cultural and artistic heritage. They may have worn flat caps and talked with a funny accent, but those northerners appreciated a fine painting and could join in with the Hallelujah chorus with the best of them.

Shades of Tuscany in West Yorkshire

And so, on January 1st 1779, with much pomp, ceremony and a firework display engineered by the famous Signor Pietro and a clever pigeon*, the original Halifax Piece Hall opened its doors. Trading started the following day and, in the intimacy of its 315 small rooms, buyers and sellers could negotiate deals, inspired by the view through the elegant colonnades across the grand central court with its neoclassical architecture.

A century later, in 1871, the hall got a magnificent set of ornate iron doors, weighing 5 tonnes, which have also been restored. Their elaborately-worked panels show the town’s coat of arms, featuring the head of John the Baptist and the inscription ‘Halig Feax’, meaning Holy Hair, which gave the town its name. According to some historians, John’s head (which you will remember was removed on the orders of Salome, she of the 7 veils) somehow found its way to Halifax and is buried in the area. (We shall choose to ignore experts preferring a more prosaic explanation.) Above John’s head is the agnus dei,  the lamb of God, tipping a wink at its brothers and sisters on the nearby hills, and among the different floral decorations are blooms which surely must depict the white roses of Yorkshire…

Gate detail: head of John the Baptist

A final footnote: the hall had a long and varied history, finding itself about to hit the scrap heap in the early seventies. It was saved by one man, Councillor Keith Ambler, whose impassioned plea to preserve such an important piece of history finally carried the day. Chapeau, Mr Ambler. More fascinating details can be found on: