Historian John Hargreaves continues his tour of our town’s heritage.
In recent editions of Nostalgia I have been recalling the occasion when the Prince of Wales came to Halifax in 1863 to open the new town hall.
He stayed overnight at Manor Heath, home of the Mayor of Halifax, John Crossley, and while here visited many of the features of Victorian Halifax which remain part of the town’s heritage today.
But the Prince’s itinerary also included the town’s Georgian Manufacturers’ Piece Hall, opened on New Year’s Day 1779, whose dimensions The Times, which covered the royal visit in depth, compared with those of Trafalgar Square.
However by 1863, as in 2013, the Piece Hall was searching for a new economic future. Indeed, as The Times remarked, it was by 1863 an obsolete “huge square enclosure where in the days of handloom weavers the masters used to come and sell the proceeds of their looms piece by piece”.
For the prince’s visit, however, it was packed with an immense, specially-assembled orchestra and more than 10,000 children gathered to welcome the royal visitor with carefully synchronised singing “in perfect time and tune” as it was for the quinquennial Sunday school sings held there from 1831 to 1890.
In 1876 the hall was purchased by the municipal borough and was destined to develop obscurely as a fruit and vegetable market until 1974, when it was opened as a tourist attraction.
Described today by Colum Giles as “perhaps Yorkshire’s most important secular building”, with a recently awarded Heritage Lottery Fund grant, it is intended to be developed as a town square, a retail and business centre supplemented by a range of cultural attractions and a youth centre located at its perimeter.
Later in the 19th century exuberant new borough markets designed by the Halifax architects John and Joseph Leeming, who also won prestigious commissions for public buildings in central London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, replaced an earlier red-brick Georgian market.
The Victoria Hall, a new concert hall on the southern edge of the town, added a facility lacking in Barry’s town hall. It provided a venue for the concerts of the Halifax Choral Society founded in 1817, the oldest amateur choral society with a continuous record of performances anywhere in the world.
It occupied a site bordering the grounds of Halifax’s finest Georgian town house designed by the York architect, John Carr, and built by John Royds, a Halifax woollen merchant, in 1766.
The construction of the Victoria Hall completed the newest and grandest of Halifax’s late Victorian thoroughfares, Commercial Street.
This included several impressive banks and building societies, a splendid new general post office commemorating Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, and imposing new tramway offices for the new tramway system inaugurated to celebrate the town’s municipal jubilee in 1898. This is now part of Halifax’s thriving independent departmental store, Harvey’s of Halifax.
The southern façade of John Royds’ mansion, however, remained concealed by a parade of nondescript lock-up shops on Rawson Street until they were demolished and the revealed facade transformed into a bistro restaurant, Le Metro, in 2009.
Formerly it provided overnight accommodation for King Christian VII of Denmark, travelling as Prince George, on his tour of western Europe in 1768 and the square to its north was named George Square in his honour.
This is an extract of an article by Dr John Hargreaves published in The Historian, the journal of the Historical Society. Dr Hargreaves is visiting research fellow in history at the University of Huddersfield, a long-serving officer of Halifax Antiquarian Society and chairman of Halifax Civic Trust.