Remarkably, one of the most famous symbols of Halifax’s past is not the effigy of an affluent philanthropist, but that of a humble beggar.
Nearly everyone who visits Halifax Minster notices “Old Tristram”, the life-size painted wooden figure which stands near the south door, holding the Poor Box. He is a rare survivor from another age; there is no other known figure of such a church effigy still extant in this country.
And the 11th February 2011 marks the 300th anniversary of his burial, or at least of the man after whom he was apparently named.
The figure formerly clearly displayed the date “1701,” and church records show that the Parish Church “Poor Box” was broken open and robbed in that year. The first occasion when the figure is referred to by a name, is an entry for 1716: “For mending Trusteram’s box, and a new key and stap [staple]. 00-1-06” [one shilling and sixpence]. A sign of early 18th Century vandalism.
It is recorded that the figure was carved by John Aked of Halifax, a talented local joiner and painter, who died in 1742, aged 74.
Hearing the name “Old Tristram,” one might easily conclude that he was named after a man who bore that forename. In fact, the statue was named after the local family surnamed Trusteram, or Tristram.
If all the Tristram (etc.) entries in the Halifax and other nearby Parish Registers, plus the Township Accounts for Poor Relief, are checked, much may be discovered. I have noted that “Old Tristram’s” forename was apparently John, and that he first seems to appear at Elland in the late 1640s, already married, and having children baptised. Two more of his children were later baptised at Halifax, in 1656 and 1663. Was he perhaps a soldier resettling after the Civil War?
John Tristram was in receipt of Poor Relief from 1700, money given him by the Halifax Parish trustees, which included an allowance for lodgings; paid to widow Mary Lister; and later to John Hodgson. There seems little doubt that “Old Tristram” was the John Trustram who was buried at Halifax on 11 February 1711, whose wife had died in 1691. By 1700 he would have been a great age, and faced hard times. In the early 18th Century Poor Relief records, there is also the record of “Young Tristram” in receipt of hand-outs - probably the John (junior) baptised at Elland in 1656.
The surname Tristram appears in Halifax church and chapel registers until the later 19th century; probably every one of these persons was descended from the old beggar. In employment, family members were coopers or cordwainers (shoemakers). I have put together a tentative family tree, and discover that there is just one gravestone in Halifax which still bears the surname Tristram, in the yard of Square Chapel. This records the death, in 1849, of William Tristram aged 14 weeks, whom I calculate was the 5 x great-grandson of “Old Tristram.” One might say, ‘the youngest Tristram.’ The surname seems to have long died out locally.
Regarding the effigy, in 1815, James Hunter and William Illingworth were paid £1 for “Repairing Tristram, painting etc: piercing his nose and making a new underlip; one thumb from the first joint, and a pair of upper leathers to his shoes, painting his face; combing his beard, and a pair of new black breeches; with new coat of fashionable brown, white stockings; touching up the poor box, and writing petition to feeling hearts.”
In the August 1926 Halifax Parish Magazine, it was announced that a robber had recently attempted to break open “Old Tristram’s box... damaging a valued ancient relic”.
David C Glover