It was unusual for the national press to descend on Halifax, as they did on August 3 and 4 1863, but The Times, the Illustrated London News and the Illustrated Times were determined to cover the first official visit to a northern mill town of the newly married Prince and Princess of Wales for the opening of Halifax’s magnificent new town hall.
This imposing neo-Renaissance building had been designed by no less a figure than Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the reconstructed Palace of Westminster, but had been completed by his son, Edward Middleton Barry, after his father’s death in 1860.
The Illustrated London News had last covered a Halifax story in depth during the Plug Plot disturbances of August 1842 when, in the view of the Chartist historian F C Mather, regular troops had come nearer to being overwhelmed by the rioters in Halifax than anywhere else in the Chartist era.
Indeed, 21 years later, a superintendent of police was imported from London with 12 inspectors, 200 hand-picked officers and additional police reinforcements drafted in from across the West Riding and the North West to strengthen security for the royal visit, which occurred just 10 years after the final Chartist demonstration in Halifax at the funeral of the veteran Halifax Chartist Ben Rushton in 1853.
In 1863, 15 years after Halifax had achieved municipal status in 1848, the town was still viewed somewhat circumspectly by the metropolitan press with the Illustrated London Newsreporter commenting disparagingly on the muddy streets surrounding the Piece Hall.
Indeed, The Times reporter was prompted to opine that Halifax might be considered to have been “deficient, as a general rule, in what Londoners would call streets”, except, perhaps, for those recently improved by the carpet manufacturer, John Crossley, the Mayor of Halifax, in the immediate vicinity of the town hall.
However The Times reporter pronounced Halifax nonetheless “a picturesque and busy town”, observing that Halifax’s spectacular valley location was comparable only to that of Edinburgh, an oft-repeated comparison made, for example, in a classic TV documentary in 1975 by the architectural historian Ian Nairn.
In the event there was disappointment for both the media and the thousands who travelled to Halifax on 226 regular and special excursion trains to witness the royal visit when it was announced that the young Danish-born Princess Alexandra was not well enough to accompany her husband on the distant and demanding two-day visit, notwithstanding that Halifax Corporation had already named one of the recently upgraded streets, Princess Street, in her honour.
She was probably suffering from morning sickness arising from her first pregnancy.
Halifax was experiencing some of its worst August weather in living memory with continuous torrential rain for 24 hours before the arrival of the royal visitor and g poor weather throughout his visit.
Given that most of the spectacle of the royal visit had been planned to take place in the open air, the event proved to be a huge challenge to its municipal organisers, who had never previously hosted a royal visit.
There were some disconcerting hitches. A contingent from the Heckmondwike Volunteer Artillery Corps, stationed high on the hillside overlooking the town with their two 32-pounder guns, mistakenly greeted one of the cheap excursion trains with a premature royal salute, much to the amusement of its passengers.
An extra carriage carrying the directors of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company had been attached at Wakefield without any consideration of its impact on the availability of platform space at Halifax. On its arrival it came to an abrupt halt considerably short of the platform party of female dignitaries.
They consequently remained bewildered about whether the royal visitor, attired relatively inconspicuously in morning dress, had actually arrived, long after he had departed from the station.
To add to the municipal embarrassment the welcoming red carpet also failed to arrive at the station on time. So the prince was whisked away by carriage to the newly built mansion of the Mayor of Halifax, John Crossley, at Manor Heath to recuperate from his seven-hour rail journey. There he was serenaded in the afternoon with glees and madrigals by a concert party including the Calderdale Nightingale Susan Sunderland and in the evening by a hundred choral singers in the illuminated grounds of the mansion.
nThis is an extract from an article by Dr John Hargreaves and published in the winter edition of The Historian, the journal of the Historical Society. The article has been reprinted by Calderdale Council and is available, free, at Halifax Town Hall.
Dr Hargreaves is an eminent local historian, writer of an acclaimed history of Halifax,visiting research fellow in history at the University of Huddersfield, a long-serving officer of Halifax Antiquarian Society and chairman of Halifax Civic Trust.