In today’s Piece Hall feature Chairman of Halifax Civic Trust, Dr John Hargreaves, examines the heritage of the building in light of the £16m bid to completely revamp it

Dr John Hargreaves
Dr John Hargreaves

I enthusiastically welcome the plans to transform the Piece Hall into a town square, with enhanced retail provision for its dedicated and committed traders and with its potential to contribute to Halifax’s urban regeneration.

Although surrounded by stunning parks bequeathed by Victorian manufacturers, Halifax Town Centre lacks a vibrant, inner-urban, open-air gathering space.

A rare contemporary engraving of the Piece Hall interior in 1788, pictured fter its opening, shows four neatly setted pathways radiating from a central concourse, dividing four symmetrically lawned areas, cropped by clusters of grazing sheep, attracting the attention of a couple of stray dogs.

It reveals the Piece Hall as a public space, in contrast to its more familiar use as a busy market for two hours each Saturday morning.

A well-to-do couple are depicted promenading towards the west entrance and a more humbly attired figure, who is carrying bales of cloth on his shoulder. Others appear to be relaxing in the galleries or dotted about the sparsely populated courtyard.

By contrast an artist’s impression of the twenty-first century vision for the Piece Hall envisages a more lively multi-generational scene.

The artist’s vision for the building preserves the historic ambience of this extraordinary building combining distinctive features from the past, notably the extensive patterned cobbled surfaces and much reduced lawned areas with some strikingly imaginative twenty-first century features.

These include a display of fountains, capable of being illuminated at night and translucent doors for the 315 cellular trading points surrounding the courtyard, two impressively simple yet potentially transformational features.

However, if the re-modelled historic monument is to become a successful international visitor attraction, which it deserves to be, it is essential that its elusive history in all its dimensions is brought alive for visitors young and old through authoritative and imaginative historical interpretation.

The aptly named Orange Box educational facility will provide a welcome base for school visits, but a complementary re-invigorated industrial museum, broadened to reflect other dimensions of Calderdale’s fascinating social history would further enhance the visitor experience and residents understanding of their heritage.

The Saturday cloth market with its links with local, regional, international trading networks requires textual and visual explanation and opportunities for virtual exploration.

But so too do the other aspects of its growth and that of its soon to be conjoined neighbour, Square Chapel, connecting with the town’s rich heritage of Nonconformity and the Crossley carpet dynasty, which supported the construction of the gothic spire which, with Beacon Hill, provides such a spectacular back drop to the Piece Hall.

With the creation of a stylish link, mirroring the conical shape and dimensions of the spire, it will provide a foyer for the already transformed, but once neglected Georgian Chapel and its Victorian successor into a vibrant Arts Centre and attractive apron.

Probably more people visited the Piece Hall for performances and entertainment than ever attended its relatively short-lived cloth market and there is surely scope for weekend and bank holiday festivals as well as opportunities for more reflective enjoyment of the stunning surroundings in a mid-week lunch break or morning coffee break.

Archive photographs, paintings and prints capture the amazing attendances at the quinquennial Sunday school sings and the fairground atmosphere when Blondin took his first tentative steps across a tightrope suspended across the courtyard.

The Piece Hall’s musical history, where early visitors were impressed by clothiers singing snatches from Handel’s Messiah needs reflecting in recorded sound effects, which might also capture re-enacted speeches of William Wilberforce and others from the hustings together with the heckling of anti-poor law campaigners, factory reformers and Chartists or the later voices of the wholesale market traders, in Halifax’s Covent Garden, preparing fish, fruit and flowers for the town’s retail outlets.