Race to save two ghosts of Yorkshire’s criminal past

Craig McHugh pictured outside Illingworth Gaol, Halifax. Picture by Simon Hulme
Craig McHugh pictured outside Illingworth Gaol, Halifax. Picture by Simon Hulme

A jailhouse might seem like the last place to find a fugitive on the run.

Casting imposing shadows on the communities around them, they are stark, stone reminders that no civilian is beyond the reach of the long arm of the law.

Yet both have been reduced to crumbling shadows of their former selves.

The bricks of Wakefield Crown Court and Halifax’s Illingworth Gaol hold fascinating insights into the history of crime and punishment in the UK, but their futures hang in the balance.

Built in 1823, Illingworth is one of the last-surviving substantial village jailhouses in England and Wales, built in response to a rapid rise in crime.

Industrialisation and population growth was thought to be one of the factors which contributed to this surge, with Enclosure Acts - viewed as a “land grab” for the gentry - forcing many poor subsistence farmers off their common land.

Gangs like the Ovendens were intent on wreaking revenge on wealthy mill owners, stealing cloth.

The minute prison, with just four cells, was built to deter such thieves, with the stone engraving which still sits above the entrance ‘Let him that steal, steal no more, but rather let him labour, by working with his hands the thing which is good’.

Its role as a remand prison did not make it immune to shocking cases, however. In 1850, a farmer named Jonas Hainsworth was jailed for the manslaughter of a seven-year-old boy.

According to news reports from the time he was “fed up with damage done to his crops by lads of the neighbourhood” and kicked Joseph Walmsley so savagely he died from his injuries. Hainsworth was given just four months’ imprisonment.

“The gaol has so much of the town’s history,” said David Parkin, of the North Halifax Historic Buildings Preservation Trust.

“It’s not just the stories of law and order, the different way prisoners were treated tells us about society at the time.”

The gaol and accompanying constable’s cottage ceased operation in 1863 and a short time later were converted into a store in the early days of the Co-operative movement.

Decades of neglect and weather damage mean the grade-II listed building is in a dilapidated state. It has spent five years on English Heritage’s at-risk register. The local council’s decision to put it up for sale in 2009 prompted an outcry among residents, and the trust established a small group of trustees in the bid to save the site, which also holds village stocks dating back to 1697.

They came up with a plan to preserve the building and transform it into a education centre, with a 125-year lease from the local authority.

But time is of the essence. Each winter brings a fresh fight for survival, and with the cost of repairing and restoring the gaol is in the region of £200,000.

“We want to be able to accommodate visits from local schoolchildren,” said Mr Parkin.

Craig McHugh, at-risk officer for English Heritage, said: “Not every historic building can be turned into a museum or heritage centre, and a lot of our work is helping to find new uses for old sites, but here there was a real case for it.

“The local community has really taken this to their hearts and there is a lot of support for it.”

The restoration of Wakefield Crown Court is to follow a similar trajectory. The local authority is working alongside conservation experts from English Heritage on plans to rescue it from dereliction.

When the building began life in 1810, it signalled the birth of the city’s civic quarter which remains the beating heart of the city.

English Heritage’s Giles Proctor said: “It was at the absolute core of the civic quarter and played a huge part in its development.”

Behind the striking frontage, lie a wealth of stories of criminals condemned to spend time behind bars - or worse.

“It was active in the days when capital punishment still existed in Britain,” added Mr Proctor.

Since its closure in 1992, however, a succession of private owners have failed to carry out adequate maintenance work, which have left it in a sorry state.

Wakefield Council intervened after it was placed on the at-risk register, and hopes to save it for re-use as the coroner’s court, which will cost more than £1 million.

Coun Les Shaw, cabinet member for culture, said: “We’re working to protect the structure and bring this iconic building back into use. It will contribute to the redevelopment of the area, bringing new employment opportunities.”