The Horrible Halifax exhibition at the Bankfield Museum
PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 March 2018
History both horrible and honourable is revealed on a visit to Halifax.
If horrible history is your thing then Halifax could be your destination of choice this year. Calderdale is brimming with family events in 2018, from a celebration of the Brontes to digital dancing and a stage start in the Tour de Yorkshire.
But we all like a bit of grizzly entertainment and the story of the darker side of local life always catches my eye. The excellent Bankfield Museum is staging a Horrible Halifax exhibition running until June taking young and old on a trip back in time to discover how apothecaries sought to cure painful ailments, save rotten teeth and the gruesome way felons were treated.
And on that last point Halifax really was the spiritual home of the law and order brigade. ‘From Hell, Hull and Halifax, may the Good Lord deliver us…’ was a thieves’ ‘prayer’ commonly heard in Yorkshire in olden days and inspired by the grim reputation of Hull jail and Halifax’s savage form of execution – its famous gibbet.
The gibbet was basically a guillotine, unique to Halifax (the base still exists), and the last man to lose his head to its falling blade was the unfortunate John Wilkinson in 1650 for stealing 16 yards of cloth. Any theft of goods worth a little over 13 pence could mean a date with its razor sharp edge and the practice was only ended by Oliver Cromwell during the English republic – it was too gruesome even for those full blooded times. The inventions and laws that led to more enlightened times are also traced by this fascinating free family exhibition, but it’s that fearsome gibbet that sticks in my mind!
Talking of executions, one of the most famous was that of Mary Queen of Scots, imprisoned in Bolton Castle, Wensleydale, for a time and beheaded in 1587, which is a link to the second major exhibition at Bankfield Museum this year devoted to shoes! That’s right, Calderdale has a large collection, including a priceless pair thought to have been worn by the ill-fated monarch, plus boots owned by the Duke of Wellington. There’s also modern footwear on display designed by Kirklees College students, plus a couple of fascinating talks to look forward to (Frontline Footwear on August 4th and Stories from the Georgian City on September 22nd).
Halifax is also marking a big literary anniversary this year. Emily Bronte was born 200 years ago and she worked for a time as a schoolmistress near Halifax at a house called Law Hill. The man who built the property was Jack Sharp, who may have been the inspiration for Heathcliff, while an old hall nearby could have given her the idea for Wuthering Heights. You can find out more about the Brontes at Shibden Hall (March 2nd-October 31st) which is displaying period costumes and dresses used in Sally Wainwright’s television drama on the sisters called To Walk Invisible, several scenes of which were filmed at the Hall. You can also explore the story of diarist Anne Lister (1791-1840), who lived at Shibden and who is the subject of another Sally Wainwright work to be broadcast this year on BBC and HBO.
Of course any family visit to Halifax would not be complete without a trip to the Eureka National Children’s Museum and its summer festival offering (July 21st-September 2nd) includes science busking, interactive storytelling, craft activities and animation. But if you are one of those parents who secretly looks on with envy as the children enjoy themselves then here’s your golden opportunity. Ditch the off-spring for an adults only evening (March 22nd) when you can behave like a big kid without fear of embarrassment, having fun with explosive science, making a dance video and building your own robot. Go on – you know you want to! Visit eureka.org.uk to book a place.
Elsewhere, the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow pays a visit to the amazing Grade I Piece Hall on July 8th so bring along family heirlooms and artefacts for the experts to ponder (free entry, 9.30am to 4.30pm) and Halifax’s popular two day food and drink festival returns on June 30th. Last year it featured over 100 stalls and exhibitors, along with a live demonstration kitchen.
Before then Halifax takes pride of place as the start point of stage four of the Tour de Yorkshire on May 6th. Piece Hall will be the dramatic backdrop as the timer clicks down to send the world’s top bikers on a 120-mile trip through Bronte Country and beyond.
It’s going to be another fabulous year in this vibrant and handsome Pennine town.