Opening the gates
Tuesday 1st August marked the long-awaited reopening of the Piece Hall in Halifax, just down the road from flex’s Hebden Bridge office. There are all kinds of stories behind its gates – including that told by the gates themselves.
At 10am on Tuesday 1st August (Yorkshire Day), Halifax-born Paralympian athlete Hannah Cockroft rang the Piece Hall bell. Nearly 240 years after it was first rung to signal the start of trading in 1779, this time it marked the reopening of this unique 18th-century cloth hall following a major restoration project.
The Piece Hall is special. It’s a rare example of an intact, purpose-built cloth hall, incorporating over 300 individual units set around an expansive courtyard, where “pieces” of cloth (30-yard lengths of woven woollen fabric produced on a handloom) would be traded. Its scale is vast, and stands testament to the significance of the trade of wool and textiles in this part of the world, as well as the wealth that it brought to Halifax.
Come the industrial revolution, the growth of mills and large-scale cloth manufacturing pushed the making and selling of the pieces after which the building was named into decline – and brought with it an altogether different style of architecture, characterised by row upon row of unblinking windows and towering chimneys. The Piece Hall began to be used for other purposes which, among other things, included a balloon ascent in 1824, the first Yorkshire band contest in 1854, and a whole host of public meetings and celebrations.
It was a change of use that resulted in the Piece Hall acquiring the ornate ornamental gates at its south entrance. By 1871, its ownership had been handed over to the Corporation of Halifax, and it was in use as a wholesale market for fish, game, fruit and vegetables. The south entrance was widened to accommodate access by large vehicles, and furnished with elaborate cast iron gates made by George Smith & Co. at the Sun Foundry in Glasgow. Having been repaired, cleaned and painted to reflect the original colours in 2012, the gates can be seen today as they were always intended.
By incorporating the Halifax coat of arms, the gates tip a nod to the significance of wool in the city’s history and, in so doing, the original function of the Piece Hall – but you have to read the story behind the imagery.
The head of John the Baptist, the patron saint of wool merchants, is at the centre of the coat of arms; his symbol, the Agnus Dei (or Lamb of God) rests on top – the association wool is clear. The floral decoration may be tied in too. Daisies, seen growing in the border sections, are associated with innocence in Christian symbolism, as is the lamb – the wool connection is still there… albeit a little tenuous, perhaps. And are those stylised white roses around the Halifax coat of arms? We’re in Yorkshire – I’d like to think so.