by Michael Canning
In October 2013 I watched a fascinating documentary made in 2007 about the West Yorkshire town of Halifax. It was entitled ‘The Town From Hell: Halifax in the 16th and 17th Centuries’. For those of you who haven’t heard about this place – Halifax is a small town of about 80,000 people, about 13 miles west of Leeds, and is the main centre of the metropolitan borough of Calderdale, through which the upper part of the River Calder flows. It was for centuries known as a centre of wool processing and eventually became a Protestant and Puritan stronghold. The name is very old and the first written mention of the town notes it as ‘Halyfax’ in the late 11th Century.
The town sits on the edge of the Pennine ranges, which are a very old rock formation dating back to the Carboniferous period of 310 million years ago. I’ve only been there about 5 or 6 times in the last 20 years but I always felt Halifax had a bit of a curious vibe and atmosphere to it that is difficult to describe. Its a small isolated place surrounded by huge hills and steep slopes and has a slightly insular feel to it, similar to Greymouth in New Zealand. It still has many charming Victorian buildings, and older periods, but has something else to it. I distinctly remember walking down the road in 2010 after visiting a friend there and getting a feeling of a deja vu, in that it felt and looked like Sheffield did in 1993. Halifax felt like a place where things possibly move more slowly, and that is not in itself a bad thing.
To be fair the whole area of Calderdale is fascinating because of its dramatic landscape, which features a mixture of high windswept moors, ancient barns and walls, valleys, streams, rivers, steep crags and cliffs, and hidden slivers of ancient oak and beech forest. Halifax is the biggest urban area in Calderdale and has as neighbours the small magic places of Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall, which both have much folklore associated with them, and the rough justice meted out to criminals pre 19th Century.
However Halifax had a reputation way outside of Yorkshire in centuries past as being a law unto itself, which probably stemmed from its general inaccessibility and seclusion in the Pennines. Before rail and proper roads were built by the 1870’s the only way into the town was by the ancient walkways used by travellers, and merchants and their packhorses. Because of the rocky and high slopes these would often become washed out after downpours and require considerable work to make them passable again with a bunch of set stones.
In the 17th Century Halifax was still governed by what was called the ‘Gibbet Law’. A law which meted out very harsh punishments. It meant that if you stole anything up to the value of 13d (pence) and were found guilty you would be taken on market day to the gibbet and beheaded on it! A prayer by John Taylor (1580–1654) wrote the Beggar’s Litany, in which its text included “From Hull, from Halifax, from Hell, ‘tis thus, From all these three, Good Lord deliver us.”
The gibbet was nowhere as styley and clinical looking as the French guillotine from 1789 – it was a wooden frame with this huge wooden block above the gibbet blade, which was essentially a heavy iron axe. Its usage eventually stopped but there were apparently a few campaigners who wanted to bring it back into use at the end of the 18th Century!
Halifax is not generally known for its musical history aside from Astronomer William Herschel (who discovered Uranus) being a church organist there in the 18th Century, and Tom Bailey, the singer with the Thompson Twins. However there is a tenacious little nightclub called Clarences in the town centre, which sometime circa 1972/73 changed its name to the Roxy briefly. Upon this rebranding they invited none other than Roxy Music to come up from London and play, which they did.
In 1978 the same venue was known as the ‘Good Mood’. Sometime in May or June of that year a young up and coming band called Joy Division drove the 21 miles east from Manchester over the Pennines to play a show at the Good Mood. Joy Division drummer Steve Morris recalled the following: “there were probably around twenty or so in the ‘audience’, I think they were a bit hostile at first but came round in the end. They would pop in for a bit then go out again; one minute there’d be five or six then they’d nip off and another bunch would come and have a look.”
On June 22nd 1979 the band played the same venue again. There have been conflicting reports on this concert over the years with Joy Division bassist Peter Hook recalling in 2007 that they played to one person that night. Every band’s horror. However Steven Morris and a punter who was there that night dispute this with their 2014 accounts of the gig apparently being better attended than the first, albeit only attended by men! For the full story see this excellent article at http://www.joydiv.org/yorkshire.htm
It is a curious if somewhat tenuous piece of irony with Joy Division playing their doomy atmospheric music at a club called the Good Mood so close to the very site where the town’s gruesome history of capital punishment actually happened.