Readers of the Skircoat Green Directory will be aware of the recent focus by Halifax Civic Trust on the ancient route to the east of the town, The Wakefield Gate or Magna Via. The launch of new information boards, signage along the route, and very much more, is scheduled for late March. Various HCT Committee members, under the able direction of Gwyneth Crawley, are contributing to a most exciting project.
Having myself contributed to this scheme a paragraph about Anne Lister’s use of the route, rather late in the day I came across an account of the Old Bank section written in 1853 by local councillor, merchant, Liberal agent and artist, Joseph Sugden, and published in the Halifax Courier within a few months of its launch. Here is the part which is relevant:
“When last I ascended this bank, which, by the way, I may remark was once the great London Road, it was in company with two highly esteemed friends of mine, both in the council, and, as I shall have to allude to them, I will term one ‘Mr Antiquity’ and the other ‘Mr Florist’. The former gentleman told me that the first waggon load of wool that should have entered the town from this side was obliged to be unloaded at the crest of the hill, the bales rolled down its brow, and the waggon with its lessened load brought carefully down this truly precipitous pathway. We keep the old road and turn up Wiscombe, and here we find the old setting more distinct than we have perceived it hitherto. “Fancy,” says Mr. A., “the fast or express waggon to London coming up this bank requiring twelve horses and during the journey to town in the moderate length of twelve and fourteen days.” But these were times when our forefathers made their wills, and bade solemn farewell to all before starting out upon such a long and perilous journey. Though in many places it appears quite evident little or no traffic has existed upon this cart road for many years, yet you see the massive setts, worn six and eight inches, by the action of the wheels, which, long before our time, toiled up and down this precipice… A little to our right is the place where the man was gibbeted and hanging chains for the murder of the Exciseman, and our friend Mr Antiquity remembers in childhood the house where the old hag lived who gathered up his bones as they dropped from his decayed carcass. Arrived at the brow of the hill, we will turn round, and here you see Halifax spread out, like a map, at our feet. There is the Piece Hall like an immense square coffin; there, and there, and there its churches and chapels, that speak of its attention to better things, rearing their massive bodies…”
Sugden wrote under the pseudonym of Josephus. He had been familiar with the route from his youth, for he was born in 1816 at Folly Hall, to the right of Old Bank just below Beacon Hill Road (not then in existence). Just a few stones remain of this old structure among the trees; it was demolished well before 1900. As a young man Sugden was friendly with Branwell Bronte, whose artistic ability he shared. His remarkable political cartoons completed later in life, survive in local Archives, and are wonderful depictions of hustings, canvassing and voting before the days of the secret ballot. For these sketches, Sugden used the delightful nickname of ‘Humphrey Thwackem junior.’ He lived latterly in Blackwall, and was almost blind at the end of his life. He died at Blackpool in 1877, being buried in Lister Lane Cemetery, in front of the Crossley vault. He had been the political agent to Sir Francis Crossley.
Having recently been leading heritage walks connected with the Coiners, I found Sugden’s gruesome mention of the deteriorating body of a killer of William Dighton in 1769, of considerable interest. The old woman mentioned was called Phoebe.
David C Glover
Vice-Chair, Halifax Civic Trust
ED: A detailed route of the Wakefield Gate Walk can be read online at sites.google.com/view/civictrusthalifax/wakefield-gate