Tracing those who crafted great houses

High Sunderland, near Halifax, built in the 1620s
High Sunderland, near Halifax, built in the 1620s

There are many fine buildings in the Calder Valley, dating from the seventeenth century or earlier, which draw us to stop and admire them.

David Cant has spent many years studying these houses and using documentary evidence to uncover the stories of the groups of craftsmen who worked to design and construct them.

The large audience attending his talk to the Hebden Bridge Local History was fascinated by the way David has pieced together evidence from wills, inventories, estate records and day books to identify the local masons, joiners, plasterers and roofers working in our area so many years ago.

One investigative trail led from Bradley Hall (now part of a golf club) to Merton College Oxford where the same family of Halifax masons, the Ackroyds, were at work in the late sixteenth century.

The link was Sir Henry Savile, a local aristocrat who employed the masons on his Bradley Hall and Methley Hall homes.

The Ackroyds also built the old Heath School, where Sir Henry was a trustee.

As warden of Merton College Oxford, he was responsible for bringing to the city a group of Halifax masons, including the Ackroyds, breaking the restrictive stranglehold of the Oxford guilds.

As David illustrated, comparing the facades of the local buildings with that of the Oxford College is very illuminating.

It is far more elaborate and decorative than the more austere Halifax buildings, and it is clear that the patronage of Sir Henry Savile gave the masons access to ideas from the fashionable design books of the time and encouraged them to develop their skills.

These ideas they brought back to the Halifax area, so that buildings like High Sunderland built in the 1620s, sport similar stone ornamentation to that found on the Oxford college buildings.

Documents provide fascinating insights: Martin Ackroyd’s inventory, alongside his tools, lists his two apprentices as part of his goods.

Written agreements between client and craftsmen list the names and crafts involved; day books, and diaries such as those kept by preacher Oliver Heywood provide records of payments and details of alterations and other transactions with builders.

Most satisfying for a historian and enthusiast like David Cant is when the documentation can be linked to a building that still exists and the actual work that was carried out can be identified. His talk left the audience keen to go out and look for decorated mouldings and carved date stones with fresh eyes.

At the next meeting, on Wednesday, February 12, starting at 7.30pm at the Methodist Hall, Hebden Bridge, George Bowers will look at the history of quarrying and the delvers who risked their lives to get stone in our area.

All welcome. Details on