When the bell rings to mark the re-opening of the Piece Hall on Tuesday, it signals the start of both a new future and a fresh journey into Halifax’s past.
The £19m project, three and a half years in planning and delivery, aims to place the gorgeous Grade I listed 18th century building right at the heart of Halifax and its people again.
With shops, bars and restaurants surrounding the new square, complete with its open spaces and water feature, and soon to house a new central library and archive, the Piece Hall has been renewed to face 21st century challenges.
But three new spaces will be dedicated to its heritage, telling the Piece Hall’s story and shedding light on the aspirations of its founders, ambitions which are in tune with those building in the modern day.
Georgian Halifax was a prosperous place, and the Piece Hall’s founders - beginning with John Caygill who made the land available to build it together with a very reasonable annual rent and continuing with its subscribers who paid £28 each for the 315 available rooms - wanted a building that was visually stunning and would pull in trade from miles around.
It still had that effect on Calderdale Council’s arts and heritage manager Claire Slattery when she first moved north to work in Manchester and was urged that it was a building she should visit - “I found it staggeringly beautiful,” she said.
Now, having worked on the project for almost a decade, the new spaces, particularly the ground floor Arcade-level Piece Hall Story, bring to life those halcyon first days and trace the continuing relevance of the Piece Hall to generations of Halifax people.
“We had a space for interpretive panels previously but we have gone big scale and very serious about wanting to explain to the people of Halifax and others the importance of the Piece Hall in all our lives.
“Physically speaking it occupies a central place in the town and it is unbelievably loved.
“We want to inspire people and explain why and how this fantastic Grade I listed building came to the town. Our approach to interpretation is to use a number of different methods of display to tell the story of the Piece Hall,” she said.
These include static and interactive displays, some, such as the chance to have a go at weaving, aimed at drawing younger visitors into the story, and there is even the chance to have your photograph taken in Georgian clothing.
Other aspects include its uses through the centuries - as a place where 19th century big sings and 20th century pop stars like Pulp entertained the crowds, or a market place from the 1970s. Even when it perhaps looked most neglected, in its time as a fruit and vegetable wholesale space, it was still fulfilling its purpose of being part of Halifax’s economy, said Claire.
Only one item, strictly speaking, unrelated to the Piece Hall is on display - the blade from the infamous Halifax gibbet. It is a reminder that in the 18th century stealing cloth was an offence for which you could be executed on it.
Aside from the Piece Hall Story, a trader’s unit on the middle Rustic level will be fitted out with audio visuals recreating a trading day at the Piece Hall and the top Colonnade level has a map room also with interractive displays allowing visitors to explore local, national and international maps including trading routes, which will all place the Piece Hall in its wider context.
“John Caygill was an astute businessman of the Georgian period; the other clothiers wanted to sell their wool from a beautiful and attractive building and clubbed together and became subscribers. There were Piece Halls at Wakefield, Bradford, Leeds and Huddersfield, but none were built like this.
“I think they built it on this scale in a classical style to say to the cloth buyers ‘come to Halifax’,” she said.
The Piece Hall, in its original 30-year heyday before the Industrial Revolution and new methods of cloth production changed the way the trade was done forever, also established standards of quality and fairness. On the key Saturday trading day, they opened for two hours only and the place was an intense hive of activity, giving all a window of opportunity to do their business.
In the 21st century, it will be open across seven days a week and for much longer hours, but with essentially the same message as 1779 - come to Halifax, we do business bigger, brighter and better here.