Daniel Defoe

After a varied life, Daniel Defoe was imprisoned in 1702 and pilloried three times for publishing a political pamphlet. He was released with the help of Robert Harley, first Lord of Oxford, and as recompense, between 1703 and 1714

A reconstructed weaver’s cottage in the Museum

Defoe worked for him as an undercover agent. Travelling the length and  breadth of many, if not most parts of Britain, he reported back through a series of letters. These have subsequently been published and provide a first-hand description of the places he visited. He recorded his opinions of Halifax when he visited the area and regarded it as unequalled in all of England, from the point of view of the physical size of the parish, which he called a ‘vicaridge’, and the number of people living there. As he approached Halifax he remarked on the many houses, each in a small plot of land, which covered the hillsides, and the tenters erected by each cottage.


The minster town is known mainly for the part it played in the textiles industry and the industrial revolution. But it has a long history, the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (on line) claim that it is mentioned in the Domesday book as ’Feslei’. David Hey says that not all Norman towns were located near castles and that other Victorian towns started off as small medieval boroughs, such as Bingley, Bradford, Halifax and Rotherham.

Early in the Norman period, under their reorganisation of land ownership, Halifax became one of some very large parishes, and gradually through the 13th and 14th centuries, the small holders of the parish, combining weaving and the work on the land, developed a trade in textiles, even though the 1379 poll tax suggests the cloth trade of Bradford and Halifax was of little importance.

The reduced population after the Black Death, and the resulting recession, badly affected the cloth trade, but one of the mayors of York, formerly the most important centre of the northern industry thought that the country districts did not suffer too badly, because of the water powered fulling mills, and the workforce of carders, spinners and weavers on their small holdings. People wanted the cheaper cloth in which Halifax specialised, known as kersey, and the independent weavers could match their product to their market quickly.

The Early Textile Industry

The system of production in the eastern Pennines differed from other areas in England, mainly East Anglia and the West Country, in that the families making the cloth were not working for a wage in a system dominated by wealthy merchants. They had their small holding to provide some things for the family, owned their own tools and looms, and sold to the directly to the merchants.

By the second half of the fifteenth century, Halifax was second only to York in the north of England in the manufacture of woollen cloth, and by the C 16th Halifax kerseys were being exported all over western Europe. Halifax grew and grew. In 1439, the population of the town was 313, and by 1566 it was 2,600; the parish had one thousand inhabitants in 1439, and eight thousand, five hundred by 1548. The parish of Halifax comprised twenty three townships and covered a hundred and twenty square miles.

The weavers and their families were helped in their industry by the ‘Halifax Act’. For a long time, it had been law that cloth had to be sold through Yeomen middlemen who became wealthy clothiers, but in 1545 and 1552, to reduce the cost of production and improve trade, this was no longer the case. Clothiers could sell directly to customers. One of the reasons given for this was the situation in and around Halifax, which William Camden in 1586 and Daniel Defoe forty years later confirmed. The soil was poor and it was not possible grow corn or good grass, but by their hard work, the people produced woollen cloth and maintained a living, even though most kept no horse to carry wool or wood. They went into town to buy wool by the stone, ranging from one to four or five stones, which means between six and over twenty-five kilograms. This they carried home on their head or back, walking from three to five miles to their home to spin or weave, and then return to sell the cloth and buy more wool.

Weights and Measures

According to the National Archives historical currency converter, in1700 the cost of a stone of wool was £1.00, and was equivalent to £106.98 in 2017. This was not enough to buy a quarter (two stones) of wheat. One stone, fourteen pounds (weight) is over six kilograms, but I can find no reference to the amount of wool needed to weave a ‘piece’, which was thirty yards – twenty-seven metres.


Woolshops – the the herring bone bracing to the upper floors on the south and west sides, and the jettied first and second floors.


The early trading of wool in Halifax was carried out in an area to the north of the subsequent site of the Piece Hall, in an area known as Woolshops, later giving its name to the modern shopping centre. Outside the north gate of the Piece Hall, and further up the street, a timber framed building still stands where it has stood for possibly four hundred years, and maybe more. It is a grade two star listed building, which seems to have originally been half of two adjoining properties. The eastern part, to the left as you face it, was pulled down in the late C 20th when joining buildings to the north and east were demolished. However, there remains small leaded window in each of the two gables, two 3-light timber mullioned and leaded on the first and second floors (modern replacements), and an altered 3-light window on the ground floor. The central chimney stone stack is still there, and on the second floor, which is open the roof, the blocked off fire place can be seen. Signs of reuse are on some of the exposed timbers and some of others are replacements, timber frame is visible in places, the thickness of the east wall at the 2-light mullioned window, and beams in the first-floor ceiling.

Open beams in the first floor room. The majority of the joists and rafters are chamfered, some with stops, and there is evidence of re-use of some timbers.

Wood mullioned casement first floor window


Provisioning the Handloom Weavers

Defoe was very interested trade and commerce, and wrote in detail about the way in which the people of the large industrial towns were supplied with food, not having any land or the time to provide for themselves. Corn came from Lincoln, Nottingham, and the East Riding of Yorkshire, black cattle and horses from the North Riding. Sheep and mutton seem to have come from any of the surrounding areas. Butter was supplied by the East and North Riding, and cheese by Cheshire and Warwickshire. Lancashire provided even more black cattle. This market thus supported the local economies of rural producers of the different commodities.

Expansion and the Cloth Hall

By the C 16th cloth was being bought and sold on stalls set up near the parish church, and then in the market place. Later there was a Cloth Hall (built 1709), and a Linen Hall, as the woollen industry flourished. Each family aimed to produce one piece a week, with women and children carding and spinning the yarn. Fulling mills were built, and the cloth dyed either in a separate enterprise, or by the weaving family themselves. Families helped one another to build cottages, and buy or construct equipment. The wool from local sheep was not of sufficient quality to produce good cloth, so was imported from different areas of the country. Some families were able to increase their production, employ others, and extend their premises, although they continued to work alongside everyone else. The clothing industry flourished in West Yorkshire in the C17th. Some wool bought locally but mainly from counties to the south, and finished cloth was sold in London, or exported through Hull.

Home Improvement

Increased turnover meant that they could spend money on their homes. The basic handloom weavers’ cottages were altered or rebuilt. Some had wainscoting and boarded floors, iron chimneys instead of open fires, and ceilings to create upper chambers. The people were better dressed, and had more and a greater variety of food available.

“in Halifax were Drapers, Butchers, Tanners, Shoemakers, Glovers, Tailors, Innkeepers and Apothecaries along side Doctors, Lawyers, Scriveners and Teachers. All making goods and services needed by the inhabitants of the valley communities of Calderdale.” (From the Calderdale history timeline online.)

Improved Transportation

As trade increased in the C 18th there developed the rise of the work of agents and factors. Merchants in local towns,  London and Holland employed men – “cloth factors” – to buy cloth for them from the weavers. The agents had to negotiate prices between producers and buyers, but get the best deal for those who paid them. So, when the new Piece Hall opened in 1779 each bolt of kersey had to be thirty yards long, and each side could compare one piece of work with another. Improvements in communications meant that it was easier to move wool and cloth from one place to another. The Aire and Calder Navigation canalised a section of the Rivers Aire and Calder. The first improvements to the rivers above Knottingley were completed in 1704 when the Aire was made navigable to Leeds and the Calder to Wakefield, by the construction of 16 locks. In 1758, John Smeaton began extension of Aire & Calder navigation up the Calder & Hebble to Halifax. The turnpike in 1735 improved the Rochdale to Halifax route via Blackstone Edge. One big improvement was the widening of bridges. In 1758, a Halifax merchant told House of Commons that broad wheeled wagons drawn by 8 horses could carry 30 packs at 240lbs from Halifax to London, far greater than the equivalent number of horses could carry.

The Piece Hall

The south side of the Piece Hall

The design of the Piece Hall is usually attributed to Thomas Bradley. It is built of local, finely grained sandstone with stone slate roofs. The large, open, rectangular courtyard is surrounded by individual rooms for traders. Originally, the rooms were mostly 2.44 m (8 ft) wide by 3.81 m (12 ft 6 in), excepting of the rooms at the end of each range, which are smaller. Almost all rooms have been knocked though internally to create larger units, the majority occupying three former rooms, though this is not apparent externally. The site is sloping, so there are three-storeys and a cellar on the east side and two-storeys with no cellar on the west. At ground-floor level on the east side, and part of the north and south sides of the quadrangle, there is an arcade of round-headed arches with square piers with bases and square impost block.

For measuring a ‘piece’.


Thirty yards.





The pieces to be sold had to be a standard thirty yards long, and the ruler for measuring this is in a case in thePiece Hall museum. Thirty yards has been measured out on the floor.



But the use of the Hall in its original way was short lived, and it fell into decline, until it was bough tin 1868 by the town council for use as a wholesale market. George Smith of the Sun Foundary, Glasgow  installed the huge ornamental iron gates, costing£120,( pictured), and alterations were made to the buildings and added to in the form of three large sheds, latrines and urinals in the courtyard. Again circumstances  and the Hall’s use changed, until it needed refurbishment in 1971, and again in 2010.



Weaving Crossley carpeting.

New Industries


The population grew, and things started to change. By the late C 18th cotton was being spun and woven. Early in the C19th mechanisation was introduced and mills began to be built. The industrial revolution had arrived.


At Dean Clough Mills John Crossley began to manufacture carpets in 1802, and by 1837 had 150 looms and 300 employees. On his death in 1837, he was succeeded by his sons John, Joseph and Francis, and by 1849 they employed about 1.500 workers. The weavers and spinners from the countryside moved to work in the increasing number of mills, and were joined by others seeking work, many of whom were Irish.




The new machines in the mills needed installing and maintaining, and this led to opportunities for businesses to provide services and developing new engineering works in the Calder Valley. In the Industrial Museum very near to the southern entrance to the Piece Hall, volunteers are gradually restoring and exhibiting machinery.

Some of the machinery which replicated the processes originally done by hand, such as “Abednego”, producing staples, which were used in the manufacture of card clothing for carding machines. Abednego was one of the Jewish men, along with Shadrach and Meshach, who were thrown into the burning, fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, because they would not bow down and worship a statue he had had erected. (Old Testament: Daniel chapter 3).

The Information board in the museum begins,

“Wire drawing means reducing the thickness of a piece of metal so that it becomes thinner, longer and stronger. The cross section is usually round and the starting point usually a hot, rolled rod of between 7/8 inches and ¼ inches.”

The Bible is then quoted. Exodus chapter 39, verse 3.

“They took gold and beat it into thin plates and cut it into wires to be woven into the blue and purple.”

Further information follows.

Locally produced items such as pottery are also on display, made from the clay which lies in alternate layers to the coal measures. Coal was mined at various places in and around Halifax from 1837 to 1961, according to the Northern Mine Research Society, another industry which supported the textile mills.  Other industries were also involved, such as iron works, stone quarries, chemical works.

“Quality Street”

Making Toffee.

However, it was not all heavy engineering! In the Industrial Museum is an exhibit demonstrating the way one John Mackintosh solved the problem of keeping his toffee mixture at just the right temperature. A large bowl with a double skin in which the correct temperature was maintained by controlling the pressure of the steam in the gap between the mixing bowl and the outer skin produced a consistent result. John and his wife opened a shop in Halifax selling their new kind of sweet by mixing hard toffee with runny caramel. They used locally produced ingredients – eggs, milk and sugar (from beet). Harold, their son inherited the business, inventing “Quality Street” in 1936, taking the name from a play by J.M.Barrie. Aiming to produce more easily affordable chocolates, he decided to have each piece individually wrapped in coloured paper and put into a decorative tin. The wrapping machine is in the Museum. Nestle bought Quality Street when in 1988 they acquired Rowntree Mackintosh.


Halifax continued to grow and develop, including into financial services and building societies in the early C 20th but that is for another day.

M. Hutchinson


A History of Yorkshire  David Hey  2005

A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain    Daniel Defoe (1962 edition)



From Weaver to Web. Calderdale history timeline

Woolshops, Halifax, Calderdale – British Listed Buildings

Piece Hall, Westgate, Halifax – Historic England

https://historicengland.org.uk › the-list › list-entry

Letters from Daniel Defoe to Robert Harley, 1703‒1714

https://www.bl.uk › collection-items › letters-fro…

Halifax | England, United Kingdom | Britannica

                                https://www.britannica.com › place › Halifax-England


Currency converter: 1270–2017 – The National Archives

www.nationalarchives.gov.uk › currency-converter


Quality Street (confectionery) – Wikipedia   

                                                              https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Quality_Street


The Halifax Act

Foldout – Malcolm Bull’s Calderdale Companion

www.calderdalecompanion.co.uk › mml1302