Throughout much of history, life has been harsh for many inhabitants of 'Calderdale', whether they lived in remote farming areas or worked in the factories which sprang up following the Industrial Revolution. Poor living conditions in Halifax in the mid-nineteenth century were highlighted in the Ranger Report and also by Charles Dickens, following a visit to the town in 1858.
As the nineteenth century wore on, conditions gradually started to improve and the Wakes holiday fortnight, instituted in 1896, saw many workers head off for the coast year after year, for a well-earned break.
Dirty old town
One hundred and fifty years ago, a young engineer named William Ranger visited Halifax for the first time. Nothing could have prepared him for the shock of seeing people living in overcrowded, dirty conditions.
The Public Health Act had been introduced in 1848 and two years later a petition was raised by the Halifax ratepayers to the General Board of Health in order that the Act could be enforced - hence the reason for William Ranger’s visit.
The main enquiry concentrated on the areas surrounding Orange Street, Crib Lane, Cross Hills and the City, as well as Winding Road, Square and the north side of the Parish Church. These were areas which lay in the shadow of the mills and where the homes of the unskilled workers were situated.
If the inspector recommended improvements, (which Ranger did), the Council would then be entitled to borrow money to improve sanitation.
Ranger also conducted another survey of conditions in the Northowram / Southowram townships. Parts of Haley Hill were very overcrowded. Here there were instances of twelve people occupying three beds. In Middle Street one privy served two hundred and twenty one people.
In his conclusion, Ranger urged the introduction of the Public Health Act in order that families would be provided with “a greater prospect of immunity from sickness and an addition to their too scanty comfort”.
At the end of the report there are some interesting statistical tables which list life expectancy by rank. Gentry and merchants could expect an average life expectancy of fifty five years. This was in stark contrast to the twenty two years of a labourer.
The full report is available to view on microfilm in the Reference Library, Halifax, and on Calderdale Council's online visual archive Weaver to Web: online visual archive of Calderdale history
We're all going on a summer holiday!
As the summer season gets underway, you will still find local people making reference to Wakes fortnight.
This was the traditional holiday taken in July - a time when factories and businesses closed and the local population set off to the seaside. But where does the term 'Wakes' come from?
The word is derived from 'waking' or 'watching'. Originally a vigil would be kept on the eve of a festival or funeral in a town or village. After the Industrial Revolution, wakes were made the occasion for the annual closing of mills and a holiday for the workforce. It also provided an opportunity for machinery and equipment to be cleaned and overhauled.
The Wakes tradition in Halifax began in 1896, instigated by the Chamber of Commerce. It was decided to hold a midsummer break in August. However, there was strong local opposition to the holiday being called 'The Wakes' as this was the name adopted by the Lancashire cotton mills!
The idea of an annual high summer holiday soon caught on. In the first year, the holiday was generally observed, with only one or two exceptions - notably Dean Clough. The popularity of the holiday grew, and each year, in the second week of August, there would be a mass exodus from the wool towns to the west coast resorts of Blackpool and Southport as well as to Scarborough and Bridlington on the east.
This continued until 1945, when it was decided to move the holiday to July. A contributor to the local newspaper at the time commented that,
"It was too late in August - nights were drawing in, seaside landladies were getting jaded. It was changed to July and better weather".
Unfortunately, the annual holiday did have some adverse side effects. From May to September, one northern town or another was on holiday. There was no standardisation, and even in this area, Halifax and the Calder Valley would differ to the holiday taken by Brighouse.
Decline in the textile industry, plus increased mobility of labour, led to increased pressure to abandon the holiday. In 1984, the local chief education officer described the Wakes holiday as "a 19th century imposition which has become an obstruction".
Each year an annual debate took place as to whether the holiday should be abolished. One of the arguments was that it was causing disruption in schools. Children were returning to school before the results of examinations were known. Education was again disrupted in early September for the two day break.
The Wakes holiday and September Break were finally abandoned in 1996, bringing the school holidays into line with the rest of the country. However, there are still one or two firms in the area which do maintain the traditional holiday.
Dreaming of a white Christmas?
The images of a Victorian Christmas - snow on the ground, huge trees decorated with multi-coloured baubles, carol singing in the street - still adorn many a Christmas card, but was it really like that?
Certainly for the wealthy inhabitants of Halifax, this image is not far from the truth, as they enjoyed their good food and exchanged presents with friends and relations in their expensive mansions.
In 1869, the weather also played its part. There are reports that light snow fell on Christmas Eve.
This was followed by heavy snowfall on Christmas Day and by Boxing Day sleighs and skates were out in force! That same year the 2nd West Yorkshire Yeomanry excelled themselves by hosting a ball at the New Assembly Rooms. The Colonel of the Regiment, Sir Henry Edwards, brought his lady wife and thirty guests from their mansion at Pye Nest. The ball is reported to have finished at five in the morning.
But what of Christmas for the poor? Many of them were living in squalid conditions in and around the town centre. When Charles Dickens visited the town in 1858 he described it as "as horrible a place as I ever saw". Long hours spent in factories, working for a very small wage, meant that for many people festive food was something they could only dream about.
In 1881 James Turner who was living in Halifax with his wife and three children wrote in his diary,
"yesterday I bought the wife a Christmas box in the shape of two new aprons; the first thing I have had the pleasure of buying since we were married".
The inmates of the workhouse must have been overjoyed to discover that they were to be given a celebratory meal. There are reports of half a ton of plum pudding being prepared as well as fifty gallons of beer, twenty gallons of rum sauce and three hundred pounds of roast beef. Would you, like Oliver, have dared to ask for more?