Halifax – with Elephants

When I was 10 months old my father ‘forsake the amateur code’ (copyright Welsh Rugby Union) and ‘went north’, joining the Halifax professional rugby league team. This was a life changing decision in many ways for his family; not least because four years later when we returned to Wales, I apparently spoke with a broad Yorkshire accent. Thankfully that soon disappeared!

Some 58 years later, I have never been back to Halifax, but felt that at some time I should see where I spent the first four years of my life. This decision was given recent imperative by a burning desire to see the Piece Hall, having been impressed by it and its renovation on a couple of pieces on TV. So a few weeks ago, down south we headed; a staycation with a busman’s holiday of looking at some shops thrown in.

On the way we stopped off at Fountains Abbey and mused a litlle on Henry VIII.  But even in its current state the Abbey demonstrated the grounding of wealth and status that is the hallmark of the powerful. It reveals the vast wealth that can be extracted from the country’s resources; and which to this day we squander.

A similar combination of feelings grabbed me in the Piece Hall. Built 240 years ago as a commerce and trading site for the natural wealth of Yorkshire, it is deeply impressive and symbolic. It is fantastic that it is brought back to use and is a fabulous witness to what can be done. It is also a sensational public event space, standing with the great European urban spaces, though I would not swear about an equivalency in weather.

Halifax today has 20% less people that in its Victorian heyday and the buildings speak to this. The Borough Market, the Town Hall, the Victorian Theatre, the Minster are all central testimony to the wealth of the time; fine buildings all. As are many others, though often in decay or shuttered. Either we don’t create wealth like we used to; or it is solely used for personal greed (shout out to Philip Green here).

Another silent witness to changing times and impermanence is the wonderful Burton building from 1932 complete with a pair of foundation stones and a lovely collection of elephants. It is now a McDonalds; a company not exactly reknown for building anything of value (and for me that includes the Big Mac).


Following in the footsteps of @soult we also spotted a Woolworth ghost sign, so covered another cultural base.

This reuse of things/places was a recurring theme as we also visited Dean Clough Mills in Halifax and then just down the road the World heritage Site of Saltaire in Bradford. Both are astonishing in their scale and their energy today. Dean Clough is a thriving workspace and art collection/space. We managed to see the last day of Conrad Shawcross’ Chord in the ‘new’ Jute Shed space. At Saltaire the Salts Mill has been used as a tremendous art space and Hockney’s ‘The Arrival of Spring’ is shown off to great efffect. Throw in the Hepworth Gallery at Wakefield and we were all cultured out.


I am not sure why it has taken me 58 years to get back to Halifax. It is a fascinating part of the world. It brought home to me the changing fortunes of our heritage, places and people. Why are we so reluctant to help those who want to keep this heritage and our buildings and towns alive? We ought to be incentivising re-use, and penalising the bland, identikit rubbish that mars and scars so many of the edges of our towns. The foundations were built for us; why are we so keen to kick them down?

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Buildings, Burtons, Corporate History, Design, Ghost Signs, Halifax, Heritage, Historic Shops, Markets, Places, Public Realm, Regeneration, Retail History, Rugby League, Streetscapes, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Urban History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Halifax – with Elephants

  1. Pingback: Shopfronts – some recent sightings | Stirlingretail

  2. Pingback: The architectural heritage of Montague Burton’s Art Deco shops | Stirlingretail

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