"From Hell, Hull and Halifax, good Lord deliver us". Thus went the 'Beggars and Vagrants Litany', in the case of Halifax in response to the somewhat severe punishment of beheading under Halifax's Gibbet Law, by which a man could be beheaded for stealing goods to the value of 13.5 old pence (just over 5 pence in today's currency). This law was a carry-over from an earlier power granted to the Norman lords by William I which allowed them to execute thieves and other criminals caught within the bounds of their manor.
Before the Norman invasion Halifax was one of a number of hamlets, or 'townships' and was little more than a small collection of houses occupied by families who worked the fields and shared the produce amongst themselves. One of the chief men amongst the Normans was William of Warren, created Earl of Surrey by William I and granted large tracts of English land, including the manor of Wakefield within the boundaries of which was the parish of Halifax.
In some ways the history of Halifax goes hand in hand with its geography. Being situated as it is deep within the Pennine hills it was somewhat off the beaten track, thus for example, escaping the worst of the civil wars and of the Scottish invasions. For these reasons the visitor will find no trace of castle, city walls or ancient battlefield nearby. Instead the story of Halifax revolves more around the development of the cloth industry.
The production of cloth in and around Halifax goes back as far as records exist - at least back to the 13th century. The moorland of the area did not lend itself well to growing of corn so sheep farming and the associated woollen industry dominated here. For hundreds of years the staple trade was in coarse woollen 'kerseys' (low quality lenghts of cloth) but at the beginning of the 18th century Halifax men began weaving finer cloths such as worsteds, which were eventually to lead to the West Riding's world-wide dominance of cloth making. During the 19th century the move from home workshop to factory floor was accelerated with the advent of water power and then steam power and by 1850 there were 24 mills in Halifax.
Halifax Minster is dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Legend has it that the name 'Halifax' is derived from 'Holy face' and that a portion of the Baptists's face was preserved as a relic in the Halifax church. It would seem that few people believed this legend, else Halifax would have been a magnet for pilgrims from around the world for centuries. However, the Halifax coat of arms was designed around this idea.
By this time, one of those mills was the John Crossley's mill at Dean Clough and, with the advent of steam-powered looms, soon to become the largest carpet factory in the world. Cheap imports in the latter half of the 20th century spelt the death of much of the textile and carpet industry in Halifax and Britain as a whole. Crossley's closed in 1982.
In the late 19th century Halifax's association with confectionery began, when John Macintosh opened his first toffee shop. He gave himself the title of 'Toffee King' and with the subsequent success of the company and their product, Halifax was, for a while, 'Toffee Town'. In 1969 the company merged with Rowntree's of York to become Rowntree Macintosh, later taken over by Nestle.
The other famous institution associated with Halifax was the Halifax Building Society (later Halifax plc, then HBOS and now part of Lloyds Banking Group). Formed by a group of local working people at a meeting in the Old Cock Inn in 1853, the Halifax Permanent Benefit Building and Investment Society was the largest in the UK by 1913.
It became Halifax Building Society in 1928 after merging with the second largest society, the Halifax Equitable Building Society. Some might suggest that if it had remained a building society it would still be going strong today.
The lord of the manor held great power over the inhabitants of his land and at his court fees were paid for grants of land, fines paid for wrongdoings and, as mentioned above, punishments imposed for crimes. These courts were presided over by the lord of the manor's steward, the Steward of Wakefield and it seems likely that Halifax's proximity to Wakefield via the roads of the time led to it becoming the capital of the district.