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House Histories: how to begin
Report of talk given by Barbara Atack, Hilary Fellows, Robert Stevens and Barbara Pearcey on 11 December 2019

House HistoriesFollowing on from a successful Study Day organised by Hebden Bridge Local History Society which focused on house histories, members of the society came together to share their own experiences. Barbara Atack, president of the society, outlined the array of sources available for those wanting to find out more of the history of a house. She began with a word of warning: don’t accidentally research the wrong house - names of hamlets, street names, house names and numbers can change over time, so she advised some careful checks. Starting with the building itself you can establish a picture of what its history might have been and how it relates to nearby buildings.

Photographs are also a valuable resource, and the Pennine Horizons Digital Archive is accessible on-line. If you have access to the deeds of your house you can see how it has changed hands, and what sort of activities went on there. Looking at historical maps is often revealing, as are any planning applications which might be held in the archives. Census information collected every decade lists the members of the household and family relationships, while local archives are also a rich source of information. The National Archives at Kew hold the Lloyd George Survey of 1910, and the field books which are held there give detailed information about the size and condition of the building at that time. The Hebden Bridge Local History Society archive held at Birchcliffe, and the West Yorkshire Archives, at Wakefield and in Halifax are good places to get advice about your research. Many indexes are available on-line.

These archives certainly helped Hilary Fellows in her research into her house, Slater Bank, at the top of Moss Lane in Hebden Bridge. Like many buildings, it had been altered over time, and Hilary’s research revealed that for a stretch of its life in the 19th century it housed a school run by a Mr Moss. A list of expenses found in the archive supported the theory that the building was probably altered to accommodate school boarders. A disputed will shed light on another occupant described as ‘a lady of independent means’ and after the death of Sarah Cousins, the said lady, an auction of her goods was held. A poster advertising the sale not only paints a picture of daily life with her ‘genteel and valuable household effects’, but also lists rooms in the house which are markedly different from the layout today. As well as the genteel Sarah Cousins, Hilary made the acquaintance of Thomas Foster, who as a member of the Heptonstall Vestry committee, was seeking in the 18th century to close down the excess number of pubs in Heptonstall, as well as a less salubrious Captain John Sutcliffe who was challenged because he was allowing the contents of his midden to run onto the road.

While Hilary was fascinated by the people who had lived in Slater Bank before her, Robert Stevens and Barbara Pearcey live in a public building – 6 Garnett Street, or Ebenezer Chapel, which had some different secrets to reveal. The building itself is curious – the front aspect is a rather grand and formal two storey building, while the rear is a single storey which looks more like a row of cottages.

Documents record that the chapel was built by Reverend John Fawcett, a notable preacher, in 1776, and a manse added in 1785. It continued as a chapel and a Sunday school until well into the 19th century, when the congregation moved into the larger premises on Hope Street. Later it was known as Hebden Hall and used for entertainments, before providing a home for a printers and for the Hebden Bridge Times, and latterly an Antiques Centre and now the Heart Gallery.

The first question about the discrepancy between the front and back of the building started to be solved when a map from 1850 showed that the chapel was at first standing four square and quite isolated; while a map of 1886 showed the street layout much as it is now. In fact the level of Garnett street had been raised, and the rear of the ground floor disappeared behind it. The necessity of some renovation work on their first floor home provided Robert with the opportunity to explore beneath the surface. There was a considerable amount of detective work involved, but the structure of the house started to reveal its secrets. It seems likely now that the manse and chapel were built as one building – there is no internal stone wall and the timbers in the roofs are identical enormous spans of Baltic timber. When preaching in the chapel was in full swing, worshippers had access to a gallery facing the pulpit, and the timbers that supported it are still visible. The floor above was raised in the 1980s, and drawn with his head torch into the void, Robert was able to find the bases of the seating still there. What’s more, a decorative minstrel’s gallery in the dining room proved to be hiding a lift shaft installed (apparently without any planning permission) in the manse section during the time when the rest of the building was used by the Hebden Bridge Times.

Whether the journey of discovery is a paper chase through the archives or an exploration of the secrets hidden behind walls and under floors, the passion seems to take hold and drive you to find out more. It was exciting to share how the past can be conjured up through historical records and sometimes actually touched in the stones and timbers that remain.

The society meets again at Hebden Bridge Methodist Church on Wednesday January 8th at 7.30 pm, when Diana Monahan and Justine Wyatt look at the landscape paintings of Victorian artist John Holland who captured Hebden Bridge at a time of considerable change. All welcome.

Details of the talks programme, publications and of archive opening times are available on this website and you can also follow the Facebook page.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report

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