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HX7: A web site about the town of HEBDEN BRIDGE, West Yorkshire


A brief history of Hebden Bridge

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To those travelling through the valley of Calderdale, which seems such an obvious route through the Pennines west of Halifax, it may seem strange that until about two hundred years ago most habitation and transport in this area happened on the uplands rather than the valleys. It is Heptonstall which is the oldest settlement in the immediate area; the original church (ruined by a storm in 1847) was founded in the 12th century. Until the 19th century, "Hebden Bridge" consisted only of - unsurprisingly - the bridge over the Hebden Water (pictured below) and the White Lion Hotel. Around Heptonstall, up on the moors, there were numerous scattered landholdings and cottages, in which, from a comparatively early date, farming families supplemented the land with weaving from local wool.


Important changes began to happen in the 19th century, however, which changed forever the focus of Calderdale life. The Industrial Revolution impacted both upon the weaving industry, and local transport arrangements. The steep gradients (see this picture) had restricted transport to the pack horse prior to the 1800s, but in the early part of that century, several new routes were opened up:-

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With these improvements came innovations in the textile industry which transformed it from a home- into a factory-based activity. Spinning and weaving machinery was introduced, and the steep, wet valley walls provided ample opportunity to use water power to fuel the new mills. Industry sprang up in the main valley, side valleys such as Cragg Vale and Jumble Hole, and even up on the tops.

With the mills came other related industries, and services such as shops: a local entrepreneur, William Barker, then realised in the 1850s that there was a market for Hebden Bridge to produce its own clothes, rather than simply make the material to be transported out of the area. By the end of the century the town was a major centre for the manufacture of workers' clothing. The town underwent a population explosion, with nearly all of what makes up today's central Hebden Bridge being built in the 1880s and 1890s.

This included many examples of the town's most distinctive feature, the "top and bottom house", an architectural curiosity virtually unique to the town. The photograph below shows the streets of Eiffel Buildings (lower right), Eiffel Street (front centre) and, behind it, Edward Street - all of which climb up the steep Birchcliffe Road. But they are not quite what they seem. These are not grand four-storey town houses. The front door at the bottom of each gives access only to the lower of two houses, which occupies the lower two floors. The top two floors and the attic are another separate house, accessed round the back of each terrace visible here, where the ground has risen enough to make access possible on the ground floor! The lower house therefore only has windows on one side. So a street like Edward Street, for instance, has "top" houses on the west (lower) side, and "bottom" houses on the east! The diagram should make things clearer: the small arrows in each case show the houses' front doors.

IMAGE OF STREETS      diagram of top and bottom house arrangement

It is often said that this was an innovative response to the problems of building in an area hemmed in by very steep valley walls, but as Gordon Dickinson (see credits below) writes:

"Such streets are not, as may first be thought, a response to a shortage of level land (many were there long before the level land of the town centre was developed) but to sheer opportunism. On such a steep site a normal terrace of houses would require underpinning by a vast amount of dead walling on the down-slope side. Why not put doors and windows into this and get two streets (and their rents) on your site instead of only one?

Whatever the rationale, the style gives Hebden its most distinctive feature, and the steep valley walls have also discouraged further development: with the exception of a couple of pockets, there simply wasn't room! The OS Map of 1905 looks remarkably similar to a street plan today. This is why, for many visitors, Hebden Bridge represents the best- preserved example of an old Pennine mill town.

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Not all of the town's history is rosy. Acre Mill, built on the plateau near the sub- settlement of Old Town, became notorious in the later 20th century for the massive incidence of asbestos-related illness in its workers and people living in the vicinity. After a long battle for compensation, many victims received money from the mill's owners, but for too many of them this came posthumously. The mill is now gone but its bitter taste remains. This was only an extreme incident in a history of pollution and disease common to many mill towns, their air filled with the dust from fibres and smoke, itself hemmed in by the valley walls. The soot-blackened appearance of many of the buildings around the town is testament to that.

In addition the town was afflicted by the problems common to the whole area from the 1960s on: a decline in manufacturing industries generally and the textile industry in particular. But other changes which took place around this time were beneficial to the town in many ways. Though there's always been tourism in the area, with Hebden Dale (a.k.a. Hardcastle Crags) having been a magnet for coach parties and walkers for most of the 20th century, the advent of mass car ownership has increased the number of visitors to the town. With Hebden's proximity to the Pennine Way, the countryside around, and the physical appeal of the place itself, it found itself becoming both a tourist centre and, later, a haven for what could be termed "the counterculture" from the 1970s on. It developed a reputation as a centre for New Age and gay/lesbian culture - neither is entirely deserved but there's some truth in it. Many might lament the dilution of an "honest Yorkshire town" but both the old and new cultures live well together in the current time, as Hebden enters the 21st century in good health.

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Some information taken from Gordon Dickinson's essay in the reissued 1905 Hebden Bridge
OS Map. See also C. Spencer's The History of Hebden Bridge.