Et in Bohemia ego

St Thomas à Becket and St Thomas the Apostle Church, Heptonstall

St Thomas à Becket and St Thomas the Apostle Church, Heptonstall

Et in Bohemia ego

Bill Hartley, on the history of Hebden Bridge

Hebden Bridge is a small and picturesque town in the upper Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. Before the industrial revolution the locals made their living through sheep farming, quarrying the local gritstone and hand loom weaving. Industrialisation brought the mills, spreading out from towns like Halifax and Huddersfield in search of a reliable supply of fast flowing water.

There was a good deal of sub regional specialisation in wool textiles and Hebden Bridge was once known as ‘trouser town’ which indicates what they produced there. During the 1960s and 70s textile manufacture started to disappear. In the face of cheap foreign imports only the manufacturers of high end products could survive and ‘trouser town’ made none of these. As a consequence, there are very few Hebden Bridge firms left in the wool trade. The economic effects of this were all too predictable: high unemployment and a fall in property prices. Hebden Bridge became one of the many run down mill towns on both sides of the Pennines. A few once grand shops and civic buildings in the centre, giving way to crumbling streets of terraced houses. Then in the 1970s a new demographic appeared. Journalists wrote about the growing bohemianism of the town as people arrived, drawn there by low cost living and low property prices. My old tutor in historical geography who knew the area well took a different view, sniffily remarking that the town had been colonised by ‘various dissolute young people’. He wasn’t wrong either –  my friends and I were among the dissolute, though admittedly we only went there on drinking expeditions. The pubs in Hebden Bridge had avoided 1970s style makeovers, mock medieval taverns or fake rural inns with bits of saddlery hanging from the ceilings. Like the rest of the town they weren’t worth the investment.

The bohemianism back then consisted of moth eaten hippies eking out their dole money in these pubs. Sometimes they’d talk about never to be realised plans for the abandoned shop premises below the flat they lived in. Others would pretend to be artists or musicians. It was all good fun, at least for an evening. Only some years later did people arrive on the tail of these pioneers bearing investment money and the ability to make Hebden Bridge noticeably ‘Alternative’. Since those early days of welfare funded bohemian lifestyles, things have changed. The Financial Times reports that you would pay a premium to buy a house. Property prices have risen enormously and shops have sprung up to tell the story of who is living there now.

Hebden used to have a proper mill shop selling clothing woven in Yorkshire. Not far away was a butcher’s who once took his black puddings to France and picked up awards. Both long gone. Now you can buy ethical green nappies for your infant, Palestinian fair trade olive oil and ethnically sourced products, though I suspect the latter aren’t sourced among ethnic Yorkshire manufacturers. The great advantage of Hebden Bridge is that a shop inserted into one of the town’s Victorian buildings can soon look as if it’s been there forever. Of course, tourists love this sort of thing, hence the coaches you see squeezed into the town centre car park. Hebden Bridge has become the go-to place for those in need of such essentials as a quarter of fudge or a chiffon scarf.

Then came another wave of incomers further enhancing the town’s reputation for quirky bohemianism. Hebden Bridge is now the lesbian capital of Yorkshire. Hebden Bridge lesbians have their own Facebook page and the town has been the subject of several articles in the national press approving this new demographic. For lesbians seeking entertainment, the web site Queer Voice tells its readers not to be put off by the name. The Hebden Bridge Trades Club is the place to go for your lesbian themed entertainment.    

Leaving aside the official seal of approval for all this quirky bohemianism the question is, what happened to the working classes, the people who worked the mills and quarried the stone? Well, they are still there. Back in the days when the Trades Club served tradesmen there was a shortage of building land in such a steep sided valley. To cram as many properties as possible onto a usable strip of flat land, a row of terraced houses was the obvious choice. However, with land being in such short supply a terrace wasn’t the entire solution. Seen from a distance whilst travelling by train up the valley, it might be assumed that the Victorian house builders had created rows of tall narrow four storey houses. Not so. These are a peculiarly northern design known as under dwellings. Stand on a terraced street in Hebden Bridge and it would look like any other. However, at intervals there are apertures and down these run steep flights of steps leading to another row of dwellings. What might at a distance be perceived as a generously sized property is in fact one house on top of another. This brought about the creation of a legal device called the ‘flying freehold’. The bedroom ceilings on the under dwelling are of course the property of the owner. However, someone’s ceiling is also the floor of the house above, meaning the owner of the under dwelling also owned the floor of the over dwelling. Which was how the workers of Hebden Bridge were crammed into the limited space available.

Amidst this alternative utopia time hasn’t treated the working classes of Hebden Bridge too well. Many of the families who live there go back generations. Some surnames can pin point origins with considerable precision. The Ackroyd’s, for example, trace their name to a single farmhouse on the fells.

The first bad thing to happen occurred at the now demolished Acre Mill. This was built in 1859 to harness the waters of a fast flowing stream but by 1939 weaving had been replaced by that new wonder material, blue asbestos. Acre mill started by making gas mask filters then other products containing asbestos. It continued in operation until the 1970s and only gradually has the impact on former workers’ health become apparent. In 2007 the Daily Telegraph described it as Britain’s ‘worst industrial disaster’. Campaigners believe Acre Mill to be responsible for 700 deaths.

Then Hebden Bridge acquired an unfortunate nickname: ‘suicide central’. Up in the churchyard of Heptonstall just above Hebden lies the grave of Sylvia Plath, wife of poet laureate Ted Hughes. Not far away are the more anonymous resting places of young men who died of drug overdoses. The high rate of suicides was noted by Jez Lewis a film maker who had grown up in the town. Returning home to attend the funeral of a friend he began to do some calculations. He realised that fifteen friends and neighbours from around the streets where he grew up had killed themselves over a twenty-year period; an extraordinary statistic. This prompted him to do further research leading to the making of his 2009 film Shed Your Tears and Walk Away. The title was prompted by the fatalism of the people he spoke to; the matter of fact response to deaths by suicide among their friends and acquaintances. In 2000 Calderdale had a suicide rate of 10.8 per 100,000 people, double that of neighbouring North Kirklees. Hebden Bridge, a paradise for some, is purgatory for a marginalised and overlooked working class. Lewis’s attempts to research the film were met with denials from local politicians that there was a problem and schools refused to take his calls. The story is told in the film by those whose lives have been blighted by alcohol and drugs. Watching it one is struck by how semi articulate youths can still voice their frustration and bewilderment about what is happening to them.

So what factors are at work? An unemployment rate of 5.2% may play a part but this figure isn’t uncommon in parts of the north. Some people believe topography has a role, noting that the steep valley sides can create a sense of claustrophobia. The weather doesn’t help. Five consecutive days of sunshine are said to be a rarity. Then there is aspect. The working class homes mentioned above were built on the north side of the valley, which of course gets even less of the limited sunshine. One resident noted the prescient view of a local policeman voiced some thirty years ago. He predicted that the situation would get much worse. The hippies, he said, had brought drug use to the valley and had made it normal.

Some urban geographers are critical of ‘regeneration by gentrification’, pointing out that those with the least voice are the ones who get marginalised. As Jez Lewis mentioned, in Hebden Bridge they will hold a candle lit vigil for Tibet or Palestine but the death by suicide of a twenty-five year old father of two scarcely gets a mention. One of the youths featured in the film nicely summed up the paradox of his home town. He described Hebden Bridge as ‘a drugs town with a tourist problem’.


BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service and writes from Yorkshire

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