The Timber Framed Buildings of Wakefield by Peter Brears, 8 January 2020

The Timber Framed Buildings of Wakefield by Peter Brears
8th January 2020

For the first meeting of the year it was the Society’s turn to host the annual joint talk with Wakefield Civic Society. Our speaker, was a particular draw, filling the Kingswood Suite at the Town Hall. Peter Brears is known by many as museum director, food historian and architectural specialist. 

His interest in historical architecture began in 1958 as a teenager, sneaking into and sketching half-demolished buildings. He met John Goodchild and together they would rescue numerous documents and artefacts from other disused buildings. The 1950/60s brought vast changes in Wakefield city centre and they rescued collections of valuable records of businesses and organisations that would otherwise have been lost. 

Peter talked us through these lost sites and discoveries using his illustrations as a visual aid, beginning with a consideration of Wakefield as a whole. It had a high concentration of quality 16th and 17th century buildings for its size, particularly merchant houses. Soft bedrock means that they are mostly situated uphill rather than riverside. A birds-eye view remains recognisable with roads heading towards major trade routes, leading to York, Leeds, industrial Halifax and London. Westgate would have had a ‘bar’ over it, similar to those at York. Wakefield Historical Society Newsletter March 2020 3 

Little is left of the 16th century parish church that became the cathedral, but some internal elements remain. Carvings called ‘Celtic heads’, ‘Old Man’s Faces’ or ‘Watchers’ appear both on the font (dating from 1661) and roof. These protective emblems date from 12th century elsewhere, although there are examples at Howarth from 1876. Internal wood work, carried out by the ‘Wakefield School of Wood Carving’, may appear Victorian, but is much older. For example a crest to commemorate the marriage of Jocelyn Percy to a member of the Featherstone family dates from 1520. The Percy family also have carvings in the chancel, and bench ends at Sandal Church. Francis Gunby, prominent 17th century joiner who worked on Temple Newsam and pieces for York Minster provided the pulpit. Sadly, much woodwork has been removed over the years, particularly in the recent renovations. 

Many structures covered in the talk have been destroyed in part or entirely. The manor buildings under the Church Institute on the junction of Silver Street and Westgate; Wakefield Cross which exists only as columns in the Secret Garden in Thornes Park; the Golden Cock Inn, whose façade is in the museum stores. Other subjects were dealt with in more depth. 

Haselden Hall, built by the Savile family, was thought to be one of the finest of its kind in the North. It had a central courtyard with galleries and a great hall, and was rebuilt several times from the Tudor period onwards. In the 18th century it was broken into tenements, one wing was demolished in the mid-19th century and the next in 1959. Wrenthorpe pottery was discovered on its excavation in the 1960s. Detailed drawings of carved timber beams and plaster ceiling decoration were made by Peter amongst others. 

The loss of Heath Old Hall was felt to be particularly great. It comprised numerous unusual architectural and decorative elements, including a Jezebel fireplace and an outer court with a mock moat. Left intact until 1947 it was undermined for coal and, due to National Coal Board safety policy, partially demolished. Peter was able to remove items for safekeeping to the museum collection prior to complete demolition of the remains. Only the nationally important Lady Bolles water tower is still standing, of which only 2-3 of its kind still exist in the UK 

Fragments of timber framed buildings exist in the city centre: in the Bullring, Cross Square, Silver Street and on Bread Street, where temporary market buildings were made permanent in the early 16th century. Over time a national shortage of timber due to increased shipbuilding, and more efficient construction methods, meant partially timbered buildings such as the Six Chimneys were preferred. Its foundation date is uncertain but it was only demolished in 1941 when the owners replaced a load-bearing wall with a plate glass window causing partial collapse. Other timbered buildings still exist, but are covered up such as the Wakefield Historical Society Newsletter March 2020 4 

Black Swan Pub in Silver Street, the ex-Tourist Information on the Bullring. Chevet Hall which appeared Victorian before demolition enclosed a timber hall dating from 1529. 

Some Individual architectural features still exist in situ, some in museum storage. There are parts of 15 moulded plaster ceilings dating from the Tudor period to the late 17th century in Wakefield, an unusual amount for something that rarely survives at all. 

Detailed illustrations enabled close study of unusual decorative timber elements such as the ‘Renaissance beasts’ and a 17th century sunburst around the yards of Northgate and Westgate. A carved chalice and paten for the chantry priests’ house near the Cathedral was recorded but doesn’t survive. 

A carved figure of a man survives from Bread Street. An inscription showing the owners fealty to Mary I survives from Kirkgate. Some of these will be examples of a Wakefield school of wood carving, another unusual feature for a town the size of Wakefield. 

Bretton Hall, built for the Wentworth family, has undergone numerous architectural changes and has many notable features. The bedroom of Thomas Wentworth, Knight Marshall for Henry VIII, contained a probably Flemish sideboard with renaissance detail and a carved bed with military themes such as George and the Dragon. The whole room has been preserved at Temple Newsam. 

The soft stone of the region was a recurring theme. It enabled easy construction of rock-cut cellars with niches for candles or statues. Deep foundations were necessary for the construction of the Ridings Shopping Centre to ensure stability. In this and other areas there is evidence for the use of sand from locally-mined sandstone for cleaning stone steps. Much of the original Elizabethan Grammar School was built from stone from nearby Goody Bower quarry, meaning that carved inscriptions eroded quickly and had to be renewed. 

The audience posed various questions about external appearance and construction materials. The development of brick construction techniques can be seen across 17th century properties, introduced sparingly and distrustfully at first (would this new material fail where stone was solid?) to entire buildings with brick load bearing walls. 

The conclusion of the talk was how many good quality historic buildings in Wakefield had been lost through a lack of appreciation of their quality, and only partially recorded, but also that some still exist hidden behind later facades. 

Peter Brears’ book ‘The Buildings of Tudor and Stuart Wakefield” which is richly illustrated is available through Wakefield Historical Publications.

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