Scott’s Best Church

Sir George Gilbert Scott boasted in his memoirs that All Souls’ Haley Hill in Halifax was “on the whole, my best church”. Quite a statement from arguably the world’s finest Gothic Revival architect.

He went on to say: “but it labours under this disadvantage, that it was never meant to be so fine a work as it is, and consequently was not commenced on a sufficiently bold and comprehensive plan. Nothing could exceed the liberality and munificence of its founder, and I think he was well satisfied. I confess I hardly am so, as I know how much finer it would have been, had it been more developed as to size”.

Scott was clearly pleased with All Souls’ but seemed frustrated that he hadn’t surpassed himself with the design of this church. To the nineteenth-century parishioner, it must have seemed cathedral-like but Scott clearly wished it had been even grander in scale. It is hard to imagine how.

In 1860 the Revd Benjamin Webb, Secretary of the Ecclesiological Society, visited Haley Hill. Akroyd showed him the church, cemetery, schools and mill, and he noted down his reaction – ‘Amazed’.

All Souls’ was built between 1856-9, its patron Colonel Edward Akroyd, a powerful local textile industrialist, member of parliament, commandant of the 4th West Yorkshire Volunteer Regiment and founder of the Yorkshire Penny Bank. The church was built to serve the workforce of its founder’s eponymous ‘model village’ of Akroydon, a few hundred yards across the Boothtown Road and near to his textile factory. Akroyd’s own house at Bankfield (now the Bankfield Museum) was built across the other side of the new Akroyd Park. With such benevolence, no expense was spared on the project.

Approaching the church, the tower and spire appear to reach to the heavens – the spire is 236 feet high, said to be in competition with that of the Square Chapel, in the town itself, completed only two years before All Souls’. Entering the church, the visitor is greeted by a highly elaborate carved stone tympanum above the west door, depicting Christ with angels beside.

The interior is even more extravagant – carved stonework and exotic marble appear in every aspect. Busts of the early Fathers of the Church gaze down at the visitor from the spandrels of the lofty arcades. The sculptor was none other than John Birnie Philip, who went on to work for Scott on the Albert Memorial and many other prominent buildings. The chancel and nave are divided by exquisitely detailed ironwork by Francis Skidmore of Coventry.

Stained glass fills almost every window of nave, chancel, baptistery and clerestory, made by companies such as Hardman & Co., Wailes of Newcastle and Clayton & Bell, the latter also painted the interior including the magnificent chancel roof. The west window is outstanding. Made by Hardman & Co., it depicts Christ in Majesty in a riot of colour, mimicking a fifteenth-century window at Fairford in Gloucestershire. The pulpit is massive, raised on shafts of Devonshire and Italian marble, giving a commanding view over the nave, its elaborate decoration providing a focal point for the congregation during services.

At the east end, the high altar is a treat, the alabaster reredos being home to statues of Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, St John, and the three Marys, with Christ himself in a raised central niche. All this is framed by a decorative scheme of Minton tiles which rise from the floor, which in turn is carpeted wall-to-wall by tiles of the same company. Also in the chancel are finely carved choir stalls with finials depicting Evangelists, angels and musicians including St. Cecilia with an organ.

At the east end of the south transept is the Akroyd chapel – no effigies or monuments here but a reminder of who paid for all of this – an inscription around the perimeter of the floor commemorating Akroyd reads ‘To the honour of God and the holy blessed and glorious Trinity this church was founded by Edward Akroyd, merchant and manufacturer of Halifax AD 1859’. Neither Akroyd nor any members of the family were ever buried here. Akroyd had local architects Mallinson and Healey erect a family chapel in the cemetery he founded on the opposite side the Boothtown Road but sadly that building was demolished in 1968. Directly opposite the south chapel, in the north transept, resides an organ built by Forster & Andrews of Hull and based on the famous instruments by Schulze. This four-manual instrument was smashed to pieces by vandals during the 1970s and 80s and lies to this day in an irreparable state.

At the west end, in the tower space is a font carved from a huge block of black Cornish marble. High above this are eight bells cast by Mears of Whitechapel.

Today, although still one of the most celebrated of Victorian churches, All Souls’ is a shadow of its former self. The stonework began to crumble soon after completion, the result of Scott’s use of two incompatible types of stone, selected to give the building its polychromatic beauty. Over the years, its fabric has decayed at an exponential rate, accelerated by the West Yorkshire weather and the poor air quality pervading this nineteenth-century industrial power-house. The wall paintings of the interior have long vanished with only traces of paint to be seen.

All Souls’ became redundant in 1979 as a result of falling masonry, repairs to such a lavish building being beyond the means of the parishioners. The building was vested with The Churches Conservation Trust in 1989 and much conservation work has been completed since. It is cared for by a team of dedicated local people and is open by prior arrangement – see www.visitchurches.org.uk.

Further reading and references

Barnwell, P. S., Tyack, G. And Whyte W., Sir George Gilbert Scott 1811-1878, Shaun Tyas (2014)

Howell, P. All Souls Church – Churches Conservation Trust Guidebook, The Churches Conservation Trust (2003)

‘All Souls Church Haley Hill Halifax’ in The Builder, Vol. XVII (1859)