Oakwell Hall, Birstall, West Yorkshire

Oakwell Hall
Oakwell Hall from above (Kirklees Metropolitan Council)

         It’s often really refreshing to peep into a country house that isn’t spectacularly gilded, hung with Chinese wallpaper, and set out with Louis XV furniture. Oakwell Hall is not a grand medieval palace or power house, but a house built for a member of the local gentry at the end of the sixteenth century. Its definition as a country house rests simply with its use as an established home for one family – the Batt family and their hopes of maintaining their status within the landscape. That the Batt family inhabited the hall for only one century provides this house with a great mix of history.

          Situated about 2 miles away from the concrete and glass ‘haven’ that is Birstall Retail Park and Leeds Ikea, Oakwell Hall is one of those ‘hidden gems’ which stares blankly back should you ever use such an expression. Set within Oakwell Country Park, the house is tucked away upon an otherwise commanding hillside behind thick trees and amongst remnants of its twentieth-century mining heritage. The park provides a welcome break or day out for families, and the eighteenth-century styled gardens are great for eager gardeners. The house itself stands boldly and is almost always quiet. Built in 1583 for John Batt, Oakwell came as the next step in the Batt family’s prominence. An entrepreneurial family, the Batts had made their fortune through several business interests in Halifax throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Oakwell Hall Great Parlour

The house is a mix of local Yorkshire building and fashionable gentry style and is medieval in its arrangement with a central hall rising through the upper storey. An arched passage leads to the main kitchen and the ‘New Parlour’ on one side of the hall to the south-east, with the Great Parlour and associated rooms to the north-west. John Batt’s initials appear on the front porch and much of the architectural arrangement and interior design throughout the house is thought to date from the late sixteenth century. Kirklees Metropolitan Council have set much of the house out as they think it may have appeared in the last decade of the seventeenth century which is curious since this was the era of the remaining Batt family member, another John Batt who died without issue. However, the council’s motives seem more in line with the interior decoration which includes painted oak panelling and plaster friezes dating from the 1630s onwards, and a desire to replicate many items of furniture from the seventeenth century based on an inventory of 1611 and

The Batt Coat of Arms

accounts dating to 1609-12. This time scale also allows inclusion of the Batts’ involvement in the English Civil War and later settlement in the American Colonies. Indeed, many overseas visitors to Oakwell Hall today have connections to the seventeenth-century Batts of Virginia.

          In the eighteenth century, Oakwell Hall passed through the hands of several tenants, but was eventually bought by lawyer Benjamin Fearnley. His son Fairfax Fearnley inherited his father’s debt as well as creating much of his own, but he was quite an eccentric character with good connections amongst the Yorkshire elite, including the Winns at Nostell Priory. Fearnley eventually sold the house in 1789 to help settle some of his debts. From that period, the house and remains of the estate passed to absentee landlords and private families until it became a boarding school. Its most famous visitor, Charlotte Bronte came to Oakwell whilst staying with close friends who had links to the hall when it was run as a girls’ school. Oakwell would later appear in Bronte’s novel Shirley as ‘Fieldhead’ – the home of the novel’s heroine,
Tenantless by the proprietor it had been for ten years, but it was no ruin … If Fieldhead had few other merits as a building, it might at least be termed picturesque; its irregular architecture, and the grey and mossy colouring communicated by time, gave it a just claim to this epithet. The old latticed windows, the stone porch, the walls, the roof, the chimney stacks were rich in crayon touches and sepia lights and shades.
Charlotte Bronte, Shirley, Vol. 1 (1849)  p. 276
          The hall would be used as the location for Fieldhead in a silent adaptation of Shirley in 1921 by the Ideal Film Company. The house as a museum today is welcoming and somehow sturdy and heavy as you approach the porch. In typical Yorkshire fashion, it has drizzled everyday I’ve been on a visit, but when the sun does poke through the open spaces seem to expand and the house rests calmly on its large hillside site looking out towards the parkland. The modern-day Yorkshire landscape is dotted with industry and transport links – especially the M62 in this case. So should you ever pass Birstall Retail Park travelling west, remember Oakwell Hall is not far away, you may not be able to see it, but its countless visitors can see you!
Links:
Wikipedia entry on Oakwell Hall http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakwell_Hall
References:
Catherine Hall and Jane Whittaker, Oakwell Hall: A Guide. (1999)
Charlotte Bronte, Shirley: A Tale. (1849)
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