WOE betide any 18th century wool trader who failed to keep a close eye on the clock.
When the Piece Hall, with its 315 rooms, stunning courtyard and classical colonnades, first opened in 1779, its trading hours were strictly controlled, and anyone working outside them faced authorities who were willing to use an iron fist.
“This magnificent building was built to trade cloth for just two hours every Saturday,’’ said Nicky-Chance Thompson, the chief executive of the Piece Hall Trust, the charitable body that is turning the Grade I listed building in Halifax into a bustling hub for retail, commerce and entertainment.
“If you’ve been in one of the original traders’ rooms you can see why you wouldn’t want to be in them for very long,’’ she added. “It was very intense and very regulated. If you traded after the bell rang, you were fined a considerable sum.”
The Piece Hall has a grandeur which makes you forget that it was created to be useful rather than beautiful. It’s the only Georgian cloth hall still standing in Britain, and, as an architectural novelty, can hold its own against the Eiffel Tower, according to Ms Chance-Thompson.
“This building survived the industrial revolution,’’ she said. “It withstood attempts to demolish it in the 1970s. The Piece Hall very much wants to be alive.”
The Piece Hall has made a belated, and roaring, entry into the 21st century. Its fortunes have been transformed, thanks to a vast refurbishment overseen by Calderdale Council, and backed by a £7m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The programme has restored the stonework and made the old cloth storage rooms suitable for modern business owners, who are keen to move in. The sloping central courtyard has been levelled, creating what admirers describe as one of the most striking piazzas in Europe. The piazza will also host a seasonal programme of events, with capacity for up to 7,500 people.
The courtyard features new lighting, seating and two cascading water features which interpret the importance of water in cloth production. The building’s future is now in the hands of The Piece Hall Trust, which operates independently of the council.
Ms Chance-Thompson, who has the Bradford-born composer Frederick Delius on her family tree, combines a passion for Halifax with a hard-headed understanding of what makes the retail world tick. She became chief executive of the trust in April, following a 24-year career in communications, retail and consultancy, where she worked for advertising agencies such as Lowe Howard Spink. She helped to develop the brand and retail strategies for the McArthurGlen Designer outlet villages and the redevelopment of Covent Garden. She first encountered the Piece Hall more than a decade ago, when her Halifax-born husband Marcus took her on a tour of his home town.
She recalled: “I thought it was one of the most magnificent buildings I had ever seen. It was totally unexpected. There we were, meandering through Halifax town centre and we came to this gateway, and my first words were, ‘Wow.’
“I was absolutely delighted when I found out that the council had this ambition to transform it.”
Crowds have flocked to the Piece Hall since it re-opened in August. Businesses already trading in the Piece Hall have glorious titles. There’s nothing bland, for example, about Blondin’s Ice Cream Parlour or Jitterbug Jean which “shows off the quirky styles of vintage Rockabilly”. Recent visitors have included the composer Lord Lloyd Webber and the artist Grayson Perry. Some of the businesses trading from the building are online firms that decided they needed a physical presence. Ms Chance-Thompson wants the Piece Hall’s success to provide a boost for the world beyond it.
She said: “Calderdale has a series of wonderful market towns, so we’re trying to take the best from those market towns and play them out in the Piece Hall. It feels like the town has finally got its heart back.
“We’re 63 per cent full. There is more demand than units, but we are taking our time to make sure we get the right people. We expect every applicant to set out a business plan to demonstrate they are going to be sustainable. We have had nearly 800,000 people come to the area in the last three months, which is quite incredible.”
She added: “The secret now is to get that appeal out to the region; to Leeds and Manchester, London and international attention too. We’ve already started to get some traction. I attended a ceremony in London where we were highly commended by the British Guild of Travel Writers’ tourism awards.”
The Piece Hall was in good company. Other nominees at the awards included the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC and the International Cave Painting Centre, in Lascaux, France.
Ms Chance-Thompson hopes visitors will combine a trip to the Piece Hall with a visit to other attractions, such as Halifax’s Square Chapel Arts Centre, the Bronte country around Haworth. and attractive villages like Mytholmroyd.
This Christmas, the Piece Hall will be transformed into a winter wonderland, complete with a spiegeltent, a Dutch crafted tent that will host live shows. It’s all part of Ms Chance-Thompson’s strategy of adding a dash of excitement to the shopping experience.
She said: “I want people to come away feeling they have experienced something extraordinary. The same experience I had when I first walked into the Piece Hall.”
Name: Nicky Chance-Thompson
Title. Chief executive officer The Piece Hall Trust.
Date of birth: March 26 1970
First job: Next Retail Ltd
Education: Greycoat Hospital, London Institute, Aston University
Last book read: A Bigger Table - John Pavlovitz
Favourite film: Amelie
Car driven: Mini
Favourite holiday destination: Venice
The thing she is most proud of? My team and the achievements at the Piece Hall
Yorkshire connections: She is the great-great-great-niece of Bradford-born composer Frederick Delius. Her grandmother’s family (Benson) is one half of the family behind the Bendicks chocolate company