A brief history of the Stank Hall site and Beeston
The Friends of Stank Hall Barn have become Friends of South Leeds Life. Sue Ottley-Hughes from the group has written this fascinating historical overview of this corner of South Leeds:
During recent archaeology field walking on the paths in and around the Stank Hall and Barn site by the Friends of Stank Hall we have discovered prehistoric flint scrapers, Roman pottery and a number of other early finds.
The Roman element on the site shouldn’t be that much of a surprise – part of a Roman hypocaust (underground heating system for a dwelling or bath house) was found in the first half of 20th century in the sewage works that stood where the White Rose Centre stands now. Roman coins and small finds have been reported on the Cardinals Estate and up Churwell Hill – but it was still an unexpected couple of finds that clarified the fact that in the Stanks site we are examining an occupation of some considerable antiquity. Above the site on the golf course, a private archaeological excavation apparently found the remains of roundhouses with many worked flints in the early 20th century. Whilst further along the ridge in Middleton the remains of a Beaker settlement were discovered when digging foundations for a recent housing development.
Beeston too is an ancient site of likely constant occupation – in many ways it is too high and useful not to be, anyone who has ever tried to climb Beeston Hill in the ice and snow can attest that in its pre-20th century condition of muddied trackways it would have been an effort to reach the top.
In the 17th century it is mentioned as the place that the people of Leeds could retire to in times of trouble – during civil unrest. Thoresby reports that there is a near riot in the streets when there is an (untrue) report passing from man to man that Beeston has been set alight. The earthwork by Beeston Primary School known as Windmill Hill is, by it’s shape and the way it ties in with the other man-made and early earthworks that run along the top of Beeston ridge rising up from the Elland Road Football Stadium, likely to be Norman in origin or more likely earlier. Two Roman roads intersected just where the Ring Road and B&Q now meld together, and it is unlikely that the Roman command would leave such a naturally defensible rise of earth be enhanced and utilised by any opposition.
Certainly by the time that the Scots Army occupied Morley as unwelcome invaders for winter quarter in the 14th century, Beeston was defensible enough to remain unoccupied and unmolested. It continued to be so for enough centuries to accommodate a succession of Anchorite nuns in the reclusatory chapel that stood in Beeston. It was demolished in the early 20th century for being too small and replaced by St Mary’s church that is still in use today. Anchorite nuns, walled into one room for the remainder of their lives, attached to a chapel and occupied in prayer and spiritual advice for the local community, were carefully only placed within a community which could care for and protect them. Beeston, high on the hill, pretty much unassailable and with the King’s Hunting Lodge and Park (now Stanks Old Hall, New Hall and Barn) less than a mile away on the next promontory, did very well in accommodating all of those qualities.
Then there is the matter of the lost great houses of Beeston and not just the great ones. A quick search on the Leodis website of photographic local history owned by Leeds City Council reveals the 20th century demolition of ancient properties to make way for housing developments. You can see some fine medieval timber framed buildings being ripped apart to be lost forever, together with a Norman stone hall with small arched windows that echo those of the earliest form of Stank Old Hall when it was the Royal Hunting Lodge. Beeston Hall was also demolished to make way for housing, the fine timber hall of Cad Beeston remains but only thanks to dedicated work by those who toiled to keep it twenty years ago or so, now it perches on the far edge of Beeston Hill, in private ownership and hedged in by small red brick houses.
Some small remnants of the Monk’s Hall may remain in the old buildings to one side of Cross Flatts Park, but we have one final lost great house in Beeston which remains hidden from everyone. In the 17th century the great Leeds historian Ralph Thoresby bemoaned the loss of a great stone gatehouse of some antiquity which was being taken apart and demolished on Beeston Hill. From his description, it was probably something like the lovely Marmion Tower in West Tanfield. It guarded a timber framed hall which had fallen into disuse and was then derelict – but where was it?
Beeston Hall was well known to Master Thoresby, as he frequently visited a friend there who was a lady historian. Cad Beeston too was alive and kicking at that time, as was Stank Hall as the home of Major Joshua Greathead. Somewhere under modern Beeston is the answer to this puzzle but it may take some finding. Sadly the great worked stones from the demolished tower may not have travelled far at all – in Turner’s painting of the view from Beeston Hill a layer of fine square construction stones are laid to work improving the road surface.
And so to the site that we Friends are trying so hard to protect. It is in a currently semi-derelict condition on the hill opposite the White Rose Centre, and hundreds of people must pass it every day without seeing it behind the tree cover.
Stank Old Hall with its rare chimney garderobe dates back to the 13th century and was originally a Royal Hunting Lodge, attached to the Royal Hunting Park which connected Beeston with Rothwell Castle and was protected by palisades and earthwork banks. These earthwork banks were considered by the 13th century monks concerned with the farmland at Beeston to be ‘henges’ or prehistoric, and part of one may remain today adjacent to Dewsbury Road, and currently up for sale as a building plot for four houses.
Stank New Hall (which has unfortunately been damaged by recent arson) was built in the late 16th century, and Stank Hall Barn is a 15th century timber framed construct. For some of us this site sums up the spirit of Yorkshire. It has stood strong for centuries of occupation, has a terrific history with some wonderful people living there through the recent decades of use as a farm and then as social housing, and despite neglect for the past 20 years is too bloody-minded to fall down.
This year we Friends of Stank Hall start a working partnership with Leeds City Council, the owners, which will see a medieval growing garden planted up as part of an Incredible Edible scheme to feed the local community and encourage them to become involved with the site, and hopefully encourage other investment and participation to bring the oldest secular buildings in Leeds, supported by English Heritage, out of dereliction and back into a useful working life.