The origin of the name Hellifield Some commentators have said that the name originates from Helg’field or Hells’field. Hell can mean holy and also ‘Hell’ was the Norse goddess of the underworld, so perhaps that is more to the local myth than meets the eye. For all you ‘Dan Brown’ fans, Sir John Harcourt was one of the last Knights Templar Senchenals and was buried upright ready to serve in the afterlife.
The history of Hellifield Peel is intertwined with the Hamerton family, who came to be joint lords in the late 14th Century. Laurence Hamerton was granted a license to add crenellations and Towers in 1441; the towers can still seen both inside and out, the building construction clearly visible. The Hamertons’ most infamous period was the northern rebellion and Pilgrimage of Grace. These were the Catholic populace rising up to rebel against Henry VIII’s suppression of the church to justify his marriage to Anne Boleyn and to swell the empty coffers of the King. Sir Stephen Hamerton rebelled against the King twice; the first time he was pardoned. Objecting to Henry VIII was not the most intelligent action - Sir Stephen was lucky to be let off the first time. The second time he was hanged and beheaded at Tyburn. Incidentally, he was betrayed by his uncle, Lord Clifford, who took over as joint Lord from the Hospitaliers. All of the Hamerton houses and lands were annexed by the Crown which, when you realise you could ride from Lancaster to York on Hamerton, property must have been worth his uncle betraying him. These lands now form part of Duke of Devonshire’s estates.
Sir Stephens’ son died of a ‘broken heart’ and his wife and child died within the year, most likely poisoned to avoid any complications. The Peel was then annexed by the Crown for nearly 40 years. The building was returned to the Hamerton ownership in the 1570’s. This marked the biggest change in the house’s history for 250 years. The Peel Tower was doubled in size by the addition of 3 levels of major rooms. These are now the kitchen, the drawing room, and our bedroom - ‘the square room’. The majority of existing crenellations also date from this period as well as the mullioned windows. The existing Chapel was most likely removed at this stage, the lancet windows being removed and the Piscina blocked up. The Tower would have finally become a home. Huge mullioned windows were constructed on all levels and you can still see the outline of lintels, jambs and cills. The building would most likely have been completely rendered and lime washed although this is up for debate. From this period the Hamertons had periods of financial difficulties when the Peel was leased and split in two, then three, ownerships in the early 17th Century between 1601 and 1630. In this period ‘James Hamerton Esq’ is recorded as riding out to meet King James I on his procession down to London claim the throne. Much is made of the wife and sister-in-law, so they were probably ‘pretty fit’ as I believe the modern parlance is for such a description. James was also reputed to be one of the magistrates at the trial of the ‘Witches of Pendle’.
The next period of activity at the Peel was the late 18th Century. In around the 1780’s the Peel was completely remodelled with large Georgian windows being introduced. The internal plan would have been greatly altered with the construction of a cantilevered stone staircase. The original spiral stone stairs were ripped out along with many other period features, no doubt. No English Heritage then to stop you - I bet Laurence Lewellyn Bowen would have had a field day.
There is a description of the Peel and its interior by the artist Philip G. Hamerton who was a distant relative of the Hamertons of Hellifield Peel. P.G. Hamerton described an antique panelled ceiling with panelling throughout; Philip was obviously smitten with Hellifield Peel as he wrote a novel about the house and this family seat called Wenderholme. He also sketched the building and described the elderly James Hamerton who introduced the game law repeal, nearly prompting revolution across the country.
The Hamerton line finally came to an end with the death of Chrisnall Hamerton. Chrisnall’s daughter Dorothy leased the Peel to Sir William Nicholson who restored the property extensively adding extensions to the existing tower circa 1914. Sir William was also a close friend of the Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, who often used to stay at The Peel designing several buildings whilst in residence. Gledstone Hall, being close by, was one of the projects Lutyens supervised from his residence at The Peel. Sir William was taken ill in the late 1930’s, moving to live at Ruthin Castle. Shortly after, The Peel was requisitioned by the MOD as a prisoner of war camp for firstly the Italians, then German prisoners and, after the war, a home for the displaced or homeless. In 1948 it was returned to Dorothy Hamerton, who sold the estate at auction.
Harry Lund of Otley (whose furniture shop still exists) bought the estate along with the nearby woods and lake. Lund was responsible for stripping out much of the building materials. He held a dilapidation auction at The Peel which is where Tot Lord, a local Archeologist, bought a lot of the existing fabric, selling panelling off to pubs in Settle and a house in Kirby Malham. Tot has received a lot of unfair criticism for destroying Hellifield Peel, but I believe he was trying to salvage the building’s history before it got destroyed by the elements. The estate was bought in 1965 by Florence Hargreaves, passing to her son Nigel who sold the Peel Tower to Karen and Francis Shaw in 2004.