105 years of Bolling Hall Museum

On the 22nd of September 2020, it will be the 105th anniversary of Bolling Hall opening as a Museum. In this blog, Dr Lauren Padgett, Assistant Curator of Collections, looks back at its 105-year history of being a Bradford museum that has both delighted visitors with its period charm and frightened visitors with its ghostly residents.

Bolling Hall is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the district. Bolling Hall was been split up into different tenements which were occupied by various Bradford families over the years. It fell into a dilapidated state by the early 20th century and concerns were raised about its future. In 1912, Bradford Corporation bought the Hall and surrounding land for a nominal sum from the owner Mr Paley, to convert the Hall into a social history Museum for the benefit of the people of Bradford. Butler Wood, who served as Chief Librarian and Director of the Art Gallery and Museum Committee for Bradford Corporation from 1884 to 1925, was the driving force behind this. Wood recognised the historical significance of the building and the important role it had played in the social and industrial heritage of the city.

Black and white photograph shows a busy room with lots of Victorian and Edwardian style furniture and decorations.
The Housebody when Bolling Hall was split into different tenements and one family resided in the Housebody, prior to its sale in 1912. (In Bradford Museums and Galleries Photo Archive).

Work behind the scenes lasted until 1915. Much of the building work carried out in the 19th century, to split the Hall into separate dwellings, needed to be undone to reveal and restore some of the historical architectural features of the Hall. When removing some of the 19th century walls, beautiful original wood panelling dating back to the 16th century and the stunning ghost room ceiling were discovered. As the restoration work was nearing completion, Butler Wood and the museum team began locating and filling  the rooms with appropriately dated and themed furniture and artefacts.

Black and white shows a bare room with a balcony above it in need for restoration work.
The Housebody in need of renovation after Bolling Hall was purchased in 1912 and before it opened as a Museum in 1915. (In Bradford Museums and Galleries Photo Archive)

On 22nd September 1915, Bolling Hall Museum opened its doors for the first time. At a ceremony attended by Sir Arthur Godwin, the Lord Mayor of Bradford and selected VIPS, Bolling Hall was officially opened. 2,500 visitors passed through the doors of the museum on its first day. As it was war-time, Bolling Hall gave visitors some escapism and something free of charge to do during what was a difficult and uncertain time. In 1916-17, an astonishing 200,000 people visited the Museum.

Black and white photograph shows a several rows of people in front of an audience.
Photograph of Bolling Hall Museum’s opening ceremony in 1915. (In Bradford Museums and Galleries Photo Archive)

Since opening, further restorative work has taken place in Bolling Hall and within its grounds and the room displays have been refreshed, as photos taken at different times show. Arthur Godwin described Bolling Hall as a ‘silent witness of stirring bygone times’ during his 1915 opening ceremony  speech but, on the contrary, we hope Bolling Hall tells the tales of by-gone Bradford with its period rooms and displays illustrating Medieval life, highlighting Bradford’s role in the English Civil War and showing how Bradford’s Georgian gentry lived.

Black and white photograph shows a room furnished with period furniture and decorations.
The Housebody after renovation work and after Boling Hall Museum opened, post-1915. (In Bradford Museums and Galleries Photo Archive).

In its 105-year history, it has inspired schoolchildren, entertained families and maybe scared a few visitors. Over time, Bradfordians have passed down stories and tales (some true, some half-truths and some fictional) about Bolling Hall to the next generation of visitors. Who was told that Civil War treasure is buried underneath the Hall?* Or that Bolling Hall is linked to Native American royalty?** Who was told about the secret underground tunnel running from Bolling Hall to Bradford Cathedral? Or about the poor maid who fell (or was she pushed?) from the balcony and how the bloodstain is still visible on a flagstone below in the Housebody? What about the Civil War ghost army that marches through the building? Or the phantom lady in pink on the Georgian staircase***

Colour photographs shows a room furnished with period furniture and decorations.
The Housebody at Bolling Hall Museum today.

Highlights at Bolling Hall Museum over recent years include: curatorial and history talks; musical recitals; theatre performances; being featured in an episode of the TV show ‘Most Haunted’; numerous ghost sightings; English Civil War and First World War re-enactments; Medieval living history; after-hours Halloween events; Yorkshire Day events; and its annual Winter Wonderland event with the Friends of Bowling Park.

Colour photograph shows musicians dressed in Medieval-style outfits.
Winter Solstice event in the Housebody, December 2008.
Colour photograph showing a man dressed as a First World War solider.
First World War living history event, 2016.

Bradford Museums and Galleries staff are working hard behind the scenes to make Bolling Hall Museum Covid-safe for staff and visitors and look forward to welcoming visitors back soon. We hope the people of Bradford, the UK and beyond can continue to enjoy Bolling Hall for another years as a when it reopens to enjoy another 105 years as a museum, a record and ‘silent witness’ of Bradford’s history, its present and whatever the future may hold. In the meantime, please follow our social media accounts which are updated regularly with information about our sites and content about objects in our collection.


*A half-truth as a Civil War sword was discovered under the floor by two boys who lived at Bolling Hall before it began a Museum.

** True. Robert Bolling, whose father was John Bolling of Bolling Hall, emigrated to America and married Jane Rolfe, granddaughter of Pocahontas. The wife of President Woodrow Wilson is also a Bolling descendant – due to this link, Woodward Wilson was sent a sent guidebook about Bolling Hall Museum when it opened the Art Gallery and Museum Committee received a reply from the White House,  signed by Woodrow Wilson and dated 15th May 1916 thanking them for the ‘very interesting volume’ and saying that Mrs Wilson and himself with ‘value it, alike for its sake and because of the thoughtful courtesy which it represents.’

*** We think these ghost stories are better left with an air of mystery around them, waiting to be proven true or false out by those who are brave enough.

Photograph of Bolling Hall Museum at night showing a ghostly figure in the Ghost Room window.

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