John Edward Wainhouse (1817-1883) was the owner of the Washer Lane Dyeworks on the side of the Calder valley below King Cross, on the southern outskirts of Halifax.
In 1870 he leased the works to Henry Mossman, and at the same time responded to complaints about atmospheric pollution, particularly from a neighbour, Sir Henry Edwards Bt (1812-1886) of Pye Nest, by commissioning an extremely tall chimney, 253 feet high, connected to the works below by an underground flue.
Construction began in 1871, the year after the passing of the Smoke Abatement Act which required that industrial smoke should be carried away at a height.
J E Wainhouse instructed his architect, Isaac Booth of Halifax, to encase the functional brick chimney in stone, with a spiral staircase of 403 steps to the top.
The purpose of installing a staircase at considerable expense to the top of a smoking chimney was never clear: a regularly repeated legend is that J E Wainhouse wished to annoy Sir Henry Edwards, who was High Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1872, by overlooking his residence.
In 1874 J E Wainhouse sold the dyeworks to Edward Mossman, who declined to take on the cost of the chimney, so instead Wainhouse took on the liability of what became a tower instead of a chimney, resolving to turn it into a “General Astronomical and Physical Observatory”.
He dismissed Isaac Booth, who in any case appears to have grown sick of being caught in the midst of the feud between Wainhouse and Edwards, and commissioned Booth’s assistant, Richard Swarbrick Dugdale, to finish the architectural treatment of the tower with an elaborate gothic cupola that is so densely embellished that it is practically useless as an observatory, except to look down on neighbouring properties and to admire the distant views.
By the time this second phase of construction was completed on September 9th 1875, the entire project had cost £14,000 or £15,000.
By 1893, ten years after J E Wainhouse’s death, it was open as a public attraction and in 1909 it was operating a radio transmitter. Suggestions in 1912 that it should be adapted as a crematorium came to nothing, but in 1919, prompted by a campaign in the Halifax Courier, Halifax Corporation bought it; the Corporation and its successor, Calderdale Borough Council, have maintained it ever since. Its only practical function appears to have been as an observation post in World War II.
It was substantially repaired and restored in 2008 at a cost of £400,000, and reopened to the public on May 4th 2009. It is open on bank holidays, and available for private openings at other times.