In search of High Sunderland and Wuthering Heights…


From one extreme to another, High Sunderland is one of the older houses I’m looking at for this project. The house was either completed 1587, for Richard Sunderland, or 1629, for Abraham Sunderland, his grandson. It’s not known for sure, though there are records show a structure on the site dating right back to 1274, so it could well have been a much older timber structure, encased in stone. Though there is nothing to see now, the house stood on the hills on the outskirts of Halifax, between Bankfield and Shibden Hall.

HS2The house was a peculiar mix of the secular and the sacred. The naked figures that stood above the door were winged, muscular and crooked.

HS7It had many Latin inscriptions on it’s outer walls, but it was also decorated with green men, griffins and other mythical creatures.


I’ve borrowed transcriptions of the texts from Malcolm Bull’s Calderdale Companion: Written on the front wall

omnipotente facit stirps sunderlandia sedes, incolat has placide et ineatur jura parentum lite racans, donec ductus, formica marines ebibat et totum testudo perambulet orbem

“May the Almighty grant that the lineage of Sunderland may quietly inhabit this seat, and maintain the rights of their ancestors free from strife until an ant drink up the waters of the sea, and a tortoise walk around the whole world”

It sounds like a quotation from something, though i can’t find what.

And the text on the angel that stood over the gateway (above left):

fama virtutum tuba perennis

“the fame of virtue is an eternal trump”

I have no idea what it means, but it makes me laugh!

High Sunderland Hall fell out of the possession on the Sunderland family in 1646, following Langdale Sunderland’s involvement in the civil wars. By the beginning of the 20th century the house had been divided into tenements and was falling in to ruin. Photos of the house, just prior to it’s demolition in 1951, show the walls and front pillars bowing outwards. Mining works had damaged the foundations and the hall was dangerously unstable.

Though Top Withins, nearer to Haworth, is thought to be the site, High Sunderland is believed to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte worked at Southowram school, little over a mile from High Sunderland. She would have walked past it often. The description of Wuthering Heights in the novel fits High Sunderland:

“Before passing the threshold I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front and especially about the principal door, above which, among the wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date 1500 …”

The gateway, at right angles to the house:HS5

Descriptions of the layout of the Wuthering Heights also match the floor plan of High Sunderland. There is even a corresponding ghost story, associated with the hall: that of a disembodied hand, said to be that of a young lady whose husband cut it off in a fit of jealousy! Lockwood’s description in the novel:

“…stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me. I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in — let me in!”

It may be that the ghost story was elaborated on to echo that of Lockwood’s dream in the novel, once the association of the two buildings had been made. There’s much more about the ghosts on this brilliant website – Ghosts and Legends of the Lower Calder Valley.

The last owner of the hall offered it to both Calderdale Council and The Bronte Society, but neither could find the £6000 needed to restore it. It was demolished in 1951 and there isn’t a trace of it left on the site where it stood (I’ve looked!). I believe that the grand gateway (above) was purchased and rebuilt somewhere in Brighouse. I’d love to know more about this if anyone knows about it! The gentleman that bought it also purchased some of the decorative stone work and donated it to Shibden Hall Museum.

During half term I ventured out to see what was left of High Sunderland. It was a warm and windy day, and I walked up High Sunderland lane to the site of the hall. There are nothing but farm buildings and ponies there now. Though, with the help of these old photos I was able to work out exactly where it stood. The dry stone walls and the peculiar road lay out remain the same; It goes around something that isn’t there any more…


It’s very high, open and there are no trees at all…

Afterwards I went down to Shibden Hall where I met a very helpful curator. The High Sunderland stones aren’t currently on display; they’re all in a courtyard at the back. With my old photographs I was able to see where many of the bits of stone were from:


Here’s one of the figures from over the doorway. And the coat of arms from the inside of the gateway.


There were also some random body parts! The curator and I shared a bizarre 10 minutes pairing bare bottoms with their estranged fronts!

HS10So, at the end of it all, I have today completed a large painting of High Sunderland:

highsunderlandpaintingPrints of this painting of High Sunderland are available on my website. They are limited giclee prints, printed on heavy watercolour paper. They  are all hand-finished with gold leaf and gold thread.

I’ve used the stone faces from the crenelations, and other bits of patterns found in the stones to decorate the front section of the painting. And the Latin text described earlier for the wall in front of the hall. I’ve tried to make it wind blown and exposed up on the tops….

22 Responses to “In search of High Sunderland and Wuthering Heights…

  • Wonderful blog!Exquisite picture,Bravo!

  • Loved reading the story. Fascinating history. Always love your paintings and having the back story on the blog makes them even more intriguing. Thanks!

    • Thank you Debbie. And thank you for taking the time to read it all. Kate

    • Hi there!

      I came across this blog by accident. I’m actually one of the descendants of the Sunderland family. My late great aunt is the one who did the research on the family tree. I’ve known of the Manor House but I never knew about the history of my ancestral home. Thank you so much for this! Reading this made me feel so happy and inspired to find out more about my ancestors.

  • This is the place my cousins used to take us on walks and only wish my mother could see properly in order to read wonderfully your well-researched project. I was always led to believe that this was Wuthering Heights, and to me , it is and how I always imagine it. My mother would have seen High Sunderland Castle in situ as Shibden was a favourite ‘haunt’, so to speak. I will certainly talk to her about it. Thank you.

    • Thank you for this Denise. I’d love to know what she remembers. Will you let me know if she remembers any details, or colours, or atmosphere. It’s hard to recreate that with only black and white photos. I’m working on a second painting of it today; one of the grand gateway. Such a strange place!

  • I love your painting of High Sunderland . My father owns land surrounding where the hall stood. We often have people from all over the world visiting the site and in all weathers too! I know many a story a high Sunderland hall

  • FAO Emma.

    Hi Emma,

    I would be interested to know; does your farther know much about the history of the area? How long has he had it? Does he know much about ‘Oats & Green’? My Grandad apparently lived in the Hall, but was kicked out at a very young age. It is strange, many trails go cold once we get to this site.

    Great work Kate Lycett (your not related to any Lycett’s down south are you?)

  • If you go into the barn here are very wooden stall posts which a lot older than the barn, Possibly from the house

  • I have taken my dog on a walk that passes this site every day for the last 2 years and have only just , by chance heard of the name High Sunderland and its significance. Was disappointed to have missed your exhibition at Bankfield museum earlier this year.

  • I am a Sunderland by birth. I love your painting, Kate – is it for sale?

    • Hi,
      My mother was a Sunderland, and believes from this line. We have not managed to link the family tree, but would like to do so. Any help would be appreciated.
      Thanks, Jill.

  • Very interesting reading this you’ve done some good reasearch, me and my dad actually own this land where the hall once stood and the pile of stone is still there, 9’e day we was hoping to rebuild it but funds are low. Cheers Corey

  • I am married to John Sunderland. Currently using ancestry to glean his family genealogy…His line oddly matches up to the Richard Sunderland in the later 1500 and then again to Abraham Sunderland in the 1600’s….still working to prove a connection……for your dedication to this projects….just discovered your paintings….And I should mention we had a fabulous wedding anniversary vow renewal in Sunderland, England where we do some local research and how I first learning of the Wuthering Heights connection…Best Regards Janis

  • I loved finding this page, more so as while researching my family tree i have Gregson ancestry living here 1841-51…
    High Sunderland by the 1850’s split up into 8 different households, one my Gregson family living in. But to see HIgh Sunderland as an address on a census… wow, so exciting! So wish the house still here to view in my own eyes & touch with my own hands! Fabulous story re possible link with the Brontes too…

  • The home of my ancestors, we’ve always had a pic on the wall at home but to say I live in Howarth now I’d no idea of the connection to the Brontes. Shame on me eh, love your painting and thank you for the insight.

  • This is wonderful to read. I am ultimately descended from the Sunderland family by route of Todds and Naylors from Wakefield.

  • I grew up riding ponies and playing out around High Sunderland and my mother had friends who lived there late thirties and forties. She said it was in a terrible state then. I would like to know more about Lower High Sunderland, The original house there had 14th century timbers and was thought to be as old as the Mill Inn. Don’t suppose anyone knows anything about its early history?

  • Loved reading this and more so as while researching my family tree, I found ancestors lived here early 1800’s. ( probably not as in the grand hall itself as a whole residence but as you say, in a carved up portion, small tenament…though can’t be sure as notes only the name High Sunderland on the 1851 census!) the family surname, Gregson. Lewis Gregson went on to marry my X2 Great Grandma’s sister in law, Isabella, after emigrating to the USA. Isabella had been husband to my X2 great uncle John Parkinson who resided in Halifax, originally from Lancaster. John went to the USA married Isabella but then left her and their baby son there, returning home. He never went back to Boston Highlands, Isabella’s home. That’s another sad but beautiful story! I have a letter from Isabella to my Great great grandma dated 1869 Boston Highlands! Might sound crazy but I do feel a connection, a pull, to this place, Shibden & the Moors. Also the cemeteries where family buried in and around Halifax! I wonder if Lewis or any of his family ever met any of the Bronte family at High Sunderland! Curiouser & curiouser!

  • Abraham Richard Sunderland was my 10th g- grandfather. Thank you for the fascinating article.

  • I’m Sunderland by birth and grew up hearing all the stories from my dad .he had the family crest and family tree . would love to connect with other family members

  • My mother was a Sunderland – her father (John Sunderland) and mother left the Hebdon Bridge area in 1908 for the U.S. where we are now. They were the only ones in their Sunderland family to leave England. I am just now learning about High Sunderland and it’s fascinating! I would love to share family tree information.

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