There have been several people who’ve been great benefactors to Leeds, but John Harrison was the first. In the first half of the 17th century, he paid for a market cross, built St. John’s Church (which still remains on New Briggate) and Harrison’s almshouses, gave land and paid for the building on the Grammar School where the Grand Theatre now stands, and more. He inherited money and made more in the wool trade. There’s also an story concerning him, Charles 1 and a tankard full of gold coins. He did build a house in town that stood around a courtyard; by the 1700s it was an inn. As to the doors, it’s Thoresby who relates that tale. Is it true? Perhaps. But it’s a good tale, which can sometimes be more important than fact.
“Sir?” The carpenter frowned as he spoke, as if the request had made no sense. He wiped some sawdust from the hairs on his brawny forearm as he waited to hear it again.
John Harrison smiled patiently.
“I’d like you to cut holes in the bottom of each door in the house,” he repeated. “They haven’t been hung yet, have they?”
“Well, no, sir,” the carpenter agreed. It was obvious, after all. Each doorway in this new house was empty, the finished doors out in the courtyard, covered with canvas in case of rain. He’d been planning to start putting them up after his dinner. But why someone would want to cut holes in perfectly good oak, he really didn’t know.
“They don’t need to be large holes,” Harrison continued, as if it was all the most reasonable thing in the world. “Just about this wide and this tall.” He held his hands apart to offer an idea of the size. “Can you do that, please?”
“I can,” the carpenter allowed slowly, rubbing at the bristles on his chin. He’d been working with wood for thirty years, ever since he was a lad, and no one had asked him this before. He was a craftsman, a master at his trade, a guild member. To be asked to saw holes in work he’d completed seemed wrong. He could carve a bannister so smooth against the fingers that if felt like holding silk. He could polish wood so clear that it shone as brightly as any mirror. He took pride in everything he did. But this? Where was the sense in it?
It offended him, although he was careful not to show it. Not when the man staring at him so hopefully was the richest man in Leeds, the man who’d been paying his wages for months – and generous wages they were, too, he’d admit – as he helped shape the house.
Mr. Harrison had never seemed to be a strange one. A generous soul, yes. He’d inherited plenty of money and made even more as a cloth merchant. He’d paid for a market cross for the town, the one that stood near the top of Briggate. He’d given land for the new Grammar School in that field past the Head Row, which was fine for those who wanted to learn reading and writing and all the things the gentry needed. But it was like everyone said, he had so much money and property that he’d never even miss a hundred pounds.
“I can do it,” he allowed slowly. It would mean more work. His apprentices had cut and shaped the doors. He’d inspected their work, corrected their errors and boxed them round the ears for stupid mistakes. Each one had beautiful panels, dark and lovely. He’d selected the wood himself, sensing how easily they’d work and the way they’d hold their colour once he’d finished with them. As they were they had balance and proportion, all the things he valued. And now he was being asked to ruin that. He shook his head slightly.
“Is something wrong, Mister Cockcroft?” Harrison asked worriedly. He had a lively face, the hair receding along his scalp, with dark, arching eyebrows and a moustache that fluttered as he talked. He was as impeccably dressed as ever, his neckband a starched, brilliant while, his black velvet doublet without a smudge of dirt.
“No, sir, nothing wrong at all.” He gazed around the room, up on the second storey of the house. It looked down on Briggate and out along Boar Lane, a handsome bedroom that would claim the light at the shank of the day. The floorboards were even, fitted together so well that he could just slide a fingernail between them. The mullions on the windows gleamed. It was a beautiful room.
But the whole house suited a man of position, and Harrison certainly had that. The courtyard was cobbled, the warehouse for cloth standing at the other side, and beyond that the garden, fruit trees already planted to make an orchard. It had cost the man a pretty penny and it wasn’t finished yet. It might never be if he kept making ridiculous requests like this.
“Thank you,” Harrison said with a smile and a nod. “My wife and I talked about it and decided it was the best solution.”
That explained it, Cockcroft thought. Women. Marriage He had no calling to it himself, he was happier by himself, with a housekeeper to keep the place tidy and feed the ‘prentices. Women did odd things to a man’s mind. And Harrison and Mrs. Elizabeth, they’d been together a good twenty years by now, probably more. By now she’d addled his brain if he was coming up with ideas like this.
He’d set the apprentices to work in the morning. The job was simple enough, to measure and cut, then smooth and finish the wood.
“All the doors, sir?” he asked. With front and back there had to be close two fifteen of them.
“Not the front door,” Harrison answered with a quick laugh, then considered. “And perhaps not the rear door, either. After all, we don’t want to let in draughts, do we?”
“Of course not.” That was something, he thought. At least none of the passers-by would see what he’d been made to do to his doors. He wouldn’t be reminded of it every time he walked past. It was unlikely that anyone he knew would be invited inside. He’d make sure the apprentices didn’t tell anyone, swear them to it. With a little luck word wouldn’t spread around town and he wouldn’t be the butt of jokes.
“Right.” Harrison rubbed his pale hands together. “That’s settled. Won’t be long before we can move in, eh?”
“Another week, I think, sir.” It wouldn’t take that long, of course. But over the years he’d learned to say this. Unless something he couldn’t imagine happened, like being asked to cut holes in walls or ceilings, he should be done in three days. Then another day to pad out the bill a little and he’d say he was finished. Mr. Harrison would be happy he’d completed everything early, and he’d be a little fatter in the purse when the account was settled. Everyone would be happy.
“Excellent news, Mr. Cockcroft. Excellent.” He shook the carpenter’s right hand and pumped it. “Thank you once more for this.” He turned to leave.
“Mr Harrison, sir,” Cockcroft said to his back. “Just one question, if I may.”
The merchant turned back, cocking his head quizzically.
“Why do you want holes in all them doors, anyway?”
“Ah. It’s for the cats, Mr. Cockcroft, the cats. We have five of them and they hate to be confined in one room. So my wife came up with this solution to let them wander where they will. I think it’s a wonderful idea, don’t you?” He gave a small bow. “And now I’ll wish you good day.”