One of the questions I come back to time after time is what makes Leeds Leeds? What sets it apart, not just from the rest of Yorkshire, but the world? Why is it unique? I don’t ask if it’s unique; to me it is.
It doesn’t have the deep historical roots of York, perhaps. It only truly began to develop its proper character with the arrival industry in the late 18th century, not too long before my ancestors arrived here from Malton.
Leeds is a fragmented place. Each neighbourhood has its own character, possibly largely moulder by the villages they once were before the town swallowed them. It was said that, a bit over a century ago, the dialect of each neighbourhood was slightly different, so an experienced ear could tell to within a quarter of a mile where someone lived.
That’s probably an exaggeration, of course, and yet there’s some truth in it. It was a place of tightly-wrapped communities, even if many of those arrived from elsewhere at the start of the 19th century, hoping factories would make them the fortunes they’d never see out in the countryside.
They came, and they keep on coming, often with the same dreams. They immigrants here, like my own family, like the Irish who began arriving in the 1820s and 30s, the Jews coming from Poland and Russia 50 years and more later, the Caribbean influx of the 1950s, followed quickly by Indian and Pakistani immigrants, and then, and then…you get the picture. They’ve been absorbed into the city without having to lose their own cultures.
Leeds is a mutable city.
Even much of its early population were lured in by the promise of no service to their Lord, and simply paying rent on their properties on the new street named Briggate in 1207. They were craftsmen looking for a better life.
But that doesn’t get to the heart of the character of Leeds, does it?
Well, in a way, maybe it does.
That first kickstart of Leeds’ growth as a village, the start of its slow change into a town – the planning of Briggate – was the result of financial desperation. The lord of the manor needed money. Rents. It was an opportunity. Benjamin Gott saw an opportunity with Bean Ing Mill in 1792. John Barran saw an opportunity is making tailoring into mass production, just as the people behind Trinity and Victoria Gate see opportunity. Money is a great motivator. Leeds isn’t a place where invention and innovation happen for their own sake. There has to be a commercial reason, money to be made. But as generations have found, that doesn’t trickle down.
Perhaps that’s why we’re Bolshie. It’s a trait that’s grown over the centuries. There have been riots of turnpikes, law, even dripping, and a strong sense of justice for the working man. Sometimes there are wins (the Leeds Gas Strike, for instance), enough to them to sustain the losses. But part of the Leeds character is to speak out, and to act. It was active very early on in the fight for women’s rights. It almost became home to the founding of the Independent Labour Party.
The city is changing. It’s never been sentimental about its past. Those grand Victorian buildings remain for a reason, in some cases because the council isn’t allowed to pull them down.
The population of Leeds has altered a great deal, and the life expectancy is more than the 27 years it was for the poor in the middle of the 19th century. We still have the back-to-back houses Engels observed (described in the Artisan as: “An ordinary cottage, in Leeds, extends over no more than about five yards square, and consists usually of a cellar, a sitting-room, and a sleeping chamber. This small size of the houses crammed with human beings both day and night, is another point dangerous alike to the morals and the health of the inhabitants.”), because it’s cheaper to keep them. Never mind that they were only intended to last for 70 years. But alongside them we have luxurious student residences, because studying is big business now. Some part of this city will always cater to people with money.
But maybe the real essence of Leeds, at least to me, is knowing that the goose is laying the golden egg for someone else, not for you. And having the ability to laugh at the world that does that. If you want a modern example, talk to anyone who’s spent a lifetime supporting Leeds United. It’s right there. It’s the ability to chuckle at the very worst, say ‘Is that all you can do?’ and raise two fingers at the world.
I haven’t caught it completely, I know that. I’m not sure it’s even possible to define or capture. But in my books, I try. That essence of the Leeds character has changed very little from the 1730s to the 1890s to the 1950s, I believe.
But I’ll put the ball in your court: what do you think is the essence of Leeds?