Several weeks ago, I was talking to a gentleman who works in the Local and Family History Library at Leeds Libraries. We discussed the lack of authentic Leeds voices in our local history (among other things). There is a book called Leeds Describ’d, but so many of the pieces in there are from outsiders describing the town.
In the last few days I looked through the Leeds books on my shelves and put this together. It’s far from exhaustive, and other people have done the heavy lifting, really. But this is Leeds in the words of the people who lived here, the condition of the place, how they lived, how they worked. A little window into history, I hope.
The Cost of keeping Roundhay Park, 1373
In medieval times, Roundhay Park was used for hunting, and was much bigger than it is today. There was boundary fence. In the accounts of Robert de Halton, reeve, there’s an indication of some of the yearly work.
And in the wages of five men cutting brushwood and other trees for feeding the deer in the winter season of this year, in the park of Roundhay, viz, each of them at different times for forty days, at 2d per day.
And in six cartloads of hay to support the deer in the ensuing winter, in a place called le Stannk – 20s.
And in the hire of one cart to carry the hay from le Stannk to the Grange within the park by six turns at 8d a turn.
And in the wages of one man driving the said cart and helping to stow the said hay in the Grange, for four days, taking by the day 3d-12d for this year.
A Handfasting in Headingley, 1563
Handfasting was a form of marriage, and still practiced in Elizabethan times. This comes from evidence given to the Consistory Court of the Archbishop of York by Thomas Whitehead, regarding the union of Edward Walker and Anne Hobson. The meeting described took place in the garden area of what is now the Original Oak.
Walker: Ye know that you and I have had communication together for marriage howe saye you nowe is there any man that you beare any better favour unto than you beare unto me and the said Anne answering said no and further said unto the said Edward that he shulde be more welcome to her company than any other man shulde be using himself lyke and honest man. And then & there the said Edward Walker said unto the said Anne Hobson yf You be contented to sticke to me as I am contented to sticke to you we will make no more to do but take wittnes & go throw with the matter. Whereunto the said Anne consented. And then and there the said Eward Walker toke the Examinant [Whitehead, the witness] to be wittnes for him & the said Anne toke William Smythe to be witness for her.
An End to Three Plotters, 1664
After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, a Republican plot to overthrow Charles II was discovered – the Farnley Wood Plot – and a number of men sentenced to death. Three of them, Robert Atkins, John Errington and Henry Wilson escaped to Leeds, where they were arrested in an inn and hung in chains on Chapeltown Moor. But that wasn’t the end of their punishment, according to a contemporary account:
…their 3 heads were cut off and put into a cloth bagg by the executioner, Peter Mason, a Notorious Villain, by occupation a Joyner at yt day brot in a cart to Leeds and all yt night lay in a flask full of water in the prison to suck out all the blood. 20. Jan, 1664, being Wednesday all there heads were sett upon the Moot hall end, severally fixed upon 3 spikes of iron.
Any large house required a small army of servants to keep it running. But those employed hard to work hard for their wages, as this agreement between Sir Walter Claverley of Esholt Hall and Joseph Mawde shows.
Agreed with Joseph Mawde to serve me one year from this day, for which he is to have £5, and 20s to buy him a frock with for brewing, & a livery, vizt, coat, waistcoat, breeches, hat & stockings: & his imployment is to be, to look at all the stables, horses & mares, both in the house & pastures, & keep the fold clean & also the pheasant garden & little garden within the pales of the fold, & to see the trees to be therein nailed any time on occasion, & also to keep the court before the hall door clean, & grass places in good order, & also to brew the master all his drink, to keep the jack in order, to take care of the calash & drive it, to keep the boat carefully locked, cleaned & dressed, to wait at table when occasion, &, if he does not his best, but neglects these things, to have no wages.
The Tenter Cutter, 1713
Cloth was a vital part of the Leeds economy for centuries, and it was stretched using hooks on tenter poles set in open land. Anyone interfering with the process, from spinning to sale, could expect rough treatment and swift justice. From the Memoranda Book of John Lucas.
Friday 24 July, about 9 o’clock in the evening one Matthew Bailey who lived in Meadow Lane but was one of those persons called kerseymen was taken in the act of cutting tenter in the Millgarth. He had been suspected to follow that trade long he was apprehended that night, and the next day, was sent to York and it being Assize time Mr Mayor went to York early on Monday morning and got him tried that forenoon where he was cast, and in the afternoon he had sentence past on him to be transported.
Trying to Avoid a Hanging, 1748
From the of Births, Marriages and Deaths for Leeds Parish Church 1748/9. Josiah Fearne was the first (only) Lord of the Manor of Leeds to be executed – and his is a great story. But it’s the length of this entry that makes it unusual. The murder took place at Nether Mills on Fearn’s Island.
Tho. Grave, Nether Mills, buried 4th March 1748/9
N.B. Tho. Grave was most barbarously murdered in his own House, by a domineering, villainous Lord of the Manor, Josiah Fearn, 24 Feb., 1748, with four wounds in his Body, of which he died 2 Mar. Fearne was taken and committed to York Castle and tried before Sr Tho. Burnett, was convicted, condemned, and hanged 25 Mar., 1749.
Soon after Fearne was condemned, he sent an Attorney to Mrs Grave to offer her Twenty Pounds a Year for Life or for Twenty Years to come at her own Option, in case she wou’d sign a Petition to the Judge in his Favour (which Fearn said was a Sufficient Recompense for the Injury he had done to her and her Eight Children), but she prudently declined the Offer, well knowing there is no Satisfaction to be made for ye Blood of a Murderer.
This probably is the First Lord of the Manor of Leedes that has made his Exit at the Gallows and God Grant he may be the last. Fearne’s Temper was extremely rigid to the poor and his Dependents, that he was dreaded by All, but beloved by None. He was buried at Clifton, near York, 31 Mar.
Highway Robbery, 1774
Crime has always been with us, but reports of highwaymen around Leeds are quite uncommon. This is from a newspaper, possibly the Leeds Intelligencer.
On December 27th, 1774, as the daughter of an eminent butcher of this town was returning, in company with a servant maid, from Chapeltown, they were stopped by a footpad, who presented a pistol, with the words, “Your money or your life”. Not assenting immediately, he searched their pockets and took from them one shilling, three halfpence, and a silver thimble and then gracefully retired.
Cellarts, Garrets and such like Places, exhibit…abodes of human Misery, the wretched Inhabitants are frequently found either exerting the last Efforts of Nature to support themselves…or languishing under the most powerful Influence of complicated Disease.
Poor Trade, 1826
The Leeds wool trade was in dire straits in the 1820s. In a letter to his brother, merchant Joshua Oates was frank about the situation.
I have actually suspended what? payment? No! not exactly, but I have suspended purchases of every description except bread, meat and potatoes, and I have driven clothiers away with a “can’t you call again next month?”….there is literally next to nothing doing by our foreign merchants and such numers of them are in back water that I should hardly know where to begin with introductions – it is said by the Dyers and clothiers that with the exception of six or eight houses in Leeds no payments have been made since last November.
The Irish in Leeds, 1842
Dr. Baker, the Medical Officer, had done wonderful work after the cholera epidemic in 1832. Throughout the 1830s and 40s, many Irish people came to Leeds, many settling on the Bank (Richmond Hill). In 1842 he wrote about them.
In the houses of the Irish poor, of which there are a great many in Leeds, who work in factories and are engaged in weaving by hand plaids and other stuff goods, there is a general state of desolation and misery…They are mainly employed in plaid-weaving and bobbin-winding, and in some of the mills of the town, of whose population they compose no inconsiderable amount, especially those departments of mill-labour which are obnoxious to English constitutions and to some unendurable. To such an extent, indeed, has the employment of the Irish been carried in Leeds, that, in 1835 and 1836, many of the flax-mills would have been obliged to stand for want of hands, but for the influx of Irish labourers which then took place.
The Children of the Poor, 1849
Angus Bethune Reach was a Manchester journalist on the Morning Chronicle. In 1849, with the Relieving Officer, he went to some houses in Leeds. In one, he found three children picking ropes apart. The family had been receiving parish relief for seven years. The oldest of the children was eight.
Where’s your mother?
Gone out to try and get some washing to do.
Where’s your father?
In the Fleece – that’s a public house. Ah! Mother told he had better not go today for you (to the relieving officer) would be very likely to come round; but he wouldn’t stay.
What does your father do?
Sweeps the streets sometimes.
But does he not help you pick these ropes?
No; he wouldn’t do that. He makes us do that.
What do you get for picking?
Fourpence a stone but I give it all to my mother.
Do you go to school?
Only on Sundays. I must work, you know. I can’t read yet. But my little brother goes to school on week-days. Parson pays for him. Only sometimes they keeps him at home to help in picking. He can’t read either.
And is not the other little boy your brother?
Oh no! He only comes in to help us pick.
Do you like picking?
No, because it makes me poorly. The dust gets into my eyes and down my throat, and makes me cough. Sometimes, too, it makes me sick. I can’t keep at the work very long at a time, because of that.
You say you give all you earn to your mother Does she never let you have a penny for yourself?
And what do you do with it?
I buys bread.
A Pint and a Death, 1856
Drink and violence were as common in Victorian times as they are now, especially on a Saturday night when men had been paid. This is a deposition to an inquest into the death of John Mensey, from Robert Madden, the landlord of the Yorkshire Hussar on Union Street. Both men lodged on Lower Brunswick Street, and the fight took up again there, lasting until one am. A verdict of manslaughter was returned.
On Saturday night the deceased and Patrick King came together to my house, about ten o’clock at night. They appeared to have had some beer, but were sober. Whilst in my house, they played at dominoes, and about half-past eleven they quarrelled over the game. The deceased got up and put himself into a fighting attitude. King did not seem disposed to fight, and the deceased called him a coward. King replied, “Well, I’ll be a coward.” Mensey then sat down. They continued to have high words up to twelve o’clock, when I requested them to go. I followed them to the door, and when they got outside they began to fight. I requested some persons present to assis me in separating them. At that time they had fallen to the ground. We assisted them up, and immediately afterwards they fought again; but I cannot say who began it. They had then taken off their coats. Both fell again, and were again separated. King then went towards Vicar-lane and Mensey went in the opposite directions towards his lodgings. The deceased and King were fresh, but able to walk. I heard King say that he didn’t want to fight, but he would not be “put upon.” After they separated, I saw no more of them.
The Omnibus, 1857
In some ways, perhaps, bus travel doesn’t change much. This is an letter to the Leeds Mercury about the early, horse-drawn omnibuses.
I have had the misfortune to ride with people half drunk, three quarters drunk, quite drunk, noisy drunk, sleepy drunk, dead drunk. The omnibus, unfortunately for some of us, passes two or three places of resort in Briggate and elsewhere, where men is respectable positions congregate of an evening to talk and tipple, then ride home in a public conveyance to the disgust of all decent people. Could not a tippler’s omnibus be started for these should-be-gentlemen? I am not a teetotaller, but I hate to sit in a small compartment of about 4 feet wide by 6 feet long, with two, perhaps three redolent gentlemen trying to talk without stuttering, but none of whom could pronounce intelligibly the word ‘statistics’, if it were to save his life.
The Places of Crime, 1859
A police report noted:
120 houses of ill-fame; 30 public houses; 50 beerhouses; and seven coffee shops, all being resorts for thieves and prostitutes. There are also 120 low lodging houses which accommodate 622 persons nightly, several of them of questionable character requiring the attention of the police.
Death and the Ballad, 1885
When William Snowden’s keel boat, the Edward & William, capsized at Whitton Sands in 1885, only one man seemed to survive. But his wife and three children remained trapped in a pocket of air on the boat, and were freed after seventeen hours. Two of the children died on board. Mrs. Snowden and one child survived. A ballad was written and sold in Leeds to raise money for them.
The Keel to Leeds returning from Grimsby we are told,
In charge of Chaptain Snowden a sailor young & bold.
And in the vessel down below his sleeping children lay,
And two with him to sleep in death upon the coming day.
Soon come the shock, the keel overturned the husband’s spirits fled,
His gallant heart’s ceased beating he is numbered with the dead.
The mother clutched her little ones that slept so peacefully,
And tried, so hard to save them but alas twas not to be…
The water rose about her and higher still it came
The little arms are around her neck and she calls each one by name.
But when the water sunk again she knew one spirit fled,
And called her little Lizzies name but ah! her child was dead…
At last they hear her knocking and willing hands contrive
To save the mother and the only one she’s left alive.
What tongue can tell her feelings or who shall know her grief,
Pray God in all her mercy send her stricken heart relief.
Tom Maguire, 1886
Maguire was one of the most important – and largely unheralded – figures in late 19th century Leeds politics. He was a union organiser, a proud proponent of Socialism, and played a vital role in the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. He made his living as a photographer’s assistant and died penniless on Quarry Hill in 1895 at the age of 29. This reminiscence comes from Alf Mattison:
My first meeting with Tom Maguire was also the occasion of my first acquaintance with socialism. It must have been sometime early in 1886 that, strolling through the Market-place of Leeds, my attention was attracted to a pale but pleasant featured young man, who in a clear voice began speaking to a motley crowd. After listening for a while I began to feel a strange sympathy with his remarks, and – what is more – a sudden interest in and liking for the speaker; and I remember how impatiently I waited for his reappearance on the following Sunday. A few months later I joined ‘the feeble band, the few’ and became a member of the Leeds branch of the Socialist League…
Jewish Labour, 1885
Published in Arbeiter Freund, this is a strong reminder of the collective action taken by Jewish tailors in the Leylands in 1885. Many came from Poland and Russia and settled in the triangle of the Leylands, a network of streets running just north of the city centre towards Sheepscar. This is possibly an outside voice, but sheds some valuable political light.
In the history of the Jewish labour movement in England, Leeds will, without doubt, occupy one of the nicest places, if not, indeed, the first place. And, in truth, whilst in some other towns such as Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Nottingham, Birmingham and others, the Jewish workers are not even organised in societies, or are entirely beneath the heel of the masters, having entirely surrendered their free will to them, the Leeds workers have, in this regard, made enormous progress. They have not stopped at this…they have decided to open a co-operative grocery shop, and, by this means, to free themselves from the shopkeepers, butchers, ritual slaughterers, milk-and-butter dealers, etc., who live and get fat on the sweat of the workers like rats on a living corpse.
The Chief Constable requested more officers to cover the increased area of Leeds and deal with all the urban problems.
In the Borough residing at present are 21 known convicts, 17 persons under police supervision, 335 suspected persons, i.e., persons who seldom or never work, but loaf about the streets, watching persons getting into or out of tramcars with a view to picking pockets, or frequently following women who are of loose repute, and who entice men into secluded spots where they are robbed and ill treated by the man or men and woman.
Places to be most avoided are the Dark Arches, Swinegate, Whitehall Road, or anywhere behind the Queen’s and Great Norther Hotels.
A Hunslet Home, 1894
The booklet Hypnotic Leeds appeared in 1894, a polemic about the problems the working-classes in Leeds lived with every day. This was written by Joseph Clayton, a blanket-raiser who lived in Hunslet.
The typical workman’s house in Leeds has one living room, adorned with sink and taps for washing purposes, two bedrooms, and an attic in which is possibly a bath. The bath is the one redeeming point, and the corporation should insist on it being built in every house.
The sink and taps on the other hand are depressing in a sitting room, and the smell of the atmosphere of the weekly wash not conducive to health of mind or body. If we prefer to dry our clothes across the street and not indoors we may gratify our neighbours’ curiosity as to the condition and quality of our under-clothing, but the smoke of Leeds resents our brandishing clean clothes in the open air and showers down smuts. Of the necessary sanitary arrangements of every dwelling-house – it is difficult to speak calmly in Leeds. Our ashpits which adorn the street are the resting place for decayed vegetable matter, and domestic refuse generally; the stench from them is probably a sweet smelling savour to the arch fiend, but it is poison to the children who play around them.
The Machine Girl’s Life, 1896
This comes from Richard Sheracy’s superb expose, The White Slaves of England: The Slipper-makers and Tailors of Leeds, published in Pearson’s Magazine.
I come in at 8am. If I’m late I’ll be fine 1d or 2d. There will be nothing for me to do. Then I’ll sit at my machine doing nothing till half-past twelve. Then I’ll ask the foreman if I may go home. He’ll say: “No, there’s orders coming up after dinner.” Dinner? I probably haven’t any, knowing work was slack and expecting to get home. So I go without. At half-past one, I’ll go back to my machine and sit doing nothing. Foreman will say “Work hasn’t come up yet.” I have to sit at my machine.
Once I fainted from hunger, and asked to be allowed to go home, but they wouldn’t let me, and locked me up in the dining-room. I stay at my machine till 3 or 4. Then the foreman will say, as though he were conferring a favour: “The orders don’t seem to be going in, you can go home till the morning.” And I go home without having earned a farthing. Sometimes work may come in the afternoon, and then I will stay on till 6.30, earning wage for the last two or three hours.
The Traffic Problem, 1898
A report by the Chief Constable.
The rowdyism in Briggate is a matter most difficult to deal with owning to the number of people using this busy thoroughfare, it being next to impossible to keep people to the right of the pavement, arising from the great number of side passages leading in and out of Briggate. On the 7th January 1898, a number of men were placed in Briggate to note particularly the number of vehicles and pedestrians passing. They watched from 8.20pm to 8.30pm at one point not exceeding 30 yards, on the west side of Briggate and noted 2,306 pedestrians, 3 omnibuses, 10 tramcars, 3 four wheeled cabs, 6 hansoms ans 2 post mail carts.
The Club for Mill Girls, 1890s
To try and keep mill girls out of the gin palaces and music halls, and on the straight, narrow path, middle class women would set up clubs for them with wholesome activities. Several existed in Leeds in the 1890s.
We have taken a large room and made it look as tempting as we can, with bright curtains and some pictures, and above all a very fair piano, which to our musical Yorkshire girls is an endless source of pleasure.
The Old Market Cross and the Fish, 1897
The market cross had stood at the top of Briggate since the 1600s, but was demolished tin the 19th century. More Annals of Leeds contains a reminiscence vaguely about it by Mr. William Campbell.
Between the south end of the cross and the noth end of the Middle Row was the fish market. I have a vivid recollection of a jolly good natured looking fishwife who had the principal stall near the cross. Returning one day from taking my father’s dinner, I stood watching the woman empty a hamper of fish, when taking out a fair sized cod, she remarked, “There’s been a devil at that fish.” A large piece had apparently been bit off its shoulder. Looking at me, she said, “Here, my bonnie lad, take that home to your mother, and tell her to boil it for your dinner; it’s no worse for having that piece bitten out.” I scarcely need say I ran all the way to Woodhouse with the fish, and how welcome it was. My father was employed by a corn merchant; his wages were 15s a week, out of which a family of seven had to be supported. His hours of work were much nearer sixteen per day than eight. A dinner of boiled fish was a treat to us. The fish market was held on Thursdays, and I may say that fish was sold much cheaper in those days than it is now.
In Memories of Distant Days (1989) Carrie Stocks wrote about growing up in Hunslet in the 1930s.
We were surrounded by factories and work shops. At the bottom of our street was Belinda Street; Bromley’s Coffee Works was in the middle of Belinda Street and the smell of coffee hung round most of the day. Alongside was Lax and Shaw’s Glass Storage Depot so the chink of glass bottles could be heard. The smell from the Lead Works of Wilson and Jubb also permeated the surroundings, as they were a few yards higher up the street.
In Church Street was the Chemical Works; they threw out a yellow dust which settled on the pavements, roads and gardens, and gave off a smell of sulphur. On Low Road opposite my school was the Hygenol Soap Works where they manufactured disinfectants, polish and soap. A little further along the road was the Coglan Iron and Steel Works, giving out loud sounds of metal being beaten by trip hammers.
The Wireworks and the Nail Mill with machines working loudly were on Penny Hill, and on the wind came the smell of fish and leather from the Fish Canneries and Tanneries just over Balm Road Bridge.