The Evolving Shape Of Leeds

One of the things that fascinates me, something that I’ve tried to capture in my novels, is the changing face of Leeds. To me, Leeds is a character in my book, one always there in the background, that shifts and grows and takes on different shapes over the years.

That shape is often very physical, and finding a series of panoramas of Leeds, sketched or painted over almost two centuries illustrates all too well.

The earliest seems to be from 1715. Look at the place, it’s bucolic, unspoilt. But at this time, the population was between six and 10 thousand – a village by today’s standards, although certainly a town by 18th century ideals. The drawing might well be somewhat romanticised, too, with a deliberate innocence. The White Cloth Hall had only been built four years earlier, and Leeds was just as the beginning of its dominance of the wool trade. At the start of the 18th century, Yorkshire – the whole county – was responsible for 10% of Britain’s wool exports. By 1770, Leeds on its own handled 30% of them. Wool made Leeds’ fortunes.

1715prospect

That’s the view from up on Cavalier Hill, basically up where Cross Green is today. But stand there now and it’s impossible to imagine Leeds over looked that way. This view, drawn in the same year, is from the other side of the river in Holbeck – then just a hamlet, makes Leeds look more crowded, and maybe well be a more accurate representation of the skyline.

Leeds from Holbeck Road 1715

In this image, Leeds seems little more than a distant hamlet.

leeds 1700s

The wood trade brought money, money brought people, and Leeds grew. By the time of these 1745 images, the population had likely risen to 13-14 thousand.

Certainly, until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, in the late 1770s, Leeds still looked very rural, as this from Leeds Museums and Galleries shows.

Fielding, Nathan, 1747-c.1814; Prospect of Leeds
Fielding, Nathan; Prospect of Leeds; Abbey House and Leeds City Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/prospect-of-leeds-37300

 

Compare that to this, from 1800, which very plainly shows the changes the new manufactories have brought. The town has grown, pushed out very quickly, while the factory chimneys dominate the skyline in the way church spires had just a few years before, although the process of industrialisation is still in its infancy. How quickly had Leeds expanded? In 1775, the population was 17 thousand. By the time of this image, it had mushroomed to 30 thousand. That getting on for double in just 45 years, a huge increase, with all the problems that entails, most especially housing,

leeds around 1800

The artist JMW Turner was a regular visitor to Leeds at the start of the 18th century, and he did a sketch and painting of the town from Beeston Hill in 1814. The painting itself is in the Tate Gallery in London; this image is from Yale university, the sketch image from the Tate. Building and industry is still very much congregated around Leeds, although it’s certainly spreading out – yet most still north of the Aire. Just a few miles away, this is pure countryside.

Far forward another 30 years, and that population had more than doubled again; it now stood at 71 thousand. Change and the way industry and trade have exerted their grip on Leeds are obvious in a drastically altered skyline. Factory chimneys are everywhere. The warehouses by the river are almost skyscrapers for their times. What’s most noticeable, though, is the darkness of the sky. All the smoke spewed out, day after day, creating a haze over the place.

This 1840 panorama very effectively captures the transformation of Leeds into an industrial landscape. Still 50 years from becoming a city, it was one of the manufacturing centres of a burgeoning empire, a true Victorian success story – as long as you were at the top of the ladder, looking down on those below. There was wealth, plenty of it, but also extreme poverty hidden under all the smoke that hung over the town.

1840 Leeds

Yet, for all its growth, Leeds remained quite a contained place. Everything was crammed close and tight. New houses went up, spreading the reach, but so many places were still quite rural, as this 1858 view from Beeston Hill shows. Compare that to Turner’s 1814 painting, and away from the town, you’d be hard pressed to find many changes to the landscape. Chimneys and the smoke, the grey pall to the sky, are the main features of Leeds. But where the artist sits, building remains quite sparse, surprising really, with the population now topping 117 thousand, although in Beeston itself there were only 6,700 people, a figure that that only risen by 1000 in the previous 20 years.

leeds from beeston hall 1858

Even as late as 1870, there was still a fair amount of agricultural land in Holbeck, with all the building the factories hugging the area closer to the river, although it was continually pushing out. In Leeds the population was soaring, up to 139 thousand, and in Holbeck itself it was over 17,000.

LEEDS-FROM-HOLBECK-by-H-Warren-J-Stephenson-c-1870

A pair of drawings from around 1880 try to capture Leeds. By this stage, any real panorama has become impossible. The town – not a city until 1893 – has grown too big for any single drawing to encompass it all. It sprawled, containing 160 thousand people and slowly expanding like a puddle, gobbling up the out-townships that had once been villages with their own strong identities. Even so, south of the river there are still more open spaces, and about the only trees you’ll see in the whole landscape. The style of this almost seem to anticipate L.S. Lowry. There’s industry everywhere, too many factories and chimneys to even count, the gasometers, the railways as one of the main features. By this time, Leeds has becoming one of the great manufacturing cities of the British Empire, at the height of its wealth – something that can be seen in the grand Victorian buildings all around the city centre, yet also in the back-to-back houses of the working-class suburbs, dwelling originally meant to last 70 years but still going strong.

Two images from 1890 show the real stranglehold that manufacturing had one Leeds. The first, from Holbeck Junction, looks into Leeds. It’s busy, it’s bustling, the skies dark with smoke. The top of the Town Hall rises on the skyline, but it’s the factories and offices that are doing the important work, that dominate the image. This isn’t civic pride; it’s business.

And the cost of doing business is shown in the second image along the canal. On both sides there’s nothing beyond the smoke of production, Blake’s dark Satanic mills come to terrible life, probably worse than anything he’d envisaged. There were 177,000 people living in Leeds at this time, and most of them were no more than the human fuel for the factories.

The age of photography in the 20th century offers a more dispassionate view. A camera lens is different to an artist’s eye, and it’s become impossible to encompass Leeds in a single image; it’s simply too big. Both these images are from the 1930s. In the first, the brand-new Civic Hall takes centre stage, the infirmary below it, the Town Hall to the right. But spreading out from that, far beyond anything here, there are houses. Most of them date from the late 19th century, and hardly any of them exist any more.

leeds 1930s

The second view, of Harehills Lane, offers more of the same. A factory as the focal point, endless streets of back-to-back housing – and, of course, chimneys and smoke. By then, though, industry was already in decline. The slump after World War I had become the Great Depression.

harehills lane 1930s-40

300 years on, what had happened to the small, simple town shown in 1715? Hardly any of it remained, just a handful of buildings, all of them churches or pubs. Wool remade the city first, and then industry caught the place in its maw and altered it almost beyond recognition.

Almost, but not completely. Someone from the 1700s could still have found his way through the a number of streets in the city centre in the 1930s. They were laid out exactly the same. He might hardly recognise anything, but he’d still be able to tell where he stood. And he’d have made sense of the of the people. Stubborn, defiant, some of them venal. Many of those qualities haven’t changed. The smells of the city would have altered. No more open sewers, middens or cess pits. Instead, there was the constant taste of soot, the washing already grey by the time it was hauled in after washing.

And all of this is what I try to make a reader understand and feel, to experience as if they’d been there. It’s important, it’s the backdrop, it alters, and each small shift  helps form the people who fill out my books. But it’s more than them – it’s shaped all of us who live her.

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