I write about Leeds. That’s not a statement to surprise anyone. But I’m not the only person to do that.
Over the last few days I read a book. Nothing unusual there; I devour books. But this one is a bit of a curiosity. Published in 1929, it’s the very first book set in Leeds (as far as I’m aware). That makes it important. Well, a it’s fictionalised Leeds, which is given the name Fleece. The History of Button Hill, written by Gordon Stowell, is set in Chapeltown – the names of all the areas of Leeds are changed – from the mid-1890s, when people moved into the new houses close to Reginald Terrace, through to the middle 1920s (in fact, Back Reginald Terrace was renamed Button Hill in the 1980s in honour of the book).
I’d heard about it for years and I’d expected it to be pretty poor and overly sentimental. But then I found a copy in the library and decided to give it a chance. I was wrong about it. It was stupid of me to judge without looking. Yes, there’s definitely a sentimental side to it, but it’s tempered, especially towards the end. The book doesn’t shy away from the way World War I and that first day of the Somme affected all of Leeds. It’s good, and absolutely believable. And it doesn’t always keep the stuff upper lips.
The book traces an arc over 30 years, with the main character a baby born just after the book opens. His generation, and their parents, are the focus and how the enthusiasm for an area have become diluted, by money, by events. There’s even a very surprising plot twist at the end of the book – but no spoilers.
I know nothing about Stowell, and there’s not a great deal about the man himself online. But he obviously knew Chapeltown, from down around Sheepscar all the way past the Bentham Arms (the Mexborough Arms, or Three Hulats as it is now) through Chapel Allerton (Button Top) around the Gledhows (Gledmere) up to Moortown, Roundhay and Oakwood (Moorhay and Oakhill).
For all the insight, it’s very much of its time, with the touches of casual, thruway anti-Semitism that were so widely accepted then, even in a city with a large Jewish population. And it’s relentlessly middle-class – but then, so were the people who lived in Chapeltown back tin those days. It’s a sobering reminder of just how exclusive the suburb was – and wanted to believe it might remain.
“The prime reason was not the housing of the working class population…For them only too many houses have been provided, street after street of squalid little back-to-back dwellings, with no gardens or yards and little sanitation. The people who were hardest hit were the really nice people, the people with nice ideas and aspirations, who, though not extravagantly rich, had still made a little money for themselves and could afford to send their children to the Grammar school or to the new Modern School. To such as these the new suburb on Button Hill was a godsend.
Builders were turned loose on the estate. It was split into gaping rectangles. Water, gas, and drains were laid. And presently a dozen rows of desirable villa-residences shot up as if by magic, and all the contours of the hill were permanently changed. The old turnpike was cleared away, and the Fleece Tramways Company, extending its track, put on a new service of horse-trams out to the Bentham Arms. Removal vans became a familiar sight up Bathwater Road as the best people in Fleece moved themselves and their furniture to a more worthy setting.
Lord Bentham in his wisdom had decreed that the builders were to restrict themselves to villas of a superior type. Retail shops and licensed premises were barred. From the outset the new suburb could not help but feel itself exclusive and superior. Its modestly imposing homes were manifestly designed with some pretensions to that subtle quality known as “class.”
To call it a garden city suburb would have be an anachronism, but it was the nearest thing to a garden city suburb that the imagination of man had conceived up to that date. It was spacious and leafy. Native trees had been spared wherever possible, and every house possessed its green cutilage, a lawn, and a curly footpath of concrete or imported gravel, to give the illusion of landed proprietorship on a small scale. Moreover, the genuine untouched country was still so near that on summer mornings, as you stood at the bedroom window inserting your tiepin, you could sniff the dew-flavoured hedges and the turned hay, and find it difficult to believe that you were yet within half an hour’s tram-ride of the office……”
When smaller houses are built on the west side of the main road, residents look down on them. The people aren’t quite up to snuff. By within the space of 30 years, Button Hill itself is in the start of a slow decline.
The people themselves are the main focus of the story. What happens to them, where and how they end up – those who don’t die. But behind it all, the character of Button Hill itself remains a constant, even as it’s growing and changing.
The History of Button Hill is an important, and surprisingly readable, Leeds novel that journeys from innocence to experience. It’s vivid, and a moving portrayal of a time, a place, and a generation.
A reminder, if I might, that while my new book, The Leaden Heart, isn’t set in the desirable suburb of Chapeltown – the focus is on the working-class part of Harehills – it’s out in hardback and ebook and will let you seek what life was like in Leeds in 1899. It’s also a lot easier to find than The History of Button Hill.