The Hidden Truths Of The Hanging Psalm

My new book, The Hanging Psalm, comes out in the UK at the end of September (Jan 1 elsewhere and on ebook – you can order it at the best price here). While it’s decidedly fiction, none of the plot based on fact, there are some truths underneath it all. Some, though, reference a few of my other books…

 

It opens with the main character, Simon Westow the thief-taker, giving testimony to a travelling commission on the abuse of children in factories. I didn’t make up the words he speaks. I just paraphrased things spoken by children to similar commissions in the early 19th century.

Did Leeds have a thief-taker? I don’t know, there’s no record of one, but it’s very likely. At that time, before the police, the only way for people to recover stolen items was to employ someone who’d to it for them in return for a fee. Many thief-takers colluded with thieves and they’d split the fee. Simon, at least, is honest.

Leeds embraced the Industrial Revolution. It transformed the place and drew huge numbers of people, all hoping to make a good living in the factories. They didn’t, of course; wages were low, especially for the unskilled. And those who’d done well before, such as the croppers, who trimmed the nap from cloth, found themselves out of work when their jobs were taken by machines. The Luddites had attempted to stem the tide at the start of the 19th century by breaking the machines that took men’s jobs. But it’s impossible to halt progress.

The book takes place in 1820, pretty much midway between the Richard Nottingham series and the Tom Harper novels. And there are traces of continuity from the past, certainly in Simon’s life. His house is on Swinegate, where the road curves – the one that Amos Worthy owned in the Nottingham series. Simon is the father of twins. Just before their baptism at Leeds Parish Church, he wanders around the graveyard, hunting for inspiration for names and finds it, calling them Richard and Amos. Of course, he never knows the history behind that.

Jane, Simon’s young and very deadly assistant, wears a shawl, as every working-class girl and woman did throughout the 19th century. With it pulled over her hair she becomes, she feels ‘the invisible girl.’ The shawls were a fact of life, but I chose to focus on it because of the way some whites have criticised the Muslim headscarf.  I wanted to show that it’s not too long since something similar was prevalent in a way they might not have expected. Not for religious reasons, but for social and economic reasons; hopefully, it might make a few people think.

By 1820, transportation as the sentence for a crime was commonplace, for seven years, 14, or for life. Few came back, and many never survived the long journey to Australia. It had become a fairly ubiquitous punishment after the statutes were changed and many capital crimes (over 200 of them at one point) became non-hanging offences.

The Hanging Psalm itself did exist. It was spoken by the parson before a person received the drop from the gallows, a couple of extra minutes to commend a soul to God and hope for a last-minute pardon. It’s Psalm 51:

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

 Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.

 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.

Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.

O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

 Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

 

I’ve already written about some of the historical background to the book (read it here). But now you have a few of the less obvious truths.

Hanging Psalm revised

Advertisements

Something Very Different

This is…well, I have a good idea about what I’d like it to become, but whether that will ever happen is another matter.

I’ve long harboured the idea of a book where Leeds is the main character, seen as it grows, seen through different eyes with different views. How to do it has always been the question. Finally, an idea came – a multi-generational saga. Not covering all of history, but a part of it. My own ancestors arrived here in the 1820s. Going from there to just after World War I would let me tell a very fictionalised version of their stories, as well as leaving Leeds the focus of it all in what was probably the richest time – in every way – of its growth.

Who knows how far I’ll get. But this is a tentative beginning. Please, let me know what you think.

Many years later, sitting by the hearth as the flames rose from new coal on the fire, he wondered what he used to dream after he closed the shutters in his room at the Golden Lion.

The market square would be quiet by then, the echo of the bell at St. Michael’s tolling eleven. All of Malton dark. His wife would already be asleep, the children bundled together in another big bed. Finally the darkness would take him for a few hours, until first light crept through the window and the day began again.

Hard work, running an inn. Long hours, frantic whenever a coach arrived. The bustle of market day, people crowding in to eat and drink. No time to plan then, not even to think. But man was made for work and he earned money.

In the rare luxury of off hour, he could stroll around the town. See the butcher’s shop he’d once run on Newbiggin. It was a milliner’s now, run by Mrs. Mercer, catering to women with taste and husbands who’d allow them to run up bills.

The butcher’s, the inn, all of them of them had steps, he realised, always moving towards something, even if he didn’t understand then what it might be. Going back to being six years old in Westow, set out in the fields to run around and scare the crows, working in the harvest until he was big enough to help with the farming.

Then  he was twelve, riding with his father in the cart, five miles over tracks, looking at the endless flat fields and hedgerows and stretched away as far as he could see. They followed the old road into Malton, the old horse weary in its traces, hooves dragging up dust on a bright, dry summer morning.

‘You must do your work well, Isaac. Promise me.’ His father wasn’t a man to spend words. The village parson had taught him his letters, enough to make out the words on a page and sign his name. But he could read the land and the weather, It was knowledge he kept inside, small secrets to be hoarded. He turned his head, eyes watching his son. The hands that cradled the reins were hard, the colour of oak.

‘I will.’ He was going to live with the butcher and his family, apprenticed in a trade. He’d make something of himself, his mother insisted. The second of the three sons, not the one who’d inherit the scrap of land that fed the family and gave them produce to sell. The money they’d saved for this opportunity was his inheritance.

The cart moving through the market square, almost empty today. He’d been here before, several times a year. This time, though, it seemed larger, more forbidding, ready to swallow him. No journey home at the end of the day. The year of our Lord 1792. The first step.

Each one after that had been bigger. A journeyman butcher. His own shop. Marriage. The tumble when his business failed. The change to managing the inn.

And finally the leap, the move to Leeds. Was that the idea that filled his dreams on those winter nights upstairs at the Golden Lion? He couldn’t remember now.

 

The fire crackled, a coal sparked on to the rug. He stamped it out and a memory came unbidden.

He was fourteen. A chilly late autumn day, across through the market square in his bloodied apron on an errand for his master. Isaac spotted his father, one of so many selling and buying. He sat on the back of the cart, vegetables piled neatly on the wood. A face as weathered and creased as tree bark as he took someone’s money. Dividing the coins between the two pockets of his waistcoat. Dipping his head as he handed over the purchase with large hands, scarred from a lifetime of the fields. He’d become like a shadow Isaac had known for so long that was now slipping away as the light changed.

The man didn’t see his son and after a moment Isaac ran on, the apron flapping around his legs.

Fourteen, thinking he was a man because he worked for a living. Sleeping in a butcher’s house, eating at a butcher’s table. Doing all the petty, menial jobs: sweeping in the morning, raising the shutters on the shop, the cleaning and scouring when business was done for the day. The only consolation was eating meat with every meal. A life that was so tightly fenced that he might have been penned like one of the animals waiting for slaughter.

 

Months passed, piling one upon the other. Gradually he learned the trade. How to identify a good carcass, to wield the cleaver with a single smashing blow. All the cuts, setting the best aside for certain customers. He could lift a side of beef on his shoulder and heft it through the marketplace, laughing with the traders. From a solitary child he’d grown into a social youth, with a ready laugh and a pleasing manner. A shopkeeper’s pleasing traits. The opposite of his father. His hair grew thick and wild, a rich brown he kept trying to tame with a comb. He had a tilt in his eyes that made him look as if he might be trying to see beyond the horizon. Growing into manhood.

The only thing he could never do was wash the smell of blood from his hands.

‘It’s the butcher’s curse,’ his master said, watching as he scrubbed with the strong lye soap one night. ‘But at least the money you’ll earn will make up for it. Plenty of woman will put up with a bit of a stink for a secure life.’ He laughed as he lit his pipe.

Isaac stared, not understanding, scrubbing harder until his hands were raw.

And then, finally, he was in the last season of his apprenticeship. He could feel his freedom like a breeze, almost smell it. Served his seven years like a sentence, not even sure who he’d been when he started. A child he no longer recognised, someone dulled and fogged in the looking glass.

Half a day’s summer holiday, so rare it seemed like riches. A chance to wander around Malton without rushing hither and yon. Gazing in windows at the things he might soon be able to afford, then turning to stare at the clear sky over the tower of St. Leonard’s church. He’d arrived here on a day like this, he remembered, the earth dry and crumbling after three weeks without rain. Why should he recall that?

He lowered his eyes, breathing in the smell of horses and sweat, and spotted two figures emerging from Chancery Lane. Mrs. Coultas and her daughter Jane, walking arm in arm towards him. He’d served them both in the shop, always staring at the counter to avoid Jane’s steady look. Every time she saw him she seemed to be weighing his qualities and always fining them wanting.

As they passed, he raised his hat and wished them good afternoon. Mrs. Coultas nodded and gave a polite smile. But Jane stopped, inclining her head.

‘Mr. Lawrence, have you run away from your job?’

He could see the twinkle playing on her face, a little devilment. Her lips curled in amusement, as if she was gently laughing at him.

‘A half day,’ he told her, then blurted, ‘I’ll soon have served my time.’

Why did he say that, he wondered? To try and impress the girl three years younger than him? It wasn’t as if she came from grand stock. Just a farming family like his own, with a smallholding in Appleton-le Street. With her country face, turned brown by sun and weather, she’d done her share of work outside. But she carried herself like a lady.

‘What will you do then, Mr. Lawrence?’ the girl asked. Before he could answer, he mother was tugging her away, up towards the Golden Lion.

‘I’m sorry, sir. Come on, he’s got better things to do than waste his time talking to you. Honestly, I’ve told you before. So forward no man’s ever going to want you.’

Jane didn’t look back, walking over the cobbles in quick, confident strides and raising her chin in the air.

In Leeds In 1820…A Story Begins

1820, and with the final defeat and exile of Napoleon, Britain was at peace for the first time in a generation. In Leeds, the Industrial Revolution had taken firm hold of the town. Manufactories (as they were known) had sprung up, with businessmen eager to take advantage of the new machinery and steam power to increase their profits. For the first time, a haze of smoke hung over the city, one that would only grow worse and worse and these factories and mills grew and grew until the Leeds skyline became a forest of chimneys.

leeds 1826

For men with capital and vision, there was plenty of money to be made. The world’s first steam locomotive was already operating, hauling coal from the fields in Middleton down to the staithe near the bottom of Salem Place. Another two years and Joshua Tetley, from an Armley family of maltsters, and with a family shop on Mill Hill selling malt, as well as wine and brandy, would gamble and buy Sykes’s Brewery. Yes, there were fortunes for men who took chances. Benjamin Gott and John Marshall had already proved that at Bean Ing and Holbeck, with wool and flax on an industrial scale that no one had seen before.

leeds 1830

Factories created jobs. The population of Leeds at the start of the 1800s was around 30,000. Two decades later it was 48,000, with plenty more in the out-townships (where the home weavers still made a living of sorts, although that would rapidly die away).

Conditions in the countryside were poor. With enclosure, many agricultural workers and the families were turned off the land they’d known for centuries. People pressed and piled into Leeds, hoping that the streets would be paved with gold. Of course, they weren’t. With so many seeking work, labour was cheap; the bosses could pay what they wanted, and the workers had no union to represent them. You took what was offered, or you got nothing at all.

All these people needed somewhere to live. The first back-to-backs had been built in the early 1790s (ironically where the upscale Victoria Gate shopping centre and John Lewis now stand); now speculative builders began to develop streets of them in the Leylands and the area beyond Millgarth. There was money to be made in housing.

For most people in Leeds, though. Life was grinding poverty. The chance of getting ahead was non-existent. Simply treading water was daily effort. Many went under or left, dispirited. For some who stayed, political radicalism offered a ray of hope.

It was a time when only the wealthy and the landowners had the vote. Leeds didn’t even have an MP. Most people had no say in the way their country was run. The government was still scared that revolution might be possible and cracked down hard on sedition. On all crime. Small offences could mean transportation to Australia or Tasmania, a brutal life in the young colonies. Shipping the criminals to the other side of the world became government policy, although many would serve at least part of their terms on the old ships known as prison hulks. The magistrates imposed harsh sentences. After all, it was for the good of the community.

prison hulk

For all that, though, they couldn’t stop people thinking, and radicalism was already firmly established in West Yorkshire. Around the turn of the century, right the way through to 1812-13 the Luddites had tried to wreck the new factories, as machines took away job from skilled craftsmen.

With the war, food prices had risen, to the point where keeping a family alive was almost impossible. Leeds had seen food riots over the price of grain, notably one led by ‘Lady Ludd’ – probably a man in a dress; the population was swift to stir and slow to cool.

lady ludd

That’s Leeds in 1820.

And into that landscape walks Simon Westow. Orphaned at four and put in the workhouse, set on to work in a mill at six. An angry man. And now, grown, a thief-taker. With no police beyond the Constable and the night watch, thief-takers are the only resort for those who’ve had property stolen. At this time the definition of property included wives and daughters and anything they possessed or brought to a marriage. Most prosecutions for theft had to be undertaken privately. The result was that people generally only cared about the return of their property.

Simon is resourceful, successful. Married with a pair of young twin sons. Until their birth, his wife Rosie had worked with him. Now his assistant is Jane, somewhere around 14 years old. When she was eight, her mother arrived home to find the girl being raped by her husband. Preferring the security of a wage to the temptation of a girl in the house, she threw Jane out to survive on the streets. She did, and discovered she had the gift of being able to follow without being noticed, a useful trait for a thief-taker.

A girl who chooses to reveal nothing, who hides her emotions behind a wall, a feral life has made her into a deadly young woman.

Simon’s business takes him from the wealthy to the underclasses. He knows how the town works in every way. He knows its secrets. The one thing he doesn’t expect is the past.

The Hanging Psalm will be published on September 29 in the UK.

Hanging Psalm revised

The Dead On Leave (Again)

Last month The Dead On Leave, my novel set in Leeds in 1936, was published. It’s out there, £7.99 in paperback, cheaper on ebook, and yes, I do think you should read it. It is – I hope – an honest picture of a city gripped by the Depression and trying to find its way in a country that’s changed and threatens to leave it behind.

It’s also about the rise of fascism, which didn’t make much headway in the country, thanks to the efforts of many good people, and a population that rejected it. Between those two things, it’s something of a mirror to the present – although the book doesn’t try to offer any lessons.

But it’s still a good read, if I say so myself. So tempt yourselves with a bit more of it…

1930s boar lane 2

‘You know people in the Communists, don’t you, Raven?’ Kennedy asked quietly as he put another match to his pipe.

‘Only one man, sir.’

‘Have a word with him, will you? See what he can tell you.’

‘Yes sir.’

*

He knew where he’d find Johnny Harris. Six o’clock on the dot and he’d walk under the Magnet Ales sign into the Pointer in Sheepscar. Harris worked at the boot factory near the bottom of Meanwood Road, operating the machine that attached the upper to the sole. He’d done it for so many years that his skin on his palms was as tough and callused as the boots he made and he’d never be able to scrub away the smell of leather.

Harris had fought in the war, Gallipoli first, then the trenches, from the Somme all the way to Armistice Day. He’d seen the very worst and come back to a promise of a home fit for heroes, words that were nothing more than lies. As soon as they evaporated into thin air he’d joined the Communists and stayed loyal all through the purges in Russia, never wavering in his belief, working his way up to local party secretary.

Raven had grown up with Harris’s younger brother, Paul, the pair of them at school together. The families lived a street apart; he’d known them all his life. But it was only in the last few years he’d had much to do with Johnny.

Harris was a tough man, loud, always ready to argue his point. He read a great deal, his back-to-back house on Manor Road crammed with books. All communist, all biased, but Harris believed with the true fervour and devotion of a convert.

He’d been one of the organisers of the demonstration against the Blackshirts on Holbeck Moor. Harris probably counted the violence as a victory. But Raven hadn’t come to argue the finer points of politics as he parked the Riley by the library at the bottom of Roundhay Road. He needed information.

Harris was leaning on the bar, his broad back to the room, savouring his first pint after work. Another half hour and he’d go home to his wife and two daughters and be a loving husband and father when he wasn’t doing party work. But this was his time.

‘Give him another,’ Raven told the barman. ‘I’ll have a lemonade.’

With a wary look at the policeman’s scarred face, the man nodded.

‘You must be on duty.’ Harris didn’t even raise his head. ‘You’d be on the pints otherwise.’

‘They’re slave-drivers.’ The drinks arrived. Raven raised his glass. ‘Good health.’

‘I’ll drink to that.’ Harris pushed himself upright. He had large hands and heavily muscled arms. At first glance he looked to be a big, dangerous man. But there was a twinkle at the back of his eye and usually a smile playing around his mouth. He sipped the head from the drink with a wink. ‘I’ll accept the beer because it’s depriving the capitalist state of money it might use to exploit the people.’

‘Yesterday…’ Raven began.

‘A success.’ Harris interrupted. ‘We sent them packing.’

‘I was there. I saw it.’

Harris grinned. ‘You didn’t go on your own time, I bet.’

‘Don’t be daft. I wouldn’t waste a Sunday. But someone else was there of his own volition.’

‘That body in the paper today?’ Harris asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Was he one of ours?’

‘Not at all. A fan of Mosley. He was a means test inspector.’

The man stayed quiet, tearing a soggy beermat into tiny pieces.

‘What are you suggesting, Urban?’ Harris asked quietly. ‘That we were responsible?’

‘No,’ Raven answered slowly. ‘I’m asking, that’s all. Have you heard anything?’

‘Not a dicky bird.’ He took a long sip, draining half the beer. ‘How was he killed?’

‘Strangled with an electrical cord.’ Raven saw the man flinch and his fingers tighten around the glass.

‘None of my lot would do that.’

‘You don’t know for sure, Johnny. We have to find the killer and we’re going to need help.’

Harris pursed his lips. It would be hard for him to help the authorities. It went against everything he believed. But if the killer turned out to be a party supporter and he did nothing to help…

‘I don’t see it,’ he said finally. ‘Not a communist.’

‘Someone murdered him. And it’s a cold-blooded way to die. Brutal.’ Raven finished the lemonade. ‘I’d appreciate the assistance, Johnny, but I’ll leave it to your conscience.’

‘You’re a bastard, Urban, putting me on the spot.’ He shrugged. ‘Let me ask a few questions, all right? But I’m certain it wasn’t any of my people.’

‘Thank you.’

1930s gipton estate

No car for the journey home today; the police would never be that generous. Probably for the best, anyway. He’d only end up with a curious crowd outside the house, staring at the only car on the estate. Jim Green, all the way down on Coldcotes Drive, had a motorbike, but he’d bought it as a wreck and rebuilt it himself.

Raven had to wait for one of the Lance-Corporal trams, half-dozing as it clanked along York Road.

No lights on at home, but there was the smell of cooking in the kitchen. A note on the living room table read: Gone to the pictures with Gladys. Your tea’s in the oven. At least there was food, he thought. And some peace and quiet.

He ate, then left the plate in the sink. Kettle on the hob to make a cup of tea, staring out over the garden as he drank. There was too much to think about on this case. All they had was a jumble of pieces. He couldn’t even see all of them yet.

Maybe Johnny would come up with something. If there was even anything to find. Perhaps a bobby going through the list of Benson’s claimants would find a man so torn by guilt that he confessed. Right, he thought as he looked into the growing darkness, and they’d see pigs flying over the Town Hall in the morning. This was going to be slow and difficult and it was going to be painful.

1930s albion street

The Dead on Leave (1)

The Most Dangerous Place In Yorkshire

That was what they called Leeds. Not in the 21st century, not even the 20th or 19th. This was in the decades from 1660-1690. And it wasn’t due to violence or crime.

It was all because of religion and politics, which at that time were essentially the same thing.

To set the scene, England had undergone several seismic upheavals in little more than 100 years. Henry VIII had ripped away a thousand years or religion and belief in his separation from the Catholic church to his new Church of England. Not even two decades later, the pendulum had swung back the other way, with his Catholic daughter Mary on the throne, then again when Elizabeth had become queen. After that came quite a few relatively settled years, until the Puritans took power. They were, in modern terms, a kind of Christian Taliban, removing all the pleasure from life and deliberately destroying the old ways. But their leader, Oliver Cromwell, had died in 1658. After him, Charles had returned from France and been crowned Charles II in 1660; he’d enjoy a dissipated reign until 1685.

Yet religious, and so politically, the kingdom was in a state of flux, and in Leeds it showed with some very jagged edges.

Puritan rule might have officially ended, but Puritanism hadn’t died with it. A number of different sects had grown up around the North. In Leeds, the Quakers had attracted plenty of followers, and even the population that attended the Parish Church leaned towards a simpler kind of service. The first inkling of trouble came when a new Vicar of Leeds was appointed, named Dr. John Lake. He was suspected of being too High Church. When he arrived, a crowd barred his way from entering the church. It took a group of soldiers to remove the crowds.

                        Leeds Parish Church 1700s                      Interior Leeds Parish Church

Around town, Nonconformists preached, and the authorities spied whenever people gather. People were put in prison for their beliefs. Quaker meetings were broken up.

Things eased a little after 1672, when the Declaration of Indulgence was passed, legalising some forms of nonconformist worship. Immed8iately, 10 buildings in town received licenses for worship, and the first new church was built in 1674, Mill Hill Chapel (not the Gothic building on City Square we know today, but something simpler). Joseph Priestley was a preacher there from 1776-1773, and many of the powerful merchant families of Leeds attended service in the chapel.

Mill-Hill-18th-Century

The original Mill Hill Chapel

Yet the Church of England wasn’t about to sit and watch the fragmentation of belief. The members of the Corporation and holders of officers began persecuting those who loyalties they suspected – both religious and political. Spies informed, many Nonconformist gathers for worship were broken up. At one point the authorities confiscated the keys to Mill Hill Chapel, and those attending were arrested. Religious dissent might have been legal, at least to a point, but that didn’t mean the authorities here would let it pass. Those who failed to pay the obligatory Church Rates were prosecuted. At one point, fifty Quakers were arrested and led off to prison at York Castle.

About the only common hatred was Catholics, especially after Charles’s son, James II, came to the throne. It was widely believed he’d reintroduce the religion in England, and fear of it happening became common. Rumours flared likes fires. In 1688, word spread around Leeds that an Irish army had reached Leeds and was burning down Beeston. A group of Leeds men crossed the bridge and marched down.

It was a false alarm, of course. Fake news. But it says a great deal that the men remained, scouring Beeston for phantom Irish troops until soldiers arrived from York to take control and send them home.

Things calmed after 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, when William of Orange and his wife Mary, were invited from Holland to become the rulers of England. Religious dissent continued, and would grow until it became an accepted, even vital part of Leeds life in the 19th century.

In hindsight, viewed from the 21st century, all this might seem like an argument over trivial points. But they weren’t trivial back then; religion was still an important part of everyone’s life. Heaven and hell remained very real for most people. And if that doesn’t convince, think back to how many wars have been started – and still are – in the name of faith.

Spying…in Leeds

Leeds…it doesn’t seem like a hotbed of spies, does it? And while no state secrets might have ever gone missing from here, in turn of the 19th century there were a couple of case of definite skulduggery.

Almost certainly there’d have been earlier instances. Elizabeth the First’s spymaster almost certainly had people reporting from the Darnley household at Temple Newsman, and both Royalists and Roundheads would have had informers in Leeds during the Civil War.

But the first recorded case was a little different, and a symptom of the competition brought on by the Industrial Revolution, where Leeds was very much at the forefront.

Before we begin, though, a couple of facts you probably learned at school:

  1. James Watt invented the steam engine.
  2. Stephenson invented the first steam locomotive, the Rocket.

The first is right. The second is wrong. The first steam locomotive was invented in Leeds, the idea of a man named John Blenkinsop and used to bring coal from the Middleton mines to the staithes near Leeds Bridge. Called the Salamanca, it was built by Fenton, Murray & Wood at their rotunda works in Holbeck – the area we know today as the Round Foundry.

Salamanca, and the locomotive in action, 1814

Well before the locomotive, though, Murray’s company was the subject of industrial espionage, courtesy of James Watt, Jr and his works in Birmingham. Two of his senior men visited Holbeck in 1799 and were given a personal tour by Murray, one that proved sobering, as a letter to Watt from his business partner Boulton showed:

“Murdock & Abraham are now returned from their excursion highly delighted and full of panegyricks upon Murray’s excellent work. Abraham is now entirely convinced of his inferiority, and what is more, of the possibility of amendment and he is now actually making trials of different substances to mix with the sand with the view of giving a better skin to the castings. We have likewise written to G. Mc Murdock to send a boat load of the sand used by Murray”

They wanted to stop their Leeds rival, even buy up land close to his works to stop Murray expanding and keep a close eye on what he was doing. One story even has Watt taking a room at the Cross Keys on Water Lane to carry out spying himself.

round foundry

Murray’s works in Holbeck with the Round Foundry (Rotunda)

A few of Watt’s workers had moved to Leeds to work for the new company. They were contacted and encouraged to return to Birmingham with the knowledge they’d gained. Watt himself broke into the trunk of one and discovered drawing he’d made of machinery used in his Birmingham works. But it wasn’t theft; there was nothing to be done.

It was to a head when Watt’s company filed suit against Murray, accusing him of patenting ideas that belonged to them. The Leeds man didn’t yet have the money to fight a long battle in court – but instead turned to public opinion, which eventually vindicated him. He had more invention ahead – including the Middleton locomotive, although it’s rumoured that spies working for other countries tried to steal the details, although no one else ever made it work.

Matthew_Murray

Matthew Murray

That was the industrial espionage.

But a few years later there was also the politics. It was known as the Oliver Affair, and the 1817 scandal in the West Riding almost brought down the government in London.

William Oliver, or Oliver the Spy as he became known, was actually a carpenter or clerk whose real name was W J Richards. He’s spent time in debtors’ prison, eventually released with the help of a friend, a shoemaker with connections to Radical causes. From there, Oliver wormed his way into the political circles until he’d become known and accepted.

It was after that he went to see the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, the man responsible for the hanging of several Northern Luddites a few years before. After the Napoleonic Wars, England was in a fragile state. Prices kept rising, wages were low, unemployment was high; there was a genuine possibility of revolution in the air. He offered to become the government’s man, a spy, an agent provocateur.

oliver brown coat library of congress

A contemporary cartoon, Oliver fourth from right in brown coat (Library of Congress)

Oliver accompanied another Radical, a man named Mitchell, on a tour of meeting in the Midlands and the North. After that, Mitchell was arrested – which left Oliver as the conduit between Radicals in London and the North.

Late May and early June saw Oliver back in the North, especially in Yorkshire, sending daily reports to the Home Office. A meeting of leading Radicals was set for June 6, just outside Dewsbury. Two days earlier, Oliver had met Major-General Byng, head of the army for the North of England.

When the meeting in Dewsbury took place, troops arrived and all the delegates arrested – except Oliver, who ‘managed’ to escape.

Early the next morning, a Radical who hadn’t been at the meeting spotted Oliver in Wakefield, waiting to board a coach for Nottingham, and deep in conversation with a man who admitted when questioned that he was one of General Byng’s servants.

Rumours of Oliver’s treachery reached Nottingham before he did, and he was lucky to survive the grilling he head from some Radicals there. But an uprising in Pentrich had already been planned, and had begun before word could reach them. They’d been betrayed by Oliver, of course. Three of the leaders were executed for treason, and others transported to Australia.

The Leeds connection came days later, when Edward Baines published a series of articles in the Leeds Mercury, giving all the details of what Oliver had done as the government’s agent provocateur. They were read out in Parliament and became the subject of several debates that embarrassed the government. At one point it seemed to be on the edge of falling.

Baines had caused a sensation. Magistrates had used informers to catch the Luddites, but that was during the Napoleonic Wars, and in wartime extreme measures can be excused. But this was peacetime, and the public were outraged. It came to a head too late for the Pentrich men to escape hanging (although they weren’t drawn and quartered in an ‘act of mercy’) but most of those arrested in Dewsbury were released.

oliver spy report

Oliver’s notes (National Archives)

And Oliver? In 1819 the government quietly packed him off to South Africa with a grant of land. He died there in 1827.

Of course, it was hardly the end to undercover policing here. There’s almost certainly been plenty more that’s never come to light. But one incident has surfaced: between 2002-2008, an officer given the identity Lynn Watson was based in Leeds, with the job of infiltrating groups like Climate Camp and the organising hub Dissent! Her role was publicly confirmed in 2011.

History, it seems, has a nasty way of repeating itself.

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.