Leeds Background Materials

Leeds at the beginning of the 1890s would be very recognisable to someone going back from the present time. Dirtier, yes, with choking, killing fogs in the winter and the smoke from all the chimney – factories and houses – blotting out the sun in summer. Smellier, in a time when personal hygiene wasn’t as developed and the sewage and rubbish collection systems weren’t as developed as they are now. But many of the buildings that still stand proud today were in place. The system of streets then is very similar to how it stands in the early 21st century.

It was a place of Empire, a place that manufactured things. Woollen clothes, boots, all manner of items. Unlike today, when industry seems like a relic of the past. It wasn’t yet a city – that would happen in 1893. But it was more a matter of title than anything else. With around 400,000 people, Leeds was a metropolis, although its boundaries were smaller than they are today.

It was a place of ambition, but like any Victorian town, there was strict social stratification. The poor was with us always, they say, and they certainly were then. And the vast majority of the population was poor. They lived in the slum courts that existed around the city centre. The Irish immigrants, many of whom had arrived in the 1830s and 1840s, lived on the Bank (now Richmond Hill) in atrocious conditions. Along Marsh Lane, the roads were unpaid, and the cellars – where families lived – flooded with each rain while the streets became quagmires. Life expectancy among the poor was distressingly short, and illnesses like rickets and pneumonia quite commonplace. What we consider poverty in this country today would seem like luxury to those souls.

The gulf between the poor and the lower middle classes was wide. Even those with a little money could afford at least one servant, and they migrated out to the new suburbs of Chapeltown and Harehills, where the air was a little cleaner.

For the rich, life was good. There were bathrooms with flushing toilets and hot water, electric lights, even a telephone for a very privileged few. Private carriages, and the first automobile was just a few years away.

Politically, there was a strong progressive undercurrent. It was just an accident of fate that the Independent Labour Party was founded in Bradford rather than Leeds in 1893. The unions were strong, there were the first sparks of suffragism, and the working man spoke with quite a loud voice.

Omnibus service covered much of Leeds, as did horse-drawn trams, and the first electric tram ran in 1891, bring in a new age of transport. For many, though, it was still Shanks’s pony as the main way to get from A to B.

There was a spirit of adventure and invention in the air. Louis Le Prince, a Frenchman who married a Leeds woman and moved here, invented the first moving picture camera and made the first films in 1888. This brief clip shows traffic on Leeds Bridge:

And this is the family at play in the garden of the house belonging to Le Prince’s father-in-law.

The 20th century was within grasp, with the first inklings of so much that’s familiar to us. Of course, attitudes were different; they evolve over generations. But unlike, say, the Leeds of Richard Nottingham in the 1730s, Tom Harper’s Leeds felt modern. It was very firmly in the present, connected to the world by regular post, telegraph, telephone, and rail.

Quite a few problems were think of as modern existed back then. Overcrowding, the cost of living. Even traffic in the middle of town, as the following clips (actually from 1898) illustrates. Crossing the road you took your life in your hands. Some things never change.

Leeds was a very industrial city, one of the biggest producers of boots and shoes. For most people, the reality of work was the factory. For women it was the mill, and they were subject to a system very similar to today’s zero-hours contracts. Read more about it here. Long days including at least half days on Saturday. You can see the jubilation on the faces of these men as they leave the factory.

Leeds had a police force and also a municipal fire brigade, which was actually part of the police force, although the insurance companies also had their own fire forces, as they had for more than a century.

What did they do for entertainment? Public houses were everywhere, of course, although they were still largely the preserve of the men. Those with money could eat out in restaurants, and the 1880s brought the advent of fried fish and chips, the first real working class supper, affordable, hot, filling.

And there was the music hall, as popular as entertainment was in the era. It developed its own stars, as big then as any pop star today, like Vesta Victoria. There were a number of them, with perhaps the biggest being Thornton’s, know today as city Varieties.

There were also a surprisingly large number of theatres. not just the grand, but the old Pleasure Palace and many others.

Mechanics’ Institutes offered a chance for free adult education i the evenings, and with the public library and art gallery, culture and books were available to all. Some social barriers were beginning to break down, but it would be decades before they’d fully tumble.

It’s all so familiar, but also quite alien. And this was what life was like for Tom and Annabelle Harper, Billy Reed, Elizabeth, Constable Ash, and all the other hundreds of thousands who were simply making their way, day by day.

In many ways, though, we’re still living in the wake of the Victorians, as this slide show illustrates.

1890/91 is the setting for the second Tom Harper novel, Two Bronze Pennies, published in the UK at the end of April Read an extract here. Or just go ahead and order a copy here.

And, of course, Gods of Gold is still available here.