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.


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;


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.


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.

The Real Leeds Voices From History

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

roundhay hunting

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

farnley wood

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.


Servants, 1704

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

c18 leeds

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.


Poverty, 1797


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.


Criminals, 1892


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.

Hunslet, 1930s

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.

Coming in October – Free From All Danger

I hadn’t planned on another post quite so quickly. But I’ve received the cover for the seventh Richard Nottingham book (yes, it’s been over four years since the last one), and it’s wonderful – see the evil on that face.

So here it is, the cover, along with the blurb.

Free From All Danger 1

October, 1736. Lured out of retirement to serve as Constable once again, Richard Nottingham finds Leeds very different to the place he remembers. Many newcomers have been attracted by the town’s growing wealth – but although the faces have changed, the crimes remain the same, as Nottingham discovers when a body is found floating in the River Aire, its throat cut.


What has changed is the fear that pervades the town. With more bodies emerging and witnesses too frightened to talk, Nottingham realizes he’s dealing with a new kind of criminal, someone with no respect for anything or anyone. Someone who believes he’s beyond the law; someone willing to brutally destroy anyone who opposes him. To stop him, Nottingham will need to call in old favours, rely on trusted friendships, and seek help from some very unlikely sources.

The Real Richard Nottingham

I’ve been writing about Richard Nottingham for quite a few years now – he first appeared as a secondary character in an unpublished novel on mine written started in 2004 (the central character, as a curiosity, was a Leeds wool merchant named Tom Williamson).

In that time, I’ve been caught up in Richard Nottingham, the character. But he was a real person, the Constable of Leeds from 1717-1737. Now, with the seventh book about him due out later this year, I thought I was well past time I tried to find out a little about the man himself.

Sadly, there’s very little information. He became Constable and Gaoler of Leeds on May 18, 1717, and left that post on October 11, 1737. Richard took over the position from William Nottingham, who would seem to have been the first Constable to Leeds.

But the Nottingham family isn’t especially notable in the parish of Leeds. The Parish Register contains no mention of William, and Richard doesn’t come up until his marriage to Jane Wood on January 4, 1676, at Leeds Parish Church. At the point she was 21.


How old was he then? At the very least he’d be 16, which means that the latest he could have been born was 1660, the year of the Restoration of the Monarchy; very likely he was older than that, and older than his bride.

The couple, shown as living on Kirkgate, began having children the following year. Elizabeth first, born August 8, 1677, Hannah in July 1679, Richard in 1683, John in 1685, Mary in 1687, Jane in 1689 (died 1694), another Richard in 1691 (died 1694), Samuel in 1692, and finally another Jane, who apparently was born and died in a matter of days in 1694 – and that was an awful year for the family, losing several children in just a few months (a couple of decades later, two of Samuel’s children would die while still infants, something sadly common at the time). Was there an illness? Two more children seem to have followed, Jean in 1696, and Frances in 1697.

Although the family initially lived on Kirkgate, by 1692, with Samuel’s birth, they’d moved to Briggate (or Bridgegate, as it was written in the register), and they’re not listed in the assessment of July 1692 on Kirkgate to help pay for the war (records for Briggate need to be checked). Briggate would seem to be where they stayed for the rest of their lives, and he appears in the rates for 1726 on Briggate.


It’s impossible to be certain  – this is in the days before real birth, marriage, and death certificates – but it appears that Jane Nottingham died in 1715, and was buried on March 28. Richard Nottingham himself died in 1740, buried at Leeds Parish Church on May 18. No cause of death listed; the only information is that he still lived on Briggate.


Given that he only left his position as Constable three years before, he must have stayed in post until he was well into his seventies. Perhaps it’s just as well that the role was ceremonial, rather than being a working man. I’ve searched the churchyard, but no gravestone remains, which is no real surprise, given the upheavals there during the 19th century.

Yet Richard is a very elusive man. It’s impossible to gain any sense of how he might have been as a person, in spite of his very public role for two decades. And William only gains one mention in the records, in 1713, when he took part in a procession to celebrate the peace signed with France in Utrecht. There’s more to dig into, of course – wills, rates, and so on. But so far it seems to be a life that left few traces.

Richard, though, appears a number of times in the Quarter Sessions records. First in 1695, when he awarded money for pointing out men who are highway robbers. The amount was £20  – in today’s terms close to £2800.


Three years later he’s there again. Interesting, this time he’s given the title of Deputy Constable, some nine years before appointed to position of Constable.


When in office, it seems that things didn’t always run smoothly. In 1723 a warrant for his arrest by the bailiffs was issued, and he’d failed to execute an arrest warrant on someone. Sir William Lowther, the first Baronet of Swillington, was the member of Parliament for Pontefract and a former High Sheriff for Yorkshire.


A year later he’s obviously back in good graces.




These are wonderful snippets. Did that first reward urge him towards becoming Deputy Constable? What was the reason he never made that arrest? We’ll never know, and an some ways, though, perhaps it good that the real Richard Nottingham remains so nebulous. It would seem that he had money: his oldest child, Elizabeth, married John Wombwell, the second son of Baron Wombwell, and one of their children became a consul. She died in 1745, at the age of 63. But the money might have drained away. In the 1760s Richard’s son Samuel lived in one of the backside houses off Briggate, in a property with low rateable value; just 20 years earlier, Samuel had occupied a house fronting on Briggate with a much higher value.

So far I haven’t managed to find a copy of the Leeds Mercury from May 1740 that might carry an obituary with more details. However, Leeds Libraries do have it on microfilm, so hopefully more details will be forthcoming next week!

Even if Richard never married a Mary or had Rose and Emily as daughters, he’s very much alive to me, at least the version who exists in my head. And as no portraits exist, he can only look the way we imagine him.

Richard Nottingham – the fictional one – will return in Free From All Danger, to be published in the UK on October 28, 2017.

The Last Job

Damn the man.  If Amos Worthy hadn’t bought his debt, he wouldn’t be here now. But Josh had been so relieved when the man did it he was almost willing to give over his soul. Sometimes it felt as he’d done exactly that.

He’d gone up to the hanging on Chapeltown Moor, drunk more good ale than he should, and made a bet on the horse race afterwards with Moreland the Fence. In his stupor he’d wagered more than he had, certain the nag would win. It was the favourite, wearing a ribbon from Mrs. Farley, and Josh was sure he’d walk away with plenty of silver in his breeches. Then the animal galloped into a hole and broke its leg.

Josh didn’t have the money to cover what he owed, not even close, and soon Moreland became insistent. He took a beating one night from two men that left him in bed for two days before he could move properly. That was the threat. Next time would be worse. Broken bones, maybe a broken neck.

Then Worthy came to visit, solicitous as you like. Even brought one of his little whores to minister to Josh. He could buy the debt from Moreland, he suggested. Josh wouldn’t even need to give him the money. All he’d need to do was perform one or two services. He left the girl overnight. When he came back the next morning Josh was ready to agree to anything.

That was a year ago and still the ledger wasn’t clean. He knew what Worthy was like but he’d agreed anyway. What was the choice? At least he was still alive. Once, twice a month, he had to break into a house, under orders to steal this or that and take it to the man’s house on Swinegate. He tried to refuse once, to say he’d paid enough, and Worthy had slashed his face with that silver-topped cane he carried. It slashed his skin like a knife, enough to leave a pale scar. After that he’d agreed meekly and prayed he’d survive. Worthy was a big man, he was older. He was bound to keel over dead one of these days.

The months of 1731 had passed and he’d done as he was ordered. Now it was December, Christmas just three weeks away, and he was creeping round a merchant’s house in the middle of a frigid night.

Stealing was Josh’s trade. It had been since he was a boy, moving from picking pockets to snatching what he could through open windows, then learning the housebreaker’s art. He was good at it, never arrested. At twenty, though, he knew his luck couldn’t hold forever. He wanted away from the life. Something steady, where he could settle and dream there could be a future.

Back in October, still in his cups on a Sunday morning after a long night of drinking, he’d ended up in a Baptist service, not even sure how he’d stumbled in there. But he’d found something, some purity in its severity. He’d gone back every Sunday since then, wanting to repent but not certain he was able. He could almost smell the hope, but wasn’t sure he could reach it. He was ready to be immersed, to be baptised, to find that new life.

If Worthy would ever let him go.


Emil Frederiksson was one of a pair of Swedish merchants who’d arrived in Leeds two decades earlier and built a strong, profitable trade exporting cloth to the Baltic. He’d built his new house near to top of Kirkgate, no more than a stone’s throw from the jail. It was the type of place Josh always avoided. Too many rooms, too many servants. And if you stole from the very rich, the law came crashing down hard on your head; he’d seen that happen to men he’d known, transported to America or the Indies and lucky if they lasted long enough for passage back after seven years. But Worthy had ordered. He wanted the mirror that Fredriksson had bought from the silversmith who had his workshop behind the Shambles. And he didn’t accept failure.

Josh had tried to argue. He’d begged. He’d even cried. But Worthy didn’t give an inch. It was only at the end that the man made his promise: do this job and the debt would be forgotten.

Finally he had a ray of light in the distance, if he could reach it. He had to believe it was real.

It would be in the man’s bedroom, the worst place for stealing anything. On the ground floor, he had a chance. He knew how to move around an empty room without a sound. Up the stairs – that was a different matter. People stirred in their sleep. They woke. The servants were just up in the attic.

Josh had watched the house for a night, keeping out of sight in the shadows, standing until he felt frozen by the winter cold. He knew where Frederiksson slept, he spotted a window he could pry open in the larder.

Easily done. He felt the Turkey carpet under his feet in the hall, the slow, soft tick of the longclock. Warmth lingered in the house, enough to bring the feeling back to his fingers and legs after hours of standing and waiting for the town to quieten. Past midnight by the clock on the  Parish Church when he made his move.

He stayed close to the edge of the staircase, where the treads would be less likely to squeak. He held his breath with each step, one hand on the polished bannister to steady himself. It was slow, but he knew it would be.

Josh was alert for any sound, any sense of movement around him. He’d broken into hundreds of houses in his life and knew the rule: always make sure you have a clear way out. It wouldn’t be so easy this time.  But this time, more than ever, he need it. To put all this behind him and then wash away his sins in the freezing river.

Another Turkey carpet on the landing and Josh thank his luck; it would absorb the footfalls and let him move silently. Up here, though, he had his choice of doors. He had to imagine where he was in the house, which one led to Frederiksson’s chamber.

The man was a widower, he slept alone. That made things easier, only one person in the room who might wake. Gingerly, he felt his way along until he was at the right door. Josh stopped, held his breath, and listened. There right at the edge of his hearing, he caught the small snuffles and movements of someone asleep.

His palm was slick as he grasped the door knob. He drew it back and wiped it on his breeches, then gripped again and slowly turned it. Not a sound, no squeak or groan. His eyes were used to the gloom. Gently, inch by inch, he eased the door open, his feet not moving.

Then he was inside, easing across the floor. The shutters were closed, but a fire was banked in the hearth giving a faint glow. Josh remained still, letting his senses adjust. He could feel the man asleep, covers pulled up high. And there, on the table, the reflection of the silver mirror.

Easy, he told himself. Slow and careful. A few more minutes and he’d be gone, he’d be free. One pace and pause. Another. Then a third and fourth, each one seeming as if it might take forever, and he was close enough. Josh reached out, flexing his fingers, then taking hold of the mirror, lifting its weight and pulling it close to his body.

Josh retraced his steps, closing the door behind him without even a click. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, but he resisted the impulse to run. You made mistakes when you hurried, and this final time would be perfect.

The stairs took time. His throat felt dry, as if it would take an ocean of ale to quench his thirst. Then he felt the Turkey carpet of the hall under his shoes and he began to believe he would soon be free.

Into the kitchen, dark and shadowy, one hand reaching for the door of the larder with its open window, and someone opened a lantern.

‘There’s no point in trying to run. I have a man waiting outside.’

The speaker raised his arm and showed his face. Josh knew him. Every criminal in Leeds did. Richard Nottingham, the constable. The mirror slipped out of his hand and shattered on the flagstones.

‘Seven years of bad luck,’ Nottingham said. ‘That sounds right enough. Good job it wasn’t the silver mirror.’

Josh could feel himself starting to shake. Right at his core, then moving to his arms as if he was freezing.


‘You need to learn not to talk about your plans. Someone heard you and decided we ought to know. Maybe you’ll like the Indies. It’ll be warmer there.’

Amos Worthy. The bastard would never let him go. He’d been the one who peached. Josh would never be free now.


In November 2017 there will be a new Richard Nottingham novel, Free From All Danger. But I’ll be talking much more about it as the time approaches. Meanwhile, I’d be glad if you’d take a glance at my most recent books, The Iron Water and Modern Crimes. Christmas is coming, after all, and books make excellent presents.

One More Richard Nottingham Story

This is the last of the Richard Nottingham stories I have sitting on the hard drive. Called December, I probably wrote it as a Christmas story for Leeds Book Club in 2012, and it’s just been sitting there quietly ever since. So it’s time it saw daylight again.

Will there be more? I’ve a feeling there will. I’m just not sure when.

The frost lay heavy on the grass and the branches as he walked towards Timble Bridge, his breath blooming wide in the air. The dirt was hard under his boots and the air bitter against his face. Richard Nottingham pulled the greatcoat more tightly around his body and walked up Kirkgate.

It was still dark, dawn no more than a line of pale sky on the eastern horizon. In some houses the servants were already up and labouring, plumes of smoke rising from a few chimneys. At the jail he checked the cells, seeing a drunk who’d been pulled from the street and a pair brought in by the night men for fighting at an alehouse. Another quiet night.

He pushed the poker into the banked fire and added more of the good Middleton coal kept in an old scuttle nearby. As warmth filled the room he removed the coat and settled to work. So far the winter had been gentle, he thought, but it was still only December. Come January and February, once the bitter weather arrived, the poor would freeze and die.

It was the same every year, he thought sadly. He’d been Constable of the City of Leeds long enough to know that all too well. When the cold bit it was always those without money who paid the price.

Down on Briggate the weavers would be setting up their trestles for the cloth market. They’d be laying out the lengths ready for the merchants, then eating their Brigg End Shot breakfast of hot beef and beer in the taverns, close enough to the door to keep a wary eye on their goods. He’d go down there before the bell rang to show the start of trading, walking around to watch for cutpurses and pickpockets, hearing the business of Leeds carried out in low whispers, thousands of pounds changing hands quietly in an hour.

He fed a little more coal onto the fire and straightened as the door swung open, bringing in a blast of chill air.

“Morning, boss,” said John Sedgwick, edging closer and holding his hands out as if he was trying to scoop up the heat. He’d been the deputy constable for little more a year, still eager and hardworking, a lanky, pale lad with pock marks fading on his cheeks.

“Looks like you had an easy time of it last night,” the Constable said.

“Aye, not too bad,” he agreed, pouring himself a mug of ale. “You know what it’s like. As soon as the nights turn chilly they stay by their hearths at night.”

“You wait. It’s Saturday, they’ll all be out drinking come evening,” Nottingham warned him. “You’ll have your hands full then.” He shook his head. “Get yourself home, John. Have some sleep.”

The deputy downed the ale and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “I’ll be glad to see my bed, right enough. I might even warm up for a few hours.”

Alone, Nottingham wrote his daily report for the mayor, nothing more than a few lines. He delivered it to the Moot Hall, the imposing building that stood hard in the middle of Briggate. The city was run from there, from rooms with polished furnishings and deep Turkey carpets that hushed the dealings and the sound of coins being counted. He gave the paper to a sleepy clerk and made his way down the street just as the Parish Church bell rang the half hour to signal the start of the cloth trading.

The merchants were out in their expensive clothes, the thick coats of good cloth, hose shining white as a sinless day and shoes with glittering silver buckles. They were moving around the stalls, making their bargains and settling them with a swift handshake before moving on to the next purchase. He saw Alderman Thompson softly berating a clothier, his face red, trying to beat the man down in price in his usual bullying manner.

The alderman glanced around, noticed him and glared. There was bad blood between them and Thompson was loath to forget it, a man who kept grudges in his mind like a ledger. But the man had been a fool, trying to cheat a whore of the few pennies that would have been food and shelter for her. The girl had complained and the Constable had confronted the man in front of his friends, shaming him, forcing the money from his pocket and passing it on to the lass.

He knew what he’d risked, the enmity of a man who was powerful on the Corporation. But the girl had earned her payment and deserved it; the man could afford it easily enough.

The Constable walked up and down the road, alert for quick movements, but there was nothing. He settled by the bridge, leaning on the parapet and looking at the rushing black water of the Aire. How many bodies had they pulled out of the river this year? Twenty, perhaps? Enough to lose count, certainly. Those who couldn’t cope any more with life and had found refuge in the current, the ones who’d drunk too much and fallen in, unable to get out again. There was always death, always hopelessness.

He shook his head and started to make his way back to the jail. Atkinson was striding out, thirty yards ahead of him. A girl running headlong down the street crashed into the man, and he batted her away idly with his arm, sending her tumbling before uttering a loud curse moving on.

The girl picked herself up and began to walk. As she passed, Nottingham took her by the arm.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he told her, his grip tight.

“Done what?” she asked, the fright in her eyes as she raised her eyes to him and tried to pull away. She was young, no more than thirteen, thin as March sunlight, cheeks sunken from hunger, wearing nothing more than an old, faded dress and shoes where the upper was coming away from the soles. Her flesh was cold under his touch, puckered in goose pimples.

“You know exactly what you did. You cut his purse.”

“I didn’t,” she protested and began to struggle.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked gently. She shook her head, her mouth a tight, scared line. “I’m the Constable of Leeds. I think you’d better come along with me.” She tried to wriggle away, but his hand was firm on her. After a few moments she gave up, hanging her head and shuffling beside him.

The jail was warm, the fire burning bright and loud. He sat her down then held out his hand for the purse. Reluctantly, she brought it from the pocket in her dress and gave it to him.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Elizabeth, sir.” Now, with the cells so close she could see them, she was shivering in spite of the heat. “What’s going to happen to me?”

“Nothing just yet,” he assured her. “But I can’t make you any promises, Elizabeth. Where do you live?”

“Nowhere, sir.” He looked at him. “Me and my man and my sisters, we sleep where we can.” It was a familiar tale, one he’d heard so many times before, one he’d lived himself when he was young.

“How many of you?”

“Five, sir.”

He nodded at the purse. “How long have you been doing that? And give me an honest answer,” he warned.

“Two month, sir. But I’ve only managed to take three,” the girl pleaded.

He sat back, pushing the fringe off his forehead then rubbing his chin. “When did you last eat?”


“How old are your sisters?”

“Nine, seven and six, sir.”

“What happened to your father?”

“He died, sir. A horse kicked him in the head during the summer.” He could see the beginning of tears in her eyes.

“What was his name?” Nottingham wondered.

“William Marsden, sir. He worked at the stables.”

He remembered the name and the incident. The man had been a farrier, experienced and good at his trade. He’d been about to put fresh shoes on a horse when it reared, the sharp hoof catching him on the temple. He’d died instantly. “Doesn’t your mam work?”

“She has a bad leg, sir, she can’t walk proper.”

“And what about you? You’re old enough.”

“I’ve tried to find work, sir, but no one has anything.” The girl raised her chin defiantly. “I have, sir, honest.”

He stared at her face. All the guile vanished now, leaving a terrified girl who knew she could be sentenced to hang for what she’d done. He hesitated for a long moment, then said, “When you leave here, go next door to the White Swan. Talk to Michael and tell him the Constable sent you. He needs a girl to help there. It won’t pay much, but it’s better than nothing.”

Her eyes widened in astonishment and happiness as she began to understand he was letting her go. “Thank you, sir. Thank you. Do you really mean it, sir?”

He nodded, weighing the purse in his hand. It was heavy enough. With a small movement he tossed it to her. As she caught it, her mouth widened into a silent O.

“Rent a room for all of you and buy some food. Now go.”

He stood at the window, watching her in the street, looking back in disbelief before she vanished into the inn. Off to the west the clouds were heavy and pale as pearls. If they came in there’d be snow later.


I hope you won’t mind me going on about it, but another favourite character of mine, Annabelle Harper, takes to the stage in June. Seats are limited, and if you’re near Leeds I hope you’ll book a ticket here.

Another Story

You’ve enjoyed the Richard Nottingham (and Amos Worthy) stories I’ve posted. Here’s another one, called Home. It’s appeared in a couple of anthologies, but many of you won’t have seen it. Richard’s mentioned, but he’s not part of the tale. Well, read it and see for yourselves…and if you spot one or two similarities with Cold Cruel Winter, perhaps it’s no surprise. This came first.


He savoured the word on his tongue, letting it run like an infection through his veins, thinking it remarkable what a fire burning in a man could do. It could keep him alive all these long years away and then bring him back home.

‘Nicholas Andrews, I sentence you to seven years’ transportation,’ the judge had intoned, allowing himself a merciful smile at keeping another felon from the gallows dance, and all for the crime of cutting a few purses. He could still hear the words with their smug inflection and feel his hands gripping the polished wood of the dock.

He’d expect things to be bad, but the truth proved far more cruel than anything he could have imagined. Puking his empty guts out in the hold of the ship, fettered hard and helpless as the guards and sailors taunted him. Then, in Jamaica, a heat so harsh and hellish he thought it might burn the skin from his back, so intense the thought the devil was pricking his lungs. They’d set him to work cutting the sugar cane, day after day out in the steaming, stinking fields, wounds from the machete festering on his hands and arms, healing slowly and painfully as he prayed with quiet fury for his preservation. For the chance of revenge.

He survived two bouts of fever, raving off his head and swearing murder, so they told him later as he lay in bed, thin as a pauper’s dog and so weak he couldn’t even raise his hand to take they drink they offered.

It was education that saved him, those brief years he’d hated of sums beaten into his skull and making his letters. After the clerk died, the plantation owner needed someone who could read and write and Nick had pushed himself forward, grovelling and despising himself for his arse-licking words, but knowing it was better – that anything was better – then serving the rest of his sentence in the cane.

The job became his life, and he was good at it, quickly trusted for his accurate accounting and good hand. The master never suspected the occasional coins he filched and buried in the dirt beneath a tree.

Every single morning he formed his lips to spit the name of the man he hated – Richard Nottingham, Constable of Leeds, the man who’d caught him, put him in gaol and landed him here. Once he was home again he’d have Nottingham’s blood for that. Seven deep cuts from the knife, one for each year he’d been gone, the last gentle and loving across the throat so he could watch the man’s life bubble away in hopeless breaths. And tell him just why before he died.

When his freedom finally came, the days ticking slow like a clock running down, the ticket of leave in the pocket of his threadbare coat, the owner asked him to stay. Nick looked at him as if the words made no sense. All he knew now was home and the flame burning strong and hot in his heart.


The ship landed in Liverpool in January 1732. The money he’d stolen at the plantation had paid for his passage and his food, hard tack riddled with weevils and small beer turned sour before the gale-ridden crossing was halfway complete.

He arrived penniless to an England that seemed like a foreign land, in the grip of a bitter, bruising winter which had no mercy. But Nick didn’t worry about the weather. One thing drove him on, a coal in his gut to keep him warm. It was no work at all for him to cut the purses of a pair of drunken sailors, the skills of his old life still sharp. He ignored the port whores, all pox-ridden, rowdy and consumptive, and bought a hot meal and a bed for the night instead. In the mirror he caught a glimpse of himself, his shoulders stooped, face dark from the sun and lined, hair matted and hanging to his shoulders, thin and grey though he wasn’t yet thirty. He pulled the worn blanket over his body. There were fleas in the sheets, but at least the bed didn’t rock and shiver in the waves. The next morning, without a second thought, he turned his back on the coast and began walking east.

By the time he reached Winnat’s Pass the pain from the cold weather had seared to his bones and his old boots were ribbons of leather, feet flayed and bloody from the stones and ice on the roadway. But he was lucky, finding a stranger for company whose corpse at least provided new shoes, even if it added nothing to his small supply of coins; when the snow melted in the spring they’d find the body and never know what happened.

From Sheffield he made his way north, face set tight against the snow and the chill, the ragged coat held tight around his body as the gusts tore at his cheeks more brutally than any overseer’s whip.

He passed Wakefield in the early dusk. His money was running precious thin and he was looking at a hungry, freezing night burrowed in a copse when he saw the farmer, a florid man with ugly, fat thighs jiggling in his breeches as he walked briskly home through the fields.

It took little to slice him, pull the body into the trees and take the rich, warm coat. There were coins in the waistcoat, enough to see him to Leeds.

Back to his home.

Back to Richard Nottingham.

Back to kill.


He crossed Leeds Bridge in the late morning, blending with the market crowds, and heard the traders shilling their wares up on Briggate. The snow piled against the houses and walls, the slush icy and treacherous in the streets. He could smell the tannery on Swine Gate and the rich earthiness and piss of the dye works down by the river. For a small moment he stopped to stare up at the bulk of the new, graceful Holy Trinity Church. Soon he was at the top of Kirkgate, watching silently as people lurched and slid around him.

He’d been standing there for nigh on two hours, his feet feeling as though he was still shackled and his hands numb from the wind’s frigid tongue, when the Constable emerged. Slowly he followed, unnoticed and invisible in the throng, beyond the Moot Hall with its bloody, metallic tang of butchers on the ground floor, up to the Head Row. He watched through the window as Nottingham entered Garroway’s Coffee house, hailed some men and sat with them. Steam blurred his view through the glass and he walked on.

He’d seen what he needed, and closed his eyes as a smile creased his lips. The man was still alive, still here.

He could do it tonight, he could watch in the darkness as the blood stained the snow, then he could breathe out and live again.

His fingers twitched.

No, not tonight.

He wanted the act to last, for each moment to fill him so the memories could tumble over him in all the evenings to come.

Slowly, almost carelessly, he strolled back down Briggate. He passed the Rose and Crown, once his haunt, and walked on to the Talbot.

Inside the door the noise overwhelmed him like a wave and he stood still, eyes flickering with suspicion across a press of faces. Fire leapt in the large hearth, the heat inviting and irresistible. He pushed his way onto the corner of a bench near the blaze. As one of the serving girls swept by he ordered ale and stew, the cracked, awkward sound of his own voice surprising him.

Tomorrow he’d do it. The debt would be paid, he could leave Leeds and truly feel like a free man.

The warmth of the food and the sharp crackle of the logs left him weary. He needed a bed, he needed sleep; in this city that would pose no problem. First, though, he needed a woman.

The last time had been two years before. As a present to celebrate Christmas the master had presented him with a slave for one night. She lay, brown eyes wide and empty, silent as he forced himself on her. When he woke the next morning he was alone, and only the heady smell of her in the thick dawn air assured him that it hadn’t been a dream.

Outside the inn, the sky had stilled with early darkness. His breath clouded the air and his soles crunched over ice as a few flakes of snow fluttered half-heartedly.

She stood half on Briggate, at the corner of a yard whose name he didn’t recall. Her face was in shadow, a pathetic, patched shawl drawn across her shoulders, moonlight picking out the pale skin of her bony arms. He moved closer, astonished to find his heart pumping fast.

‘Looking to warm yoursen up a bit, are you?’ She tried to sound cheery but her voice quavered with the chill.

He nodded.

‘Down here then love.’

He followed her into the tight entrance to the yard, still in sight of the street. As she turned towards him, a sense of relief in her smile, her hands already hoisting her skirts, he rested his blade lightly against her throat so that a paint line of red drops bloomed on her skin.

He didn’t need words; she understood. He pushed her back against the wall, tore at her clothes and entered her. Her eyes opened wider, the blank, hopeless stare an echo of the girl in Jamaica. It was only seconds later that his backhanded blow sent her to the floor, still mute, and he dashed back into Briggate, tying his breeches.


It was God’s joke, he decided, that he’d end up in a rooming house in the same yard where he’d been a boy, before his parents had died of the vomiting sickness and he’d made his way on the streets. He glanced at the old door as he passed, but any memories were held like secrets behind the wood. It was just for one night then he’d be finished here, on his way to York or London, to anywhere a man could disappear and start life anew. There was only one tie here and he’d loosen it soon enough.

The dank room already held two men with ale heavy on their breath, their sleeping farts sweetening the air. He lay on the straw pallet fully clothed, the wretched rag of a blanket over him, and drifted away.


Something cold and metallic was pushing against his mouth. Confused, still sleep-drunk, he struggled to open his eyes, pawing at his face with one hand.

‘Sit up.’

The words came as a command, colder than the bitter air in the room. Without even thinking, he obeyed. Thin, early light came through a window covered by years of grime.

The man towered over him, seeming to fill the space, his presence full of menace. He was tall, with unkempt grey hair, his face lined, but his back was straight and his chest wide under dirty clothes. One large fist held a silver-topped walking stick lightly.

He knew who this was; it was impossible to have ever lived on the edge of the law in Leeds and not know. Amos Worthy.

‘I hear you were with one of my girls last night.’ The man’s eyes were dark, his voice slow, as deep and resonant as any preacher. ‘You didn’t pay her. I can’t allow that.’ He paused, letting the words hang ominously in the air. ‘But then you had to cut her as well, didn’t you? So now I have to make an example of you.’

Nick started to reach for the knife in his pocket. The man simply shook his head once and gestured over his shoulder. A pair of thickset youths, their faces hard and scarred, arms folded, stood inside the door. The two other beds were empty.

‘I know who you are,’ the man said, speaking softly and conversationally. ‘Oh aye, you’ve got the Indies burned on your face, Nick Andrews. Seven years is a long time away from home. But happen it’s not long enough.’

All he could do was nod. Whatever words he’d once possessed had deserted him. Worthy was offhand, easy in his certainty and Nick felt the piss burn hot down his leg as his bladder emptied. He was going to die here, in this room, in this bed, before he could finish his work. And all for a few short seconds with a whore.

‘All that time doesn’t seem to have made you any wiser, laddie. Just back, are you?’

Nick nodded again.

‘It’ll be a short homecoming, then.’ He raised his thick eyebrows. ‘You crossed me. You can’t do that here.’

He brought his stick down hard. Nick saw it fall, quick, effortless, but it burst his nose, the shock of pain hard and sudden, blood gushing chokingly into his mouth.

‘You can kill him now, boys. You know what to do with the body.’



Alderman Harkness

I’ve posted a couple of Richard Nottingham stories on here over the last couple of weeks and I’m grateful for how well they’ve been received. This isn’t a third, but it’s related – a tale involving his great nemesis, Amos Worthy (if you don’t know him, read the first three Richard Nottingham books). This goes back to a period before Richard is Constable of Leeds; he’s not even mentioned. But I hope you’ll like it anyway.

The young traveller closed the book of maps, stood up and began to look around.

“If you want the jakes it’s out in the yard,” said the man sitting across the table from him. “But I’d not leave that there, it’ll be gone by the time you get back. Den of bloody thieves, this is.”

“Thank you.” He picked up the book and took it with him.

The man shook his head. Some folk had no more brains than chickens, he thought. He pushed his plate away, downed the last of his ale and left the Talbot Inn, pausing only to loosen his breeches a little; the beef had been filling. One of his men lounged outside the door, watching the street with careful eyes, then quickly falling in step behind his employer.

Amos Worthy walked down Briggate, looking straight ahead, the tip of his silver-headed stick tapping on the street. Although he was dressed in shabby clothes, his coat and waistcoat old and stained, his hose dirty, the wig ancient, he knew he was one of the powers in Leeds. Aldermen came to court him, eager to borrow his money for their businesses or make use of his whores. Merchants deferred to him. None would have him at their table, of course. At one time they’d shunned him, back when he was an honest man. Now, at fifty, he was a pimp and procurer, with deep wealth in his coffers.

He turned on to Swinegate, striding easily through the clamour of people at work or making their purchases and went through the plain door to the house, going along to the kitchen, where the fire was lit. The man was already waiting there for him.

“Alderman Harkness,” he said as he settled onto his chair. “What can I do for you?”

Harkness was close to fifty, about the same age as Worthy, a close pink shave on his heavy jowls. In the last decade he’d ballooned into fatness, much larger than Worthy himself. But he strove to hide it in suits of the best cut, intended to flatter, and expensive, colourful silk waistcoats. He’d made his money from selling cloth and consolidated his power as a member of the city’s corporation.

“I need the loan of some money, Mr. Worthy.” At least the man had the decency to look embarrassed at his request, Worthy thought.

“And how much this time, Alderman?” He let his voice hang on the last word to remind Harkness of his position.

“Two hundred and fifty.”

“Two hundred and fifty pounds?” He was astounded by the figure. It was enough to pay for an apprenticeship with a merchant. Even those who did well in the wool trade that was the backbone of Leeds only cleared twice that in a year. “And what do you need that for?”

“It’s a personal matter.” Harkness tried to sound dignified, but Worthy knew the reason. The alderman’s son, George, loved to gamble. He spent his nights at the tables, in York or London, playing cards or hazard. By April each year he’d already lost his annual allowance and came crawling to his father for more. The man needed the money to honour his son’s debts.

“You’re a man of strong appetites, Mr. Harkness.” Worthy leaned back and studied the alderman in his finery. He glanced over at the guard by the back door. “How many times has he had Sophie in the last two months, Tom?”

“Twenty, sir.”

Worthy raised his thick eyebrows.

“Twenty times with one of my whores in two months? You’ve a bull in your breeches, Mr. Harkness. And how much have we charged him, Tom?”

“Nothing,” came the reply.

Worthy sat back and sighed.

“You use my girls for nowt, you already owe me a hundred from last year, and now you’re back at the trough for more. What do you say to that, Alderman Harkness?”

“I’ll pay you back,” he answered brusquely. “I always have before.”

“Aye,” Worthy agreed slowly. He poured himself a mug of ale, pointedly offering none to the other man, and drank it all down in one long gulp. “That was then, though. Times have changed, haven’t they?”

Just a year earlier, in 1714, the merchants and aldermen of Leeds had sworn their allegiance to the new king, George. Less than twelve months later, in June, some folk in the city had celebrated the birthday of the Old Pretender, James Stuart. The church bells had rung for hours and bonfires had burned in joy around the town. The dragoons had come out of their barracks to stop the Jacobite sympathy. In the weeks after, Mayor Pollard and two others had been summoned to London and Alderman Cookson had been briefly arrested. After that Leeds had trodden tenderly and cautiously. Trade was down, no one wanted to be seen to do business with traitors. The merchants were making no money, he knew that for a fact; they’d all come grovelling to him for favours and loans. If it lasted much longer, Leeds would be full of paupers, Harkness included.

“They’ll get better,” the alderman promised. “This’ll blow over soon enough, you wait and see.”

“Oh aye?” Worthy asked. His voice was lightly mocking but his eyes were hard. “And how long do I have to wait?”

“A month…maybe three.”

He could see the main was sweating, the drops standing out on his forehead under the carefully powdered wig. Worthy poured more of the ale and sipped at it, tasting the bitterness in his mouth and relishing it in his throat.

“And if I lend you the money, what’s my guarantee?”

Harkness stood straighter.

“My honour. It’s been good enough for you before,” he said, affronted.

“I already said, times have changed.” He knew that the man would get his money and be deep in his debt in many ways. But let him wait a little for it, he thought. Harkness had been one of those who’d hounded him all those years before. He’d had a shop then, a draper’s, doing fair business and gaining a reputation. Then there’d been the news of his affair with a merchant’s wife – nothing as simple or straightforward as an affair, really; it had been love – and the customers he’d relied upon had abandoned him, until he’d had to start over, running whores and finding a life beyond the law. Did the man in front of him think he’d forgotten all that, written it off to history? “So which will you wager on?” he asked. “One month or three?” He could see relief flood into the man’s expression.

“Three months,” he answered quickly, as Worthy knew he would.

“Same interest as before.”

Harkness nodded.

“Tom will bring you the money,” he said and took another drink. The merchant moved towards the door. “And Mr. Harkness,” Worthy said to his back, “there’ll be no more Sophie until you’ve paid.”


The summer passed, a hot and humid August slowly giving way to the first signs of autumn, fruit dropping from horse chestnut trees to be eagerly gathered by boys, the leaves turning to their bright, dying colours.

As the weather turned, clouds and showers replacing sun and heat, another pimp thought to challenge Worthy’s supremacy. Others had tried and failed, and this one was no different. Worthy led his men in the fight, using his fists and boots, enjoying the red rage that overcame him before taking his knife to the upstart as a lesson. Mercy was softness in his business; men had to know that failure brought only one thing. If he didn’t do that, none would respect or fear him.

When it was over he found out who’d betrayed him to his competitor. It was one of his girls, one who’d tried to cheat him before and paid the price for that transgression with a long scar on her cheek. This time, when he questioned her, she’d stood defiant, saying nothing but spitting in his eye. He’d taken care of her himself, making sure none would ever see her alive again, and that no one would find the body. He knew the rumours would spread and his reputation would grow. It would keep the whores in line and the debtors agreeable.

By the end of October he’d received no word from Harkness about repaying the loan. Worthy had kept his ears open. He knew trade was still painfully slow, the merchants and the city still hurting, purses so tight that they squeaked. Three days remained until the loan was due. The second of November, payable in full with interest. There was time, he told himself. The man might arrive on the day itself. One thing Harkness wouldn’t dare do was play him for a fool; that was a devil’s game.

He kept his own counsel on the matter, the way he did with everything else. Never let any man know your mind, he’d learned, and it had served it well. It kept them guessing and kept them wary.

On the day the money was due he stepped into the parlour of the house on Swinegate before going to dinner. There were cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling and dust on the small table. One of the servants had lit a fire, but no one was allowed to clean in here.

“Hello, mam,” he said to the old woman in the chair. She was hunched over, a small glass clenched in her finger. Her stroked her hair tenderly but she took no notice. She’d had him at fifteen and raised him as well as she could, somehow finding the money for his apprenticeship to a draper. When the respectable folk of the city turned their backs to him, she’d found her sweet oblivion in gin. He’d taken her in, made sure there was always enough of the spirit for her.

She didn’t move, didn’t answer, and soon he left her to her dreams, wherever they might take her. He ate at the White Swan, conducted his business and returned, sitting late in the kitchen and brooding while a blaze roared in the hearth. He finished a jug of ale and refilled it from the barrel, paying no attention to the guard who waited patiently by the back door.

The next morning he sent word to Adam the forger, a note telling him what he needed. He knew the man would do it without question.

Adam brought the documents before evening and Worthy inspected them closely before handing over a gold coin, payment for the work and the silence that would follow it. Nights were coming earlier, he thought as he looked out of the window. All too soon it would be winter once more and he’d feel its bitterness in his bones. Each year seemed colder than the last.

He’d give Harkness until morning to appear.


Worthy rose early, dressing in the clothes he always wore, careless of the stains and smell. Bread, cheese and sliced meat were waiting on the kitchen table, the room already warm from the fire, the way he enjoyed it. Finally he pushed the plate away and motioned to Tom.

No Harkness. No word.

“Go up to the barracks and fetch Lieutenant Marsh,” he ordered. He knew the man would come; Worthy had been generous with his whores and gifts of wine to the man. Marsh had been the officer to quell the celebrations and arrest the men he believed disloyal to the King. He was an ambitious fool, someone who believed fervently in crown and country as he paraded around Leeds in his best uniform and paid court to the young ladies of Leeds before tupping the prostitutes in the back rooms of inns.

It took two hours for the soldier to arrive, the heels of his polished boots clacking on the flagstones of the hallways. He stood on the other side of the table, back straight, his hat clutched under one arm, a quizzical expression in his eyes.

“I believe all the men you arrested over the birthday celebration for the Pretender are free,” Worthy began. He was seated on the stool. He’d put more coal on the fire, making sure that the man would sweat in his fine plumage.

“They are, sir.” Marsh’s voice was loud and abrasive, with the drawl of generations of money.

“You must be disappointed, laddie.”

“Sir?” He looked confused.

“All that work and they’re let go in the end. They’ll not have thanked you in London. Making all that work for them and it comes to nought.”

Marsh was silent. Aye, Worthy thought, he’d have earned himself a black mark or two with that. He smiled.

“Would you like to redeem yourself, Lieutenant?”


He drew the papers from the deep pocket of his waistcoat. They’d been folded and refolded, the handwriting carefully imitated.

“What would you say if I told you I had proof that someone here had been writing to the Pretender? To James Stuart himself, pledging his loyalty. Of his own desire,” he added carefully, “nowt to do with the city.” Marsh stepped forward eagerly. “What do you think would happen to a man like that?”

He could see the soldier thinking quickly of his own glory.

“He’d be taken to London and tried. If he was guilty, he’d be executed.”

Worthy nodded sagely.

“And as a good subject of his Majesty, it would be my duty to pass on this information, of course.”

“It would.” Marsh held out his hand and Worthy passed over the documents. “What’s the man’s name?”

“Alderman Harkness.”