Last Saturday I was invited to give a talk to the Family History Section of the Yorkshire Archaeological & Historical Society on Leeds as a character. Something to set me thinking about this place I love and how to define and describe it. I made plenty of notes, and soon very away from them.
But this is a more condensed and controlled version…
A couple of reviewers suggested that if you cut me open, the words Leeds would run through me like Blackpool through a stick of rock. I’m not suggesting anyone does that, of course, but I think it does sum up to an extent how I feel about the damned, bloody place.
Leeds is a character in my novels. A shifting one, from 1730 to 1957, as the town’s grown and grown, swallowing up more ground than anyone could have imagined.
Celia Fiennes (1698), Daniel Defoe (1720), Thomas Gent (1733), Richard Pococke (1750) and others throughout the 18th century praised Leeds for its buildings and its market.
That Leeds has a lovely aspect. Take a look at the prospects drawn from Cavalier Hill or across the river, and we’re genteel and beautiful. It wasn’t, of course; you simply didn’t see the poor.
Yet it’s the results of the industrial revolution that have defined Leeds, where we really start to take on our character and identity. Forged it, if you like. Bean Ing, Temple Mill, the Round foundry. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the most Yorkshire of sayings is ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass.’
In 1828 a German nobleman, described “a transparent cloud of smoke was diffused over the whole space…a hundred hot fires shot upwards into the sky and as many towering chimneys poured forth columns of black smoke” over Leeds.
10 years later, Barclay Fox noted “a vast dingy canopy formed by the impure exhalation of a hundred furnaces. It sits on the town like an everlasting incubus, shutting out the light of heaven and the breath of summer. I pity the poor denizens. London is a joke to it. Our inn was consistent with its locality; one doesn’t look for a clean floor in a colliery or a decent hotel in Leeds.”
And just this year a WHO report noted that people in Leeds endure worse levels of air pollution than many parts of the country, including London.
Engels, Dickens, and many others saw the dirt and human misery in Leeds. It was hardly a secret.
1842 Report of Robert Baker, town surgeon, after the cholera epidemic. In Boot and Shoe Yard, the commissioners removed 75 cartloads of manure from the yard. Human excrement. The houses here were reputed to pay the best annual interest of any cottage property in the borough.
Yet there are plenty of beautiful architectural examples of Victorian wealth and civic buildings. The Town Hall, the Corn Exchange, the Pearl Assurance building and many more. Leeds is a dichotomy.
We might not have cartloads of manure sitting in the ginnels any more. Maybe we don’t have the pea-souper fogs and our shirt collars aren’t black by the time we get home from work, but Leeds is a dirty as it was 150 years ago. We have a different kind of pollution. Most of the industries have long gone. We build very little now. But we transport, often ourselves, to get to a job that sells things or moves it, or is involved in digital business. But the bad air has the same effect. The hangover of the dirty old town won’t disperse. The difference is that the powers that be have put their eggs in tow baskets – digital and retail.
There is continuity, though. So many of the old poor neighbourhoods remain the new poor neighbourhoods, the donut of despair that surrounds the city centre. Some don’t really exist any more, of course. We don’t have the Leylands and Sheepscar is all warehouses now. But you walk on those streets and you can hear the faint echoes of the people who made their lives there, in English, or the Irish accent of the Bank, or the Yiddish outside the corner shop on Copenhagen Street.
Buildings create a place, but it’s the people who give it character.
While we remember the great and the good, the Thoresbys, the Gotts, the Marshalls and Murrays, it’s the ones without memorials or their names in the history books who really made Leeds. They worked the machines and the looms, they built those grand places on Park Row. People like that are where I find my character of Leeds.
When I look at the city, I see it in layers that build one up the other. Zara at the top of Kirkgate? Take away that building and what was there before and before and you reach the White Swan Inn and the gaol where Richard Nottingham – a real person, not just my creation – was constable. The strange thing is that while virtually every building would be alien to him, his feet would readily find their way around a number of the streets between the Headrow and the river. That layout hasn’t changed a bit. But it might be the only thing that’s remained the same.
In many ways, our history began, not with the founding of Briggate or a settlement growing up around the church on Kirkgate, but with the opening of Bean Ing Mill. That’s when people began pouring in. We’re children of the industrial revolution. Whatever history we had remade itself in the machine age. It’s probably one reason why Leeds has very few folk tales. There’s Jenny White’s Hole, but even that seems 19th century, and the Town Hall lions – the same. About the only old one isn’t even a tale, more a little joke that John Harrison, the merchant and benefactor, loved cats so much that when he had his house built on Briggate, at the corner of what’s not Duncan Street, he had holes cut in all the interior doors so the cats could move around freely.
That said, there is one small story, not a folk tale, that someone typifies Leeds to me. In 1812, with corn prices high, there was a riot during the market in on Briggate to protest the prices ordinary folk had to pay in order to eat. It was led by a figure named Lady Ludd – the Luddites or machine breakers were feared working-class figures back then.
Now, Lady Ludd might well have been a man in a frock and boots and rouge. Or it might actually have been a woman. The rumours still persist that it was either radical bookseller James Mann or his wife Alice. It doesn’t matter either way, although I do like the idea of a man in bad drag leading a rioting mob. It does my heart good.
We were bolshie long before the word was invented. Leeds was a hotbed of radicalism – pretty much from the start of industrialisation. The Northern Star was published here, we were important in the history of Chartism. From the 10-hour act to the later part of the century when Isabella Ford and Tom Maguire worked with unions to get better pay and eight-hour days, Leeds people have stood up for their rights.
We love a good riot, even over dripping. When Mosley brought his fascists to town, 30,000 Leeds people went out to Holbeck Moor to let him know he wasn’t welcome. We stand up and be counted and we’ll make fun of and humiliate those who get above themselves. Humour has long been a British weapon, but round here we’ve refined it into a deadly one.
I’m lucky. The factor that my writing covers more than 200 years in Leeds gives me the chance to look at it in different eras. Of course, you could ask why I set most of my books in Leeds. To me, the answer is simple. I grew up here, I moved back here. I know the streets, I’ve walked them, I know how they feel under the soles of my shoes. I know how all the pieces fit together. I understand the people, I don’t have to imagine their voices, I can hear them in my ear.