The Whispers – A New Richard Nottingham Story

I did warn you that a new story with Richard was coming. It’s been a long time since I walked the streets in Leeds beside him. Too long, really.

This is a little different. But he’s changed, he’s a bit older. Yer, underneath, the man we know is still very much there. I hope you enjoy a few minutes in his company.

Leeds, March, 1738

Richard Nottingham stood on Leeds Bridge, hands resting on the cold stone parapet. The wind whipped along the River Aire, down from the hills, the water carrying the stink of waste from the dyeworks and the fulling mills. Swirls of red and blue eddied by the shore. The body of a dog or cat, caught up in a branch and pulled downstream.

            He watched a barge dock on the wharf near the bottom of Pitfall. Ropes thrown to shore, wrapped and knotted around bollards fore and aft. As he looked, he listened to the whispers of the ghosts in his ears. His wife Mary, his daughter Rose, and John Sedgwick, who’d been his deputy in the times when Nottingham had been Constable of Leeds.

            Those days were long past. Now it was Rob, his son-in-law, who held the post. Nottingham was glad to let it go. He’d grown too old, his body weary from all it has endured when he was in office. He had his house on Marsh Lane, his ragtag family. That was enough.

            From the corner of his eye, he noticed a man come slide the corner of a warehouse, trying hard to stay unnoticed in the shadows. Lank hair, stoop-shouldered, wearing an old, stained coat and dirty hose.

            One of the barge hands jumped off the boat and began to walk along the wharves. The other man followed. Thirty yards away they huddled together. The barge man brought out a small packet from the deep pocket of his coat. The other man stared around again, making sure they weren’t watched, before he handed over a small purse.

            It was over in a moment, then the two men were talking and laughing like old friends. It could be nothing, Nottingham thought, perfectly above board. Aye, he heard Sedgwick say, and if you believe that I’ll sell you this bridge, boss. Summat’s going on.

            He stood straighter, and suddenly the two men saw him. One pointed and they began to take a path up to the Calls that would bring them out close to the bridge.

            It was time to move.

            He often used a stick to help him walk; it has been useful for the last year. This time he carried it. He’d be too obvious, and it might make a useful weapon.

            A short distance and he’d disappeared into the throng of merchants and weavers crowed around the trestles on either side of Briggate. The Tuesday morning coloured cloth market, everyone bringing their woven lengths from the villages around Leeds to be sold. He’d known ritual this all his life, grown up with it, kept order here. He could move in and out and become invisible as he moved along the street.

            Nottingham had battered his tricorn hat, but so did many others, and his buff coat hardly made him stand out.

            Go to the jail, Richard; that was what his wife told him. He could hear every small inflection of her voice as it whispered in his head. Leave it for Rob to handle. It’s not your job. It’s not your fight. Don’t take any risks, please.

You’re right, he thought, you’re right. This has nothing to do with me now. But he’d seen something. Every scrap of experience told him the men were breaking the law. To make sure it was obeyed was everyone’s duty. He’d pass Rob the word and let the younger man fight the battle; after all, he was Constable of Leeds.

The market was hushed. By tradition, all the deals were made in whispers and sealed with a handshake. But the inns were loud as men and women drank and spent their penny ha-penny on a Brigg-End shot. He made his way past the crowds with nods to the faces he knew. So many, he thought. Are you surprised? Rose asked. You’ve served these people for years, Papa. They respect you. They always have.

Or maybe he was just too familiar.

Nottingham kept a steady, comfortable pace up Briggate, watching for the men he’d seen. In the cloth market, he was just one figure among many. But as he reached Kirkgate, the bodies thinned out and he hurried down the street to the jail, looking over his shoulder.

He spotted one of them, the barge man, father down the street, talking to a man behind a trestle. He was gesturing wildly, anxious, while the other shook his head. Getting nowhere and growing frantic. Now Nottingham was certain he’d seen something criminal. Where was the other man?

He turned the corner, by the entrance to the White Swan, and saw him. Standing, turned towards him, just feet away.

Be careful, Richard, Mary told him. His heart was beating fast, thudding in his chest. He tightened his grip on the stick. This isn’t your fight, she whispered. No, it wasn’t, but he was part of it now; he couldn’t avoid it.

Watch him, boss. Sedgwick’s voice, ready, quietly assessing everything. You see the way he’s standing? Yes, he could see. The man favoured his right leg. Hit that knee, boss. Do it quick and hard and he’ll be on the ground. No need to worry about him after that.

Nottingham gave a thin smile. He knew he looked like an old man, one who wouldn’t put up a fight. A victim. But he’d learned all the ways to give much more than he took.

The man grinned, happy to have found his quarry so easily. He let his eyes play the trick on him, seeing what he wanted, a man he could beat, and he started to charge.

So easy that an invalid could have done it. A step to the side, the crack of wood on the bone of the kneecap and the man was rolling in the road, clutching his leg and howling.

Nottingham opened the door of the jail. Rob Lister was sitting behind the desk, head bent as he wrote. He looked up, suddenly curious as he saw Nottingham.

‘There’s someone out here you should meet.’

A small crowd had gathered, standing around the man in pain, but none of them moved to help him.

‘Who is he?’ Lister asked.

‘No idea.’ He summed what had happened in three sentences.

Rob searched through the man’s pocket and pulled out a knotted kerchief. Inside he found tiny silver cuttings from the edges of coins.

‘Coin clipping. Whoever he works for will melt them down.’ The man was struggling to edge away. Lister put a hand to his collar and hauled him to his feet. ‘A cell for you, and some questions. You know all this is treason?’ He gave a dark grin. ‘Takes you straight to the hangman’s dance.’

He pulled the man away before he could answer.

You did well there, boss. Not really, he thought; it wasn’t so hard. But there’s still another of them looking for me.

Papa, no, please. Listen to Rose, Richard, his wife said in his ear. She’s right. You were lucky once. The next time…

But what was the worst that could happen? He’d leave some people he loved, ones who could look after themselves, and he’d be with others. See his wife again, as sweet as the day they married at the Parish Church.

‘Do you want to see if we can find this other one?’ Rob said. He had a sword buckled to his belt, hand resting lightly on the hilt. ‘Will you be able to recognize him?’

‘Why don’t we let him find me,’ Nottingham answered. ‘He’s going to be desperate by now. Let me go ahead. Just keep a close watch.’

Richard…Mary began. But this was duty; after all these years, she’d understand that.

A wander down Briggate towards the bridge and the river, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world. Pausing to exchange a few words with the merchants and the clothiers, flush and happy from selling their cloth.

The bell had rung to end the market a few minutes before. Now the voices were raised, the taverns full to overflowing, spilling out on the street.

Nottingham spotted the barge man. He had the build of someone used to carrying heavy weight, broad shoulders and thick arms. Richard made a sign, trusting Rob would see it.

Carts and wagons were moving up and down the road. He crossed between them, parading himself for the man to see.

Don’t, Papa, rose said. Point him out to Rob. But he’d started the job he had to- No, you don’t, Richard. You left all that, Mary told him, and he smiled. He’d left it, but someone it refused to leave him.

He’s seen you, boss. He’s coming.

Good. Let him come. He trusted Rob

He’s close, Papa. Just three yards behind you now.

He’s taking out his knife, boss.

Nottingham stopped and turned. The man was no more than six feet away now, a body’s length, with a look on his face somewhere between panic and triumph. He had the knife in his hand, fingers tight around the hilt.

‘Don’t.’ One word, but it took the man by surprise.

‘Why?’ A guttural voice. He sounded Dutch, perhaps, maybe German.

‘Because I said so.’ Rob slid up behind the man and put his blade alongside his neck. ‘Drop your weapon.’

Nothing, and the pressed the metal against the throat until the knife clattered on the floor.

‘He’s the constable here,’ Nottingham explained. ‘I used to have to honour.’

‘Which pocket, Richard?’ Lister asked.

‘The right, I think.’

‘Take a look, will you?’

The purse was there, bulging.

‘You and your friend are going to like Jack Ketch. You’ll meet him at the assizes in York. He does good work. Quick, clean.’

Later, in the churchyard, he stood by the graves and listened to the dead whispering. John Sedgwick, Rose, even Amos Worthy, the man he’d liked and hated in equal measure. All of them with words for him.

            But it was Mary who waited until the others had finished. Richard, you always were a fool. You don’t anyone a duty now. You owe yourself a life. For Emily and Rob and Lucy and young Mary. Don’t you want to see her grow?

            No need to reply. She knew the answer.

            I love you, but you don’t need to come to us. We’re with you, always. Wherever you are, my love. Wherever you are.

The Character Of Leeds

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.”

leeds late c19

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.

lady ludd

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.

The Oldest Photos Of Leeds

The Internet is full of rabbit holes. For me, bits of Leeds history can start me burrowing, and I only emerge, blinking, a few hours later. The Leodis site, with its wonderful old photos of Leeds, is like a little warren, an Aladdin’s cave, a place to lose myself for hours.

And inside there’s plenty of treasure. Like these, the oldest photographs of Leeds. We’re so used to seeing images that it’s easy to forget that the science of photography isn’t even 200 years old yet. The very first picture taken with a camera dates from 1826 or 27. The first to include a person? 1838.

It was quite a while later that the camera came to Leeds, at least from images that remain. This would seem to be the oldest, dating from 1866. Leeds Bridge as it was then, before it was replaced by the new iron bridge in 1870. This structure dated from the 1730s, and that had replaced an older one. It’s still an immediately recognisable view.

leeds bridge 1866

A year later came this view of Lower Briggate, with the rise of Holy Trinity Chruch in the background. All these buildings on the street are long gone now, as are the two women talking, or the mother and son walking along the pavement (the picture looks as if it might have been taken from a room in the Royal Hotel, which started life as a coaching inn in the 1690s).

lower briggate 1867

From the same period is this one of Briggate, with the old Corn Exchange in the middle of the road, as the Moot Hall had been before it. By then, the Corn Exchange we all know had been opened, and this building was awaiting demolition. What’s remarkable is how empty Leeds’ busiest street was. It’s eerie. Just what time of day were these shots taken?

Briggate 1867

Bridge End, just by Leeds Bridge, is where this photograph was taken in 1869. There’s life here: people walking and starting to move into the frame, the blur of mother and child behind the window. There’s a barber’s pole by the shop, the neat display of goods in the window, and the archway for carts and deliveries. It’s worth noting the discolouration of the brickwork, covered by a few generation of soot from the factories and mills.

Bridge End no30 1869

1870, Rotation Yard, taken from the entrance. The photographer must have climbed a ladder to take the picture and frame it this way. More people, mostly men, but also a shopkeeper’s wife standing next to her husband. There’s a mix of working men, on the right of the picture in their caps and battered bowlers, a pair of youths, and a few more who look eminently respectable. The small street is clean, well-cobbled, a reminder that not every court in Leeds was home to the poor. For those who know Leeds, this is now part of New Market Street.

Rotation office yard now New Market St 1870

It’s impossible to know it now, but this is Lands Lane in 1881, with a very different selection of shops compared to today’s ‘retail offering.’ It would have been part of Tom Harper’s beat in those days; at that time he would still have been a constable.

lands lane 1881

Across the river to Hunslet, and a reminder that Leeds did once have a formidable pottery company in Hartley, Green & Co., whose premises were on Jack Lane. Taken in 1883, this is two years after the pottery closed for business. The office is the squat building to the left, and the conical structures are all kilns.

leeds pottery

Political meetings drew huge crowds throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th. This gives an idea of the vast scale. Taken in the courtyard of the Mixed Cloth Hall (which stood where the NW corner of City Square is today) in 1880, it shows the yard filled to its capacity of 20,000, all gathered to listen to William Gladstone, who’s on the platform in the distance.

Roundhay Road in 1889, with workmen laying track for the tram. This view looks north – the first street going off to the left in Gathorne Street. The very first electric tram in Leeds, travelling from Sheepscar to Roundhay Park, appeared in October 1891. At the end of the third Tom Harper book, Skin Like Silver, Annabelle Harper wangles an invitation for herself and Tom on the inaugural trip.

roundhay raod 1889

Those are the old photos. To go back further, we need sketches. This 1834 panorama of Leeds, probably sketched just downriver from Fearn’s Island, show the effect of industry. Factory chimneys rise like awful fingers, leaving a pall of smoke; you can almost taste the soot. The Parish Church stands tall, four years before it was completely rebuilt. It’s a Leeds that’s beginning to look familiar to us today.

leeds 1834

The oldest illustration I’ve found, though, is far uglier in its own way. It dates from 1694, an image from Mabgate, found in the Leeds Corporation Court Books, showing a woman being dragged to the ducking stool by Lady Beck (or Sheepscar Beck). We even know her name: Anne Saule, the wife of Philip Saule. According to the record, several complaints had been that, stating she was “a person of lewd behaviour, a common scold and daily maketh strife and discord amongst her neighbours, it is therefore ordered that the said Anne Saule be ducked.” In fact, she was one of three women receiving the same punishment that day. The others were Jane Milner and Elizabeth Wooler, both of Mill Hill. At least we’ve moved on from that. But it’s the only old image of Mabgate that I’ve ever seen.

1694 ducking see leodis

Behind the Gods of Gold

I’d always said I’d never write a Victorian crime novel. I was certain of it. With so many already out there, what was left to add?
But somehow, I reckoned without Leeds tapping me on the shoulder.
Walk through the city and the Victorian era doesn’t just echo. It roars. It’s a time you can literally reach out and touch. The city’s architectural jewels are its grand Victorian buildings – the Town Hall, the Corn Exchange, and the solid, powerful edifices put up by the banks and insurance companies. They were the bricks and mortar promises of solidity, propriety and prosperity. A reminder of when this was one of the industrial powerhouses of the British Empire. And at the other end of the scale, the back-to-back houses in places like Harehills and Kirkstall stand as brusque accusations of the poverty so rife back then.
A world away, yet still close enough to be a very real part of today. But I wasn’t interested.
Then Leeds gave me the tale of its Gas Strike.
By 1890, the workers had begun to organise. The unions had were gaining strength. And that year, with the Leeds Gas Strike, they showed their power. Their terms of work changed by the council, wages cut, jobs slashed, the gas workers had no choice but to walk out. ‘Replacement workers’ were drafted in from Manchester and London to stoke the furnaces and keep the gas flowing. But they didn’t know they’d have to face a mob thousands strong. In fact, they’d been recruited under false pretences, believing they’d be employed at a new works. As soon as they discovered the truth, most abandoned their posts. The lights were flickering. Factories were closing. Within three days the strikers had their victory. For austere times it was an glorious story: the workers won.
I was intrigued. This might be a tale worth telling.

Reading more about the strike led to Tom Maguire. He was a young labour activist in Leeds, still in his middle twenties in 1890, a believer who helped build the labour movement, and became one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party. More than that, he was a poet (it’s a line from one of his works that gives Gods of Gold its title) who died in poverty in 1895 – yet thousands reportedly lined the roads as his coffin was taken to the cemetery.
There was definitely something here. But it needed something more personal to tip the scales and make me renege on my no-Victorian promise.
A couple of years ago I wrote a short story that took its inspiration from Atkinson Grimshaw’s dark, evocative painting Reflections On The Aire: On Strike, Leeds 1879. It shows the river, almost empty of ships, and a woman standing alone on the bank, clutching a bundle. Annabelle Atkinson. That was what I called her. And even then I knew we had unfinished business. She was too powerful, too vibrant a character to ever be satisfied with a single, brief appearance.
But she bided her time. It was only when I was researching the Gas Strike that she came and sat beside me in a swish of velvet.
‘I know all about this, luv,’ she said with a smile. ‘I was there, remember? Do you want me to tell you about it?’
So Annabelle introduced me to her fiancé, Detective Inspector Tom Harper, and the other characters in her life. We strolled along the streets of Hunslet and the Leylands together, drank in the Victoria in Sheepscar, were jostled by the crowds on Briggate and window-shopped in the Grand Pygmalion on Boar Lane. We sang along with the music hall tunes they loved – “My Old Man,” “Sidney The One-Week Wonder,” “’Enerey The Eighth”.
After that, how could I walk away?
Especially when with them came the ghosts of my own family, of Isaac Nickson who brought his wife and children to Leeds from Malton in the 1820s, of his descendants – William, John William, Harold Ewart – and the stories they had to tell me.
I couldn’t refuse. I didn’t even have a choice any more.
‘Tom Harper pounded down Briggate, the hobnails from his boots scattering sparks behind him…’

The Unchanging Leeds No One Notices

In the early evening last Thursday, a couple of hours after dark, I was walking up Briggate. I’d been down in the glittering Victoriana of the Adelphi, one the other side of the bridge, poised at the top of Hunslet Road where it meets Dock Street.

The place was busy. Town was busy, many heading home from work, others beginning a pre-Christmas evening out. Plenty of foot traffic on Leeds Bridge, spilling out into the road, vehicles passing. If they’d been carts instead of cars and lorries, it could have been a re-enactment of Louis Le Prince’s 1888 moving pictures of the scene (the first in the world, in case you didn’t know).

Queen’s Court, Lambert’s Yard and Hirst’s Yard, each with their tiny entrances off Lower Briggate, looked like dark portals back to the nineteenth century, each with their menaces and joys. Cross over Duncan Street to see the police arresting someone, possibly a shoplifter or pickpocket. Buskers entertaining, hoping for change in their hats or guitar cases from the generous.

The little ginnels that lead through to Whitelock’s, the Packhorse, the Ship. All of them with memories going back three hundred years. How many drunks had held themselves upright on those walls? How many had waited in the shadows to rob the unwary? How many prostitutes has tumbled their clients just a yard or two off the street?

Further up Briggate, street vendors are crying their wares to drum up trade. Calls that echo back through the years. ‘What do you need? What do you lack?’ They’re there, in the space where Leeds market stood for so long, every Tuesday and Saturday, pretty much from where Harvey Nicks now sparkles all the way up to the Headrow, where there was once the market cross.

So what’s the point of this? It’s simply that, for all the sheen of the 21st century, Leeds is very much the same as it was 200, 300 and more years ago. The same things in different clothes, with different words. We have far more in common with those who came before us in Leeds than we admit or even think. Briggate and the streets that surround it, might change their facades. But that’s the only thing that really changes, along with the tat offered for sale; the nature of people doesn’t necessarily alter that much.

Next time you’re walking along there after dark, think about that.

Diving Deep Into History

Yesterday I felt very privileged. For a few minutes I could look deep into the heart of Leeds’ history. 400 years into the past at the oldest house in the city, three storeys, each one jettied out from the one beneath.


Let me explain: This week saw the opening of Lambert’s Yard, a new retail/arts space on Lower Briggate. From their windows, and especially the gallery on the floor above, you can look down into the yard and across at the wonderful Grade II listed house. You can’t go in, it’s in a real state of disrepair, but simply to see it after so many years of it being shut out of sight is a joy. As are the buildings behind it. A little younger, from the look of them, probably 18th century, but still beautiful in their simplicity.




On the surface the house doesn’t look too magnificent. It’s been wood-boarded with tongue-and-groove boards, an ugly white board on one side for repair. The days when it was timbered and limewashed have long faded (look in the gable and you can see where the timbers were cut). But it’s a slice of old Leeds history, and God knows there’s precious little of that left, certainly from pre-Victorian times. Gaze out of the windows, see beyond the surface to the lives that were lived there over the centuries.

No one knows who built the house, or who lived in the yard back when Elizabeth I was still on the throne. What we do know is that the yard took its name from the Lamberts, tea merchants who worked and lived in the house up until the early 1900s. Before that…look and make up your own tale. Just as I did (see below).

Go to Lambert’s Yard is you can (162-163 Lower Briggate) and see it for yourself. And while you’re there, buy something so this place can stay open and grow into something deeper, where we’ll all be able to reach out and touch history.


The last part. The limewash.

            He stood in the yard and watched the workman up on his ladder, working with his trowel to give a smooth finish, brilliant white on the gable above the third story. The sun came from behind the clouds and caught it, gleaming.

            The man kept going, working the same piece over and over until he was satisfied, then climbing back down, slowly. He was a hunched old man, a smock over his clothes, legs bowed with the years, a full beard and a quizzical eye. The best in Leeds, folk said. But the best was what he wanted for this house, so he’d paid the workman his price. It had been worthwhile.

            He’d worked hard enough to afford it, the design in his head for years. Every month he’d counted the coins in the chest, although he already knew exactly how many were there. From his marriage, then the births of Adam and Hannah, the death of his father, he’d wished the time away until today.

            There was money in wool these days. Not like the trade from Bristol or Norwich, but enough to give a fair living to a man with enterprise in his heart. Not the way it had been before Henry has taken all the wealth from the churches. He’d heard the tales when he was young, passed on from his grandfather’s father. How Kirkstall sold all their wool abroad, precious little for the town.

            The workman lowered his ladder and began to clean his tools.

            “You’ve done a good job.”

            The man shrugged.

            “Just what you paid me to do.” He raised his head. “It’ll last years, will that. A well-built house.” He hoisted the ladder on his shoulder and left.

            It was. It ought to be for everything it cost in materials and design. The frontage on Briggate, the gate through to the cobbled yard. A house in the latest fashion, each storey jettied out from the one beneath, not only in the front but on the sides. Good mullioned windows to bring in the light, entrances to the yard and the street. Strong hearths for heat and a kitchen to prepare a feast.

            With a warehouse for cloth, a strongroom for his accounts and money, and cobbles down over the mud, it was finished. Finally.

            He stood by the entrance to the yard, gazing across Briggate. The old house had been home to the family longer than anyone could recall. Cramped, cold, dark. It was no place for a modern man and his family. When his father died, as soon as the coffin was in the ground, he’d begun to make his plans. His mother would have objected. She’d have talked about the history in the wood, but she’d been gone these twenty years now.

            He could hear the children inside, running up and down the staircase. Soon enough he’d go in and tell them to have respect for property. For now they could have their moment of fun.

            One long shelf in the warehouse was full, the cloth bundled and tied. Already sold, simply waiting for a boat to carry it down to the coast. There’d be more to take its place. He’d bought lengths at the market on Leeds Bridge two days before. It was off with the fuller now. Dyeing, then stretching on the tenter frames, carefully cropped and ready to go on its way. It took time. Success took patience. His father had drummed that into him. But it needed more than that. An eye for opportunity, the willingness to gamble, to parlay a little into a lot.

            He had orders from the Low Counties, down into Italy, all the way to Jamestown in Virginia. A man had to look to new markets. It was how he’d been able to afford this house. Soon others would follow, he’d wager good money on it. Richard Sykes had talk about building when they shared a jug of wine last month. And there was Metcalf, although he probably had even grander visions. The only one who wouldn’t was Bowman the shoemaker. He loved that place with its bowed windows for showing off his goods.

            Leeds had grown and changed, there was no doubt about it. When he was a lad there’d been nothing to the place, it seemed. Now he saw new faces each day, and more people on the streets than he could count. Folk with money in their purses.

            He slapped a hand against the house’s corner beam, feeling it solid under his palm. A house to last for years and years. For his children and theirs, and all the generations to come.

A Bit More 50s

“Good morning, Mr. Markham.”

            He glanced up, thoughts vanishing behind him.

            “Hello, Joyce.” She was bundled in the old back wool coat she only shed at the height of summer. Long and shapeless, it made her look like someone who’d stepped out of another century. She worked in the Kardomah down on Commercial Street, a cheery enough soul in her sixties with grey hair curled tight against her scalp, covered with a headscarf.

            “You can seem ‘em all remembering, can’t you?”

            “Do you blame them?”

            “Not a bit, luv. We just need to make sure we never forget and let it happen again.”

            At 10, Albion Place he pushed hard on the door, forcing it over the hump in the lino and walked up to the second floor, past the typing bureau and unlocked the door of his office. Daniel Markham, the plain brass plaque read, Enquiry Agent.

            One pace inside and he stopped. Someone had been here. Everything look right, the arch files on the bookcase, folders neatly aligned, the ashtray emptied and the chair squared against the desk. But there was a faint scent, a hint of bay rum, trapped in the closed room that shouldn’t have been there.

            Whoever broke in had been neat; they’d even set the lock behind them. If the burglar hadn’t been so vain he’d never even have guessed. He unlocked the drawers of the desk, searching through, but nothing seemed to be missing. Even the Webley Mark Six he’d brought home from the service was there.

            Another twenty minutes and he was ready to swear that nothing had been taken. Even the smell had vanished. He sat back in the chair and lit a Gold Leaf, watching the smoke rise to the ceiling. A careful burglary where nothing was stolen. A coshing with no robbery. It didn’t add up. What the hell was going on?


By dinnertime he didn’t have any answers. The telephone hadn’t rung and the postman hadn’t delivered any letters. An empty morning. He put the trilby on his head and strolled around to Briggate, glancing in Burton’s window before going next door to eat at Lyons.

            The windows were damp with condensation and the air heavy and warm. Someone had left a copy of the Manchester Guardian at the table and he skimmed through it as he ate. He’d just pushed the plate aside and settled back with a cup of tasteless coffee when a hand touched his should and the fat man eased into the seat across from him with a grunt, placing his hat on the table.

            “I hear you were lucky not to end up in the cells last night, Dan.” Roger Baker took a briar pipe from his jacket, a box of Swan Vestas out of the waistcoat stretched across his belly and lit up, puffing patiently until he was happy with the way it drew. “Three sheets to the wind, the copper on the beat said.” He turned to the hovering waitress. “A cup of tea and a slice of jam roll, please luv. My friend here’s paying.”

            Baker was a detective sergeant with Leeds Police, a man with a wide, florid face and deep knowledge of Leeds behind his soft eyes. He’d started out as a young constable in 1935, his service interrupted by the war. He’d seen the city grow and change. Not much happened that escaped his ears.

            “I know you’re young and you need your beauty rest, lad. But your own bed’s a better place than Merrion Street.”

            Markham bristled. At twenty-five he was half the age of the other man, and Baker never let him forget it. Still wet behind the ears, he said. Hardly out of nappies.

            “I was coshed, Mr. Baker. Got the lump to prove it.”

            “What did they get?”

            “Nothing,” he answered and Baker pursed his lips.

            “I know they have cosh boys down in London. What do they call them?”

            “Teddy boys.” He’d seen the pictures in the Sunday papers, posing with their Brylcreemed hair and long drape jackets. But he’d never spotted one in Leeds.

            “Aye, that’s it. Bloody disgrace. Should birch the lot of them.” He put the pipe aside for the tea and the jam roll smothered in custard. When Baker ate, everything else stopped. He was a man who relished his food. Markham lit a cigarette and waited until the sergeant wiped his mouth with the serviette, the signal that he’d finished.

            “There’s something else. Someone broke into my office last night.”

            “What did they take?”


            “Another nothing?” he asked with disbelief, taking a long drink. “Seems like you’ve got a whole lot of bugger all.” But his eyes gave him away. He was interested. “Sounds like someone has it in for you lad.” He relit the pipe, waving away a cloud of smoke. “Been doing summat you shouldn’t?”

            Markham shrugged.

            “No. I don’t even have any work at the moment. The last thing was a divorce. I turned the photographs over to the wife’s solicitor last week.”

            “Dirty business, divorce.” Baker grimaced. Dan knew the man had been married for a good twenty years, with two sons and a daughter.

            “It pays the bills.”

            “Aye, like as not.” Baker pushed himself up with a grunt and reached for his hat. “If owt else happens, you come and tell me, lad. Alright?”

            “Yes, Mr. Baker.”

            After the man left he pushed the coffee away, paid the bill and made his way through the crowds on Briggate. Cars and buses and delivery vans filled the road, a tram passing silently as the crossed the Headrow by Lewis’s. On New Briggate, next to the Odeon, he climbed the stairs. The door proclaimed Studio 20 and he rattled the handle until he heard someone muttering inside and a key turned in the lock.

            A short man with a long, dark beard and bleary eyes looked up at him.

            “Bloody hell, Dan, what do you want?” I thought you was the bread man.”

            He turned his back and Markham followed him into the attic room with its sloping ceiling and garish musicians wallpaper. An upright piano stood in the corner, a drum kit had been pushed against the wall, and folding chairs were stacked in a row.

            It was the only jazz club in Leeds. Probably the only one in Yorkshire, he thought. Music seven nights a week, going on until the last player gave up. They all came here when their gigs had finished, to sit in and jam, George Webb, Ken Colyer, Ronnie Scott. He’d come down and listened to them all, carrying on until dawn.

            He’d picked up a taste for jazz in Hamburg during National Service. Not that the Germans had any. They didn’t seem to have any music worth the name, just the desperation of finding enough food to keep body and soul together every day. But his intelligence work meant liaising with the American forces and one of them, Jimmy Powers, a slick little corporal from Ohio, had been a jazz nut. He’d set out to make a convert of Markham and he’d succeeded.

            There’d been good coffee – real coffee, not the NAAFI rubbish – and records from the PX, enough to start a collection. Then he was back on England, on Civvy Street. And Leeds was a wasteland for the new music.

            Someone had told him about Dobell’s down in London, and he spent far too much on their mail order service. And then Studio 20 had opened.

            “If you’re looking for Bob, he won’t be here while this evening.” The man filled a kettle at the sink and placed it on the gas ring. “Cuppa?”

            Blackie Smith seemed to live in the club. Maybe he did, he was always here, day or night, as if he had nowhere better to be. And Bob Barclay, the owner, seemed to trust him.

            “No thanks. Were you around much last night?”

            “In and out,” Smith said cautiously. “Why?”

            “Do you remember me leaving?” It hadn’t been much of a session, no one catching fire, fronted by a tenor player no one knew who wanted to be Lester Young and feel far short.

            Smith shrugged. “Wasn’t paying attention. Why?”

            “I was coshed on my way back to the car.”

            The man’s eyes widened under his thick brows.

            “Coshed? Did they get anything?”

            “Didn’t even try,” Markham told him. “I was wondering if anyone left right after me.” It hadn’t been a large crowd, just ten or twelve. Other than a couple of faces he knew, he hadn’t paid the audience much mind.

            “Not that I remember,” Blackie said after some thought. “Sorry. Dan. You alright?”

            “Thick skull, that’s me.” It was what his mother always said when he banged his head. For a moment he could almost hear the tone of her voice. But she’d been dead for three years now, a tumour that ate away at her brain, leaving her family helpless. His father had gone six months later, his heart broken and no will to love. “Never mind, it was worth a try.”

            “You coming down later?”

            “Will there be anyone good?”

            “Probably just Bob and the lads. Tomorrow, now, that’s a different matter. Chris Barber’s in York. He might come over when the gig’s done.”

            He’d heard Barber. The style was too traditional for his taste. But somewhere freer he might be worth hearing.

            “We’ll see. Thanks, Blackie.”