In Leeds In 1820…A Story Begins

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

leeds 1826

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

leeds 1830

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

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

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

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

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

prison hulk

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

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

lady ludd

That’s Leeds in 1820.

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

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

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

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

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

Hanging Psalm revised

The Evolving Shape Of Leeds

One of the things that fascinates me, something that I’ve tried to capture in my novels, is the changing face of Leeds. To me, Leeds is a character in my book, one always there in the background, that shifts and grows and takes on different shapes over the years.

That shape is often very physical, and finding a series of panoramas of Leeds, sketched or painted over almost two centuries illustrates all too well.

The earliest seems to be from 1715. Look at the place, it’s bucolic, unspoilt. But at this time, the population was between six and 10 thousand – a village by today’s standards, although certainly a town by 18th century ideals. The drawing might well be somewhat romanticised, too, with a deliberate innocence. The White Cloth Hall had only been built four years earlier, and Leeds was just as the beginning of its dominance of the wool trade. At the start of the 18th century, Yorkshire – the whole county – was responsible for 10% of Britain’s wool exports. By 1770, Leeds on its own handled 30% of them. Wool made Leeds’ fortunes.

1715prospect

That’s the view from up on Cavalier Hill, basically up where Cross Green is today. But stand there now and it’s impossible to imagine Leeds over looked that way. This view, drawn in the same year, is from the other side of the river in Holbeck – then just a hamlet, makes Leeds look more crowded, and maybe well be a more accurate representation of the skyline.

Leeds from Holbeck Road 1715

In this image, Leeds seems little more than a distant hamlet.

leeds 1700s

The wood trade brought money, money brought people, and Leeds grew. By the time of these 1745 images, the population had likely risen to 13-14 thousand.

Certainly, until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, in the late 1770s, Leeds still looked very rural, as this from Leeds Museums and Galleries shows.

Fielding, Nathan, 1747-c.1814; Prospect of Leeds
Fielding, Nathan; Prospect of Leeds; Abbey House and Leeds City Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/prospect-of-leeds-37300

 

Compare that to this, from 1800, which very plainly shows the changes the new manufactories have brought. The town has grown, pushed out very quickly, while the factory chimneys dominate the skyline in the way church spires had just a few years before, although the process of industrialisation is still in its infancy. How quickly had Leeds expanded? In 1775, the population was 17 thousand. By the time of this image, it had mushroomed to 30 thousand. That getting on for double in just 45 years, a huge increase, with all the problems that entails, most especially housing,

leeds around 1800

The artist JMW Turner was a regular visitor to Leeds at the start of the 18th century, and he did a sketch and painting of the town from Beeston Hill in 1814. The painting itself is in the Tate Gallery in London; this image is from Yale university, the sketch image from the Tate. Building and industry is still very much congregated around Leeds, although it’s certainly spreading out – yet most still north of the Aire. Just a few miles away, this is pure countryside.

Far forward another 30 years, and that population had more than doubled again; it now stood at 71 thousand. Change and the way industry and trade have exerted their grip on Leeds are obvious in a drastically altered skyline. Factory chimneys are everywhere. The warehouses by the river are almost skyscrapers for their times. What’s most noticeable, though, is the darkness of the sky. All the smoke spewed out, day after day, creating a haze over the place.

This 1840 panorama very effectively captures the transformation of Leeds into an industrial landscape. Still 50 years from becoming a city, it was one of the manufacturing centres of a burgeoning empire, a true Victorian success story – as long as you were at the top of the ladder, looking down on those below. There was wealth, plenty of it, but also extreme poverty hidden under all the smoke that hung over the town.

1840 Leeds

Yet, for all its growth, Leeds remained quite a contained place. Everything was crammed close and tight. New houses went up, spreading the reach, but so many places were still quite rural, as this 1858 view from Beeston Hill shows. Compare that to Turner’s 1814 painting, and away from the town, you’d be hard pressed to find many changes to the landscape. Chimneys and the smoke, the grey pall to the sky, are the main features of Leeds. But where the artist sits, building remains quite sparse, surprising really, with the population now topping 117 thousand, although in Beeston itself there were only 6,700 people, a figure that that only risen by 1000 in the previous 20 years.

leeds from beeston hall 1858

Even as late as 1870, there was still a fair amount of agricultural land in Holbeck, with all the building the factories hugging the area closer to the river, although it was continually pushing out. In Leeds the population was soaring, up to 139 thousand, and in Holbeck itself it was over 17,000.

LEEDS-FROM-HOLBECK-by-H-Warren-J-Stephenson-c-1870

A pair of drawings from around 1880 try to capture Leeds. By this stage, any real panorama has become impossible. The town – not a city until 1893 – has grown too big for any single drawing to encompass it all. It sprawled, containing 160 thousand people and slowly expanding like a puddle, gobbling up the out-townships that had once been villages with their own strong identities. Even so, south of the river there are still more open spaces, and about the only trees you’ll see in the whole landscape. The style of this almost seem to anticipate L.S. Lowry. There’s industry everywhere, too many factories and chimneys to even count, the gasometers, the railways as one of the main features. By this time, Leeds has becoming one of the great manufacturing cities of the British Empire, at the height of its wealth – something that can be seen in the grand Victorian buildings all around the city centre, yet also in the back-to-back houses of the working-class suburbs, dwelling originally meant to last 70 years but still going strong.

Two images from 1890 show the real stranglehold that manufacturing had one Leeds. The first, from Holbeck Junction, looks into Leeds. It’s busy, it’s bustling, the skies dark with smoke. The top of the Town Hall rises on the skyline, but it’s the factories and offices that are doing the important work, that dominate the image. This isn’t civic pride; it’s business.

And the cost of doing business is shown in the second image along the canal. On both sides there’s nothing beyond the smoke of production, Blake’s dark Satanic mills come to terrible life, probably worse than anything he’d envisaged. There were 177,000 people living in Leeds at this time, and most of them were no more than the human fuel for the factories.

The age of photography in the 20th century offers a more dispassionate view. A camera lens is different to an artist’s eye, and it’s become impossible to encompass Leeds in a single image; it’s simply too big. Both these images are from the 1930s. In the first, the brand-new Civic Hall takes centre stage, the infirmary below it, the Town Hall to the right. But spreading out from that, far beyond anything here, there are houses. Most of them date from the late 19th century, and hardly any of them exist any more.

leeds 1930s

The second view, of Harehills Lane, offers more of the same. A factory as the focal point, endless streets of back-to-back housing – and, of course, chimneys and smoke. By then, though, industry was already in decline. The slump after World War I had become the Great Depression.

harehills lane 1930s-40

300 years on, what had happened to the small, simple town shown in 1715? Hardly any of it remained, just a handful of buildings, all of them churches or pubs. Wool remade the city first, and then industry caught the place in its maw and altered it almost beyond recognition.

Almost, but not completely. Someone from the 1700s could still have found his way through the a number of streets in the city centre in the 1930s. They were laid out exactly the same. He might hardly recognise anything, but he’d still be able to tell where he stood. And he’d have made sense of the of the people. Stubborn, defiant, some of them venal. Many of those qualities haven’t changed. The smells of the city would have altered. No more open sewers, middens or cess pits. Instead, there was the constant taste of soot, the washing already grey by the time it was hauled in after washing.

And all of this is what I try to make a reader understand and feel, to experience as if they’d been there. It’s important, it’s the backdrop, it alters, and each small shift  helps form the people who fill out my books. But it’s more than them – it’s shaped all of us who live her.

The Factory Lad’s Testimony

This story appears in my collection, Leeds, The Biography: A History of Leeds in Short Stories, published by Armley Press. But in many ways, it’s not mine at all. It’s taken from John Dawson’s evidence in 1833 to the Factory Commissioners when they came to Leeds, investigating the employment of children in the ‘manufactories.’ John was one of several people interviewed. The facts are exactly as he described them. All I’ve done is paraphrase his words.

 

He came in, walking slowly, almost in a shuffle, using a stick to keep himself balanced. His knees bent inward, making each step awkward. Still holding the doorknob he peered around the room, straining his eyes the way a mole might. He wore thick spectacles, almost a frail old man, although he couldn’t have been more than twenty.

The three members of the factory commission – Mr, Turnbull, Mr. Wakefield, and Sir Edward Jepson – sat behind their table as a clerk put papers in front of them. There was an air of sleekness about them; they all looked comfortable with authority.

The young man was wearing his best clothes, a dark jacket, cut high at the waist, a stock and shirt, with breeches and thick woollen hose. On the other side of the room a fire burned in the grate.

‘Come in, please, sir, and sit yourself down,’ Sir Edward said. ‘Thank you for coming to speak to us.’

The young man bowed his head slowly and crossed the floor, his heels tapping on the boards. He sat as upright as any defendant, his back straight, eyes straining to take in the face: the commissioners, the pair of clerks and the scribe waiting with his paper and steel nib to take down every word.

‘What’s your name and what do you do?’ Mr. Wakefield asked.

‘Yes sir, my name is John Dawson,’ the young man began, repeating the words when he was asked to speak more loudly, ‘and I make my living as a tailor when I’m well enough to work.’ He glanced at his audience. ‘As you can see, sir, that my eyesight is bad. That’s why I wear these glasses.’

‘Do you believe there’s a reason for your bad eyesight?’ Mr Turnbull wondered.

‘I do, sir,’ Dawson answered with a nod. ‘If you ask me, it’s from the flax mills I worked in as a lad. There’s always a powerful lot of dust in the air and it does affect the eyes of some folk. I daresay as I’d be blind now if I still worked there.’

‘When did you begin in the mills?’

‘I started in the mills when I was six, sir, a doffer at Shaw and Tennant’s. The work wasn’t too hard, we had to take the full bobbins off the machines and put on empty ones. But the hours were long, six in the morning to seven at night, six days a week. I was lucky, my da was the overlooker in the room. He beat me, same way he beat the other doffers, but not too bad, not as hard as some,’ he added, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. ‘It was the standing all the time that was worst. Every day my knees ached.’

v_ragged_factory_boys

‘Did you receive any education?’ Sir Edward asked.

‘Not as you’d call it, sir.’ Dawson held his head up to face his audience. ‘I always wanted to learn to read and write. And I went to Sunday school whenever I could, unless my ma wanted me at him with the younger bairns or I had no decent clothes or shoes. My da taught me to read, and I was middling good with the Testament.’

‘But that was all?’

‘It was, sir.’

‘Please continue,’ Mr. Wakefield told him, with a glance at the others.

‘My da left Tennant’s when I was ten, and I went with him to Garside’s Mill.’

‘Do you know why he left?’

‘I do not, sir, no. I was just a boy, so they never told me. At Garside’s they put me to work bobbin-hugging, and that was terrible hard work, sir. I had to carry around a basket full of bobbins, some of them still wet. The basket was on my bag, and big it was, held in place by a strap around my forehead.’ He moved his hands to illustrate, each of the commissioners nodding. ‘I often had to carry full baskets up the stairs to the reelers. My knees were so bad that I had to stop after two or three years. You could see them, all bent, but we had no money for a doctor.’

‘No one looked after you there at all?’

‘No sir. They worked us hard there. After a while my da and I left there. We went to Clayton’s, and I was made a doffer again.’

‘Did that help you at all? Mr Turnbull said.

‘The work was easier but the hours were bad. Sometimes five in the morning to half-past nine at night. They gave us forty minutes for us dinner but nothing for breakfast or drinking.’ The lad’s voice was quite even, not angry. Just remembering his life of a few years before. ‘Wasn’t always six days we worked. Sometimes there was only enough for five or four. Weeks like that didn’t bring home enough money.’ He removed his spectacles and polished them on a piece of linen he took from the pocket of his waistcoat. When he spoke he was quieter. ‘It was dangerous work there, too. I knew one lad whose clothes caught in an upright shaft and he closed, and there were other bad accidents I can recall, too. My da died after I’d been there a few years, and when my ma was taken ill we had to go into the workhouse. By then my knees were bent so bad I couldn’t walk more than thirty yards without a rest.’

‘Might we see your knees, Mr-’ Sir Edward glanced down at the page ‘-Mr. Dawson. If you’d be so good.’

Holding on to the chair with one hand, Dawson stood and unbuckled the knees of his breeches, rolling them up. His face was red, not from effort but the embarrassment of being watched so closely.

It was just as he’d said. His knees were misshapen things, bent forward and inwards into something grotesque, beyond human.

‘Thank you,’ Sir Edward told him quickly, looking away and conferring with the other commissioners while Dawson closed his breeches buttons and sat once more.

‘You said you went to the workhouse,’ Mr. Turnbull continued.

‘That’s right, sir.’ Dawson gave a quick nod of his head.

‘What was your experience there?’

‘It was good, sir. At the workhouse they taught me my trade, sir, made a tailor out of me. It’s better than I might have had otherwise. And I did see someone about my knees. They sent me to Mr. Chorley at the infirmary.’

‘Was he able to help you at all?’

‘Very much, sir.’ There was heartfelt gratitude in Dawson’s voice. ‘He gave me strengthening plasters and bandages and they did me some good. You can see it’s still difficult for me to walk, sir, and I need a stick to help me. But it’s better than it was, and I’m very grateful for that. It used to be I couldn’t manage thirty yards without a rest. Now I can walk a hundred yards and more before I need to stop.’ He gave a proud smile.

Sir Edward glanced at the other commissioners. Many more waiting outside to be interviewed before the day was done. Surgeons, overseers, workers, people from all walks of life. When Turnbull and Wakefield shook their heads, he turned back to Dawson.

‘Sir, thank you for coming here today. You’ve been most gracious with your time and we wish you well as a tailor.’

They waited silently as John Dawson left the room, leaning heavily on his stick.