Little Alice Musgrave – A Leeds Story

I’ve decided to put up a short story every day this week. Most have been on the blog before, years ago. Some, like this, are published in my collection Leeds, The Biography. This takes its inspiration from the plague of 1645 in Leeds, which lasted for nine months and killed over 1300 people here – quite a percentage of the citizens. Alice lived on Vicar Lane, then a very poor area, and was the first to catch the plague and die. She was 11 years old.

The illustration is from the parish records, the names of some of those who died. Plague cabins were built on Quarry Hill (I’ve heard there were more in Holbeck) to quarantine victims.

Oh, if you’re all very, very kind and buy copies of my new book, The Leaden Heart, this week, then next week I shall post a brand-new Richard Nottingham short story. You know what to do!

scan0001

 

Little Alice Musgrave, lying in her bed,

Little Alice Musgrave with plague in her head,

All the prayers for Alice that all the preachers said,

Little Alice Musgrave, buried and dead.

 

The children sang it for years afterwards, long after most people had forgotten who Alice had even been. At first I’d chase them away and cuff at their heads, yelling through my tears, shouting at them to shut up. But it didn’t help. They’d keep on singing and every word cut deeper and deeper into my soul until I couldn’t cry out any more.

Last week I heard it again. A pair of girls, neither of them more than six, were using it as a rhyme for skipping ropes. The good Lord alone knows where they’d learned it. Alice has been dead these twenty years now. Maybe they’d heard their mother one day.

I was walking along Call Lane with my granddaughter, her hand tight in mine, and the words just made me stop, frozen as winter. I thought my heart might never beat again.

“What is it, Grandmama?” Emily asked. “Why are you crying like that?”

I had to draw in my breath slowly before I could answer her.

“It’s nothing, child,” I told her. “Just a memory that flew past.” I tried to make my voice light but it was filled with the weight of all the tears I’d shed. “Come on, let’s get ourselves home. Mama will be wondering where we are.” I clutched her hand tighter and we hurried away.

The words wouldn’t go away. In the darkness, when I lay alone under the blanket, they came back, singing and taunting. It was as if God wasn’t going to give me the peace of forgetting, as if He’d uncovered all the jagged edges of the past again.

 

The Roundheads had come here once more in 1644, so loud that we cowered in the house and prayed they wouldn’t come in and kill us. Leeds had been buffeted like a feather in the wind, from King to Parliament and back again so often, with more men dead each time.

But these troops stayed. It felt like a year of mud, when every colour was brown or black and the rains just came and came. The men in charge put up notices for everything – church attendance, how we had to behave, what we could wear. They forbade us from celebrating the birth of our Lord in the old way. That was sinful, they told us.

We’d been poor before, desperate for every penny and every bite. But now they took all our joy, too. Snow fell to herald the start of 1645, only the pikemen with their shining leather boots and glittering weapons allowed on the streets after dark.

We tried to make ourselves into mice, scurrying unnoticed lest the cat see us and pounce. Sometimes they’d come and drag one of the menfolk away with accusations of supporting the king. If he ever came home again it was as someone broken and quiet.

I feared for my husband. He’d been a clerk to lawyer Bolton before the attorney had fled. Now Bolton’s grand house on Briggate was a ruin, a burned-out gap in the street and there was a fine waiting against his name if he returned. I kept thinking they’d arrived one day and take Roger off.

He had no work. No one needed a man who knew his letters. The law was whatever the soldiers said, not something to be argued in a courtroom or written into books. And the cloth trade had dwindled so far that even some of the merchants went hungry. Once it would have been a marvel to see a grand man begging his bread. Now it happened every day.

We had three girls to feed, Alice, Hannah and Anne. They often went hungry, but we gave them something before we took anything to eat ourselves. When Alice woke one night in March, moaning with pain, at first I thought it was nothing more than an empty belly.

“Hush, love,” I whispered. “Just go back to sleep now.”

But she didn’t stop.

“It hurts, mama.”

I knelt by the bed she shared with her sisters, no more than a sheet over withered old straw. Her skin was so hot I thought it could burn my fingers and her shift was soaked with sweat. I bathed her face with cold water and stroked her damp hair, softly singing every lullaby I could remember. And I prayed. The first of so many prayers to rise from Leeds that year, but God blocked His ear to them all.

By morning she was cold, shaking and shivering. Nothing I did could help. I sent Roger to fetch the wise woman who lived on Kirkgate. She looked, poking my beautiful little girl with her fingers so that she gave a scream as deep as Christ’s agony.

Outside, where a bitter breeze came out of the west, the woman put her arms on my shoulders and looked at me with wise, ancient eyes.

“Your daughter has the pestilence,” she said softly.

I opened my mouth. I wanted to scream no, to shout, to cry, but nothing came. All I could think was why was He judging her like this? What had she done? She was only eleven, she had no evil to her name.

“I’ll bring something in a little while,” the woman continued. “It’ll help her rest and ease the pain a little.” Then she was gone and I stood out there, alone as the cold whipped around me.

The word passed quickly, as if the wind had carried it around the town. The soldiers’ doctor arrived in his neat, clean uniform to examine her, then shake his head. A pair of troopers were placed outside our door to force folk away. We were kept inside. Roger tried to amuse Hannah and Anne, to distract them, while I tended to Alice. The wise woman delivered her glass bottle, something clear and sweet-smelling inside, and it worked. My beautiful girl slept. Little Alice Musgrave with plague in her head. But it was on her body, the lumps growing so quickly under her arms and between her legs, the stink growing stronger with every hour, as if death was consuming her inch by inch.

The army left food outside our door, kindling and blankets. For the first time in a year we could have lived like human beings if we’d wanted. But who could have an appetite with this? I tried to keep Alice warm when the cold racked her, hugging her close to give her my heat. Weariness pierced all through my bones but I couldn’t sleep. I only had hours left with my daughter and I couldn’t let any moment of them slip away.

I heard later that they held a service in St. John’s to pray for her. For her soul and her salvation. What good is that when the Lord has turned away, I wanted to shout? But I never said a word.

After a day she’d moved beyond speech, only able to make noise like a baby, each one full of pain and fright. Her swellings turned black, the change coming in the blink of an eye. I kept hold of her hand, letting her know that we loved her. All I wanted now was for her suffering to end.

Alice lasted until the shank of the day. She wasn’t fighting, not even aware, just waiting. Then she gulped in a breath and it was over. I sat, still clutching her fingers and felt life leave her.

 

They took her body away quickly, the first to go into a plague pit. No coffin, no more than a winding sheet and a covering of quicklime. They wouldn’t even let us go to watch her being placed in the earth. All we were allowed were the four walls of our room and a heaven full of sorrow in our hearts.

Two mornings later it was Roger who began to sweat and by dinner Hannah was ill. I tended to them as best I could, moving like a ghost from one to the other as Anne became a silent, frightened child in the corner, too scared to move in case death might catch her.

I hadn’t had any time to grieve for my Alice when the others fell ill. All I could do was exist, snatch rest when I could, lying next to a body with the stench of decay, waking to another scream or a moan.

At least it was quick, less than a day each. And then it was just Anne and I, waiting and wondering how long before it came for us, too.

But it never did. After a week I walked outside. People talked and went about their business, trying to pretend nothing had happened, that Alice and Roger and Hannah were still alive. Yet I could see the terror in their eyes and the way they shunned me, as if I carried the pestilence like a shadow around me. Then I heard the rhyme for the first time, a group of children playing down the road, throwing a ball from one to the other. Little Alice Musgrave, lying in her bed. I ran towards them screaming and saw them scatter in surprise. My arm caught one boy and I started to hit him over and over as the tears tumbled down my cheeks.

Spring came, sunny, bright and fertile to mock us all. I knew what it meant. With the warm weather the plague would remain. While others held their Bibles close, I prayed it would take me and Anne, that it would lift the weight in our hearts. Each week there’d be fewer faces I knew on the streets. More than one thousand three hundred were buried before the winter turned cold again and the appetite of the pestilence was sated. But death kept denying me.

 

The soldiers left in the end. I’d lost track of how long they stayed; sometimes it seemed as if they’d always been there. Now the years have passed and we have a king again in London; that’s what they say. It makes little difference to our life in Leeds.

All the houses that were destroyed have been rebuilt. Maybe they’re even grander than they were before, I can’t remember. My Anne is married now, with a girl of her own. She had one before, but little Alice died when she was no more than a month old. I’d tried to tell her it was a fated name, but she wouldn’t listen to me.

I play with Emily, take her to the market and down to the river where men sell the fish they catch. I live with them, accompany them to church on a Sunday, but all I pray for now is to forget.

Advertisements

Ballad Of A Dead Man

A recent discussion with a friend about Fearn’s Island – a place that surprisingly still exists in Leeds, brought this to mind. It’s a short story that appeared in Leeds, The Biography, about the only Lord of the Manor in Leeds who was executed for murder in 1749.

fearns island

Tomorrow they’ll take me from this place in chains and hang me. From my cell I can see them polishing up the mourning coach that will transport me to the gallows at the Knavesmire. I’ve been a Leeds man all my life and they won’t allow me to end it there, the cowards.

But I declare that I, Josiah Fearne, Lord of the Manor of Leeds, am an innocent man. I’ll shout it. I’ll scream it. I killed Thomas Graves, but all I did was in self-defence.

Seven hours the trial took, and no more than a few minutes for the jury at York Castle to reach their verdict. And no matter how I yell injustice, no one will listen. So I must write down my account in the hope that it will clear the good name I own.

My father was a clothier. He had no fine start in life, but he was prudent, putting money aside and investing it wisely. When he died, he owned properties all over Mabgate and Woodhouse, and two more near the top of Briggate, close by the market cross, and I made my home in one of them.

I executed his will, and it was clear. Much went to my mother, to be passed to my sisters, and a little to myself – one of the houses in Mabgate and the place where I dwelt. For my older brother, Nehemiah? £50 and a paddock in Burmantofts. No more than that, which tells you what he thought of the wastrel.

I made my living as a drysalter, selling flax and hemp, cochineal and potash, the things people needed. A fair living it was, but there were those who resented me, who thought I’d come by the little wealth that I possessed too easily. They’d raise my ire and challenge me. How can a man back down from that and still think himself a man? There was Joseph Metcalfe for one, who taunted and insulted until I hit him. Then he ran to the night watch and claimed to be in fear of his life. A fine that cost me when it came to court.

I married, to Sarah Dunwell, whose father owned half of Nether Mills, the fulling mill that lies where Sheepscar Beck meets the Aire. He’d worked there a long time, knew the place in and out. It earned a goodly sum, enough to support the family in handsome style. But old man Dunwell had died, then one of Sarah’s sisters and brothers died, so that half the mill fell to my wife. But her mother, the old bitch, refused to give it up, no matter what the law said. The only way she’d agree was if I bought her an estate worth £500, enough to give her more than she could spend. Aye, and for her to tell everyone she’d put one over on Josiah Fearns.

I paid the money, and it was worth every penny to be rid of her, because along with it came more properties around Quarry Hill and Burmantofts.

We had children, three of them. The first, my boy Josiah, died quick enough, called by the Lord. But then there was John and his sister Sarah. And when my own sister died, all her wealth passed to my John, with me to look after it until he was of age.

The bloody corporation, the ones who ran Leeds, they had no time for me. They were merchants, full of fancy clothes and fine words, their noses high in the air. I was no more than the son of clothier, someone who’d come up in the world by his own wit and toil.

‘You’re an uncouth man, sir,’ one of them told me. All because I’d earned my money and wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty. I spoke as I found and that offended those who considered themselves refined. I’d been in court, and my brother, now a woolstapler, had, too. We were too rough and ready for their tastes. But I knew I’d have my revenge on them.

My wife, my lovely Sarah, died in 1731, and my daughter three years after. I couldn’t bear to live in the house where I’d abided with them and rented it out, moving to a place close to the mill. I bought property cannily, and the mill itself was rated at £150 per annum. Only the King’s Mill was valued higher.

They tried to do me down, those who ran things. Twice I was in court for assault, fined sixpence on the first occasion, not guilty on the second, when a jury wasn’t taken in by the lies. There were others – conflicts with my brother Nehemiah, who’d managed to spend his way through his inheritance and thought I owed him a living, and Benjamin Winn, who believed he could insult my honour with impunity.

And then, finally, in 1738, I made sure those on the Corporation couldn’t ignore me. John Cookson put his share of the manor up for sale and I bought it. I had the money and it was worth every farthing. I owned one-ninth of the manor, and folk had to call me Lord of the Manor of Leeds. I’d done my father proud.

Still they tried to do me down. Where all the other owners were called Esquire in the minutes, my name was plain Mister. No matter. They bloody well knew who I was.

I had Tom Grave running Nether Mills for me, just as he did for the other owner, Mr. Greaves. He lived in the house there, it was part of his pay.

But I was an owner who kept up on things. Tom Grave should have known that. He seemed to think he could slip this and that by me, the way he did with Greaves. As soon as I saw it in the accounts, I sacked him and brought in John Crosland, a man I could trust. And I made sure he had half the house where Graves and his family lived. He had a right to it as part of his job.

It all came to a head on Friday, February 24th, 1749. I believed Graves was stealing from the mill to line his pockets and I went to the house to confront him. I’d had a little to drink, but what else should a man do of a night?

He wasn’t there, but that mouse of a wife he had tried to make me leave, the little shrew. I went, but I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I had it out with Tom Grave. When I went back again, he was there.

He’ll have you believe he was meek and mild, leading me out by the hand, importuning me to leave, and helping me up when I fell, insensible from the drink.

Lies! All bloody lies!

He was the one who threw me down and threatened me. Anyone who’s seen him knows he’s a brute of a man with the strength of two or three. When he threatened to toss me in the mill stream, I believed him. It runs fast and hard, and anyone falling in there is certain to die. When he picked me up again and told me what he was going to do, I feared for my life. He had the glint of murder in his eye. I took my knife and stabbed him as any man would who feared for his safety. And then I went home, to my bed.

They say in court that I was the one who’d threatened him before, but, before the Lord, there’s nothing to believe in those accusations.

Tom Grave died on March 2nd. The day before he gave his statement and damned me in it, the liar.

At two o’clock on the morning of February 25th the night watch came hammering at my door to arrest me and take me before Mayor Scott. I swear the man was smiling as he ordered me to gaol in York Castle. Then, after Grave died and they held the inquest on him, the charge was murder.

The witnesses colluded. They had to do that, so their stories all fit together against me. And they told them in court, their faces straight in court as they all told their lies.

After that, the jury made their verdict and the ballad makers sent out their broadsheets to sell with the tale and the song.

Aye, the grand men in Leeds will be happy now, and happier still when I’m doing Jack Ketch’s dance in the morning at the end of a rope. But they’ll not forget the name of Josiah Fearns.

 

Josiah Fearns should be better known. After all, he was the only Lord of the Manor of Leeds to be executed for murder. At the time it was a sensation and the proceedings of the trial were published. But for all that, it’s largely vanished from history, and the man called the ‘domineering, villainous Lord of the Manor’ vanished. But, as far as we know, it happens as stated here, although the witnesses called in Fearns’ defence told a very different, largely unbelievable story. I’m grateful to Margaret Pullen’s excellent piece, Josiah Fearns: A Villainous Lord of the Manor of Leeds, published in the Second Series, Volume 24 of the Thoresby Society.

My City of Immigrants

In the light of all the intolerance and hatred in the world at the moment, it feels important to me to say this.

 

When I was in my early teens, at the tail end of the 1960s, I used to take the bus into town every Saturday morning for a look around the record and book shops in Leeds. Even clothes, because in those distant days I had an interest in fashion.

It was a trip down Chapeltown Road, through what was a vital, flourishing Afro-Caribbean community, where people from SE Asia were also making their home. Out of the window I’d be intrigued by signs for the Polish Club, the Serbian Club, Ukrainian Club. We’d pass a Sikh Gurdwara that had once been a Congregation Baptist Church, and further down, a synagogue. Going through Sheepscar, I could see all the Irish pubs – the Roscoe, the Victoria, the Pointer, the Regent, and more, all before I reached the city centre and hopped off outside the ABC cinema.

That was one bus ride, in one part of town. It told a story of immigration that wasn’t all recent. It never occurred to me that these people were any less Leeds than me. They were here, they were making their lives, working, raising their children, the same as everyone else.

The first reference to a Jew in Leeds that I’ve seen is from middle of the 18th century. The same for a black, an army drummer boy. By the 1830s there was a small Jewish community here, and by 1840 there was a Jewish cemetery and services were held in a loft on Bridge Street, with a total of 56 Jews identified in the 1841 census.

Certainly by the 1830s there was an Irish community in Leeds, centred on the Bank, the poorest area of town. As was common in England at the time, they were sometimes regarded as less than human, relegated to the very worst part of town. The famines of the 1840s brought more Irish immigrants, many of whom worked at the mills in the area.

                               St Patrick’s Church                                           Victorian court on the Bank

The big Jewish influx came towards the end of the 19th century, fleeing the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. Understandably, the several thousand who arrived in Leeds settled where there was the safety of other Jews and the common language of Yiddish – in the Leylands, just north of the centre.

                                                 The Leylands around 1900

The early 1900s saw a very tiny group of Chinese in Leeds as well as a few Poles settling here. A few Italians had lived here since the 1880s.

Of course, it didn’t all go smoothly; there were tensions between Irish and English, between English and Jews, which culminated in a riot in 1917, when youths charged into the Leylands, believing none of the Jewish community had volunteered to fight in World War 1, which was very much wrong.

An Indian soldier served with the Leeds Pals during that war, and quite possibly the first Indian Sikh settled here in 1930, with the first Muslim in 1943, with more arriving from the Indian subcontinent in the early 1950s.

By then, of course, the Windrush had docked, and West Indian immigrants had begun to arrive, with some making their homes here, followed by others.

West Indian 1980

West Indian Carnival, Chapeltown Road, 1980

But all of those followed those Poles, Ukrainians and Serbs who come during World War II to fight, then married and settled here.

Since then, people have arrived from many other countries – quite possibly most of the nations on Earth.

The point is that immigration is nothing new in Leeds. It’s been happening for centuries. Go back several generations and most of us have our family origins somewhere else. An ancestor of mine arrived here from East Yorkshire in the 1820s. In those days, that made him an outsider, but he was one of thousands drawn here by industry and the promise of money.

All through my books, I’ve had immigrants. There’s Henry, Joe Buck’s black servant in the 1730s, a recurring character in the Richard Nottingham series. Romany travellers in Cold Cruel Winter. The Irish are all through the Tom Harper books, and a focus on the Jews in the Leylands in Two Bronze Pennies. West Indian musicians – working as street cleaners – pop up in Dark Briggate Blues. Perhaps they’re there to make a point, but really, it’s simply a reflection of life as it was.

The fact is that people want a better life for themselves and their children. They want to feel safe. It doesn’t matter where you’re born, it’s a common human impulse. And once they settle here, these people are as much Leeds as the rest of us. They’ve added and contributed to my hometown and made it a better place.

I’m proud that my city is a city of immigrants.

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.

A Christmas Tale

I’m not really one for Christmas in my own life. I never have been. But every couple of years I still seem to end up writing a Leeds Christmas story. Don’t ask; I can’t explain it, either.

This time, though, I wanted to do something different. I’m reading Steve Roud’s wonderful Folk Song in England, and the section on Town Waits – the official musicians employed by many towns, who also doubled as the night watch – struck a chord.

Leeds had its Waits back in the 16th century; they’re documented as far back as 1530, and their history might stretch back even further. As well as their watch duties, they played for official occasions and balls, and often undertook private engagements. In the 17th century, certainly, Leeds Waits were popular, as played as fair away as Carlisle and Newcastle. In other words, they must have been good.

And why Elizabethan Leeds? Why not? After all, I said I wanted to do something different.

We do have a revived Town Waits, who perform occasionally. You should see them if you can.

And on a final note before the story, don’t forget that Free From All Danger, the first Richard Nottingham book in over four years, came out recently. It makes a fine gift for family and friends.

Now, sit down with a mince pie, enjoy, and be of good cheer.

-early-music-folk-style

Leeds, 1559

The crisp weeks before Christmas were always fruitful. The musicians of the Town Waits would perform at the balls and parties around Leeds. Dances and tunes, songs and carols, then the last two dances to close the evening before a walk home in the cold darkness with coins jingling in their purses.

Daniel Wakeman tugged his cloak tighter and tucked the fiddle against his body. It was well wrapped, but the night was frosty and he knew the instrument well; if it grew too cold, it would complain by refusing to say in tune tomorrow. It had belonged to his father, a member of the Waits before him, a beautiful piece of work, but temperamental as a young girl.

Tonight had been good. Out in Potternewtown, a crowd that appreciated everything they played, and a generous host. Good food sent from the table and a jug of ale refilled as often as they needed. Then three shiny pennies each to carry home.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said to the others, ‘I’ll play there whenever they ask.’

Sam Hardy and Tom Carter laughed. Old John Whittaker said nothing, the same as ever, but he’d always been the quiet sort. They walked on, following the road into town. The last few nights had seen some killing frosts, and the earth was hard and rutted under their shoes. Clear skies and a bight enough moon to see his breath bloom in the air.

‘Did you hear about Pawson?’ Tom asked. ‘Someone’s been saying his wife’s made him a cuckold.’

It was all they needed to set tongues going, the speculation of who and when. Leeds was small, a place where everyone knew all the faces, whether high or low. New folk arrived every week, drawn by the way the wool trade was growing, but most were like Daniel, born in the town and lived there all their lives. He knew Pawson the clothier, he saw him almost every day. His wife span wool for the man. It brought in extra money they always needed. Being in the waits meant the silver badge and a good livery, the blue as dark as the evening sky and the yellow like a June sun, but the pay was small. Six nights a week walking around town, playing soft music to soothe the sleepers, keeping a watch for fire or burglars, then something louder to wake people in the morning. But it was a life full of music, and that was enough for him.

Music was joy. He felt free when he was playing. Even the recorder he used as he walked the street on the night watch. But the fiddle was what he loved. He felt he had a special bond with it. Not like some he heard, scraping to bow over the strings to give a sound that made him wince. His father had taught him well, God rest his soul. He caressed the notes, he made them dance. He couldn’t read a note of music, but he only needed to hear a melody once and he could play it.

But they were all good, even grumbling John, his back bent now under the weight of his bass viol. Sam with his lute, and Tom on the other fiddle. The best in the North, some people said, and who was he to deny it? They played all over, not just the parishes around Leeds, but for milady in Skipton back in the summer and as far away as Newcastle once, and Carlisle. They had a reputation, and he was proud of it.

‘Give us a song, Sam,’ Daniel said. Hardy had the best voice of them all, a sweet tenor that the ladies loved. A moment later, he began:

‘The hunt is up, the hunt is up,’ and they made it into a round, voices echoing loud against the silence of the night. But out here there were none to disturb.

By the time they neared Mabgate, Daniel could feel the cold eating through to his bones. A fancy hose and doublet might look fine enough, but they did little to keep out the bitter winter. Even a thick woollen cloak wasn’t much help. But he was close enough to home; soon he’d be warm again.

It wasn’t the best part of Leeds, not one of the fine houses of Briggate or Kirkgate with their painted timbers and brilliant white limewash, but it suited his pocket. The children were grown and gone to lives of their own; he and Maggie didn’t need much. A room downstairs for living and cooking, another upstairs which held the rough bed he’d built for them and two small chests of clothes. Plenty of room behind to grow most of their food and keep the pig and a pair of chickens. It was more than many possessed. And he didn’t mind the drabs who touted for trade on the road. They were like everyone else, simply trying to scratch a living.

What he did miss, though, was a cat. Theirs had died six months before. Eighteen years old, and a fine mouser in his day. He’d been good company while Daniel practiced on the fiddle in the bedroom and Maggie span downstairs. We all have our time, he thought. That’s how God wills it, and it was a good, long life for a cat.

With hushed goodnights he said his farewells to the other Waits and started along the street, lost in his thoughts.

Then the sound caught his ear. The tiniest mew, so faint he couldn’t even be sure it was real. It came from across the road. He stopped to listen, hoping to hear it again. And just as he did, right in front of him, a slate toppled from the roof, smashing and splintering as it hit the ground exactly where he’d have been walking.

For a moment, Daniel couldn’t catch his breath. God save us all, he thought, and the Lord had spared him for some reason. He felt himself beginning to shake and held the fiddle close. Then he heard the sound again, a little clearer. Over there, in the bushes by Widow Elizabeth’s house.

It was caught in a tangle of briers, a small, cold creature that tried to shy away from his touch. But he was gentle and patient, easing away the thorns until he could lift the kitten and feel its heart pounding hard against his palm.

No more than four weeks old, so thin he could wrap his fingers around its body. He stroked its fur, hearing the smallest start of a purr. Where had it come from? Not from any of the cats around here, he knew that. And it was still to young to be away from its mother.

But it had saved him. It was a gift.

‘Come on,’ Daniel said as he rubbed it head, ‘let’s get you inside. You need something to drink.’

The fire was banked for the night, but still far warmer than the darkness outside. An old rag for a bed. A dish of milk. He watched as the kitten drank, tentatively at first, then greedily.

Daniel put the fiddle away in the cupboard, resting it carefully on the shelf. It was his livelihood and his pleasure; he always kept it secure. He poured a mug of small beer, sitting on the bench to watch the cat. It was standing now, wobbling a little as it explored a little. A few steps around, then back, nose in the dish for more milk before it mewed again, then settled on the cloth.

‘I heard you come in,’ Maggie said from the top of the steps.

‘We have a new cat,’ Daniel said. ‘Come and meet it.’

‘A new cat?’ she asked in surprise as she came down. ‘What made you do that? It barely looks alive.’

‘I had to. This one just kept your husband alive. If it hadn’t cried out, I’d have been brained by a falling slate from the Thompson’s roof. I think it deserves a home after that, don’t you?’

She squatted, staring at the kitten in the faint glow from the fire, then reaching out and stroking it.

‘What are we going to call it?’ she asked.

‘Yule,’ Daniel replied. It seemed right.

 

 

History, Raging About Leeds, and On Copper Street

It’s just seven days now until the publication on On Copper Street, continuing the story of Tom Harper and his wife Annabelle in 1890s Leeds. Strangely, it feels as if I’ve been waiting an eternity for this day, although rationally I know it’s not that long since The Iron Water appeared.

I wrote a little about what suffuses the book here, and that sense of mortality is bound to become part of anyone work as they grow older. Even raging against the light or refusing to go gentle into that good night is an admission of it. And that’s fine; after all, death is just one act in life. Whether it’s the final one is something we’ll all find out when it happens to us.

On Copper Street isn’t the end for Tom Harper. I have very definite plans for him – for the two of them, really. There’s still plenty of late Victorian Leeds to explore. The city is in constant flux, still proud, still growing, still a centre of industry. And that new century isn’t far away, beckoning on the horizon. Tom and Annabelle will still only be in their 30s when it arrives. They have years ahead of them.

Much of ‘old Leeds’ still survived then – Richard Sykes’ house on Briggate, dating from the 1500s, and the old bow-windowed shop on Lower Briggate, just as two examples. Many of the courts and lanes still existed and were in daily use. As a new city, Leeds was on the cusp, wanting to be modern and look ahead, but not yet ready to quit the past. The thousands of back-to-back houses that were built for working families were only supposed to last for 70 years. Next time you drive around Harehills or Kirkstall or Hunslet or Armley, think about that. 70 years.

At some point in the 20th century, though, Leeds made a strange bargain with fate. As far as possible, it decided to sacrifice much of its history to the gods of commerce. The grand Victorian buildings could remain, and those that daren’t be demolished, like St. John’s and Holy Trinity churches. But everything else was fair game, deemed to stand in the way of progress. The slums were no loss, of course, and that redevelopment was welcome.

Cities change, of course. They evolve like organisms, like a species. But the past is a vital part of that evolution. It tells us where we came from and can offer hints of where we’re going.

But all too often, in its rush to become the Northern capital of retail, finance, and students, it’s as if those who run this city are ashamed of its history. Two decades or so ago there was the idea of tearing down Kirkgate Market, one of Leeds’ great jewels. Even now, it’s ridiculously shortchanged as the council bows at the glittering altar of Victoria Gate. Kirkgate – the street – is only just beginning to take the first steps back from years of being run-down.

The past that’s largely being ignored, of course, is that of the ordinary people. Those great Victorian buildings were monuments to wealth, to prosperity, and in their turn replaced something older and humbler. But these days, those running Leeds seem to genuflect at the slightest tinkle of coins. The ordinary people never mattered that much – you’ll be hard pressed to find many of their voices recorded in the history of Leeds – but now they seem to be actively pushed aside for the glitter of gold.

Nothing can redress that balance. But I try, at least to some small degree, in my books. The ordinary folk, the ones who’ve left no trail through history, are celebrated. Maybe something like On Copper Street reflects Leeds as it really was. We can’t turn back the clock, and we probably wouldn’t want to, but we dash recklessly after the new and shiny at our own peril.

By the way, after nosing around a little, this seems to be the cheapest place to buy On Copper Street. And I hope you will, of course, or borrow it from your local library, while they still exist (if you’d care to leave a review somewhere I’d be very grateful, too). Perhaps it’ll make you think a little, about life and death, and about history.

Thank you.

fd6e893b-1a79-4ca0-b893-31bff3118253

Leeds Remembering 1914-1918 – Book Review

I don’t often review books, but this one is particularly apt for me to sink my teeth into. Leeds, history – perfect.

Leeds Remembering 1914-1918

Lucy Moore & Nicola Pullan

History Press

remembering

Leeds played an important part in the Great War. Not just in the men it sent to fight, but also in keeping them supplied and making sure the home fires kept burning. Moore and Pullan, both curators with Leeds City Museums, offer a very thorough primer of Leeds at the time, and some of the aftermath.

It’s a compelling portrait, and one of the surprises is that the city lagged behind its neighbours in men volunteering to join up, but the figures don’t lie. As an industrial centre, Leeds was vital to the war effort, not only in making uniforms, but also with plants like Barnbow in Crossgates, where thousands of women did their bit by assembling shells.

Illustrating it all with items, letters, and photographs from the museum collection is an excellent stroke, allowing the writers to home in on things as examplars. It’s not a massive book, so the reader won’t find extensive detail on each of the aspects, but that’s not the intention. This is an overview of the city at war, and in that it succeeds admirably. It’s perfect for the average, curious reader, and the extensive list of resources at the end offer places to for more information. This would also be an excellent book for kids over 14, at least those in Leeds, as a chance to discover what things were like in their hometown a hundred years ago, and also some of what the men in the trenches experienced.

Yes, it’s definitely local interest, and that’s absolutely fine, because history as many people experience it as at a local level. It’s worth remembering that this was the first global, total war. For many people in Leeds it was their first real awareness of the world. The city was an industrial giant, but for most it was a very parochial life until the lamps started going out over Europe.

An excellent, very readable book indeed, and well worth the time. And you can buy it here.