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 White Slaves Of Leeds

It’s a title to make you think twice, especially in this day and age. But it was coined in Victorian times by a journalist.Robert Sheracy travelled around Britain, interviewing people for a series called The White Slaves on England, published over a number of issues in 1896 in Pearson’s Magazine. He did come to Leeds, where he talked to a number of people for the article entitled The White Slaves of England: The Slipper-Makers and Tailors of Leeds. Several of the quotes here are taken directly from the testimony given to him. Their words are more powerful than any fiction.

As the train left Leeds, I looked back to see the pall of smoke covering the city. It was a rich place; rich for some, anyway. We gathered steam, moving south at a good pace and I pulled the sheaf of notes from my briefcase.
I’d talked to a number of people, male and female, for my article. The poor and the poorest, each tale sadder than the last. But it was the faces of the girls who stayed with me. So young and so hopeless. Leeds is a city of many industries, but for the girls there are few options but service or the mills.
I’d been fortunate to have a good contact in Miss Isabella Ford, a Quaker and a socialist who’d long battled for these girls, and given me introductions to some of them at the Wholesale Clothiers’ Operatives Union.. First, though, she’d instructed me on the system the master implemented for their own advantage.
‘There are fines for everything,’ Miss Ford told me. ‘Unfortunately, thanks to the judges’ interpretation of the Truck Act, these are legal. A girl came to me who’d been forced to pay a fine of tuppence, when all she earned that day was a penny-ha’penny. Why? Because she was a minute late to work. The masters employ a boy as timekeeper and his earnings are commission from all the fines levied. Another woman had been deducted two shillings from her week’s pay for bad work, when she’d made a total of four shillings and tuppence. But the owners went on to sell the goods as good work, and she never saw that money back.’
She brought in a girl, Mary Ann, who’d been forced to leave her job in the mill because she couldn’t make any money there. She was shy and nervous, wondering if she should even be talking to me, if someone vengeance awaited her. I had to assure Mary Ann that I wouldn’t name her in the article; only then would she speak.
‘How much did you earn in a week?’ I asked her.
‘In a good week I made two shilling and seven pence, sir,’ she said. ‘But often it was less, depending on the work going in the mill. One week it was just a shilling.’
‘And what did you have to pay out?’ Miss Ford said.
‘We had to pay for our sewings, the thread and everything else. That week when I only made a shilling, I’d had to spend eight pence. Often it was ten pence.’
‘Tell him where you worked,’ Miss Ford suggested.
‘They called it a punishing house.’ The girl reddened as she said the words. ‘We hardly had time for our dinner, and the room for it was so small that you could only get a few in there at a time. I never used it. We had to bring our own dinner, but the master charged us a penny or tuppence “for cook” – to heat it for us, I mean. And you had to pay it, no ifs or buts. Everyone did. When I didn’t have enough money, I didn’t eat. It was the same with the other girls. Some of them would beg food from the men, but I couldn’t. Doing that just led to things.”
Miss Ford told me of more tools inflicted on the girls. A penny in the shilling for steam power, no matter if the girl worked from home. In some places the girls have to pay a penny or two towards the rent of the factory. Then the masters will round down the wages to an even number, so the odd pennies vanish from the wage packet.
‘They promise the girls that the money will go towards a trip for them. But in my years working for the union, I’ve never heard of a single trip yet.’
The wages vary from season to season, and in slack times many can earn no more than two shillings a week. Even when they’re busy it’s rare to make more than twelve shillings a week. One or two had made fifteen shillings at times, but they were the quickest, best workers, with full time and overtime.
Often the masters will beat down the prices to line their pockets a little more.
‘One time, when we were all very hungry,’ a girl called Jane explained, ‘the foreman told us there were 400 sailor suits coming up. Would we do them for threepence each? We refused, because the lowest price should have been threepence-halfpenny. The foreman kept us waiting a day and a half, and at last we were so hungry that we gave in.’
Catherine, a woman who looked to be twenty-five, pinch-faced and sallow, her hair greasy, told me,
‘The masters often say they have so many hundred articles to be sewn, if we want to do them at a reduced rate. We prefer not to be idle, so we accept, expecting to have so many to sew. But the masters have lied, and there is much less to sew than had been promised.’
The masters never told them when work would be slack, she said, and the foremen were bullies, using foul language to the girls.
‘We come to the factory, and if there’s no work, we have to stay in case some comes in. They never tell us so people won’t know there’s no business.’
Another girl confirmed this to me.
‘I come in at eight am,’ she told me. ‘If I’m late I’ll be fine a penny or tuppence. There will be nothing for me to do. Then I’ll sit at my machine doing nothing until half-past twelve. Then I’ll ask the foreman if I can go home. He’ll say, “No, there’s orders coming up after dinner.” Dinner? I probably haven’t had any, knowing work was slack and expecting to get home. So I go without it. At half-past one I’ll go back to my machine and sit doing nothing. Foreman will say: “Work hasn’t come up yet”. I have to sit at my machine. Once I fainted from hunger and asked to be allowed to go home. But they wouldn’t let me, and locked me up in the dining room. I sit at my machine till three or four. Then the foreman will say, as though he were conferring a favour: “The orders don’t seem to be coming in, you can go home till the morning”. And I go home without having earned a farthing. Sometimes work may come in the afternoon, and then I will stay on till half-past six, earning a wage for the last two or three hours.’