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.

I Predict A Riot – A Short Story

Today, as Two Bronze Pennies is published, might be a good time to post this, a short story set a little later than the 1890/91 of the novel. But still in the Jewish are of Leeds known as they Leylands.

On the nights of third and fourth of June, 1917, large gangs invaded the Leylands – the area where most of Leeds’ Jews lived. – in an anti-Semitic riot They caused plenty of damage, but the Jews did fight back. The estimate from the police is that up to a thousand people were involved. There was no repeat on the third night as the police flooded the area with constables, and no more real incidents to follow.

The first night took us by surprise. We all knew something was going to happen – everywhere we went in Leeds it seemed as if we’d heard something saying ‘Jew this,’ ‘kike that,’ ‘yid something else.’ But we hadn’t expected them to come through the Leylands, breaking windows, daubing their hatred in paint on our walls, and ready for a fight. They beat old Mr. Kazinsky until he bled and left him lying on the street.

The baker, the tailors, the little shops on the corners, they looted them all. And it wasn’t just a few of them who came; they arrived in their hundreds. As soon as we heard the noise, we dashed out, still in our braces and shirts. We grabbed what we could – sticks, stones, bottles, anything – to defend what was ours.

But the first night we never stood a chance. There were just too many of them. Not just young men, but miners and older folk who should have known better. And where were the police?

They came when it was all over. Of course.

When the morning came we counted the cost. Seven in hospital, but they’d all survive, thank God. At least another twenty hurt. More windows broken than people could count. Women worked out on the pavement, heads bowed in sorrow as they swept up the pieces of glass that glinted in the June sun.

‘Jews are cowards.’

Someone had painted that, some bastard who could have been on the front line himself, in a trench. Let him tell that to the two brothers of mine who were dead in France or Belgium, or somewhere like that. The War Office had never told us exactly where they fell. Or they could say it to the other Jews who’d joined the Leeds Pals and lost their lives on the Somme last year.

The old folk here felt the fear from the night. They’d seen it before in the pogroms that made them flee their homes and come to England. They believed they’d be safe here. Now they were busy repacking old suitcases, sorting out the little things they wanted to take, preparing for a new journey, a new life somewhere else. A place where hope might grow.

But for the rest of us, Leeds was the only home we’d ever known. We spoke Yiddish, but that was only at home. In town it was all English, sounding as Yorkshire as anyone.

This was our land, too, and we’d be damned if we’d let a bunch of thugs push us off it. We were proud of the place. I’d even wanted to put on a uniform and fight for the King, but my father wouldn’t allow it.

‘Moishe and Abraham are dead,’ he told me in his slow, sad voice, looking at the photographs of them lovingly displayed on the mantel. ‘I’m not going to lose all my sons.’

So while another generation cleared up the debris and trembled, we made our plans. They’d return. If you were Jewish, you knew that; it was deep inside. Once the blood lust rose, they returned. That was history.

We met in the ginnel behind Sam Cohen’s sweatshop. There was no sound of sewing machines from inside. People should have been working, but no one had the heart for it today. They were looking ahead and making plans with fearful eyes.

About twenty of us gathered. David was the leader. A good Jewish name for someone in command, I thought. He was eighteen, big and strong, the kind of person who had the kind of quality you just wanted to follow. He wouldn’t fight for the flag until they conscripted him, but he’d fight for our piece of this city.

‘Ben,’ he nodded as he saw me. I was fourteen, but tall for my age, and he could see the anger burning in my eyes. I knew all the faces there. Not just the boys, but the girls, too. This was their battle as much as ours, and everyone was welcome. We didn’t even need to say it.

David had his two lieutenants, Isaac and Adam. Isaac was a fat boy with spots on his face who waddled rather than walked. But he had a quick mind. He understood things without even seeming to try, one of those who hardly needed to try in school. And there was Adam. He was a fighter. A year younger than me, but I didn’t know anyone who’d dare go up against him. Together, they’d help us win.

‘They’ll be back tonight,’ David said, and we all agreed. ‘Isaac’s had a few ideas…’

They waited until long after dark, until they’d had time to drink down their courage. I’d been sent down to the bottom of Poland Street to be a lookout. It wasn’t dangerous work. I’d grown up here, I knew all the back ways around, and I could run fast. Especially if someone was after me.

In the end I heard them before I saw them. Swearing and shouting, some of them singing “Tipperary” like an army on its way to war. If you’re that keen, join up, I thought bitterly. See how you like the real thing. But they’d be discovering what war was like soon enough.

There were plenty of them, even more than the night before, I could see that. As soon as they came into view I dashed off to give the warning. David gave his instructions. It seemed as if everyone in the Leylands under the age of twenty-five was ready to fight. This time the bastards wouldn’t find it as easy.

A few people stayed in view, just as Adam planned it. Enough to tempt them on, but able to scatter quickly before they were hurt. We’d hidden little arsenals everywhere. Rocks, cobbles, stones. Heavy branches that we’d collected from the trees around Meanwood during the afternoon. We were going to use bits of Leeds to defeat them.

Some of our lads darted towards the invaders, throwing stones that deliberately fell short. It was enough to provoke them, to get them chasing the throwers, to draw them into our territory. They sprinted and our boys disappeared, vanishing down tiny entrances, over walls, through houses, until all the goys found themselves running along an empty street. The ones in front were halfway down when they began to wonder if something was wrong. Those farther back were busy smashing windows and yelling out their taunts. They weren’t thinking of anything but destruction.

We came at them from behind, throwing the rocks first, enough to send them running a little, so they all crowded together. They had their backs to us, turning as soon they heard our boots, some of them going down from the stones. They were armed with sticks, but so were we. And we weren’t afraid. We weren’t the type who thought that the only way to fight was by terrorising people in the night.

A few of them found their bravery and fought back. More of them were startled and bunching in on each other. They hadn’t reckoned on any resistance. In their minds, Jews really were cowards, we didn’t fight. But the surprise was just beginning. As they moved away down the street, bedroom windows opened and pans of hot water that the girls had been heating on their stoves were emptied on them. Hot enough to scald. That got them screaming.

One big goy had Adam pinned on the ground. He’d raised his stick, ready to bring it down, when my branch hit him hard in the back and he collapsed with a cry. Then we were kicking him, giving him bruises to remember for a few weeks.

There was blood running on pavement and men crouched, nursing their wounds, holding their heads and their arms. Some of theirs, some of ours. But the Jewish boys were quickly bustled away indoors, to any house where they could be tended.

We could hear the police whistles blowing from a quarter of a mile away. That was our signal. We melted away so quickly we might never have been a dream. A nightmare. We knew where to run, and before the coppers even arrived we were all back in our own houses, sitting as if nothing had happened.

We hurt, we had wounds, but we’d given better than we got. We’d won.

They ran right into the police when they tried to flee. Plenty arrested. A few unconscious on the cobbles. But no one was likely to die, thank God. No one would have wanted that on their conscience.

The next morning we all met again. No plans this time, but to celebrate. We’d seen them off. There was damage, a few shops looted, some windows broken. But nowhere near as bad as the night before.

We could still see the blood dried on the streets. Some of our boys showed off their injuries, trying to impress the girls.

‘They won’t be back,’ David announced. ‘They won’t want another beating.’

That night the police were out in force. If they’d done their job properly in the first place, there wouldn’t have been a problem. We wouldn’t have been forced to become the law.

People still looked at us in town. Some of theirs still spat. There was the odd scuffle. But the riots were over. It might not be peace in France, but it was closer to it in the Leylands.

In Memory of the Leylands – it’s not always about the Great and the Good

Cities change. It’s their nature. They grow. The old comes down and the new rises up, taller, grander, glossier than ever. We hang on to bits of our history as slender reminders but we junk most of our past as if it was rubbish.

And fine, there’s much that should go. The slums are a prime example, those Brutalist office buildings (what were we thinking?), the tower blocks of flats that stand like abominations and threats to the idea of community. But, and it’s a big but, when we tear them all do, we lose sight of who we were and how we got here.

Several months ago I took a walk around Hunslet, Cross Green and on to Marsh Lane in Leeds, on the trail of my ancestors, addresses from census records. Some of the houses still exist – inner city, you’d call them now – but many more have vanished. Big swathes of Hunslet are now for business, not housing (factories and houses used to stand cheek by jowl in the 19th and early 20th century). The old places that remain are derelict, boarded up.

My upcoming book, Two Bronze Pennies, takes place largely in the Leylands, an area that no longer exists on any map of Leeds (much like the place known as the Bank, now Richmond Hill). It runs in a triangle from an area more or less north of Eastgate, bounded on one side by North Street (give or take), and on the other by Regent Street, meeting close to Sheepscar. It was a working-class area, and when Jewish immigrants arrived, this was where they settled, to the degree that it was almost a ghetto. Yiddish was the lingua franca there, the common European Jewish tongue that people of all nationalities used.

They came…and came…and came. In the early years of the 20th century, more than 10,000 of them were packed into the area. Prejudice meant they were safer together. Most worked in tailoring, in the sweatshops dotted around the Leylands, sewing for 12 or 15 hours a day, most of the garments for the big manufacturers who didn’t want to employ Jews in their factories. Male, female, young, old, everyone worked.

Those who acquired some money moved a little farther from the city centre, into Chapteltown – then very genteel and after that to Moortown, Roundhay, and Alwoodley. The relentless march of the middle classes. But human nature means that not everyone is a success. We don’t all make money.

At that time Leeds’ money was still based on manufacturing. We’d been one of the cradles of the Industrial Revolution, one of the great cities of Empire. But one war saw the decline of much of that, and a second was the nail in the coffin. Look at the skyline now and it’s dominated by office buildings, not chimneys. The houses in the Leylands were classified as slums – and indeed, they were – and finally all tumbled down. Those still living there moved out to new housing estates. Better living, less community.

And all that ground? You won’t find any houses in it. That memory has gone with the bricks. It’s small industry these days. The cries of children yelling in Yiddish on the street are a distant echo of memory. The Polish synagogue, the Great synagogue – they just exist in tales now.

These days it’s…anonymous. Of course, much of Leeds is becoming that way. More shiny shopping for the consumer-led economic recovery.

But if you didn’t know about it, you wouldn’t have a clue now that the Leyland ever existed. It’s been neatly erased from history by the planners, and with it so much of the city’s history, and the fact that the area gave sanctuary to people fleeing pogroms and seeking hope, a better life that many found.

It’s as if those people sitting and working out how our cities should look forgot that the biggest contribution to life isn’t made the those considered to be the great and the good. How can we know where we’re going if we choose to forget the path that brought us here?

You can read about Two Bronze Pennies here or read an extract here.

The Battle of Holbeck Moor (A Leeds Story, but a true one)

We had the word well ahead of time. It was in the newspapers, gossip all through the pubs. On the walk to work in the morning, men would be talking about it. The Blackshirts are coming. Bloody well let them come, I said, and we’ll show them what Leeds is about.
I knew why Mosley wanted his fascist scum here. Jews. We have plenty of them, and good people they are, too. A lot of them have moved out to Chapeltown now, them as has some money, any road. But you’ll still find plenty down in the Leylands, the ones who haven’t made a bob or two. Take a walk out along North Street and look at the names over the shops. Do nobody any harm and they work hard, the way a man should.
The Watch Committee spent the week hemming and hawing. Mosley and his gang wanted to have their march right by the Leylands. That’d be a recipe for disaster. Bad enough as it was, with swastikas and slogans painted on the windows of Jewish shops during the night. The fascists said it wasn’t them as done it, but we all knew the truth. Too scared to show their faces and try it in the day. Nowt like that had happened since the riots back in ’17.
Now me, I was a Communist then. I’m not today, not since the war when I heard about what Stalin did to his people. But I hated fascists with a bloody passion. I knew what was coming with Hitler; anyone with half a brain did. And I didn’t want it in my country. Definitely not my bloody city.
Finally them as are supposed to lead us told Mosley and his lot that they couldn’t go near the Leylands. Not that they couldn’t march, mind you. They could still do that, just not there. Once that order was out, we started making our plans. They were planning a big rally on Holbeck Moor, a thousand or more of them. Probably some supporters, too. We knew what we had to do. We were going to make the bastards wish they’d never heard of Leeds.
Didn’t take much to put the word about. A nod here, a little natter in the pub of an evening and we knew we’d have a crowd. At first we thought we’d line the route out from town, but that was only going to be a waste of time. Better to meet them up on Holbeck Moor where they were going to have their rally.
Now, maybe that was the right decision and maybe it weren’t. I heard later that there were plenty of Blackshirts down Meanwood Road. Too bloody close to the Leylands for my liking. Happen we should have had a few of our lads there.
Of course, the party officials talked to the people from the Labour Party. The way I heard it is that the Labour bods spent most of the meeting sucking on their pipes and making sympathetic noises before saying they wouldn’t take part in the protests. Soft as bloody butter, the lot of them. Not that it would stop plenty of folk as voted that way. They’d be out there. You give in to fascists once and next time they want a mile more.
The weather was good that morning. Sunny, warm, not much of a hint of a breeze. The 27th of September, 1936. We were all in a good mood as we traipsed up to the Moor. I was going to be a good laugh, and if w few heads got broken, well, it was no more than they deserved, as it?
Half a dozen of us went from our street. I was with Stan. He was a pipe fitter, a strong lad. We’d been mates since we were boys. Went to school together, primary and on. He bought it during the war, out in Burma. All his wife got were a medal. I daresay his body’s out there still, somewhere in the jungle.
The closer we got to the Moor, the more noise we could hear. I’d expected plenty of people, but now like that. Thousands upon thousands, and not enough coppers in view to keep order. Which was exactly what we’d hoped.
Stan gave me a big grin and opened his hand to show some knuckle dusters.
‘You’d better watch out,’ I warned him. ‘The rozzers catch you with those and you’ll be up for having an offensive weapon.’
‘Nay,’ he laughed. ‘Come on, Roy, I’m not bloody daft. Any chance of that and I’ll drop them.’ He was a big lad. Topped six foot, shoulders on him like a bloody barn. He didn’t need anything. Just his fists would do enough damage. But he had his ire up, same as the rest of us.
There were runners out, bringing messages on the march.
‘They’re on Calverley Street,’ went around, then ‘they’ve crossed over the river.’
It was going to be a battle, but we were all in a good mood. Laughing, joking, some singing and chanting. It was like being at the football in some ways. But not others. Plenty of the lads had organised well. They must have spent every evening scouring the moor, because they had a big arsenal of stones for us to throw.
‘Stuff ‘em in your jacket, lads,’ one man cried. He had a battered bowler hat on his head and a muffler wrapped round his throat, never mind that it was a beautiful day. ‘Once they arrive you know what to do.’
There was a mood of anticipation. A celebration. We were going to enjoy ourselves and chase the bastards out of here. The Blackshirts had some supporters already up on the more, a couple of thousand and more, but we easily outnumbered them ten to one. They didn’t look too happy but they didn’t dare back down. Not now, before their precious leader even showed his face. But you could see it, they were scared. They knew they were going to get a pasting.
Some of them were hard lads. That was all right. We had ammunition. When someone’s chucking rocks at you there’s not much you can do but duck and hope for the best. And I reckoned that among the stones the boys must have taken up half the cobbles in Holbeck. Oh yes, we were going to make the buggers hurt.
‘They’re coming!’ The words ran around the crowd. We were all craning our necks to see. Then I spotted them, like a thin river of black, moving slowly. The noise grew as they grew closer. A few cheering, many more of us yelling out insults.
They’d built a podium, a stage of sorts, for him and a few of his cohorts. We waited until Mosley took his place, his little army in front of him, gathered loyally. As soon as he moved forward to open his mouth, we struck up The Red Flag, a huge chorus of voices to drown him out. It wasn’t planned, it felt natural, but we sang as long and loud as Welshmen at one of their Eisteddfods.
As soon as it died down, the stones started. They arced over our heads and we watched them come down. One of them hit Mosley and made him move back. That brought cheers and a few more rocks.
Some came back at us. It was bound to happen. A few or our lads were bleeding, but it was never an equal fight. It was a Sunday, and this was our church. The coppers couldn’t do much. They tried to keep some order, but they wanted to have their heads down, too, and I can’t blame them.
I’d lost sight of Stan in the crowds. He’d waded forward as soon as he could, yelling and screaming, his blood up. God only knew what he’d end up doing.
There were missiles flying backwards and forwards, people crying out. Whenever Mosley tried to speak, The Red Flag began again to drown out his words. It was a good way to feel strong, Communists, Jews, good people from all over Leeds gathering to tell the Blackshirts what we thought of fascism here. We didn’t want owt to do with it.
A stone hit me on the shoulders, hard enough but no damage done. I picked it up and tossed it back. When I looked around I could see everyone had the fire in their eyes. We were here to do a job and we weren’t going to leave until it was finished.
Another stone hit Mosley in the face and he fell. Good luck or good aim, I don’t know. But we cheered. It gave us heart and we began to push forward.
‘Get ‘em on the run, lads,’ someone shouted and we all laughed. But we all moved forward anyway.
I’ve no idea how long it lasted. It just seemed like moments but it must have been a lot longer. I was too young to have fought in the war but it must have felt like that. Time seemed to speed up and slow down at the same time. It was like electricity was going through me, I could have shocked anyone I touched.
A couple of times I caught the toff’s voice, but as soon as anyone heard it we began singing. Sir Oswald, that was his title. Should have been hung for treason. We weren’t about to give him much of a chance. Rubbish like his doesn’t deserve an airing.
Finally he gave up. This was a battle he didn’t have any chance of winning and he knew it. He lined up them as supported him and they began to march away as if they’d won something. But they’d got nowt.
We jeered and shouted until we were hoarse and they couldn’t hear us any more. We’d bloody won. Men were laughing their heads off, full of victory. We’d send them off with their tails between their legs. Someone passed a hip flask around and we all had a nip. It burned on the way down but by God, it felt good.
It was in the newspapers the next day. Well, a few of them. The local ones, which said there’d been thirty thousand on the moor. I don’t know if that’s true; when you’re part of it you can never tell. Certainly the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen. Biggest I’ll ever be part of, I’m sure of that. Most of the big dailies didn’t bother to cover it. After all, we’re the north, we don’t matter. Funny, though, they were quick enough to write up what happened down in London a week later. The battle of Cable Street, they called it, when all those Cockneys and Jews down there told the fascists what they thought of them.
Up here, the magistrates bleated in the press about public order and how terrible it had all been. Stood up on their hind legs and said their piece. But there were only three people arrested. It wasn’t as if there was a shortage of candidates to be nicked. Three. It was just a token.
When the three of them appeared in court, all they got was a slap on the wrist. Someone must have had a word – send them down and there’ll be riots. There would have been, too. It was the wisest thing they could have done. The only thing. We’d made the whole bloody city tremble. They might not have shown it, but the council was scared. The law was terrified.
But by God, we showed them. And good on them Londoners for what they did, too. It was a lovely feeling last year when we made our way back off the moor, comrades together. The Battle of Holbeck Moor, someone named it. And that’s not bad. But it’s not quite the truth. It wasn’t a battle, it was a rout. A complete bloody rout.
Historical Note: The Battle of Holbeck Moor did happen in 1936. The Watch Committee did refuse Mosley permission to march by the Leylands, but a thousand Blackshirts did go out to Holbeck Moor to hear him speak, where they were met with plenty of protesters. There was plenty of violence, and Mosley was hit by a stone. But it’s true that in the end only three people were arrested, out of an estimated crowd of 30,000, and the sentences given were very light.