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 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.