The Whispers – A New Richard Nottingham Story

I did warn you that a new story with Richard was coming. It’s been a long time since I walked the streets in Leeds beside him. Too long, really.

This is a little different. But he’s changed, he’s a bit older. Yer, underneath, the man we know is still very much there. I hope you enjoy a few minutes in his company.

Leeds, March, 1738

Richard Nottingham stood on Leeds Bridge, hands resting on the cold stone parapet. The wind whipped along the River Aire, down from the hills, the water carrying the stink of waste from the dyeworks and the fulling mills. Swirls of red and blue eddied by the shore. The body of a dog or cat, caught up in a branch and pulled downstream.

            He watched a barge dock on the wharf near the bottom of Pitfall. Ropes thrown to shore, wrapped and knotted around bollards fore and aft. As he looked, he listened to the whispers of the ghosts in his ears. His wife Mary, his daughter Rose, and John Sedgwick, who’d been his deputy in the times when Nottingham had been Constable of Leeds.

            Those days were long past. Now it was Rob, his son-in-law, who held the post. Nottingham was glad to let it go. He’d grown too old, his body weary from all it has endured when he was in office. He had his house on Marsh Lane, his ragtag family. That was enough.

            From the corner of his eye, he noticed a man come slide the corner of a warehouse, trying hard to stay unnoticed in the shadows. Lank hair, stoop-shouldered, wearing an old, stained coat and dirty hose.

            One of the barge hands jumped off the boat and began to walk along the wharves. The other man followed. Thirty yards away they huddled together. The barge man brought out a small packet from the deep pocket of his coat. The other man stared around again, making sure they weren’t watched, before he handed over a small purse.

            It was over in a moment, then the two men were talking and laughing like old friends. It could be nothing, Nottingham thought, perfectly above board. Aye, he heard Sedgwick say, and if you believe that I’ll sell you this bridge, boss. Summat’s going on.

            He stood straighter, and suddenly the two men saw him. One pointed and they began to take a path up to the Calls that would bring them out close to the bridge.

            It was time to move.

            He often used a stick to help him walk; it has been useful for the last year. This time he carried it. He’d be too obvious, and it might make a useful weapon.

            A short distance and he’d disappeared into the throng of merchants and weavers crowed around the trestles on either side of Briggate. The Tuesday morning coloured cloth market, everyone bringing their woven lengths from the villages around Leeds to be sold. He’d known ritual this all his life, grown up with it, kept order here. He could move in and out and become invisible as he moved along the street.

            Nottingham had battered his tricorn hat, but so did many others, and his buff coat hardly made him stand out.

            Go to the jail, Richard; that was what his wife told him. He could hear every small inflection of her voice as it whispered in his head. Leave it for Rob to handle. It’s not your job. It’s not your fight. Don’t take any risks, please.

You’re right, he thought, you’re right. This has nothing to do with me now. But he’d seen something. Every scrap of experience told him the men were breaking the law. To make sure it was obeyed was everyone’s duty. He’d pass Rob the word and let the younger man fight the battle; after all, he was Constable of Leeds.

The market was hushed. By tradition, all the deals were made in whispers and sealed with a handshake. But the inns were loud as men and women drank and spent their penny ha-penny on a Brigg-End shot. He made his way past the crowds with nods to the faces he knew. So many, he thought. Are you surprised? Rose asked. You’ve served these people for years, Papa. They respect you. They always have.

Or maybe he was just too familiar.

Nottingham kept a steady, comfortable pace up Briggate, watching for the men he’d seen. In the cloth market, he was just one figure among many. But as he reached Kirkgate, the bodies thinned out and he hurried down the street to the jail, looking over his shoulder.

He spotted one of them, the barge man, father down the street, talking to a man behind a trestle. He was gesturing wildly, anxious, while the other shook his head. Getting nowhere and growing frantic. Now Nottingham was certain he’d seen something criminal. Where was the other man?

He turned the corner, by the entrance to the White Swan, and saw him. Standing, turned towards him, just feet away.

Be careful, Richard, Mary told him. His heart was beating fast, thudding in his chest. He tightened his grip on the stick. This isn’t your fight, she whispered. No, it wasn’t, but he was part of it now; he couldn’t avoid it.

Watch him, boss. Sedgwick’s voice, ready, quietly assessing everything. You see the way he’s standing? Yes, he could see. The man favoured his right leg. Hit that knee, boss. Do it quick and hard and he’ll be on the ground. No need to worry about him after that.

Nottingham gave a thin smile. He knew he looked like an old man, one who wouldn’t put up a fight. A victim. But he’d learned all the ways to give much more than he took.

The man grinned, happy to have found his quarry so easily. He let his eyes play the trick on him, seeing what he wanted, a man he could beat, and he started to charge.

So easy that an invalid could have done it. A step to the side, the crack of wood on the bone of the kneecap and the man was rolling in the road, clutching his leg and howling.

Nottingham opened the door of the jail. Rob Lister was sitting behind the desk, head bent as he wrote. He looked up, suddenly curious as he saw Nottingham.

‘There’s someone out here you should meet.’

A small crowd had gathered, standing around the man in pain, but none of them moved to help him.

‘Who is he?’ Lister asked.

‘No idea.’ He summed what had happened in three sentences.

Rob searched through the man’s pocket and pulled out a knotted kerchief. Inside he found tiny silver cuttings from the edges of coins.

‘Coin clipping. Whoever he works for will melt them down.’ The man was struggling to edge away. Lister put a hand to his collar and hauled him to his feet. ‘A cell for you, and some questions. You know all this is treason?’ He gave a dark grin. ‘Takes you straight to the hangman’s dance.’

He pulled the man away before he could answer.

You did well there, boss. Not really, he thought; it wasn’t so hard. But there’s still another of them looking for me.

Papa, no, please. Listen to Rose, Richard, his wife said in his ear. She’s right. You were lucky once. The next time…

But what was the worst that could happen? He’d leave some people he loved, ones who could look after themselves, and he’d be with others. See his wife again, as sweet as the day they married at the Parish Church.

‘Do you want to see if we can find this other one?’ Rob said. He had a sword buckled to his belt, hand resting lightly on the hilt. ‘Will you be able to recognize him?’

‘Why don’t we let him find me,’ Nottingham answered. ‘He’s going to be desperate by now. Let me go ahead. Just keep a close watch.’

Richard…Mary began. But this was duty; after all these years, she’d understand that.

A wander down Briggate towards the bridge and the river, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world. Pausing to exchange a few words with the merchants and the clothiers, flush and happy from selling their cloth.

The bell had rung to end the market a few minutes before. Now the voices were raised, the taverns full to overflowing, spilling out on the street.

Nottingham spotted the barge man. He had the build of someone used to carrying heavy weight, broad shoulders and thick arms. Richard made a sign, trusting Rob would see it.

Carts and wagons were moving up and down the road. He crossed between them, parading himself for the man to see.

Don’t, Papa, rose said. Point him out to Rob. But he’d started the job he had to- No, you don’t, Richard. You left all that, Mary told him, and he smiled. He’d left it, but someone it refused to leave him.

He’s seen you, boss. He’s coming.

Good. Let him come. He trusted Rob

He’s close, Papa. Just three yards behind you now.

He’s taking out his knife, boss.

Nottingham stopped and turned. The man was no more than six feet away now, a body’s length, with a look on his face somewhere between panic and triumph. He had the knife in his hand, fingers tight around the hilt.

‘Don’t.’ One word, but it took the man by surprise.

‘Why?’ A guttural voice. He sounded Dutch, perhaps, maybe German.

‘Because I said so.’ Rob slid up behind the man and put his blade alongside his neck. ‘Drop your weapon.’

Nothing, and the pressed the metal against the throat until the knife clattered on the floor.

‘He’s the constable here,’ Nottingham explained. ‘I used to have to honour.’

‘Which pocket, Richard?’ Lister asked.

‘The right, I think.’

‘Take a look, will you?’

The purse was there, bulging.

‘You and your friend are going to like Jack Ketch. You’ll meet him at the assizes in York. He does good work. Quick, clean.’

Later, in the churchyard, he stood by the graves and listened to the dead whispering. John Sedgwick, Rose, even Amos Worthy, the man he’d liked and hated in equal measure. All of them with words for him.

            But it was Mary who waited until the others had finished. Richard, you always were a fool. You don’t anyone a duty now. You owe yourself a life. For Emily and Rob and Lucy and young Mary. Don’t you want to see her grow?

            No need to reply. She knew the answer.

            I love you, but you don’t need to come to us. We’re with you, always. Wherever you are, my love. Wherever you are.

The Oldest Photos Of Leeds

The Internet is full of rabbit holes. For me, bits of Leeds history can start me burrowing, and I only emerge, blinking, a few hours later. The Leodis site, with its wonderful old photos of Leeds, is like a little warren, an Aladdin’s cave, a place to lose myself for hours.

And inside there’s plenty of treasure. Like these, the oldest photographs of Leeds. We’re so used to seeing images that it’s easy to forget that the science of photography isn’t even 200 years old yet. The very first picture taken with a camera dates from 1826 or 27. The first to include a person? 1838.

It was quite a while later that the camera came to Leeds, at least from images that remain. This would seem to be the oldest, dating from 1866. Leeds Bridge as it was then, before it was replaced by the new iron bridge in 1870. This structure dated from the 1730s, and that had replaced an older one. It’s still an immediately recognisable view.

leeds bridge 1866

A year later came this view of Lower Briggate, with the rise of Holy Trinity Chruch in the background. All these buildings on the street are long gone now, as are the two women talking, or the mother and son walking along the pavement (the picture looks as if it might have been taken from a room in the Royal Hotel, which started life as a coaching inn in the 1690s).

lower briggate 1867

From the same period is this one of Briggate, with the old Corn Exchange in the middle of the road, as the Moot Hall had been before it. By then, the Corn Exchange we all know had been opened, and this building was awaiting demolition. What’s remarkable is how empty Leeds’ busiest street was. It’s eerie. Just what time of day were these shots taken?

Briggate 1867

Bridge End, just by Leeds Bridge, is where this photograph was taken in 1869. There’s life here: people walking and starting to move into the frame, the blur of mother and child behind the window. There’s a barber’s pole by the shop, the neat display of goods in the window, and the archway for carts and deliveries. It’s worth noting the discolouration of the brickwork, covered by a few generation of soot from the factories and mills.

Bridge End no30 1869

1870, Rotation Yard, taken from the entrance. The photographer must have climbed a ladder to take the picture and frame it this way. More people, mostly men, but also a shopkeeper’s wife standing next to her husband. There’s a mix of working men, on the right of the picture in their caps and battered bowlers, a pair of youths, and a few more who look eminently respectable. The small street is clean, well-cobbled, a reminder that not every court in Leeds was home to the poor. For those who know Leeds, this is now part of New Market Street.

Rotation office yard now New Market St 1870

It’s impossible to know it now, but this is Lands Lane in 1881, with a very different selection of shops compared to today’s ‘retail offering.’ It would have been part of Tom Harper’s beat in those days; at that time he would still have been a constable.

lands lane 1881

Across the river to Hunslet, and a reminder that Leeds did once have a formidable pottery company in Hartley, Green & Co., whose premises were on Jack Lane. Taken in 1883, this is two years after the pottery closed for business. The office is the squat building to the left, and the conical structures are all kilns.

leeds pottery

Political meetings drew huge crowds throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th. This gives an idea of the vast scale. Taken in the courtyard of the Mixed Cloth Hall (which stood where the NW corner of City Square is today) in 1880, it shows the yard filled to its capacity of 20,000, all gathered to listen to William Gladstone, who’s on the platform in the distance.

Roundhay Road in 1889, with workmen laying track for the tram. This view looks north – the first street going off to the left in Gathorne Street. The very first electric tram in Leeds, travelling from Sheepscar to Roundhay Park, appeared in October 1891. At the end of the third Tom Harper book, Skin Like Silver, Annabelle Harper wangles an invitation for herself and Tom on the inaugural trip.

roundhay raod 1889

Those are the old photos. To go back further, we need sketches. This 1834 panorama of Leeds, probably sketched just downriver from Fearn’s Island, show the effect of industry. Factory chimneys rise like awful fingers, leaving a pall of smoke; you can almost taste the soot. The Parish Church stands tall, four years before it was completely rebuilt. It’s a Leeds that’s beginning to look familiar to us today.

leeds 1834

The oldest illustration I’ve found, though, is far uglier in its own way. It dates from 1694, an image from Mabgate, found in the Leeds Corporation Court Books, showing a woman being dragged to the ducking stool by Lady Beck (or Sheepscar Beck). We even know her name: Anne Saule, the wife of Philip Saule. According to the record, several complaints had been that, stating she was “a person of lewd behaviour, a common scold and daily maketh strife and discord amongst her neighbours, it is therefore ordered that the said Anne Saule be ducked.” In fact, she was one of three women receiving the same punishment that day. The others were Jane Milner and Elizabeth Wooler, both of Mill Hill. At least we’ve moved on from that. But it’s the only old image of Mabgate that I’ve ever seen.

1694 ducking see leodis