A Leeds Storytime

It’s been a long time since I wrote a #leedsstorytime on Twitter. Taking a folk tale and re-telling it, maybe embellishing it a little. Because if the stories from the tradition aren’t told, they wither.

There was a place called Jenny White’s Hole in Leeds. It was a set of stairs between two houses on the Calls, leading directly down into the River Aire. No one seems to know about Jenny herself. This is my take on how it got its name.

Jenny White was a pretty Leeds lass, courted by all the lads. She worked as a mill hand and took her fun in the evenings. It was a time of factories and smoke, the bitter taste of soot in the air. But Jenny was young, she loved life. People danced to fiddlers and sang the songs they’d known all their lives. It was a hard life, but there was sun in it, too.
The lads threw their caps at Jenny. They all wanted her. But she only had eyes for Joshua, a handsome lad with cruel eyes. He paid her no mind, though. He could have any girl he desired, and his father was a mill foreman, with power and prestige. But his friends told him to court her. She was a right bobby dazzler, she’d make a good wife. So he looked. She was pretty.
More than that, she was willing. Where lads usually did her bidding, she was willing to make all the time she had for him. Joshua, though, saw her weakness. She loved him with all her heart, but he treated her cruelly. He wouldn’t turn up when he promised, just leave her standing for hours, lonely and heartbroken. Even when they were together, he’d hardly give her attention. Unless they were alone. In those moments she felt happy.
So she was overjoyed when Joshua suggested they wed. He might not be perfect, but he’d be hers forever. Yet she quickly learned that married life with Joshua was worse than courting him. Much worse.
He’d stay out in the beershops until all hours, coming home drunk and taking out his anger on her. After a year of this, Jenny White understood the gap between the hope of her heart and her life. He wasn’t going to change, for her or for anyone. She had nothing and no one; her parents had died.
With each day the feelings grew worse. And there was no way out, no escape. To a friend she bemoaned “the marriage vows as false as dicer’s oaths.” One night Joshua didn’t come home at all. Part of her hoped he might have died, to free her. But someone told her he’d left the inn with a young, pretty girl.
Despondent, Jenny began to walk. Her route took her along the Calls, a street of low, dark houses, poor and dismal. Between two houses stood a set of steps, leading down into the chilly, damp blackness. Jenny followed them. And as she placed one foot in front of another, her spirit began to lighten, as if she might fly away. Down she went, as the water of the river lapped around her feet. Down until it reached her knees.
Someone saw her disappear down the stairs and ran, looking to stop her. But when he looked, there was no Jenny in the water. She’d moved out of sight and out of this world. No body was ever found, although people searched.
Some said she’d drowned. Others believed she’d drifted until she found a place where lovers spoke truly. Where hearts were safe and words were bonds. Perhaps she’d slipped through to somewhere she could smile and laugh again. But it seemed as if she gone through a hole in the world. Which is why that spot became known as Jenny White’s Hole.

Mr. Thoresby’s Curiosities

Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725) was the Leeds historian. No one before or since comes as close. He lived here all his life – educated at Leeds Grammar School – and tried his hand, unsuccessfully, as a merchant. He was lucky, inasmuch as he didn’t have to work. After attempting to make fortunes he gave himself to learning and published three books  – Ducatus Leodiensis, Museum Thoresbyanum, and Vicaria Leodiensis. The first is his great work, a history and survey of Leeds and its surrounding area, plus the great families there.

He lived in Kirkgate (a blue plaque commemorates the place, close to Superdrug) and was an avid collector of all manner of things. He really did have a museum in his house. But when he died, no one was that interested in his collection. Much was thrown away, and the rest went to his eldest son near London and was sold when he died. Sad, really. Which brings us to the story…


“It won’t do,” he said, shaking his head and pursing his lips. “It just won’t do.”

“No, sir,” I agreed.

Mr. Brocklehurst looked slowly around the room once more. He’d tied his stock too tightly in the morning and his large face had been red all day.

“No,” he repeated. “It just won’t do.”

But it would have to be done. Every item in this collection of curiosities needed to be catalogued. And I knew it wouldn’t fall to Brocklehurst the lawyer to do it. It would be my job, his clerk.

Mr. Thoresby had amassed thousands upon thousands of objects during his life, so many that he’d needed to build an annexe to this modest house on Kirkgate for them all. Now he’d passed on his heirs needed an inventory of everything.

I’d miss the man. He’d been my favourite of Mr. Brocklehurst’s clients. Whenever he’d visit the office he’d ask after my wife and children with honest interest. No matter that he was a gentleman with his independent means and I was no more than a law clerk.

Even after his first stroke his mind had been alert. I’d come here several times with papers to be signed and he’d always been polite. He’d even insisted on showing me around this place, his museum as he called it with a wry little smile, and he’d pressed a copy of his book on me, his history of Leeds and the areas around it, picking it from a tall pile, blowing off the dust and inscribing it with his name, writing in an awkward scrawl. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that only gentlemen had the leisure for reading and learning. For the rest of us, life was made for work and sleep. So his Ducatus Leodiensis propped up a broken table leg in our house now, the gold letters on the spine growing dustier each month.

Brocklehurst paced around the room, hands clasped together in the small of his back, pausing here and there to look at this and that. Finally he announced,

“Well, you’d better get to work. And don’t be too long about it. I want you back in the office as soon as possible. There’s plenty of work among the living.”

“Yes, sir.” I opened the ledger on an old table then set down the quill and the ink pot, hearing the door slam in the empty house as the lawyer left. I knew I should begin the task, but instead I walked to a shelf at the far end of the room and picked up a small object.

I’d last been here two months earlier, no more than a fortnight before Mr. Thoresby suffered his second stroke and died. I’d come on a trifling errand, his signature on a note to append to an annuity. He’d been sitting in his parlour, lost in thought when I was shown through.

“Young man,” he said with real pleasure, as if I’d been his first visitor in an age. He struggled to his feet with the help of a stick, putting out a heavy, palsied hand to grip mine. Wigless, he showed wisps of grey hair over a shiny pink skull, and a mouth that drooped on one side. But his eyes still twinkled. Over the last months he’d grown portly, his movements confined to his house or the streets close by. No more wanderings around England or setting off in the morning to walk to York and dine with the archbishop. And invalid now, his wide world had become so small. “Come with me, come on. I have something very special to show you,” he urged, his voice just an echo of the cannon boom it had once been.

I followed him through to this room of wonders. He shuffled slowly, pausing two or three times to catch his breath. Yet once we reached the shelf and he reached out, it was as if his illness had never happened. His hand was steady as a youth’s and his thick sausage fingers were deft as he plucked up the item.

“Do you see that?” he asked me, letting it sit on his palm. “The vicar in Rothwell sent it to me last week.” He displayed it like something precious but I had no idea what it could be. I wasn’t like him, I had no knowledge of these things, no chance to learn. My only learning had been letters and numbers before I had to earn my way in the world. It seemed nothing more than a piece of sharp stone, nothing of value. He saw my look and smiled. “Would you like me to tell you?”

“Yes, sir, I would.” If it was important to him then it must have a purpose, I thought.

“Long ago, before there was any Cambodunum, or Leodis or Leeds, long before anyone thought of a town here, there were people in this country,” he began. It wasn’t the chiding, strident tone of my old schoolmaster. Instead, there was enjoyment in his voice sharing these things with all the eagerness of an enthusiast.

“Where did they live?” I wondered.

“In caves, perhaps, or out in the open. We don’t know that yet,” he answered with a small sigh, as if he was disappointed that he’d never know. “But they hunted. They had to, for food. And they possessed spears and arrows, we do know that. And clubs, I suppose,” he added, as if it was an aside to himself. “This, young man, is an arrowhead made of flint.”

Once he told me, I could discern the shape of it, the point at one end. It was delicate, crude yet carefully worked and I marvelled at how anyone could have made that so long ago and that it could still be found like this.

“Just imagine,” Mr. Thoresby continued, “that a man might have killed many animals with this arrow. Perhaps it ended up in some beast that escaped him. Or maybe it was a wild shot he never found again. Or,” he winked at me, “he might simply have lost it somewhere.”

He replaced the arrowhead on the shelf and we returned to the parlour to finish our business. Since then I’d thought of it often. I told my wife about it but she paid it little mind. Seeing an arrowhead wouldn’t put food on our table or clothe our children. It came to me later that I’d never asked him just how old it was. He would have known; after all, he was acknowledged to be the most learned man in Leeds. Now, though, he was interred under the choir of the Parish Church, his widow gone to live with one of their sons.

I lifted the arrowhead very carefully, astonished that something with all this wait of years on it could be so light. I ran my thumb along the edge and gasped out loud to discover it was still sharp enough to cut the skin. How long had it taken to fashion something like this? What tools had he used? Suddenly I had so many questions ringing like Sunday morning bells in my head and no one to answer them.

Furtively I looked around, as if there might be someone spying on me. It was a ridiculous fancy, of course. The house was all closed up, the shutters pulled tight, the air inside stuffy, still holding that old, desperate smell of disease and death that tugged at the nostrils. Then I took out my kerchief and gently wrapped it around the arrowhead. Another glance over my shoulder and I tucked it away in my coat pocket. No one would know. No one but me would count all the curiosities here.

Leeds Story Time – Robert of Red Hall and William de Wayte

In 1318, one of the years of famine in England, Leeds was still a very small town. Little more than a village, really. It had two streets, Kirkgate and the more recent Briggate, which was just 100 years old. No more than a few hundred lived in Leeds but it already had its share of rich and poor. Among the richest was the de Ledes family of North hall, whose oldest, arrogant son was Robert. Like so many rich young men, he believed the laws didn’t apply to him. That was way, on his way to church one Sunday morning he was throwing dice with William de Wayte, another young Leeds man of wealth. An argument rose up between them, almost coming to blows or more, but neighbours pulled them apart and calmed them. In the church, William told his page and his friend John de Manston what had happened.

The service over, the trio waited in the churchyard until Robert appeared and began to taunt him. William and his page came at Robert, swords drawn. The church door was barred, there was nowhere for him to run.  He tried to defend himself and in the fight that followed, Robert killed William de Wayte. As soon as they realised what had happened, the page, de Manston, and another man took hold of Robert. Even the chaplain joined them. In the ditch that separated church from graveyard they beat him and left him for dead.

But God was looking kindly on Robert. His brothers found him and took him home. Injured, bloodied, he still recovered. But the de Wayte family wanted revenge. They accused him or murder, a charge far too serious to be heard in the court of the manor; he had to be tried in far-off London. Arrested, Robert de Ledes was taken in chain to Marshalsea prison in the capital.

But his father had money to hire the best lawyer and also went to work on his son’s behalf. Many had witnessed what happened after the service. He gathered depositions and statements from witnesses, ready to present at the trial. Robert spent months in the Marshalsea, for just moves slowly. The prospect of the noose was always close.

In court Robert claimed self-defence, to the outrage of the de Wayte family, who wanted him hung for murder. But while they had those with William as their witnesses, Robert could present more evidence to make his case. It mounted up, word by word, person by person, until, finally, it couldn’t be denied. There was no hanging that day. Instead, Robert de Ledes walked out a free man and returned to Leeds.

Walter of Calverley (A #leedsstorytime)

Some of you will know Calverley, off the Ring Road, on the way to Shipley. It’s high on the hill, looking down on the Aire valley. It’s an ancient place, already old by the time of the Domesday Book, when it was known as Calverlei. It was home to the rich and powerful Calverley family, who built Calverley Old Hall in medieval times and lived there.

Walter Calverley was born in 1579. Folk called him Sir Walter, although he had no title – he was just Squire Calverley. On the death of his father, Walter became guardian of William Brooke, who really did have a title, Baron Cobham.

Walter was a ne’er do well. He attended Cambridge but left without a degree, although with debts from drinking and gambling. Back home he became engaged to the daughter of a nearby landowner. But his ward, William, urged him to end the engagement. William suggested Walter marry one of his relative, Philippa Brooke, a woman with a hefty dowry – a Godsend to a man in debt.

They married, but wedlock didn’t slow Walter down. He wasn’t happy in the marriage, even if he liked the money his new wife brought. He moved back and forth between Calverley and the lights of London town. Within 12 months he’d spent all the dowry and found himself in debtor’s prison, while his mother-in-law tried to reclaim the dowry. But the marriage survived. In fact, Walter and Phillipa had 3 sons – William, Walter and Henry. Fatherhood didn’t tame Walter, either. He kept drinking and gambling and was groaning with debt.

By 1605 Walter was reduced to selling off the land he owned to pay his debts. And then something happened to turn his mind. No one knows quite what. Drink? Agonies about money? Or the madness that was said to run in the family? What is certain is that on April 23, 1605, Walter Calverley went mad. He accused his wife of being unfaithful. He said that the children weren’t his. He drew his sword, stabbed the two oldest boys to death and tried to murder Philippa. Storming out of Old Hall, he threw the nurse down the stairs; she died. Walter roared out into the rainy night. Henry, his youngest son, was with a wet nurse. He intended to kill the boy. But his horse stumbled in a hole and fell on him. Before he could escape, the night watch was there to arrest him. And with arrest came sobriety – and panic.

If he pleaded guilty everything he had would be forfeit to the Crown. Nothing left for his wife and son. And insanity wasn’t a plea at that time. So he did the only thing he could – he refused to enter a plea to the court. That meant he had to be pressed until he entered a plea or died. He was tied to the floor, a heavy door on top of him. Weights were added on top until the person pled or was crushed to death. His wife and friends tried to stop it. But with each stone added to the door, Walter just said, “A pund o’ more weight! Lig on! Lig on!” until he was dead. He was finally interred at St. Wilfrid’s Church in Calverley and became the subject of a play, The Yorkshire Tragedy.

Then the tales of the ghost began. People reported seeing Walter on his horse, riding the roads around the church

He held a bloody dagger, and would vanish as his horse stumbled and fell. But sometimes…the ghost is reported to yell ‘Lig on!’ and rush at people, vanishing just before he reaches witnesses

And that’s the tale of Walter of Calverley.

The Blue Lady

As told on #leedsstorytime on Twitter (@chrisnickson2)

Most folk around Leeds know Temple Newsam, the Tudor house on land that once belonged to the Knights Templar. Its history goes back to the time of the Saxons, and blood has seeped into the brickwork there. In 1622, for the princely sum of £12,000 it became the home of Sir Arthur Ingram, and the tale relates to his family. The Ingrams were rich. They had the freedom to travel from place to place. But Temple Newsam was home. The Ingrams were rich. They had the freedom to travel from place to place. But Temple Newsam was home. Mary Ingram was Sir Arthur’s granddaughter, and proud of the pearl necklace he’d given her. She wore it on a visit to York. Just 14, it was the most valuable thing she owned. Folk claimed it was the loveliest necklace in the North of England. On the journey home from York, the carriage was held up by a highwayman. He took the family’s money and jewels. Among them was Mary’s beloved necklace. It’s said that he tore it from her even as she begged him to leave it. Mary was inconsolable. Even at home, behind thick walls, with servants around, she never felt safe again. Fearful and frantic, she took to hiding anything she owned that was of value in case the man returned. She grew wan and quiet and ate less and less. Her mother worried about her and summoned the physician. But nothing helped. Day by day, week by week, Mary slowly disappeared into a world of her own, where secrets were all. She was wasting away. She’d hide things, then move them, lest someone else find them. No hiding place was ever secret enough. There are those who say she descended into madness. Some understood her fear. The one thing true is that none could help her. Mary Ingram was still only 14 when she died. The lovely, happy girl was little more than a shadow when her spirit left. Her family buried her and mourned. But as time passed, a strange thing happened at Temple Newsam. Folk said they’d seen Mary. It would be in the night, when servants worked late and candles guttered and threw shadows. But it was here, they insisted. Thin, pale, and dressed in a gown of deep, holy blue, she’d wander the halls and rooms of Temple Newsam. In vain she’d search for her treasures, hidden so well that they’d gone from her memory, never to be found. And over the years she’s been seen often, the Blue Lady as she’s become, still seeking and never finding, lost to the ages. Her portrait remains, over the fireplace in the Green Damask Room. And on some nights she walks, still searching forever…