To Touch Old Leeds

They say there are places where the fabric of time stretches so thin that you can reach though, maybe even walk through, into another age. There are times I feel that in Leeds, when I feel I can push the veil aside and touch other times.

Maybe it because something happened there, that something lives on, some faint echo; I don’t have the answer to that. Yet it seems very real.

Stand by the patch of green by St Mary’s Street off Mabgate. Its look like nothing now, trapped in a construction site. To the south there’s New York Road, all the bustle of roar of the modern world. But if you stand there, you can hear the mourning. It’s where Leeds buried many the victims of the 1832 cholera outbreak, in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church. Over 700 people died in the town, so many of them poor, drinking tainted water, living crowded together (340 people in 27 rooms in Boot and Shoe Yard alone).

The dead were buried quickly. There was little choice about that. few headstones or markers remain. No graves for families to visit. But there, on the edge of Quarry Hill, has always been a place for isolation.

When Leeds has its outbreak of plague in 1645, this was where they built the cabins to house the victims, to try and keep them away from the healthy. Quite possibly some are buried her.  Well over a thousand perished.

Stand, and if there’s a break in the nearby traffic, listen. The voices are muffled, and distant. Maybe more of a feeling than anything distinct. But touch the air in that place and you cut through the centuries.

Not far away, around the Parish Church, the Minster as it’s styled now, there’s the deep sense of history. More than anywhere, inside the building, the Leeds Cross, cobbled together from five ancient crosses that stood outside a much earlier version of the building, in a time before the Norman Conquest, when Leeds has one ragged street – Kirkgate – fewer than 200 people lived here and Leeds was still Leodis.

Reach out, touch the stone. Feel the cuts, how time and weather has worn them away. Back then, the village stood on the boundary of kingdoms. Tiny, but important. These crosses were memorials, perhaps. Certainly a mix of Christian and pagan symbols, from a time when people still hedged their bets about gods. One that’s survived comes from the story of Wayland the Smith, one of the oldest and most powerful English tales (and pre-Christian). Put out your hand, rub it, and you can feel the man who stood there with his hammer and chisel, who worked the stone. You’re there with him, catapulted through the centuries. It’s a feeling to leave you silent.

One more, and not far to walk for this. Just along the Calls. It’s a street of apartments, offices and clubs fashioned from warehouses now. But once it would have been a track leading from the ford over the river towards the church. Not a street, nothing at all, really, worn down by feet and maybe the wheels of carts. It would have existed before Briggate.

Later, the river and canal became the highway for good, bareges loading and unloading, warehouses being built on the river’s edge. There were also sets of stairs down to the water, and the tale of a woman called Jenny White who walked into the Aire to drown herself when she discovered her man (lover? Husband?) was unfaithful.

In 1835, Heaton, in his description of the area, notes “a long flight of steps, dark and ugly, between the houses (the last being into the water, long known by the name of Jenny White’s hole.” From that, it might well have happened before Leeds became a town filled the factories.

Where on the Calls? There plenty of places, and all the river stairs have long since gone. Walk down behind all those buildings, towards Calls Wharf. You’re by the water, and you call almost hear the cries of men who worked there. Look at the river from the right angle and you can see Jenny’s ghost under the surface. It’s there. Still there. Always there.

Jenny White’s story survives as a folk tale. But truth becomes tale over time. She’s remembered. She’s a part of Leeds, like the bodies at St Mary’s, or the man who carved Wayland the Smith in the Cross. Look and you can see them.

Let’s Go Back To…1645 In Leeds

There are so many awful things going on in the world right now, but this blog isn’t the place to comment on them. Writing about the past is one way to escape to something different. Not always kind or less brutal.

I’m working on a new Tom Harper book which takes place in 1917 (this is a good place to mention that the ebook of Gods of Gold is still 82p/99c from all retailers for all platforms).

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I’ve also finished a novella entitled Norman Blood, set in Leeds in 1092 CE. I’ll be self-publishing that this autumn, quite possible combined with this, if it works out. It’s called The Cloth Searcher, and it’s set in Leeds in during the Civil War 1645…just before plague broke out.

Here’s the opening. Please, drop me a line and tell me if you think it’s worth continuing. And please, all of you, stay safe and careful.

 

February 1645

 

With the new year, Leeds began to emerge from the winter. Under the rule of the Roundhead garrison, as kind of normality took hold. Like a patient too long in bed after an illness, the town took tentative, faltering steps. But with each week things improved, the invalid seemed a little more confident, even if its colours still seemed to be greys and blacks and browns.

At least the weather had been mild so far, Adam Wright thought. Granted, it was still February, but there’d been little snow to trouble and freeze them and enough days of chill, pale sunshine to give some hope to the heart.

He walked up Briggate, past the sorry ruin of lawyer Benson’s house. Once it had been a fine building; now the front door flapped on its hinges, all the windows were broken and so many slates missing from the roof that the ground floor was little better than a lake. The revenge of Cromwell’s Scottish soldiers for the man’s support of the King. Benson himself had long since fled Leeds to live who knew where.

It was impossible not to resent the troops stationed in the town, even if the Scots and their violence had been packed off home. Soldiers strutted with muskets and pikestaffs, their officers gave orders and ran the place now. Adam had only managed to avoid having a man billeted with him because he had three young children, and he thanked God for his fortune.

It was wrong for a town to be this way, to be occupied by their own countrymen, to be at the mercy of other Englishmen who were supposed to be their equals.

He had little interest in politics. That was something which happened in London. His only desire for a quiet life and to make his business as a wool merchant prosper. Leeds had been on the cusp of success before all this, order books full, trade growing. But over the last two years, as different sides took and retook the city, everything had fallen apart. The weavers started taking their cloth to Bradford and Wakefield, where things were calmer, and he couldn’t blame them. Only now, in the months since the big battle down on Marston Moor had the area begun to exhale again.

 

At the Moot Hall his boot heels clicked on the hard wood floor and he waited for the military clerk to lift his weary eyes.

‘Adam Wright, the Cloth Searcher, to see Captain Eyre.’

‘Go through,’ the man told him, jabbing a lazy finger along the corridor then pushing his head back down among his papers.

There was another guard in the hallway, this one with keen, assessing eyes, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword, his buff uniform scrupulously clean, leatherwork gleaming.

At the door Wright took a deep breath. The summons here had surprised him. He’d searched in his soul and found nothing that could give offence. He attended church each Sunday, paid what was due in taxes and gave deference to those who ordered his world.

He didn’t know why he was here and it scared him. Slowly he raised his hand and knocked on the door. At a sound from within he turned the handle and walked into Captain Eyre’s office. A few years before it had belonged to one of the aldermen, but these days the power in the city lay with Major-General Carter and his staff.

‘Mr Wright,’ the Captain said. To Adam’s surprise the man sounded grateful. ‘Thank you for coming so promptly. I thought you might have been busy.’

He’d been at home when the messenger arrived, entranced by his baby son, now just three months old, while his wife and the serving girl attended to the other two children. He knew he should have been at the warehouse in the yard behind his house, but there was precious little to do there these days.

‘I had the time,’ Adam replied carefully. ‘Your man made it sound important.’ He stared at the soldier, a man of about forty with shrewd eyes, his face lined, grey hair cropped short over his skull, a lean, hardened body inside a neat uniform.

‘How are the cloth markets these days?’ Eyre began.

‘Better than they were,’ Wright answered guardedly, surprised by the question, ‘but there’s still a long way to go for them to be what they were.’

The Captain nodded in understanding.

‘And the quality of the cloth?’

Adam shrugged, unsure of the meaning behind all this.

‘Excellent, on the whole. There are always one of two pieces that aren’t up to standard, and sometimes someone wants to cut corners.’

‘But you find them.’

‘I try,’ he said.

He’d been given the post of Cloth Searcher in 1642, before the conflict began. It paid nothing, meant as a tribute to a merchant’s honesty. It became his responsibility ensure all the cloth coming out of Leeds was the very best quality. To keep the town’s reputation high. But his tenure was only meant to last a year.

Then the war began. King against Parliament. The Corporation was in tatters, and there had been no one to name a replacement. And so, three years later Adam Wright was still the town’s Cloth Searcher He’d never wanted the title, but he couldn’t set aside until a new man was named.

‘How long will it take, do you think?’ Eyre asked.

‘For what?’ he asked.

‘For the weavers to return and sell here the way they used to.’

Wright shook his head sadly. ‘I don’t know. Another year, perhaps? They might never come back.’ The questions seemed pointless. If the man wanted to know about the cloth market he should come to Leeds Bridge on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, cloth for sale displayed on the parapets and the business conducted in quiet whispers.

‘Mr. Wright, do you know Ralph Whitelaw?’

He opened his eyes wide. ‘Of course.’ Whitelaw was one of the city’s leading wool merchants, one of the original burgesses when Leeds had received its charter from King Charles two decades before. More than that, Adam had served his merchant’s apprentice with him. He knew Ralph and all his family. The man was a Royalist, but wise enough to keep his loyalties to himself.

‘One of the patrols was out this morning. You must know the bell pits down past Vicar Lane?’

Wright nodded, confused by the strange, constant twists in the conversation.

‘People used to mine coal in them,’ he said. ‘But no one’s used them in years.’

‘Not quite,’ Eyre corrected him. ‘My sergeant found Whitelaw’s body in one today.’

‘What?’ He started to rise from his seat. ‘Ralph? Are you sure?’

‘I’m certain, Mr. Wright. I saw the corpse myself. I had a number of conversations with him. I’m sorry, Mr Wright.’

Adam ran a hand over his face, feeling the sharp stubble of his cheeks against his palm.

‘But..?’ he began, knowing he didn’t have the words to express all the things in his mind just them ‘But why? That doesn’t make any sense. What would he doing there?’

Eyre look directly at him, his eyes pale and serious.

‘Someone killed him,’ he announced finally. ‘And put his body in one of the bell pits.’

 

 

Little Alice Musgrave – A Leeds Story

I’ve decided to put up a short story every day this week. Most have been on the blog before, years ago. Some, like this, are published in my collection Leeds, The Biography. This takes its inspiration from the plague of 1645 in Leeds, which lasted for nine months and killed over 1300 people here – quite a percentage of the citizens. Alice lived on Vicar Lane, then a very poor area, and was the first to catch the plague and die. She was 11 years old.

The illustration is from the parish records, the names of some of those who died. Plague cabins were built on Quarry Hill (I’ve heard there were more in Holbeck) to quarantine victims.

Oh, if you’re all very, very kind and buy copies of my new book, The Leaden Heart, this week, then next week I shall post a brand-new Richard Nottingham short story. You know what to do!

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Little Alice Musgrave, lying in her bed,

Little Alice Musgrave with plague in her head,

All the prayers for Alice that all the preachers said,

Little Alice Musgrave, buried and dead.

 

The children sang it for years afterwards, long after most people had forgotten who Alice had even been. At first I’d chase them away and cuff at their heads, yelling through my tears, shouting at them to shut up. But it didn’t help. They’d keep on singing and every word cut deeper and deeper into my soul until I couldn’t cry out any more.

Last week I heard it again. A pair of girls, neither of them more than six, were using it as a rhyme for skipping ropes. The good Lord alone knows where they’d learned it. Alice has been dead these twenty years now. Maybe they’d heard their mother one day.

I was walking along Call Lane with my granddaughter, her hand tight in mine, and the words just made me stop, frozen as winter. I thought my heart might never beat again.

“What is it, Grandmama?” Emily asked. “Why are you crying like that?”

I had to draw in my breath slowly before I could answer her.

“It’s nothing, child,” I told her. “Just a memory that flew past.” I tried to make my voice light but it was filled with the weight of all the tears I’d shed. “Come on, let’s get ourselves home. Mama will be wondering where we are.” I clutched her hand tighter and we hurried away.

The words wouldn’t go away. In the darkness, when I lay alone under the blanket, they came back, singing and taunting. It was as if God wasn’t going to give me the peace of forgetting, as if He’d uncovered all the jagged edges of the past again.

 

The Roundheads had come here once more in 1644, so loud that we cowered in the house and prayed they wouldn’t come in and kill us. Leeds had been buffeted like a feather in the wind, from King to Parliament and back again so often, with more men dead each time.

But these troops stayed. It felt like a year of mud, when every colour was brown or black and the rains just came and came. The men in charge put up notices for everything – church attendance, how we had to behave, what we could wear. They forbade us from celebrating the birth of our Lord in the old way. That was sinful, they told us.

We’d been poor before, desperate for every penny and every bite. But now they took all our joy, too. Snow fell to herald the start of 1645, only the pikemen with their shining leather boots and glittering weapons allowed on the streets after dark.

We tried to make ourselves into mice, scurrying unnoticed lest the cat see us and pounce. Sometimes they’d come and drag one of the menfolk away with accusations of supporting the king. If he ever came home again it was as someone broken and quiet.

I feared for my husband. He’d been a clerk to lawyer Bolton before the attorney had fled. Now Bolton’s grand house on Briggate was a ruin, a burned-out gap in the street and there was a fine waiting against his name if he returned. I kept thinking they’d arrived one day and take Roger off.

He had no work. No one needed a man who knew his letters. The law was whatever the soldiers said, not something to be argued in a courtroom or written into books. And the cloth trade had dwindled so far that even some of the merchants went hungry. Once it would have been a marvel to see a grand man begging his bread. Now it happened every day.

We had three girls to feed, Alice, Hannah and Anne. They often went hungry, but we gave them something before we took anything to eat ourselves. When Alice woke one night in March, moaning with pain, at first I thought it was nothing more than an empty belly.

“Hush, love,” I whispered. “Just go back to sleep now.”

But she didn’t stop.

“It hurts, mama.”

I knelt by the bed she shared with her sisters, no more than a sheet over withered old straw. Her skin was so hot I thought it could burn my fingers and her shift was soaked with sweat. I bathed her face with cold water and stroked her damp hair, softly singing every lullaby I could remember. And I prayed. The first of so many prayers to rise from Leeds that year, but God blocked His ear to them all.

By morning she was cold, shaking and shivering. Nothing I did could help. I sent Roger to fetch the wise woman who lived on Kirkgate. She looked, poking my beautiful little girl with her fingers so that she gave a scream as deep as Christ’s agony.

Outside, where a bitter breeze came out of the west, the woman put her arms on my shoulders and looked at me with wise, ancient eyes.

“Your daughter has the pestilence,” she said softly.

I opened my mouth. I wanted to scream no, to shout, to cry, but nothing came. All I could think was why was He judging her like this? What had she done? She was only eleven, she had no evil to her name.

“I’ll bring something in a little while,” the woman continued. “It’ll help her rest and ease the pain a little.” Then she was gone and I stood out there, alone as the cold whipped around me.

The word passed quickly, as if the wind had carried it around the town. The soldiers’ doctor arrived in his neat, clean uniform to examine her, then shake his head. A pair of troopers were placed outside our door to force folk away. We were kept inside. Roger tried to amuse Hannah and Anne, to distract them, while I tended to Alice. The wise woman delivered her glass bottle, something clear and sweet-smelling inside, and it worked. My beautiful girl slept. Little Alice Musgrave with plague in her head. But it was on her body, the lumps growing so quickly under her arms and between her legs, the stink growing stronger with every hour, as if death was consuming her inch by inch.

The army left food outside our door, kindling and blankets. For the first time in a year we could have lived like human beings if we’d wanted. But who could have an appetite with this? I tried to keep Alice warm when the cold racked her, hugging her close to give her my heat. Weariness pierced all through my bones but I couldn’t sleep. I only had hours left with my daughter and I couldn’t let any moment of them slip away.

I heard later that they held a service in St. John’s to pray for her. For her soul and her salvation. What good is that when the Lord has turned away, I wanted to shout? But I never said a word.

After a day she’d moved beyond speech, only able to make noise like a baby, each one full of pain and fright. Her swellings turned black, the change coming in the blink of an eye. I kept hold of her hand, letting her know that we loved her. All I wanted now was for her suffering to end.

Alice lasted until the shank of the day. She wasn’t fighting, not even aware, just waiting. Then she gulped in a breath and it was over. I sat, still clutching her fingers and felt life leave her.

 

They took her body away quickly, the first to go into a plague pit. No coffin, no more than a winding sheet and a covering of quicklime. They wouldn’t even let us go to watch her being placed in the earth. All we were allowed were the four walls of our room and a heaven full of sorrow in our hearts.

Two mornings later it was Roger who began to sweat and by dinner Hannah was ill. I tended to them as best I could, moving like a ghost from one to the other as Anne became a silent, frightened child in the corner, too scared to move in case death might catch her.

I hadn’t had any time to grieve for my Alice when the others fell ill. All I could do was exist, snatch rest when I could, lying next to a body with the stench of decay, waking to another scream or a moan.

At least it was quick, less than a day each. And then it was just Anne and I, waiting and wondering how long before it came for us, too.

But it never did. After a week I walked outside. People talked and went about their business, trying to pretend nothing had happened, that Alice and Roger and Hannah were still alive. Yet I could see the terror in their eyes and the way they shunned me, as if I carried the pestilence like a shadow around me. Then I heard the rhyme for the first time, a group of children playing down the road, throwing a ball from one to the other. Little Alice Musgrave, lying in her bed. I ran towards them screaming and saw them scatter in surprise. My arm caught one boy and I started to hit him over and over as the tears tumbled down my cheeks.

Spring came, sunny, bright and fertile to mock us all. I knew what it meant. With the warm weather the plague would remain. While others held their Bibles close, I prayed it would take me and Anne, that it would lift the weight in our hearts. Each week there’d be fewer faces I knew on the streets. More than one thousand three hundred were buried before the winter turned cold again and the appetite of the pestilence was sated. But death kept denying me.

 

The soldiers left in the end. I’d lost track of how long they stayed; sometimes it seemed as if they’d always been there. Now the years have passed and we have a king again in London; that’s what they say. It makes little difference to our life in Leeds.

All the houses that were destroyed have been rebuilt. Maybe they’re even grander than they were before, I can’t remember. My Anne is married now, with a girl of her own. She had one before, but little Alice died when she was no more than a month old. I’d tried to tell her it was a fated name, but she wouldn’t listen to me.

I play with Emily, take her to the market and down to the river where men sell the fish they catch. I live with them, accompany them to church on a Sunday, but all I pray for now is to forget.