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.

Leeds History – The Ice Fair

After Beyond Guardian Leeds shut up shop last month, I promised I’d keep going with a little Leeds history. Being a man of my word, here’s January’s edition.

We’ve been lucky in our winters lately. Some snow and cold last winter, but nothing like those during history. And if your parents or grandparents have ever said how bad 1963 or 1947 was, even they don’t know how bad winter can be.

The tail end of the 17th century was a little ice age in Britain. The winters were truly brutal and cold. In Leeds, the winter of 1683/84 was the real one for the record books. It was the year the River Aire froze.

It didn’t simply freeze, the ice was thick enough and lasted long enough to hold an ice fair on it. Stalls, markets, hot foods – and probably hot mulled wine – were erected on the ice, and most of the population, which would have been around 3,000, came to enjoy themselves. In all likelihood the Town Waits or musicians would have played at times and dignitaries been on show.

There was no river trade at this time. It was truly impassable, so the vessels that would have moved goods all the wall to Hull couldn’t penetrate. It’s almost certain that the cloth market would have been suspended, as the weavers would have found the roads impassable from their outlying villages. Grand and interesting it might have been, but it also meant that Leeds ground to a halt.

How far did the ice extend? We’ll never know for sure, but Leeds historian Ralph Thoresby recounted that he and a friend strode on to the ice at the mills below the Parish Church at the bottom of Kirkgate, then walked along the ice under Leeds Bridge and all the way to the Upper Dam, which is more or less where the railway station is today.

While ice fairs became almost annual events for a few years down in London as the Thames froze in this period, this is the only year Leeds was ever hit so hard. So, no matter what January or February do, just remember that it could be a great deal worse.