The Real Leeds Voices From History

Several weeks ago, I was talking to a gentleman who works in the Local and Family History Library at Leeds Libraries. We discussed the lack of authentic Leeds voices in our local history (among other things). There is a book called Leeds Describ’d, but so many of the pieces in there are from outsiders describing the town.

In the last few days I looked through the Leeds books on my shelves and put this together. It’s far from exhaustive, and other people have done the heavy lifting, really. But this is Leeds in the words of the people who lived here, the condition of the place, how they lived, how they worked. A little window into history, I hope.

The Cost of keeping Roundhay Park, 1373

roundhay hunting

In medieval times, Roundhay Park was used for hunting, and was much bigger than it is today. There was boundary fence. In the accounts of Robert de Halton, reeve, there’s an indication of some of the yearly work.

And in the wages of five men cutting brushwood and other trees for feeding the deer in the winter season of this year, in the park of Roundhay, viz, each of them at different times for forty days, at 2d per day.

And in six cartloads of hay to support the deer in the ensuing winter, in a place called le Stannk – 20s.

And in the hire of one cart to carry the hay from le Stannk to the Grange within the park by six turns at 8d a turn.

And in the wages of one man driving the said cart and helping to stow the said hay in the Grange, for four days, taking by the day 3d-12d for this year.


A Handfasting in Headingley, 1563

Handfasting was a form of marriage, and still practiced in Elizabethan times. This comes from evidence given to the Consistory Court of the Archbishop of York by Thomas Whitehead, regarding the union of Edward Walker and Anne Hobson. The meeting described took place in the garden area of what is now the Original Oak.

Walker: Ye know that you and I have had communication together for marriage howe saye you nowe is there any man that you beare any better favour unto than you beare unto me and the said Anne answering said no and further said unto the said Edward that he shulde be more welcome to her company than any other man shulde be using himself lyke and honest man. And then & there the said Edward Walker said unto the said Anne Hobson yf You be contented to sticke to me as I am contented to sticke to you we will make no more to do but take wittnes & go throw with the matter. Whereunto the said Anne consented. And then and there the said Eward Walker toke the Examinant [Whitehead, the witness] to be wittnes for him & the said Anne toke William Smythe to be witness for her.


An End to Three Plotters, 1664

farnley wood

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, a Republican plot to overthrow Charles II was discovered – the Farnley Wood Plot – and a number of men sentenced to death. Three of them, Robert Atkins, John Errington and Henry Wilson escaped to Leeds, where they were arrested in an inn and hung in chains on Chapeltown Moor. But that wasn’t the end of their punishment, according to a contemporary account:

…their 3 heads were cut off and put into a cloth bagg by the executioner, Peter Mason, a Notorious Villain, by occupation a Joyner at yt day brot in a cart to Leeds and all yt night lay in a flask full of water in the prison to suck out all the blood. 20. Jan, 1664, being Wednesday all there heads were sett upon the Moot hall end, severally fixed upon 3 spikes of iron.


Servants, 1704

Any large house required a small army of servants to keep it running. But those employed hard to work hard for their wages, as this agreement between Sir Walter Claverley of Esholt Hall and Joseph Mawde shows.

Agreed with Joseph Mawde to serve me one year from this day, for which he is to have £5, and 20s to buy him a frock with for brewing, & a livery, vizt, coat, waistcoat, breeches, hat & stockings: & his imployment is to be, to look at all the stables, horses & mares, both in the house & pastures, & keep the fold clean & also the pheasant garden & little garden within the pales of the fold, & to see the trees to be therein nailed any time on occasion, & also to keep the court before the hall door clean, & grass places in good order, & also to brew the master all his drink, to keep the jack in order, to take care of the calash & drive it, to keep the boat carefully locked, cleaned & dressed, to wait at table when occasion, &, if he does not his best, but neglects these things, to have no wages.


The Tenter Cutter, 1713


Cloth was a vital part of the Leeds economy for centuries, and it was stretched using hooks on tenter poles set in open land. Anyone interfering with the process, from spinning to sale, could expect rough treatment and swift justice. From the Memoranda Book of John Lucas.

Friday 24 July, about 9 o’clock in the evening one Matthew Bailey who lived in Meadow Lane but was one of those persons called kerseymen was taken in the act of cutting tenter in the Millgarth. He had been suspected to follow that trade long he was apprehended that night, and the next day, was sent to York and it being Assize time Mr Mayor went to York early on Monday morning and got him tried that forenoon where he was cast, and in the afternoon he had sentence past on him to be transported.


Trying to Avoid a Hanging, 1748

From the of Births, Marriages and Deaths for Leeds Parish Church 1748/9. Josiah Fearne was the first (only) Lord of the Manor of Leeds to be executed – and his is a great story. But it’s the length of this entry that makes it unusual. The murder took place at Nether Mills on Fearn’s Island.

Tho. Grave, Nether Mills, buried 4th March 1748/9

N.B. Tho. Grave was most barbarously murdered in his own House, by a domineering, villainous Lord of the Manor, Josiah Fearn, 24 Feb., 1748, with four wounds in his Body, of which he died 2 Mar. Fearne was taken and committed to York Castle and tried before Sr Tho. Burnett, was convicted, condemned, and hanged 25 Mar., 1749.

Soon after Fearne was condemned, he sent an Attorney to Mrs Grave to offer her Twenty Pounds a Year for Life or for Twenty Years to come at her own Option, in case she wou’d sign a Petition to the Judge in his Favour (which Fearn said was a Sufficient Recompense for the Injury he had done to her and her Eight Children), but she prudently declined the Offer, well knowing there is no Satisfaction to be made for ye Blood of a Murderer.

This probably is the First Lord of the Manor of Leedes that has made his Exit at the Gallows and God Grant he may be the last. Fearne’s Temper was extremely rigid to the poor and his Dependents, that he was dreaded by All, but beloved by None. He was buried at Clifton, near York, 31 Mar.


Highway Robbery, 1774

c18 leeds

Crime has always been with us, but reports of highwaymen around Leeds are quite uncommon. This is from a newspaper, possibly the Leeds Intelligencer.

On December 27th, 1774, as the daughter of an eminent butcher of this town was returning, in company with a servant maid, from Chapeltown, they were stopped by a footpad, who presented a pistol, with the words, “Your money or your life”. Not assenting immediately, he searched their pockets and took from them one shilling, three halfpence, and a silver thimble and then gracefully retired.


Poverty, 1797


Cellarts, Garrets and such like Places, exhibit…abodes of human Misery, the wretched Inhabitants are frequently found either exerting the last Efforts of Nature to support themselves…or languishing under the most powerful Influence of complicated Disease.


Poor Trade, 1826

The Leeds wool trade was in dire straits in the 1820s. In a letter to his brother, merchant Joshua Oates was frank about the situation.

I have actually suspended what? payment? No! not exactly, but I have suspended purchases of every description except bread, meat and potatoes, and I have driven clothiers away with a “can’t you call again next month?”….there is literally next to nothing doing by our foreign merchants and such numers of them are in back water that I should hardly know where to begin with introductions – it is                                         said by the Dyers and clothiers that with the exception of six or eight houses in Leeds no payments have been made since last November.


The Irish in Leeds, 1842


Dr. Baker, the Medical Officer, had done wonderful work after the cholera epidemic in 1832. Throughout the 1830s and 40s, many Irish people came to Leeds, many settling on the Bank (Richmond Hill). In 1842 he wrote about them.

In the houses of the Irish poor, of which there are a great many in Leeds, who work in factories and are engaged in weaving by hand plaids and other stuff goods, there is a general state of desolation and misery…They are mainly employed in plaid-weaving and bobbin-winding, and in some of the mills of the town, of whose population they compose no inconsiderable amount, especially those departments of mill-labour which are obnoxious to English constitutions and to some unendurable. To such an extent, indeed, has the employment of the Irish been carried in Leeds, that, in 1835 and 1836, many of the flax-mills would have been obliged to stand for want of hands, but for the influx of Irish labourers which then took place.


The Children of the Poor, 1849

Angus Bethune Reach was a Manchester journalist on the Morning Chronicle. In 1849, with the Relieving Officer, he went to some houses in Leeds. In one, he found three children picking ropes apart. The family had been receiving parish relief for seven years. The oldest of the children was eight.

Where’s your mother?

Gone out to try and get some washing to do.

Where’s your father?

In the Fleece – that’s a public house. Ah! Mother told he had better not go today for you (to the relieving officer) would be very likely to come round; but he wouldn’t stay.

What does your father do?

Sweeps the streets sometimes.

But does he not help you pick these ropes?

No; he wouldn’t do that. He makes us do that.

What do you get for picking?

Fourpence a stone but I give it all to my mother.

Do you go to school?

Only on Sundays. I must work, you know. I can’t read yet. But my little brother goes to school on week-days. Parson pays for him. Only sometimes they keeps him at home to help in picking. He can’t read either.

And is not the other little boy your brother?

Oh no! He only comes in to help us pick.

Do you like picking?

No, because it makes me poorly. The dust gets into my eyes and down my throat, and makes me cough. Sometimes, too, it makes me sick. I can’t keep at the work very long at a time, because of that.

You say you give all you earn to your mother Does she never let you have a penny for yourself?


And what do you do with it?

I buys bread.


A Pint and a Death, 1856

Drink and violence were as common in Victorian times as they are now, especially on a Saturday night when men had been paid. This is a deposition to an inquest into the death of John Mensey, from Robert Madden, the landlord of the Yorkshire Hussar on Union Street.  Both men lodged on Lower Brunswick Street, and the fight took up again there, lasting until one am. A verdict of manslaughter was returned.

On Saturday night the deceased and Patrick King came together to my house, about ten o’clock at night. They appeared to have had some beer, but were sober. Whilst in my house, they played at dominoes, and about half-past eleven they quarrelled over the game. The deceased got up and put himself into a fighting attitude. King did not seem disposed to fight, and the deceased called him a coward. King replied, “Well, I’ll be a coward.” Mensey then sat down. They continued to have high words up to twelve o’clock, when I requested them to go. I followed them to the door, and when they got outside they began to fight. I requested some persons present to assis me in separating them. At that time they had fallen to the ground. We assisted them up, and immediately afterwards they fought again; but I cannot say who began it. They had then taken off their coats. Both fell again, and were again separated. King then went towards Vicar-lane and Mensey went in the opposite directions towards his lodgings. The deceased and King were fresh, but able to walk. I heard King say that he didn’t want to fight, but he would not be “put upon.” After they separated, I saw no more of them.


The Omnibus, 1857

In some ways, perhaps, bus travel doesn’t change much. This is an letter to the Leeds Mercury about the early, horse-drawn omnibuses.

I have had the misfortune to ride with people half drunk, three quarters drunk, quite drunk, noisy drunk, sleepy drunk, dead drunk. The omnibus, unfortunately for some of us, passes two or three places of resort in Briggate and elsewhere, where men is respectable positions congregate of an evening to talk and tipple, then ride home in a public conveyance to the disgust of all decent people. Could not a tippler’s omnibus be started for these should-be-gentlemen? I am not a teetotaller, but I hate to sit in a small compartment of about 4 feet wide by 6 feet long, with two, perhaps three redolent gentlemen trying to talk without stuttering, but none of whom could pronounce intelligibly the word ‘statistics’, if it were to save his life.


The Places of Crime, 1859

A police report noted:

120 houses of ill-fame; 30 public houses; 50 beerhouses; and seven coffee shops, all being resorts for thieves and prostitutes. There are also 120 low lodging houses which accommodate 622 persons nightly, several of them of questionable character requiring the attention of the police.


Death and the Ballad, 1885

When William Snowden’s keel boat, the Edward & William, capsized at Whitton Sands in 1885, only one man seemed to survive. But his wife and three children remained trapped in a pocket of air on the boat, and were freed after seventeen hours. Two of the children died on board. Mrs. Snowden and one child survived. A ballad was written and sold in Leeds to raise money for them.

The Keel to Leeds returning from Grimsby we are told,
In charge of Chaptain Snowden a sailor young & bold.
And in the vessel down below his sleeping children lay,
And two with him to sleep in death upon the coming day.

Soon come the shock, the keel overturned the husband’s spirits fled,
His gallant heart’s ceased beating he is numbered with the dead.
The mother clutched her little ones that slept so peacefully,
And tried, so hard to save them but alas twas not to be…

The water rose about her and higher still it came
The little arms are around her neck and she calls each one by name.
But when the water sunk again she knew one spirit fled,
And called her little Lizzies name but ah! her child was dead…

At last they hear her knocking and willing hands contrive
To save the mother and the only one she’s left alive.
What tongue can tell her feelings or who shall know her grief,
Pray God in all her mercy send her stricken heart relief.


Tom Maguire, 1886


Maguire was one of the most important – and largely unheralded – figures in late 19th century Leeds politics. He was a union organiser, a proud proponent of Socialism, and played a vital role in the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. He made his living as a photographer’s assistant and died penniless on Quarry Hill in 1895 at the age of 29. This reminiscence comes from Alf Mattison:

My first meeting with Tom Maguire was also the occasion of my first acquaintance with socialism. It must have been sometime early in 1886 that, strolling through the Market-place of Leeds, my attention was attracted to a pale but pleasant featured young man, who in a clear voice began speaking to a motley crowd. After listening for a while I began to feel a strange sympathy with his remarks, and – what is more – a sudden interest in and liking for the speaker; and I remember how impatiently I waited for his reappearance on the following Sunday. A few months later I joined ‘the feeble band, the few’ and became a member of the Leeds branch of the Socialist League…


Jewish Labour, 1885

Published in Arbeiter Freund, this is a strong reminder of the collective action taken by Jewish tailors in the Leylands in 1885. Many came from Poland and Russia and settled in the triangle of the Leylands, a network of streets running just north of the city centre towards Sheepscar. This is possibly an outside voice, but sheds some valuable political light.

In the history of the Jewish labour movement in England, Leeds will, without doubt, occupy one of the nicest places, if not, indeed, the first place. And, in truth, whilst in some other towns such as Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Nottingham, Birmingham and others, the Jewish workers are not even organised in societies, or are entirely beneath the heel of the masters, having entirely surrendered their free will to them, the Leeds workers have, in this regard, made enormous progress. They have not stopped at this…they have decided to open a co-operative grocery shop, and, by this means, to free themselves from the shopkeepers, butchers, ritual slaughterers, milk-and-butter dealers, etc., who live and get fat on the sweat of the workers like rats on a living corpse.


Criminals, 1892


The Chief Constable requested more officers to cover the increased area of Leeds and deal with all the urban problems.

In the Borough residing at present are 21 known convicts, 17 persons under police supervision, 335 suspected persons, i.e., persons who seldom or never work, but loaf about the streets, watching persons getting into or out of tramcars with a view to picking pockets, or frequently following women who are of loose repute, and who entice men into secluded spots where they are robbed and ill treated by the man or men and woman.

Places to be most avoided are the Dark Arches, Swinegate, Whitehall Road, or anywhere behind the Queen’s and Great Norther Hotels.


A Hunslet Home, 1894

The booklet Hypnotic Leeds appeared in 1894, a polemic about the problems the working-classes in Leeds lived with every day. This was written by Joseph Clayton, a blanket-raiser who lived in Hunslet.

The typical workman’s house in Leeds has one living room, adorned with sink and taps for washing purposes, two bedrooms, and an attic in which is possibly a bath. The bath is the one redeeming point, and the corporation should insist on it being built in every house.

The sink and taps on the other hand are depressing in a sitting room, and the smell of the atmosphere of the weekly wash not conducive to health of mind or body. If we prefer to dry our clothes across the street and not indoors we may gratify our neighbours’ curiosity as to the condition and quality of our under-clothing, but the smoke of Leeds resents our brandishing clean clothes in the open air and showers down smuts. Of the necessary sanitary arrangements of every dwelling-house – it is difficult to speak calmly in Leeds. Our ashpits which adorn the street are the resting place for decayed vegetable matter, and domestic refuse generally; the stench from them is probably a sweet smelling savour to the arch fiend, but it is poison to the children who play around them.


The Machine Girl’s Life, 1896

This comes from Richard Sheracy’s superb expose, The White Slaves of England: The Slipper-makers and Tailors of Leeds, published in Pearson’s Magazine.

I come in at 8am. If I’m late I’ll be fine 1d or 2d. There will be nothing for me to do. Then I’ll sit at my machine doing nothing till half-past twelve. Then I’ll ask the foreman if I may go home. He’ll say: “No, there’s orders coming up after dinner.” Dinner? I probably haven’t any, knowing work was slack and expecting to get home. So I go without. At half-past one, I’ll go back to my machine and sit doing nothing. Foreman will say “Work hasn’t come up yet.” I have to sit at my machine.

Once I fainted from hunger, and asked to be allowed to go home, but they wouldn’t let me, and locked me up in the dining-room. I stay at my machine till 3 or 4. Then the foreman will say, as though he were conferring a favour: “The orders don’t seem to be going in, you can go home till the morning.” And I go home without having earned a farthing. Sometimes work may come in the afternoon, and then I will stay on till 6.30, earning wage for the last two or three hours.


The Traffic Problem, 1898

A report by the Chief Constable.

The rowdyism in Briggate is a matter most difficult to deal with owning to the number of people using this busy thoroughfare, it being next to impossible to keep people to the right of the pavement, arising from the great number of side passages leading in and out of Briggate. On the 7th January 1898, a number of men were placed in Briggate to note particularly the number of vehicles and pedestrians passing. They watched from 8.20pm to 8.30pm at one point not exceeding 30 yards, on the west side of Briggate and noted 2,306 pedestrians, 3 omnibuses, 10 tramcars, 3 four wheeled cabs, 6 hansoms ans 2 post mail carts.

The Club for Mill Girls, 1890s

To try and keep mill girls out of the gin palaces and music halls, and on the straight, narrow path, middle class women would set up clubs for them with wholesome activities. Several existed in Leeds in the 1890s.

We have taken a large room and made it look as tempting as we can, with bright curtains and some pictures, and above all a very fair piano, which to our musical Yorkshire girls is an endless source of pleasure.


The Old Market Cross and the Fish, 1897

The market cross had stood at the top of Briggate since the 1600s, but was demolished tin the 19th century. More Annals of Leeds contains a reminiscence vaguely about it by Mr. William Campbell.

Between the south end of the cross and the noth end of the Middle Row was the fish market. I have a vivid recollection of a jolly good natured looking fishwife who had the principal stall near the cross. Returning one day from taking my father’s dinner, I stood watching the woman empty a hamper of fish, when taking out a fair sized cod, she remarked, “There’s been a devil at that fish.” A large piece had apparently been bit off its shoulder. Looking at me, she said, “Here, my bonnie lad, take that home to your mother, and tell her to boil it for your dinner; it’s no worse for having that piece bitten out.” I scarcely need say I ran all the way to Woodhouse with the fish, and how welcome it was. My father was employed by a corn merchant; his wages were 15s a week, out of which a family of seven had to be supported. His hours of work were much nearer sixteen per day than eight. A dinner of boiled fish was a treat to us. The fish market was held on Thursdays, and I may say that fish was sold much cheaper in those days than it is now.

Hunslet, 1930s

In Memories of Distant Days (1989) Carrie Stocks wrote about growing up in Hunslet in the 1930s.

We were surrounded by factories and work shops. At the bottom of our street was Belinda Street; Bromley’s Coffee Works was in the middle of Belinda Street and the smell of coffee hung round most of the day. Alongside was Lax and Shaw’s Glass Storage Depot so the chink of glass bottles could be heard. The smell from the Lead Works of Wilson and Jubb also permeated the surroundings, as they were a few yards higher up the street.

In Church Street was the Chemical Works; they threw out a yellow dust which settled on the pavements, roads and gardens, and gave off a smell of sulphur. On Low Road opposite my school was the Hygenol Soap Works where they manufactured disinfectants, polish and soap. A little further along the road was the Coglan Iron and Steel Works, giving out loud sounds of metal being beaten by trip hammers.

The Wireworks and the Nail Mill with machines working loudly were on Penny Hill, and on the wind came the smell of fish and leather from the Fish Canneries and Tanneries just over Balm Road Bridge.

Hill 60, Wrangler Jackets, and the Art of the Cool

A little while ago I was sitting at the top of Hill 60 in Roundhay Park, enjoying the slightly hazy sunshine. The school holidays are in full swing, parents with out with their kids, boys playing frisbee, and teenagers simply hanging out.

I was one of them once, back when I was about 14-16. Those with long memories will recall that Hill 60 was once terraced, somewhere for people to sit and watch the Saturday cricket matches or the events there. On a sunny summer Sunday, or during the school holidays I’d walk the half hour up there from home and sit myself on the bottom terrace. Not for the cricket, but for the girls who went past.

Of course, I had to be dressed just so. A shirt, sometimes a paisley one, Levi’s, and my petrol blue cord Wrangler jacket. Because, of course, that looked cool. Maybe. And I’d always have a book with me. Not only because it made me darkly intellectual, but so I could actually read it after I’d had enough of being ignored by the passing girls.

I wasn’t cool, of course. I was a music and words nerd. I played bass in a band, although we’ll slide over the fact that we weren’t very good and only played one gig, where the main comment was ‘turn it down.’

Did I ever meet any girls on those long, sunny afternoons? I seem to recall talking to a few, since I wasn’t the shy, retiring creature I was today, and going home with a bit of a tan, my mother saying I look brown as a berry. But I don’t believe I ever went out with any of those girls. The dates seemed to come from Roundhay High School, right next door to Roundhay Grammar, where I was a pupil.

But it’s nice to think that for a couple of year I looked cool. Maybe.

Waterloo Lake – 1815

It’s a wet Wednesday in Leeds, and that makes it a good time for a story. If you know Leeds, if you’ve even just visited, there’s a good chance you know Roundhay Park. And so you’d know Waterloo Lake, often just called the Big Lake. Things might not have happened quite this way, but according to the stories passed down it might have been very similar…

The foreman looked at him doubtfully.
“I don’t know, lad. This is a job that needs muscle. You’ve not got much of that.”
Joe breathed deeply. How many times had he gone through this in the last six months?
“I’ve been all over England looking for work, sir. I can do my share and more. If I don’t, just turn me out. But there’s not much food on the road.”
Not much in his belly, either, he thought. Berries that he’d found that morning on his way here, and the charity of his sister’s bench for sleeping and a loaf of bread in Leeds yesterday.
“You were in the army, you said?” The foreman had a grizzled face and wide, scarred knuckles. His breeches were thick and patched, old boots scuffed to nothing.
“Yes, sir. The Fourteenth. Started in the first battalion and then in the second as a corporal.”
“The peninsula?”
“Yes, sir. Spain and we followed Wellington up into France. And served in the Lowlands, too, when we were there.” Joe turned his head and spat at the memory. Half his platoon had died of Walcheren fever and they’d never fired a shot.
The foreman chewed at a fingernail as he thought.
“From Leeds?” he asked.
“Long time ago,” Joe admitted. After twelve years away fighting it didn’t feel like home. But nowhere did. He’d only drifted back because he’d run out of other places to go. And then he’d found that his mam and the bastard she’d married were both dead, his brothers scattered who knew where. Only Emily left, and that husband of hers had been grudging enough about a night’s lodging. At least he’d told them about the work here. A landowner making a lake he’d said, and employing men who’d been in the army. Happen they’d take you on, he said.
“I’ll give you a chance,” the foreman decided finally. “Tuppence a day and two quarts of beer. But if you don’t pull your weight, you’ll be gone. He pointed to a hut in the distance. “Report over there.”
“Yes, sir.” He hesitated a moment, then asked, “Is it right that this is going to be a lake.”
“Aye. Mr. Nicholson thinks it’ll look better like that. More harmonious, he said.” He scratched his head and looked at the long deep scar in the ground that stretched for a good half mile. “Can’t say as he’s wrong, neither. Better than a bloody quarry, any road.” The creases on the foreman’s face turned into a smile. “Going to name it Waterloo lake, celebrate the victory. Were you there, lad?”
Joe shook his head. The army had paid him off after they’d caught Boney for the first time. Cast him adrift in England without even a thank you for the thousands of miles he’d marched, all the powder and shot he’d fired or the friends left on battlefields. There’d been hundreds like him, thousands maybe. They could spot each other with ease, skin darkened by years of foreign sun and the eyes of men who’d thought they were needed only to discover that they weren’t once the cannon stopped roaring.
He’d been better off than some; he still had all his limbs and his wits. He could work. He would have, too, if there’d been any jobs. He’d worked where he could, begged when he had to. He’d been moved on from parishes by beadles, sentenced to seven days in jail as a vagrant down South when all he wanted was to earn his keep. Tuppence was a fair wage. It was only September. The days were still hot, the nights warm and dry enough to sleep outside. He’d be able to find somewhere around here. God knew, there was enough space.
He marched across to the hut, aware that people would be watching him, judging him. The door was open, a man studying a drawing weighted down on a table. A gentleman, from the cut of his clothes. Joe stood at attention for a minute, waiting for him to turn, then gave a small cough. The man looked up quickly, blinking against the sunlight.
“You must be a new man.”
“Yes, sir. Joseph Colton, sir.”
“Old John decided you were worth a try, did he?” The man had a calm smile and an easy manner.
“Yes, sir. I suppose so, sir.” He’d say whatever the man wanted. Tuppence a day would see him right for a while.
“Do you have any engineering training, Mr. Colton?”
“No, sir. Just building ramparts in Spain, that’s all.”
“Good.” The man’s smile widened. “That’s more or less what we’re doing here. We’re making a dam to create a lake.” He came out, ducking his head under the low lintel. “You see over there, that low side? We’re digging out from the bottom to dam it all there. There’s another lake. We’re going to bring in water from there and it’ll look perfect.”
“Yes, sir.” Joe gazed around. There had to be fifty or sixty men in the quarry, some digging, others moving earth in carts, by hand or goading donkeys along. “Is that what I’ll be doing, sir?”
“It is, Mr. Colton. We need the dam finished before winter comes.” The man raised his eyes. “Mind you, that might be a while yet if God keeps smiling on us like this. You were a soldier?”
“In the Fourteenth.”
“Ah, good!” The man beamed, the sun catching his fair hair so it almost seemed white. “The West Yorkshires as was. Right. There’s a path cut just over there. Mattocks and spades are at the bottom. And the ale barrel, of course,” he added quickly. “Start at six, dinner at eleven, finish at six.” He drew a watch on a fine gold chain from the pocket of his waistcoat and pursed his lips thoughtfully. “It’s just gone eight. You work hard and I think we can stretch to paying you for a full day.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Calling it a path was generous, Joe decided. In places some of the dirt had crumbled away so that the track was less than a foot wide, and a sheer drop down the quarry for anyone who fell. He walked carefully, testing each pace forward, until he reached the bottom.

By six the worst of the heat had faded from the day. He sat in the welcome shade of a tree, sipping from a mug of ale. Simply walking back up from the quarry had seemed like an impossible effort. He’d spent the day shovelling earth onto an endless procession of carts. By dinner he felt as if there was a fire in his back and his shoulders. He’d forced himself to continue through the afternoon, the sun on him. Blisters grew and burst on his hands, then more came until he could barely take hold of anything.
When work was done he’d waited for the foreman to return and pocketed his wages.
“You can come back tomorrow,” he man told him. “You’re hired on.”
He still had half the loaf his sister had given him and a blanket in his pack. All he needed was somewhere by a stream and he’d be fine for the night. A group of workers passed, raising their arms a weary salute.
“Where are you staying?” one of them called and Joe only shrugged. He wanted a little longer here first, settled under the coolness of an oak.
“We’ve got a camp,” another said. “You might as well come and join us.”
Slowly, Joe pushed himself upright. It was like Spain, when every rest only made going on more difficult. You continued because you had to, because not moving meant a whipping or death from the robbers who roamed the country.
He caught up with them close to the top of the lake, where woods came down to the water.
“We’re over there. Plenty of room.” The man gave a hoarse laugh. “Did you I hear you say earlier that you were from Leeds?”
“Aye,” Joe agreed. “Once.”
“Changed much?”
“I suppose so.” More people, the chimneys of the manufactories with their smoke, the streets full and feeling dangerous. Or perhaps he’d been the one to change.
“Welcome home, anyway,” the man said.

Roundhay Park And Me

On the first lovely day of the year, with the promise of spring so strong and the breeze gently fresh rather than chilling, what else is a man to do but go for a walk? And for me, that means Roundhay Park in Leeds. It’s local, and I have a history with those 700 acres. A greatly interrupted one, but it’s there, nonetheless.

It was where we ran cross country at school, around the Upper Lake, off through the woods and gorge and back. On summer Sundays I’d walk over there, dressed in what I thought was cool (and undoubtedly wasn’t) trying to meet girls. There were boats for hire on the small lake, the café was little more than a shack, and the Mansion was a posh restaurant.

I left the city before the park became a venue for concerts. The only thing that happened in the area then was cricket in the summer – as it still does.

Walking today, there are things that have changed, but so much more that’s the same. Where I fished for sticklebacks might be fenced off, but people still walk their dogs and stroll. Families stick together, children in strollers or running, maybe riding their bikes with training wheels. Girls are out in their twos or fours, there are boys playing football or tossing a ball, shirts off to impress. Old people just taking the air.

The park is still exactly what John Barran hoped when he took a chance and purchased it for the people of Leeds in 1872. It’s still very much the people’s park, a wonderfully democratic space.

But more than that, like many parks, it’s essentially an unchanging space. Sitting at the top of Hill 60 and looking down, there’s very little that would have been different a century or more ago. The fashions have changed, but so much else is the same. I almost felt that if I looked close enough I’d be able to see a younger men, sitting there and looking hopeful.

Walking With Ghosts

It’s six days since we moved into this new place. Six days since I came back to Leeds and 37 years since I left. And I’ve returned pretty much to the neighbourhood where I grew up. It’s a feeling of both tension and relief. Even after so long, this is familiar ground. I know the streets, I know the shopping areas, I can find my way from A to B without thinking.

In these six days I’ve done a fair bit of walking. But at every turn I find myself face to face with the person I was all that time ago. He comes with baggage. A mother and a father, a dog, the friends of his youth. He’s the ghost who walks every step beside me.

Sometimes I almost see him from the corner of my eye, wearing the old dark blue Navy greatcoat he favoured once the weather turned cold, or the cheap hippie Afghan coat that stank of goat whenever it was wet. His hair is longer – but not long, school wouldn’t allow that – and sometimes he’s carrying a guitar. He always has a paperback book peeking out of his pocket. Sometimes he seems to turn towards me with a questioning look, as if to say, ‘You look strangely familiar. Do I know you?’

It’s been six days of walking here and there. The ginnels and alleys that were my way home from school. The road to the tennis courts. The park where I lay on my back on a summer’s night in 1968, having had my head torn apart by Easy Rider, the hill at Roundhay Park, which was cut into terraces then, where I’d spend warm weekend afternoons hoping to meet girls. The paddle boats that no longer exist on the lake. Seeing the faint outline of a shaggy little dog roaring over the grass, happy to be off his lead and free.

Heartbreak, joy, and the day-to-day tedium. An awakening into adulthood. So many of the streets and the buildings around here hold my stories. For six days now I feel I’ve been walking with ghosts, going to place to place and collecting those stories, putting them in a bag and moving on to the next one. Six days so far, but many, many more to come. Then, perhaps, there’ll be new ghosts walking.

Leodensians And Unconvention

So we’re in. We’re Leodensians – in my case, again. After what turned out to be months of solicitors and leasehold companies taking their time, moving day arrived Friday and the completion and physical move went as smoothly as something like that could (I’m still missing a box of clothes but it’s probably with so many other boxes in the garage). The weather’s even co-operated, with glorious sunshine for the last couple of days. Thank you, Leeds.

Then yesterday saw the launch of my new novel Fair and Tender Ladies at the 2013 Book Crossing Unconvention. Taking the bus into town, down roads that were once so familiar, I realised that yes, I did live here now. The event was a great success – wonderful audience and such avid readers – and an extra frisson on the bus journey home as I realised the vehicle would go past the building that had once been the Victoria pub in Sheepscar, an important place in my next novel.

To top it all off, a fairly long walk through Roundhay. Not the park; we’ve been there several times on recent trips up here, and there will be many, many chances to explore it all. No, this took us to the stunning specialty gardens, with the Monet and Alhambra gardens being outstanding, then along Old Park Road, down the ginnel by Roundhay School that was my way home when I was a pupil there, back along Gledhow Lane and over Soldiers’ Field. Quite literally retracing so many steps of my youth, remembering when we threw cherry pits at a house and the owner chased us back to school, the trek every other week to the gold club (it was better than playing rugby) or the tennis courts (an interest that last for one summer term after I’d been knocked out by a cricket ball).

From the end of our drive, we look out over acres and acres of playing fields. If there tress weren’t there, my old school would be in sight. It’s strange to come full circle this way, to walk into the ghost of my teenage years. I’d never really expected it, but over the last few months my excitement at returning has risen. And now I’m so happy to be back.