Walk through Woodhouse Moor on any summer’s day and you are sure to see throngs of young revellers. But, we wondered, how did our ancestors enjoy the Moor during warm weather? We took a look in the Leeds Mercury, via the 19th-century British Newspapers website (free to all library members) to find out.
Our most interesting find revolved around a series of free open-air concerts that took place on Woodhouse Moor during the 1800s. These concerts, which attracted thousands, seem to have begun after an “experimental” season of musical concerts by the “Leeds Rational Recreation Society” in 1852; deemed an overwhelming success, it was decreed that bands would play on Woodhouse Moor two days a week during June and July “for the amusement and gratification of the working classes.” These concerts must have been a success – because a year later, on the 23rd of July, 1853, the Mercury was commending the tradesmen of Leeds for their decision to close early, thus allowing people to enjoy the charms of the Woodhouse Moor performances.
But by 1856 there was trouble in the summer air – bad weather preventing performances in June of that year. This came as a welcome surprise to the religious communities of Leeds as, by now, the performances had begun taking place on Sundays, as well as Mondays and Saturdays. A small article was posted in the Mercury on the 28th June 1856 by the Primitive Methodist Preachers, objecting wholeheartedly to such a sacrilegious outrage: “the evils resulting from such innovations on the Lord’s Day…are fearful and numerous”. Their mood was probably not helped by a report from two days previous that mourners at a funeral taking place at Woodhouse cemetery were disturbed by the sound of the band performing on the Moor!
It is not clear whether these objections resulted in the concerts being stopped – but there are no more references to them taking place until 1880, when a letter to the Mercury on the 12th of April of that year saw “A Townsman” calling for band performances to take place there – just as “Roundhay park is about to have its promenade concerts”. The call must have been taken up because, in February of 1882, the city council was reported to be discussing a bye-law that would prevent musical concerts taking place on Woodhouse Moor during Sundays.
Again, it is not clear if that measure was passed, but by September of 1883 the Mercury was commenting on the ending of that summer’s season of concerts and how well-attended they had been. The newspaper was, however, disappointed at how little financial support the people of Leeds were providing the organisers of the performances – in particular, the one “public-spirited gentleman” who bore the majority of costs. That article does not name names, but by May of 1890 it was reported that Alderman North was to receive a complimentary tea from the Band Committee in recognition of his continuing support. That tea formed part of a celebratory event that was attended by the Mayor, who delighted to see “thousands of people collected there, well-behaved, pleased with the band” and also spoke of the change in the Moor from a “barren wasteland” to one of the most pleasant areas of the city.
The Mayor also reminded those in attendance that all proceeds from the performances were to go to the Leeds Infirmary. It seems, however, that some were not listening to him: an article in May of 1891 saw the Mercury reporting that sums of only £25-30 were being given by the Band Committee to the Infirmary charities (small amounts, even for the time: the Leeds Library service Annual Report for 1891 reports that £389 were taken in fines that year). Two years later the same call for additional charitable donations was made.
At the same time complaint was made about the weather at the time of the early summer performances. This could, perhaps, be one reason for the small amounts of donations made. One reader of the Mercury, however, held a different view: in the edition for July 18, 1900, “A Disgusted Supporter” wrote to the paper to contend that the public’s lack of support for the Woodhouse Moor performances was due to a lack of strong audience management, a failing that was spoiling the concerts for true music lovers. He was especially distressed by the behaviour of children – “playing tig, leap frog, etc etc – whilst close to the band stand a crowd of children assemble and beat time on the railings with sticks, also put leaves in their mouths and squeak an accompaniment to the band”. Horrendously anti-social behaviour which, we are sure, will not be repeated by anyone sunning themselves on Woodhouse Moor this summer…
The images here are all taken from our photographic archive www.leodis.net