Part I in a loose trilogy of posts exploring (some) meanings behind the study of local history. Part II is here and Part III is here
by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library
The proper study of history should always be far more than a record of ‘great’ events. History is as much about the grain of everyday life, the texture and feel of our surroundings, the little details – the streets we walk, the buildings we pass, the places we visit, the conversations we hold – which cumulatively build a sense of lives lived at a particular time in a particular place. It would be easy to think that our environment is somehow inevitable, that the things around us have always been the way they are today – but behind each location, however unassuming, lies a story rich in the humanity of those that came before. History – which is just another way of saying ‘change’ – is, then, all around us in every step we take and our familiarity with its contours and detours reminds us that nothing should be taken for granted.
That is the case with our recent discovery that Leeds’ first Espresso Coffee Bar opened in 1954; a seemingly uncomplicated event that holds behind its headline detail an archaeology of major changes to the way everyday people lived everyday lives in the city. Because the location, indeed the very existence, of that Espresso machine – in the Schofield’s Centre on the Headrow – was itself the result of changes that had been gradually taking shape along one of Leeds’ oldest roads over more than 20-years; a shifting mutation before the very eyes of Leodiensians – from narrow lanes, cramped back-yards and one-storey family emporiums into a major shopping and entertainment centre for a growing urban middle-class.
That change began in 1924 when the Council approved plans to widen what was then the narrow ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ ‘Head Row’ into a main road of some grandeur, an artery that would connect east and west and one which would serve as a grand route to the Park Lane area running along the front of the Municipal Buildings and Town Hall: the Civic heart of the city.
That widening would require the clearing of properties on the north side of the proposed new road. And that clearing meant the loss of many of the buildings that had occupied that space for more years than most cared to remember. The occupants of those buildings – family-run shops, in the main – were replaced with the opulence of sites designed to a uniform scheme laid down by Sir Reginald Bloomfield. Those sites, including Permanent House, Lewis’s department store and the Odeon Cinema, marked the emerging transition of the city from a centre of textile and industry to something more closely resembling the service-driven economy we know today.
That transition had already been under-way on the south side of the new road since the Victorian era, with the development of such retail centres as the Thornton and Victoria Arcades. It was in the latter that Snowden Schofield began his retail empire, extending from one small shop in 1901 to the acquisition of the entire Arcade by 1947. Along the way Schofield obtained the sites of the 17th-century Red Hall (1912); the Hippodrome Theatre (1934); and the Cock and Bottle Inn (1938): all significant sites of heritage and memory, all lost in a rush to growth that was as inevitable and even, perhaps, as necessary as it was destructive (after all, those cramped back-yards were far from hygienic).
That expansion, and the wider redevelopment of the Headrow, reveal the exponential demand for luxury consumer experiences in the 20th-century. And that demand is the context for the arrival, in September 1954, of a new destination for a middle-class keen to sample goods associated with the taste and fashion of 1950s Europe. The Schofield Espresso machine, then, marks the shift from one kind of Leeds – the organic outgrowth of a 19th-century industrial powerhouse, a place known for making things – to another, far more recognisable, Leeds – with an ultramodern, but more than faintly ersatz, focus on leisure and consumption
That may seem like a lot of cultural weight for one Espresso machine to carry, but its story certainly matters: matters most simply because, as Walter Benjamin wrote, “nothing that is human should be regarded as lost to history”; but it matters more subtly because that Espresso bar altered the environments – Schofield’s, the Headrow, Leeds – in which it was located. Our environment shapes our identities; and those identities shape our interactions, determining as a consequence the character of the places we inhabit each and everyday. Identities alter in the presence of an object that signifies something different to the familiar objects of daily life; people alter in the presence of such an object. And when people change, places change too.
But the Espresso machine also matters because it reminds us of those individuals who made the best lives they could in circumstances not entirely of their own making; those who struggled to survive in the narrow cramped back-yards around the ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ ‘Head Row’; and those whose small businesses were swept away in the changes required to make that new Headrow a fashionable destination for retail and entertainment.
Those lives should be remembered each time we make the journey across our city centre in search of somewhere fashionable to eat or shop or drink. Because bit-by-bit, in their own small but very significant way, each one of those lives contributed something to the growing wealth of a city that expanded to accommodate that first Espresso Coffee Bar in 1954, growing to an unfathomable number by 2015 – all set within the stone ‘bars’, the boundaries, of the old medieval township.
One of those bars – the West, or Burley, bar – was to be found on the corner of Albion Street and what was formerly known as Guildford Street, which ran down to the Guildford Hotel (now The Northern Monkey), alongside shops that were described even in 1906 as ‘old fashioned’.
The Burley bar can still be seen close to its original location, only now inside the headquarters of the Leeds Building Society, one of the many new buildings constructed after the widening of the Headrow. That the bar is situated just yards from an opportunity to enjoy a genuine Italian espresso, inside another building – Permanent House, now The Light – that sprang up alongside the same widening – is perhaps a fitting place to end our story: a reminder of just how much has changed within our city centre, how much has been lost to bring that change into being – and how much still survives behind and beneath the glittering face of modernity.
Espresso in Leeds today: La Bottega Milanese in The Light, former home of Permanent House.Disclaimer: other coffee houses are available and this drink was paid for with the author’s own money
- Discovering Leeds
- Heap, Ann and David Sheard. The Headrow: A Pictorial Record (1990)
- Shop magazine, September 1954. L658.87 SH77 (please ask in the Local and Family History library to see this item)
- Thornton, David. Leeds: A Historical Dictionary of People, Places and Events
9 Comments Add yours
Superb! This piece on Leeds’ first espresso coffee bar where it meets previous improvements on The Headrow and Alexandra Street/City Art Gallery succinctly sums it up for me where redevelopment did take place in the interwar years. A reminder too of the changing face of Leeds and the everyday which is sometimes taken for granted I feel.
Superb – and the Leodis Archive is such a wonderful resource too! This article on Leeds’ first espresso coffee bar where it meets previous improvements on The Headrow and Alexandra Street/City Art Gallery succinctly sums it up where redevelopment took place in the interwar years. A reminder too of the changing face of Leeds and the everyday which is sometimes taken for granted I feel.
Isn’t Leodis fab? I can get lost for hours on there. This is an interesting post, a good reminder that there’s history behind everything.