- Leeds Libraries Heritage Volunteer Tony Scaife follows up his previous post with another delve into the pages of The Palm, the old Central High School magazine of the 1920s.
Prompted by the city of Leeds’ Tercentenary in July 1926, two articles written by schoolboys for The Palm seem almost prophetic, dealing as they do with such modern-sounding topics as community television, a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, and a measure to reduce air pollution. But, as we shall see, The Palm always remained rooted firmly in the ethos of its day.
The first pupil, JCG, writes of an imagined Leeds one hundred years in the future, where viewers of a television-like screen listen to an address on the “future overlapping of Leeds, Bradford, York, Manchester and other big towns”. Leeds’ role in both film and television development is often overlooked but, within one year of JCG’s article appearing, John Logie Baird was demonstrating Noctovision television broadcasting (using the infrared spectrum) at Leeds University, on the road to developing public television a few years later. Perhaps, in 1926, JCG had also heard of the ‘Sultan of Leeds’ Sir Charles Wilson (then an MP, leader of the City Council and luminary of the Tercentenary celebrations) and his modern-sounding ambition for a Northern Powerhouse stretching from the Pennines to the North Sea (Thornton, 2002, p.176).
JCG’s story concludes with visions of elevated roads, a multi-level city and “great winged monsters … travelling at thousands of miles an hour” – standard images one might think in a world where cinema and comics like Adventure, Rover and Wizard were beginning to feature heavily in the cultural diet of secondary school boys (Chapman, 2011, pp.29-34). Indeed, at this time, “story papers and comics were the most popular reading matter amongst juveniles” (ibid.) but, for our next contributor, there is a darker tone to his article, perhaps reflecting a greater sensitivity to the social problems and tensions of his time.
EM starts, conventionally enough for the genre, when he writes of a Stranger who “visited Leeds in order to see the celebration of the Quartuscentenary” [sic]. The Stranger finds a “fine city” where fire has destroyed the “older streets and edifices … but much finer buildings have been erected”. During his stay, the Stranger is enamoured enough of the invention to climb the 300 hundred feet to the top of the city’s “smoke absorbing tower … This noble structure is a fine example of modern engineering. It stands in a vast open space”.
At first sight, air quality seems strange concern for a boy, then about 13 or 14, whose contemporaries were envisaging big-screen televisions and “winged monsters”. But from firsthand experience he must have known how “pollution from mills, factories and the chimneys of every home blackened the buildings and hung like a pall over the city with fog frequently bringing it to a standstill” (Thornton, 2002, p.187). Certainly Peter Lapish’s painting of Boar Lane around 1945 clearly captures the smog still prevalent twenty years later:
Image taken from the Leodis website
Thus, air pollution was contributing significantly to “the chief causes of death in Leeds … heart disease, bronchitis, pneumonia, phthisis [TB]” according to the Leeds Official Tercentenary Handbook of 1926 (p.155). EM’s focus on air quality remains an issue today and a version of his imaginary “smoke absorbing tower” is now a reality in Rotterdam. Public health matters, though, were only one of the many topics covered in the handbook. Streets across the city centre were decorated, as for instance the junction of Bond Street and Albion Street:
There is a full listing of Tercentenary events from 7 to 17 July 1926 (pp.79-85). Reading the programme, one may think it lacks any sense of the family-friendly, community engagement style we have come to expect. Judge for yourself, since any citizen tired of viewing the apparently endless civic processions could avail themselves of a “special shopping day” on Monday 10 July (still nothing changes apparently!) or visit the electricity works, the gas works, Knostrop sewage works, or the Headingley waterworks. The handbook is truly a mine of fascinating detail and immense civic pride. Every department of the Council has the opportunity to extol its virtues from “the 350 men and 150 horses and carts [contriving] to keep the streets clean” (p.160) to the Finance Department, Town Planners and, we’re pleased to see, proper recognition of the “pre-eminence of Leeds libraries” (p.183).
But the high-minded EM appears not to be distracted by thoughts of civic processions and visits to sewage works – or even the torchlight parade, military tattoo in Roundhay Park or local BBC radio station broadcasting plays specially written for Leeds. (Perhaps, though, he heard the band concerts in every civic park on those nights?) Instead, the last half of his article has the pilgrim-like Stranger atop his smoke absorbing tower, watching “as the setting sun rested on the highest towers only” and, with adolescent angst, contemplating how “every aeon must end” and “perhaps this very night the world will vanish into the nebulous substance”.
1990s image from Leodis, showing the dome of Leeds Town Hall.
Maybe there were reasons for a sensitive EM’s ‘end of times’ feeling. Memories of the Great War were still fresh, and it would be another year before Central High School unveiled its own war memorial (see The Palm, December 1927, p.11). In addition, the General Strike of 1926, seen then by some as the start of a Communist revolution, had just ended. While the picketing had been largely peaceful, there had been a serious riot in Duncan Street (Thornton, 2002, pp.195-196).
EM almost certainly heard Dr Baillie’s “Talk on Citizenship” when, as Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds, Baillie awarded certificates at the end of the summer term of 1926. Midway through his address, Baillie observed “there can be no greater ambition for any boys proceeding from a school like this than to live for his city”. A similar noble sentiment at a prizegiving would not be out of place today, but surely not Ballie’s following phrase: “and die for his country”.
EM was probably too young to have much direct memory of the Great War but, of the teaching staff probably listening to Dr Baillie, at least three had returned from war service, whilst two pre-war teachers had been killed. In fact, over thirty of the pre-war teachers had seen military service (Jenkins, 1985, p.101). For those for whom it had been a recent and very real possibility, one does wonder how they reacted on hearing the words “and die for his country”.
We shall never fully know they felt for, as LP Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. So, for example, The Palm of this time only ever signed articles with initials. Thus the hunt goes on to hopefully put full names to JCG and EM as they progress through school. In the meantime The Palm itself, together with all the other resources of the Local and Family History Library and wider library service, will always help us peer into this foreign country.
Baillie, JB (1926), “Talk on Citizenship” in The Palm 7(3), Dec 1926, p.6 (Shelf mark: L 373 P18).
Chapman, James (2011) British Comics: A Cultural History, Reaktion Books (Art Library 741.5).
Hartley, LP (1958) The Go-between, Penguin Books, p.1.
EM (1926) “What a stranger said who visited Leeds in 2026” in The Palm 7(2), July 1926, p.21 (L 373 P18).
Jenkins, EW (1985) A Magnificent Pile: A Centenary History of Central High School, City of Leeds School (L 373 JEN).
JCG (1926) “Leeds in one hundred years from now” in The Palm 7(2) July 1926, p.17 (L 373 P18).
Leeds Tercentenary Official Handbook 1926 (L 942.819 LEE).
Thornton, David (2002) Leeds: The Story of a City, Fort Publishing (L 942.819 THO).