- By Tony Scaife, Heritage Volunteer, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library
One of the advantages of a Heritage Volunteer/retirement job share is the temptation it gives you to wander about in the marvellous collection of the Local and Family History Library and digress from any assigned task. I am following the life and times of the Leeds Central High School (CHS) boys of the 1920s, as revealed in their school magazine The Palm. But, my next CHS task – involving stories of their school holiday exploits – will have wait a while until we have had a brief look at two wonderfully quirky volumes I chanced across.
Firstly, though, a little scene-setting. The Leeds and District Weekly Citizen for 7 August 1914 reported how attendance at the second day of the Leeds’ Workpeople’s Hospital Fund Gala in Roundhay Park had been spoiled. The first scheduled day, on Monday 3 August, had attracted record crowds but, by Tuesday, crowds had evaporated as news of the declaration of war with Germany spread. One feels for the organisers, who had no doubt laboured mightily for months to get such a big show on the road only for some ‘b—–’ to declare a war. One also feels for the now largely idle showmen and exhibitors, including an aerial display in which the pilot had thrilled Monday’s crowds with a loop-the-loop exhibition. Perhaps that pilot was Harold Blackburn:
We know Blackburn was in Roundhay Park ten days before because he was offering free flights for the two lucky winners of a ballot at the Fancy Dress Parade and Gymkhana held on Soldiers’ Field on Saturday 25 July 1914. (Our image comes from the event programme produced by the Leeds Cycle and Motor Cycle Charity, at shelf mark: LP 796.4 L571).
In the programme, we are given a glimpse into an innocent, vaguely comic – and at times downright scary – Saturday afternoon that’s now probably lost to all living memory. Throughout the event, which ran from 2.00 to 7.00 pm, the band of the Royal Engineers (Leeds Territorials) provided the soundtrack for bicycle, motor car and motorcycle ‘musical chair’ events, as well as a parade of decorated cycles, motorcycles and cars. There were egg-and-spoon races for cyclists and variations on apple-bobbing from motorcycles and motor cars. Men and women competed but always to a strictly amateur code, with only cycling accessories and the like offered to the winners. To me, the blindfold race for motor cars sounds very scary! Blindfolded drivers would be accompanied by a steward, but can you imagine a modern risk assessment for ‘blind’ drivers in a public arena? The programme records how that Summer afternoon passed, event after event, sometimes risky but never risqué.
A bicycle is advertised for £6/17/6, a motorcycle for £42 and a light car for £105. The approximate equivalent economic values today would be £3,714, £23,000 and £65,000 respectively. Clearly even bicycles were pretty expensive in 1914, but this expense would not have deterred another, earlier generation of cyclists featured in the Local and Family History collection…
The Potternewton Cycling Club appears to have been founded around 1883, and their Monthly Record 1891-95 (LQ POT 796) is a volume recording the very height of fashionable cycling in Victorian Leeds.
Here we see the winning Potternewton team (self-styled as the ‘Potts’ or its singular members as ‘Potters’) in what looks surprisingly like modern Lycra but couldn’t possible be. Oh, what ripping fun these clearly affluent young men – and some women – enjoyed in their five recorded seasons, with their club meets on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, regularly riding to places like Otley, Ilkley and Wakefield. Then there were the annual longer rides to Thirsk and Hull, not forgetting Bridlington, where 6/6d covered all accommodation expenses for the trip. Food features regularly, with descriptions of pie-eating contests in Otley, a surfeit of boiled beef and ham in Hull, and an annual 1/6d ‘tuck in’ to a steak-and-onions end-of-season dinner at the Turk’s Head.
The annual subscription for riding members was between 5/- and 7/6d for men, 3/6d for ladies, and 2/6d for honorary members. Whilst lots of the semi-humorous reports allude to japes, drinking and drunkenness, the rides themselves had a semblance of order: one must never overtake the club captain whilst riding (although, since this injunction was often repeated, perhaps it was more honoured in the breach). Spills, crashes and punctures on the poorly-maintained roads were frequent. Many Potts rode city- and county-wide cycle races, but there is always a fierce defence of the amateur code: cash prizes could not be awarded under any circumstances.
The Potts had their rather grandly-named Headquarters in the Mexbro’ (or Mexborough) Arms on Harrogate Road, a building demolished shortly after the following photograph was taken:
Their ‘Town Quarters’ were in the Grand Restaurant on Boar Lane, next to the London Dispensing Co, and it was here that W.H. Whitelocke, a proud Potter, kept the club photographs:
What a splendid window into affluent late Victorian Leeds the Potts’ Record provides. To ease the burden on tired cyclists as they toured all three Ridings, there were hired waggonettes and a regular cycle-carrying train service to places long since bereft of such an amenity. For several seasons, the Potts had a tent in a field adjacent to the Dyneley Arms on Pool Bank, or latterly at Bramhope. Camping was 6d per night or 1/6d per week (allegedly sobriety was not included). To get their blankets and other kit to the campsite, members were encouraged to use “Marston, the Otley carrier, who starts from The Greyhound, Vicar Lane, [for he] will be glad to convey parcels to the Dyneley Arms”.
The younger Potts and others in the Leeds and District Amateur Cycling Associations also held an annual lantern parade, riding their decorated cycles through the darkening streets of Leeds. As the Record puts it, “standing at the top of Victoria Road the innumerable coloured lights flitting about produced a very pretty effect” (April 1891). Let us savour that image of simple fun, for a nighttime world without extensive electric lighting is a dark place. The Potts, and indeed the riders leaving Soldiers’ Field late on that July evening in 1914, would need to light their carbide lamps. But what we now know, and they did not, was that no lamplight could illuminate the darkness their world was riding towards. For, as Sir Edward Grey was very shortly to observe, “the lamps are going out all over Europe”, as the peace initiatives failed and The Great War began.
But out of that darkness we have these two slim cycling volumes. The programme is simply cloth-bound in boards; The Record, a finer, padded, leather-bound and gold-tooled book, as befits the Potts. Both were acquired by the Central Library in the 1980s, the latter having been donated by Miss H.M. Ford, surely a relative of J.H. Ford who was Club President in 1893 and sometime editor of the publication.
Now, whilst these books contain no universal truths, I would argue that their inestimable value (despite being intrinsically valueless) lies is the fact of their ordered preservation and capacity to make this reader think. In both volumes there is a dissertation’s worth of evidence on social attitudes, economics, technologies (cycling, printing, photography), gastronomy and the politics of sport – ample food for thought indeed for any homo sapien. Admittedly, there is little public merit in recording my solitary, cognitive pleasure, but what do I, or you, know of the much more socially valuable thinking that may be prompted by a public library a hundred years in the future?
Today there are events galore in Roundhay Park and multitudes of clubs, groups and societies thriving in Leeds, all leaving a multimedia record worthy of preservation. If thinking is the destiny of homo sapiens then, surely, it is not an ignoble aspiration that we all strive to preserve a free-thinking space where these records may be collected, collated and managed, in order to illuminate the thoughts of our successors?
Now back to the day job and the Central High schoolboys…