Theatres Through Time: A Talk, a Trail and Tate Wilkinson

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

We are pleased to announce the following event that will take place in the Local and Family History department of the Central Library on Monday the 10th of October: Theatres Through Time. This is to celebrate the launch of the city’s new Theatre Heritage Trail and will take the form of a mini-exhibition highlighting some of the fascinating theatrical collections at the library – including books and playbills. That exhibition will then be followed by a talk by the creator of the trail, Dominique Triggs, on the history of Leeds theatres. If you’re interested in attending the event, please click on the advert below to go straight to the ticket booking website.


Dominique has also written a great article if you’re keen to do some background reading before attending the talk.

As that talk will demonstrate, Leeds has a long and rich theatrical history, stretching back to at least 1722, when Ralph Thoresby noted, in his diary – and with some disapproval! – the appearance of a group of players in the town. The collections and books available in our Local and Family History department pay tribute to the depth of that history, providing a comprehensive overview of the many theatrical spaces and personalities that Leeds has played host to. With a history encompassing such diversity of people and locations, many might feel (at least this writer does) that a defined starting point or focus is required before attempting to make sense of that past.

One useful starting point would be the figure of Tate Wilkinson. Wilkinson was first an actor and then, most famously, a theatrical manager who opened the first permanent theatre in Leeds, based on Hunslet Lane and fittingly known as The Theatre or the Leeds Theatre; one of several such establishments Wilkinson operated in Yorkshire and which encompassed what is known as the ‘Yorkshire Circuit’. The Theatre was opened in 1771 and Wilkinson remained connected to it until his death in 1803. Much has been written about Wilkinson and the Theatre; and, rather than repeating the known facts again, we shall instead direct interested readers to our Discovering Leeds website to find out more.

Tate Wilkinson

Tate Wilkinson

What we can do, however, is highlight some of the relevant playbills and books available. Most obvious is the aforementioned playbills, of which over 200 from the Wilkinson era can be viewed here in the Library. You can see some selections from that collection in this previous blog post, or browse our Leodis playbills collection for a wider selection (simply select ‘The Theatre’ and narrow the search to playbills between 1781 and 1803).

A selection from the 200+ playbills during the Wilkinson era. This includes the earliest playbill at the Central Library, from 1781

A selection from the 200+ playbills during the Wilkinson era. This includes the earliest playbill at the Central Library, advertising a production of ‘School For Wives’ that took place during May of 1781

Readers can also find out more about Wilkinson’s story in his own words: the Library holds a first edition of his 1790 Memoirs and a facsimile copy of his comprehensive 1795 The Wandering Patentee: Or, A History of the Yorkshire Theatres, From 1770 to the Present Time. An index to that last four-volume book is also available. Anyone wanting to go even deeper will find texts such as The Yorkshire Stage: 1766-1803 and The Theatrical Manager in England and America: Player of a Perilous Game of great interest.

The title page of Wilkinson's Memoirs

The title page of Wilkinson’s Memoirs

And that’s just scratching the surface of the books and other materials which can help you gain an insight into this fascinating subject – click on the image below to view a research guide listing many other theatrical collection items available in the Central Library.

theatre research guide

The Civil War in the Library

The English Civil War took place from 1642 to 1651, and was a combination of military and political clashes between Parliamentarians (Roundheads), and Royalists (Cavaliers – led by King Charles I). They were primarily fighting over the nature of the government of England. The war was eventually won by the Parliamentarians, and Charles I was put on trial and executed on 30th January 1649.

The Battle of Leeds took place on 23rd January 1642, 374 years ago. Leeds was apparently of little strategic important (being much smaller than it is now). At that time, Briggate was the main street, and it still remains at the heart of the city centre.

Map of the battlefield. Reproduced from the Discovering Leeds website.

Map of the battlefield. Reproduced from the Discovering Leeds website.

Leeds, and the whole West Riding, had remained loyal to Parliament, but was then seized by the Royalist Sir William Savile, who had significant fortifications built to defend the town from recapture. In early 1642, Parliamentarian Sir Thomas Fairfax mounted a counter attack, marching his forces onto the site where the University of Leeds sits today. He sent a trumpeter to demand Savile’s surrender.

After Savile twice refused to surrender, battle was joined. The British Civil War Project states that a snowstorm was raging at this moment, although this isn’t mentioned in the limited primary sources I have read (of course that does not mean there was no storm). It certainly would have been an incredibly dramatic scene either way.

The battle lasted over three hours, and the Parliamentarians, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax, emerged victorious, with 600 prisoners. Apparently just 40 men were killed, a surprisingly low number for such bloody times. The Royalists were later decisively locked out of the North at the Battle of Marston Moor in July 1644.

Leeds Central Library boasts a huge collection of original tracts from the Civil War, bound into individual slim volumes. These tracts were issued by both Royalists and Parliamentarians, and were essentially reports on developments in the war. They seem to have had a propaganda function, as they were made available to a public audience. Browsing through them, it seems like the collection held at the Library mainly relates to events and developments in the Yorkshire area.

One such book, issued by Parliamentarians, and which directly relates to the Battle of Leeds is titled thus: A True and Plenary Relation of the Great Defeat given by my Lord Fairfax forces unto my Lord of Newcastle’s forces in Yorkshire, January 23. Which was the absolutest and considerablest victory that was obtained since the beginning of these unhappy warres

It was written by Thomas Crompton, a Parliamentarian who claims to have participated in the battle. He notes of the men fighting that day:

…most of them were but unexperienced fresh-water soldiers taken up about Bradford and Halifax but upon the Saturday before.”

It was also apparently the case that captured soldiers were released from custody after swearing an oath “never to fight again in this cause.”

To read more from this fascinating document of life in 17th-century Leeds, or to find out more about the Civil War in Yorkshire, come down to the library to check out some of these original pamphlets and books from the time. You can discover more about the Wing Collection by clicking here.

(The reference for the tract quoted here is: CIVIL WAR TRACT STC(WING) C7031. Ask in the Information and Research department on the 2nd Floor of the Central Library or call us on 0113 378 5005 to view this and other books from the Wing Collection)


Image reproduced from our Leodis photographic archive

Back to the Berthas

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

The fastest route into the past, I always think, isn’t really a family tree, a faded photo, or even an old map. It’s a story. And stories are one thing we’re not short of in Local and Family History (or the library itself, for that matter). A good story – even an average story – will give you an insight into times past in ways to which you can’t fail to respond. Try this one, for instance:

Letitia was thin, with sharp features, spectacles, usually wore a black shawl and sat at the back of the church (where she went most days) with the other widows, and visited the rest of the family regularly. She was the local ‘layer-out’. In other words, if you had a corpse on your hands, she would wash it and make it look nice for the funeral. On Christmas, she went to the house of her niece and said, “Merry Christmas! Do you know, I’ve just laid a lovely baby out.”

I actually think that’s a pretty good story. Of course, I didn’t read it in isolation like you just did. I came across it in a wider memoir, unpublished but donated to the library alongside a clutch of old photographs, which have, as we speak, all been sent off for cataloguing together. The memoir came with a title, The Berthas, which may or may not mean anything to you, depending on how versed you are in the history of Leeds. I took the opportunity to give it a more descriptive subtitle – the kind that might make it pop up as a result of a computer catalogue search if you’re researching the relevant area or time period – but I’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, here’s another story from its pages:

In their garden the priests kept chickens, the target of the local cats and dogs. They would defend their birds with an air rifle, which they also used to shoot pigeons from the roof of the church. Sometimes we would take a wounded bird home and try to cure it in the ‘snicket’ behind the house. When we failed, we usually buried the bird, but on one occasion we tried to cook it by wrapping it in clay and building a fire over it. Needless to say, we were unsuccessful. More than one small terrier dog fell foul of the priests. Floss Fozzard, the dog at no. 21, was shot by Father Morgan, who was thereafter referred to by the son of that house (a non-Catholic) as “that nasty little b*****d.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m there now, in the middle of the Berthas, with bespectacled Letitia and the trigger-happy Father Morgan. I can almost smell the smoked pigeon. The Berthas, as you might have guessed, were streets – Bertha Crescent and Mount, to be exact – out on the east of the city centre, loomed over by the Catholic church described in the last story, Mount St Mary’s, which, unlike the houses, still stands today, albeit in a state of disrepair. (If Wikipedia is to be believed, it was built over the entrance to a 17th-century mine shaft… but that’s another story.) We have a picture of the neighbourhood on Leodis, from 1947, that’s even handily labelled:


The keyword-heavy subtitle I bestowed upon The Berthas, then, was ‘Childhood Memories of Growing Up in Richmond Hill/East End Park in the 1930s and 1940s’ and, when it comes back from cataloguing, you should be able to find it at shelfmark LQP B CUL. That puts it in the Leeds ‘Quarto’ (i.e. approximately A4-sized) Pamphets, under B for Biography, and CUL, the first three letters of the author’s surname.

That author, Terry Culhane, had a real flair for storytelling – the kind of gift that meant, when I read the first few pages of his memoir, as I usually do before adding something to stock, I found it difficult to stop. He died last year but his words found their way to us via his cousin, Mike Spellman, and I can’t think of a more entertaining way to research the history of east Leeds than by reading them. After an upbringing as the second child of an Irish immigrant family, Terry’s tapestried life took him from the cobbled streets of the Berthas to a stint as a wartime spy in Berlin, a career as a teacher of Russian, and lecturing engagements around the world. I never heard any of his tales in person, but I probably won’t pass through Richmond Hill again without remembering one or two of them.

A Menagerie of Maps

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

While many people are probably already aware that the Central Library holds a great many maps relating to Leeds and Yorkshire (those who aren’t are advised to view this Research Guide for more details), a lesser-known part of our Map Collection relates to maps of England and Wales. Comprising around 200 maps in total, here is a brief look at some of the most interesting. To view any of these maps, visit the Information and Research department on the 2nd Floor of the Central Library, or call 0113 378 5005 for more details. Alternatively, click here to see a full list of this Map set.


One of forty German maps of England and Wales. From 1938, this image is of North London


Wyld’s 1849 chart of the Arctic region – as drawn for Lady Franklin in her search for her husband’s lost expedition. See also this article and Research Guide on our Arctic collections


Kitchin’s Enlarged Map of the Roads of England and Wales with the exact distances by the milestones between Town and Town (1786)


Saxton and Speede’s 1646 map of the ‘Kingdome of England’. For more on Saxton’s cartography, see this article on the rare copy of his Atlas held at the Central Library


19th-century map showing ‘England with all the Railways’


Facsimile, in two parts, of Agas’ 1560 map of London


1881 map of Western Palestine – with 30cm rule to give sense of scale


John Senex’s 1714 ‘A New Map of Great Britain’


1880 map of London drawn for the Post Office Directory

Finding a Way to Relate to the Past: the Importance of Arndale Shopping Centres

  • By Ella Brown, Universty of York. Ella spent a week with us in Local and Family History recently, getting a taste of the kinds of research we undertake, in order to broaden her experience and contribute to her ongoing studies. One particular local landmark gave her a starting-point when it came to looking into our many collections…

During my placement in the Local and Family History department of Leeds Central Library, I was overwhelmed by the massive array of resources available to the public. There are maps, censuses, electoral lists, newspaper archives, everything a History student like myself could dream of – a thousand different ways to access the past. So the real challenge was finding a way to relate to all of this information, to find out how the hundreds of years of records fitted into my life and my local area. Having always lived under the shadow of Headingley Arndale Centre, I thought researching the history of this building seemed like a good place to start.

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June 1967: Arndale House (Headingley) and Carlines Supermarket (from

Claimed to be “one of the oldest shopping centres in the country” by the Yorkshire Post, the Arndale Centre in Headingley was built in a style designed to mirror the malls of the US. A quick search on Google (and shamefully a quick read of Wikipedia) explained the origins of the word ‘Arndale’: not long after the Second World War, Arnold Hagenbach and Sam Chippendale merged their surnames to create the Arndale Property Trust. Since then, Arndale centres have spread with unbelievable speed across the country, the most well known in Leeds being the complexes located in Headingley and Crossgates.

As I researched further, I came to realise that the construction of these sites was more controversial than I had expected. In 1964, architectural writer James Lees-Milne began a wave of criticism by declaring that:

There are people today amassing stupendous fortunes by systematically destroying our historic centres… Eventually, all the buildings of the area – good, bad and indifferent – are replaced with chain stores, supermarkets and blocks of flats devoid of all distinction, and all looking alike.

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June 1967: The recently opened Arndale Centre off Otley Road, between Alma Road and Wood Lane. When the centre originally opened it contained, amongst other businesses, a Post Office and a branch of Lloyds Bank (from

Arndale Centres attracted criticism from academics and members of the public alike, as their formation was held responsible for the loss of the Victorian-era buildings that had existed in their place previously. The replacement of these historical and architecturally impressive buildings with modern, and arguably very ugly, concrete constructions seems to have caused great controversy in the latter half of the 20th Century. Initially, as a Yorkshire-born and bred girl raised in a family with a love of anything harking back to a simpler past, I was horrified by the thought of destroying these beautiful buildings. Surely they were deserving of preservation on the grounds of what they reveal to us about the way people lived in cities prior to the industrial and commercial revolutions?

Yet, following another hour or two spent scouring through the library’s maze of bookshelves and online databases, I came to the conclusion that, whilst Arndale Centres certainly removed some records of Victorian architecture, their formation has also provided historians with a whole new wealth of information. So, although I still disagree with consenting to the destruction of sites of historical interest, I do not think that we should cast off Arndale Centres as merely consumerist blots on the landscape. Viewing images of Headingley Arndale Centre on Leodis and locating it on the maps stored in the Local and Family History department has allowed me to trace the fascinating development of these shopping complexes throughout the last fifty years, and showed me their unique value.

June 1967. View shows Arndale House and Carlines Supermarket. A lorry is unloading in the street. There are cars and a second lorry on the street.

June 1967: Headingley Arndale’s bowling alley and Kentucky Fried Chicken (from

In the past century, Arndale Centres have gradually become the centre of many communities, and have generated more news stories, both good and bad, than I can fully explore here. They are a place where public events have been held, and where local societies have met. Arndale Centres have become a symbol of changing times, with the makeover of the Wandsworth Arndale Centre in London in the early 2000s showing how these buildings are significant in reflecting current societal trends and representing the changing needs of the population. In this way, I think that these shopping complexes are highly useful in providing an insight into the social, commercial and architectural developments of the 20th and 21st Centuries, and are thus increasingly important as objects of study. As Christopher Middleton claimed in The Guardian:

The sheer number of Arndales built (18, at the last count) is testimony to the benefits these new centres brought to towns which had previously offered shoppers nothing but rambling, often war-damaged high streets. The pie shop at the Jarrow Arndale, for example, was reported to be the busiest in the entire north-east. And this was in a town which had famously been in serious decline.

These leisure complexes became necessary to local communities across the UK; they became a place to reunite a fragmented community after the damage of two World Wars, and their construction was vital to fit with the changing needs of buyers throughout the course of the consumer revolution. And, with arguments that Arndale Centres should be rebranded, such as in the case of the newly-named Crossgates Centre, it seems that once again our local areas are being transformed. Undeniably, the construction of Arndale Centres destroyed one image of the past, but they also created a new version of history, which is just as rich and interesting, both in my local area and nationwide. Arndale Centres have been a valuable asset to Leeds and the wider country: whilst their construction may have been controversial, they are vital in understanding the changing sense of community, culture and consumerism in the past century.

13th October 1999. View looking along Otley Road towards Arndale Centre and Arndale House on the right. Traffic and traffic lights can be seen, with North Lane to the left and Wood Lane to the right

13th October 1999: Looking along Otley Road, Headingley, towards Arndale Centre and Arndale House on the right. Traffic and traffic lights can be seen, with North Lane to the left and Wood Lane to the right