- 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.
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.
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.
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.