- 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 I came across it in a wider memoir, unpublished but donated to the library alongside a clutch of old photographs, which have, as we speak, all been sent off for cataloguing together.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.