When the Robots Came to Leeds

  • Heritage volunteer and guest blogger Tony Scaife looks back to 1920s Leeds, when the new word ‘robot’ had a somewhat different meaning…

The robot army arrived in Leeds on Friday 16 March 1928. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether Councillor Turtington and the other members of the Leeds Highways Committee were prescient, deluded or duped when they invited the robots at their meeting on 12 December 1927, recommending:

That the proposal of the Watch Committee to install electric traffic signals at the junction of Bond Street and Park Row be approved, subject to the position being satisfactory … and an undertaking to remove same on request of this committee”

Various attempts at road traffic control signals had been made from the 1860s onwards, including a gas-operated system outside the Houses of Parliament that exploded, sadly killing a policeman. Manually-controlled, three-colour electric lamps had appeared by 1914, but Wolverhampton in 1927 was the first town to install an automatic system, with Leeds being next the following year.

For a Highways Committee, whose monthly minutes throughout the period record in boring detail the purchase of sand, gravel and aggregate for road maintenance, there is no mention of where and at what cost Leeds’ first traffic lights were obtained. It may have been locally, since Kelly’s Directory for 1927 lists eight local electrical lamp manufactures.

Be that as it may, on 16 March 1928, life in Leeds was getting back to normal after recent heavy snow had disrupted supplies reaching the market (though, incidentally, it was reported that fresh rabbit was still hard to find). Perhaps passers-by took comfort from the civic order personified by the policeman magisterially conducting the traffic:


Policeman conducting Leeds traffic. Image from Leodis

These were troubling times with abundant evidence, for those so inclined, to see the established order crumbling. An Admiral and three other senior officers had been relieved of their duties following a protracted argument aboard the Royal Navy’s battleship, Royal Oak, anchored in Valletta Harbour, Malta. Closer to home, there was the ongoing enquiry into the furious row between Chief Constable of St Helen’s and his Watch Committee over accusations of abusive language, bullying and even the temporary arrest of the Chairman of the Watch Committee – an arrest malevolently timed, it was alleged, so that the civic worthy was carted off to the chokey just as his lunch was being delivered to his own table. It may also be noteworthy, for this blog, that the St Helens’ Chief Constable was also accused of misusing police property, equipment and staff for the repair of private motor cars (see the Yorkshire Evening Post, 16 March 1928).

No such shenanigans marred Leeds civic life on that Friday morning, as an amiable official party, including the Leeds Chief Constable and his deputy, Councillor F. Bentley, the Chairman of the Watch Committee, and other Councillors, took post on the steps of the Philosophical Hall on Park Row. The presence of the worthy assemblage was noted by a reporter and photographer from the Evening Post who had strolled along from their then Bond Street office to record the historic event: “Up to the time of its beginning the usual burly figure of the policeman stood in the centre of the four roads. At the appointed minute the policeman stopped all four streams of traffic and retreated to the footpath. The electrical device came into instant operation” (16 March 1928).


Park Row, 1924. Image from Leodis

With justifiable, though inaccurate, pride the YEP article claims the Leeds traffic lights as a first, and rather smugly acknowledges that Edinburgh will follow suit the following Monday.

As Michael Meadowcroft notes in A History of Modern Leeds, the internal combustion engine was beginning to “exercise the minds of the City Fathers and the whole question of transport by road, rail and eventually air had serious consequences for town planning” (pp. 410-436). Work was to begin on the Ring Road, the redesign of the Headrow, and the establishment of a Leeds/Bradford airport in 1931. The Central Station and Queens Hotel were to also eventually redesigned, and there was even talk of a ship canal linking Leeds and Hull. Even a decade later, photographs record very few cars by modern standards.


Kirkstall Road. Image from Leodis

The City Fathers were aware of the growing motor trade in Leeds and the economic impact of the motor car. Kelly’s Directory 1927 has four pages of garages, taxi, coach and bus companies, including a Reginald Horsley with three garage businesses listed. Similarly, a contemporary edition of the Evening Post offers two pages of car adverts, including new vehicles for £440 and second-hand prices between £80 and £235. A lucky reader might also have won an 11 h.p. Clyno Saloon (value £190) in a lottery-like game promoted by the paper. Although the reader would be required to obey the lighting-up time that day (set for 7.03pm), they would not be required to pass any driving test, since it was not until the Road Traffic Act of 1934 that licenses became compulsory. Mind, it would be a lucky win indeed, since cars were comparatively expensive, judging by the fact that the same newspaper edition carries adverts for new houses in fashionable Harehills for between £440-550 (16 March 1928, pp. 12-14).

Maybe Evening Post readers, that Friday night, were mesmerised by the chance of moving into the motor age and sharing its apparent passport to prosperity (“Business follows in the dust of the motor car”). But, amongst the grandiose promise of a break with the past, some saw threats – for some, even existential threats. At one end of the spectrum was the latest perceived threat to jobs posed by advances in technology; towards the other, the apparently innocuous traffic light became the symbol for a much more pernicious phenomena. Traffic lights were rapidly nicknamed ‘robots’, and remain so-named to this day in South Africa. And robots, as the ultimate manifestation of threatening autonomous technology, were all the rage in 1928.

The Czech playwright Karel Capek is credited with the first use of the word ‘robot’ in his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Capek acknowledged that he had taken the term from his brother Josef’s conflation of the Czech words robota (drudgery, servitude) and robotnik (peasant or serf).


A scene from the play R.U.R., showing three robots. Image reproduced from Wikipedia

The term spread quickly in science fiction literature. The Monkey (1925) by Maurice Renard and Albert Jean imagined the creation of artificial life by ‘radiogenisis’; the Metal Giants (1926) by Edward Hamilton deals with a computer brain running on atomic power that creates 300-foot tall robots; and S. Fowler Wright’s Automata (1929) has machines doing human jobs until they revolt and wipe out their creators. There were also film treatments of the robot theme: Ben Turpin starred in the comedy short A Clever Dummy released in 1917, whilst an Italian film directed by Andre Deed in 1921, The Mechanical Man, takes us to a more dystopian vision of a malevolently-controlled robot with superhuman strength committing crimes at the behest of its evil inventor – at least until it is successfully battled to mutual destruction by another robot.

The potential for human vs. machine conflict is neatly summarised in this contemporary cartoon:


Image courtesy of The Advertising Archives

Perhaps, however, it is the character of Futura the “Maschinemensch” in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (released January 1927) that has lasted longest in the public memory of mechanical paranoia from the 1920s – despite H.G. Wells largely dismissive view that it was “quite the silliest film” full of muddlement about progress (quoted in The Times, 10 February 1927).


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This early slave/master debate shows no sign of resolution. The angular, purposeful, robotic traffic lights have marched on to citywide domination. From that first day, without prior briefing or any kind of instruction, car drivers have fallen under their spell (“When the top disc shows Stop, the leading vehicle pulls up at a white line drawn across the road, and advances immediately on the Go” reported the YEP, ibid. p.15).

Critics even back then, however, argued that the ubiquitous robots had the city at their mercy, bringing chaotic gridlock to swathes of the city. Be that as it may, in the urgent pressure of a daily newsroom we can forgive that first Evening Post report for not exploring fully all the implications of the decision to welcome traffic robots. If newspapers do write the first draft of history, they may not always focus on what later generations come to regard as significant.

‘Half a cup of cream which nobody else seemed to want’: The American Diary of a Leeds Librarian

  • Guest blogger Val Hewson is a researcher for Reading Sheffield, an oral history project about popular reading in the mid-20th century.  This has led her to research library services in Sheffield and elsewhere.  In the Leeds Local and Family History Library, she read a diary belonging to F.G.B. Hutchings, Chief Librarian of Leeds between 1946 and 1963. Val has kindly agreed to write an article based on what she read in the Hutchings diary. You can find out more about other books, documents, manuscripts and ephemera relating to the history of the Leeds Library Service by browsing our research guide.

‘I managed to drink half a cup of cream which nobody else seemed to want.’  So said Fred Hutchings – gleefully – in the diary he kept during a business trip to the USA in October 1951.  As well as impressions of American libraries, the diary includes trenchant observations on: noisy department stores; the ‘strange’ music at church services; and, to Hutchings’ dismay, the threat of war, with many Americans ‘held in the grip of the idea of Communist aggression’.  But the diary also reveals a particular concern for American hospitality and cuisine, which is unusual in a man of evident moderation.

There are in fact good explanations for his interest.  International travel was less common in 1951 than now and people were just less familiar with foreign food.  (When Ian Fleming wanted to signal James Bond’s sophistication in Casino Royale, he had him eat the then exotic, but now commonplace, avocado.)  More importantly, there was still rationing in the UK.  Confectionery, sugar, butter and meat were all restricted.  In the USA, with its almost unlimited resources, rationing stopped in 1946.  Hence Hutchings’ enjoyment of that cream.

As an important visitor, Hutchings went to various official functions.  In Philadelphia, he was a guest of honour at a lunch for 300 people. ‘…we had good talk and good food.  The soup was very good as American soup can be.  The chicken was done to fastidious succulence.  Not a lot to eat, but very good.’

hutchingsHutchings found that many Americans were personally kind and hospitable.  ‘Miss MacPherson threw a very good party tonight,’ he notes.  And there was lunch at the home of Luther Evans, the Librarian of Congress: ‘…quite excellent.  Mrs. Evans knows how to cook according to the best American standards, and they are very good.  Soup, liver done to a turn with rice, French fries.  Chocolate blancmange and whipped cream.  Does not sound much, but the quality of the food, its cooking and flavour made it one of the best meals I have had in years.’  And another home-cooked dinner was a feast: ‘Chicken, rice, French fries, peaches in rum, followed by custard pasty with whipped cream.  Before the meal we had Burgoynes (American whisky in water with ice – v.g.)  After the meal we had brandy and coffee.’

When on occasion he returned the hospitality, Hutchings was conscious that prices were ‘haywire’. ‘[He] had got a room for me at $2 a night without food.  This is very cheap and feeding should not exceed (with care) $3 a day.  It is as well.  I gave lunch yesterday to two people who had been specially good to me: cost $8 or £2 16s* – Can’t keep that up!’  He winced when he  bought food for a parcel to send home – a common transatlantic practice at the time.  It was ‘a lengthy and expensive process.’

Outside the professional sphere, the highlight of the visit for Hutchings was probably his weekend in Clifton, Virginia, at the home of an old-school Southerner, Colonel Willard Webb, who was Chief of the Stack and Reader Division at the Library of Congress.  ‘It was hospitality on the grand scale’ and a ‘kind of wonderland existence’.  Hutchings was charmed by the ‘wooden house [in] five acres of wooded, undulating country.’  (The property is now a nature reserve.)  A trip to Manassas reveals a town ‘rather like a more up to date version of Kirby Lonsdale [sic]’ and ‘so quiet and unexciting, yet warm and soothing.’


webb-2Willard Webbs’ house and grounds. By permission of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority

Hutchings finishes his diary travelling from London to Leeds, without much reflection on the trip. However, despite the diary’s last words – ‘How anxiety to get home presses me.’ – we can be pretty sure that he relished his experience.  He certainly enjoyed a greater range of food, although he patriotically said that, for all their resources, Americans didn’t ‘eat as well as we do as a rule’.  But the home cooking he encountered was simple and very good.  And, more importantly than any particular food, Hutchings appreciated the warmth and kindness shown to him by so many Americans.

You can read more about Hutchings’ visit, including his views on American libraries, in an article by Alistair Black, University of Illinois here.

Photo of Mr Hutchings from the Local and Family History newscuttings collection. The caption below this image reads: “Colonel Willard Webb, leader of the American delegation to the Film Festival, held a reception last night. Among those who attended were Mr Fred Hutchings, the Leeds City Librarian, and Mr Marcus Milne, Aberdeen’s City Librarian, who was accompanied by his ten-year-old son, David.”

*  $2 in 1951 = approx. $19 in 2016.  $3 in 1951 = approx. $29 in 2016. $8 in 1951 = approx. $74 in 2016. £2 16s in 1951 = approx. £87 in 2016.

Read More: American Politics and Elections

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

This is an entry in our Read More series. These are ‘long-form’ articles, where staff offer a curated and detailed look at areas of our book collections, usually based around a specific theme or subject. These posts aim to guide the interested reader through to those books that offer a more in-depth look at a topic, or which are classics in their field.

The 58th election for the President of the United States of America takes place on Tuesday next week. While everyone will have their own views on which candidate should take that office, this seems like a good opportunity to take a look back at some of the key books on American politics that you can find in the collections at the Central Library. These are books of especial interest to anyone wanting to delve deeper into the political history of a country that has been more divided in its philosophy than many care to admit. Three periods in particular stand out from this perspective.

As a nation state, the US was born in the deeply political revolutionary moment of the 1760s, 70s and 80s. Any study of the country’s politics and political system should, therefore, start with some of those primary and secondary sources assessing that – metaphoric, and literal – conflagration. Thomas Jefferson – primus inter pares – is the central figure here; various volumes of his writings are available in the Central Library, but of most relevance will be The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson (edited and introduced by Edward Dumbauld).

Readers interested in this period should also spend some time with The Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 essays and articles written by such titans of Revolutionary-era thinking as Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. Primarily designed to lay out rational reasoning why the new American citizenry should vote to ratify their new Constitution, the Federalist Papers also succeed in stating those key positions that would dominate American political thought through to this year’s election: in short, that is, the extent to which local (i.e. state) or federal (i.e. national) should exercise the majority of power in the new system. The Federalist Papers have been called “an incomparable exposition of the Constitution, a classic in political science unsurpassed in both breadth and depth by the product of any later American writer” and “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man”.


George Bancroft’s 1882 History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of America (2 vols) was one of the first serious histories of that seminal document; it can be supplemented with Edward Dumbauld’s more modern and interpretative The Constitution of the United States. The Federalist Papers can also be read alongside John C. Miller’s classic work in the New American Nation series: The Federalist Era: 1789-1801.

Those wanting to take their reading back to assess the intellectual development of those “present at the creation” (to quote a later American statesman, of sorts) would be well-advised to seek out Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787. Dauntingly dense in its approach to the subject, Wood’s account is nonetheless still the gold standard for any serious investigation of politics in the Revolutionary era (and has previously stood as a symbol of the broad and wide range of the Central Library collections).

Moving on into the mid-1800s, we once again find America on the verge of civil war (for the War of Independence deserves that name as well as any other). Bridging the gap between those two eras is Alexis De Tocqueville’s masterpiece: Democracy in America (1840) – a 758 page analysis of how republican representative democracy had, in his view, succeeded; as well as a prescient warning of how the presence of slavery in that system darkened and undermined its more celebratory aspects. That De Tocqueville had made the right judgement was made only too clear in the two decades following his book’s publication, as the new American nation tore itself apart over precisely those issues of race and human bondage.


The politics of that period are supremely assessed by David Potter in his The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861; and the War period itself is well-seen through James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. The key figure in this period remains Abraham Lincoln (although every men, woman or child kept in bondage would make stake a more than fair claim to that mantle); the reader can interrogate Lincoln’s politics in biographies like the one-volume edition of Carl Sandburg’s The Prairie Years and The War Years. Lincoln’s most important decision – the Emancipation Proclamation – is analysed in John Hope Franklin’s book of the same name, while Lincoln’s struggles to control his team of rivals is assessed by Don Fehrenbacher in The Leadership of Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps the most fascinatingly political figure in the Civil War era, however, is John Brown: an abolitionist who believed armed insurrection was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. Brown’s life and its place in his times can be traced through Stephen B. Oates’ Our Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln, John Brown and the Civil War Era.

More recently, the 1960s saw the American 20th-century experience its own kind of civil war; not necessarily as politically ideological as the Revolutionary or Civil War periods, the decade nonetheless saw Americans thoroughly divided over political and social issues such as Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, Feminism and the redistribution of wealth. As with the earlier periods, politicians and political leaders are a reasonable starting point for an investigation of these tumultuous times; and America was fortunate to have several seminal accounts of the political process preserved in book form. Theodore White’s classic accounts of the elections in the 1960s are as good a way into this subject as any narrative history: available at the Central Library are his The Making of the President: 19601964, and 1972. Richard Nixon’s success alongside his silent majority in that latter election – and its subsequent unraveling – are brought to life in classics like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s All The President’s Men and Deborah Hart Strober’s compilation of oral histories from The Nixon Presidency.

Missing in that chronological list is perhaps (- perhaps) the most furiously fought election in all of American history: 1968. The strange, almost apocalyptic, fervor of those times can be sampled in Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Lewis Chester’s An American Melodrama and Jules Witcover’s 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy; although Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: An Investigation Into Motive, or Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales From a Strange Time, or Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, perhaps tell the whole weird story of American in the 1960s as well, if not better.


While not explicitly about ‘politics’, these books are still extremely political in their situating of individual lives in their times; posing serious -albeit, perhaps, unanswerable – questions about personal and social freedoms and responsibilities. That, in a sense, was also De Tocqueville’s terrain in the 1830s, and the work of Christopher Lasch – such as his The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995) – offers an illuminating way to think about how responses to the same issues have evolved with, and reacted against, the struggles of the 1960s. The political context can be briefly sampled in Iwan W. Morgan’s Beyond the Liberal Consensus: A Political History of the United States Since 1965.

The books listed here can all be borrowed from the Information and Research department. Contact them on 0113 37 87018 for more details.