Walking tours of the back-to-back houses, Harehills

University of York PhD researcher Joanne Harrison has continued her collaboration with Leeds Central Library’s Local and Family History department and the Compton Centre Community Hub, hosting a couple of events as part of the national Heritage Open Days weekend. She reports here on the tours and exhibition, how to get involved in the latest research about the back-to-back houses in Harehills, and about the forthcoming Harehills Festival.


The walking tours of the back-to-back houses in Harehills were a great success on the Heritage Open Days weekend, with the exception of the poor weather which saw us all abandon the final tour, soaked to the skin, shortly before we completed the route. Around 25 people attended the tours on Saturday, and about 40 on Sunday.

I’d firstly like to thank everyone for taking such an interest, and for asking such diverse questions – I think I was able to answer most to people’s satisfaction, and I thank those attendees who provided additional information such as insights into the naming of the street series. Secondly, feedback has been very positive, and it’s especially heart-warming to hear from current residents, former residents, and relatives of former residents of the area, who say that they have learnt so much about the place and its history from attending, and how they have been amazed at the variety of designs now they’ve looked closely. It’s also been fantastic for me to learn about the lives of those with a local connection, and to engage in information exchanges since the tours – something that is beneficial to those attendees, and to me as I gather information for my PhD research.

The Tour

The walking tour guided attendees not just through the back-to-back streets of Harehills, but through the history of their development between 1890 and 1912, setting it in the context of late Victorian and early Edwardian social and sanitary reform and national legislation. We also looked at the architectural detailing, materials and features, and discussed the impact of modernization and improvement works on the historic character of the neighbourhood.

Information packs were provided, and included marked-up development plans charting the progress of construction, key quotes from the literature, characterisation maps of the area today accompanied by an excerpt from a gazetteer of designs, ‘then and now’ photographs, a description of the house plan types with an example of a typical Type 3 plan as originally constructed, and information about heritage and conservation issues.

The tour took a circular route, following roughly the chronology of house building, beginning in the Lambtons, moving South towards the Bayswaters and Bexleys, then East to the Ashtons, Darfields and Conways, before moving North to the Luxors. My MA research resulted in me naming four Character Areas, each of which have their own characteristics relating to build period, plan types and architectural character, and they really do demonstrate how the house type improved during the short period that the Harehills Triangle was developed.

Character Area 1 was the first area to be developed, starting around 1890. All but one street contains street-lined Type 2 houses with privy (now bin) yards between – these are the ‘bye-law’ houses that were restricted to maximum block sizes of eight houses. We discussed the overall uniformity of the house plan, but also the variations, particularly in relation to the location of the plumbed in bath – an early feature. This was not in a bathroom in the standard size houses however, and could be found in either the attic, scullery or basement. The larger shop-houses on the ends of streets tended to have internal bathrooms, and this seems particularly ahead of the times. In terms of detailing, we looked at decorative friezes, lintels and sills, inset door details, chimney pots, decorative air bricks, coal covers and boot scrapers – all showing that the houses were not built to the cheapest standards. Different designs either side of the street are indicative of different developers, and this is backed up by the comprehensive archive collection of building control plans for the whole area – some developers built one or more streets, others just a block of eight, or even fewer houses.

The final street we looked at in this area has Type 3 houses (facing through terraced houses). These were built in continuous rows with an externally accessed toilet shared between every two houses, located in the basement beneath the scullery of the two houses, and they also have a garden. The location of the copper in the scullery can be identified by the presence of a small chimney positioned above the front wall of the house. In these houses, the large ground floor room was used as a living-kitchen (so the cooking was done at the range here), and the scullery was used for the dirtier functions such as washing. In later designs, the copper moved to the wash-cellar, so that the scullery was able to take on more of a ‘kitchen’ function and the larger rooms functioned more like a living room or parlour – much more socially acceptable!

Figure 1 Type 2 houses (left) and Type 3 houses (right).

Character Area 2 was also built up from the 1890s (working from the West side) and was completed by about 1900. It is the most architecturally diverse of the Character Areas, and contains Type 1, 2, 3 and Pseudo Type 3 houses, plus street-lined, buffer and full garden versions. Many houses include bay windows and dormers, and in some streets there are more than 15 separate designs. Some of the early development in this area has been demolished – it had the narrowest street widths in the Harehills Triangle area.

Highlights in this area include:

  • A row of large Type 2 houses. These are unusual for three reasons – large houses are usually (but not exclusively) found at the end of a row of standard size houses; the houses have a very different architectural character to the others in the Harehills Triangle, and seem to have a quite Edwardian appearance, despite their early date; and finally, the houses to the back are built with an architectural character like the rest of the area, and this is again, particularly unusual as almost all houses are built to the same design and detailing on both sides of the block.
  • Large Pseudo Type 3 houses. These have only one room on the ground floor, but unlike the smaller versions, they have an entrance hall containing the stairs. They have a rather grand appearance, and were superior in terms of sanitary facilities too, as they had individual outside toilets.
Figure 2 The Edwardian style large Type 2s built back-to-back with a design more characteristic of the area (left) and the larger Pseudo Type 3s (right).

Unfortunately, this area has suffered from poorly designed modifications over the years, and this has harmed not only the individual houses, but also the streetscape. Examples include:

  • Overdevelopment, (to create flats), with the creation of extensive dormer windows to the attic spaces.
  • A near derelict shop-house opposite which has had a recent large dormer extension to the attic and appears to be even more structurally unsound now.
  • Heavily modified Type 3 blind backs (houses that do not have a row backing onto them, and instead have a blank wall to the rear, appearing rather like they have simply been cut in half). Building control records show that the uncoordinated approach to modification occurred mostly during the 1970s and 1980s when the small 1st floor bedroom was converted to a bathroom, and the attic bedroom was ‘improved’. This is quite late to have an internal bathroom for the first time, and contrasts with the progress that was made with sanitation during the construction period. It is particularly upsetting that the original gabled dormer roof shape was lost, however examples do still survive to the East end of the street.
Figure 3 Modifications that have harmed the character of the houses and the streetscape.

Almost all houses in Character Area 3 are Type 3. There is much less variation in architectural detailing, and streets tended to be built by one or few developers, however the urban arrangement is more varied as there are houses facing North, South, East and West – a disadvantage in most of the housing in the area, aligned along East-West oriented streets, is that half of the houses face North and get no sunlight at all! Construction began in 1897, with shop-houses being built along Harehills Road, and the housing in the streets beyond, came a few years later.

On one street, a short row of wide Type 3s houses are positioned between the standard size houses and the former Industrial Co-operative Society building. They have larger scullery kitchens, and their own external toilet, so were and still are, more desirable. Some original detailing remains to the interior as well as the exterior. Nearby, a typical street is bisected by another road, and includes a shop-house at each end, with a larger Type 3 house next to one of these. Built in 1901 by the same developer, the larger properties all had their own internal bathroom from construction, while the rest of the row had the standard Type 3 shared facilities. Architecturally, the detailing of these houses is simple, with decorative lintels, frieze and ‘criss-cross’ patterned bricks, and only a few streets have houses with higher quality features such as bay windows. Darfield Street and Road were the last to be built in this area (1907), and have more characteristics in common with the houses in Character Area 4. The later date shows in the design as they were built with an external toilet for each house, had a large bay window with adjacent entrance porch, and a large basement window.

Figure 4 Wide Type 3 houses (left), standard Type 3 houses (middle), and the later Type 3 houses (right).

Character Area 4 was the last to be built, commencing in 1907, and it was completed by about 1912. Building of the house type was banned in 1909 (though they could continue to be built if they had already been given permission). The house designs show that this was a period of change, for example building control plans show that some houses were originally planned as back-to-backs, but were then built as through terraces, and one street has a short row of throughs wedged between back-to-backs. This was possibly a sign that although still popular, developers feared there might be less demand for back-to-back designs once they were no longer permitted to be built.

In terms of the plan and fenestration, the houses are similar to those in Darfield Street and Road, but here, the architectural styles range from a highly decorative finish with arched stone lintels or full stone surround to the windows, to a much more restrained style with smaller window proportions. Highlights include:

  • Type 3 houses with large splay bay windows with an internal entrance area – the door not entering directly into the lounge sits well with Victorian / Edwardian ideals about privacy. Unlike all other dormer windows in the Triangle area, those on these houses do not sit central to the house, but are paired with the neighbouring house. Building control drawings show that the houses (which were not built to quite the same architectural design as planned) have two bedrooms in the attic, and an internal bathroom at first floor. Evidence suggests however that these houses still had an external rather than internal toilet.
  • Decorative designs show the superiority of the houses and how they were being built to attract the best working class people, potentially those with aspirations of social mobility.
  • Modern, split level, houses were built in 1912, and despite having some of the same architectural elements as seen elsewhere e.g. ‘criss-cross’ patterned bricks and railings to the external steps, were considered to be the most innovative design. Effectively following the same plan arrangement as the others in the area, with two rooms per floor and a stair behind the scullery, they have a split level floor at the 1st and 2nd The reduced head height to the scullery and bathroom above it, gives more head height to the smaller of the two attic bedrooms, making it a more satisfactory and useable room. Crucially, this meant that the house could provide accommodation to the social and sanitary standards of the period – a bedroom for parents and two more to accommodate children of opposite sexes, plus an internal bathroom. In order to maximise usable space in the house further, there is no entrance porch, but the door is instead position to the side of the bay window, providing more privacy than if it faced the street. The houses had at last overcome all of the criticisms that had been thrown at them over the course of 100 years, but alas, no more would be built. How ironic that this happened simultaneously!
Figure 5 The houses in Character Area 4 demonstrate both architectural variety and the incredible progress that was made in developing the back-to-back form into a house type that complied with all the requirements of the social and sanitary reformers.

Want to know more?

An exhibition to complement the tours was held at the Compton Centre Community Hub Library from the 2nd-10th September. This traced the history of back-to-back house building in Leeds, showing how the Harehills neighbourhood developed, and the impact that local and national legislation had on the evolution of the house type and its facilities. It included photographs of the amazing variety of house designs and architectural detail still present in Harehills today, and opened up the debate about heritage values and conservation.

Figure 6 The exhibition at the Compton Centre.

Additionally, a case study of Darfield Road from 1907 onwards, featured a social history of the housing. This was made possible by Jean Norris who resided there from 1940-61. She not only provided detailed information about her own family and their home, supplemented with photographs, but also expended a huge effort contacting her old friends and neighbours, who were then also able to contribute to the exhibition. One particularly pleasing aspect of this part of my research was that Jean was able to provide a link to one of the first residents of the street who lived there from 1909-1951, and who gave Jean a book for her birthday that he had bound (he was a bookbinder). Jean still has this inscribed book, dating back to 1877. Another family, were resident in the street from 1907 until the 1980s, and the early residents’ descendants still run the business that was established by them more than 100 years ago. It was also fascinating to discover how many of the local residents found fame.

If you didn’t get chance to see the exhibition, don’t fret! There is another opportunity at the Harehills Festival. This will be taking place in Banstead Park on Sunday 24th September, 12-4pm. I will also be providing activities for festival-goers of all ages that will amuse, inform and engage, giving them the opportunity to share their thoughts and stories on living back-to-back and in the neighbourhood, as well as think about their future aspirations for the house type and the neighbourhood, and wider issues such as heritage and conservation.

Keep your fingers crossed for good weather, and I look forward to hearing from you / meeting you for the first time / meeting you again.

The Harehills Festival will surely entertain anyone who attends!

If this has sparked a new interest for you, or re-ignited an old passion, go along to the Local and Family History Library based in the Central Library. Antony Ramm, Assistant Librarian Manager, has collated a new research guide for Harehills so that anyone interested in researching aspects of Harehills, whether that be back-to-back houses, other building types, place history, social history and biography, communities, culture, politics, sport, religion, maps, photographs and newspapers, has a handy introduction to some of the sources available in the department.

Finally, I thank the Compton Centre Community Hub, and the Local and Family History Library for their tremendous help in promoting the events and providing administrative services.

2 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.