This week we hear from Louise Dwyer and Gill Crawshaw, MA students at the Leeds Arts University. Louise and Gill wo researched the history and legacy of the Hunslet Grange estate (aka Leek Street flats). Read on to find out more about their research and how they used Leeds Libraries resources.
Our current research focuses on Hunslet Grange, a large council housing estate which was
built exactly fifty years ago. The estate is remembered by many from different perspectives, positive and negative. We aimed to record and present some of those perspectives and link them to contemporary social issues, particularly public housing, community building and social isolation.
The documentation that ignited this interesting social history investigation, to build a picture of housing and its changes for people then and perhaps now, still resounds in our society. A short film viewed at the Yorkshire Film Archive, Community Builder (1968), aimed at the construction industry, shows community life in Hunslet before and after the new estate was built. It depicts life on the cusp of change from centuries-old lifestyle in back-to-back housing to a modern and comfortable new complex ( which is how Hunslet Grange was proposed).
Hunslet Grange, also known as Leek Street flats, was built to replace a large area of terraced housing in south Leeds. The local authority and construction company hailed the development as innovative and modern, as it used new building methods and materials. Certainly, many residents moved from overcrowded terraced houses with shared outside toilets, to brand new flats with mod cons. They soon discovered, however, many serious faults resulting from the prefabricated structure: draught, cold and damp, combined with an electric heating system that was prohibitively expensive for the majority of tenants. After a lengthy campaign by Hunslet Grange tenants for a solution that would improve their living conditions, the flats were demolished in 1983.
We have carried out further research, including in the Local and Family History library, the University of Leeds, the West Yorkshire Archives and online. This has resulted in discovering more archive material, particularly photographs and accounts of living in Hunslet Grange, in publications and online.
Following on from this, we carried out primary research at Holbeck Elderly Aid’s Memory Cafe, using the film and photographs to spark discussion about housing, communities, then and today. One of the members had lived in a succession of flats at Hunslet Grange (“the Leekies”). Her memories of happy times on the estate among a supportive and close-knit community contrast sharply with the poor reputation of the estate, as well as with others’ experiences of isolation living in high rise accommodation.
There are many similarities with our society today: the social changes that are indications of changing lifestyles; cuts to public services; erosion in our family networks and communities.
Some of these things have not changed and people are under a serious strain at times to find suitable homes, which can lead to isolation, homelessness or deprivation of different sorts for all age groups.
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A reader of this article got in touch with us in September 2019 to provide his own memories of the Hunslet Grange Estate – those memories are reproduced here, as they may be of interest to other readers and researchers:
“I was housed at the Flats during the University of Leeds academic year 1974-75 while doing a year study abroad from the University of California. One or two wings of the flats had been set aside for housing for students from the U. and I–a Yank from California– was placed in a flat with an Englishman, a Scot, an Iranian and an Irish Jew, so we were a little United Nations. I think our wing was for male students and some distance away in another wing there were female students from the University, so we were hoofing it over there from time to time to see the girls.
We had to ride the bus from the flats into downtown Leeds and then take another bus to the university. The English fellow in our flat had a “mini”, so sometimes we would catch a ride with him if our schedules coincided.
The place was grey and ‘block-ish’ and not constructed with a lot of quality. However, it was fine for a bunch of fellows our age. I remember some people at the U. thought it would be scary to live there, but I didn’t encounter any personal threats as I hiked from the bus stop to the stairwell (I believe my flat was on the third floor of our wing.).
The view out our window was of a factory where the whistle would blow and the workers would file in and out in their grey clothing. I remembered that scene as something that looked like I imagined Engels and Marx had in mind as they wrote a century earlier.
There was a little grocery store and a butcher shop on the ground floor, not too far away from our stairwell where we would buy our “nosh”. A typical meal was boiled chicken, “chips” which we fried in a pan full of lard that we kept adding to and never changed the whole year, and canned peas. Occasionally we treated ourselves to “black pudding”, a blood sausage I had never encountered until arriving in Leeds. I liked it!
A typical night we would study until about 9:00 p.m. and then amble over to one of the nearby pubs for a pint or two. On the weekends, it might be more than two…
The local residents were pleasant enough to me, a Yank, who at first struggled to understand the Yorkshire accent, but after some weeks it all clicked, and I enjoyed hearing the shop girls finish a sentence or question with “luv” as in “Here you go, luv.”
I was studying in Leeds with a focus on British government and politics. My year in Leeds was a fairly momentous one politically: there was the second of two general elections in 1974 in which Labor led by Harold Wilson won a narrow majority. The Birmingham pub bombings roiled the country along with pillarbox bombs. In 1975, there was a national referendum vote on maintaining UK membership in the “Common Market” which passed by a 2-1 majority (how matters have shifted..).
One’s 21st year of life is probably always memorable, but I know my life in the U.K. in Leeds was one of the most significant of my years. I’m grateful to the many people, at the U. and the locals I met while living in “the flats”, for the fine time I had.”
i too was a University student housed in a flat which the Uni rented in Hunslet Grange. I was there for my second year in 1972. I believe it was intended as an experiment by the Uni to see how the student residents related to the locals. The answer, in my recollection – not a lot. it was a grim area, everywhere in constant shadow, the bare grass patches manfully supporting a few spindly trees, most of which had been broken in half by hooligans. The Yorkshire folk were uniformly friendly however, and I never felt threatened after dark. The huge nearby parish church had been abandoned by the congregation, who met in the church hall instead, but as a musician I used to be allowed to go in and play the vast pipe organ all to myself. The flat itself had four student rooms sharing a kitchen and loo. It was damp but full of dry air from the central blown heating supply through grilles in the walls.