November 11, 1918: A Brief History of Leeds on Armistice Day

Librarian Antony Ramm takes a  look at Leeds on the day the First World War ended…

When the Lord Major Joseph Henry announced to the people of Leeds that “the armistice has been signed and that fighting has been stopped from 11 o’clock this morning,” he sparked celebratory scenes which commenced almost immediately.

The Lord Mayor’s message, from the Leeds Mercury, 12.11.1918, p3

Crowds began to gather along Briggate, Boar Lane and Victoria Square (now Gardens) and, by midday, “overflowed from the pavement onto the roadway and even onto the tramway tracks,” as the Leeds Mercury reported. Shops selling anything that could be turned into flags or bunting were overrun with celebrants.

The Town Hall became a particular focal point – its bell ringing at frequent intervals through the day – with an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people gathering at the foot of the steps to hear the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress deliver messages of goodwill to the assembled throng. Of particular importance to the latter were the “munition girls” – women working in ordnance factories and engineering during the War: “To the women workers who have so nobly responded to the call of their country she would offer her sincere thanks.”

Leeds Mercury, 14.11.1918, p8

In fact, it was such women who led the Armistice Day celebrations, leaving their factories and other workplaces once the cessation of hostilities had been announced. On a surprisingly sunny November day, thousands of these women formed a procession a half-mile in length, marching to the Infirmary where wounded soldiers lay, blowing whistles and mouth organs, waving flags; all adorned with brightly-coloured hats and Allied flags. Fireworks were once more permitted in the City. Most celebrations were described in the newspapers of the next day as “sober” – even if some hotels reported using 2-3 days’ worth of supplies in one evening.

Leeds Mercury, 15.11.1918, p8

There were similar scenes elsewhere in Leeds: at the Alf Cooke print works, where workers used flags being produced for a theatrical production as emblems of their joy; and at Waddingtons, where several young men climbed onto roof of the four-storey building to wave a Union Jack. Around one-hundred medical students at the University of Leeds also joined the procession of well-wishers, while both the Beckett Park and Beckett Street hospitals saw impromptu gatherings and musical performances involving thousands of staff, wounded soldiers and other patients. Belgian and Serbian refugees in Leeds were described by the Yorkshire Evening News as being “delighted beyond measure.”

But even among this revelry, a more sober note was sounded: a moment of silent reflection at the Corn Exchange, where 300 farmers and traders had gathered; and, on the afternoon of the Armistice itself, the Council met to begin discussing a permanent war memorial for those who had fought. One suggestion was a public edifice that would consist of an Art Gallery, a Free Library, a Local and War Museum and a Temple of Fame, where would be inscribed the names of all those who had given or offered their lives, perhaps on the Park Row site of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.

Yorkshire Evening Post, 11.11.1918, p3

This tribute to the Fallen eventually became the War Memorial many will be more familiar today: the Garden of Remembrance (or Rest) situated just in front of the Art Gallery. You can read more about that site’s history elsewhere on our blog.

1918. Children and adults celebrate Armistice Day. The photo, taken near the Welfare Hall, clearly shows the Eagle House on the right hand side. The house is one of the oldest buildings that remains in Garforth. (Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net – courtesy of the Garforth Historical Society)
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