Leeds and County Liberal Club (1890)
For most of the 19th century Leeds politics was dominated by the Liberal Party. This power and prestige was reflected in the building of an ornate new Party venue towards the end of the century: the Leeds and County Liberal Club on Quebec Street. Opened in 1891 by the Marquis of Ripon, the club catered for 1,600 members at its peak, before the emergence of the Labour Party brought declining membership and, eventually, the sale of the building itself.
The Liberal Party effectively governed the town of Leeds during the 19th-century, controlling the Council from 1835 to 1895, and winning the majority of Parliamentary Elections from 1832 to the division of the single Leeds constituency into five wards after 1885. Almost all the so-called ‘leading lights’ of the town were not just members of the Liberal Party, but its active leaders: Edward Baines Senior and Junior; Peter and Andrew Fairbairn; John Barran; James Kitson – to name but a handful.
That power and prestige was, to some extent, not reflected in the Club’s place of meeting. From the early 1880s, the Leeds Liberal Club rented premises in the Royal Insurance building on Park Row, which, while they were renovated and redeveloped to make them more suitable for their new purpose, still exhibited those “defects as are inherent to a structure not distinctly planned for use as a Club.”
As such, Club officers made arrangements to build and move into a purpose-built venue, to be located just south of the Coloured Cloth Hall (where City Square is today) on the newly-constructed Quebec Street. It was proposed that this venue – for an expanded Leeds and County Liberal Club – would contain a floor area double that of the Park-row premises, and would “afford accommodation for 1,600 members.” (Leeds Mercury, March 13, 1890). The memorial stone was laid by Sir James Kitson, Bart. in March of 1890. The image below shows the proposed design of the Club house:
In order to fund this exciting new venture, the Club canvassed local people, in an effort to raise member numbers and subscription income to a level commensurate with the size and extravagance of the new site. That push was contained in a ‘Prospectus’ distributed around the Leeds and Yorkshire area – an extract can be seen below:
Clearly, such efforts were successful, as the new Club opened on February 20, 1891, after a ritual opening ceremony rich in pageantry and symbolism: around 100 members of the Club met in the Park-row site, now almost entirely deserted, before proceeding to the nearby Quebec Street. Once the party had arrived, the Committee Chairman, John Shackleton Mathers, presented the Marquis of Ripon with a key to open the Club door and declared:
Lord Ripon, I have been requested, as the Chairman of the Leeds and County Liberal Club, to ask you, as one of its vice-presidents, on behalf of its members, who are not confined to Leeds and the county of Yorkshire, but who come from most counties in England, also from Scotland, Ireland and Wales, to unlock the door of our new club-house and give us admittance, so that we may discuss political, municipal, social, and other questions, and organise to carry out the great principles of Liberalism, which we believe will be for the benefit and welfare of our town, our country, and the world.
The subsequent opening of the gate marked the culmination of a year’s work, during which the Liberal Party Committee took on “heavy responsibility and much work – no less than 106 Committee or Sub-Committee meetings having been held during the year.” (Leeds and County Liberal Club, The Tenth Annual Report of the Committee, 1891, p.5). The Club was designed by architects (and active Liberal Party members) Chorley and Connon, who were also responsible for the Newton Park Estate in Chapeltown-Potternewton. Contractors involved in the building included stain-glass and carving by Appleyard of Leeds, who was also responsible for similar work at the 1884 Municipal Buildings (now the home of Leeds Central Library).
Such magnitude of effort was testament to the position held by the Liberal Party during the 19th-century, and the sheer number of members and volunteers who could be corralled to contribute to the completion of the new club-house. At our remove, however, the opening of the Quebec Street venue perhaps marks the culmination of the Liberal project in Leeds, at the cusp of a very-different political world in the region and the nation; 1906 marking the final time the Party had a majority in the local Council and 1922 the last Liberal M.P. elected for Leeds. Even so, the building – which survives, albeit with a somewhat different purpose – still stands today as an emblem of the role played by the Liberal Party in the development of 19th-century Leeds.
Further Reading on the Leeds Liberal Party
(all titles available in the Local and Family History department)
- Tom Davies. The Organisation of the Leeds Liberal Party in the late-Victorian era (1998)
- Derek Fraser. A History of Modern Leeds (1980)
- Leeds Liberal Club. Annual Reports: 1881-1910
- Leeds Liberal Club. Prospectus (1890)
- Leeds Mercury. March 13, 1890
- Leeds Mercury. February 20, 1891
- Sir Wemyss Reid. Memoirs: 1842-1885 (1905) – this title is available from our Information and Research department
- A.W. Roberts. ‘Leeds Liberalism and Late-Victorian Politics,’ in Northern History, Volume 5 (1970), pp.131-156