Hidden Nature, Hidden History: St. John’s Church

This article forms part of our Heritage Open Day 2020 programme, specifically our Leeds City Centre Hidden Nature, Hidden History heritage trail. Click to see all the points on the trail and to read the accompanying articles…

The high sandstone boundary wall and steep stone stepped gateway from Upper Briggate brings you above the level of the road and away from the traffic into a century’s old greenspace of huge value to a city centre comprised of a mostly hardscaped environment.

In the centre of this enclosed space stands St John’s Church, the oldest surviving place of worship in Leeds the church was built in 1632-1634 and shows the earliest example of Leeds extending beyond its medieval boundary.  This beautiful 17th century church is now in the hands of the churches conservation trust and opens for tours and events to show off its beautifully carved pews and screens displaying monstrous heads, griffins, hearts and flowers.

Built by local philanthropist John Harrison he endowed the immediate area with almshouses and a separate Chapel, used as a Charity School from the 1720s – though the present building dates from 1815. The building’s Blue Plaque states that

The institution clothed 80 poor girls in blue and trained them for domestic service

The former Charity School still stands today as the offices for Age UK and home to the Arch Café next to the church grounds.

The tended green space of the churchyard incorporates lawns with featuring matured deciduous trees whose canopy compliment the ashlar stone of the church tower, re-laid gravestones feature the local population of from times past including ‘town musicians, local inn keepers and a cow doctor’. Also buried within the grounds of St. John’s Church is Thomas Wilson, the Master of the Charity School from 1750, and an important collector of valuable historical documents. Several of his transcriptions of Medieval and early-modern materials are held at Leeds Central Library.

Next: Exit the graveyard of St John’s Church using the stepped archway down onto Upper Briggate, turn right and then left on to the Headrow. Follow the road onto Eastgate, and down to the Playhouse Gardens


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