Exploring Leeds Central Library – The Basement

Over the next few weeks we’re going to take you around Leeds Central Library, down into the deep dark depths of the basement and up to the lofty glazed ceilings of the top floor.  Because when you have your very own 137 year old building it would be a shame not to explore it to its fullest extent now wouldn’t it.

Municipal Buildings Basement Floorplan – c.1934

“The basement of the Municipal buildings is an exception to the general rule only inasmuch as it has relatively more light and less damp” ~ Leeds Mercury, Wednesday, 16th April, 1884

These days the only parts of the basement exposed to public view are the Victoria Gardens entrance and corridor leading to the passenger lift and facilities. But beyond the Porters Lodge at the end of the corridor lie a warren of Victorian tiled corridors and rooms, hiding enormous boilers, secret underground tunnels and one seized but still intact portcullis.  Our daylight basement benefits from street level windows and two formal entrances leading down from behind the owl topped railings on Calverley Street.  The below ground entrance spaces once led to tiled corridors and a waiting room with a fireplace and tiled floor.  Opposite the doors were two further entrances, this time facing the opposite direction, the start of two tunnels leading under Calverley Street and into the basement of the Town Hall opposite.  Along the main basement corridor, tucked away within a side room you’ll find our third tunnel, this one merely a hatch in the floor which upon lifting reveals a small space beneath and a set of tracks upon the ground.  Large enough only to accommodate document boxes, it was used as a quick and secure way of transporting important papers from one building to another. When the Municipal Buildings first opened in 1884, they and the Town Hall were the centre of Leeds civic life, with council offices split between the two buildings.  This tunnels are now decommissioned, many years’ worth of Calverley Street road strengthening measures saw them filled in, but rumour has it City of Leeds Police officers used these tunnels as a quick route from the CID offices on the first floor of the Municipal Buildings to the cells under the Town Hall steps.

One wing of the basement housed the Sanitary Inspectors, the Medical Officer, and the Hackney Carriage & Lamps office with the Porter’s office, boiler house, engine room and stores taking up the rest of the space.

The map is from sometime after 1934 when the City Police took over the first floor of the building and where once the Sanitation Inspectors held offices we now see stores, Clerks offices, Warrant offices and the Lost or Stolen Property office.

Municipal Buildings – boiler house

The most unchanged room is the boiler room at the Calverley Street side of the building, where heat was generated for the five storey building.  Fitted by Messrs T. Green & Sons of Leeds, the three coke boilers came from Vincent Roberts & Marr of Cherry Row on Skinner Lane.  Interchangeable with one another, if one were to break, its neighbours could act independently to keep supplying heat to the building.  Large openings at street level allowed coal to be shovelled directly into the basement to fuel the boilers.  The street level windows facing onto Alexander Street incorporated slopes for the coal to slide down when it was delivered for the boilers.

At the rear of the boiler room are marked lavatories.  These original Victorian lavatories were accessed from stairs leading to the ground floor but as the stairs were closed off during building improvements the lavatories were sealed off and no longer used.  Still there, these toilets are home to one of the various Library ghost stories.  During the 1999/2000 refurbishments builders reported seeing a lady in Victorian dress enter the block.  At the time they were convinced she must be our Head of Service, the only female in the building, and were deeply unhappy when she pointed out that not only had she not been there at the time but accurate Victorian dress wasn’t really her thing, especially on a building site.

In the void space to the left of the kitchen hides one of our buildings most intriguing features, an iron portcullis used up until the late 1990s.  It would be raised from the basement level using a hand crank, up through the main Calverley Street entrance steps to secure the building during closed hours.  The date on the portcullis is 1883, the year before the building opened in 1884, was this a miscommunication during ordering or did the building open a year later than originally intended? Either way the portcullis would have been in its underground resting place during the opening ceremony so maybe no one noticed the error on the day.  Previous library staff remember the portcullis in use, “We would stand in the Calverley Street entrance and shout ‘Ready’, down though the floor gap to the porters below, they would start to crank the mechanism and the gate would rise.  Sure enough every now and then we would have some stragglers in the library who didn’t want to take the long way out and would take a running jump to clear the gate before it got too high” – Moira, former Central Art Librarian.

Municipal Buildings – portcullis

The City Police moved out in the 1960s and the first floor of the building was refurbished into a City Museum, rumour has it that the basement became home to a room with a reinforced door for storing historical weapons and part of the old Inspectors Office was sectioned off and lined in lead for x-raying museum artefacts.

The floor plan shows the building to be built in a C shape, curling around a yard closed in on the right by the Art Gallery.  Once a light source for the windows on the inside of the C and a place to store the bins, this yard was built over in the 1960s and became home to five floors of stacks, large rooms containing huge moving shelves that hold our extensive book collection.  The entrance from Alexander Street still exists and a tunnel leads down from street level to our current distribution rooms.

Today the Central Library basement is much less inhabited than before however it is vital to the running of Leeds Libraries.  The old Engine Room and Bicycle Store are now our distribution rooms where reserved books are sorted and sent out to waiting customers at our branch libraries. The old Warrant Office and Lost or Stolen Property Office house Visit Leeds and the Gallery shop while the rest of the rooms are used for general storage and building functions. We stopped raising the portcullis after the Millennium refurbishment and now we’re too scared to try again in case it gets stuck.  The Calverley Street basement entrances are sealed shut and while the old boilers are still very much in place (how would we move them out?) our heating is controlled with a modern computerised systems.  We are also still home to a very old original generator, possibly the same one the Leeds Mercury described as “Driven by two twelve-horse power self-starting “Otto” gas engines, built on the most improved principle by Messrs Cromley Brothers Limited of Manchester.”  But as with the boilers this as long since become obsolete with a new modern electrical system taking its place.

And that was our basement, do you know anything more that we’ve missed?  We’d love to hear about it if you do.  Next in the series we move one floor up to explore the ground level and all its secrets.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Rachael Unsworth says:

    I read about the history of electricity in Leeds in
    Poulter, D. (1986) An early history of electricity supply: the story of the electric light in Victorian Leeds. IEE history of technology series.
    It seems that in the 1880s, with electricity becoming a possibility, but no system to provide it, the Corporation took the decision to install generators to light the building instead of putting in gas lighting. Leeds coal gas was filthy stuff. Not good to books.
    I mean to do a tour/presentation on ‘Power to the People’ – perhaps a strange mix of energy and democracy?

    1. Hi Rachel, thanks for your comment, your ‘Power to the People presentation sounds really interesting. It’s true coal is definitely not ideal for books but it’s also worth knowing that we (The Library) were only supposed to be in this building for 20years tops, yet here we are 137 years later. If this was a game of last man standing then we definitely won.

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