Step Back Leeds

This week we hear about a project making creative use of the Central Library’s 19th-century Political Cartoons collection…

Organised by a group of five second-year Liberal Arts students at University of Leeds, Step Back Leeds is a project that works to explore the 19th Century political story of Leeds through the Leeds Libraries’ collection of political cartoons.

Mapping an exclusive range of cartoons to significant locations in the city that both relate to this collection and the political story of Leeds, we have created a poster walking tour across the city to help you to learn a little more about the happenings on the streets of Leeds that have shaped the city to this day.

Protesting on Woodhouse Moor, owning clothing factories at Park Square and even having important buildings named after them, these politicians have left their stamp on the city of Leeds so take time to delve into these stories and connect with the city like never before!

A fascinating part of history, the 1868, 1874, 1876 and 1880 elections sparked drama across the city, full of scandal and competition as political warriors battled it out to represent Leeds on a national scale. Not only local, the candidates included William Ewart-Gladstone who also became Prime Minister, choosing to represent Midlothian instead of Leeds in 1880. Featuring the main parliamentary candidates such as Dr Frederick Lees, Edward Baines Junior, Robert Meek Carter, and William St. James Wheelhouse, these cartoons act as rather scathing reports of the scandalous political battles at the time. Not only ridiculing the successful candidates, the cartoons also mock John De Morgan, the head of the Leeds School Board who was known for his epic failure in attempting to represent Leeds after his many protests and rumours of bribery defaced the elusive radical’s reputation.

Much like British Politics today, these elections were full of tumult and surprise as the Prime-Ministerial baton was thrown from one party to another across the decade documented by the cartoons. As we now live in another era of political uncertainty, it seems that this theme has been present for many years and even centuries. Maybe times haven’t changed as much as we think!

Many changes occurred during this era of elections, especially since Leeds was a fairly new borough, only created in 1832 due to the Reform Act. The borough grew, meaning an  increase of Parliamentary seats from two to three was vital. This was such a monumental moment that it is even documented in the cartoons themselves. 

These cartoons, for the first time in colour, are a real gateway into not only the politics of 19th Century Leeds, but the daily life of the Yorkshiremen that walked our streets daily. Known for being displayed across the city, even in shop windows, they were the perfect way for people to learn about and express their political opinions, especially as more and more people became eligible to vote. As we now have newspapers, television, and more recently, social media, the people of the 19th Century relied heavily on the printers to distribute this material and to stay updated on the gossip at the time, salaciously portrayed in pencil.

So, get stuck in and enjoy viewing the full collection here! Catch the posters in all their glory across the city throughout May 2021 at the following locations:

  • University of Leeds
  • Leeds Town Hall
  • Woodhouse Moor
  • Leeds Libraries
  • Leeds Station
  • Park Square
  • Lovell Park

Don’t forget to keep updated on Twitter using #stepbackleeds and share your adventure with us as you step back in time and find our posters!

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