The Bright Lights of Leeds

This week we welcome guest blogger Bryan Walters. Bryan is a keen historian and creates YouTube videos telling the history of Leeds. Here, with the help of Leodis, he tells us a little bit about life in Leeds.

For six pence, at the end of the Victorian period, a working man could enjoy a Turkish Bath at the Spa on Quarry Hill. For another fourpence or sixpence he could also afford a night in one of the common lodging houses around York Street, although he may have had to share it with another, either in a shift pattern or on the same night!

Victorian Turkish Baths, Quarry Hill (c) Leeds Libraries,

If a person had a skilled trade, or could combine their income with other working family members, there were properties to rent. If income was sporadic, for whatever reasons, and a person could not afford a night in a common lodging house, there was the missions, the workhouse, or a night on the streets, such was life in the city of Leeds at that time. Which raises the question, “Why were so many people across the UK being attracted from the countryside into the cities”?

Well, the answer is complex, but there are three that come to mind: opportunity; choice; and the lack of those, particularly employment, in the countryside.

Cross York Street Lodging House (c) Leeds Libraries,

It is estimated the population of Leeds grew from approximately 30,000 in 1800 to around 180,000 a century later. Some of the growth was organic, but most of it was through migration, accompanying massive building programmes of houses, factories and transport links (although the supply of adequate housing did not always keep pace). Work was available and people were attracted into the city take up the opportunities. A labourer could earn 3 shillings and ninepence for ten hours a day, six days a week; an experienced bricklayer six shillings and sixpence. There were jobs available for men and women, and when the work was done, there was a wide choice of places in the bright lights of Leeds to spend any cash that was left over.

City Varieties Music Hall (c) Leeds Libraries,

Many of the workers chose to spend their spare wages in the multitude of public houses around the growing township, but some visited the wide range of other recreations the city had to offer, including the music halls, such as Thornton’s new music hall which opened in 1865 as a singing room built over the White Swan Inn, and became known as City Varieties. The railways allowed local sporting teams to travel and so sports like cricket, football and rugby began to be organised with agreed rules, national competitions and crowds. There were old favourites such as going to the circus or the traditional theatres but the invention of the moving picture during the 1890s meant that cinemas became an additional draw to living in cities like Leeds.

Bridge Street, Leylands (c) Leeds Libraries,

A scan through the Victorian censuses shows many of the people moving into Leeds at that time were from other parts of Yorkshire. Other parts of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales also feature strongly. A large Irish community developed and flourished and continued to grow during the twentieth century. The contribution made by Irishmen in building the railways and other infrastructure around Leeds was enormous, but that is just one aspect of the contribution men and women made to the fabric, culture and identity of the city.

International migrants also made Leeds their home. Jewish migrants, for example, from Eastern Europe, escaped persecution and developed a community, at first in the Leylands of Leeds. Montague Burton and Michael Marks are just two examples of people who joined the citizens of Leeds and made a difference to its influence, both economically and socially.

Dolphin Street, Bank (c) Leeds Libraries,

Recently I have been making short local history videos to tell the story of Leeds using current clips and old photographs. I have been lucky enough to have been granted permission to include some Leodis library pictures in my presentations, which have really helped to tell the story of parts of Leeds. Many of the photographs feature Leeds people of the past – faces staring out at you in the pictures. It makes you wonder about their lives. What did they make of the person taking the pictures? Did they have a strong accent from Leeds or one from another place? Did they challenge the photographer and ask what they were doing? What other questions might they have asked?

As I look through the extensive Leodis library, I recognise the ordinary, local people, who like me, have lived and worked in this great city and call it home. The photographs show the people who helped make this city what it is today, and I can’t help but think of them with kindness and recognise the struggles they had to overcome and the contributions they made. Some of the pictures were taken as plans were being drawn up to carry out slum clearances and I recoil slightly at the word slum. Of course, some of the buildings of the past were not of a suitable quality and had reached the end of their useful lives, but the word slum does the people who lived in the houses a disservice.

Leeds and its history is fascinating. As massive changes are taking place in the city, there seems to be an increasing desire to find out about Leeds’ past. The Leodis library continues to grow and newer pictures are added all the time, capturing that moment for others to look back upon. Maybe you and I will appear in the library in future? Perhaps we already do!? Without doubt, we are fortunate to have such a marvellous resource that we can all share.

Bryan Walters posts regular Leeds Local History videos on his Youtube channel @geogjuice

One Comment Add yours

  1. Charles Cowling says:

    Really enjoyed this. My gt grandparents were typical: incomers from agricultural E Yorkshire who made a decent enough fist of things. They set up as provisions agents in Hirst’s Yard off Briggate working on commission connecting farmers in the east with mill towns in the west. They had a house in Ella St and later in Cromer Terrace, now part of Leeds University. They lie in the eminently respectable Lawnswood cemetery.

    Very good to learn of your YouTube videos.

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