Two Extraordinary Banquets

This week on the Secret Library, Librarian Antony Ramm briefly explores the stories behind two quite amazing political banquets in 19th-century Leeds. These both form entries on our Edible Leeds heritage trail, designed for Heritage Open Day Week 2021.

In this short tale of two extraordinary political banquets, we start with the most well-known: the banquet to welcome William Gladstone to Leeds the early 1880s.

Gladstone was being feted on his visit to Leeds because of a rather-curious fact: he had been selected by local Liberal Party members to stand in the Leeds constituency, despite the fact he had already chosen to stand for the Midlothian seat – a fact recorded with some mirth by local political cartoonists at the time, as we can see below.

(c) Leeds Libraries

Gladstone won both the seats he was entered in, but chose to take his original choice of Midlothian. As a thank you to the people of Leeds, however, he visited in the October of 1881. Arriving on the evening of Thursday October 6, the next two days saw torchlight processions and parades as part of Liberal celebrations involving cheering crowds throughout the town. As part of those celebrations, a huge banquet was held at the Coloured Cloth Hall on the evening of Friday October 7.

Interior of hall set out for Gladstone’s meeting. Prime Minister W E Gladstone visited Leeds in 1881 to address the Liberal Party. This temporary building was erected in the Coloured Cloth Hall Courtyard to seat 2,000 for a banquet on the eve of his visit. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

High-profile banquets like the Gladstone one were a major part of the political scene in Leeds during the 19th-century: spectacular, partisan displays of fellowship and patronage – always accompanied by elaborate feasts of formidable gastric excess; the Gladstone one was almost certainly the peak of these electoral blowouts. Held within the courtyard of the Coloured Cloth Hall, today’s City Square, the banquet hosted 1,500 attendees in a specially-constructed hall – as you can see in this image; 28 dishes were prepared for the feast, based on Joules Gouffe’s royal cookery book published in 1867.

(c) Leeds Libraries

But we end with what was almost certainly the most extraordinary political banquet ever held in Leeds, and perhaps even the most extraordinary meal ever eaten in Leeds by any person or group at any stage in the city’s history: and that is the Grand Conservative Festival, which took place in April 1838.

The explicit intention of this Festival was a partisan celebration of politician Sir Francis Burdett switching allegiance from Liberal to Tory; but the local significance had as much to do with what historian Derek Fraser has called “a rebirth of militant Toryism” in the town, a response to Liberal capture of the reformed Corporation in 1835, and including Tory control over the important Improvement Commission from 1837. Fraser attributes symbolic importance to the rebuilding of Leeds Parish Church in this Tory revival, “set in train”, as he says, by W.F. Hook, appointed Vicar of Leeds in 1837; a rebuilding ultimately delivered by leading architect R.D. Chantrell. It was that same Chantrell, in fact, who was also commissioned to design a special and magnificent pavilion for the Festival banquet, located on Park Row, roughly at the corner of that street and South Parade, with room for almost 1,200 attendees on nine rows of dining tables.

Leeds Intelligencer, April 14, 1838 (c) Leeds Libraries

Incredibly, and almost unbelievably, after hosting a sumptuous dinner on Monday April 16 and a Grand Ball on the following Friday, the entire Pavilion complex – measuring 120 by 80ft – was dismantled and the site cleared: a stunning and frankly vulgar display of elite wealth, power, and privilege.

You can read more about political banquets in 19th-century Leeds in Peter Brears’ A Taste of Leeds

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