A Brief History of Leeds #8: The Early 20th-century, part 1

Part eight of a series exploring the history of Leeds, using books and other stock resources held in the Leeds Libraries collections. For all the entries in this series, see our dedicated page.

Part eight of this series took a brief look at the emergence of the ready-made clothing industry in Leeds during the latter half of the 19th-century, highlighting some wonderful original textile samples in the Central Library collections.

As well as simply being pleasurable to look at and of course to touch, these textile samples speak to a kind of self-confidence in the city’s wares – a self-confidence, ultimately, in the city itself; its products, its people, and its future. This self-confidence – civic pride would be a better term –peaked, perhaps, around the turn of the 20th-century, in an era that has been called the Age of Flamboyance in a 2021 lecture by Leeds historian Kevin Grady. This was a broad period that saw Leeds gain city status in 1893, the opening of City Square in 1903 and the construction of many buildings whose solidity and grandeur exemplified the certitude that Leeds was here to stay.

16th September 1903 Postcard of commemoration of statues in City Square donated by Col. Harding and handing over ceremony of City Square. City Square and surrounding streets are packed with people and police. The statue of the Black Prince is prominent in the centre (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

Such success in the present brought with it a stock-taking mood to the city’s past, a desire to look back and reflect on just how far Leeds had come in the last few centuries. This spirit is perhaps not better captured than in the 1908 ‘Old Leeds’ exhibition, the handbook and committee minute books for which are held at the Central Library.

This exhibition – a joint-venture between Public Libraries, The Thoresby Society and the Leeds Philosophical & Literary Society – was a large display across several rooms of the Art Gallery showcasing objects, books, prints, and artwork representing various aspects of Leeds’ long history.

The exhibition was opened by Colonel T.W. Harding, whose romanticised vision of the city’s past could only emerge from a perspective of relative comfort, stability, security and wealth. Harding said:

…it seemed to him that there was value, and certainly interest, in looking backwards…[t]o … [recall] the beginnings of a great city. If by that Exhibition they could recall the Leeds of only, say, 250 or 300 years ago, with some amount of reality it would be very interesting. “Would it not,” he asked, “be interesting to picture the quaint streets and the quiet lives of the people who were able to exist without steam, without tramcars, without telephones, and all the complexities of modern life? I am not at all sure that in spite of these deficiencies the people of that day were not happier than we are now.”

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