Back-to-back houses in Harehills…the story continues

University of York PhD researcher Joanne Harrison has been working on an exciting project about the past, present and future of back-to-back houses and their communities in Harehills since 2014. A new exhibition, now at Leeds Central Library, provides the findings of her research. Joanne writes…

Producing an exhibition at the end of my PhD was really important to me as I have always been determined that my work should be shared with the people who contributed to it, and with the wider Leeds communities, as a celebration of Leeds’s back-to-backs and their ongoing relevance. The exhibition opened at the Compton Centre Community Hub and Library in Harehills in September 2022, and was attended by many of the past and present residents who participated in my research, as well as Leeds City Council’s Senior Conservation Officer and Neighbourhood Planning Manager, and Leeds Civic Trust’s Director. It was a fantastic opportunity for residents to talk and share their ideas and memories, particularly since many of them had participated in individual interviews, and had not previously met. For some of those who had taken part in workshops during the pandemic, it was their first time to meet others in person. I am so grateful to everyone who contributed to the research as it really was central to what I was trying to discover and I simply couldn’t have understood the architectural and social history of the back-to-backs in Harehills, or the lives and aspirations of current residents if they hadn’t been so generous with their time, and so open and honest about their lives.

The exhibition itself has six panels, each focusing on a different strand of the research, to give an overview of the key findings. The first panel traces the origin, development and decline of back-to-back house-building in Leeds, explaining how the house type emerged as a consequence of building along the rear boundary walls of larger street-facing houses, how it evolved in the context of changing legislation and multiple attempts by government and social and sanitary reformers to ban the type, and how the type was eventually banned in 1909.

Moving then to Harehills, the exhibition explores the development of the Harehills Triangle from 1888 to 1912, mapping the location of the different types of back-to-back houses and showing floor plans of the most prolific types – Type 2s built in blocks of eight with WC yards between, and Type 3s built in continuous rows with a basement WC shared between every two houses.

Figure 1 Development of the Harehills Triangle and its back-to-back house types. (Background map: Ordnance Survey (GB) 2018. © Crown Copyright and Database Right (2018) OS (Digimap Licence))

An architectural focus on the next panel showcases the character of the houses in different parts of the Harehills Triangle, and explores their amenities and facilities in more detail to highlight the many variations including original dormers, bay windows, and decorative string courses, lintels and sills.

The fourth panel explores the life of early residents, using the case of the Armitage family who lived in a shop-house on Harehills Road. Previously unseen photographs of the family in the 1920s-30s give an idea of the house interior, and the residents’ lives.

Figure 2 Ernest Armitage in his kitchen, with the boot repair shop beyond. (Courtesty of Mary Armitage)

“There was a cellar kitchen where they did the cooking over a fire, boiling it. There was a biggish table, one of those that you scrubbed, old fashioned table and chairs. And an easy chair. I can remember it being quite shabby, not loads of furniture. And a velvet curtain that divided the shop from the house.”

The final two panels bring the relevance of the research into the present, giving an overview of the houses now and how residents use them, before considering what residents like and dislike about the houses and neighbourhood, what changes they would like to see, and how engagement with existing policy frameworks such as neighbourhood planning or conservation area designation might help them achieve that.

Since completing my research, I’ve joined Leeds City Council’s Neighbourhood Planning Team, and I’m working on a really exciting project called Simpler Approach to Neighbourhood Planning, which is a pilot project funded by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Harehills and two other inner-city neighbourhoods in Leeds are taking part. Neighbourhood Planning gives communities the opportunity to decide what they want for their neighbourhood (for example, the types of buildings that are needed and where, and what buildings and spaces should look like) so that measures can be adopted into local policy and used to determine planning applications. The pilot aim is to explore ways of simplifying the neighbourhood planning process so that more people from more communities can take part. In many ways, the pilot picks up where my PhD research finished, but this time the work extends to a much larger area, not just the back-to-back houses, and anyone who lives, works or carries out business in the area can participate. The scope is also wider than is usually considered in neighbourhood planning as it is not limited to the built environment, but can also consider issues such as employment, transport and community cohesion. The local community has recently applied to designate a Forum and a Neighbourhood Area, and I am supporting them to make a Community Priorities Statement that sets out their key priorities and how they might be addressed. The pilot runs until October 2023 so there is a lot to do, but we’re all hopeful that this can bring transformative change to Harehills, making it a place where local people are proud to live and where others aspire to live.

The exhibition is in the Local and Family History Library until April 22nd, and Joanne’s thesis will be available to read online at from May. If you would like to find out more about the Harehills Neighbourhood Forum and get involved in the pilot, visit or email

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mr B Forbes says:

    What year were the houses on Newtonlodge Drive
    Leeds LS 7 Built.

    1. Dear Mr. Forbes,

      Thank you for your comment, and your interest in the Secret Library blog. Please email us on with your query and our department staff will see what they can find using our local history resources.

      Best wishes,
      Librarian, Local and Family History department at Leeds Central Library

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