Reading Around the Histories of Leeds

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

In a nutshell, historiography is the history of history” – and because everything has a history (both objectively and subjectively), everything also has a history of those histories: that is, a historiography.

Leeds is no different. In fact, in some ways, Leeds is more blessed than many other English urban locales by the breadth and depth of its historiography; equally, in other ways, it is less well-served (and those distinctions are themselves a kind of historiographical analysis). “More blessed” because, for example, in the work of Ralph Thoresby we have one of the earliest provincial histories; “less well-served” because, as is becoming increasingly clear, we lack a properly modern and comprehensive account of Leeds’ social diversity, especially across the key periods of the 19th and 20th-centuries.

Such thoughts sparked one of our most recent ventures in the Local and Family History library: a discussion group based around readings in some of the key writings on Leeds’ past. This book group with a difference – the difference being that attendees select a theme at the end of the session; the Librarian then finds suitable material from the selections available in the department to cover that subject, all to be read in time for the next meeting one month away – started during our recent programme of Library Fest events, and has continued into the first quarter of 2017.

The first session, back in February, saw us gaining a thorough grounding in the general histories of Leeds, from the aforementioned Thoresby through Edmund Bogg on pre-Norman Conquest Leeds, Edward Parsons on the Medieval period, Percy Robinson on Kirkstall Abbey and Adel Church, J.S. Fletcher on the 17th-century, Steven Burt & Kevin Grady on the Georgian period, W.R. Mitchell on the Industrial Revolution, David Thornton on Victorian Leeds and, finally, Michael Meadowcroft’s chapter on aspects of 20th-century local government in the post-World War I city, which can be found in A History of Modern Leeds (1980; ed., Derek Fraser).

For that first meeting, our intrepid readers were asked to contribute their thoughts on the extracts and authors they had encountered (many for the first time). Here is one such response to the material:

Of course, such reading only scratched the surface of the voluminous histories of Leeds – the many hundreds of articles in the Publications of the Thoresby Society, the monographs on specific aspects of the 18th and 19th-centuries – in particular, Maurice Beresford on urbanisation, R.G. Wilson on merchants in the 1700s and both E.P. Hennock and Derek Fraser on aspects of Victorian local politics – and several biographies of key figures, among them Thoresby himself.

So – we pressed on, boats against the current of the present, borne back ceaselessly into the rich seams of Leeds’ past: most recently, 19th-century architecture and, for May’s meeting, we’ll have become experts (of a kind) in the fascinating history of Leeds during the Middle-Ages.

After that – who knows? The group is, after all, restricted only by the interests of the people attending, and the quantity of material that has been written on any particular field. So – if you’re interested in taking part in these sessions, do please get in touch via localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk or on 0113 37 86982.

A History of Jewish Theatre in Leeds

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library.

Milim 2017, the second Festival of Jewish Words for All in Leeds, is currently in full swing, and the diverse programme of events has so far included a Jewish History in Leeds workshop at Central Library last Tuesday.

Among the many materials we shared with our group were examples from the library’s huge collection of local theatre playbills. Within these, references to Jewish life and customs can be traced back to 1818, when a Mr. Mallinson performed a comic song called “Miss Levi, Miss Abrahams and Miss Moses, or: Jewish Courtship” at the Hunslet Lane theatre. Of course, performers on the city stage were often not local and would generally tour the country, so this and similar productions are unlikely to have reflected life in Leeds itself. Likewise, they almost certainly wouldn’t have been aimed at a Jewish audience. It’s not until the late 19th Century, when larger numbers of Jewish people had begun to live and work here, that the city saw the rise of a genuine Jewish theatrical movement.

This probably didn’t take the form you would expect. For years, I’ve come across references to a Jewish community theatre active around the late 1800s/early 1900s, centred on a place called Alexandra Hall – the location of which I’ve never been able to establish. Its purpose seemed to be to act as a ‘safe place’ (to use current lingo) where Jewish immigrants, facing poverty in their living conditions and hostility from other residents, could share and address their problems. If you think about it, this chosen medium – built as it is around coming together, collaboration, creativity and emotional release – was probably an apt and powerful one, and as familiar and traditional as communal worship.

In collecting resources for the workshop, I came across Edward Burgess’s 1925 series of articles for the Yorkshire Evening News, entitled The Soul of the Leeds Ghetto (shelfmark: LQ 296 B912). Here, finally, was a written description of the Alexandra Hall, including its location – Cookridge Street – and a picture:

Taken from “Part IX: The Drama”, 31 January 1925

Professional productions of Jewish theatre in Leeds go back to at least 1911, with the mounting of what would become known as Yiddish Repertoire Week. Its main star Fanny Waxman (1878-1958) was a well-known Jewish actress, who was active on the London stage for forty years until her retirement in 1930. The demanding programme involved a different play every night at 8pm, and our playbills collection includes examples from 1911 and 1916, some of which are written entirely in Yiddish.

The first Leeds Jewish Amateur Stage Group, the Proscenium Players, was founded in 1948. Its original remit was to mount four productions a year at the Albert Hall, which later became the Civic Theatre. After decades of diverse and successful shows – in the hands of several generations of ‘Pross’ players – the company took their final bow in the 1990s, and their venue was later transformed into the current City Museum on Millennium Square. For a complete history, read John Fisher’s book, An Audience of Curious People, available in the Local and Family History Library (L 792 FIS).

One of the Players’ most iconic pieces was the 1950 original play They Came to Leeds, co-written by well-known local historian Louis Saipe. The story, set in the Leylands area in the 1880s, deals with the early years of Jewish immigration to Leeds. In 1955, the group tackled a play called Two on an Island. Although the premise is a light romantic comedy, in which the central couple meet only at the end, the production required no less than eleven elaborate sets representing famous New York landmarks – including Broadway, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern art and, finally, the top of the Statue of Liberty. Thankfully, critics agreed that the society had pulled it off spectacularly.

The Players’ Jean Tordoff took the demanding lead in 1961’s Roots, made famous by Joan Plowright on the London stage. The story deals with the growing maturity of a young woman living in Norfolk and requires its cast to deliver lots of local dialect in an authentic accent.

The Proscenium Players’ 1962 production of Crime and Punishment cast a young Ronald Pickup (then a student at Leeds University) in the central role of Raskolnikoff, the murderer. The young actor was universally acclaimed by the local press and went on to a very successful career on stage and screen. He recently appeared with Judi Dench and Bill Nighy as one of the main characters in the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel.

These and other playbills are currently on display in the Local and Family History Library throughout the rest of March. You can uncover more about our books and other materials on Jewish history in Leeds through our Research Guide. For more information about upcoming Milim 2017 events, see the online programme. And, finally, you can read more about very early Leeds theatre here at the Secret Library in Famous Last Words.

Speed-dating our Library Treasures II: Small Books and Big Ideas

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

You may recall that, during our 2016 Library Fest programme, we trialled a new event: Speed-date our Library Treasures. Put simply, this was an opportunity for the public to engage with a wide range of some of our most interesting and unique stock items, all curated by passionate Librarians, and in a decidedly non-traditional library environment (i.e. a pub).

We’re delighted to report that – such was the success of #speeddatetreasures – we took little hesitation in opting to run the whole thing again this year, as part of our recent 2017 Library Fest series. So, for those of you who were unable to make it, here is a brief run-through of the items we had out on show during the two sessions:

Oliver Twiss

Rhian, our Collections Manager, spoke about this fascinating 1830s edition of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, an edition with, as it were, “a twist”: this copy is, in fact, a pirated, plagiarised and parodic version of that well-known text, adapted by one Thomas Peckett Prest for a working-class audience hungry for cultural forms suited to their tastes. You can read more about Oliver Twiss on a previous blog post.

The Political Sway Pole

This political cartoon from the 1880 Parliamentary Election was introduced by Antony from our Local and Family History department. Depicting the five candidates for the Leeds seat, the cartoon forms part of a wider collection of over 200-similar images. Antony has previously given a talk on this collection, and you can see an edited version of his lecture notes and slides elsewhere on this blog.

Windyridge Manuscript

Phil, who works across the Local and Family History and Information and Research departments, led our ‘dates’ through the history and significance of a book that is – by any measure – one of the Treasures we are most honoured to hold in the Central Library: Willie Riley’s manuscript edition of his 1912 bestselling-novel Windyridge. Riley, from Bradford, based his story of the young artist and photographer, Grace Holden, on the area around Guiseley.

Phil is a familiar figure in the local history community, where he gives regular talks on the Central Library’s Treasures collections; in particular, a Cistercian Missal that most likely belonged to the library at Kirkstall Abbey.

The Book of Nouns

This tiny book bears more cultural, historical and intellectual weight than you might expect from its compact appearance. Ross, Librarian-Manager for the Local and Family History department, introduced the  The Book of Nouns and has this to say:

The Book of Nouns, or Things which may be seen is a miniature children’s book dating back to the very early 19th Century.

It measures only 6cm by 4.5cm and is about 1cm thick. Our copy was printed in 1802 by Darton and Harvey of 55 Gracechurch Street, London, but a note inside suggests the book was first published the year before. Its tiny pages alternate between short lists of things (‘a Mace, a Nest, Oaks, a Pink, a Quill, a Rake’) and beautiful engravings – not always of the same items.

So, for instance, you’ll find a turkey, a jackal, a well, a rook and an archer among the 64 images inside. Very occasionally, there’s also a brief fact, such as ‘The otter lives on fish, roots & plants’ but, for the most part, it’s up to you to guess why each item was included.

It’s not a dictionary (although from page 56 onwards it does suddenly decide to start following the order of the alphabet) and not everything inside is named. In fact, it took another old book to explain for us the way in which it’s intended to be used. ‘The use of this little trifle is to connect reading with intelligence,’ explains A Catalogue of Books, for the Amusement and Instruction of Youth (1801): ‘When each name is read, the thing it signifies should be shewn’.

Leeds Printed Broadsides

Karen, also from our Local and Family History department, brought along this fascinating collection of stories, songs and proclamations, gathered as it was by the eminent Leeds-folklorist Frank Kidson. Karen has this to say about this selection:

I chose for my Speed Dating item ‘Leeds Printed Broadsides’ which were collected by Frank Kidson, Leeds author, artist and folk song collector. Broadsides were a form of street literature, printed on one side only, and produced in large numbers on the early printing presses, and sold for as little as one old penny. They contained accounts of events, news, proclamations and songs or rhymes, and were sold in the streets and at fairs and other gatherings.

The special aspect of this collection is that they are all original prints from Leeds printing firms, such as Barr, Andrews, and Buchan, and some also have notes in Kidson’s own hand. He was about as much of a Leeds man as it possible to be, having been born in Centenary Street, just prior to the building of Leeds Municipal Buildings and Library, and on the site of what is now Victoria Gardens.

Circus Playbill

Just one from our large collection of Leeds theatre playbills and programmes, this particular selection, selected by Helen from our Local and Family History department, advertises the appearance in Leeds of a man made (even more) famous by The Beatles: Pablo Fanque. The story of Pablo’s time in Leeds is told in several previous blog posts.

Spare Rib

Finally, Sally, the Historypin Outreach Librarian for Leeds Libraries, brought along copies of the feminist journal Spare Rib. Here’s Sally on these inspiring pieces of political history:

Spare Rib is a second wave feminist magazine running from 1972 to 1993, of which in Central Library we have bound copies from 1976 to 1993.

The magazine was a reaction to – and rebellion against – traditional women’s magazines, which covered topics such as beauty, domesticity and romance. Spare Rib highlighted and protested issues previously un-touched by women’s magazines including sex, racism, eating disorders and women’s rights in foreign countries; along with passionate reader’s letters, culture reviews and listings.

Spare Rib is a treasure as it is an important piece of recent social and cultural history, inspiring a new generation of modern feminism, while also highlighting darker issues in modern society; issues mirrored in these magazines from thirty-years ago.

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Please get in touch to find out more about any of these items, or browse the Treasures, Special Collections and Research Guide sections of this blog to find out more about our holdings. And keep an eye out for Speed-dating III…coming soon!

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Hands-On Urban History #1: Little Woodhouse

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

Last Saturday, as part of our 2017 Library Fest programme, we welcomed a group of budding urban historians and explorers to the Central Library, for a workshop where they would help staff from the Local and Family History department research and investigate a fascinating item that had been donated to us sometime in the last year.

The item in question was a folder containing a college project by one Peter Salmon, a student at the Leeds College of Art in the 1960s (and now an artist based in Canada). This folder had come to us after unrelated correspondence with a Library customer, Jane Bower, whose father had been Peter’s lecturer at the time (an interesting side note: Jane’s own family history is intriguing in itself, as she grew up in the famous Ashwood house of Headingley; she is due to give a talk for us on precisely that subject later this year. Jane can also be seen at the Leeds Grammar School in May, performing a play based on her father’s diaries).

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Peter’s focus in his project was a small group of old cottages on Little Woodhouse Street, situated just between Chorley Lane (still in existence) and Leighton Lane (no longer in existence); while Peter had been able to identify that the dwellings roughly dated from around 1670 (along with a detailed analysis of their architectural features; his main area of interest), we were keen to take his research a little further, primarily using the resources available in the Local and Family History department: books, maps, photographs, Census returns, Trade Directory entries, newspaper articles, and so forth.

c.1890 map showing Little Woodhouse area. The location of the cottages is indicated by the circle

c.1890 map showing Little Woodhouse area. The location of the cottages is indicated by the circle. Map sourced from the Tracks in Time website: www.tithemaps.leeds.gov.uk

We were lucky enough to have in attendance Dr Shane Ewen, Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, and an urban historian, whose book What Is Urban History? informed and contextualised our approach to this event (and who also runs thought-provoking Urban History workshops of his own). Shane kindly offered some introductory remarks on the subject of Urban History.

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Undated, Postcard view of Little Woodhouse Street, looking from Clarendon Road towards Caledonian Road. To the left is the end of Hyde Terrace, the wall has a message chalked on it ‘Errand Boys Rest’. On the right, a row of Old Houses with irregular roof lines can be seen, the junction with Leighton Lane is in the middle of the houses on the right (a single tall chimney can be seen behind). On the right edge is Chorley Lane. From Leodis.net

Following that short presentation, and some words from our Librarians introducing Peter’s project and our intended-aims on the day, attendees got to work searching for information about the cottages and their inhabitants over the last two-hundred years. We used as our starting point two photographs: one Peter took himself, and a very similar shot from our Leodis archive, showing the cottages in “Old Leeds”.

After that research was completed – including some fascinating Census finds on Ancestry.com – everyone present made their way out into Little Woodhouse itself, in search of any surviving signs of the cottages and their neighbourhood.

1881 Census return showing some of the Little Woodhouse cottages

1881 Census return showing some of the Little Woodhouse cottages

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Present-day Chorley Lane

And, wonderfully, while the buildings themselves have long-since disappeared – swallowed up as part of the development of Leeds General Infirmary – a trace of their presence could still be seen in their absence, in the way that it seemed possible to trace the path of the older, narrow, road that ran down and round in front of the houses along the line of the present-day passage; and the way that seeing the boundaries of that road enabled one to spot the likely location of the cottages themselves, in an empty space just beside. A wall on the side opposite that location seemed also to be of likely significance.

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The space just behind the car on the right of this photograph is the likely site of the Little Woodhouse cottages

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The wall opposite

Following that eye-opening encounter with the past (how many other mundane locations around the city also contain such echoes of history?), the group set-off on a fascinating tour of the wider Little Woodhouse area: taking in Little Woodhouse Hall, a terraced house inhabited at one stage by Edward Baines Jnr. and his family, the Thoresby Society‘s old home at Claremont, Denison Hall, the squares of Little Woodhouse and Hanover, Joseph’s Well and, finally, Centaur House.

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Woodhouse Hall

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House owned by Edward Baines Jnr.

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Denison Hall

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Late 19th-century residential housing near to Hanover Square

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Blue plaque opposite Woodhouse Square

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Joseph’s Well, former John Barran clothing factory

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Centaur House

Centaur House

Street map, near Centaur House. The location of the cottages is shown.

Street map, near Centaur House. The location of the cottages is shown

This was a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating afternoon and plans are already underway for the next installment of our new Hands-On Urban History series. Please get in touch with us to register your interest in attending.

Resources (all available in the Local and Family History department)

Postscript

We were also fortunate to have Janet Douglas, author of several superb local history books, in attendance at the workshop. Janet directed our attention to a Yorkshire Evening Post article on the history of Little Woodhouse by Edmund Bogg, featuring a drawing of very the cottages in question – most likely by Bogg himself. The image below shows that article – click on the picture to access a zoom-able version.

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“Winter Is Coming”: Game of Thrones and the Leeds Libraries’ Collections

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Join us tomorrow for a chance to see, handle, explore and discuss specially-curated items from the Central Library Collections. These books will all relate to the real-life history, culture and mythology behind George R.R. Martin’s immersive fantasy world, as enjoyed by millions of readers and TV viewers.

This will be a rare opportunity to see some of the rarest and most interesting books in our collections, including a signed copy of Maurice Druon’s The Iron King (the “original Game of Thrones“, in Martin’s own words) and a manuscript copy of E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. Other books on display will range from a 17th-century look at fantastical creatures, through to 20th-century academic scholarship on medieval warfare; all will illuminate some aspect of the Game of Thrones world, helping you to appreciate the people, places and events of Westeros with added depth.

This is a drop-in event and there is no need to book. Everyone is welcome, but some of the Game of Thrones content may not be suitable for younger people. Please be advised that the exhibition will contain significant SPOILERS for both the written and the visual editions of the series…

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