The Leeds Owl and the City Arms

  • Over the next few months we’ll be featuring several articles from guest blogger Kiera Falgate. Kiera is a student at the University of Leeds and has been using the books and other resources available in the Local and Family History department at the Central Library to find out more about some of Leeds’ most interesting heritage. You can read Kiera’s previous post, on the Leeds Cross, by clicking this link.

29th August 1949. View shows the Leeds coat of arms with “a safety city” sign underneath at the Leeds Boundary at Seacroft. A field is in the foreground and a truck can be seen on the road on the right. Taken from

The Civic Hall in Millennium Square is flanked by golden owl sculptures on tall, decadent columns. Owls also feature on the war memorial outside the Henry Moore Institute, and in countless other architectural details across the city. But just what does this wise bird have to do with Leeds?

They’re an emblem taken from the official coat of arms of Leeds, and originate from the earliest use of the shield in 1626. They were taken from the arms of John Savile when he was appointed as the first alderman (elected council official) of the city.

The fleece in the centre of the shield is a reference to the main industry of the area – wool. In 1662 the three stars were added, borrowed from the arms of the first mayor of Leeds, Thomas Danby. In 1836, the motto PRO REGE ET LEGE (for the King and for law) was added. Finally, in 1921 the alderman Sir Charles Wilson officially registered the arms with the College of Heralds, and changed the colour of the owls from silver to owl coloured – a sensible decision.

4th January 1952. View shows a Leeds Public Health Department ambulance (a Morris van) after an accident, parked in a Leeds City Transport garage. There is a clear view of the Leeds coat of arms on the bodywork. Taken from

Heraldry is a fundamentally aristocratic custom, and the Leeds arms arguably holds social issues due to the class of the men whose family shields influenced it. That said, it has over the centuries become a part of the city’s identity, causing some surprising links. The primary colours it uses are blue and gold, the same colours as the kits of Leeds United, Leeds Rhinos, and also the little used West Yorkshire flag.

The Leeds coat of arms is formally described as:

Shield: Azure, a fleece or, on a chief sable, three mullets argent; Crest: On a wreath or and azure, an owl proper; Supporters: An owl proper ducally crowned or; Motto: “PRO REGE ET LEGE.”

Leeds Library’s collection holds a huge capacity for fascinating research in local history, or any other avenue of interest. The building also features a fair few owls, if you can spot them!

Saxons in Leeds!

  • Over the next few months we’ll be featuring articles from guest blogger Kiera Falgate. Kiera is a student at the University of Leeds and has been using the books and other resources available in the Local and Family History department at the Central Library to find out more about some of Leeds’ most interesting heritage.

    View of the old Leeds Parish Church of St. Peters. This building was demolished in 1838 and the present church constructed. The new church was consecrated in 1841. This is a Percy Robinson Print and was taken from

It’s not hard to imagine Leeds’ industrial history, its grand architectural legacy is everywhere. Evidence of the area’s medieval history is far more subtle, and under-appreciated. To see the art of some of Leeds’ earliest inhabitants, go no further than the Minster down in Kirkgate. As well as boasting a variety of stunning mosaics and stained glass windows, it is home to an Anglo-Saxon carved stone sculpture. (For those who like me, forget the time-frames for these old civilisations – the Anglo-Saxons were after the Romans, and before the Normans.) Known as the Leeds Cross, it’s an impressive 7 feet tall, and was smashed up and forgotten for centuries, before being reconstructed in the nineteenth century.

A delve into the local library records shows that a church has been on the site, near the river Aire, for well over a thousand years, but it has been rebuilt several times. In 1838 (the year Queen Victoria was crowned), the medieval church was demolished, and architect Robert Dennis Chantrell discovered the shattered remnants of an uncertain number of Anglo-Saxon sculptures. Carved between the years 700 to 900 in local stone, we have no idea what their purpose was, worship, grave marking, architectural, or decorative. In his Headingley home, he reconstructed the tall stone cross we can see today, Frankenstein’s monster style, using parts from many different sculptures. The rest of the carved stones were incorporated into the new tower of the church. Chantrell took it with him when he retired to Brighton, using it as a rather impressive garden ornament, and the Vicar of Leeds engaged in a difficult legal battle to get it back. It was cemented into the altar flat, where it remains today, hopefully never to end up in anyone else’s garden.

Leeds Central Library’s local collections are broad and fascinating. If there are any local mysteries that you’re interested in, it’s worth a look.

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 or on 0113 37 86982.

A Quick Guide to Leeds Burial Records

Harehills Cemetery, 1920. From

  • This Saturday 25 March, our Local and Family History department will have a stall at the Be Curious festival at the University of Leeds. We were kindly invited by the Brotherton Library’s Special Collections, who have recently made the records of Leeds General Cemetery available online…

British churches have been keeping registers of their baptisms, marriages and burials since 1538. At the Leeds Local and Family History Library, we hold copies for most of the city and a fair bit of Yorkshire. (You can see a full list on our website.) It used to be the case that, to trace a family’s history, you’d need to choose a likely parish register and go through each entry, looking for names and dates that fitted the family tree. Nowadays, thanks to various family history websites, it can be much easier to hone in on a particular record, so most people prefer to start by searching Ancestry (which is free to access in all Leeds libraries) and Family Search.

Burial registers themselves usually give the deceased’s name, age, address, and the name of a relation. Quite often, the earlier registers are little more than a barely-decipherable list of names and dates – meaning that you may never truly know if they refer to the ‘right’ person or simply someone else with the same name – but, by and large, they remain the only source of information on the deaths of ordinary folk centuries back.

By the start of the Victorian era, churchyards in Leeds were mostly full, and finding a place to bury someone was becoming a major problem. The city’s first municipal cemetery (i.e. one not operated by a church) was opened in 1835 at St. George’s Field, Woodhouse, by the Leeds General Cemetery Company. This was followed ten years later by Beckett Street Cemetery in Burmantofts, which was provided by the Leeds Corporation to help ease the growing issue of what to do with the dead.

  • Woodhouse Cemetery has been largely cleared of headstones but still exists within the grounds of the University of Leeds. In this case, the entire original burial records can be searched online.
  • For Beckett Street Cemetery records, the best place to start is our printed list of burials, indexed by surname and split into consecrated and unconsecrated sections. The index provides burial and grave numbers that can be used to find further details from our microfiche records and a map of grave locations. We also have a detailed map of the whole cemetery. If you plan on visiting, you may also find it useful to contact the Friends of Beckett Street Cemetery.

Leeds Local and Family History Library holds microfilmed copies of most of the records for the rest of the municipal cemeteries in Leeds. These list burials by date and usually give the name, address and age of the deceased, along with plot details. We also have printed name indexes for Woodhouse, Beckett Street and Hunslet Cemeteries. The Council’s Bereavement Services department keeps the original cemetery records at Farnley Hall, and can also be contacted to arrange a cemetery visit or request a search.


Upper and Lower Wortley Cemetery (undated). From

In the case of burials outside the Church of England, a large portion of these records have unfortunately not survived. However, we have a limited selection of ‘non-conformist’ burial records available at the Local and Family History Library on microform, including some Quaker, Methodist, and even older Catholic records.

Catholic Burial Records

For enquiries regarding all aspects of Catholic baptisms, marriages and burials, contact the Leeds Diocesan Archives. Killingbeck Cemetery in East Leeds is the main Catholic burial ground. Its register is not publically available but is party indexed by the Yorkshire Indexers, a group of local transcribers. (Full access to their website is by subscription only but you can access it for free in Leeds libraries.)

Jewish Burial Records

Information about Jewish cemeteries in Leeds can be found online, in the Leeds section of the International Jewish Cemetery Project website. A further database of Leeds burial records can be found at JCR-UK, the Jewish Communities & Records website.

Newspaper Notices

Another very useful source of information about deaths and burials is local newspapers. If you have a date of death it’s worth checking these for obituaries or death notices in the days afterwards. A death announcement will usually give details of funeral services and interments and often other family member names. Here at Local and Family History we hold a large archive of local papers and can help you get started in your search.

Good luck with your research and email us at if you need any further advice.

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.