Crime and Punishment in Leeds, 1850

  • Volunteers’ Week takes place every year from 1-7 June. Leeds Libraries held a celebratory reception yesterday, recognizing the efforts of our volunteering team – including event supporters, At-Home Service deliverers, partners and, of course, heritage volunteers – several of whom have written for this very blog. Today, we hand over to another of these, Joan Ellis, who’s been researching the history of crime in Leeds, including the strange case of an ‘assault with a worsted sock’…

When I volunteered to research historic crimes for the Local and Family History Library, the brief seemed quite wide. At my induction, an 1850 edition of the Leeds Mercury on microfilm was chosen to show how the newspaper archive worked, but it wasn’t long before I decided this would be a good starting-point. As the aim was to create something that could help people find information on past family members, I decided to create a spreadsheet detailing crimes reported in the Leeds Mercury during the first six months of 1850 (an achievable sample to start with). I further decided the best way forward was to record details of hearings which appeared to have had an outcome – for example, committed for trial, fined, or dismissed. This would make it relatively easy for users to look up information in an easy-to-access format.

Postcard view of Armley Jail, opened in 1847 (

After reviewing the first few articles, it soon became apparent what fields I would need to record the information. The full spreadsheet has many columns but I’ve listed the main ones below:

  • The date of the newspaper edition (January-June 1850).
  • The page on which the article appears.
  • The headline under which the article appears. (Not only should this make it easier to find the original, but this can often be interesting in its own right. For example, the headline ‘An Elderly Orphan’ reports the tale of an elderly man of nearly 60 arrested in a state of ‘helpless intoxication’ who, when asked whether he had anyone to look after him replied that he had neither father and mother.)
  • Where the hearing was held.
  • The name of the person accused and any further information given in the article, for example where they are from and/or their occupation. (I soon discovered there were inconsistencies in the spelling of names, sometimes within articles, a notable example being the case of the ‘Horrible Murder and Mutilation at Otley’ report, where the original spelling of one of the accused was Towlarton, but appeared as Tollerton in the trial report. In the same example the name Jacques/Jaques was interchangeable within and across the articles.)
  • As with the accused, I have tried to include information such as where the victim resides, their occupation, etc.
  • Identifying the charge in a consistent way was not always easy. I have again tried to use the information contained in the article, but the results are somewhat arbitrary. As a result larceny, theft, stealing from shop door are pretty much the same but appear as separate entries.
  • The outcome – whether the charge was proved, dismissed or whether the outcome was to ‘commit for trial’.
  • The sentence. Fines, penalties and short prison terms were all imposed at the hearings, along with any prison terms identified from the sentencing reports, such as found in the ‘Trial reports and outcomes from Leeds Borough Sessions’.

Many of the reports involved public houses, and I have also compiled a list of pubs mentioned in the various articles, some of which are still in existence, or have only relatively recently closed down.

In all, I recorded some 869 cases, of which 385 cases (about 44%) were some form of theft or robbery. There is then a sharp drop to 83 cases (9.5%) involving assault. Licensing laws are the next highest taking up 79 cases (9%), with Bye Laws, etc, following closely behind at 60 cases (6.9%).

As mentioned above, the charges field was somewhat arbitrary so, in summarising the data, I have tried to combine relevant entries to give a general idea as to events in 1850. As can be seen, cases of fraud, intent to defraud, etc, have an entry – 40 cases. So too do cases involving counterfeit coin, embezzlement, etc – 38 cases. Combined, they have 78 cases or 8.9%.

Then, as now, clampdowns on various crimes can highlight certain types of crime. For example, there are 19 cases of gambling reported. Fourteen of these were at Huddersfield, where a ‘Superintendent Heaton’ seemed to have been determined to stamp out the practice of playing ‘unlawful games of chance’. The full stats are available in the spreadsheet, and I reproduce a copy below (you will notice that I have combined the charges which fall into broad areas):

I have also summarised below the number of charges by town. As some of the cases were taken straight from sentencing reports – for example, the Yorkshire Assizes trial and sentencing reports – the accused, victim and offence would be listed, but not where the offence occurred. Where full trial reports have been covered, which include where the offence took place, I have not included these if they do not fall in the Leeds or surrounding areas covered:

Armed with my spreadsheet, I soon became immersed in my research, and it was clear that I had fallen into a Dickens novel set in and around Leeds.  What stands out is that there was a lot of petty crime, for which some quite hefty sentencing could be given. For example, there was a case where stealing cheese resulted in a 16-year-old boy being transported for seven years. There was also a case where a 12-year-old was transported for stealing a book, as his father and a brother were under sentence of transportation.

The perception of the ‘accused’ could also affect the outcome. I refer to one particular case where a women of ‘dissolute habits’ had been dragged into a field by four men and left for dead. They were charged with manslaughter but they were discharged, the judge having referred to the victim as a ‘woman of abandoned habits’. Perhaps the most ‘sensational’ case was the one relating to the ‘Horrible murder and mutilation at Otley’, mentioned above. This involved several men working on excavating a reservoir at Romalds Moor. After a good afternoon and evening drinking in Otley, the men started breaking the windows of houses on their way back to their lodgings. Why they did this does not come to light, but when the men were challenged by residents, a sequence of events occurred, resulting was several stabbings, one of which was fatal. The initial report of this incident was very poor copy, so I have transcribed this article and, for consistency, the trial report relating to this case.

Despite being plunged into what could at times seem like a dark history of Leeds, there were some lighter moments. The ‘elderly orphan’ mentioned above was one example. Another was about a ‘man from the country’ who had visited Leeds in order to buy some pigs and, after visiting ‘several public houses’, he and a companion met with two females in Kirkgate and took them to a dram house. On leaving, the man went ‘up a yard’ with one of the females, who put her hand into his coat pocket and took out his purse. Whilst remonstrating with the woman, another woman came up to ask what was going on. The report suggested the purse was passed to the second woman. It went on to report that the complainant’s wife, ‘a great strapping woman’, attended the examination in court and ‘looked thunder and daggers at her other half as he detailed one foolish act after another’.

A yard off Kirkgate, 1901 (

There were other one-off cases which evoked other emotions. A washerwoman was charged by a surgeon with ‘injuring and spoiling his grass’ by spreading her clothes out to dry in his grass field. The article goes on to report that the surgeon noticed the clothes in the field and walked his horse about on them. He also complained she assaulted him with a worsted sock. Another example was a report of two ‘idle vagabonds’ who had spent the night at the Vagrant Office and were charged with tearing up their clothes in order to compel the Relieving Officer to provide them with new ones. They had done this thinking they would be sent to Wakefield and there be provided with clothes. One of the boys was in ‘a state of nudity’ and had been provided with a sheet. The report goes on to say that if they appeared again, they might be treated to ‘a sound thrashing’. The outcome was for them to be sent back to prison until some coarse wrapping could be stitched into a smock and trousers.

What was fascinating about this piece of research was the way it opened up the geography of Leeds. Many of the streets and lanes still exist, as do most of the areas of Leeds mentioned in the articles. Interesting also was the way certain areas of Leeds and its surroundings were regularly mentioned – the Bank being one area – whilst there were several mentions of the ‘Old Post Office Yard’ just off Kirkgate, one of which referred to a ‘house of ill-fame’.

In all, I found this a fascinating look at Leeds and the surrounding area in 1850, albeit on the darker side of life. I hope anyone using this piece of research will find it as interesting and as informative as I have.

  • A huge thanks to Joan for this fascinating and useful study. We’re still in the process of compiling her research and findings into an accessible resource but are happy to assist with any enquiries you may have about it. Email us at: Also, keep following the Secret Library blog to find out about future heritage volunteering opportunities this summer.

When the Robots Came to Leeds

  • Heritage volunteer and guest blogger Tony Scaife looks back to 1920s Leeds, when the new word ‘robot’ had a somewhat different meaning…

The robot army arrived in Leeds on Friday 16 March 1928. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether Councillor Turtington and the other members of the Leeds Highways Committee were prescient, deluded or duped when they invited the robots at their meeting on 12 December 1927, recommending:

That the proposal of the Watch Committee to install electric traffic signals at the junction of Bond Street and Park Row be approved, subject to the position being satisfactory … and an undertaking to remove same on request of this committee”

Various attempts at road traffic control signals had been made from the 1860s onwards, including a gas-operated system outside the Houses of Parliament that exploded, sadly killing a policeman. Manually-controlled, three-colour electric lamps had appeared by 1914, but Wolverhampton in 1927 was the first town to install an automatic system, with Leeds being next the following year.

For a Highways Committee, whose monthly minutes throughout the period record in boring detail the purchase of sand, gravel and aggregate for road maintenance, there is no mention of where and at what cost Leeds’ first traffic lights were obtained. It may have been locally, since Kelly’s Directory for 1927 lists eight local electrical lamp manufactures.

Be that as it may, on 16 March 1928, life in Leeds was getting back to normal after recent heavy snow had disrupted supplies reaching the market (though, incidentally, it was reported that fresh rabbit was still hard to find). Perhaps passers-by took comfort from the civic order personified by the policeman magisterially conducting the traffic:


Policeman conducting Leeds traffic. Image from Leodis

These were troubling times with abundant evidence, for those so inclined, to see the established order crumbling. An Admiral and three other senior officers had been relieved of their duties following a protracted argument aboard the Royal Navy’s battleship, Royal Oak, anchored in Valletta Harbour, Malta. Closer to home, there was the ongoing enquiry into the furious row between Chief Constable of St Helen’s and his Watch Committee over accusations of abusive language, bullying and even the temporary arrest of the Chairman of the Watch Committee – an arrest malevolently timed, it was alleged, so that the civic worthy was carted off to the chokey just as his lunch was being delivered to his own table. It may also be noteworthy, for this blog, that the St Helens’ Chief Constable was also accused of misusing police property, equipment and staff for the repair of private motor cars (see the Yorkshire Evening Post, 16 March 1928).

No such shenanigans marred Leeds civic life on that Friday morning, as an amiable official party, including the Leeds Chief Constable and his deputy, Councillor F. Bentley, the Chairman of the Watch Committee, and other Councillors, took post on the steps of the Philosophical Hall on Park Row. The presence of the worthy assemblage was noted by a reporter and photographer from the Evening Post who had strolled along from their then Bond Street office to record the historic event: “Up to the time of its beginning the usual burly figure of the policeman stood in the centre of the four roads. At the appointed minute the policeman stopped all four streams of traffic and retreated to the footpath. The electrical device came into instant operation” (16 March 1928).


Park Row, 1924. Image from Leodis

With justifiable, though inaccurate, pride the YEP article claims the Leeds traffic lights as a first, and rather smugly acknowledges that Edinburgh will follow suit the following Monday.

As Michael Meadowcroft notes in A History of Modern Leeds, the internal combustion engine was beginning to “exercise the minds of the City Fathers and the whole question of transport by road, rail and eventually air had serious consequences for town planning” (pp. 410-436). Work was to begin on the Ring Road, the redesign of the Headrow, and the establishment of a Leeds/Bradford airport in 1931. The Central Station and Queens Hotel were to also eventually redesigned, and there was even talk of a ship canal linking Leeds and Hull. Even a decade later, photographs record very few cars by modern standards.


Kirkstall Road. Image from Leodis

The City Fathers were aware of the growing motor trade in Leeds and the economic impact of the motor car. Kelly’s Directory 1927 has four pages of garages, taxi, coach and bus companies, including a Reginald Horsley with three garage businesses listed. Similarly, a contemporary edition of the Evening Post offers two pages of car adverts, including new vehicles for £440 and second-hand prices between £80 and £235. A lucky reader might also have won an 11 h.p. Clyno Saloon (value £190) in a lottery-like game promoted by the paper. Although the reader would be required to obey the lighting-up time that day (set for 7.03pm), they would not be required to pass any driving test, since it was not until the Road Traffic Act of 1934 that licenses became compulsory. Mind, it would be a lucky win indeed, since cars were comparatively expensive, judging by the fact that the same newspaper edition carries adverts for new houses in fashionable Harehills for between £440-550 (16 March 1928, pp. 12-14).

Maybe Evening Post readers, that Friday night, were mesmerised by the chance of moving into the motor age and sharing its apparent passport to prosperity (“Business follows in the dust of the motor car”). But, amongst the grandiose promise of a break with the past, some saw threats – for some, even existential threats. At one end of the spectrum was the latest perceived threat to jobs posed by advances in technology; towards the other, the apparently innocuous traffic light became the symbol for a much more pernicious phenomena. Traffic lights were rapidly nicknamed ‘robots’, and remain so-named to this day in South Africa. And robots, as the ultimate manifestation of threatening autonomous technology, were all the rage in 1928.

The Czech playwright Karel Capek is credited with the first use of the word ‘robot’ in his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Capek acknowledged that he had taken the term from his brother Josef’s conflation of the Czech words robota (drudgery, servitude) and robotnik (peasant or serf).


A scene from the play R.U.R., showing three robots. Image reproduced from Wikipedia

The term spread quickly in science fiction literature. The Monkey (1925) by Maurice Renard and Albert Jean imagined the creation of artificial life by ‘radiogenisis’; the Metal Giants (1926) by Edward Hamilton deals with a computer brain running on atomic power that creates 300-foot tall robots; and S. Fowler Wright’s Automata (1929) has machines doing human jobs until they revolt and wipe out their creators. There were also film treatments of the robot theme: Ben Turpin starred in the comedy short A Clever Dummy released in 1917, whilst an Italian film directed by Andre Deed in 1921, The Mechanical Man, takes us to a more dystopian vision of a malevolently-controlled robot with superhuman strength committing crimes at the behest of its evil inventor – at least until it is successfully battled to mutual destruction by another robot.

The potential for human vs. machine conflict is neatly summarised in this contemporary cartoon:


Image courtesy of The Advertising Archives

Perhaps, however, it is the character of Futura the “Maschinemensch” in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (released January 1927) that has lasted longest in the public memory of mechanical paranoia from the 1920s – despite H.G. Wells largely dismissive view that it was “quite the silliest film” full of muddlement about progress (quoted in The Times, 10 February 1927).


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This early slave/master debate shows no sign of resolution. The angular, purposeful, robotic traffic lights have marched on to citywide domination. From that first day, without prior briefing or any kind of instruction, car drivers have fallen under their spell (“When the top disc shows Stop, the leading vehicle pulls up at a white line drawn across the road, and advances immediately on the Go” reported the YEP, ibid. p.15).

Critics even back then, however, argued that the ubiquitous robots had the city at their mercy, bringing chaotic gridlock to swathes of the city. Be that as it may, in the urgent pressure of a daily newsroom we can forgive that first Evening Post report for not exploring fully all the implications of the decision to welcome traffic robots. If newspapers do write the first draft of history, they may not always focus on what later generations come to regard as significant.

Secrets of the Palm 3: What to Do on a Wet Thursday Night in Harrogate

  • Leeds Libraries Heritage Volunteer Tony Scaife delves once more into the pages of The Palm, the magazine of the old Leeds Central High School, which is archived in the Local and Family History Library at shelfmark L 373 PAL.

In late August of 1920, four Central High School boys decided to go On a Holiday, leaving a record of their adventure in The Palm (December 1920, p.21). Two of the four have been tentatively identified as J.W.L. Crosfill and D.C. Ramsden, the authors of the article, but history only knows the other two as ‘H’ and ‘M’. Given that Ramsden and Crosfill had joined the ranks of the CHS Old Boys by December 1922, they must have been about 16 years old at the time of the trip.


From Kelly’s Directory of Leeds, 1920, which devotes three pages to bicycle retailers, repairers, wholesalers and equipment suppliers (all offering just the same lists of ‘essential’ kit that fill modern cycling magazines)

The boys cycled from Leeds to somewhere around the Pately Bridge/Harrogate area to take possession of a two-roomed cottage, loaned to them for a week, described as barely furnished and “at least five miles from anywhere”. In fact, they had to make two trips from Leeds to carry all the gear they took with them. But this was no glamping holiday: they washed in the “unsympathetic” horse trough across the green (“a bit chilly a first but we soon got used to it”), cooked on a Primus stove, and slept on uncomfortable beds of heather, which were softened by bracken but still prone, apparently, to stick in your back like a six-inch nail. They said nothing about the toilet facilities. For which we may be fastidiously grateful.

Their equipment list appears quite spartan in comparison to a modern cycle camping trip:

1920 List (deduced from Crosfill and Ramsden’s article) Today’s List (from cycling blog
4 bicycles (makes unspecified) 2 GT Zaskar Expert mountain bikes
4 Acetylene bicycle lamps 24 items of bike and repair kit
Clothing (unspecified) 19 items of clothing
Blankets Tent, thermarest mattress, sleeping bags and liners. Emergency space blankets
3 billycans, 1 frying pan, 1 dish 18 items of washing and eating kit including a folding sink (no stove)
1 Primus stove Camera, mobile phone and charger, credit cards, bike computer
6 chairs and a rickety table (provided) Passports and driving licence

The boys had arranged to get milk, eggs and bread from a nearby farm, and got through eight eggs and a gallon of milk per day. There was also a village shop where you could buy “anything from corn plasters to confectionary”. When not cooking – and they complained about how much time they had to spend cooking – they devoted most of their week to cycling around the district on roads presumably as deserted as this photo of Killingbeck Garage, York Road, in 1929:


A petrol station, paint and repair shop are shown to the left; the site on the right was later used a booster station to provide extra power for trams to travel up Halton Hill to the right, down Selby Road. The clock tower of Seacroft Hospital can be seen on the horizon (image from Leodis).

The rural roads were in a poor state, while wayfaring at unsignposted junctions was a lottery. A midweek trip to Pately Bridge enabled them to escape the cooking drudgery by having tea out, and gave them an opportunity to decry, rather snootily, the overabundance of pubs on Pately Bridge. Finally escaping to Dacre, they were then, in Wodehousian terms, “exhorted by the village arm of the law to apply a lucifer to our lighting appendages” (those Acetylene lamps again) before finally heading home by a circuitous route.

It is not surprising, given that the boys were writing for a school magazine, that they present a uniformly wholesome picture, though there are occasional hints of rifts in the lute (H and M were dispatched one day to Pately Bridge for fresh supplies but returned home late and empty-handed). Furthermore, on several occasions, the standard of cooking fell short even of that usually acceptable to four very hungry, energetic boys. But of drinking, smoking or girls there is not a mention.

The cottage’s sole entertainment system being two copies of the Illustrated London News for 1867, the boys felt compelled on a wet Thursday evening (2 September 1920) to cycle the 14 miles to Harrogate in search of fun. According to the Harrogate Advertiser (Saturday 28 August, 1920) they could have gone to the Beechwood Hotel for a thé dansant, where a Miss Harkins directed Mr Gordon Williams’ Dansant Orchestra. But, at 4 shillings, this was a pricy option and possibly unappealing to adolescent aesthetics.

With prices ranging from 4d to 1/-, however, the picture houses were a better fit for pocket and taste. They could choose from The Picture House (“the pick of pictures perfectly projected”) which was showing Tom Moore in the romantic photo-play Just for Tonight, supported by a two-part comedy, a news reel and two travel shorts. Or there was the Palace Theatre, showing Priscilla Dean in She Hired a Husband, supported by the Charlie Chaplin short The Flirts and a topical Fox News reel. Finally “a crowded house” at the newly-opened Central Cinema enjoyed The Spider and The Fly, a “strong love drama” followed by Dustin Farnum in A Man’s Fight, all the while being entertained by Mr William Elbarne on the organ. Since they make reference to a Wild West thriller in their article, we can assume the boys went to the Central but, wherever it was, they were making their way home by 11pm, only to get lost again on the dark, signless roads and not arrive back till 1am.

By United Picture Theatres of America Inc. - Motion Picture News (Jul. - Aug. 1919) at the Internet Archive, Public Domain,

By United Picture Theatres of America Inc. – Motion Picture News (Jul-Aug 1919) at the Internet Archive, Public Domain,

By and large, though, it was an age when people made their own entertainment… but not always successfully it would seem. On Saturday 4 September, the boys were invited to a neighbour’s sing-song and the “unsuspecting mortals” accepted. Having found that the neighbour was a poor piano player, they then discovered “she also thought she could sing. Up to a certain point she could but after that she slipped her moorings and got adrift. Her nerve-shattering attempts to reach notes two octaves higher that Nature intended … The awful strain of having to control an overwhelming desire to howl for two hours on end is enough to drive a sane person to lunacy. However, all good things must come to an end and when this one did we trooped home, locked the door and laughed”.

The holiday itself came to an end on Monday 6 September when, with justified foreboding, the lads went to the farm to settle the bill and “paid up under protest. Then we loaded our cycles with our goods and chattels, said good bye to our friends and returned home without mishap”… leaving us a fascinating glimpse into the good old days, where everyday activities like cooking and washing were pretty hard and unglamorous, and holidays definitely weren’t for wimps.

Previous Posts in this Series:

Historypin: Share Your Stories and Memories of Leeds

by Sally Hughes, History Pin Outreach Librarian, Central Library


Leeds Libraries and the Big Lottery have started a new project with the wonderful website Historypin – and we need your stories!

We aim to bring older adults together to share stories and memories of the history of Leeds, as told by the people who have lived through it. Do you have stories to share or know someone who does? We’ll be having informal group meet-ups and reminscence-style sessions around the city over the next year, using library resources and objects to start conversations and spark memories.

We’re also looking for volunteers to help out with the project itself, from facilitating sessions to editing oral recordings. We encourage anyone with an interest in heritage in Leeds to get in touch. To take part, or for more information, contact Sally Hughes on (0113) 378 5005 or via e-mail at

Early 1960s. Image shows some of the female workforce of John Collier's (remembered by many as Prices Tailors Ltd. although it was sold in 1954) as they cluster around celebrity and glamorous film star, Patricia Medina. Taken from our archive of historic photographs - You can also browse sets of photographs on subjects such as arcades, parks, public houses, shopping and cinema at

Early 1960s. Image shows some of the female workforce of John Collier’s (remembered by many as Prices Tailors Ltd. although it was sold in 1954) as they cluster around celebrity and glamorous film star, Patricia Medina. If  this image has stirred your memories of life in Leeds, why not take a look through our archive of historic photographs? – You can also browse curated sets of photographs on subjects such as Arcades, parks, public houses, shopping and cinema at

Pottering About Thinking

  • By Tony Scaife, Heritage Volunteer, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

One of the advantages of a Heritage Volunteer/retirement job share is the temptation it gives you to wander about in the marvellous collection of the Local and Family History Library and digress from any assigned task. I am following the life and times of the Leeds Central High School (CHS) boys of the 1920s, as revealed in their school magazine The Palm. But, my next CHS task – involving stories of their school holiday exploits – will have wait a while until we have had a brief look at two wonderfully quirky volumes I chanced across.

Firstly, though, a little scene-setting. The Leeds and District Weekly Citizen for 7 August 1914 reported how attendance at the second day of the Leeds’ Workpeople’s Hospital Fund Gala in Roundhay Park had been spoiled. The first scheduled day, on Monday 3 August, had attracted record crowds but, by Tuesday, crowds had evaporated as news of the declaration of war with Germany spread. One feels for the organisers, who had no doubt laboured mightily for months to get such a big show on the road only for some ‘b—–’ to declare a war. One also feels for the now largely idle showmen and exhibitors, including an aerial display in which the pilot had thrilled Monday’s crowds with a loop-the-loop exhibition. Perhaps that pilot was Harold Blackburn:


We know Blackburn was in Roundhay Park ten days before because he was offering free flights for the two lucky winners of a ballot at the Fancy Dress Parade and Gymkhana held on Soldiers’ Field on Saturday 25 July 1914. (Our image comes from the event programme produced by the Leeds Cycle and Motor Cycle Charity, at shelf mark: LP 796.4 L571).

In the programme, we are given a glimpse into an innocent, vaguely comic – and at times downright scary – Saturday afternoon that’s now probably lost to all living memory. Throughout the event, which ran from 2.00 to 7.00 pm, the band of the Royal Engineers (Leeds Territorials) provided the soundtrack for bicycle, motor car and motorcycle ‘musical chair’ events, as well as a parade of decorated cycles, motorcycles and cars. There were egg-and-spoon races for cyclists and variations on apple-bobbing from motorcycles and motor cars. Men and women competed but always to a strictly amateur code, with only cycling accessories and the like offered to the winners. To me, the blindfold race for motor cars sounds very scary! Blindfolded drivers would be accompanied by a steward, but can you imagine a modern risk assessment for ‘blind’ drivers in a public arena? The programme records how that Summer afternoon passed, event after event, sometimes risky but never risqué.

A bicycle is advertised for £6/17/6, a motorcycle for £42 and a light car for £105. The approximate equivalent economic values today would be £3,714, £23,000 and £65,000 respectively. Clearly even bicycles were pretty expensive in 1914, but this expense would not have deterred another, earlier generation of cyclists featured in the Local and Family History collection…

The Potternewton Cycling Club appears to have been founded around 1883, and their Monthly Record 1891-95 (LQ POT 796) is a volume recording the very height of fashionable cycling in Victorian Leeds.


Potternewton Cycling Club winning team: F. Wadsworth, J. Stanton, W. Maude, W. Hall (seated), Harehills Cycling Tournament, 6 September 1890

Here we see the winning Potternewton team (self-styled as the ‘Potts’ or its singular members as ‘Potters’) in what looks surprisingly like modern Lycra but couldn’t possible be. Oh, what ripping fun these clearly affluent young men – and some women – enjoyed in their five recorded seasons, with their club meets on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, regularly riding to places like Otley, Ilkley and Wakefield. Then there were the annual longer rides to Thirsk and Hull, not forgetting Bridlington, where 6/6d covered all accommodation expenses for the trip. Food features regularly, with descriptions of pie-eating contests in Otley, a surfeit of boiled beef and ham in Hull, and an annual 1/6d ‘tuck in’ to a steak-and-onions end-of-season dinner at the Turk’s Head.

The annual subscription for riding members was between 5/- and 7/6d for men, 3/6d for ladies, and 2/6d for honorary members. Whilst lots of the semi-humorous reports allude to japes, drinking and drunkenness, the rides themselves had a semblance of order: one must never overtake the club captain whilst riding (although, since this injunction was often repeated, perhaps it was more honoured in the breach). Spills, crashes and punctures on the poorly-maintained roads were frequent. Many Potts rode city- and county-wide cycle races, but there is always a fierce defence of the amateur code: cash prizes could not be awarded under any circumstances.

The Potts had their rather grandly-named Headquarters in the Mexbro’ (or Mexborough) Arms on Harrogate Road, a building demolished shortly after the following photograph was taken:

6th January 1925. View shows the Mexbro' Arms (sometimes spelt Mexborough) public house on Harrogate Road. The landlord of this Tetley's pub was at the time Sydney W. Atterton. Built in the early eighteenth century on land previously owned by the Earl of Mexborough, it was originally known as the Bowling Green Inn. It was to close later in the 1920s when a new Mexborough Arms (now called The Three Hulats) was built to the side of it.

6 January 1925. Built in the early eighteenth century on land previously owned by the Earl of Mexborough, the pub was originally known as the Bowling Green Inn. It was to close later in the 1920s when a new Mexborough Arms, now called The Three Hulats, was built to the side of it. (Photo from

Their ‘Town Quarters’ were in the Grand Restaurant on Boar Lane, next to the London Dispensing Co, and it was here that W.H. Whitelocke, a proud Potter, kept the club photographs:

View of Boar Lane by night from a postcard with postdate 23 February 1904. The view looks east with Lockhart's Cafe on the left and London Dentistry and the Grand Restaurant on the right.

View of Boar Lane by night from a postcard with postdate 23 February 1904. The view looks east with Lockhart’s Cafe on the left and London Dentistry and the Grand Restaurant on the right. (Photo from

What a splendid window into affluent late Victorian Leeds the Potts’ Record provides. To ease the burden on tired cyclists as they toured all three Ridings, there were hired waggonettes and a regular cycle-carrying train service to places long since bereft of such an amenity. For several seasons, the Potts had a tent in a field adjacent to the Dyneley Arms on Pool Bank, or latterly at Bramhope. Camping was 6d per night or 1/6d per week (allegedly sobriety was not included). To get their blankets and other kit to the campsite, members were encouraged to use “Marston, the Otley carrier, who starts from The Greyhound, Vicar Lane, [for he] will be glad to convey parcels to the Dyneley Arms”.

The younger Potts and others in the Leeds and District Amateur Cycling Associations also held an annual lantern parade, riding their decorated cycles through the darkening streets of Leeds. As the Record puts it, “standing at the top of Victoria Road the innumerable coloured lights flitting about produced a very pretty effect” (April 1891). Let us savour that image of simple fun, for a nighttime world without extensive electric lighting is a dark place. The Potts, and indeed the riders leaving Soldiers’ Field late on that July evening in 1914, would need to light their carbide lamps. But what we now know, and they did not, was that no lamplight could illuminate the darkness their world was riding towards. For, as Sir Edward Grey was very shortly to observe, “the lamps are going out all over Europe”, as the peace initiatives failed and The Great War began.

But out of that darkness we have these two slim cycling volumes. The programme is simply cloth-bound in boards; The Record, a finer, padded, leather-bound and gold-tooled book, as befits the Potts. Both were acquired by the Central Library in the 1980s, the latter having been donated by Miss H.M. Ford, surely a relative of J.H. Ford who was Club President in 1893 and sometime editor of the publication.


Now, whilst these books contain no universal truths, I would argue that their inestimable value (despite being intrinsically valueless) lies is the fact of their ordered preservation and capacity to make this reader think. In both volumes there is a dissertation’s worth of evidence on social attitudes, economics, technologies (cycling, printing, photography), gastronomy and the politics of sport – ample food for thought indeed for any homo sapien. Admittedly, there is little public merit in recording my solitary, cognitive pleasure, but what do I, or you, know of the much more socially valuable thinking that may be prompted by a public library a hundred years in the future?

Today there are events galore in Roundhay Park and multitudes of clubs, groups and societies thriving in Leeds, all leaving a multimedia record worthy of preservation. If thinking is the destiny of homo sapiens then, surely, it is not an ignoble aspiration that we all strive to preserve a free-thinking space where these records may be collected, collated and managed, in order to illuminate the thoughts of our successors?

Now back to the day job and the Central High schoolboys…