Remember the Dead and Fight for the Living

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

Today is Workers Memorial Day, marking the sacrifice of those who have died as a result of their job, and reminding all employers and employees of the importance of looking after their colleagues. In front of Leeds Central Library, a new plaque was unveiled bearing the inscription: Dedicated to workers throughout the world who have suffered illness, injury or death as a consequence of their work. Remember the Dead and Fight for the Living.

Workers Memorial, 2017

Inside the library, a new display tells the stories of some of the tragedies that have taken lives at workplaces around Leeds, from incidents in local mills in the less safety-conscious 19th century, to more recent accidents like the Lofthouse Colliery disaster of 1973. One such tragedy, the effects of which have continued to be felt throughout the city for many decades, is the many lives lost as a result of asbestos contamination in Armley during the first half of the last century. The story is told below and, if you follow the links to the Leodis photographic website in the picture captions, you’ll be able to read comments from those whose lives have been affected first-hand by the events described.

25th October 1943. Asbestos factory of J. W. Roberts on Canal Road, Armley. Visit Leodis to find out more.

Founded in Armley in 1874, J. W. Roberts Limited was a textile producer based at the Midland Works on Canal Road. In 1906, the factory had begun manufacturing asbestos insulation and, in 1920, merged to form Turner & Newall Limited, whose asbestos-based products were exported worldwide, generating large scale profits for the company.

The manufacturing process resulted in the exposure to blue asbestos of all workers based in the factory, while the ventilation system discharged asbestos dust out into the surrounding area. Streets, homes and a local school were described as being coated in a blue-white dust, as though they were covered by a fall of snow.

The factory closed in 1959 and, in 1978, Turner & Newall Limited paid £15,000 to Leeds City Council to assist with the decontamination of the factory site. However, no reference was made to homes in the surrounding area. In the late 1970s, investigations led to the discovery of asbestos in homes adjacent to the factory, while a Yorkshire Evening Post inquiry brought to the attention of the public the dramatically high number of mesothelioma-related deaths suffered by former workers and residents who lived close to the factory. This series of articles related to what became known as the ‘Armley Asbestos Tragedy’.

The case was further championed by local MP John Battle, with a case finally heard in court in 1995, in which Mr Justice Holland found the following: “There was knowledge, sufficient to found reasonable foresight on the part of the Defendants, that children were particularly vulnerable to personal injury arising from the inhalation of asbestos dust… Reasonably practicable steps were not taken to reduce or prevent inhalation of emitted asbestos dust.”

Many of those affected by the asbestos died long before the companies responsible could be compelled to make recompense.

25th October 1943. J. W. Roberts, asbestos factory, on Canal Road. More information can be found on the Leodis website. 

An Armley Ghost Story for Christmas

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

SupernaturalGuide“The ghost that turns up, annually, on the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve is largely the invention of Charles Dickens and his imitators in fiction. But ghosts do prefer to visit their familiar haunts on dark winter nights – and, for some, Christmas appears to be the favourite season” (Leeds Weekly Post, December 1938).

So began Leeds Central Library’s recent Yorkshire Ghost Stories for Christmas event, which paired a trilogy of traditional legends by well known authors with vintage accounts of paranormal investigations from the local press. We accompanied 1920s ghostbuster ‘SJP’ on a moonlit tour of Temple Newsam, roamed the Yorkshire Moors in search of spectral beasts, and gathered round a blazing fire to listen to the tale of a haunted highwayman in Yorkshire’s old stage-coaching days.

One of our creepiest accounts came from the pages of Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book, a 1936 compilation of supposedly true ghost stories collected by Charles Wood, the 2nd Viscount of Halifax. In its introduction, the author’s son writes: “As long as I can remember, my father’s Ghost Book was one of the most distinctive associations of Hickleton [Hall, Halifax]. He kept it always with great care himself, from time to time making additions to it in his own handwriting, and bringing it out on special occasions such as Christmas to read some of the particular favourites aloud before we all went to bed. Many is the time that – after such an evening – we children would hurry upstairs, feeling that the distance between the Library and our nurseries, dimly lit by oil lamps and full of shadows, was a danger area, where we would not willingly go alone, and where it was unsafe to dawdle.”

This and many other books are listed in the new Leeds Central Library Supernatural Resources Guide (pictured above), which we’ve designed to help students of the Unexplained navigate our unique collections, and fill their festive season with histories of hauntings, witchcraft and psychic phenomena. There’s also factual accounts by such well known figures as Arthur Conan Doyle, Walter Scott and Daniel Defoe.

But, this week, the Secret Library presents a recently-unearthed local ghost story you won’t find in any of those. Submitted to the Armley Board of Surveyors at Christmas 1853, it was supplied by a group known only as ‘The Whiskey Order’ and accompanied by a note that instructs: To be Read at Midnight…

In order to set the scene, take a look at the photograph above, which shows an area of Armley known locally as the Maltkilns. The land in the foreground was, until the 1920s, occupied by Tetley Brewery’s malt houses, where cereal grain was dried in large stone kilns for use in the production of local ales. Those familiar with the area might spot several other local landmarks referenced in the upcoming tale but, for now, picture yourself making your way down that lonely road at midnight in the mid-nineteenth century. There are no streetlamps to light your way into town… No passing cars will stop to offer you a lift. There’s just the fierce growl of a winter wind sweeping down the hill…

So turn up your collar – and read on!

The Haunted Maltkiln: A Ghost Story

Dark was the night, with fury wild,
The tempest rag’d around
The Maltkiln, while its dreary vaults,
Echo’d the dismal sound.

’Twas the lone hour when Spectres walk,
And Table-Turning Sprites;
Releas’d awhile from dark abodes,
Stalk forth on earth at nights.

Armley’s dark streets deserted were,
The Town School’s curfew Bell,
Disturb’d by means invisible
Gave forth a solemn knell.

And louder still the tempest roar’d,
Till crazy buildings shook;
Strange noises ’midst the Waterfalls,
Arose at Beaver Nook.

A Traveller was wandering home,
With walking nearly spent,
Whistling to keep his courage up,
Yet trembling as he went.

A fitful gleam of moonlight pass’d,
And he could dimly see
The ancient pile of Buildings rear’d,
Close by the Cowcroft Stee.

And he had heard like many more,
The tale that Rumour tells,
How every night, in ghastly white,
A Ghost walks through its cells.

He hasten’d on, with trembling steps,
Till opposite he got,
When suddenly! a horrid noise,
Transfix’d him to the spot.

’Twas not a yell, a shriek, or groan,
Which on his ears did fall,
But to his frighten’d senses seem’d,
A mixture of them all.

He stood aghast, with hair on end,
Confus’d with wild affright;
(Just then the Chapel Clock proclaim’d
The hour of dread midnight.)

He gaz’d, while Phantoms grim appear’d
To rise on every side,
And with strange outcries round and round,
With fiendish joy to glide.

And then he saw – O strange to tell,
A pale blue glimmering light;–
The Spectres’ fiery eyeballs seem’d
To sparkle with delight.

He saw no more, he swoon’d with fright;
Yet ’tis by many said,
Next morning when broad daylight came,
He found himself in BED.

How he got home he never know;
But some who tell the tale,
Say, when his wife did let him in,
He Rather smell’d of ALE.

* * * * *

Dark Mystery o’er the Maltkiln hangs,
A dwelling now for Rats;
Although some hint the Phantoms were
A Company of CATS.

[Extracted from Gleanings from Armley Moor: A Christmas Annual, kept in the Leeds Local and Family History Library at shelf mark L ARM 821.]