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.

Where Was Leeds Maze?

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

When Carver thought about the maze he could picture it very clearly. The thick green walls of leaves, the scuffed brown pathway that may once have been lawn, the iron trellis that was pulled across the entrance at six o’clock each evening. But apart from the fact that it had been somewhere in Roundhay Park, he could never recall its exact location.

So opens The Maze by Leeds-born author Jeremy Dyson (The League of Gentlemen). In the short story, a man’s hazy childhood memories of a labyrinth at Roundhay Park lead him into an obsession with working out exactly where it stood – to the extent that he begins to question whether or not it even existed. His quest brings him right here, to the local history department of Leeds Central Library, where he finally uncovers the truth, although not in the way you might expect.

It’s a strangely unnerving tale, featuring a wry description of this very building (“the library offered a sense of Victorian comfort … a steady municipal calm”), but it doesn’t offer a concrete answer on the matter of the maze. Did it exist? If so, what was it like?

One feature of the park that certainly did exist – at least until the 1980s – was the funfair. And, if you don’t remember that either, check out this photo on the Leodis website, where you can see it for yourself. Buried in the accompanying text is confirmation that the maze stood “just behind” but, sadly, it’s not visible in the photograph.

Visual proof can be found, however, in old Ordnance Survey maps of Leeds. In the same way that these sometimes give a surprising level of detail when it comes to buildings – the pews of an old church, for example, or the location of the stage inside a long-demolished theatre – they also come up trumps with a perfect plan of the old Roundhay Park maze. Here it is, just east of the Sports Ground, on the 1908 map of the area:

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We had fun this week sharing our hunt for the maze with the pupils of Talbot Primary School, Roundhay, some of whom not only located it on old maps, but also managed to find their way to the centre of the labyrinth using a magnifying glass! With the help of an article published in the Yorkshire Evening Post on 9 November 1996, they learned that the maze was laid out by Leeds Corporation around 1890, and stood for over eighty years before its eventual dismantling in January 1976.

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The one thing everyone wanted to see, however, was a picture of the maze – the elusiveness of which might even have inspired Dyson’s story. There aren’t any to be found in the newspaper article, on Leodis, or even, most surprisingly of all, anywhere on the Internet… not, at least, that we’ve come across and, believe us, we looked everywhere. But we always rise to a challenge at Local and Family History and, after a lot of searching, we managed to uncover one.

The focus of the photo isn’t actually the maze itself – which may explain why so few people seem to have noticed it – but it definitely appears in all its hedgy glory within an aerial shot of the sports arena taken by N.S. Roberts in 1929. We won’t publish it here because we haven’t asked the copyright holder for permission but, if you want to see it, you can find it on the very last page of the first edition (1984) of Steven Burt’s Illustrated History of Roundhay Park, kept in the Local and Family History Library at shelf mark L ROU 712. (Don’t go looking in the second edition of the book from 2000 – it’s mysteriously absent.)

We have to wonder if Mr Dyson spotted it when researching his short story!

  • The Maze appears in Never Trust a Rabbit by Jeremy Dyson (Abacus, 2006). Several of the book’s other stories are also set in Leeds, which is why you’ll find a copy in Local and Family History at shelf mark L 823 DYS. And where better to read The Maze than the very library where its creepy and atmospheric climax takes place? Go on – we dare you!