Frothy cappuccinos, designer labels and exclusive boutiques… the Yorkshire city is thriving. But its robust and gritty character was shaped by the Industrial Revolution
Leeds-born playwright Alan Bennett has a habit of telling it straight – not least when he is talking about the heinous crimes that have been committed against architecture in his home city during recent decades. “I wish the 70s and 80s never happened,” he says.
One of the many opportunities for the city to showcase its heritage to a wider audience is on Yorkshire Day, which takes place on 1 August every year and sees a host of events, concerts and parties celebrating the best of the county. The event is based on the battle of Minden on August 1, 1759, when the Yorkshire regiment fought alongside the Prussians, sporting roses after the battle to honour fallen comrades. Although the celebrations take place across the county, nowhere embraces the event with more verve than Leeds, with brass bands in Roundhay Park and traditional Yorkshire fare on offer at Temple Newsam Home Farm, among others.
“I love the grittiness and the way Leeds’ heritage architecture has been adapted to the modern, vibrant city,” says Dr Kevin Grady, Director of the Leeds Civic Trust. “When I first moved here as a student in 1969, it felt properly ‘up north’, but the way the city was cleaned up in the 90s to reveal its stunning heritage has really restored people’s passion for the city.
“I firmly believe,” he adds, sipping a cup of tea under the lavishly ornate stained-glass roof of the Country Arcade, “that if you stand at the top of Briggate and look down, you get the same sense as standing at the top of Las Ramblas in Barcelona.”
However, on a busy Saturday morning in the city’s Victoria Quarter, it is clear how Leeds has since been reborn: cappuccinos are frothed, designer labels flaunted and shoppers enticed by exclusive boutique shops. Crucially, the old architecture of Frank Matcham’s flamboyant arcades and the sense of modern-urban style blend seamlessly. Today, Leeds has recovered its civic pride and it’s not shy to flaunt it.
To explore the rollercoaster development of Leeds through its periods of boom and bust, The Leeds Civic Trust arranges a series of walking tours. Key heritage sites across the city include the Queens, Thornton’s and County arcades (collectively known as the Victoria Quarter), Leeds Kirkgate Market (where Michael Marks of Marks & Spencer fame first set up his penny bazaar in 1884) and the regeneration of the derelict waterfront to the south of the River Aire. Holbeck Urban Village was the cradle of the city’s Industrial Revolution, but has since been reborn as the centre of Leeds’ new service-sector economy, becoming the largest financial and legal sector outside of London.
The Trust also manages the city’s blue plaques and has so far unveiled some 60 in the city, with a further 60 in the suburbs. One of the most recent, at the Leeds University Refectory, marks 40 years since English rock band The Who recorded their seminal live album, Live in Leeds. “My advice to visitors to Leeds is stop and look up,” says Dr Grady. “I’m sure visitors will, like me, be really rather taken with what they find.”
History and heritage
Another way to explore the history of Leeds is a visit to the city’s lynchpin cultural attraction, Leeds City Museum. This £19m project, assisted by the Heritage Lottery Fund, transformed the Grade II-listed Civic Institute building off Millennium Square into a state-of-the-art museum. The Leeds Story, a permanent gallery upstairs, traces the origins of Leeds from Iron Age roundhouses to industrial powerhouse and beyond. One of the most evocative sections is a series of video diaries, telling the story of life in workers’ back-to-back houses, a form of low-cost terraced housing in which two adjoining buildings share a rear wall. In 1918 around 70 per cent of the population lived in such properties. Construction was banned in 1909, but some 23,000 still survive today, with the majority in the Beeson suburb of the city.
For Richard Blythe, the museum’s Site Development Officer, however, it’s a different exhibit that fires his enthusiasm. A giant tiger, shot in the Himalayas in 1860, was first donated to the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society in 1862. When the museum opened in 2008, the tiger was put back in pride of place for the grand opening. “The last time I saw the tiger I was a little boy,” smiles Richard. “When I saw him again, I had goose bumps. That’s what I love about this museum. It brings memories flooding back.”
The character of Leeds was physically shaped by the boom years of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Leeds had become a centre for cloth and wool in the 18th century, with wealthy merchants dominating Leeds society. The Industrial Revolution at the end of the century brought textiles and engineering, while textile machines and steam locomotives became the main industries by the mid-19th century. The Leeds-Liverpool canal opened up trade with America via Liverpool in 1816 and the population of Leeds had mushroomed to 89,000 by 1841. By the time Leeds gained city status in 1893, it was a booming urban metropolis.
The Hull-born architect Cuthbert Broderick was a key figure in shaping the city, designing the imposing Town Hall in 1858 and the Corn Exchange in 1863. The latter reopened in the 90s and is now fostering a reputation as an upscale food emporium, while Broderick is commemorated by a huge modernist pub on the fringe of Millennium Square. Another prominent figure is Montague Burton, who founded a huge clothing factory at Harehills, just outside Leeds, in the early 20th century. Leeds was already known for its tailoring industry by this time and the business later became the British high-street shop Burtons. The factory was a major local employer – in its heyday the canteen could serve 8,000 cups of tea in 20 minutes!
In 2015, a major reopening revived another facet of Leeds’ heritage: music hall. Leeds was one of the key locations on the music hall circuit and the Grade II-listed Leeds City Varieties was one of the UK’s best-loved venues. Built in 1865, it is one of three surviving Victorian Music Halls in the UK. Charlie Chaplin and Houdini all performed here, but perhaps most famously, it was the venue for BBC television programme The Good Old Days, a recreation of old-time music hall, featuring actor Leonard Sachs as the verbal alliteration-loving chairman.
“There were more than 300 music halls in the UK in the 19th century. Old photos show the Varieties was male dominated and very working class – a far cry from the genteel atmosphere of the TV programme,” explains Peter Sandeman, General Manager of Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, sat in his fundraising office and surrounded by old variety posters. “Music hall was sheer escapism from a hard day at the mill.
“A city devoid of culture doesn’t attract workers and, in that sense, the Varieties contributed to the well being of the city,” adds Sandeman. “Leeds people still hold the Varieties very dear to their hearts.”
With the tide of regeneration washing through the city, it’s easy to think of Leeds as a very modern city, but one little alleyway off Briggate remains virtually untouched by the wave of change. It’s also the best place, after exploring the city, to stop and rest over a pint of local ale.
Whitelocks is the oldest pub in Leeds (its first licence was granted in 1715) and it is listed on CAMRA’s national inventory as a pub of special merit. John Betjeman described it as “the very heart of Leeds”. With its stained-glass windows, Art Deco ‘Luncheon Bar’ sign and Yorkshire’s Black Sheep ale on tap, it retains the ambiance of its Victorian heyday and offers an oasis of real ale and home-cooked food. Shoppers may be thronging to neighbouring Marks & Spencer, but this narrow bar and accompanying alley-side tables appear as a if frozen in time. Long may it remain a little corner of the city that will be forever Leeds.
Words by David Atkinson