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Steering a course through city’s history

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AS THE UK’s third-largest city and with a history dating back to medieval times, Leeds isn’t short of heritage.

Towering structures of steel and glass may dominate the skyline today - home to a thriving legal sector second only to London as well as some of the biggest names in banking, finance and insurance.

But, until the Industrial Revolution, iron foundries, engineering, printing and the rag trade were the lifeblood of the city. Workplaces rang to the harsher sounds of metal on metal rather than the tap of keyboards or the soft ringing of phones.

Indeed, if you know where to look, it’s not that difficult to trace outlines of Leeds’ past. Many of the old factories and mills still stand, although they may be dwarfed by skyscrapers or bracketed by shops and offices, new roads and flyovers.

But, until comparatively recently, many historic buildings were left unmarked, their stories untold except by a few who still remember or at least respect how they shaped the city we know today.

In 1987, the Leeds Civic Trust changed all that. Members decided significant Leeds landmarks deserved proper recognition - and they set about seeking partners who would help cover the costs of new blue plaques which could tell the city’s story, even to the casual passer-by.

“It’s probably fair to say we were a little behind the game at the time,” said project co-ordinator John Crossen. “Blue plaques were certainly already going up in other cities, particularly in London or in nationally important locations recognised by English Heritage.

“Here, however, all plaques are sponsored by local businesses and organisations and we have to say we have been overwhelmed by the support and enthusiasm from both the Leeds community and the local authority.”

When the initiative was first mooted, a notional total of 30 plaques was set at sites around Leeds. Today - 27 years later - the trust is poised to put up the 150th plaque at the former Alf Cooke Crown Point Printing Works on Hunslet Road - now part of Leeds City College.

Chromolithographic printer Alfred Cooke opened his first works in 1872, only for it to burn down eight years later. The company battled on among temporary repairs as best it could until - after another fire in 1894 - the printworks was completely rebuilt, becoming the biggest in the world.

Sadly, a changing world led to the building’s eventual closure in 2006 but, more recently, Leeds City College has invested £15m in a rejuvenation of the old works, which will be home to the college’s catering, food manufacturing and hair and beauty therapy departments along with a refectory and administration space.

A plaque, which gives a brief history of the building, will be unveiled on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 25.

Even though that will mean there will be five times the number of plaques than was first suggested, Mr Crossen emphasises there are strict criteria which govern where they go up and who or what they commemorate.

“The most important thing is that they mark something which has stood the test of time,” he said. “They are not meant for anything current or modern or something which isn’t actually all that remarkable.

“Perhaps a good example is a building which was brought to our attention recently as an HQ for the Home Guard during the Second World War. At first sight, it may seem worth highlighting, but we have to remember there were quite a few Home Guard bases around the city so this one would have to be extraordinary to deserve its own plaque.”

On the other hand, to many, Weetwood Hall on the ring road near Headingley is a modern hotel and conference centre. However, Plaque 147 - unveiled in May this year - commemorates the site as a former manor, dating back to the 16th Century and with connections to some of Leeds’ most famous families.

“It’s all about the story,” said Mr Crossen. “It needs to say something about considerable age.”

Blue plaques have also honoured individuals and their connection to Leeds - the first erected at the British Waterways site on Lower Briggate in 1988, sponsored by the BBC to commemorate the life and work of Louis La Prince, who is credited with recording the first moving image.

Until this weekend, the most recent was one which went up in 2012 on Darnley Road, Headingley - home to Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit author J R R Tolkein between 1924 and 1925 when he was a member of the English faculty at Leeds University.

However, strict criteria also applied to plaques commemorating individuals saved the Leeds Civic Trust from embarrassment in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

There’s no doubt the shamed radio and TV presenter is one city’s most famous sons but, as his memory had not yet passed the test of time, no blue plaques were erected in his memory following his death in 2011.

“Ten years must have elapsed since the death of anyone who is to be named so that an objective evaluation can be made of their local or national significance,” said Mr Crossen. “As this was not the case with Jimmy Savile, he is not commemorated anywhere in the city - at least not on a blue plaque.”

On Sunday, champion cyclist Beryl Burton OBE became the latest Leeds luminary to be honoured with a plaque.

Born Beryl Charnock in Halton, Leeds, in 1937 she battled ill-health throughout much of her childhood before she found both relief and fitness in the saddle after being introduced to cycling by her husband Charlie Burton.

Her first year of serious competition was in 1957 when she finished an impressive second in the national 100m time trial. However, much more was to follow and she became European 3000m track pursuit champion in 1959, successfully defending her title the following year and winning it a further three times.

Among numerous other titles, she was also British national pursuit champion a total of 13 times, as well as world road-racing champion twice and national road-racing champion a dozen times.

However, in May 1996, she failed to return home from a training run and was found lying next her bike on Harrogate’s Skipton Road. She was pronounced dead at Harrogate District Hospital and an inquest later recorded a verdict of death by natural causes - perhaps related to her illnesses as a child.

The plaque in her honour was unveiled on Sunday afternoon in the gardens on Morley’s Queen Street which already bear her name.

The brief ceremony was led by Shameless and Silks actress Maxine Peake, who is also the author of a play about Beryl Burton’s life. First penned for Radio 4, the work has been commissioned and adapted for the stage and begins a run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on June 30.

 

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