Leeds nostalgia: How Leeds survived the slings and arrows

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Looking at Leeds city centre today it’s hard to imagine that the place was once a patchwork of orchards and meadows but turn the clock back to 1725 and that’s precisely what it looked like.

A map of the city by John Cossins, drawn about 1725, shows vast swathes of the inner city covered by trees and gardens. It was just shy of 100 years since Charles I had incorporated the borough of Leeds and in that time, the city had not changed overmuch, comprising less than 50 acres and being marked by the old boundary stones (or ‘barstones’), some of which still exist today.

Still, despite being apparently well managed and green at this time, the city was destined to become the industrial heavyweight of the north, being situated close to the coal fields and with rich iron ore deposits. Such was the transformation of Leeds over the next century, that it became something of an ugly duckling and socialites of the day did not hold back in their derogatory comments of it.

The celebrated actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), who was noted for her Shakespeare, played several times in the town during the early days of the Napoleonic War and said of Leeds it was “the most disagreeable town in His Majesty’s Kingdom.”

Another public figure, Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1862), a barrister and writer who wrote the first biography of the poet Shelley, visited the city twice in 1811 and declared: “O smoky city! Dull and dirty Leeds and swore never to “kiss his lady’s red lips bright” if he was ever in Leeds but added “unless hard driven for cash.”

Even Charles Dickens, a man who made his living describing the grime and squalor of Victorian England, described the town as “a beastly place - one of the nastiest I know”. Meanwhile, Bernard Shaw summed the whole thing up with the sentiment that Leeds “ought to be burnt.”

Of course, by that time they were talking about a city which had changed beyond recognition since the Cossins’ map was sketched. Leeds was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution and was a magnet for people looking for work, causing its population to burgeon.

A report in the Yorkshire Evening Post to mark the tricentenary in 1926 said: “Leeds has not yet contrived to make its city atmosphere as crystal bright as its village air doubtless was, though some day it means to come near that achievement but in other directions it is making great efforts no longer to deserve its old reputation for dullness and ugliness. Black it may be but comely it is seeking to be.”

To this end, our forefathers must be congratulated for recognising the need for the city to change and do away with its country lanes and embrace more substantial thoroughfares.

Infirmary Street was widened from 42ft to 75ft, Duncan Street from 30ft to 75ft, Vicar Lane from 27ft to 75ft and Woodhouse Lane from 27ft to 60ft. Lands Lane was originally just 15ft wide but was widened twice to 36ft and later to 56ft. In 1869, the town council obtained permission to widen Boar Lane from 21ft to 66ft and outside the city centre, link roads such as that between Calverley and Horsforth (which today forms part of the outer ring road) were being put in place. One has to wonder whether those those early Loiners would recognise their town today?

Armley Mills Leeds Industrial Museum...fri 26th sept 2008

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