A House Through Time in Leeds: Presenter of BBC social history series David Olusoga on Headingley, mills and student memories

A House Through Times returns to BBC Two on September 7 - and this time it's set in Leeds.

Monday, 6th September 2021, 4:45 pm
Dr David Olusoga outside 5 Grosvenor Mount in Headingley
Dr David Olusoga outside 5 Grosvenor Mount in Headingley

The house chosen to be featured in the fourth series is 5 Grosvenor Mount, a Victorian terraced villa in Headingley built when the suburb was fast becoming desirable among the city's growing middle classes.

Its past residents include a crusading lawyer, a factory worker who became an industrialist's wife, a morally corrupt mill owner, a pacifist couple who opposed the Boer War, a 1920s cruise ship worker, a British-Greek couple who met in war-torn 1940s Europe, and a Yorkshire Post theatre critic. Many of them have links to the predominant local trade at the time - the woollen industry.

Although back in family ownership, the house, like many in Headingley, was once student digs, and the series poignantly ends with a group of University of Leeds graduates who lived there in the late 1990s reuniting on the doorstep to reminisce about a period in which the city shrugged off its industrial past and began to regenerate.

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Series presenter and historian Dr David Olusoga prefers to focus on cities he has a connection with - previous series have been set in Liverpool, where he went to university; Newcastle, where he grew up; and Bristol, where he now lives. He studied as a postgraduate at Leeds Trinity University in 1996, spending a year living in Roundhay.

Producers TwentyTwenty received a huge response from Leeds homeowners keen to be featured, with applications coming from Bramley, Horsforth and Shadwell as well as Headingley. Researchers did leaflet drops along some of Headingley's historic streets - including Oakfield Terrace, where the owners of 18 homes submitted a joint bid together.

Dr Olusoga and the team's base during filming in early summer was Leeds Library, an historic private subscription library in the city centre, and he also enjoyed a rooftop tour of Leeds Town Hall.

"Leeds has always been a city I'm fond of. Roundhay was a wonderful place to live and I have a lot of night-time memories of socialising in Headingley. We were running out of cities I had experience of, and it does help to have that familiarity."

Five Grosvenor Mount is the newest house featured in any of the four series, and the research team this time decided to focus on the rapid development of cities during the Industrial Revolution as an over-arching theme.

"Textiles was the big trade of course, but there were multiple trades in Leeds and we looked at how much the city exploded out of the centre. We underestimate just how small cities were before the 19th century. I was inspired by Turner's 1816 painting of Beeston Hill looking at Leeds in the distance - nowadays we would think of Beeston as being very central.

"Headingley was co-opted into Leeds - it used to be farmland. The story of these settlements being swallowed up is a great one, and Headingley is also quintessentially Leeds. It's the most modern house so far by about 20 years, and when I first saw a photo of it, with the sandstone blackened by soot from industry, my memories of Headingley immediately came back."

Dr Olusoga was particularly taken with the life of William Bruce, the lawyer and social reformer who campaigned against the death penalty and who was one of the house's early occupants.

"People like William Bruce changed Britain from this harsh Georgian society to a more socially concerned one. He gave a lot of time and energy, and he was also caught up in a murder case that was probably the biggest scandal of Victorian Leeds.

"Then we have the mill owner Benjamin Wild, who was the other half of the Victorians' story. He achieved things by being ruthless, and he was almost like a pantomime villain who put profit above all else. But people like him were not expected to care, and their vast wealth made Britain. We need to celebrate the reformers by also recognising the ruthless. When a worker was killed in an accident in his factory, there were no consequences, no investigation or inquiry despite a family being torn apart."

Another mill connection with the house came through the intriguing tale of social climber Ann Dawson, who moved there in the 1850s after marrying a well-off industrialist. She had been a millhand, and one of the few working-class people other than servants to have ever entered 5 Grosvenor Mount - though after her husband's bankruptcy, she fell back down the ladder.

One episode focuses on the story of a kind of reverse 'GI bride' - the European women who came to Britain after marrying soldiers they had met during World War Two. A Greek woman called Popi was one of these, fleeing her war-torn homeland for a new life in Headingley.

While sometimes the houses themselves supply their own stories, as was the case when a crack above the front door pointed out by the owners to the film crew was investigated.

"They'd been told it was caused by an earthquake, and at first I was disbelieving, but we looked into it and found it appeared in the Dogger Bank earthquake in 1931, which measured 6.1 on the Richter scale and was one of the biggest to ever hit Britain. Often during research these sort of folk tales come up - like in Bristol when Blackbeard the pirate was rumoured to have lived in the house. Often we end up dismissing urban myths but this one turned out to be exactly right."

The presenter also enjoyed the reunion of the students who had lived in the house in the 1990s, the same time he was studying in Leeds himself.

"It sounded like they had good parties there - I wish I'd known them! When we were there, it was the beginning of a building boom, there was a lot of investment, Leeds was shaking off the decline. The group had mostly moved away but it was interesting to discuss how much Leeds has changed.

"The Leeds Library is beautiful, a real jewel. I'm hoping people who watch the programme will realise it's there and that it is cheap to join. Private libraries were wonderful places and they were the engine rooms for the dynamism of northern cities. Not many survive."

Dr Olusoga also believes the programme taps into increasing audience interest in stories from areas of the country not served by London-centric broadcasting.

"We are telling the history of one house, but it's also the portrait of a city, and we try and make our cities look beautiful and show them at their best. As a country we underserve our cities outside London - but they have global stories too, and A House Through Time is a remedy for that. We celebrate our working-class ancestors, such as my own who worked in factories and in service."