How the Civic Trust shaped Leeds

From humble beginnings, Leeds Civic Trust has changed the face of the city. As it prepares to mark its 50th anniversary, Neil Hudson looks at some of its successes

Wednesday, 21st October 2015, 1:23 am
Back in July 1991, Leeds Civic Trust unveiled plans to renovate the First White Cloth Hall - almost a quarter of a century on and it is still fighting

Gathered on an outwardly unremarkable street about a mile away from Temple Newsam, a small group of people huddle, umbrellas poised, around a microphone stand. The sky threatens rain but everyone is in good cheer. Some of the group are in casual dress, others suits and one man looks as though he’s wandered in from a Dick Turpin panto, except that he has a sword (a real one) rather than a pistol.

As the ceremony begins and one of the group takes up the microphone to begin speaking, residents look on in mild bemusement and cars slow down to creep past the thicket of onlookers, of which I am one, which is now spilling out into the road.

This is the latest blue plaque unveiling of Leeds Civic Trust, an organisation which this month marks its 50th anniversary. There is a flurry of excitement, too, because today’s plaque, the 155th, has square edges rather than round ones. That may sound trivial but its indicative of the passion and attention to detail exhibited by the group, which campaigns for all things Leeds.

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The trust is campaigning for the retention of major architectural features in the hall.

For those who do not know, the blue plaque scheme was launched with the intention of marking out some of the city’s most important historical buildings, people and places. They are not handed out lightly. Indeed, there’s a committee which meets to decide the merits of each application and even then, if it involves a person, the subject must have been dead at least 10 years before they will even consider installing a plaque.

The latest unveiling marks Whitkirk Manor House, which dates to 1623 and has connections with the Knights Templar and the preacher John Wesley, founder of Methodism. The house is quietly magnificent, the ceremony pleasant enough, elevated as it is from the ordinary by the presence of the man dressed as Dick Turpin, who is, in fact Ed Anderson, former managing director of Leeds Bradford Airport, who is now the official High Sheriff of West Yorkshire, a ceremonial role which, fittingly, dates back more than a thousand years to at least 994AD, and so would have been contemporaneous with the Templar’s Order.

The manor house at Whitkirk, which still proudly bears the ‘Templar Cross’ above its front door, is the latest in an impressive list of sites to be added to the canon of blue plaques. It joins the First White Cloth Hall,Kirkgate Market, Temple Mill, Queens Court, Burmantofts Pottery, Yorkshire Penny Bank and many more.

The trust’s origins go back to 1965 when Charles Crabtree, whose firm manufactured printing presses on Water Lane, Holbeck, donated £50,000 to help set it up.

Its foundation was as much backlash to the wanton destruction of historic buildings in Leeds city centre during the 60s and 70s as anything else. It constitution as a charity stated that its aims and objectives were to stimulate public interest in and care for the beauty, history and character of the city and locality, to encourage high standards of design, architecture and town planning, to encourage the development and improvement of features of general public amenity and to promote and organise co-operation in the achievement of these objectives.

Indeed, one of its first acts was to purchase the old bear pit on Cardigan Road, Headingley. It has also been instrumental in fighting for the redevelopment of the South Bank in Leeds and its ongoing campaign to rejuvenate the Leeds waterfront has resulted in success. Even before Bridgewater Place became the tallest structure in Leeds, the group warned it could generate dangerously high winds. Today its work continues apace - it is campaigning to have the First White Cloth Hall renovated and brought back into public use and regularly offers its views on planning applications to the local authority.

The Trust was instrumental in saving Barran’s Moorish warehouse in Park Square, the Bank of England on Boar Lane, both of which would otherwise have been demolished. When planners vied to turn Kirkgate Market into a modern shopping centre in the late 1980s, it was the Trust which sprang into action.

Recently, some 25 of its 500 volunteers undertook one of the biggest surveys of buildings at risk in Leeds, surveying over 1,500 so far. It organises guided walks and has made Leeds Heritage Open Days the most successful outside London.

Lynda Kitchen, chair of the Trust for the last five years and a member of its management committee for 12 years said: “The Trust is a fascinating and very rewarding organisation to be involved in. It deals with so many aspects of the city. It combines looking to the future improvement of Leeds with cherishing and protecting its heritage. The very strong support we get from business in the city through our corporate membership scheme and our excellent dialogue with the City Council is the result of our imaginative and positive thinking about the future planning and development of Leeds.

“We believe in partnership and the support we get from the work of dozens of volunteers who are committed to the city is remarkable.”

Dr Kevin Grady, director of the trust, said the group had been “vital” to the development of the city during the last half century.

“Over its 50 years, the Trust has done a great deal of important work. When I became its director 28 years ago, its vice chairman, Neville Rowell, told me that amongst its 160 members, many wondered whether there was really anything left for the Trust to do.

“Happily, it turned out there was a great deal. The trust certainly doesn’t get everything right and there are many things we wish we could have achieved which we haven’t. Nevertheless, coming up to our 50th birthday, I can confidently say the Trust has never been more influential, more energetic or determined, or better resourced and supported. With our small army of volunteers, who care passionately about the future success of the city, the excellent support we get from city business and our good relationship with Leeds City Council, we are well set to promote the improvement of Leeds for another 50 years.”

Councillor Richard Lewis, Leeds City Council’s executive member for regeneration, transport and planning, said: “[The] Trust does outstanding work helping to protect and preserve some of the city’s most historic and well-loved landmarks and recognising locations that have played a role in [our] varied heritage... it’s important we always remember the things that give the city that intrinsic sense of character and personality - our work with Leeds Civic Trust has been invaluable.”

It seems almost fortuitous but today the Trust itself will get a blue plaque - to be unveiled at their offices in Wharf Street, incidentally, by the granddaughter of founding benefactor Charles Crabtree. The 50th anniversary itself will be marked in an understated and yet rather poignant ceremony at their annual general meeting on Saturday.