Leeds nostalgia: Gory era of slaughter on the streets

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Today the centre of Leeds is dominated by plush shopping arcades but turn the clocks back only 150 years and it would have been a very different – some would say gory – site.

The area now dominated by the Victoria Quarter was the site of the old butchers’ shambles, a grim place where meat was bought and sold and cattle were routinely slaughtered in the street.

The topic is the subject of the latest in a series of ‘luncthtime lectures’ by Dr Kevin Grady, director of Leeds Civic Trust and will be delivered on Wednesday February 19 at Leeds Trinity Church off Boar Lane.

Talking to Times Past, Dr Grady said: “The lecture is entitled ‘When the Streets of Leeds ran with blood’ because that would have literally been true. Part of the old butchers shambles from Medieval times right up to the last 20 years of the 19th century, included this area where cattle were slaughtered in the street. It was a horrible, grim place to be and the city leaders were keen to sweep it away and replace it.

“The lecture next week is about the development of the butchers’ trade in the city and how the facilities they had, altered over time. The old butchers’ shambles would have stood on Briggate above Kirkgate and it was known as Middle Row. Leeds wasn’t alone in this, every town would have had something like this but the city leaders wanted to sweep it all away – this was, after all, the main road to London and it was dominated by this extremely unpleasant trade.”

Toward the end of the 19th century, Middle Row, along with the old Moot Hall, was demolished and a new butchers’ row with 60 shop units and better facilities was created. Dr Grady noted: “When the new butchers’ row opened there was an advert in one of the papers which said something along the lines: ‘Ladies and gentlemen can be assured they can buy their meat without any of the unpleasantness to which they may have been subjected to in the past.’

“Of course, another development toward the end of the 19th century was the coming of the railways and that also had an effect on the meat trade and one noteworthy example of that was that some of the best cuts of meat from cattle slaughtered in Leeds was never eaten by the locals but was put straight on the train to London, essentially because traders could get a better price for it.

“In some ways Leeds must have been a little like the Wild West back then in that cattle would have been driven through the city streets – a lot of the cattle came here from Scotland and would have been pastured over in Skipton before being brought to Leeds.

“During the last 30 years of the 19th century and the first 10 of the 20th, we see a lot of development in Leeds – Kirkgate Market dates from 1904 and the covered shopping arcades we know today, like the County Arcade, also come from that era.

“In some ways, we can draw parallels with things like the Trinity development of today in that this was a concerted effort by developers called The Leeds Estates Company to alter the character of the city and to bring in investment.”

He added: “The picture shows the old butchers’ row as it was and you can see from that how unpleasant a place it must have been, with cattle being slaughtered on the spot, their blood running down the street.”

The lectures, which are now in their third week, have proved very popular – at the first lecture some 260 people turned up, with some arriving around an hour early in order to get a good seat.

The lectures, which Dr Grady described as “very pacey”, will run each Wednesday from 1.15pm-1.45pm for the next few weeks.

It is the seventh year the lecture series has run. Week four will be: Leeds South Bank, Past, Present and Future.

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