Leeds Nostalgia: Man finds city’s oldest fossil... and works until he’s 72

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Jack Taylor may well have discovered the oldest piece of history in Leeds - it was a 300m year old plant root which he retrieved from a building site in the centre of the city about a decade or so ago.

The 83-year-old was still working regularly at 72, when he was employed as a labourer on the building site of the Nuffield Hospital off Leighton Street.

He said of the discovery: “I just spotted it as they brought a load of earth out of the ground and I thought it looked a bit odd so I grabbed it. I didn’t know what to make of it. To me it looked like a bit of fossilied snake but I took it to be checked out by some experts, who said they’d never seen anything like it before.”

Experts at the Department of Leisure Services Museums and Galleries Division, to whom Jack donated his find, eventually concluded it was the remains of part of a root which grew during the Upper Carboniferous period, a time when lush tropical forests grew over much of the land, creating the coal seams we see today. An analysis of the fossil read: “The nodules on the specimen are where the rootlets were attached to the main root.”

More specifically, it was determined the sample was the root of a giant club-moss, which were believed to have grown about 100m high.

Jack also recalls: “When we were working there, I remember seeing a seam of coal running all the way around underground just below the surface, it was about 4ft to 5ft thick.”

Aside from finding ancient fossils, Jack’s life in general is somewhat remarkable and he can certainly tell a good tale.

He grew up in Hull, where he spent his formative years but at 14 he joined the Merchant Navy, leaving immediately for Canada, a trip which was meant to take just 10-12 days but ended up taking nigh on three weeks, because of bad weather.

He recalled: “We arrived in Saint John, New Brunswick, near Newfoundland on Christmas Eve 1947. Coming from England, where everything had been grey and drab, even the bread was mucky brown, we discovered this fantastic world where the bread was pure white, the trees were colourful and everyone was happy. It was a revelation.”

On another occasion, transporting eight railway engines from Philadelphia to Calcutta, India, he was almost killed: “The engines were tied up in the hold - or meant to be - but we hit a storm and engines must have come loose and were slamming into the side of the ship. No-one could go down there though and the captain ordered everyone to don their lifejackets.”

Jack had done more by his 16th birthday than most people do in a lifetime. The father of four, who also has 10 grandchildren and four great grandchildren, who is married to wife Beatrice travelled to Japan and Australia, where to took a leave of absence and found work on a farm near a ski resort called Mount Buller but eventually returned to the UK.

Even then, he found himself having adventures. He once took on a steeplejack job without much experience, adding: “When I got to the top of the tower in Woodhouse, my knees were shaking, it was so high. In those days you could walk out of a job at 8am and have another at 8.20.”

For the last 59 years, he and Beatrice have lived in Belle Isle, Leeds but Jack continued working, only retiring when he was 72.