Leeds nostalgia: Of murdered kings and cat flaps from 1715

Blue Plaques of Leeds.  John Harrison
Blue Plaques of Leeds. John Harrison
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As part of our occasional series celebrating the 300th anniversary of the publication of Ralph Thoresby’s Ducatus Leodiensis, Times Past this week looks at what the author and historian had to say about the city of his birth.

In his monumental work Thoresby offers detailed descriptions of the various outlying hamlets which existed at that time and it’s worth noting that back in 1715 Bramley was considered to be on the fringe of the city.

He begins his description of the town of ‘Leedes’ by noting that an area just north of the River Aire took its name from a well known park which was once adjoined to a famous castle; a castle which it is claimed by Thoresby was besieged by King Stephen in 1139AD and which also the brief residence of King Richard II prior to his brutal death in Pontefract Castle.

Thoresby notes: “The greatest part of the ancient and populous town stands upon the north side of the River Aire, upon an easy ascent; the topographical descriptions of which is begun at the west part, because there of old stood a famous castle with a park adjoining, which, although now converted into lesser enclosures, yet retains the name of the park to this day and gives denomination to the lane on the north side thereof.

“The castle was besieged by King Stephen on his march to Scotland in 1139 and here was the unfortunate prince, King Richard II, lodged some time before his barbarous murther (sic) in Pontfract (sic) Castle.”

Several pages on from this, during a description of some of the lords of the manor, Thoresby makes an interesting observation about one of the features of one particular house.

He writes: “Over against the East-end of the Bur-lane is a good old-fashion’d House, with a quadrangular Court in the midst; ‘tis now the Property of John Atkinson, Esq; one of the Lords of this Manor; but was built by Mr John Harrison and has one thing very peculiar to it, vis Holes or Passages cut in the Doors and Ceilings, for the free Passage of Cats, for which Animals, he seems to have had a great Affection...(sic)”

John Harrison’s generosity to the town of Leeds has probably never been equalled. All his life he was concerned with the needs of the town and its people. He erected the Market Cross at the tope of Briggate, built a new grammar school and St John’s Church.

Later still, Thoresby offers us a description of one of the main thoroughfares of the town of Leeds, namely Briggate, of which he observes: “In this spacious street, which, from the Bridge at the Foot of it, is called Bridge Gate, or in Northern dialect, retains much of the Saxon, Brig-gate... stood many of the ancient Borough Houses...

“The famous cloth market... is held in this street twice every week, upon Tuesdays and Saturdays, early in the Mornings.” Thoresby describes how traders could get for themselves a mug of ale, some meat and other food, all for two pence. He also said it was common for several thousand pounds worth of cloth to be bought and sold within the space of a few hours.

He describes a great silence falling upon the market before a bell is rung, allowing other trades to sell their wares, among them lined drapers, shoe-makers, hand-ware-men and sellers of wood vessels and wicker baskets, fruitiers and fishmongers - he counts 500 traders in all.