Leeds nostalgia: series of political lectures will lead to book

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When he started out writing about significant historical political figures from Leeds seven years ago, former Leeds MP Michael Meadowcroft hardly envisaged the work he was doing would be turned into a book but fast forward to today and that’s exactly what is about to happen.

This year, Mr Meadowcroft, who is chair of The Leeds Library, on Commercial Street, in the city centre, will deliver the final round of lectures, after which his research will be pulled together and published.

Josh Walsh and Joseph Henry

Josh Walsh and Joseph Henry

Speaking to Times Past, he said: “The Leeds Library is the oldest cultural body in Leeds. Being established in 1768 it is also the oldest subscription library in Britain. It’s home was purpose-built in 1808 and was one of the first two buildings in Commercial Street. For 239 years it was a ‘proprietary’ library with its membership limited to five hundred each of whom had to buy a share.

“In 2007 the then members voted to turn the library into a charity with membership open to all. It currently has a membership of around eight hundred and is steadily growing.

“I became a member in 1973 and I became the chair of the trustees following the change to a charity in 2007. I began my series of lectures on Leeds politicians that same year - see: www.bramley.demon.co.uk/localhistory.html - with the intention of establishing a tradition of ‘chair’s lectures’ which I very much hope will be continued by my successor.

“I realised there were a number of remarkable men and women who were virtually unknown but who made a significant contribution to the kaleidoscope that is Leeds local politics. Launching my annual lectures provided an opportunity to bring these individuals into the spotlight and each year I have made sure there is at least one person who is virtually unknown. I’ve also been punctilious in ensuring that each group of four has included a person from each of the three parties - plus one ‘wild card’. I’ve also tried to include a woman each year but, curiously, with a few notable exception, Leeds has not produced many notable women politicians.

“When I started the lectures I was not sure how many there would be. Until now there has been no shortage of subjects but I feel that those programmed for 2015 need to be the final two, not that there aren’t other interesting men and women but I sense there are no others with enough background and length of service to provide enough material for a lecture. Also, given the demand to publish the lectures, there needs to be a finite number and a commitment to a date for publication by the Library. The question is, if I am still chair of trustees next year, what should I lecture on? Perhaps I might start a series on notable political events in Leeds, such as the 1890 gas workers’ strike and the 1917 peace convention.”

The final two lectures will take place on Wednesday March 25, with a talk on Josh Walsh (1901-1984), a Labour councillor from 1932 to 1951, and Alderman from 1952 to 1968; he was also Lord Mayor in 1966. He was also chairman of Leeds Education Committee for 22 years and a great educational pioneer in the city.

Then, on Wednesday April 22, the subject will be Joseph Henry (1845-1923), a Liberal councillor from 1887 to 1892 and 1894 to 1906, an Alderman from 1892 to 1894 and 1920-1922 and Lord Mayor in 1918.

He was leader of Leeds City Council Liberal Group from 1895 to 1906 and was known as ‘the uncrowned King of Holbeck’.