A Leeds Christmas Miscellany by Chris Nickson

It’s that time of year again, to celebrate or tolerate, depending on your inclination. But Christmas is just around the corner, and so here are a few fun Leeds facts from Chris Nickson to present over turkey and crackers.

Image from thegraphicsfairy.com

Image from thegraphicsfairy.com

In the early 17th century, the Vicar of Leeds, Alexander Cooke, put forward the idea that Christmas should actually be in July. Why? Because shepherds weren’t out looking after their flocks in winter.

st_george_preserving_and_canning_company_ltd_-ye_olde_english_plum_pudding-_can_label-_1890s-1940s-_21678754552The Christmas food tradition is quite long, with plum pudding and mince pies popular all the way back to 1830, although in those days, roast beef was the seasonal meat of choice.


Handel’s Messiah is indelibly associated with Christmas, but the first seasonal performance in Leeds came in 1847, on January 1, before becoming an annual event at the Coliseum. And the first panto recorded here was in 1860 (Little Red Riding Hood, for the very curious).


At the back end of the 17th century, Leeds endured some very bitter winters, and on several occasions the River Aire froze so solid that a frost fair was held on the river, with games, booths, and even an ox was roasted. In 1684 the Leeds historian, Ralph Thoresby, walked on the river “from the Mills below the old church (Leeds Parish Church) all up the main river.”

There were curious winter entertainments. In November 1683 Thoresby noted that he’d gone to Alderman Skyes’ house where he’d seen a man named Sam Fry, from Dorset, eat lead, beeswax, sealing wax, pitch, rosin “all blazing hot” – and some brimstone.

There were some food bargains to be had back then. At the close of the 17th century, Celia Fiennes visited Leeds as part of her journey around England and noted that “their ale is very strong-but for paying a groat for your ale you may have a slice of meat either hotte or cold according to the time of day you call or else butter and cheese gratis into the bargaine.” What you call early bar snacks…and craft beer, of course.

Long before Leeds had its Town Hall, it had a Moot Hall, with much the same function, but placed right in the middle of Briggate, with all the traffic problems that caused (the Shambles, or butchers’ shops, were on the ground floor. Above were the meeting rooms for the corporation and the justices of the peace, and a pillory and stocks outside). Built in 1618, rebuilt in 1710, with the statue of Queen Anne that now stands in the Art Gallery, it was finally pulled down in 1826. A new building, the Corn Exchange, replaced it, located a little further up Briggate, until that, too, was demolished, and replaced by the Corn Exchange we know in 1867.

George Mangey, the silversmith who in 1694 crafted the ceremonial Leeds mace that’s still used today, was charged with the treasonable offence of forgery in 1696 and tried at the Assizes in York. Found guilty, he was executed. His workshop was in a row of buildings behind the Moot Hall. When that came down in 1826, his workshop was one of the buildings that became rubble. But not before the secret room that lay within was revealed. Now there’s a tale to be told!


Courtesy of www.leodis.net, Leeds 1725


Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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