Down At The Royal by Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson unearths some of the history of the forgotten Royal Hotel where some of his novel, Modern Crimes is set, featuring Lottie Armstrong, one of the first policewomen in Leeds.

Leeds is a city of constant change; the rising towers and the cranes are testament to that. That’s the nature of cities, though. They evolve. Yet for all the modern façade, Leeds has a remarkable sense of continuity: the financial district has occupied pretty much the same area for the best part of 200 years, Trinity stands on the site of the first big department store, the Grand Pygmalion, which opened in 1884. And where the gay quarter is, spreading from Lower Briggate, was where the Royal Hotel once stood.


These days it’s known as Regent Court and has been made over into flats. But for many years during the last century, it was one of the centres for Leeds’ LGBT population, a place where they could drink and meet in relative privacy.

The place started life in 1692 as the New King’s Arms, changing names with different owners through the 1700s and becoming one of the main coaching inns in town. According to David Thornton in Leeds – A Historical Dictionary, a new landlady, Miss Ayres, took over the place in the early 1800s and it became known as the Royal Hotel when Royal Mail coaches began running from there in 1834.

But it was during the twentieth century that it became one of the meeting places around Leeds for the gay and lesbian community, along with the Mitre on Commercial Street, the King Edward, the Golden Cock, and bars at the Metropole and Great Northern hotels.

What made the Royal unique was that it had two bars, one for men, one for women. For decades it was a centre of the community that had to live in the shadows, at least until homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967 – and in many ways, even after things were legal.

IMG_1547correctedThe Royal closed, and many of those who drank there moved to the Hope and Anchor on the Calls, which had opened in 1953, renamed The New Penny in 1982. By then, though, Leeds already had gay clubs, and the scene was coalescing around the area we now know as the gay quarter.

Times change, yet at the same time very little changes at all. The old frontage, without the Royal Hotel sign, has been replicated in fibreglass, the coat of arms at the top brightly painted. The place has a new life, but the memories remain inside.

Lottie coverChris Nickson’s novel, Modern Crimes, set in 1924 and featuring Lottie Armstrong, one of the first policewomen in Leeds, is published in early September. Part of the book is set in the Royal Hotel.

1924 – Six years after the Great War and Leeds still isn’t back on its feet. Work is scarce, poverty is everywhere and crime is spreading. The city has its first policewoman, though, and Lottie Armstrong is eager to prove herself in this man’s world. But with her duties confined to looking after women and children, the force doesn’t want a woman with initiative. Then Lottie has to search for a missing girl, and her life changes.

Suddenly CID needs a woman’s touch to find answers, and Lottie is a proper copper for the first time, following a trail that takes her from high society to the Royal Hotel, where men and women gather, the ones who live in the shadows because their love is a sin.

As Lottie uncovers a plot involving high level corruption, the truth is slowly laid bare. And she learns that if you show you’re as clever as a man, there’s always a price to pay.

Modern crimes, timeless tragedy.

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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