It All Began With A Street, by Chris Nickson

If you want to know more about the history of Kirkgate, Chris Nickson recommends the newly published A History of Kirkgate from earliest times to 1800.

Blink and you’d have missed it but towards the end of last year a new history book about Leeds was published.  A History of Kirkgate from earliest times to 1800, written by historians Steven Burt and Kevin Grady, with plenty of excellent illustrations by Peter Brears, tells the story of one street.

So what, you might think. Who cares? Kirkgate is a wreck of a street, anyway. It is, although the regeneration that’s slowly happening offers some hope, with independent businesses opening. But for quite a few centuries Kirkgate was Leeds. The only street in town. It has the deep history of Leeds going back to the time when the only way across the River Aire was a ford. It was there long before Briggate which was a planned community put together a mere 810 years ago. If you want to know where your city began, go down to Kirkgate.

The book finds the balance between historical overview during the years and a reasonable amount of detail so it’s fine for both children over 11 and adults inquisitive about the past. And, defying the title, it does briefly bring the story of the street up to the present day.

The church, whether you call it the Parish Church or Leeds Minster, has always been there although it’s been rebuilt several times. But start there and amble up towards Briggate. Imagine it surrounded by a ditch and moat. A little further along on your left, a tithe barn and a manor house, also with a moat. Off to your right, some cottages, probably in a dismal state of repair, that families shared with their animals in the winter. Behind them, not the market, but small hedged gardens and then fields. That was Leeds – Loidis, Ledes – in its early days, and probably into the 15th century. The only smoke came from domestic cooking fires, not factory chimneys. At the time the village was surveyed for the Domesday book, around 200 people probably lived here, and from 1089 the manor of Leeds was owned by the Priory of Holy Trinity in York, a gift from Ralph Paynel who had held the manor.

Fast forward to the 1700s and everything had changed. Before the Industrial Revolution, Leeds was still a small place, with a population of probably 10,000. But thanks to some canny manoeuvring, there was plenty of money here, and some of it was on show in the grand houses that lined Kirkgate. Some were already moving out, to Water Lane and Meadow Lane, or Town End past the Headrow, what’s now New Briggate. But plenty stayed. Few of those buildings remain (Leeds hasn’t been kind to its past), but the book gives a strong sense of how it was then, the final golden age of the street before the long decline started.

Some of the bones are still there. The skeleton of the back of the First White Cloth Hall still stands. More than anything that’s the place that first brought wealth and renown to Leeds. It’s wonderful news that there are plans to safeguard its future by new owners, Rushbond PLC.

The face of Leeds has changed immeasurably, and keeps altering; that’s the way of cities. And yet the layout of the streets at the very heart of Leeds, where the patina of age is strongest, haven’t changed a bit. You could drop a person from the 16th or 18th century there and they’d be able to find their way around.

We have continuity, and that’s vital, a connection to what this place once was. You can’t understand the future without knowing the past, they say, and this book gives the chance to see where, and how, it all began.

A History of Kirkgate from earliest times to 1800, by Steven Burt and Kevin Grady, with illustrations by Peter Brears, is published by Leeds City Council and Leeds Civic Trust. You can buy copies, £11.99, from the Leeds Civic Trust bookshop in Wharf Street which opens weekday mornings to 1.30pm, and the Leeds City Museum bookshop on Cookridge Street.


 Chris Nickson is the author of several historical crime novels set in Leeds. His latest, On Copper Street, the fifth in his Inspector Tom Harper series, takes place in 1895. You can order it here.

The day after his release from prison, petty criminal Henry White is found stabbed to death at his terraced home on Copper Street. Pursuing enquiries in a neighbourhood where people are suspicious of strangers and hostile to the police, DI Tom Harper and his men find the investigation hard going. If anyone knows anything about Henry White’s murder or the robbery that landed him in gaol in the first place they are unable or unwilling to say.

At the same time, acid is thrown over a young boy in a local bakery in a seemingly unprovoked attack.

Praying for a breakthrough, Harper knows that he must uncover the motive in each case if he is to have any chance of catching the culprits. One thing he is certain: if he doesn’t find answers soon, more deaths will follow.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a Librarian by profession and is currently working in Special Collections at Leeds University. She 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 Big Bookend and an integral part of the team contributing to the festival’s success over the last 5 years. Fiona is the Coordinator of the Big Bookend, helping to bring the whole festival together.

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