Of Facts and Tales by Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson tells us some tales of Leeds that are all but forgotten. You can hear about his Leeds, The Biography: A History of Leeds in Short Stories at the Big Bookend festival on Saturday 6th June in a free event.

LTB 1 Green (1)I remember – many years ago now – two years of studying British and European history for my A-level. Endless facts and figures, Acts of Parliament and politicians, every word so dry it was already desiccated by the time it reached my ears.

Fine, they need to be known, to a degree, at least. But history is about people. Not the great names, but those often forgotten. It’s the stories that live on much longer in the mind than the details of this Bill or that.

And while history at the national or global level is important, what happens closer to home can be far more important. For me, that’s Leeds. The little quirks and byways of the past that shaped people and how they lived and died. Instead of Cromwell forming the Protectorate, the story of Alice Musgrave, the first person to die of plague in 1645 has so much more resonance for the Civil War era.

Or what about Jenny White, who supposedly drowned herself in the River Aire in the 19th century, walking into the water down a set of stone steps known after as Jenny White’s Stairs? What happened there? What awful thing made her do that? And what about the way the mill girls or children were treated in the factories, or the aftermath of Leeds City Football Club being expelled from the League?

There are people behind all these things. And in their tales is a history of Leeds. Not always beautiful, by any means, but then this is the North. And much as I love learning about this place that was probably once a tiny settlement by a river ford named Cambodunum by the Romans, the real joy is in the people who lived here. The stone sarcophagus unearthed a century ago, probably from the 300s AD, containing just two bones. How could there be so little left?

Stories entertain, but they have another function; that’s why so many have lasted through the centuries, and storytellers (real traditional oral storytellers) have had such respected places in society all across the globe. Stories teach us about the past, the mistakes we’ve made and the good things we’ve done. Storytellers are the guardians of culture and real history. They stop all the fragments of the past from blowing away completely. The tales, those are what connect us to history. And in them are the seeds of today, the present. We can learn from them if we listen.

In Leeds we’ve been quite unkind to our past. Yes, there are plenty of grand Victorian buildings (and I know we still have too many back-to-back houses; Leeds always had more than anywhere else, continuing to build them long after other cities stopped) to catch the eye. A memorial to the days when this was a great place of industry. Go back further, though, and there’s precious little from the early days of the Industrial Revolution and beyond.

Once this was the woollen power of Britain. And now we create our memorials to retail. To shopping. You might want to think about that.


The ‘Bookends’ were at the bottom of Eastgate from which our festival takes its name. Hoagy’s Bar has now been knocked down to make way for the new John Lewis and shopping centre. Photo: copyright, Fiona Gell.

suit2Many of Chris Nickson’s books are set in Leeds, in the 1730s, 1890s, and 1950s.

Chris Nickson recently published Dark Briggate Blues, a noir mystery set in Leeds in the 1950s.

His next novel, Two Bronze Pennies, is the second in the Detective Inspector Tom Harper series, taking place in 1890/91, against a backdrop of anti-Semitic violence and murder. He’s launching Two Bronze Pennies, an historical crime novel which takes place in the Leylands just north of the city centre in 1891,  in a first – streamed and online. Simply click on https://www.concertwindow.com/89118-chris-nickson on May 24 at 6pm to join him.

He will be appearing at the Big Bookend festival on 6th June at 2pm at Leeds Central Library talking about his new book, Leeds, The Biography: A History of Leeds in Short Stories (Armley Press, July 2015). This is a free event but click here for tickets.


You can read more about Chris and the Big Bookend festival in this article from the Yorkshire Evening Post, 20 May 2015.

Follow us on  Facebook/BigBookend and Twitter/BigBookend for all the latest information.

Download the programme – click here


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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