The Changing Face of Leeds by Chris Nickson

This month Chris Nickson takes a look at how Leeds’ buildings have evolved over the centuries and what that has meant to the city. 

When you think of Leeds and its architecture, what do you imagine? The Market? The great Victorian structures like the Town Hall, Temple Mill, and the Corn Exchange? Maybe the splendour of County Arcade or the slightly run-down, neglected Grand Arcade at the top end of town? Perhaps it’s Bridgewater Place, which towers over everything? Possibly all of them and more?

Cities evolve. They’re constant works in progress, largely reinventing themselves every generation or two. At least some of the old is torn down, with some fresh ideas taking its place. Leeds is no different in that regard, other than the way it’s constantly grown since the beginning of the 19th century, as industry took hold here, bringing in people, the factories and chimneys dominating – for a while, at least. To look at a view of Leeds from 300 years ago is to see a fairly bucolic small town (and it was, with a population of 6-7,000 people) and not be able to imagine the behemoth it’s become today. Yet, curiously, the layout of the core streets remains exactly the same. A time traveller would be able to navigate his or her way around them.

Francis Place's 1715 Prospect of Leeds. Courtesy of the Thoresby Society

Francis Place’s 1715 Prospect of Leeds. Courtesy of the Thoresby Society

Very few buildings from that time survive. Not even a handful. St. John’s Church, the Pack Horse, Whitelock’s. Everything else has vanished. Some, like Leeds Minster (the Parish Church as it was for many years), have been rebuilt, but the huge majority have simply vanished.

The area south of the Aire, going into Hunslet, has altered beyond recognition in the last century. Now the ‘South Bank,’ as it’s called in a rebranding exercise, is being regenerated. If they do put in affordable housing and community amenities, that’s a good thing. A city needs people living close to its core; after all, go back in time and that’s where most did live. It keeps a place vital.

The suburbs keep sprawling. Leeds has eaten up most of the surrounding villages. The yards and courts off Briggate that once housed the poor have gone, and what few remain are now quaint reminders, home to bars and clubs, not people. A good thing? Yes. Sheepscar and the Leylands once had a large working-class population. They were communities. Now it’s all light industry.

Of course, many back-to-back houses remain, and the doughnut of despair, that inner city area of poverty, is still a very real thing. Those dwellings were originally meant to last for 70 years, and Leeds kept on building them long after they should. Perhaps it’s a testament to the people who put them up that they’re still standing and lived in. Or perhaps it’s an indictment of the council that they still exist; that’s a double-edged sword. But even if they were replaced tomorrow, the poverty would remain.

They do provide a thread of continuity in the city’s story, and that’s important. Leeds has been eager to embrace the new, even when it was awful (like the 60s/70s plans for the Motorway City). And no city can stand still. It needs to evolve, to face up to differing challenges as they come along – the decline of industries, for example, and the increase in population and the need for housing.

It can, however, respect its own history. When it comes to that, the place has been shameful. But I won’t drag that soapbox out yet again.

Chris Nickson is the author of several historical crime novels set in Leeds. The Year of the Gun, is the second appearance of Lottie Armstrong. 

1944: Twenty years after WPC Lottie Armstrong was dismissed from the Leeds police force, she’s back, now a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps.

Detective Chief Superintendent McMillan is now head of CID, trying to keep order with a depleted force as many of the male officers have enlisted. This hasn’t stopped the criminals, however, and as the Second World War rages around them, can they stop a blackout killer with a taste for murder?

Chris says, “I’d originally planned just one book about Lottie, but she was one of those characters who refused to let me go, so I picked up the traces of her life 20 years later, during World War II.”

The Year of the Gun is published by the History Press on 1 September 2017 and launches with a blog tourYou can pre-order it 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. Fiona is its Coordinator and Marketing Director of the Northern Short Story Festival.

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