Hypnotic Leeds by Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson unearths a little read document from the 1890s that tried to understand the effects and causes of poverty in Leeds and elsewhere. Hypnotic Leeds.

DSCN3463correctedHypnotic Leeds. That’s a pair of words with a ring. And it was the title of a pamphlet published under the auspices of the fledgling Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1894 and selling for six pence. The essays it contained looked at some of the problems of the working classes in the city, ranging from drinking to prostitution, gambling to children not being in education, and a life of continual, grinding poverty.

In a way, it was a follow-up to Engels’ book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, published almost exactly half a century before, and which also looked at life for the poor in Leeds, among other places. It also stood as a statement of the ILP’s intention, to represent the working man; votes for women were still a long way off.

Published by the Leeds and County Co-operative Newspaper Society, it was edited by Albert T. Marles, a political journalist, with contributions by Joseph Clayton, who already had a formidable reputation as a socialist, and Alfred Richard Orage, who had arrived in Leeds the year before to take up a position as a teacher, and had become politically involved with the ILP. In 1900 he’d become one of the founders of both the Leeds Art Club and the Leeds Theosophical Society. Another contributor was Tom Maguire, one of the leading lights of socialism in Leeds.

Maguire had helped organise the builders’ strike in 1889 and the gas strike of 1890. He’d been involved with the unions and the formation of the Independent Labour Party, as well as a regular writer for periodicals like the Labour Leader, which published his poetry as well as his prose. By 1894, however, the party was beginning to sideline him and push him away from any kind of leadership role. Hypnotic Leeds would be his last big hurrah. In March 1895, before he was even 30 years old, Maguire would be dead.IMG_1188

Hypnotic Leeds is not a well-known work, by any means. A check revealed that there are two copies available in libraries. One was at Yale University, in the US. The other is in the Brotherton Library at Leeds University, Pamphlets Yorkshire H-Lee-5.3 MAR. Handy, indeed. But is it worth the effort to read?
A qualified yes. It’s passionate and powerful. At the same time, it’s hampered by language that’s far too flowery, in that gaudy fin-de-siècle style. Get past that, however, and as a piece of reportage about what life was like for many in Leeds, it’s a vital historical document.

But what of the title Hypnotic Leeds? What does it mean? There’s a very big hint in a review of the book by the Labour Leader, which states that “seven young champions of ILPdom have arisen in Leeds and gone for its hypnotic – that is to say, blind-side” in the work, which the journal called a “comprehensive attack” on Leeds. Blind-side, perhaps, in the sense of something not really seen, or generally ignored. In other words, bringing something usually hidden from view into the light. It was a brave attempt to make people aware of what life was like for so many, the bitterness and the temptations. And it was one of the first works to try and understand the effects and causes of poverty here. Unfortunately it didn’t appear to have had much effect, and so Hypnotic Leeds has become a tiny footnote in the history of Leeds and the Labour Party. A pity, as there’s plenty to learn here.

CVVRkOpWoAAOj_yWe are delighted to be hosting  an exclusive preview of Chris Nickson’s first play, presenting scenes from The Empress on the Corner, at the Leeds Big Bookend Festival 2016.

Annabelle Harper features in the Inspector Tom Harper mysteries set in the 1890s – Gods of Gold, Two Bronze Pennies, Skin Like Silver – written by Chris Nickson, in addition to several short stories. In this one-woman play, featuring Carolyn Eden as Annabelle, she tells her story. Growing up on the Bank, the poorest part of the city, the hopeless life of mills or maids for the girls there. The circumstances that made her landlady of the Victoria public house in Sheepscar, also running three bakeries and becoming the Empress on the Corner.  Then her political awakening, speaking out, speaking loud, the determination to see that her own daughter has more but she never forgets how life remains for so many.

A one-woman play starring Carolyn Eden, written by Chris Nickson, Saturday June 4, Leeds Central Library, 2.30 pm, as part of Leeds Big Bookend Festival 2016. There will be a Q&A afterwards with Chris, Carolyn and the play’s Director.

Tickets £5 + VAT. 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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