Using the Arteries of Leeds by Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson
Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson’s monthly instalment of Leeds history looks at how the public transportation revolution changed people’s lives in Leeds for the better.

Several months ago, there was some online debate about the ‘doughnut of despair,’ the amount of run-down inner city housing in Leeds. It’s there, no doubt about it, but if you look back, the reasons for the existence of much of it are historical.



In the days before mass public transportation, the only way for most people to get to work was to walk. So factories and housing grew up side-by-side. The housing was never intended to be permanent – those back-to-backs had a projected life of 70 years.


The middle classes could afford to live further away from the city centre, where the air was cleaner (and throughout the heavily industrialised 19th century, the air in Leeds was filthy). They had the income and the luxury of choice, which gave rise to suburban living, thanks to the private transport of carriages.

The first hint that things would change came in 1839, when an ad in the Leeds Mercury announced the start of a horse bus service from the city out to the Three Horse Shoes in Headingley, with a fare of sixpence (two-and-a-half pence in today’s money). The buses were pulled by a pair of horses, but due to the state of the road which wasn’t metalled, they could only carry 12-15 passengers.

More services followed, all over the city, although the buses weren’t the most comfortable, or even that fast. Bigger ones, drawn by three horses, had two decks, the top one open to the weather. But it meant that working men were no longer tied to factories in their immediate vicinity, and that was a big change.

The coming of horse-drawn trams in 1871 meant faster travel. There were six lines, from town to Kirkstall, Headingley, Chapeltown, Hunslet, and Marsh Lane, fares a penny a mile, and a cheaper workmen’s fare for early and later runs, making it actually feasible for most working men to use the tram. More routes were added and it wasn’t too long before mechanisation arrived with the advent of the steam tram in general use from 1880, with an enclosed top deck and able to hold 66 passengers.

These days, we take the bus for granted. We wait and wait, and like the cliché, three come together. That makes it easy to forget what a revolution this offered. For the first time, ordinary people could afford to travel around Leeds without using Shanks’s pony. They also changed the possibilities of leisure, too. No longer was there a need to walk out to Adel or Roundhay Park; the tram could take you at least part of the way there. And from 29 October, 1891, all the way there. That was when the first electric tram was introduced. A small, single decker, it made the trip up Roundhay Road and back, from Sheepscar to Oakwood – which was then the entrance to Roundhay Park.

Times moved on, of course. Horse buses were replaced by motor buses, but trams stayed on the street for another half century. And now we keep mooting a return to electric buses. But those first forays into public transport made a huge change to the lives of working people, giving them a freedom they’d never known before. The doughnut still remains, but buses and trams opened it up all those years ago.
To get an idea what travel on an electric tram was like in 1898, this film from the Yorkshire Film Archive is invaluable (and greatly entertaining).


Chris Nickson is a Leeds novelist and music journalist. His Richard Nottingham series of mystery novels is set in Leeds in the 1730s.

Gods of Gold, a mystery set against the backdrop of the 1890 gas strike and the first in his new Victorian series, will be published in August 2014. The launch event for Gods of Gold is taking place on Thursday, September 11, from 6.45 pm, at the Leeds Library, the oldest subscription library in Britain, and in its present location since 1808. Everyone is welcome but you will need to reserve a place. Call the Library on (0113) 245 3071 or email


Gods of Gold by Chris Nickson
Gods of Gold by Chris Nickson



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