Last updated on April 27th, 2013 | Written By Richard Smyth
The tales of haunted Leeds
Leeds, has its share of shadows and secrets, its forbidden history of black deeds, dark doings and blood-curdling devilry; there’s no shortage of skeletons a-rattling in the city’s cupboards. What’s more, some say that, on certain nights, in certain places, these skeletons – tormented souls, unquiet spirits – rise from their cold graves, and walk abroad.
Just as you don’t have to believe in Santa Claus to have a great time at Christmas, you can be sceptical about ghosts and ghouls and still enjoy being chilled to the marrow by a good ghost story – especially when the ghosts haunt the street you grew up on, the pub you do your drinking in, or even the house you live in.
Peace the murderer
One of the most sinister characters in Leeds’ long history is rumoured to haunt the very heart of the city. Sheffield-born Charles Peace was thick-featured, heavy-jawed and short in stature; he had three missing fingers, and walked with a limp – a legacy from a steel-mill apprenticeship. He was skilled at two things: playing the violin, and burglary.
He roved Victorian England, womanising, playing his fiddle in pubs and robbing the homes of the gentry. He killed at least twice. In 1878, he was finally nabbed – betrayed by his mistress for a £100 reward. In the winter of 1879, at Armley prison, Charles Peace was hanged by the neck until he was dead. Dead, but perhaps not gone: it’s said that today the restless ghost of the murderer lingers in the dank prison cells – used to hold prisoners awaiting trial – that can still be explored beneath Leeds Town Hall.
According to local folklore, Peace is far from the only spectre to have made his eerie presence felt in the town centre. At Bond Street, old Leeds heads tell of a cobbler, one James Wood, who died at the tail-end of the eighteenth century, only to return in the nineteen-seventies when careless builders disturbed his grave.
Ghost in a bowler hat
The old City Varieties music hall is said to be home to a courtly ghost in a bowler hat, and to the spirit of a lady actress; one tale tells of a man accidentally locked overnight in the theatre’s bar, who woke from an uneasy sleep to find the lady staring at him.
The Library phantom
One particularly detailed account of an unsettling encounter with ghost comes one of Leeds’ most evocative locations: the 250-year-old Leeds Library on Commercial Street. Young librarian John MacAlister was finishing work late one evening in March, 1844. As he hastened from his office, fearful of missing his last train home, the lamp he was carrying suddenly, and startlingly, illuminated a man’s face at the end of a gloomy passageway. Fearing a burglar, John ran back to his office – and returned with a loaded revolver.
‘I called out loudly to the intruder to show himself several times, more with the hope of attracting a passing policeman than of drawing the intruder,’ he recalled. Then, from behind a bookcase, the face reappeared.
‘The face was pallid and hairless, and the orbits of the eyes were very deep,’ John wrote later. ‘I advanced toward it, and as I did so I saw an old man with high shoulders seem to rotate out of the end of the bookcase, and with his back toward me, and with a shuffling gait, walk rather quickly from the bookcase to the door of a small lavatory.’
He followed the figure – and found that it had vanished. ‘I confess I began to experience for the first time what novelists describe as an “eerie” feeling,’ he remembered.
It was a local priest who, on hearing John McAlister’s disturbing tale, identified the hairless phantom as one Vincent Sternberg – John’s predecessor as librarian, who had lost all his hair in a gunpowder blast, and had died not long before.
Ghosts of the old mortuary
You couldn’t have blamed John MacAlister if, after such an experience, he’d decided to forget about catching the train and instead headed to the nearest pub for a stiff drink to restore his equilibrium. But even then, he might not have been safe from sinister encounters; Leeds’ pubs have a long history of ‘grey ladies’, phantom footsteps and haunted mirrors.
Take the Abbey Inn in Newlay: an inn since 1834, in the 19th century it doubled as the town mortuary – a grisly past that has, it’s said, left the Abbey the most haunted pub in Leeds. Then there’s the grand houses of the aristocracy – the sprawling, crumbling old mansions whose owners tend to regard their resident ghosts as simply part of the furniture.
The infamous Blue Lady
At Temple Newsam, visitors are told the chilling story of poor Mary Ingram, who was only a girl when, in 1652, she was subjected to a terrifying attack on the highway; she suffered a breakdown, and died. But it’s said she remained at her family home – and that today she haunts Temple Newsam as the infamous ‘blue lady’.
These tales represent just a fraction of the hundreds of whispered ghost-stories and hand-me-down legends that over the years have been told and re-told by the people of Leeds – a city not just of grand buildings and brightly-lit shops but of shadowy graveyards, deep cellars, ancient passageways and a decidedly dark side..
Photo: Simon Grubb.