Last updated on April 27th, 2013 | Written By Richard Smyth
Uncovering Life in Victorian Leeds
What – to steal a gag from Monty Python – did the Victorians ever do for Leeds? Anyone who lives in the city today owes a massive debt to the innovators and entrepreneurs of the nineteenth century. Going shopping? You’ve got the Victorians to thank for Thornton’s and Queen’s arcades (and it was the Victorians who cleared away the slums so that the Victoria Quarter could be built); what’s more, Marks & Spencer made its first appearance in Leeds in 1884, as a ‘penny bazaar’ – kind of a 19th-century pound-shop – in Kirkgate Market.
Fancy a pint? The Horse and Trumpet, the Victoria Hotel, the Palace, the Scarbrough and many other town-centre pubs all date from the years of Victoria’s reign (and they would all have been supplied by Leeds’ own Tetley brewery, a mainstay of the city since 1822). Off to the cricket? That’ll be Yorkshire CC, founded 1863. Or the rugby? Leeds Rhinos started out as Leeds St Johns, in 1864. (The city had to wait a little longer for professional football: United weren’t founded till after the first World War, in 1919).
Culture flourished under the Victorians
The Victorians also did a lot for the city’s culture. The Art Gallery was founded in 1888, the Grand Theatre in 1878 and the first public library in 1872. Then there’s the grand buildings: the spectacular Gothic of the General Infirmary, from the 1860s, for instance, the Corn Exchange (also 1860s), and the Town Hall (1850s – and Victoria herself turned up to open it).
Ever since Victoria came to the throne in 1838, Leeds has been the very model of a modern British city… except that for much of that time it wasn’t a city – not until 1893, when Victoria finally got round to granting a Royal Charter. Actually, Victoria’s accession coincided with a tough time for Leeds. This was the fag-end of the Industrial Revolution, the aftermath of a period of unprecedented expansion, and the city’s growing pains were becoming hard to ignore.
Irish disease. A slum killer
Cholera had ravaged Leeds in 1832, and would so again in 1848. The principal symptoms of the disease are vomiting and profuse diarrhoea – a pretty ghastly fate, especially in a city that didn’t have sewers till the 1850s. Another slum killer, typhus – known at the time as the ‘Irish Disease’ – arrived in 1847. If you were poor, even if you were healthy – a big ‘if’, with diphtheria, TB, measles and many other infections also doing the rounds – you were likely to be filthy. The city’s many industrial plants pumped out smoke and pollutants non-stop.
For a long while, the River Aire was so horribly polluted that nothing could live in it; the city’s air wouldn’t have been much better. Work, for most people, would still have meant a grim slog in the mills or the mines. This was a world without an NHS, without antibiotics, without a welfare system, without safety or public-health laws – a difficult world in which to be poor. The Victorian era was a ‘golden age’ for Leeds in many ways, but it wasn’t without its tarnish.
Riots brought Leeds to a standstill
Naturally enough, not everyone was content to let this state of affairs continue. In 1842, the workers of Holbeck and Hunslet took part in strikes and unrest as the ‘Chartist’ movement – a campaign for social reform in favour of working people – reached West Yorkshire (the ensuing riots are sometimes known as the ‘Plug Riots’, because rebellious workers would remove the plugs from the steam boilers that powered the city’s industry).
Riots were a fact of life in 19th century Leeds, particularly in run-down areas such as Quarry Hill. It didn’t take much to get one started. In 1865, for example, a cook, Eliza Stafford, was jailed for one month for stealing two pounds of dripping – that is, fat – from her employer, Dr Henry Chorley. Local people were appalled by the ‘Dripping Injustice’. Dr Chorley was subjected to chants of ‘dripping, dripping!’, and shouts such as ‘How’s thy fat, lad?’. In February, a demonstration at Dr Chorley’s house in Park Square ended in violence and the death of one man, potter George Hodgson, who was trampled to death.
Hard times, indeed, then. And yet the city of Leeds, despite the muck and bullets, flourished, and continued to flourish throughout the twentieth century – and, a hundred and ten years after Victoria’s death, remains the commercial and cultural heart of Yorkshire, and is flourishing still.