Click for Contents

Yorkshire and Leeds in the last Fifty Years
by Gordon C. F. Forster
Any historical survey should be a study of continuity as well as of change. We ought, therefore, to begin by reminding ourselves of what Leeds was like 50 years ago. It was a manufacturing town and a shopping centre, with bustling streets, prosperous suburbs, and numerous shops, offices, and factories; it also had much slum property, a smoky atmosphere, and limited social amenities – it was almost impossible to get a meal in the evening or on Sundays except in the hotels. The population was about ½ million, including immigrant Jewish and Irish people. The main occupations were in textiles (including tailoring), engineering, and leather trades as well as in a great variety of service industries: shops, building, brewing, transport, printing, food processing, banking and insurance, local administration and the law, the Press, radio and sport – all helped to make Leeds a major regional centre in Yorkshire. It had very little share of the newer industries – electricals, motor cars, TV, plastics, or consumer durables – but it was the shopping centre for the 4 million inhabitants of the West Riding of Yorkshire, a situation of which three significant symbols may be mentioned: the multiple tailoring factory of Montague Burton, ‘the tailor of taste’, with the largest canteen in the world; the Headrow, designed in the 1930s, with Lewis’s department store (the first building in Leeds to cost £1 million); and the Civic Hall (also from the 1930s), a symbol of civic action against social problems and of civic pride in industrial and commercial achievement.

To assess the continuities and changes since c.1950 we can consider the citizens and their work, their environment, and the amenities they have come to enjoy. First, the people. During the 20th century the area designated in legal and governmental terms as Leeds has grown, from 22,000 acres in 1900 to 135,000 plus acres from the 1970s, a geographical enlargement which has enhanced the city’s regional role. The population appears to have grown too, from ½ million in 1951 to 706,000 in 1991; but these figures resulted from the boundary changes which brought many places (like Otley and Wetherby) into Leeds. Indeed, the total population of the administrative area now known as Leeds is actually somewhat lower than it was before the extensive changes in local government of 1974. The character of the local population has, however, been changed by two waves of immigration: During the 1940s and 1950s Europeans (Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians etc.) arrived, entering textiles and other manufacturing occupations and being relatively easily assimilated; and from the 1950s to the 1980s people from the ‘New Commonwealth’ (the Indian sub-continent, the West Indies, and Africa) settled in the city in significant numbers. Ethnic minorities now form about 6 per cent of the city’s population – they exceed 16 per cent in Bradford – and have given rise to new social problems and tensions as well as bringing different languages, religions, and customs, and creating a demand for exotic foodstuffs in cafés and the Market.

Secondly, when examining the occupations of the people one has to remember that the last 50 years have seen a gradual decline in Yorkshire’s importance in the national economy because of both the changing terms of world trade and international competition: Steel, coal, engineering, textiles – even the fisheries of Hull, because of Iceland’s policy and ‘Cod War’ – have all suffered. Thus, from the 1950s to the 1970s the proportion of the Leeds workforce in manufacturing fell from a half to a third, and in the 1980s alone local manufacturing lost 20,000 jobs. However, prosperity in the city has been sustained by its regional role and the rapid expansion of its already well established service industries. Today Leeds is therefore less of a manufacturing, more of a service, town: building; public utilities; scientific services; the media (local and national radio, the regional Press, Yorkshire Television); local government; legal administration; further and higher education. The most important are shops and catering (employing about 70,000 people in the 1990s), and financial services (offering some 45,000 jobs, a total still rising). Leeds now has six of the country’s top legal firms and sixteen of the leading accountancy firms; the three largest employers in the city are the City Council, the Civil Service, and the University of Leeds. If local prosperity is now more than ever dependent on Leeds’s role as a commercial, financial and service centre it should be remembered that there are fewer locally-owned major firms, that much of the city’s economy is in the hands of national, or international, companies, and that Leeds and Yorkshire as a whole are less wealthy than London, the South-East or parts of the Midlands.

Nevertheless, a measure of local prosperity together with national and local taxation have paid for noticeable improvements in the town’s environment. The first changes are probably to be seen in housing. Even in 1950 the West Riding conurbation had a huge legacy of sub-standard houses – about one eighth of its total stock of houses – but from the 1950s to the 1970s there was a new campaign against the slums in Leeds. The Corporation itself built some 45,000 new houses in estates on the city’s outskirts, large numbers of houses were also built privately, and about two-thirds of the houses in the city are now owner-occupied. Slum clearance, the inevitable movement of people away from familiar surroundings, the tower blocks of flats favoured by architects and planners, all involved loss to communities; strong local feeling and protests eventually led to the end of large-scale demolition and a resort to repairs and re-furbishment instead, though structural difficulties and dilapidation caused the destruction of the famous, European-inspired blocks of flats at Quarry Hill (a not wholly successful social experiment of the 1930s). New housing estates were matched by city centre developments from the 1950s: Older commercial buildings were replaced by structures of glass and concrete – John Betjeman’s ‘international nothingness’; there arose new multiple stores, supermarkets, multi-storey car parks, vast academic buildings, with new ring-roads further away from the centre.

During the sixties and seventies traffic became a greater problem than before, and new means of management were tried: one-way streets; parking meters at 6d. (in non-decimal currency) per hour; ‘pedestrianised’ streets in the central shopping area. The problems became more intractable when the M1 Motorway (London to Leeds) brought innumerable cars, lorries, and coaches to within a few hundred yards of City Square. The boast of Leeds was that it was ‘the Motorway city of the seventies’: It was a disaster, and the attendant difficulties have yet to be solved. Of course, these developments brought some benefits: more modern accommodation for many who work in the city centre; new investment; attraction of business, and financial resources. In short, they bred confidence.

There was a price to be paid, not just in the destruction of the small, local communities of people who lived in the inner city, but in the loss of some fine buildings, for example, Gilbert Scott’s Westminster (Nat West) Bank in Park Row and Gott’s Mill (on Wellington Street), as well as some plain Georgian houses and pleasant courtyards. In their place came more cars, as well as some ugly buildings, blots on the landscape, a few of which have already been demolished. Consequently there was a growing emphasis on the protection of the urban environment. Leeds was the first provincial local authority to establish a ‘Green Belt’ round the built-up area, and there have been successful public and private attempts to protect such open spaces as the Meanwood Valley and the valley of the River Aire at Kirkstall. In 1965 Leeds Civic Trust was formed to act as a focus for conservation, and there have been successful campaigns to prevent the wholesale demolition of attractive buildings along Boar Lane and to preserve Kirkgate Market from ‘re-development’ after a serious fire. A plan to build a by-pass for Headingley – which would have caused serious damage to pleasant houses and roads between Hyde Park and St Chad’s Church in Far Headingley (a large area familiar to most members of the University ) – was eventually defeated, although it may arise again with the plans to revive the urban tramway. Above all, the enforcement of the Clean Air Act of 1956 during the years following – helped by the decline of heavy industry – has freed Leeds from smoke pollution and made ‘pea-soup’ fogs a thing of the past [see Traude Heckel’s memories above – Ed.]. By 1993, in the cleaner environment there were as many as sixty-three conservation areas in the city.

Some of the measures discussed have helped to ensure that Leeds remains a place that is easy to get out of. Unlike Manchester or Birmingham the city has, for the most part, open country near at hand, much of it now well within the extended city boundary. Changes in the surrounding countryside have been slower and are less evident than in the city. Working horses on farms have all but disappeared since the 1960s, farmsteads themselves have been modernised, with new barns and other buildings often paid for by European Union funds. Mechanised farming has become predominant since the 1950s, especially in arable areas, but sheep and cattle are everywhere evident in the Yorkshire Dales and Moors, with mixed farming (livestock and crops) elsewhere, whilst on the poorer land visitors will notice huge areas of renewable forest. Some rural areas have smaller populations than a century ago, and many village shops, banks, and post offices have closed for want of trade. In some places, however, rural decline has been partly offset by weekend cottages occupied by more affluent townspeople, and by commuters who work in Leeds but live in the Dales or the Vale of York, a way of life made possible – following the contraction of public transport – by the motor car. Moreover, increasing numbers of Leeds people have taken part in the huge growth of tourism in Yorkshire, visiting the Dales and other National Parks, using the designated long-distance footpaths, sightseeing at historical monuments (of which Yorkshire has a plenitude), enjoying Harewood House, Nostell Priory, and other country houses open to the public, and availing themselves of the agreeable pubs and restaurants which have multiplied in villages, many of them within easy reach of Leeds.

As far as amenities and entertainment in the city itself are concerned, there have been losses as well as gains during the last fifty years. Some theatres and music halls have closed; in 1939 there were about seventy cinemas, now there are fewer than a dozen; traditional dance halls and tea shops have also disappeared, along with some local societies and working-mens’ clubs. On the other hand there are many discos, numerous clubs – ‘clubbing’ has become an important part of student life as well as of youth culture in general – and a multiplicity of restaurants, many open far into the night and offering dishes from different parts of the world. With its recently acquired night life Leeds has become ‘a 24 hour city’, with accompanying problems of public order. Sport appears to flourish as well. In 1967 a new swimming pool, built to international competition standards, was opened; after many years in the doldrums Leeds United has won national football contests, and professional Rugby sides have also been successful, although the Yorkshire county cricket team’s record has been far less impressive than in earlier years.

In cultural matters at the highest level Leeds can now claim three major achievements: the establishment of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, a permanent repertory theatre, built on part of the site of the famous Quarry Hill flats; the renown of the International Pianoforte Competition held in the city; and the inauguration in 1978 of Opera North, a permanent operatic company with an international reputation. Every year several series of concerts, at the Town Hall, the University, and elsewhere, provide a feast of music, and there are performances by various amateur choirs, musicians, and actors as well, to enrich the place of the arts in the life of the city. Moreover, since 1950 Leeds has had, and continues to have close links with important artistic and general cultural and intellectual activities in other parts of Yorkshire. Those connections include the differing work of the writer, Alan Bennett, the sculptor, Henry Moore, and the artist, David Hockney. They also include various musicians, scientists, and scholars in the humanities. In addition to the older established universities of Leeds, Sheffield and Hull, there is the comparatively new (1960s) University of York, as well as six very new universities, originating in colleges of technology or polytechnics in Leeds, Sheffield, Huddersfield, Bradford, Hull (and Humberside) and Teesside – ten Yorkshire universities in all, two of them in Leeds, engaging in a vast range of subjects and busy in teaching, research, and other forms of scholarship.

It is not easy to draw up a balance sheet of gains and losses during the last five decades. The contraction of industry has been accompanied by the advance of business services with increasingly world-wide connections. Social problems remain: poverty in some districts, 10 per cent unemployment overall (compared, however, with Manchester’s 20 per cent), the difficulties resulting from immigration, pockets of crime, a fractured system of schooling – all these are characteristics also displayed by other large (and some not so large) towns. Moreover, there has been in Leeds some loss of a sense of identity, caused by changes in local government, easier opportunities for travel, mass culture, the decline of local firms. Nevertheless the physical changes, the new face of the city, symbolise more welcome developments and the optimism of achievement. For example, as witness to a measure of prosperity and an improving quality of life there are the well-kept houses and neat gardens; the new offices and hotels; the vast St James’s Hospital (“Jimmy’s” to locals and TV viewers); the regeneration of the waterfront, and the smart shopping district known as the Victoria Quarter; the striking building of the Royal Armouries Museum; the refurbished Central Library; the plans to improve the railway station and the Civic Hall square. – What these developments indicate about the last 50 years is reasonably clear; what they suggest about the city’s future no historian should dare to prophesy.