a leeds revolution

We Live Here – 40 Assorted Facts and Memories of Amazing Holbeck

March 22, 2019

We Live Here – 40 Assorted Facts and Memories of Amazing Holbeck

Holbeck was the birthplace of the industrial revolution in Leeds, but it has a fascinating history in many other ways too.

Many thanks to Mark Catley and Alan Lane of Slung Low for helping assemble these Holbeck facts and some poignant memories of life in Holbeck past from local residents.


1. Best Prime Minister Britain never had.

In 1945, Hugh Gaitskell became MP for Leeds South in a landslide victory for Labour and held the seat for the rest of his life. During this time he worked hard to improve housing conditions in Holbeck with the construction of new homes. In 1955, he became leader of the Labour Party and his condemnation of Prime Minister Anthony Eden's invasion of Suez in 1956 confirmed his status as a leader of conviction and determination. He died in 1963, aged 59. Labour won the 1964 election. He is regarded as the 'Best Prime Minister Britain never had' and a road and a primary school still bear his name in LS11 today.


2. Same Song, Different Tune

In 1830, Holbeck was declared the "most crowded, most filthy and unhealthy village in the country" a direct result of over-saturation caused by the rapid industrialisation concentrated on the Holbeck area of Leeds. Slum clearances began in 1900 and continued for many years.


3. Holbeck Spa

The industrial revolution transformed Holbeck with many large mills and foundries opening, creating lots of work and housing, and making Holbeck an important part of Leeds and the whole country. But there was a major casualty……In the 18th century, Holbeck was famed for its spa waters, which would be carried by Holbeckians into Leeds city centre and sold. However, with the mills needing to build wells to keep their machinery from overheating, the spa water was tapped into, thereby becoming polluted and undrinkable.


4. The Battle of Holbeck Moor

In 1936, a rally was held on Holbeck Moor by The Blackshirts, a nickname given to the paramilitary section of the British Union of Fascists, led by former MP Oswald Mosley. Mosley was speaking out against the rising immigrant population of Leeds. 30,000 people were stood on the Moor…..… Unfortunately for Mosley, a large number of them were members of the communist party, or Loiners that didn’t agree with his views, and his speech was drowned out with jeers and communist songs. It soon escalated into stone throwing and violence. Magistrate records indicate that the protestors were let off lightly.


5. 37 Gaitskell Walk

In November 1968, Mrs. Edith Dunnell brought home a live goose she had bought from Leeds market, she kept it at her home of 37 Gaitskell Walk to fatten for Christmas. Unfortunately, the goose immediately attacked her and her children. It was so uncontrollable they locked it in the cellar and waited for it to die of starvation. So, not only did the Dunnell family have a skinny goose for Christmas, they had no heating until the creature died… because the coal was kept in the cellar.


6. Elland Road’s first tenants

Long before Leeds United brought pain and suffering to generations of people at Elland Road, rugby league ruled the roost. Holbeck Rugby Club were the first official occupants of the patch of land now developed into a 40,000 stadium. In 1897 they moved from their Recreation Ground on Holbeck Moor to what was then known as the Old Peacock Ground. It was effectively just an open field, but Holbeck built a small terraced stand and some other temporary stands and remained there until 1904 when they went out of business following a Play-Off defeat to St Helens. Leeds Woodville and Leeds City would then occupy the ground until Leeds United were formed in 1919. 


7. The Airship

On the site of the old Matthew Murray High School in 1936 local children Robert Gatehouse, George Peacock, Colin Famtom, Ronnie Norbury, Fatty Barlow and their teacher Mrs Jefferson all witnessed an airship flying over Holbeck – they all spoke of a weird symbol on its tail fin. That symbol was a swastika. The airship was the Hindenberg.


8. Mother Power

The gas workers of Holbeck went on strike in 1890 over increasingly poor working conditions and reduced pay. The gas works organised workers from Manchester to march across the Pennines to scab the strike and replace the Leeds workers. Mothers and wives of the striking men met the marching Mancunians en route to explain the situation. They turned around and walked back to Manchester. The strike was not broken.


9. Czar Street

The peculiarly-named Czar Street is near the Old Chapel Music Studios approaching the railway viaduct. The story goes that a mill owner called Thomas Bottomley lived on this street. He sent a bolt of Leeds wool to the court of Alexander III of Russia, where it was made into a dress uniform for the Tsar himself. After Alexander's death, his son, Nicholas II, the last of the Romanov Royalty, sent the uniform as a gift of thanks to the owner of the mill where the wool was woven and Bottomley named the street in honour of the gift.


10. Russian Visit

An alternative version of events is that the Russian Tsar visited Marshall’s Mill in the early 19th century, and following his visit he commissioned Matthew Murray, chief engineer of the mill, to build him a steam launch. Czar Street (Czar being the variant spelling of Tsar, both deriving from Caesar) was named in honour of the occasion.


11. Pleasant Place

When naming the newly-built streets in Holbeck, local planner Edward Durkin was struck by the perfect equality of distance from the location of this street to both the Church and to the Public House. Being both a godly man and a man of the people, he chose the name Pleasant Place.


12. To Hospital by Cart

Around 23,000 children worked alongside adults in the factories of Leeds in 1842. The Factory Act of 1833 was meant to reduce the working hours of children, alas, it was often ignored. Hannah was a girl of 14 working in Marshall’s Mill. Her skirt got caught and her leg drawn into the machinery. Her leg was badly crushed and she was carried to Leeds General Infirmary by a mill cart. The leg was amputated by surgeons at the hospital. It is not recorded whether she survived the operation.


13. Armley and Back Again

James Williams was imprisoned for common assault in 1910 after being sentenced to two years in Armley Jail. He promptly escaped and after a three day search, the police found Williams in his house in Holbeck. Returned immediately to Armley Jail, Williams proceeded to escape again a month later. Again, police found him in his house. In all, Williams escaped a total of 14 times. Each time he was found at his house here in Holbeck. At no point did the prison authorities seem to consider sending him to a different prison. With all the escapes, Williams - known by now as Prisoner 86 after the bus route that went from Armley to Holbeck - served five and a half years in total.


14. Wall of Death

Daniel Rollings was one of the country's leading Wall of Death drivers and lived on Recreation Mount. The Wall of Death was a fairground attraction where a man on a motorbike would race round a large vertically-walled drum, seemingly defying gravity and creating much excitement amongst the crowds that turned up to see the spectacle. Rollings was one of the best, riding harder and faster than almost anyone else. When not touring the country, he lived here in Holbeck where he retired, still living on Recreation Mount. He died after he fell whilst climbing on his roof to fix the television aerial.


15. On Average

Life expectancy figures for Holbeck in the mid-nineteenth century:

Labouring Poor - 25 years old

Middle Classes - 45 years old

Gentry - 52 years old

Average Holbeck life expectancy in 2011 - 80.1 years old

Average global life expectancy in 2011 - 67.2 years old


16. Nineveh 

Holbeck town planner Matthew David Scott named Nineveh Parade after the ancient Assyrian city situated on the banks of the River Tigris in modern-day Iraq. Scott was also a poet and enthusiastic amateur archaeologist of the late nineteenth century. He was particularly inspired by his visit to Nineveh's remains, whose crumbling colonnades fired his imagination and contributed to his epic narrative poem 'Sands of the Glorious.'


17. Half Time Change

The Spotted Cow pub football team entered local legend in 1979 when, at half time and 3-0 down, the team mascot, a live cow, urinated over the opposition's oranges. The spectacle so unsettled the visiting team from Barnsley that their lead collapsed in the second half and the match ended with a score of 4-3 to the team from the now demolished pub.


18. Holbeck Pitt Club

Pitt clubs were once spread across the country, dedicated to the memory of William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister from 1759 -1806. Today, only four are left in existence. One of these clubs is the notorious Cambridge University Pitt Club where the initiation ceremony is to burn £1000 in cash in a silver bowl. Holbeck Pitt Conservative Club – which used to be adjacent to the Spotted Cow pub - had a less rigorous membership policy of bringing a letter with your address on it and two passport photos.


19. Snowmen

In 1947, Holbeck Moor was used to store the snow cleared by the council from the streets of Leeds. It was a harsh winter, but children from the nearby schools kept themselves warm building an army of hundreds of snowmen which covered the whole moor. The snowmen remained for six weeks on the moor until the thaw in the middle of February, when the snow disappeared, leaving behind a muddy field speckled with mittens and lumps of coal cast off by the melting snowmen. 


20. Steam Hall

Holbeck Lodge once stood off Water Lane, to the immediate south west of Leeds Station, bounded by the train lines of the 'Holbeck Triangle'. Built in 1804 for the engineer Matthew Murray, it was the first house to be centrally heated with steam pipes; colloquially it was known as 'Steam Hall'.  

21. Holbeck's Greatest Son

Matthew Murray moved from Darlington to Leeds in 1789, where he worked for John Marshall, a local flax manufacturer. Prior to developing the world’s first industrially viable steam engine, the Salamanca, Murray designed and installed the flax-spinning machines and carding engines which filled Marshall’s Holbeck Mill on its opening in 1791. Murray died in 1826, and is buried in St Matthew’s Churchyard. 


22. What's In The Box?

In November 1831 a large package arrived at The Imperial pub, for the attention of, "The Rev'd Mr Geneste, Hull. To be left until called for. Glass. Keep this side up." A curious servant opened the box... finding two corpses. These bodies were freshly 'bodysnatched' from Holbeck Cemetery by The Resurrectionists, as these highly organised criminals were commonly known. At this time, demand for cadavers for medical study massively exceeded supply and The Imperial was perfectly placed to become a centre of trade in this gruesome business.


23. Morta-Cabins

Plague cabins were built in 1645 on what is now a vast wasteland site beyond Sweet Street and the former Commercial pub. The afflicted poor were sent to these cabins to avert the spread of the disease, which during this particular year killed over a 1000 in the Holbeck area. The site, currently owned by Burberry, is now home only to some wild horses.


24. Extended Family

Horses have always been a feature of Holbeck. The back-to-back housing on Ingham Road boasted its own stable block long before the houses had indoor toilets. Those without stables would often welcome the animals into the family home and it was a common sight to find a horse in the kitchen of the neighbour's house when you popped round for a cup of tea.


25. Short Cut

In 1978, pupils from Hunslet Moor Primary School were travelling to Holbeck swimming baths. The bus driver decided to take a short cut down Sweet Street and promptly hit the bridge. Part of the top deck was ripped away completely with only one of the pupils hurting themselves, breaking his arm.


26. Mint Moor

Holbeck Moor used to be called the Mint Moor. Not because it grew mint, the moor at that time was covered in cinders, but because there was a mint nearby, ie. a place that made money.


27. The Haunted Hill

Mary Bateman is said to haunt the road known as Stocks Hill, the short bend in the road where the abandoned pub the King’s Arms sits. In life, known as a fortune-teller and 'wise woman', she would prescribe potions to ward off evil spirits which also acted as medicine. She was arrested in October 1808, convicted of the murder of a woman whom she had systematically poisoned with pudding over several months. A year later she was put in the stocks on Stocks Hill before being hung at Armley Jail. She has allegedly haunted the scene of her humiliation ever since.


28. Torch in our Eyes

"We made our own entertainment. We used to play on the Moor at night until the policeman would show up and shine his torch in our eyes and say “don’t you think it’s time you were home?” We were scared of the policeman. We used to watch the men play Dominos in the Old Man’s Shelter."


29. God's on holiday

"I weighed 10lb when I was born, they had to use forceps. Two months later I should’ve been baptised at St Luke’s but when my parents got there with me, the church was locked. The Vicar had forgotten about the baptism and gone on holiday. We ended up walking to St Matthew’s, where the Vicar felt he had to baptise me there and then because I was in my Christening gown."


30. England versus Australia

The streets known as the Recreations were built on the site of Leeds Holbeck rugby and cricket ground, which saw England face Australia in the 1870s. In 1878, cricketing legend W G Grace represented a United South of England Eleven on its annual tour. He faced Louis Hall, the only teetotaller in the Yorkshire team, and emerged victorious. Grace ‘drank enough wine to sink a ship’ in celebration.


31. Midnight Bell

The origin of the pub’s name is thought to refer to when male workers in the area had a dispute that couldn’t be settled with words. They would instead be encouraged to fight it out, late at night, when the authorities and the women and children were tucked up in bed. The bell was struck at midnight and the fight would end with the last man standing.


32. Trainspotting

“I used to go to the Holbeck sheds to watch the trains, but Nineveh was absolutely the best place to spot the trains going into and out of Leeds station, freight wagons shifting coal, wool, timber, all sorts. I wrote it all down in my notebooks. But the finest train of all? The Flying Bloody Scotsman of course.”


33. What Grandmother said

This is what a Grandmother said about Holbeck: “The very birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in Leeds - the Iron and Brassworks - the big bustling mills - the untold number of 'orrible smoking chimneys - the thick, smoggy air. And the dirty, noisy railways that took Holbeck's famous goods and ideas out into to the rest of the world, all of which helped change it. Makes yer feel very proud, doesn't it?”


34. Derailed

On 22nd May 1992, a train was misrouted, resulting in a head-on collision with another train at Holbeck Junction. Although there were no fatalities, twenty-five people were injured. The official report into the accident blamed the crash on inadequate training and communication.


35. Crazy Horses

"My mate Peter and I used to walk back home to Holbeck from town after we’d been out to Mister Craig’s. Once, at about 2am on a freezing foggy Saturday morning, we saw three horses running up Marshall Street, followed by a bloke shouting “stop them, they’re my wife’s and she’ll kill me if I don’t get them back”. He disappeared into the mist. I don’t know if he ever got them back. That was a good night."


36. Campanology

"My Mam made me do bell-ringing at St Matthew’s, but there was never anyone to teach us how to do it properly. We all just sort of made it up, ringing a bell when we thought we should ring a bell. No-one ever complained though, so I suppose it sounded alright."


37. Not really my Aunt

“Aunty Val owned a hairdressers near this spot. She wasn't really my aunty, she was my mum's best friend. It was called Val's. It specialised in blue rinses.”


38. The Milky Way

Holbeck youngsters used to cycle to Cottingley in order to bomb down a steep, bumpy hill known locally as “the Milky Way” or “the Beeston Bumps” or the “Ups and Downs”.


39. What I remember

“I was born in 1961 and lived at the top of Willoughby Avenue opposite the Claytons general stores, I went to Ingram Road School and left Leeds around 1971 when the Council were forcing people out, running the area down to become slums so they could demolish the area. There was a great deal of pride in the area and women scrubbing the front step and white edging it. Most houses had the doors open and neighbours just walked in…”


 40. Uncle George

“On the spot where Kwik Save sprouted up (now the Venus Supermarket), there was a sweet shop run by Uncle George. A young lad had just bought a penny mix and wasn’t watching where he was going, he got knocked over by a push bike and broke his leg. Uncle George put a splint on it before the ambulance arrived.”