Leeds: An Industrial Past

Leeds, United Kingdom

For about three months now, I’ve been living in the northern city of Leeds in the county of Yorkshire, England. I’m originally from the sunny, industrial beach city of Newcastle in Australia so the transition to another city with an apparent industrial background has been interesting- there are some similarities in both places. Leeds is a student hub, with two major universities and many other colleges dotted around the area. Bars, pubs and nightclubs are everywhere- you can count on at least one event being on every night of the week. But beneath the vibrant student façade of Leeds there are aspects of the grittier, dirtier past of industrial Northern England.

As part of my studies here in Leeds, I’ve been taking a module on the forming of Victorian fiction and literature. The Victorian period was an interesting time in literature, moving away from the Romantics passion for the imagination, value of the natural world and the sublime. Instead, there was a great focus on urban life, the growing divide being rich and poor, and greater emphasis on being realistic. Authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell (famous for the novels North & South, Cranford and Mary Barton) depicted the harsh realities of industry and factory work within industrial cities such as Manchester, whilst the Brontë sisters works featured the isolation of the moors and settings of Northern England. In these authors works there is strong imagery of the harsh, rough conditions that was living in cities such as Leeds or Manchester during the 19th century. The art world also saw an
emphasis on reflecting the world around them with accuracy and attention to detail, due The Doctor exhibited 1891 by Sir Luke Fildes 1843-1927in part to the expanding wealthy middle classes expectation for art to be ‘correct’ (though this attention to detail fell out of favour towards the end of the 19th century due to artists not wanting to depict the harsh realities of life). Death, illness and sickness were depicted by artists at the time, an example of which is seen through Luke Fildes, “The Doctor” (1891) showing a doctor sitting beside a very sick child. The dark background, and illumination in the painting coming only from the small lamp on the table emphasises the sobriety of the scene. This image would have been a common reality during the Victorian era (estimates show 57 out of every 100 children died before the age of five in Manchester in 1840). Through this expanding depiction of the dark, poverty stricken environments of Northern England especially through art and novels such as Mary Barton, Jane Eyre, North and South that I have formed a stronger connection to place in Leeds. The Industrial Revolution saw Leeds grow due to railway, furthering its established weaving factories, as well as introducing links between other major industrial towns and cities. Through studying Jane Eyre, the title character visits a fictional city briefly called Millcote which is believed to have been based upon Leeds. Connecting these small instances through my course to the location I am living in has been so fascinating, and I believe, strengthened my understanding of the novels themselves (some of which I had read before in Australia), but also my understanding of place within Leeds itself.

Examples of the industrial past of Leeds are most clearly seen through the blackened sandstone buildings around the city. Even the beautiful town hall is darkened, a visual sign of the pollution of industry that plagued the city up until recently. Throughout the city and even in suburbs, churches and houses all have the same tarnished sandstone exteriors, something which I’ve not seen so often in cities in the south of England. Today, Leeds has shifted from its industrial heritage, only traces of its rougher, ashwood_centre_city_church_leeds_headingley_lane_-_dsc07652steely past are still present- perhaps seen through gritty street art and graffiti tagging or converted warehouses and factories into offices, apartments and even nightclubs (shoutout to Regression Sessions at the Canal Mills). Leeds is now, more than ever, a city of people from across the UK, but more broadly filled with international students, taking in the beauty of what Leeds is, with at least a pint (or ten) in between classes. It’s been really interesting for me personally to be learning about the past of the area of England I’m living in for this short time, and being able to feel connected to the place. I feel like a part of me will definitely miss Leeds when I go home!

If you got this far hahaha thanks for reading,

Amelia xx



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