A Local History Walk Around Leeds’s Civic Quarter

Description and route map

An easy one-mile walk around Leeds’s Civic Quarter, beginning and ending in Park Square. Leave the Square by the north-east exit and turn right onto the Headrow passing the Town Hall, Library and Art Gallery. Turn left onto Cookridge Street passing St Anne’s Cathedral on the right. Cross Great George Street and walk up into Millennium Square. Go past the front of the Civic Hall and then left into Mandela Garden. Walk behind the Town Hall and along Great George Street past Leeds General Infirmary. Finally, turn left down Park Street, cross the Headrow and return to Park Square.

1. Park Square

The north-west quarter of what is now Leeds City Centre was once an area of mediaeval parkland, stretching from the River Aire to the Headrow, which by the eighteenth century formed the Park Estate of the wealthy Wilson family. Echoes of its existence remain in the names of Park Square, Park Row, Park Street and Park Lane.

The Wilsons developed the area in the late eighteenth century by building a series of residences for wealthy merchants, doctors and lawyers, including those which now stand on the north, west and east of Park Square. The architecture is typically Georgian in character. Famous former residents include: Sir Clifford Allbutt (inventor of the clinical thermometer), Sir Berkeley Moynihan (doctor who pioneered the use of surgical gloves) and Joshua Tetley (founder of Tetley’s Brewery).

Park Square

2. St Paul’s Church

The south side of the Square was once dominated by St Paul’s Church, founded by Christopher Wilson, Bishop of Bristol, in 1793. The church’s pews were rented out to the wealthy residents of the Square. It was demolished in 1905 to make way for the building which now stands its place, formerly Rivers House (home of the Environment Agency) and now Park Square Residence apartments.

The only traces of the church’s former existence are found in names of St Paul’s House (number 23 Park Square), St Paul’s Street (which runs behind the south of the Square) and Vicarage Chambers (number 9, the former vicarage).

St Paul’s Church

3. St Paul’s House

On a site previously occupied by cottages, St Paul’s House was erected in 1878. It was designed by architect Thomas Ambler for Sir John Barran. Barran was a textile magnate who pioneered the mass production of ready-made clothing by the use of large cutting machines to cut several layers of cloth at once which were then stitched together. This was a radical break from the previous method of individually tailoring each length of cloth. The building is Venetian-Moorish in style and reminiscent of the Doge’s Palace in Venice.

St Paul’s House
Doge’s Palace, Venice

4. The Dripping Riots

In 1865, Henry Chorley (8 Park Square) sacked his cook, Eliza Stafford, after he caught her stealing dripping from his pans. He had her prosecuted and jailed for the offence. His harsh treatment of Eliza caused such a backlash that a large crowd rioted outside his house. A man was killed during the commotion and the army had to be called in to disperse the crowd.

Click here for my post about the Dripping Riots.

5. The Headrow

The Headrow once marked the northern edge, or head, of mediaeval Leeds. Now known as just the Headrow, it was once made up of Park Lane, Burley Bar, Upper Head Row and Lower Head Row.

6. Leeds Town Hall

In 1850, it was decided that Leeds needed a large public hall that matched its status and prosperity. A competition was held to find a suitable design which was won by a little-known 29-year old architect called Cuthbert Brodrick from Hull. He was vouched for by Sir Charles Barry, the Houses of Parliament architect, and was awarded the contract. The Town Hall’s most distinctive feature, the clock tower, was originally rejected for being too expensive but a decision was taken to add it at a late stage in construction.

The building was largely constructed out of locally-quarried stone but the columns were made from Derbyshire gritstone. The famous lions, which were a later addition, are carved from Portland stone and were modelled on a lion at London Zoo.

The Town Hall was opened in 1858 by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as they travelled north en route for Balmoral. They were greeted on their arrival by an estimated crowd of ½ million.

The Town Hall formerly housed the assize courts and, beneath the external steps at the front of the building, are the cells of the bridewell.

Brodrick went on to design several more prominent buildings in Leeds, including the Mechanics’ Institute (seen later in the walk) and the Corn Exchange.

Queen Victoria opening Leeds Town Hall, 1858

7. Jubilee Hotel

Directly opposite the Town Hall is the old Jubilee Hotel, Leeds’s last surviving gin palace but now badly in need of a facelift. It was recently purchased at auction for £1.9 million but it is not clear what its new owners plan to do with it.

Jubilee Hotel

8. The Leeds Blitz

This area of Leeds came under attack during a German bombing raid on the night of 14/15 March 1941. Traces of shrapnel damage can be still be seen, most obviously on the low wall at the corner of the Headrow and Calverley Street. The worst-hit building in the centre of Leeds was the Museum, which was then situated on Park Row.

Shrapnel damage on the corner of Calverley St

9. Leeds Central Lending Library

The building which now houses the library was opened in 1884, originally as municipal offices to support the work of the Town Hall. It was designed by George Corson and is particularly notable for its ornate marble and tiled interior, much of which still remains.

Ornate interior of Leeds Central Library

10. Pearl Assurance Building

On the opposite side of the Headrow to the library is the old Pearl Assurance Building. Its most striking feature is the statue on the roof of Patrick James Foley. Born in Leeds in 1836, Foley founded the company and later became MP for Galway. He gives his name to the ground floor Foley’s Tap Bar.

Statue of Patrick James Foley

11. Leeds Art Gallery

The gallery opened in 1888 and was funded by public subscription collected to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887. The Tiled Hall Café now occupies the former sculpture gallery. The building is linked to the Henry Moore Institute named in honour of Leeds School of Art’s most famous graduate, Henry Moore. His statue of a reclining woman can be seen outside the gallery.

Leeds Art Gallery, with Town Hall beyond

12. War memorial

The war memorial was originally erected in City Square but moved to its current site in 1937. The sculptor was Henry Charles Fehr. Note the owls around the plinth. They are part of the heraldry of Leeds being on the coat of arms of the family of Leeds’s first alderman, Sir John Savile, and can be found all over the city. Nearby are plaques dedicated to the Leeds Pals, who sustained terrible losses during the First World War, and the Leeds recipients of the Victoria Cross.

War Memorial

13. Permanent House (Brown’s/The Light)

The building now occupied by Brown’s restaurant, forming part of The Light, was once the headquarters of the Leeds Permanent Building Society, Permanent House. Brown’s is stated inside what used to be the banking hall.

The former Leeds Permanent House

14. Leeds Cathedral (formerly the Cathedral Church of St Anne)

The original Catholic cathedral stood where Permanent House now stands but was demolished to make for the latter around the turn of the 20th century. The current cathedral was opened in 1904. The skulls of two executed Catholic martyrs, Blessed Peter Snow and Ralph Grimston, are kept as relics inside the cathedral. They were executed in York on 15 June 1598. Their faces were digitally reconstructed in 2005 using the latest techniques developed by The University of Dundee.

Reconstructed faces of Peter Snow (left) & Ralph Grimston

15. Mechanics’ Institute (Leeds City Museum)

The Mechanics’ Institute was designed by Cuthbert Brodrick in 1865 for use as a technical training centre. Its central lecture theatre was known as the Albert Hall and was later used as the Civic Theatre. It is now the central arena of Leeds City Museum which moved there in 2008. The museum’s most famous exhibits are the Leeds Tiger and the 3,000-year old mummy of Egyptian priest Nesyamun.

Leeds Museum

16. The Electric Press/Carriageworks Theatre

This development was originally the home of the West Riding Carriage Manufactory (hence the name of modern-day Carriageworks Theatre) and printers Chorley & Pickersgill who are famous for railway travel posters which are now collectible items.

Electric Press and Chorley & Pickersgill poster

17. Leeds Civic Hall

The Civic Hall is the city’s administrative centre, containing the council chambers and Lord Mayor’s room. Designed by Vincent Harris, it was opened in 1933 by King George V. It is decorated with golden owls and there is an ornate clock on each side with tortoises around the dial. There are a number of theories for their inclusion. One story goes is that they refer to an apprentice clock-maker who worked so slowly that he was nicknamed ‘the tortoise’. They may also symbolise the slow and steady march of time.

Golden decorations of Leeds Civic Hall

18. Mandela Gardens

Originally created in 1983 as a show of support for the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, they were rededicated by Mandela himself when he visited Leeds in 2001. The sculpture “Both Arms” by Kenneth Armitage of Leeds represents reconciliation. The present garden display recreates Leeds’s entry into the Chelsea Flower Show of 2004 entitled “Freedom for the Future”. The flower beds contain both British and South African flowers and the “Freedom Path” contains the footprints of schoolchildren from Leeds and Durban.

Mandela Gardens

19. Victoria Family and Commercial Hotel

This was built in 1865 as a 28-room hotel to accommodate visitors to the Assizes Court at the Town Hall.

Victoria Hotel

20. Leeds General Infirmary

There has been an infirmary in Leeds since 1771, the original one being sited in Infirmary Street. The site in Great George Street was opened by Prince Albert in 1869. Its design incorporated the latest ideas of the day, including those of Florence Nightingale who advocated the so-called pavilion-style of wards with high ceilings (although this made the hospital difficult and expensive to heat). It was also one of the first hospitals in Europe to use mechanical hoists to help lift patients.

Leeds General Infirmary

21. St George’s Church

The church was consecrated in 1838 and is now best known for St George’s Crypt which provides services to the homeless. The original spire blew down in a terrible storm in 1962 and was not replaced until 2006.

St George’s Church

22. Number 33 Park Square

This was formerly the home of both Louis Le Prince and Sir Berkeley Moynihan. Le Prince (1841 – 1890) made the world’s first-ever moving picture at Roundhay in 1888 (click here to view). Moynihan (1865 – 1936) was an abdominal surgeon who founded the British Voluntary Euthanasia Society and pioneered the use of surgical gloves.

Roundhay Garden Scene

23. Number 35 Park Square

This building once housed the consulting rooms of Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt (1836 – 1925), a doctor who is best known for inventing the modern clinical thermometer, reducing its length from a cumbersome – and uncomfortable! – 12 inches to six. He was also a friend of novelist George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) and was the inspiration behind the character of Dr Lydgate in Eliot’s great novel ‘Middlemarch’.

Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt

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