From the bizarre true story of a victorian haunting to the weirdest events of the Blitz examined and a tragic Yorkshire murder at Calverly Hall, Leeds has one of the darkest histories on record. From the fatal Dripping Riot of 1865, sparked by the theft of two pounds of congealed fat, to the violin-playing killer Charles Peace, said to still haunt the city’s prison cells, you will find all manner of horrible events inside this book. With plague and disease in the city slums, dreadful disasters in Roundhay Park, and riots in the city center, this is the real story of Yorkshire’s first city.
About the Author
Richard Smyth spent several years as an editor before becoming a freelance writer and researcher. He writes regular articles for magazines including History Today, as well as that publication’s monthly crossword. He also sets the questions for the BBC’s Mastermind, on which he was a finalist in 2008. He organises and hosts a monthly short-fiction event in Leeds and is well known for his contributions to the website My Life in Leeds. He lives in Roundhay.
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Bloody British History: Leeds
By Richard Smyth
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Richard Smyth
All rights reserved.
THE BATTLE FOR BRIGANTIA
THE ROMANS ARRIVED in Britain in the year AD 43; they'd made a previous visit under Julius Caesar just less than a hundred years earlier, but that 'invasion' barely got north of the Thames and can therefore be dismissed as little more than a sight-seeing trip. At this time, the region we now know as Yorkshire was occupied by a tribe of hill-dwelling proto-Yorkshiremen known as the Brigantes, who had come over from Continental Europe in a series of invasions dating back to the fourth century BC.
The Brigantes weren't sure what to make of these road-building, fort-obsessed immigrants. Some liked their style, and established diplomatic links with the Roman governor Ostorius Scapula. Others, less cosmopolitan in outlook, resented the newcomers. Add to this mix a handful of the Welsh border-folk called the Silures, and you have an explosive brew indeed.
In AD 51, eight years after the Roman conquest began, the brew began to fizz. The catalyst was called Cartimandua.
Cartimandua was the queen of the Brigantes and the leader of the pro-Roman faction. When Caratacus, chieftain of the Silures, came to her seeking protection, Cartimandua showed herself to be a true politician: she clapped him in irons and delivered him up to the Romans.
This didn't go down well with Venutius, a formidable Brigantian warrior chief who was famed for his fierce hatred of the Romans. It was unfortunate, therefore, that he happened to be Cartimandua's husband ...
The ensuing marital tiff soon escalated into all-out guerrilla warfare throughout Brigantia. Venutius established an anti-Roman resistance force. In retaliation, Cartimandua kidnapped his family. It soon became evident that a reconciliation was not on the cards. Venutius departed to the Dales, and Cartimandua sought refuge among the Romans: their marriage was over (though it's not known whether the official divorce paperwork was ever completed).
Venutius and his Brigantes went on to begin the construction of a monumental system of forts and defences a little way north of Richmond in North Yorkshire. However, in the year AD 74, the Roman army of Petillius Cerialis unsportingly arrived before the Brigantes were ready, and Venutius's people were driven into the wilderness: those that didn't escape and weren't killed in the fighting probably went on to unrewarding careers as slaves in the Romans' lead mines.
Petillius Cerialis soon made himself at home in the old Brigantian capital of Isurium (now Aldborough, near Boroughbridge). A new era had begun. Brigantia was no more.
Cerialis was replaced soon enough by Sextus Julius Frontinus, who himself got the boot in favour of Agricola in the year 78. Agricola, understandably suspicious of the Brigantes still lurking in the hinterland between York and the Tyne, pondered the situation and finally hit on a solution that only a Roman would think of: he would not wage war; he would build roads!
The construction of the roads from outpost to outpost – Chester to the Solway, Aldborough to Manchester, York to Ribchester, and many others – would have been heavily reliant on the labour of enslaved Brigantes. Agricola's implacable tramp northwards was not entirely without violence – Romans were almost as keen on subduing rebellious natives as they were on building roads – but, as one historian has noted, the new governor was 'gentle as the breath of June' to those who sought only peace with the Romans.
When Agricola was done, the landscape of northern England was not only spanned by new roads but also pocked with Roman fortresses.
So presumably Leeds had one of the grandest of all? Something in keeping with its status as Yorkshire's first city? It has a train station and a Harvey Nichols, after all. You would think it would be the first place the Romans would head to (if only to grab a spot of dinner or to take in a show in between oppressing Brigantes).
But the curious thing about the Romans is that seem to have come to Britain without even the most rudimentary local guidebook. They pretty much bypassed Leeds entirely. Instead, they chose to visit such improbable spots as Castleford, Sowerby and the town that they called Olicana, and that we today call Ilkley. (Ilkley is now best known for its part in what Yorkshire folk regard as their 'national' anthem and everyone else regards as incomprehensible gibberish: 'On Ilkey Moor Baht 'At', a nineteenth-century dialect song in which a young man is warned that, by going courting on the titular moor, he runs the risk of dying horribly from pneumonia and being devoured by worms. Strange, you might think, that such a song has been taken to the hearts of a people as carefree, laidback and cheerful as Yorkshire folk are universally known to be.)
Ilkley, now very much the smaller cousin of the Leeds – Bradford conurbation, had a fort of its very own – and it was no mere ornament. Though fairly small, intended to house only an infantry cohort, it saw plenty of action – serious action.
In 115, the North erupted in revolt against the Roman occupation. The fort at Ilkley – then only a wooden construction – was stormed by the Brigantes and burnt down in the violence. The uprising was so fierce that the Romans felt it necessary to bring troops from mainland Europe in order to subdue (and then punish) the rebels. In the course of these troubles, the IXth Legion at nearby York was either eliminated or somehow disgraced – all we know is that it was replaced in the city the Romans called Eboracum by the VIth Legion.
The dogged Romans rebuilt the fort at Ilkley, this time (sensibly) in stone. But a generation later, the Brigantes were at it again; again they rose up in revolt – again (helped out this time by marauders from north of Hadrian's nice new wall) they destroyed the fort at Ilkley.
When, in 155, the Romans finally succeeded in stamping out this uprising, they were so pleased about it that they had some special commemorative coins minted. They shouldn't have bothered, because in 197 the death of Governor Claudius Albinus triggered yet another outbreak of anti-Roman violence. Ilkey was assaulted yet again; yet again, the fort was knocked about by the Brigantes and their northern allies.
Peace, of a sort, arrived eventually. The years between 200 and 300 were relatively untroubled, and Roman Britain prospered.
It wouldn't last.
One day in the late third century, the Romans in coastal East Yorkshire looked out across the bleak grey expanse of the North Sea, the eternal barrier between Continental Europe and the islands of Britain, and saw ships cutting through the white-edged waves. Pirate ships. The ships of men from beyond the North Sea, of the men of the tribes of the North German plains – the men known as Saxons.
The Yorkshire coast was savagely plundered in pirate raids throughout the final years of the fourth century. The Romans, distracted and weakened by intrigue in their Continental heartlands, were in no condition to resist – particularly as the Pictish and Scottish tribes of the North launched attack after attack across the now-abandoned Hadrian's Wall.
In 410, the Roman Empire had its heart torn out: the Visigoths, rampaging south from their Germanic homelands, put the city of Rome to the sword. The few Romans left in Britain withdrew, shattered and demoralised, to the south. From Scotland and from the sea, a new invasion force swarmed into Yorkshire.
Leeds would eventually flourish amid the savagery – but, with the Empire in ruins and the Saxons rampant, there would be no Romans left in Britain to witness it.CHAPTER 2
RIVER OF BLOOD
PEOPLE WERE FIGHTING battles over Leeds before Leeds was even Leeds. And these were no petty squabbles: the Battle of Winwaed, for instance, was a clash of Christianity and paganism that would decide the destiny of two great kingdoms.
Centuries before the Civil War, Britain was a land divided. The Anglo-Saxon kings had divided the country into a 'heptarchy' of four powerful kingdoms (Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia) and three slightly-less-powerful kingdoms (Kent, Sussex and Essex). But that makes things sound more neat and orderly than they really were. It was a time of conquest and re-conquest, uneasy alliances and violent border skirmishes.
In November 655, the tensions between the kingdoms came to a head. Penda, pagan king of the Midland kingdom of Mercia, was on the rampage. He and the Northumbrian kings had a bloody history. In the summer of 642, Penda's army had smashed the Northumbrians at Maserfield in Shropshire; Oswald, king of Northumbria, had been killed in the battle – and, afterwards, messily dismembered by the Mercians.
Things like that create bad blood. In 655, when Penda and his Thirty Warlords marched north in a bid to consolidate their supremacy, Oswy, Oswald's brother, was there to face him.
Oswy, sensibly, wasn't exactly spoiling for a fight with his brother's butchers. First he tried to pay them off – but the pagan Penda was having none of it. The Mercian king wanted to finish what he'd started at Maserfield, and destroy the Northumbrians 'from the highest to the lowest'.
The Mercian forces laid siege to a Northumbrian stronghold at Iudeu, near modern-day Stirling. It isn't clear how or why the siege was lifted. Tradition says that Oswy, having failed to bribe Penda, instead tried to bribe God instead, pledging to send his daughter to a nunnery and to establish a dozen monasteries – and that God accepted. Historians suspect that, in fact, he renewed his offer of 'an incalculable quantity of regalia and presents' to Penda, and that it was Penda who at last relented, ended his siege, and turned south.
At which point, Oswy regathered his armies and set off in pursuit.
The armies of the two kingdoms clashed at the River Winwaed in November 655. The Winwaed flowed to the north-east of modern-day Leeds, near the suburbs of Whinmoor and Crossgates. It would have been a muddy as well as a bloody scene: heavy rains had swollen the Winwaed and turned the banks of the river to bog. Penda's men, weary from their campaign in the far north, were ill-prepared for further fighting. What was worse, the Welsh forces under Cadafael ap Cynfeddw who had accompanied them to Idueu had now left for home. In fact, some said that they had sneakily abandoned their allies in the night, leaving the Mercians to face the Northumbrians alone – a rumour that earned Cadafael the nickname 'Cadomedd', or 'battle-shirker'. Another so-called ally of the Mercians, thelwald of Deira, son of the late King Oswald, also edged out of the battle.
The Northumbrians, though outnumbered, fell savagely on the Mercians. Exhausted, betrayed, demoralised, foundering in the mud, the Mercian army broke, and ran – only to find the roaring River Winwaed blocking their escape. 'Many more were drowned in the flight,' reported the historian Bede, 'than destroyed by the sword.'
Penda, though, was certainly destroyed by the sword: the last of the great pagan kings had his head hacked off by a Northumbrian warrior. His Thirty Warlords also fell at Winwaed, as did his ally King Æthelhere of East Anglia. The Winwaed, it was said, ran with blood – and the brutal death of King Oswald was avenged.
Winwaed was a turning point in the history of Britain. The long-waning twilight of Anglo-Saxon paganism was finally snuffed out; Christianity, the faith of Oswy, overtook Mercia. Oswy kept his promise to God: twelve monasteries were indeed founded in the wake of the battle (the one at Whitby is perhaps the most famous).
The miserable scrap on the boggy Leeds riverbank also, indirectly, created a saint: it is said that Hereswitha, the sister of St Hilda of Whitby, became a nun – and, eventually, a saint – only after her beloved husband was slain at Winwaed.CHAPTER 3
HUNTED DOWN AND BUTCHERED
– By Their Own King!
THE HISTORY OF the area we now know as 'Leeds' began with what was in some ways a lucky escape – and, in others, one of English history's darkest and most blood-soaked episodes.
When, in October 1066, William the Conquerer (aka William, Duke of Normandy, aka William the Bastard) defeated the army of Harold II at Hastings, it was not so much the beginning of the end as the end of the beginning. William's Christmas Day coronation established the Bastard as king in the minds of the invading Normans. But the men and women of England had other ideas.
And it wasn't only England. Denmark, the historic occupier-cum-ally of England, lurked just beyond the kingdom's boundaries, keen to unsettle the French usurper. These were difficult times for William. They weren't easy for the occupied English, either: the men appointed by William to rule the country (while he popped home to Normandy), Bishop Odo of Bayeux and William FitzOsbern, soon became bywords for oppression and mismanagement.
The first mutterings of revolt were heard in the West Country. In 1068, Exeter boldly refused to submit to the new king. The Norman response was emphatic: the city was attacked and besieged. When hostages were surrendered to William by a Normanite faction within the city walls, the Conqueror had one blinded and the other hanged. Surrender soon followed. The south-west was subdued. Now William was forced to look north.
In spring 1068, according to the Worcester Chronicle, William was informed that 'the men of the North were gathered together and meant to make a stand against him'. The Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which ranged from the Humber to the Tees, had not yet seen any sign of the invaders' army; the Conqueror, it was supposed, could be parleyed with, bargained with, and, in effect, ignored.
They would soon learn otherwise. The Normans, with the Conqueror at their head, began the long march north. This was not a royal procession; it was a military advance.
The Northumbria-bound force paused en route to flex its muscles in the Midland kingdom of Mercia. Here, under the leadership of the Anglo-Saxon Earl Edwin, the natives had been growing restless. The arrival of the formidable Normans put a stop to that.
One of the central pillars of the Norman modus operandi was the construction of castles – lots of castles. The Norman motte wasn't just a practical precaution; it was a powerful, if unsubtle, psychological statement. Such a fortress would dominate the countryside for miles around, especially in flat regions such as Lincolnshire and the fens. It could support a substantial garrison of knights, archers and men-at-arms. Wherever a Norman castle was built, the message was clear: we're in charge now.
Norman castles at Lincoln, Nottingham and (possibly) Leicester were enough to cow the Mercians into submission and obedience.
And so to Northumbria.
In the marshes of the West Riding, Maerleswain, the exiled sheriff of Lincolnshire, had been busily building fortifications in preparation for an uprising. The Northumbrians planned to make their stand on the Aire-Humber frontier: if they could stall the Normans for long enough, reinforcements would surely arrive from Mercia, or perhaps Denmark.
Such resistance was a pipe-dream.
William's attack was fast and fierce. Northumbria was simply not prepared: its ineffectual ruler, Earl Cospatric, fled to Scotland; when the Conquerer entered York, it was as though there had never been a rebellion.
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Table of Contents
AD 51 The Battle for Brigantia 7
AD 655 River of Blood 11
AD 1070 Hunted Down and Butchered-By Their Own King! 14
AD 1152 The Wandering White Monks 19
AD 1399 The Murdered King and the Forgotten Castle 23
AD 1605 Slaughter at Calverley Hall 26
AD 1645 'Thou Shalt Die, Not Live': The Plague Comes to Leeds! 30
AD 1663 Treason and Plot at Farnley Wood 35
AD 1678 The Killing of Leonard Scurr 38
AD 1795 The Black River Rises 41
AD 1809 The Yorkshire Witch 44
AD 1826 Invasion of the Body-Snatchers 48
AD 1831 The Resurrectionists' Return 51
AD 1832 King Cholera Strikes! 57
AD 1835 Horror in Holbeck 63
AD 1837 Fearless Firefighters - or Drunk on Duty? 65
AD 1840 Tragedy in Roundhay 67
AD 1842 The Workers are Revolting! 69
AD 1844 Soldiers Declare War - on the Police! 75
AD 1864 Sargisson and Myers Dance the Last Waltz 79
AD 1865 Disorder, Death and Dripping 83
AD 1884 The Phantom in the Library 87
AD 1910 Panic in the Park 90
AD 1941 Exploding Mummies at the Museum and featuring 93
AD 1642-1643 Tom Fairfax's War between pages 32-33 The Taking of Leeds, the Slaughter on the Moor and the Miracle at Wakefield