The best books on Leeds as it was

The Books I Picked & Why

City Lights: A Street Life

By Keith Waterhouse

City Lights: A Street Life

Why this book?

Waterhouse was famous as a journalist, dramatist, and novelist. But this memoir of growing up in Leeds from the 1930s-50s brings the place and time completely alive. He didn’t have a privileged upbringing, by any means, and Waterhouse captures the day-to-day of poor areas and estates, and well as the magic of the city centre. The novel Billy Liar brought him fame, and while the location was unnamed, it was the Leeds he’d known, right down to the funeral home where he worked after leaving school. Waterhouse innately understood Leeds and its people, and they jump off the page – even if he leaves at the end (something Billy Liar could never bring himself to do). Read this and you’ll carry a magnificent picture of the city in your head.


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A Local Habitation (Life And Times, Volume 1: 1918-1940)

By Richard Hoggart

A Local Habitation (Life And Times, Volume 1: 1918-1940)

Why this book?

Another memoir, but very different to Waterhouse. An academic, Hoggart had already drawn on his Leeds childhood for the seminal text, The Uses of Literacy. This expands on that, fleshing out the bones of the other work. It paints a broader picture of Leeds, overlapping a decade with City Lights. Hoggart has a prodigious memory, and while he can tend to paint the poor, working-class past with rosy colours sometimes, he certainly does evoke a time, seeing the events of the days through a child’s – and adolescent’s – eyes. He made good, going on to university, and getting a grant to travel abroad, but for those times he was a true exception. Between this and City Lights, there’s a full picture of early 20th century Leeds.


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To Prove I’m Not Forgot: Living And Dying In A Victorian City

By Sylvia M. Barnard

To Prove I’m Not Forgot: Living And Dying In A Victorian City

Why this book?

This tells the story, not just of Beckett Street Cemetery, supposedly the oldest municipal cemetery in the UK, but more important of those buried there, both rich and poor (and there are plenty of both). It sits across the road from what was once Leeds Workhouse, and has its share of former inmates from there in unmarked graves. Poignantly, there’s are also many guinea graves, where several are buried on top of each other, names listed on a headstone, all for a guinea (just over a pound). In its tales, this becomes a 19th-century social history of Leeds – there’s even a survivor of the Battle of Waterloo buried there. Not a widely-known book, but it has a wonderful, quiet importance. I have relatives in unmarked, guinea, and regular graves.


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A Lasting Moment: Marc Riboud Photographs Leeds 1954 and 2004

By Marc Riboud

A Lasting Moment: Marc Riboud Photographs Leeds 1954 and 2004

Why this book?

Riboud was already famous when he first arrived in Leeds to document the city in 1954. What his black and white images startlingly portray, though, is a place that could easily still be in the 19th century. He doesn’t go for the great and the good, but searches out ordinary people and children playing in the streets. It’s life among emotional and physical rubble, a contrast to the shiny, bright colours 50 years later (and now also a part of history as time speeds by). It’s searing, starkly beautiful, and the essay by Leeds-born playwright Caryl Phillips adds another dimension. Through the right eye, an image can be worth a thousand words in seeking the soul of a town and its people.


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Images of Leeds 1850-1960

By Peter Brears

Images of Leeds 1850-1960

Why this book?

Another book of photos? Yes, because these, spanning 110 years, capture the changing face of Leeds. So many of the places in these images have gone, just like the faces caught by the camera. Most of the yards and courts, the ginnels that made up the fabric of old Leeds. If Riboud acutely observed the city in 1954, this book illustrates how it reached that point. One image, a view of part of Lower Briggate in the early 1860s, might easily have come from a century earlier, with the low, bowed, battered roofs of the buildings. Another, of slums about to be demolished forms a dark juxtaposition to the bright new council houses of the 1920s as they await tenants. It’s social history for the eyes.


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