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3 Forgotten Stories From Leeds’ Past

· Joseph Sheerin · Culture

From real life witches to pioneering circus owners, these stories should be remembered.

The Leeds Mummy

Leeds has an incredible history – but you may not have heard these long-forgotten stories.

Live in Leeds for long enough and you’ll hear countless stories about its past, but these ones are often forgotten – which is why we’re determined to tell them. Whether it’s the witch-cum-killer that hides in the woods, a bomb-proof Egyptian mummy or a Victorian circus owner who broke down boundaries, spread the word of the city’s long forgotten past.

The Yorkshire witch with a penchant for poison

The spirit of Mary Bateman, also known as the Yorkshire Witch, lives on in this city, and not just because her remains are kept at the University of Leeds. It’s believed she haunts the halls of Thackray Medical Museum, where she was on display for many years.

But how did a Leeds lass become the Yorkshire Witch? You’ll be surprised this isn’t a Hollywood epic. Poor Rebecca Perigo was suffering with mental health issues, so she was told to go and see Bateman, who had a reputation for warding off ‘bad spirits’. It turns out she was the bad spirit. Not only did she become an expert in poisonous potions, she also knocked off her mother and two sisters – yet somehow, she evaded punishment.

After fiddling Perigo and her husband out of a chunk of money, she tried to kill them off, disguising her poison as medicine. She succeeded with Rebecca but not William. He quickly realised that he had been fooled, so he set up a sting operation with local police and they found a secret stash of arsenic. She was sent to trial, found guilty and executed at York just three days later. Quite the story of a woman who has haunted Leeds, both in life and in death.

The pioneering black circus owner loved by The Beatles

Pablo Fanque's gravestone, St George's Field

Credit: Chemical Engineer licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.

Have you heard the one about the first black British circus owner, revered by The Beatles? The life of Pablo Fanque was an incredible one. Slavery had only just been outlawed in England, yet Fanque became a huge hit across the country. His circus was considered to be the best of the Victorian era and the bulk of his shows were in Leeds. He even took part in it himself – he was known for his equestrian tricks and dancing horses.

Born William Darby in Norwich, his life was not without tragedy. His first wife died at the King Charles Croft Amphitheatre on The Headrow when the viewing gallery collapsed during a tightrope performance by one of their sons. It didn’t stop him though, and as his business thrived, so too did his charitable giving – he was known as a generous man who continued to give to the needy until his death in 1871.

His reputation lives on in music, as he was the inspiration behind The Beatles’ song ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite!’ and even featured on the cover of the iconic ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ album. You can show your respect for him to this very day, as his gravestone still stands in St George’s Fields Cemetery at the University of Leeds.

The Leeds mummy that wouldn’t die… again

Egyptian Mummy at Leeds Museum

Credit: Sara Porter on behalf of Leeds Museums and Galleries

The Leeds Mummy has a story to tell – both before and after death. Nesyamun was a high priest at the Temple of Amun in Luxor, the largest religious building in the world. He died in his mid-forties, but in a way, he’s still with us, because his mummy can be found in Leeds City Museum.

A gift to the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society in 1824 by John Blaydes, Nesyamun was one of three Egyptian mummies in Leeds’ collection. But they were all put in Jeopardy when Leeds was bombed in 1941. In the height of World War II, the most damaging night of The Leeds Blitz took out the old Leeds Museum. As a result, the front of the building had to be demolished, and many of the exhibits inside were completely destroyed, including two of the Egyptian mummies.

Nesyamun, however, wasn’t one of them. His coffin was blown right out into the street, but even though the inner coffin lid had been smashed, his remains were remarkably untouched. That’s some luck, and 3000 years after his first life ended, you can still see him on display.