Leeds has a history stretching back over 800 years, so you won’t be surprised to find out that this city has plenty of secrets up its sleeve…
From the invention of the mouse trap to sheep grazing on rooftops and museums that hold the world’s largest animal armour, Leeds has many stories to tell. And even if you’ve lived here all your life, you probably haven’t heard them all. So let us introduce you to 55 intriguing things you might not know about our brilliant city.
1. We’ve been flying for over a century
The Blackburn Type D is the oldest flying aeroplane in Britain and it was made right here in Leeds. Robert Blackburn built his one seat monoplane for Cyril Foggin in 1912, just a decade after the Wright Brothers’ famous first flight. And remarkably, it still flies to this day, but you have to go to the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire to see it.
2. We made the UK’s most expensive furniture
The most expensive piece of furniture ever sold in Britain was designed by Thomas Chippendale. The Leeds-born cabinetmaker’s Harrington Commode was sold for an incredible £3.8 million at Sotheby’s in 2010. It’s a fine example of the work that has made Chippendale one of the most revered furniture makers of all time – you’ll find other pieces, like the Marquetry Commode above, in museums around the world.
3. We gave the world Cluedo
The creation of Cluedo is no mystery. Birmingham musician Anthony E. Pratt used his love of detective novels to make the first version of the game, originally called Murder! in 1944. He was soon introduced to master board game makers Waddington’s, who were then based in Leeds. They saw it was a winner right away and agreed to produce it under the new name of Cluedo – but they had to wait until 1949 to release the first board due to material shortages in post-war Britain.
4. The 2nd ever Ryder Cup (and first in Europe) was held in Leeds
The Ryder Cup came to Leeds – you read that right. Back in 1929, the world’s best battled it out at Moortown Golf Club for the most famous prize in the game. It took place in April, but there was nothing springlike about it, as snow and cold weather hindered play. The home territory benefited the Great British team, led by George Duncan, who dispatched the USA team 7-5.
5. Leeds is the capital of rooftop grazing
The Grade I-listed Temple Works is well known for its Ancient Egyptian design, but it wasn’t just an architectural masterpiece, it was also a flax mill. To maintain the humidity within, they grew grass on the roof which they kept under control with a herd of grazing sheep – they even invented the first ever hydraulic lift just to get them up there.
6. Leeds came out of WW2 better than other cities
Leeds was a vital cog in the Second World War effort. The factories and mills were vital in helping to supply both the nation and the army overseas, but surprisingly, we didn’t suffer nearly as badly as other UK cities – only 197 buildings were destroyed and just 77 people died as a result of bombs.
7. We gave the world M&S
Back in 1884, Michael Marks opened up a penny bazaar stall in Leeds Kirkgate Market. A decade later, he enlisted the help of Tom Spencer to grow the business and they went from strength-to-strength. Soon after, M&S moved to a permanent spot just around the corner in the Market and the rest, as they say, is history.
8. We put a Sheep(shanks) on the moon
The Sheepshanks family were one of the most influential woollen manufacturers in Leeds, but two members of the family were more interested in the stars than the earth. Richard was a keen astronomer and his sister Anne was an honorary member and benefactor of the Royal Astronomical Society. The latter was so well regarded by the institution, she has a crater on the moon named after her, one of the few named after a woman.
9. Leeds changed the world with x-ray crystallography
One of the most important scientific progressions of the 20th century occurred at the University of Leeds. William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg discovered the structure of crystals using x-ray technology. This momentous finding helped pave the way for all manner of new discoveries in the years to come, including work on the structure of DNA.
10. Leeds is home to the UK’s last gas lit cinema
They don’t make cinemas quite like they used to – and the Hyde Park Picture House is the perfect example. It opened in 1914, just before World War One broke out, and is the last surviving gas-lit cinema in the UK. It retains many of its original features, like the external ticket booth, barrel-vaulted ceiling and ornate balcony, which makes it quite the setting to watch the latest films.
11. We can blame Leeds United for being skint
And no, not just because of the ticket prices at Elland Road. Leeds United, after pinching Real Madrid’s kit colours in the sixties to swap from blue and yellow to all white, decided they’d go one step further in 1975. They were the first club to create replica shirts that fans could wear. Over four decades on, you’ll have to fork out £50 a piece to complete your collection.
12. We drew the first county maps of England
Christopher Saxton was the Royal cartographer to Elizabeth I. The Tingley native and resident was responsible for the first ever county maps of England and Wales. He set out with the latest surveying technology of the time to draw each one and every county of the period had its own double page map in the Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales, which was published in 1579.
13. Leeds left its mark on Washington DC
Born in Fulneck to a Moravian Church leader, Benjamin Henry Latrobe became one of the most important architects in the early history of America. He designed the Green Spring mansion and the Virginia State Penitentiary, but his most impressive work is still in use – he was responsible for the United States Capitol Building and The White House Portico, which he designed at the same time as being Chief Engineer in the US Navy.
14. A local Leeds paper once had a famous writer
Karl Marx’s legacy is chequered, even if his principles were based on solid ideas. But did you know that he once wrote for the chartist Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser newspaper? It’s not often that one of the most influential people in modern history writes for the local rag, which would close in 1852.
15. The first black FA Cup finalist played for Leeds United
Over the course of the 1960s, Albert Johanneson broke down more barriers than any other footballer ever had before. The Leeds United winger was a South African, and he became one of the most high profile black footballers to have ever played in the top flight of British football. As the first black African FA Cup finalist in United’s 1965 defeat to Liverpool, he was a true trailblazer of the game.
16. We were better than Bradman
It is widely thought that Donald Bradman, the Aussie cricketing legend, is the best test cricketer of all time, but a lad from Fulneck near Pudsey gave him a run for his money. Sir Leonard Hutton, a Yorkshire mainstay and a former England captain, broke Bradman’s Test innings record of 334 by 30 runs, holding the record for twenty years. He was one of the greats.
17. Leeds is home to the first ever commercial railway
Leeds is home to the oldest continuously working public railway in the world. Middleton Railway was originally opened in 1758 to move coal, but you can still take a ride on it to this day. It’s the same mile-long journey as it was 260 years ago and it will take you from Moor Road to Park Halt station, where there’s a museum to explore.
18. We founded historical philology
You may not have heard of him, but Richard Bentley, an Oulton born academic, was one of the most important classical scholars and critics in history. He translated and reappraised a number of classical texts by Phalaris, Themistocles, Socrates, Euripides and Aesop, causing plenty of controversy in the process. His processes led to the founding of historical philology, which is the study of language in historical works.
19. We once had hippos in our midst
The idea that hippos once patrolled The Headrow isn’t a fanciful Spielberg blockbuster. Back in 1984, by the site of the present Armley Gyratory, the bones of an ancient hippo were discovered – and they’re thought to date back up to 130,000 years old. And you can see them for yourself as they can now be found in Leeds City Museum.
20. Leeds has made literary giants
Leeds has given the world a series of literary greats. Alan Bennett’s plays like ‘Talking Heads’ have made him a national icon, while Barbara Taylor Bradford has sold over thirty million copies of ‘A Woman of Substance’. Poet and playwright Tony Harrison is famous for his controversial work ‘V’ and Arthur Ransome penned ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in his hometown. Even J.R.R. Tolkien lived here, just a few years before he began ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
21. But it was hated by another
Back in the 19th century, renowned authors often took a tour of the country to read extracts from their books and promote their works. Charles Dickens was no different, and he visited the city on plenty of occasions. He was clearly taken with the city – but in the wrong way, describing it as ‘an odious place’. Even the greats aren’t always right.
22. Leeds is home to the world’s largest animal armour
The Royal Armouries has the biggest example of animal armour in the world. The 16th-century elephant armour was brought back to Britain in 1801 by the former wife of the Governor of Madras from India. It weighs a staggering 118 kilograms, comprises 5,840 plates and has been on display in the Leeds museum since 1996.
23. Leeds predicted riots before the Kaiser Chiefs
They may not be as famous as some of the other riots of the period, but Leeds had a number of uprisings in the 19th-century as a result of the city’s rapid industrial expansion. The Luddite riots kicked off in 1812 against the progress of the Industrial Revolution. The Chartist Movement had strong ties in Leeds too and led their own riots in 1842 in an effort to improve workers’ rights. Industry wasn’t all plain sailing for the city.
24. We were the first provincial town to have our own stock exchange
Stocks have been traded in Leeds since the mid-1700s. In fact, demand was such that the Leeds Stock Exchange Association was formed in 1844. It set up shop on Albion Street, where you’ll find the Pinnacle offices today, and soon other cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle followed suit. It lasted as long as 1973, when London eventually took over.
25. Leeds was the original Hollywood
Louis Le Prince is film royalty and Leeds is where it all began. He filmed the first motion pictures in the Roundhay Garden Scene at Oakwood Grange and in Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge in 1888. Though the likes of Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers have been given credit for their roles since, it was Le Prince who importantly set the ball rolling.
26. We gave a ‘Gang of New York’ a member
The name Owney Madden might not mean a lot now – but during Prohibition-era New York it struck fear into the hearts of many a Yankee. Born on Somerset Street (which became the site of Millgarth Police Station before it was knocked down to make way for Victoria Gate) in 1891, Madden sailed to the US in 1903 and into a life of crime. He became one of the leaders of the notorious Gopher Gang – trust us, you wouldn’t have wanted to get on his bad side.
27. Leeds is home to great Victorian engineering
You’d be forgiven for taking the North Eastern Railway Viaduct for granted. However, the arches on Granary Wharf that are now home to some of the city’s coolest bars, restaurants and shops are part of one of the greatest feats of Victorian engineering. The 1500-yard stretch linked the city’s two railway stations together when it was built in 1869.
28. We played a vital role in the Civil War
When Civil War broke out in England in 1642, Leeds was in a tug of war between the Parliamentarians and Royalists as they fought about how the country was governed. The latter held the town until 1643 when they lost an important battle, which is said to have taken place on Briggate. As a result, it was held by the victorious Parliamentary Army until the end of war in 1651.
29. Leeds is home to the tallest maypole in the UK
You don’t hear much about maypoles these days, but Leeds has one to be proud of. The picturesque village of Barwick-in-Elmet in East Leeds is home to the tallest maypole in the UK, standing proudly at 86 foot. So proudly, in fact, that it has been the source of envy for rivalling villages, such as Aberford, whose villagers once tried to steal it. Now, it’s the centrepiece of the Maypole Festival which takes place on the spring bank holiday every three years.
30. Leeds is the inspiration behind Pudsey the Bear
It’s over thirty years since BBC graphic designer, Joanna Ball, was charged with the task of creating a cuddly mascot for Children in Need – and as you might have guessed, the one-eyed bear was named after her hometown, where her grandfather was also the mayor. Pudsey has been present at every telethon ever since.
31. We invented the classic mouse trap
Another inventor laid claim to the first lethal mouse trap a few years earlier, but the classic spring-loaded mouse trap we recognise today was in fact created by a local Leeds ironmonger. James Henry Atkinson invented the Little Nipper and its effectiveness was proven by the fact that the Procter Brothers of Garforth bought the patent from him in 1913 and still make them to this day.
32. Leeds nearly killed Harry Houdini
We all love a pint of Tetley’s in Leeds but the escape artist took his appreciation of a pint a little too far when he accepted a challenge to free himself from a padlocked metal cask of ale. He couldn’t complete the stunt and had to be rescued, proving that even the greatest of tricksters can’t con good old Yorkshire folk.
33. The first black circus master rests in Leeds
The story of Pablo Fanque is an incredible one. He became the country’s first black British circus owner and set up the bulk of his performances in Leeds, where he performed equestrian tricks. His legacy lives on through The Beatles, who included him in the lyrics to ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ and on the cover of ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’. You can still see his final resting place at St George’s Fields Cemetary, here in Leeds.
34. Leeds is the birthplace of Sooty and Sweep
Sooty and Sweep were devised by Guiseley native, Harry Corbett, the nephew of fish and chip shop icon Harry Ramsden. Harry bought his son Matthew the puppet from a Blackpool stall in 1948 – and that’s what inspired the show. It first started in 1952 and is still going to this day as the longest running children’s programme in the UK.
35. Leeds had a Flat Iron Building first
In 1879, The Temperance Hotel, or Leeds Bridge House as it’s now known, was built just on the South side of Leeds Bridge – and though many say it takes inspiration from the Flat Iron Building in New York, it actually preceded it by 23 years. So we pipped the Big Apple to the post, even if their one is still pretty impressive.
36. Leeds’ biggest day of the year was all about the kids
Ever heard of Leeds Children’s Day? You probably haven’t, because it doesn’t happen anymore, but it was once one of the biggest events on the social calendar. It brought thousands of school children and their families together in Roundhay Park for athletic displays and games – becoming a hallmark of post-war Leeds. It’s just a shame that it ended in 1963.
37. Leeds was the birthplace of a particularly unpopular PM
Morley-born Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith became one of the most unpopular PMs in history. His downfall was due to a lack of dynamism and action in the early years of the First World War, despite praise for helping to create the modern welfare state. It led to a new government being formed in 1916 under David Lloyd George – and it all happened behind Asquith’s back.
38. We have a royal hunting ground
William the Conqueror is responsible for the early formation of Roundhay Park. Now one of the biggest urban parks in Europe, back then William passed the lands to the influential De Lacy family, whose successors included John of Gaunt and Henry IV. It was used for hundreds of years as hunting grounds for the various members of royalty who passed through the city, until Leeds City Council purchased it in 1871.
39. We’ve also got a Victorian bear pit
Believe it or not, Leeds once had a Zoological and Botanical Garden. Back in 1840, it was filled with curious plants and creatures – but none were as impressive as the bears. It shut down due to poor visitor numbers in 1858, but you’ll still find the remnants of the old bear pit on Cardigan Road today.
40. We’re lucky to still have a mummy in the city
Priest Natsef-Amun has been in Leeds since 1824, but he used to have a few friends. During the Second World War there were three mummies in the old Leeds Museum on Park Row, but when it was hit by a bomb strike, only one survived – and it’s amazing that he did. The inner lid of Priest Natsef-Amun’s coffin was smashed, but miraculously, his remains were untouched – and you can still see them today.
41. Leeds ground to a halt in the hurricane of ’62
Back in February 1962, just a few months after a tropical storm had battered Ireland and North West England, a hurricane rolled through Yorkshire causing chaos in Leeds and the surrounding towns. Leeds Train Station had to close and Otley Market was shut for the first time in 30 years, but the worst impact was the death of 23-year-old Anita Thrush, a young mum whose chimney collapsed on her.
42. We got cholera – but we also helped to end it
There were three massive outbreaks of cholera in Leeds between 1832 and 1849 – the first saw 200 deaths, the second brought 702 more and the third totalled a staggering 2,000 deaths. But local surgeon Robert Baker saw the squalid conditions people were living in during the 1832 outbreak and was convinced solving this would end the danger of cholera spreading. It took him decades but he eventually persuaded the council to build a proper sewage system in 1850.
43. We’re something of a cannibal city
Nope, not the people, the city itself. Leeds has a habit for swallowing up surrounding towns and villages, taking them into the city boundaries. Since the start of the city’s Industrial Revolution, it has eaten up the likes of Headingley, Horsforth, Meanwood, Farsley, Wortley and Bramley to create the Leeds we know and love today.
44. We have a viaduct that stops in its tracks
Stretching 1,500 yards from Geldard Road to Globe Road, Holbeck Viaduct is a rather odd feature of Leeds. It’s been taken over by nature, and stops suddenly just shy of the city centre – but in the coming years, we’re hoping to see it turned into a garden walkway as part of major redevelopment plans for the Doncaster Monkbridge complex which surrounds it.
45. Leeds helped out Down Under
Reverend Samuel Marsden was born in Farsley in 1765, but he went on to become chaplain to the settlement of Sydney in 1793. That’s not all. He was the first Christian missionary to New Zealand as well as being responsible for bringing the first exported wool to England on his ship, Active, becoming known as a pioneer in the wool trade Down Under.
46. We helped design iconic buildings
Sir Edmund Happold was born in Leeds in 1930, and he went on to become a renowned structural engineer. He had a hand in some of the world’s most famous buildings, from the Pompidou Centre in Paris to the Sydney Opera House, Hyde Park Barracks and Riyadh Conference Centre.
47. We used to have a pretty darn good tram system
Believe it or note, we used to have the exact thing we now want – a tram system. It originally opened in October 1891 and used single-decker horse-drawn trams for a decade, until steam and electric trams were introduced in 1901. It helped to connect the city centre with the then hard-to-get-to suburbs until 1959 – boy, what we’d do to have it back.
48. Leeds has been home to some seriously famous names
It’s not just Keith Lemon and those guys from Kaiser Chiefs. Leeds has been home to some incredibly famous people over the years, from iconic comic Ernie Wise (the other half of Morecambe & Wise), renowned actor Peter O’Toole and notorious drug smuggler turned bar owner, Howard Marks.
49. We owe a lot to a guy called Maurice
Maurice Paynel was the Lord of the Manor at the start of the 13th-century and he set about improving what was then a small, nondescript village – it was he who laid down the first plans for Briggate and the surrounding area in 1207. King John then went on to grant the people of Leeds the ability to do business by their own accord for the first time as a result.
50. Leeds doesn’t just have one library in the city centre
Leeds Central Library is a magnificent building, and useful too, but it’s not the only one in the city centre. The oldest surviving subscription library in the UK can be found on Commercial Street – the Leeds Library was founded in 1768 and its first secretary was Leeds legend Joseph Priestley, who is credited with discovering oxygen.
51. Leeds is home to the most Northern vineyard in England
Don’t panic – there’s not a wonderfully warm part of Leeds you haven’t heard about yet. However, the city is home to England’s most Northern commercial vineyard, in the village of Leventhorpe. On a low-altitude, South facing site, they grow their grapes on a low-altitude, south-facing stretch of land and then use them to make wine just a few yards away.
52. Leeds is home to the longest running West Indian carnival in Europe
Everyone talks about Notting Hill, but the Leeds West Indian Carnival has been going for longer – in fact, it’s the longest running West Indian carnival in Europe. It’s been a part of the city’s cultural calendar since 1967 and it’s still going strong with one of the most colourful, energetic parades you’re ever likely to come across, complete with dancing, live music and street food.
53. We also invented Jelly Tots (and gave NASA a hand)
They’re reminders of our youth but Jelly Tots are also a part of Leeds’ illustrious history. They were invented by accident when Horsforth lad Brian Boffey was messing about with ways to produce powdered jelly – he ended up with a sweet treat we’ve adored for generations. It even led him to work for NASA, who he helped create freeze-dried food for the Apollo space missions.
54. Leeds was the first home of telly darts
Those with long memories might remember the days when some of the best darts players in the world were televised from the Leeds Irish Centre in the ‘Indoor League’. It was the first time they’d been broadcast on TV, and it was recognised with a Leeds Civic Trust blue plaque in 2010, with support from the likes of Stephen Fry, Phil Taylor and Jeremy Paxman.
55. In true Yorkshire fashion, the last flat cap manufacturer in the UK was in Leeds
Flat caps are Yorkshire through and through, so it’s fitting that the very last UK manufacturer of them was based in the industrial heartland of Holbeck. JW Myers were the biggest flat cap maker in the world during the 1920s, but the cost of production was so high that by 2000 they shut up shop and the manufacturing was shipped off to China.Cover image credit Tim Green licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.