Archive for April, 2020

A Lifetime’s Happy Relationship with the Leeds City Centre

April 1, 2020

A Lifetime’s Happy Relationship with the Leeds City Centre.
As life moves remorsefully on so does ones demands for the delights of the city centre. I aim to divide these demands into the evolving phases of ‘going down to town.’
My earliest memory of ‘town’ was of being taken at my mother’s hand at the tender age of about three or four years old. It was wartime and there had been some bomb damage. The huge Burton’s tailoring outlet on Briggate had been on fire and I could see through into the interior where a mannequin had not been removed it was all blackened and blistered and I thought it was a real person. That vision has stayed with me for almost eighty years and one must flinch for those children in the war zones today who are seeing such sights for real.

My next memory is a happier one. We had been under blackout restrictions for the duration of the war but in 1945 we had ‘VE Day’ (victory in Europe) and on one particular day all the lights in the centre of Leeds were to be switched on together. I was taken down to see the event by members of the family, the idea was to get to City Square but the crowds were so dense, shoulder to shoulder down Vicar Lane and Briggate, we never got past the Corn Exchange and as it was such a crush public transport was not able to run we had to walk all the way home but what a sight when all the lights went on together I had never seen a neon sign before it was well worth the long walk home.

The next phase in my relationship with the city centre was of being ‘taken to town’ for treats by my lovely aunties. They would do a bit of fashion shopping and then we would go for a meal in one of the restaurants, I recall Atkinson’s on Eastgate, Hitchin’s, Collinson’s Betty’s Scofield’s Mathias Robinson’s Marshall and Snelgrove’s, all the large department stores had a café some even had an orchestra. These trips usually ended up with a visit to one of the city centre cinemas there were many: The Paramount/Odeon, Ritz (ABC), majestic/Scala (they played the same film), Tower, Assembly Rooms, Gourmont, Tattler, Gaumont and the News theatre which showed the news and mostly cartoons. There was a wonderful selection. Once again I have a lasting memory of a film on one of those, film going occasions about a ventriloquist and his dummy and the dummy gradually took over.

Moving to schooldays we would often be bussed to town to take in a symphony concert at the Town Hall or the Belgrave Hall or for things like road safety demonstrations. Sometimes a friend and I would catch the number 61 bus which stopped outside the Leeds Central Public Library and we would haunt the shelves for early science fiction books: H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne and in particular I remember our favourite: The Angry Planet by John Keir Cross about a trip to Mars. Around the end of the 1940s I managed to get selected for trials with the Leeds City Boys football team which were held at Oldfield Lane but for the first four or five weeks the ground was frozen hard so we could not play instead a whole group of us went back down into Leeds and had pea soup in Lewis’s department Store (magically we remained friends for life) This was not the John Lewis Store that is newly in the centre of Leeds, It was a huge four or five story store on the Headrow, which often had exhibitions, I remember Mussolini’s armoured car being on display and another time there was thousands of budgies in cages. Lewis’s also had a boy’s club who wore badges and went on trips. It was the centre point we all made for. It was a bit like Grace Brothers in ‘Are You being served?’ but the staff were rather more normal. It was said that at the time it was the largest department store in Yorkshire. It’s a beautiful building and still there but the ground floor is shared by a number of outlets: Sainsbury’s, Argos, TK. Max, Home Sense etc.
For the next phase I’m going to say, theatre going. There were four major theatres in central Leeds in the 1950s: The Grand Theatre, The Theatre Royal the City Varieties (The Verts) and The Empire. They all held pantomimes around Christmas time. The Grand was probably the ‘glossiest’ with its high class décor including the beautiful crystal chandelier hanging from the centre of the ceiling. I recall the smell of expensive cigar smoke and a usual chorus line of tulip haired girls ‘sunbeams’ The Theatre Royal usually showed repertory company plays, it was only five pence for the opening night on Mondays and was usually attended by gaggles of girls of our age which dominated our attention.
The ‘Verts’ was the risqué one which showed nude tableaus. The artists had to stay still which they said made it classical but ‘if they move it’s rude’ We used to flock in to see Phyllis Dixie who did her act behind a union Jack and Jane with her dachshund, who had a cartoon strip in one of the daily tabloids and did her act behind strategically held feathers. The Empire was our favourite; we would queue down King Edward Street every Friday night to see pop stars of the day perform: Frankie Lane, Frankie Vaughan, Tommy Steel, Billy Daniels, Billy Exstein, Jonny Ray, Alma Cogan, Lita Rosa, Ronnie Hilton, Dickie Valentine etc. They all wore smart Barathia suits in those days. We never saw Elvis Pressley he never performed in England but we did see the Beatles perform at the Queen’s Hall; an old tram shed in Swinegate, around 1963/64. Incidentally they had some of their equipment nicked while they were performing.

Of course the favourite phase of all was the teenage years of dance and booze. I have related the pubs of central Leeds elsewhere on this site so I will concentrate on the dancing years here, wonderful nights under the glitter ball at The Scala, The Majestic, The Mecca, 101, Mark Altman’s, The Central School of Dancing. Of course preceded by a lubrication in the: King Charles, The Vine, The Horse and Trumpet, The General Elliot, The Piccadilly bar or wherever you met up with your mates. (The Astoria, Capital, and the public baths had great dances too but they were outside the city centre.)

The final phase of my relationship with the Leeds City Centre is occurring right now in the present. In retirement I park up a couple of miles out of town and wander down on foot untidily clad in boots and anorak with my knapsack on my back, the shirt and tie is long discarded to the wardrobe. The Trinity Centre and The John Lewis Centre are far too rich for my apparel now, I’m sure the commissionaire would have a fit if I dared to enter Harvey Nicks dressed like this but I’m comfortable in The Merion Centre, The St John’s Centre the Pound Shops and the Pound Bakeries and I go enter one of the beautiful central squares: City Square, Park Square, Queens Square, Blenheim Square or perhaps the Parish Church Gardens and unzip my haversack and enjoy my flask of coffee and whatever goodies I have acquired at the shops along the way and I’m as happy with the good old Central Leeds as I have ever been and the cycle is complete.


Oh Dear! Temporally on hold for Coronavirus.