A Lifetime’s Happy Relationship with the Leeds City Centre


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.

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9 Responses to “A Lifetime’s Happy Relationship with the Leeds City Centre”

  1. Doug Farnill Says:

    Once again, Pete, thank you for leading this tour of memories. It is nearly 70 years since I was a lad in Leeds but I can still recall some of the places you visited. Most vivid among my memories is of the Leeds Market with its sights and smells. It was a treat just to walk around there amid the throngs of people, and sometimes for a treat there would be a cup of tea and a buttered scone at a little cafe in there. My Dad would often go to the Market on Saturday afternoons in the late 1930’s, and sometimes he would bring home a big stick of celery and then followed a family ritual of breaking off a stem, dipping the end deep into a bowl of salt and chewing off the end. We would repeat until our whole stick had been consumed and we must have eaten pounds of salt, moreover the crunching sounds must have been heard all over street. So, do you see what happens when you stir up these reminiscences?

  2. John Holloway \(Stronsay\) Says:

    Thanks Peter – just a bit before my time, but several shops and buildings I remember from the early 1950s there – Lewis’s toy department in that huge shop, and I think the Astoria cinema where my class went to see the ‘Conquest of Everest’ film. I can remember that the cinema was right at the top of the hill in the centre of Leeds but not absolutely sure of it’s name – maybe The Majestic? What I remember most when raking about my years in Leeds (mostly East End Park and Easy Road area) was collecting ‘Fag Packets’ – and what an array of types there was! Turf were the last to have cigarette cards although it had to be cut out from the inside – and the illustration was just blue on a white background. Very cheap! I don’t remember quite when Brooke Bond started their cards in Tea packets – around 1955 I think – but I was living in Gillingham by then where there was very little interest in cigarette cards – all the young boys seemed to collect ‘Inn Signs’ which makes me now wonder – they could not possibly have collected the cards themselves as children were not allowed in pubs! A clever ploy – you can imagine every evening dozens of husbands saying ‘I’m just off to get young Johnnie a new Inn Sign card love. Shan’t be late’ ! The signs were only for pubs which were linked to the ‘Whitbread’ chain of pubs, which as far as I can remember meant the vast majority of them in that area of Kent!

    Happy days. Hope you are keeping safe from the virus. Best wishes John & Sue Holloway.

  3. peterwwood Says:

    Thanks for you comment, John. I wonder if the cheap cigs you mention were the ‘Pashers’? . The Astoria was a dance hall not a cinema. John but goold try its marvellous you remember at all after all these years. Hope you are both well too. Pete.

  4. taskerdunham Says:

    I just caught the end of this, moving to Leeds in 1968, but there are still things I can relate to.

  5. Eric Says:

    Another great trip down memory lane Pete. I also used to be well acquainted with central Leeds having wandered it’s highways & byways , 5 days a week whilst at school there.
    Worthy of mention are the arcades, the majestic County Arcade housing the Mecca ballroom , the Queens with it’s myriad small business’ located on the little balconies running on either side , Thornton’s Arcade with it’s automaton clock , the Grand with it’s pet shop housing a small menagerie & Schofield’s which ran from Lands Lane , made a right angle turn & emerged into the Headrow.
    You mention many of the old dep’t stores and there was also Woolworth’s, located where House of Fraser is now but was later between Queen’s & Thornton’s arcades, only to close & be replaced by Boots , around the late 60’s I think. Before all that, it used to be a store selling utility clothing & camping equipment called I think, Mollet’s
    Another iconic watering hole was the old Kardoma coffee house at the corner of Briggate & Albion St.
    Where St John’s Ctr is now located, was a large car showroom (Rowland Wynn’s) which is where I first saw the Austin/Morris “Mini” , an automotive marvel at the time.
    For those of us of a certain age , central Leeds holds lots of memories & you’ve encapsulated many of them so, well done once again

  6. peterwwood Says:

    I have sadly to relate that Vera Belshaw, contributor to this site, passed away on the 22nd of march at the good old age of 92. She was probably our most senior contributor.

  7. Eric Says:

    seeing the photo of the old Lewis’ store & it’s corner entrance reminds me of an hilarious incident befalling an old friend of mine.
    On his way to night school ,he hopped from the open platform at the rear of the old West Riding bus that was speeding down the Headrow.. He obviously misjudged the speed & timing a staggered toward the corner entrance in the photo. Just as he arrived there & hoping to rescue his high speed staggering , someone opened the door in his path , Jack went straight through & went headlong down the steps into what was then the food dept , finally crashing to a halt on the biscuit counter.
    Everytime I see that entrance, I relive that belly laugh it produced at the time

  8. beaumont.de@gmail.com Says:

    Hello Pete, How you coping with this self isolation. You managing to find plenty to do. Guess your daily exercise plus walking the dog are keeping you sane. . I’m missing having my girls coming for a chat. We have always been very close and done things together. My middle grandson is the worst. He is not used to being told – ‘you can’t do’ and he is being a pain! (27 on 2.5.20) Taking it out on his Mum. He, his brother and Lenise are all working from home, my son in law, who works at the auction has been laid off and does a bit of ‘barbering’for friends and relatives so that has had to cease has been practicing his Sax and Flute. For some reason my daughter is complaining. While I remember, I didn’t manage to open that post you sent me last month so if you can pop it in the post please. There are going to be some lovely gardens up and down the country, my eldest daughter, Sharon and her husband are working on their garden. They had been going to have it redesigned but have decided to have a go at doing it . I just hope they don’t tackle anything that is beyond them, don’t want them hurting themselves. Wood end Nurseries is taking orders (on line and over the phone) and delivering to an assigned place at the delivery address. The order to be paid at the time of ordering. That should help to keep people busy. Hope you are managing to do your shopping – keeping your distance . We are British, we like (?) a challenge? We CAN do this! Take care Pete, and keep smiling. Love E

    Sent from my iPad


  9. Edward Blackwell. Says:

    Not been down into Leeds City Centre, for more years than I care to remember Pete. I used to walk down into the Market when I was young to get fresh fish. I also spent time looking for back numbers of Eagle Comics a Guy had a barrow with second hand comics for sale, in the market, I also spent many mornings in King Edward street waiting for Hobbies shop to open to buy Balsa Glue and tissue to build my model planes. I remember going to Lewis’s to join a club, I think it was called The Boys Own Club, and sitting for what seemed ages in an office, until a Lady come out with a badge and said your now a member, but it didn’t mature into anything positive. I used to work for Wally Dunn as you’ll recall, and take suits for making to a tailor’s who had a workshop above Watson and Cairn’s, and you went up some steps in the Whip Pub Yard to get to it. When I was older I remember seeing “Oklahoma, Carousel, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, at the Tower Cinema, I enjoyed the Musicals in those days, and of course queuing outside the Odeon and the old Ritz to see the epics. I enjoyed sharing the trip to Leeds City Centre with you Pete great memories.

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