On Saturday 4th May Dr. Phil Judkins headed a team of three speakers to deliver on the findings on a project started in 2015 in Wakefield. A group of volunteers from the Wakefield Historical Society became involved in the development of Kirkgate Station, a grade 2 listed building, and its network of local railway tracks. Phil traced the beginnings in the 1830s when a small hut-like station developed with emphasis on the transport links with Leeds, Manchester and eventually with Goole. The primary concern was for transport of freight in the form of coal, grain and building materials. The current building opened in 1841 when passengers were also catered for. We learned about the involvement of different railway companies; construction of bridges and viaducts and the effects of these constructions not only within the immediate surroundings of Kirkgate but also much wider areas around Wakefield.
The second speaker, Ken Rowley, traced developments that related to the human cost regarding early accidents; arguments over what gauge would be suitable not only locally but nationally. Other factors that had to be considered were a workable signalling system; the standardisation of time; structural problems of locomotives; braking systems; and cooperation between railway companies. All this necessitated continuous government intervention through the passing of a number of Acts through the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The third speaker, Lorraine Simpson, showed us the effects of WW1 on Kirkgate station and of its employees. Using knowledge gained from one employee’s diaries who had joined the KOYLI regiment and his subsequent involvement at Thiepval and then the Battle of the Somme.
We learned how he was wounded and shipped home and transported by rail to a hospital in an ambulance train. These had carriages that had been converted to carry the many wounded back to Britain. Lorraine also emphasised the changing nature of railway employees, many now were women in an industry which had been had been dominated by men. They not only staffed signal boxes but also worked in munition factories whose products were then transported to the Front by rail.
Phil rounded off the talk by showing how by the 1980s and 1990s the station was in a state of dereliction through neglect and vandalism. The volunteers’ project along with the involvement of Groundwork, an historical conservation group, helped to rescue the station which was upgraded and refurbished. Thus a station that had been conceived at the start of the revolution in steam locomotion, was saved.
On Saturday 2nd March our guest speaker was Keith Williams Architect, Project Manager and Principal Conservation Officer in Leeds. His knowledge in the growth and development of the city proved to us his obvious affection for the city. His story really begins with the stages of growth during the Middle Ages. Although there is some evidence of Roman and later Anglo- Saxon settlement, the real growth begins with the formation of the manor of Leeds given to Ilbert de Lacy after the Conquest in 1086. The manor was granted borough status in 1207 to Maurice Paynell.
The history of early Leeds is reflected in its street names. First there is Kirkgate, the oldest street in Leeds, which led to the parish church. Under Paynell a new layout began with strips of land on either side of what became Briggate. This was the street that led to the only crossing at the time of the river Aire and where the first market place was located.
The woollen industry first began with emphasis on the setting up of fulling mills which eventually expanded into a flourishing textile industry through the 16th and 17th centuries and indeed up to the 20th century.
With the aid of maps, plans and photos, Keith revealed how Leeds’s wealth increased and that new churches were built such as St John’s in early 1600s and Holy Trinity in 1721. Housing for the working classes were at first ‘back to back’ while the wealthy merchants and industrialists inhabited first Park Square from 1794 then to Little Woodhouse and then Headingly.
Transport links improved starting with the opening of the Leeds and Liverpool canal in 1777 and a railway linking coal seams worked at Middleton was constructed leading to the centre of town and its river. Leeds first rail branch opened linking Selby for steam trains in 1835.
The 19th century saw the rapid growth in engineering as well as in the textile industries. Gotts mill on Wellington Street was the largest woollen mill in the world when opened in 1792. A flax mill in Holbeck known as Temple Works was so called because its owner, John Marshall, had its exterior created to look like a temple at Edfu in Egypt. Matthew Murray had his engineering works nearby which built steam engines.
Such was the rapid growth wealth and population in the 19th century and that the civic leaders reflecting their pride in the town saw to the building of the Town Hall, opened by Queen Victoria in 1857, followed by other public buildings such as the Corn Exchange 1860 and Mechanics Institute 1868 now the Museum. The General Infirmary on Great George St designed by the George Gilbert Scott and layout influenced by Florence Nightingale.
Then onto the 20th century and new streets, shopping arcades and department stores were created.
Keith’s fascinating talk also produced some interesting facts Leeds such as Marshall’s flax mill had sheep grazing on grass laid out on its roof; Leeds once had a company that built named after its owner Joseph Blachburn based near Roundhay park; parts for submarines were once manufactured in Leeds; the first moving pictures made on Leeds Bridge by a French man Louis le Prince in 1888 and the first shopping mall in Britain, the Merrion Centre was opened in Leeds in 1960s.
Keith’s talk generated a lot of interest judging by the many questions put to him and he could have entertained us with many more interesting stories had time permitted.