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An illustrated map of Leeds City Centre from 1760 featuring key city landmarks including St John's Church and Leeds. The map is surrounded by sketches of buildings. Most of the text is illegible.

A map can tell a thousand stories

Inspired by East Street Arts’ wonderful new Sounds of New Briggate podcast series, we wanted to use National Read A Road Map Day to travel back in time and discover how our venues fit within the changing maps of Leeds through the years.

Written by Sarah Jewers


The history of mapping Leeds

Town plans began to appear in books in the UK in the 1500s. Before this, towns were often too small to warrant a plan being drawn up. Few maps of the British Isles as a whole were drawn up before Henry VII commissioned the mapping of the coasts and harbours. Before this, any maps that existed were usually for religious purposes, tracking crusade routes through the country to Jerusalem.

The oldest maps of Leeds exist as evidence for court battles of the 1500s. Of most interest to our corners of Leeds, the oldest map of Leeds City Centre is from 1560, drawn up to settle a dispute between a new mill accused of stealing the profits of a mill owned by the Crown. It shows a Leeds nearly unrecognisable if it wasn’t for the distinct names of Briggate, The Headrow, Quarry Hill, and the River Aire. Briggate may have existed but Hyde Park, home to our beautiful cinema was probably just fields or farmland.

A very old faded map of Leeds City Centre on parchment paper from the 1500s. It faintly says names of roads like Briggate and The Headrow but it is mostly illegible.

Map of Leeds City Centre, 1560. Credit: Leeds Libraries

A changing city centre

One of the most significant documents in the history of the mapping of our city is John Cossins’ New & Exact Plan of the Town of Leedes from 1726. It maps a Leeds much closer to the Leeds we know, featuring not only Briggate, The Headrow and the River Aire, but also buildings including St John’s Church which is just across the street from The Grand. St John’s Church is the oldest church in Leeds City Centre, built between 1632 and 1634. ‘The Grand Old Lady of Leeds’ has seen New Briggate change a lot of the years, but St Johns’ Church has seen even more.

What is missing from Cossins’ map are The Varieties’ neighbouring pubs along the west side of Briggate such as the yard of The Swan Inn and Whitelock’s, even though Whitelock’s opened as The Turk’s Head in 1715, named after the yard where the pub is situated. As noted by Leeds Libraries, Cossins didn’t include areas lived in or frequented by the poorer population in the city, which could be the reason behind the exclusion of the landmark from the map.

An illustrated map of Leeds City Centre from 1760 featuring key city landmarks including St John's Church and Leeds. The map is surrounded by sketches of buildings. Most of the text is illegible.

John Cossins’ New & Exact Plan of the Town of Leedes, 1726. Credit: Leodis.

The pubs can be seen on the Ordinance Survey maps published in 1850, as can The Horse and Trumpet. Flashforward to the OS map published in 1908, we can see both The Grand and The Varieties marked by ‘Grand Theatre’ and ‘Music Hall’. This map also shows the lost theatres of Leeds: the Empire Theatre lower on Briggate, Theatre Royal on Lands Lane and the Hippodrome on King Charles Croft. Considering the close proximity of our theatres and these three other lost cultural spaces, one can only imagine how much Upper Briggate was a hub of culture in the early 20th Century.

Putting it all in context

New Briggate in the sunshine with signs for The Grand in the foreground and the top of Briggate in the distance.

New Briggate from The Grand

East Street Arts’ Sounds of New Briggate podcasts can bring more context to our corner of the city. From the discussions about the history of the street’s nightlife in New Briggate After Dark to Queer New Briggate: Archives and the High Street showcasing how New Briggate is also significant to Queer Leeds, depicted by Stuart Linden Rhodes’ Hidden in Plain Sight: Queer Leeds street exhibition, the podcast is a window into how New Briggate has been important to so many communities.

As spoken about in The Jewish Heritage of New Briggate and Beyond, this street is also a landmark for the Jewish community. Just across the street from The Grand is Brightbarts Tailors, a survivor of the Jewish tailoring businesses that made Leeds a tailoring centre in the 1950s and 1960s. New Briggate was once a hub for the Jewish community before it moved to Chapeltown. Looking back at John Cossins’ plan of Leeds, just north of The Grand sit two fields called the Ley Lands. In the 1800s, these became home to the Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s and the first purpose-built synagogue opened in 1861 on Belgrave Street.

Jazz also found its home in and around New Briggate through local musicians such as Ivy Benson and busker Xero Slingsby. In Jazz History of New Briggate Host John Toolan and speaker Steve Crocker point out how exciting it is that site of 1960s jazz club Studio 20 is now the home of Sela Bar which hosts live jazz music along with nearby Howard Assembly Room. As with Brightbarts Tailors, the history of New Briggate is still woven into the foundation of the street as we know it today.

Finally, The Grand is a reminder of a darker time in history. Slave owner Samuel Kershaw and his slave John Lewis are both buried in St John’s Church graveyard. Sadly, we don’t know that much about John but host of Africa, Leeds West Indian Carnival and New Briggate Histories Joe Williams makes a point to give a voice to John, describing the changing face of New Briggate through John’s eyes.

Life away from the Centre

It may not feature on the first maps of Leeds but Hyde Park, home to our wonderful Picture House, can still tell a few stories. The area was originally called Wrangthorn when it was a small hamlet which is now just the name of the church still standing at the north edge of Woodhouse Moor. The area was called this as it referred to an area of ‘twisted’ (wrang) thorn bushes which provided hiding places for those wanting to steal from traders heading to Leeds market. It was renamed in the 1800s, inspired by Hyde Park, London, an area of the capital growing in popularity, along with the iconic Hyde Park Corner that acts as a gateway to North Leeds.

A black and white image of the billboard at Hyde Park Corner from 1930 featuring posters for Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds Grand Theatre and other businesses.

Hyde Park Corner billboard, 1930. Credit: Leeds Library and Information Service

Before it was built, the site of Hyde Park Picture House was just the corner of a row of terraced houses as is typical of the architecture in Hyde Park. However, in the 110 years since its inception, it has made its mark on the area and landmarks like Hyde Park Corner. Posters for Hyde Park Picture House films and Leeds Grand Theatre shows can be seen in images of the billboard at Hyde Park Corner in 1930.

500 years of storytelling

In the nearly 500 years since the first maps of Leeds, the city has changed dramatically and we consider ourselves lucky to have played a part in that history, even before The Varieties, The Grand and The Picture House became what we know them as today. Thank you to East Street Arts for reminding us that we can look beyond the stories played out on our stages and screens and step outside of our venues to discover untold tales of a changing cityscape.