It’s no secret that Leeds is a fantastic city: The bars, the restaurants, the clubs, the shopping, the vibrant music scene, the architecture, the culture, the excellent ring road system encircling the city that gives drivers superb access to the city and surrounding areas, and so on.
But there are some less well-known things about Leeds that are seldom mentioned:
1. Leeds was originally called ‘Loidis’
The earliest written record of Leeds appears in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), which he completed around 731 and refers to the area as ‘Loidis’ (it is thought that the affectionate nickname for a local, ‘Loiner,’ derives from this).
By the time the Domesday Book was published in 1086 ‘Loidis’ had evolved into the Old English form ‘Ledes.’ Then at some point over the next few hundred years, somebody switched the ‘D’ with the second ‘E’ and the spelling we know today was coined.
2. The first ever moving pictures were filmed in Leeds
That’s right, folks! In October 1888, the marvelously named French inventor Louis Le Prince shot the first ever moving picture in Leeds. The Roundhay Garden Scene features Le Prince’s son Adolphe and three friends Sarah Whitley, Joseph Whitley and Harriet Hartley prancing around in the sunshine of the Whitley’s back garden.
Two years later, Le Prince mysteriously vanished without a trace during a train journey in France in September 1890. His dubious disappearance occurred just a few weeks before he was due to travel to America and publicly exhibit his work for the first time – leading many to suspect foul play.
Le Prince is now often referred to as the “forgotten inventor of motion pictures” as other competing inventors such as Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers largely took credit for developing the technology. So the next time you watch your favourite TV show, raise a glass to the Prince.
3. Notorious New York gangster Owney Madden was born in Leeds
Born into poverty in Leeds on Christmas Day 1891, Owen “Owney” Madden would go on to become one of New York City’s most feared and prosperous gangsters. Madden set sail for America from Liverpool in 1902 and settled with his mother and brother in the lawless Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan.
As a teenager, Madden became a lynchpin of the ruthless Gopher Gang where he earned himself the somewhat unaffectionate nickname “The Killer.” His crimes eventually caught up with him and in 1914 Madden was arrested and sent to Sing Sing Prison where he served nine years. On his release in 1923, Madden emerged into the era of prohibition during the Roaring Twenties.
Seeing an opportunity, Madden made his fortune supplying the seemingly limitless demand for illegal alcohol. Right up until his death in 1965, Leeds held a special place in Madden’s heart. He made a point of keeping his Northern accent and had copies of the Yorkshire Post specially imported so he could keep up to date with all the goings-on back home.
4. In 1842 the life expectancy of a laborer living in Leeds was just 19
The Industrial Revolution was a mixed blessing. While it brought many jobs to urban areas it also caused widespread human suffering through poor working conditions, water and air pollution, and inadequate sanitation. A report filed by social reformer Edwin Chadwick in 1842 called The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population highlighted the gravity of the situation in a number of British cities.
Gentlemen and professional people living in Leeds back in 1842 could’ve expected to live to the ripe old of 44. Laborers, however, would’ve done well to make it out of their teens. Still, things could’ve been worse – in Liverpool the average life expectancy for a laborer was 15, so every cloud and all that.
5. The most expensive piece of English furniture ever sold was made by a Leeds lad
Born and raised in the mysterious market town of Otley, Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) was a furniture maker who produced items for some of the wealthiest households in Georgian England.
When Chippendale’s chest of drawers known as The Harrington Commode fetched £3,793,250 during a sale at Sotheby’s in 2010, it set the world record for a piece of English furniture sold at auction.
6. Beloved British retailer Marks & Spencer had its humble beginnings in Leeds
In 1882, a Belarusian Jew named Michael Marks immigrated to England and headed for Leeds where a company called Barran was known to give work to Jewish refugees. After a brief stint as a peddler, Marks bought his own stall in Kirkgate Market. Before long Marks’ Penny Bazaar was thriving under his famous slogan “Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny.”
In 1894, Marks invited Thomas Spencer, a cashier he knew through a business acquaintance, if he’d be interested in partnering with him. Spencer decided that the £300 required for a fifty percent share in the business was a wise investment and on 28 September 1894 Marks & Spencer was born.
Jon Langford is a British expat living in NYC where he is often asked if he’s Australian on account of his Yorkshire accent. He is a freelance copywriter and writer, regularly contributing to BBC America. He has written for many publications including: MLSsoccer.com, First Touch Magazine, Inked Magazine, Contactmusic and more. Follow him on Twitter at @Jon_LangfordNYC