Saturday, May 30, 2020


Small-scale Leeds (1): Time for shopping

One of the things I’d like to do while travel is restricted is to make some virtual revisits to places I’ve mentioned before on the blog, but which deserve more coverage. A good example is the fascinating city of Leeds – which I covered in September 2019 as ‘Gigantic Leeds’. Maybe it’s time for a short selection of samples of Leeds on a smaller scale.

My first is one of the half-dozen arcades in the city. It’s Thornton’s Arcade, built as part of a development that included some offices and the City Varieties Music Hall, in the Victorian period. Back then, shopping was becoming very much the leisure activity it was in the 20th century, and many cities were building arcades, where people could shop away from the bustle, traffic, noise, and mess of the streets. Such an idea had an obvious appeal to late-Victorian and Edwardian women, who wore long dresses that could get muddied – and worse – on busy and horse-bound city streets, and who liked the idea of a safe, covered environment in which to shop. 

Architect George Smith produced a narrow but comfortable small arcade with an iron and glass roof, which, like that of a railway station, ensured that the interior was flooded with natural light. So shoppers could see where they were going – and what was on display in the shop windows – and security staff could keep a watch for pickpockets, a menace that, years after Oliver Twist, was still very much with us.

The roof is pointed and its is supported by and rests on unusual horseshoe-shaped trusses. These trusses, similar to the one visible in my picture, are painted blue and take the viewer into a different world – the kind of mild orientalism that reminds me that the bazaar in one of James Joyce’s short stories was called ‘Araby’.

At the far end is the piece de resistance: a clock with cast-iron automata. The figures include Richard Coeur de Lion, Robin Hood, Gurth the Swineherd, and Friar Tuck,† and are drawn from the once very familiar Robin Hood stories, in particular as made popular by Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe. Potts and Sons (eminent clockmakers who sold public clocks nationwide but were based in Leeds) manufactured the clock and the figures (almost life-size – not quite so small-scale, then) were done by J. W. Appleyard, a Leeds stone-carver and sculptor. Clocks were invaluable in a period when owning a watch was by no means universal, and the colourful tableau also turned the timepiece into a bit of entertainment – another example of the tendency for shopping to become – as fitting in an arcade next to a music hall – part of the entertainment industry.

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† Friar Tuck has presumably pulled up his habit to give him freedom of movement as he does his share of the heavy work of striking the bells.

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