Former Leeds MP Michael Meadowcroft introduces a series of lectures on some of his predecessors – men and women who helped to create the city of today
Despite energetic efforts on the part of its staff and its trustees, Leeds’ oldest cultural institution remains unknown to the vast majority of the city’s citizens. Slap bang in the city centre, in the heart of Commercial Street – one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city – is the Leeds Library. The next time you are passing the Britannia Building Society just look up above the entrance arch between it and the Paperchase shop, and there is the imposing sign for the library.
Once inside, you are in another world. An historic library in its purpose built premises, erected in 1808 – the first building in Commercial Street – with shops on the ground floor to help pay for the library above, as they still do. With both reading and research collections, this is a modern library with a great history. It began originally in Briggate in 1768 and is today the oldest subscription library in Britain, and still open for new members.
The library became a charity in 2008 and, as its first chair of the new trustees, it seemed to me a good idea to inaugurate annual series of lectures on Leeds politicians. Where better to meet some of the important leaders from the past?
Many of the names featured, such as Sir Charles Wilson and Rev Charles Jenkinson, are famous but other politicians are hardly known today. Many people pass Shaw House in Shaw Lane, Headingley, without being aware of its illustrious first resident, John Hope Shaw, twice Mayor of Leeds, and the man who was instrumental in bringing drinking water to the city from the valleys to the north in the 1850s, rather than pumping up the highly contaminated supplies from the River Aire?
Who today has heard of John Shackleton Mathers, the brilliant Liberal party agent who realised the need to secure working men as Liberal Councillors and as magistrates to inhibit Labour becoming an influential separate party?
This year’s lunchtime series of Leeds Library lectures begin on Thursday, 13 September, with James Milner, Leeds Labour MP, 1929 to 1951, Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, and Labour peer from 1951 until his death in 1967. Jim Milner, as he was always known, was the first middle class recruit to the Leeds Labour, writing from the trenches in 1916 to apply for membership. The legal firm started by his father still exists in the city but he is hardly remembered today.
Thursday, 11 October, features George Ratcliffe, another leading Leeds politician now almost completely forgotten. He was a member of the city council for almost forty years and as Liberal party leader in the 1920s he presided over the apparently inexorable decline of his party.
Mary Gawthorpe was a Leeds suffragette and socialist. Tiny in stature but powerful in personality and fearless for her cause, she became a fluent and persuasive public speaker. She is my subject on Thursday, 15 November.
When I was elected to the Leeds City Council back in 1968 the Conservative Leader of the Council was Alderman Sir Frank Marshall. He clobbered me often in debate across the council chamber but he was respected by friend and foe alike for his determination to promote Leeds and for his advocacy on behalf of local democracy. He is in the spotlight on Thursday, 13 December.
All four politicians made their mark on Leeds and deserve their new hour of fame. Where better to meet them than in the sympathetic surroundings of the Leeds Library? All members of the public are invited to join us.
Michael Meadowcroft was a Leeds City Councillor from 1968-1983 and the Liberal MP for Leeds West from 1983 to 1987. Over the past twenty years he has led or been a member of some fifty missions to thirty-five new and emerging democracies. He is the Chair of Trustees of the Leeds Library.