Five minutes, one year, two buildings, a thousand stories

Notes from my presentation at Bettakultcha, Leeds Town Hall, on Wednesday 9 January 2013.

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What an amazing venue. I could spend the next five minutes just talking about this building. I could tell you how the Leeds Corporation raised a special tax and set a budget of £35,000 to build a grand new town hall.

I could tell you how an unknown East Riding architect named Cuthbert Brodrick won the competition with his Classical Baroque design, championed by Charles Barry, architect of the Palace of Westminster.


I could tell you how, part-way through construction, rivalry with surrounding towns spurred on the architect and his clients to add a tower and bust their budget, finally completing the structure at a cost of £125,000. But you know all that stuff, right?

I could tell you about the year construction began, 1853. A year of industrial strife in which Preston cottonworkers were locked out of their mills, inspiring novels by both Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell.

A year of innovation. Dr John Snow anaesthetised Queen Victoria with chloroform during the birth of her eighth child. The year Sir George Cayley’s terrified butler flew across Brompton Dale, near Sarborough, and resigned as soon as got back down to earth. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Because while the great and the good of this city were signing the contract to build this town hall, a mile across town, a very different group of people were laying the foundations of another remarkable building.

The area on Richmond Hill known as “the Bank” was populated in early Victorian times by Irish weavers and labourers, drawn to the city to work in factories and construction.

Their numbers were swollen in the 1840s by refugees from Ireland’s Great Famine. The Bank was a slum, with badly-built housing, poor drainage, overcrowding and disease.

Yet in this place, the poor Catholic congregation, with their priests and an order of Oblate nuns, found the resources to replace their makeshift church with a massive cathedral-scale Gothic creation known as Mount St Mary’s. They called it the Famine Church.

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It took four years to build. In that time, workers were killed and injured in a lightning strike; the order of nuns faced financial ruin, and due to old mine-workings the foundations below the ground cost as much as the structure above.

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The church’s first architect was York-born Joseph Hansom, inventor of the horse-drawn Hansom Cab. Later additions were by  Edward Welby Pugin, whose father gave us the rich interiors of the Palace of Westminster.

In Bradford in 1858, John Ruskin asked why it was that the churches of the period were so often Gothic, while the mills and mansions were Classical. Which is more than just a question of taste.

But now you live under one school of architecture, and worship under another.
What do you mean by doing this?

Ruskin hated Classical buildings because every detail had to be specified according to the laws of proportion and precedent – that pesky golden ratio. Symmetry trumps practicality. Perfection frustrates adaptation.

If you… make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them.

With Classical, it’s all big design upfront. Adding the Town Hall tower, was costly and disruptive. At St Mary’s it was natural for Pugin’s transepts to blend into Hansom’s nave. A tower was planned, but, no matter, it never got one.

Mount St Mary’s Church was in use for more than 130 years. But since 1989 it has lain empty, stripped of its contents and allowed to decay.

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A sign on the vaulted front door said, “Keep Out, Private, Danger” – a warning, a threat and a promise.
Bernard Hare, ‘Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew

The English Heritage Grade II* Listing says it is “An important building on a prominent site,” with “fine proportions and remains of important features.”

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Developers now have planning permission for “a scheme that preserves the most important parts of the buildings and creates an innovative and exciting new residential development.” I really hope it succeeds.

It’s worth reflecting on the differences between these two buildings, Leeds Town Hall and Mount St Mary’s. Both begun in the same year, but on different sides of the tracks. One Classical, the other Gothic.

One built by civic power, the other by the faith of an immigrant community. I am neither Irish nor Catholic – I was married here in the Town Hall. But both buildings have provided a stage over the years for marking our city’s countless births, marriages and deaths.

One well-maintained and in use to this day, the other neglected now for two dozen years. What do their parallel stories tell us about the kind of city we want this to be?

Thanks to Richard and Ivor for giving me yet another five minutes on the Bettakultcha stage, and to Phill Davison for the many wonderful photos of Mount St Mary’s which I used in my presentation. For more on the history of church, head over to the Leeds Civic Trust bookshop and buy a copy of Pat Gavan’s ‘Mount St Mary’s Church 1851-2000’.

5 thoughts on “Five minutes, one year, two buildings, a thousand stories

  1. Shame I missed your BK presentation but great to catch your blog via Twitter. My flat looks out on to Mount St Mary’s and you’ve satisfied my curiosity as to its history, so thank you! Such a stunning building. Great to hear potential regeneration could be on the horizon. I hope that any developers can transform it without losing any of its beauty and heritage. All the best.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed your presentation last night, have driven past St Mary’s many times but didn’t know a thing about it. Thanks.

  3. Interesting stuff.

    I was given a copy of the 1897 “Up to date guide to Leeds” for Xmas, where they say of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Mount St Mary’s: “When completed, this church will be one of the most imposing places of worship in the city.” I suppose that’s the tower it never got.

    1853 was obviously quite a year – the Town Hall and Mount St Mary’s getting under way, and the council coughing up £14,000 to transform Kirkgate into a covered market.

    1. Yes, that would make sense. The Leeds Irish Historical and Cultural Society have a page about the church which says:
      “In 1916, to mark the centenary of the Foundation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (the order which established Mount St Mary’s as a mission church), it was decided to establish a fund to build the tower to complete the church building. The original architectural drawings included two massive western towers, but papers relating to the 1916 appeal refer only to the “Tower Fund”. In the event no tower was built, but at the end of 1916 a subscription list was published showing the names and addresses and the amount subscribed by Mount St Mary’s parishioners and others. It is a valuable source of information concerning the residents in the parish at that time and the amount of money they were willing and able, to subscribe!”

      1. Enjoyed reading all this information about the Bank area. I am trying to find out more about my family, the Freeman’s, who were inn keepers there. My father was Bernard, his father Alfred, and his wife was Mary Ellen (nee Tolan ). Does anyone remember the tiny shop at the bottom of the Bank, near the old ice house and brewery malting’s building, run by my great aunt Florrie. She sold everything from Carters Little Liver Pills to ‘mucky dripping’ sandwiches. I even remember a well known character at Mount St. Mary’s, Georgie Barclay!
        Any information welcome.
        Tony Freeman

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