For Ada Lovelace Day: Eleanor Coade, technology entrepreneur of the 18th Century

It’s Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. In previous years I’ve written about Elizabeth Montagu, Lizzie Le Prince and Laura Willson.

This time I want to highlight the unique achievements of Eleanor Coade, creator and entrepreneur behind one of the most durable and effective building materials of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the eponymous Coade Stone.

This remarkable survivor by London’s Westminster Bridge is a fine example of Mrs Coade’s artificial stone, the ingredients of which are simple but the production process apparently fraught with complexity. Others at the time tried to make the material, but Coade’s London factory was the only one to produce it successfully at scale.

Examples can still be seen outside the John Soane Museum, Somerset House, Castle Howard and elsewhere.

Eleanor Coade was born in Exeter in 1733, and moved to London around 1760. She was unmarried, the title Mrs being accorded to her as a businesswoman rather than as a wife.

In late 1769 she bought a struggling artificial stone business sited on the South Bank where the Royal Festival Hall now stands. Her Wikipedia entry notes:

Coade’s success as a business woman was very rare in the Georgian era. She was a hard-working individual who concentrated on methodical procedures to produce consistently high quality products. She was the first and only person to succeed in the artificial stone business thanks to a combination of managerial skills, entrepreneurial flare and a talent for marketing and public relations.

She closely supervised both the preparation of clay mixtures and the firing process for all her products. Having bought Daniel Pincot’s struggling business within two years she took the decision to sack him for disciplinary reasons, and confirmed her decision on September 11 and 14 by adverts in The Daily AdvertiserGazetteer and The New Daily Advertiser.

She cultivated strong business relationships with respected architects and designers, including Robert Adam, James Wyatt, Humphry Repton, John Nash and Sir John Soane, because she could produce multiple copies of their designs. Her success may be gauged by Josiah Wedgwood’s complaint that he ‘could not get architects to endorse his new chimneypiece plaques’

And those are the reasons why Elanor Coade stands out to me – the combined qualities of attention to detail and to the bigger picture make her a true Georgian technology entrepreneur.

Read more about Ada Lovelace Day at


Down with Façadism: a provocation for Culture Hack North

I was honoured to be asked to do a short talk on the opening afternoon of the brilliant Culture Hack North event in Leeds this weekend.

For one thing, it was a chance to appear alongside Rachel Coldicutt‘s dream team of Rohan Gunatillake, Natasha Carolan, Lucy Bannister, Helen Harrop, Frankie Roberto and Greg Povey.

Also, I got to try out a half-baked thought about an unexpected way in which situated stories could lead to long-term, physical changes in our cities, even better, to do so with some people whose Culture Hack projects could be pivotal to bringing that change about.

I made a Prezi to go with the talk, but for those who can’t abide all the whizzing and swooping here it is in static words and pictures. I’d love to know what you think.

What if the interior lives of buildings were as exposed as their exteriors?

I ask because I think we’re heading for a profound change in the way we experience our built heritage.

We’ll start by considering a heritage concept that got a bad name in the latter part of the last century. There was a trend for ripping out the hearts of old buildings but leaving the shells intact. Critics called this trend “façadism” – the privileging of the exterior or front to the detriment of the building’s deeper character.

“Façadism (or Façadomy) is the practice of demolishing a building but leaving its facade intact for the purposes of building new structures in it or around it.” – Wikipedia

Here’s a particularly egregious example from Estonia:

Victorian architects and builders sowed the seeds of this practice themselves in the way they put their emphasis on the public face of a structure, while skimping on the unseen parts. Here’s Temple Works in Holbeck, Leeds. In front, it’s a grand millstone grit temple; round the back, nicely detailed but workaday redbrick…


That tension remains today. The building’s blue plaque focuses on the spectacular facade, the industrialist and architect who erected it…

But if you listen to local people, the complex is important to them as something else, the unglamorous Northern Distribution Depot of Kay’s Catalogues, the of its day. This sign is from Slung Low’s Original Bearings project which sought to capture some of those real Holbeck stories and expose them on the street…

This is the inside of Kay’s as we found it a couple of years ago, a pre-digital data centre abandoned by its previous occupants…

And still the same site: fittingly, Reality was the name of the last company to occupy the complex…

But now it’s possible to see inside buildings through time and space. The pun is too good to miss…

All this would be academic if it wasn’t for the fact that planning law is shifting, away from purely national, architectural significance, towards a system that gives weight to local people’s views of what’s important in their environment.

The Draft National Planning Policy Framework talks (page 55) about “heritage assets” which should be…

“identified by the local planning authority during the process of decision-making or through the plan-making process (including local listing).”

According to English Heritage, local listing is …

“… a means for a local community and a local authority to jointly decide what it is in their area that they would like recognised as a ‘local heritage asset’ and therefore worthy of some degree of protection in the planning system.” – Good Practice Guide for Local Listing

And while the Tory-led government seems to use localism as cover for an attack on communities’ rights to resist inappropriate developments, the National Trust is leading the fightback by positioning heritage in terms of dialogue between people and places:

“I believe that the planning system should balance future prosperity with the needs of people and places – therefore I support the National Trust’s calls on the Government to stop and rethink its planning reforms.” – National Trust Planning for People petition

The upshot of this focus on local significance is that the images and stories of use that we expose through geo-location and augmented reality could influence which buildings are preserved and reused and which are demolished. Historic buildings won’t just stand or fall on architectural merit, but also on local residents’ attachments to them.

Those attachments tend to arise from the activities carried on inside buildings as much as what they look like on the exterior. I visited the old Majestyk nightclub on City Square a year ago because it was on Leeds Civic Trust’s Heritage at Risk list…

And I found this – a spontaneous display of affection for a derelict building…

And while it’s a striking building in a prominent location, I don’t think whoever wrote that loved it for its architectural merit. They were remembering the good times they had at Majestyk’s – the laughs, the drinks, the music, the snogs.

And then there’s this unassuming late 90s box, called the White House, on Melbourne Street…

It has its own Facebook page! Or rather the people who worked here do…

In this building they launched Freeserve, the UK’s first free ISP which got millions of Britons on the net for the first time. If anywhere deserves local listing for its historic significance surely this does.

But I think the real potential is for places like the Leeds district of Chapeltown. (I owe a debt for many of the ideas in this post to my wife Caroline Newton who has just completed her MSc in Historic Building Conservation, studying the development of the Chapeltown Conservation Area. Ask her about it if you get the chance.)

Currently buildings get protection for their contribution to the Edwardian streetscape. But the really interesting stories are ones like this launderette, which was started as a cooperative in response to the needs of the immigrant community in an area that many had written off as a slum…

Such narrative capital is fragile and often completely disregarded in the name of regeneration. If stories like the laundry coop’s were better known, they might count for something in decision-making about the district.

Finally, this is the Mandela Centre, also on Chapeltown Road…

I stopped to take this picture because I loved the big sign commemorating Nelson Mandela’s visit to Leeds in which his drove through this area. But then I noticed the cups in the window. I have no idea what they’re for, but they speak volumes about the activities that go on in a community centre and the pride of the groups that meet there.

What if those stories were as obvious as the sign on the wall? The great thing is that, for the first time, they could be.

Maybe in the future buildings will no longer need to shout for attention with elaborate archiecture. In fact, to do so will be useless as nobody will see their peacock finery through the data smog. Instead, places will be recognised for the richness of their inner lives, meaning we preserve a fuller, messier cross-section of structures for their historic significance.

Just as in quantum theory, the act of observing changes the outcome. Facadism is dead; the future is all about interiors.

Corn and Grit: Notes from a talk at Bettakultcha VII

London has Christopher Wren, Barcelona Antonio Gaudi, and Leeds, well Leeds has Cuthbert Brodrick, the Victorian architect who left us just a handful of public buildings including the amazing, elipitical Corn Exchange.

So when the organisers of Bettakultcha, the most fun you’ll ever have with Microsoft Office, secured it as the venue for their latest event I didn’t take much persuading. I wanted to give people a little context to the building, why it came to be here, what went on in it, and what might happen there in the future.

Here’s the result, “Corn and Grit”. The video is on the Bettakultcha blog, or in text form below…

Only last month the French Agriculture Minister warned that rising food prices risked sparking riots in cities around the world. But it is hard for us to understand just how important corn, or wheat, was to people in the industrial cities of the 19th Century. At Peterloo in Manchester in 1819, troops massacred a crowd protesting against trade restrictions, the Corn Laws, which kept prices artificially high. When those Corn Laws were finally repealed they split the Tory Party and pushed half of them into coalition with the Liberals.

Leeds sits at the boundary between Yorkshire’s industrial west and agricultural east. In the old corn exchange at the top of Briggate the farmers and corn traders (or “factors”) would bargain and make deals. The outcome of these deals governed whether the poor of the town, crammed into yards just a short walk from the corn exchange, could feed themselves and their families.

By the start of the 1860s Leeds needed a bigger space for these deals to be done. For the design, like the corn, the city fathers looked east, to the Hull-born architect Cuthbert Brodrick. Brodrick was already well-known to Leeds. At the age of 29, he designed the Town Hall, the acme of municipal magnificance. He also left us the Mechanics’ Institute, now the City Museum, and the Oriental Baths, now sadly demolished.

The critic Jonathan Meades describes Brodrick as:

“the greatest French architect to be born and to work in the Département of Yorkshire.”

For the Leeds Corn Exchange, he certainly took his inspiration from Paris. Here’s the Halle au Blé in 1838.

Even today the Corn Exchange looks like an alien arrival, this Parisian form in the middle of Leeds, an agricultural incursion in an industrial city.

But it’s not wholly alien, because Brodrick was working in local stone, the millstone grit quarried from West Leeds. And millstone grit, like Brodrick, does not do subtle. Every external surface is decorated, including many agricultural motifs in keeping with the building’s purpose.

Now look up!

The inside is plainer but all the more striking for it. The space makes me want to fill it with jelly and lift off the lid.

And it’s an egalitarian space. The offices around the upper floor are carefully arranged so that all their doors have the same status. In an oval building, no one gets a corner office.

After its opening in 1864, the journal ‘The Architect’ found:

“No roof that it has ever been our fortune to see has impressed us more then this one, as a work of original genius and thorough practical utility, and the degree of dignity and spaciousness which it confers upon a very simple interior is hardly to be believed without being seen.”

The farmers and corn factors were less complimentary. Despite the amazing roof light they complained that it was too dark:

“We are assured, and we regret to have to state it, that the unanimous opinion of those present was, that, in order to judge of samples, those who frequent the market will find it necessary to go outside the building.”

The traders made their peace with the Corn Exchange. More glass was added to the roof. On this board we can see the names of the companies that frequented the Corn Exchange, East and North Yorkshire firms prominent among them.

And here they are at work on market day. Samples would be places on the tables for inspection, prices haggled over, and deals done.

In preparing this talk, Louise, the Corn Exchange manager, dug out a list of Bye-laws for me. I love a ruleset like this because we can learn so much about what went on here from all the things that were not allowed.

Inside, only authorised persons could engage in shewing, exhibiting, soliciting and touting. Outside we might find others hawking, loitering, smoking and with dogs.

But rules are there to be bent. Here’s a dog show inside the Corn Exchange, because the building was always used for a multitude of things. I talked to several people who grew up in Leeds in the 1970s and 80s who remember coming here for model railway shows and the like.

“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” – Jane Jacobs

Which brings us to the Corn Exchange today. It’s still a place for shewing, exhibiting, soliciting and touting. Tonight, Bettakultcha turns it into a place for exchanging stories.

Some more reading:

A bath, a clock and a giant walking robot – it’s Heritage Open Days this weekend

It’s Heritage Open Days from 9-12 September, a once-a-year chance of free access to properties that are usually closed to the public or charge for admission. Buildings all over England will be open, except in London where you have to wait a week for Open House on 18-19 September.

Like every year I’m spoiled for choice with stuff to see. There are more than 75 things to do in Leeds alone.

Seven of my personal favourites:

A Walk around the 18th Century Claremont Estate at Little Woodhouse – looking at the original estate and its development into Denison Hall, Hanover and Woodhouse Squares, the Claremont streets, Park Lane College and Joseph’s Well (the former Barron’s Mill).

Heritage at Risk Exhibition – photos on display at the Leeds Civic Trust on Wharf Street. See the shocking state of some of the city’s most significant buildings now at risk through neglect. (Disclosure – my wife Caroline is one of the volunteers who have done a brilliant job on updating and documenting the Heritage At Risk Register.)

Holbeck: Cradle of the Industrial Revolution – Civic Trust experts lead a walk through the urban village.

St Aidan’s Walking Dragline – a rare piece of our mining heritage lovingly cared for by volunteers, and, what more can I say, it’s a Giant Walking Robot!

Temple Works – if you live in Leeds and you don’t know Temple Works, now’s your chance. One of the city’s most remarkable buildings, cruelly neglected but now slowly coming back to life.

The Bath House – a miraculous survival from the days when 17th Century aristocrats bathed in the fresh spring waters of Gledhow Valley.

Town Hall & Clock Tower Tours – Cuthbert Brodrick’s masterpiece, as seen on TV!

And if those are not enough, there’s more on Alex’s brilliant new blog, Exploring Leeds, and some additional suggestions on the Leeds Guide website.

You wouldn’t burn a book, or some reflections on narrative capital

As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I moved offices in Leeds earlier this year from Holbeck Urban Village to Clarence Dock. The stark contrast between the two areas has set me thinking about a city’s built environment and how it can make a difference to people’s lives.

First some context for those who don’t know Leeds so well. Both districts are to the south of the city centre. Both played important roles in the city’s commercial past. Holbeck, at the terminus of the Leeds to Liverpool Canal, was a manufacturing district rich in textiles, engineering and pin-making. Clarence Dock was, from 1843, the city’s main dock. By dock I do not mean a place to charge your iPod but rather, in the archaic sense of the word, a big basin of water in which ships stopped to unload and take on goods.

Both areas have been developed in the past 15 years. Therein lies the difference.

The designers of Holbeck Urban Village have deliberately reused as much as they can, breathing new life into even the humblest old buildings. Where new build has been more practical it follows original street patterns to create small, interlinked public spaces with pubs and cafes. New media businesses pump pixels in the Round Foundry complex where once Matthew Murray‘s men cast steam engines.

Across the road, Grade I listed Temple Works is at the start of an exciting revitalisation. The amazing Tower Works site will be next so long as the promised funding comes through.

Holbeck was a magical place for a historian to work in a high-tech business. I self-indulgently imagined that the world-changing importance of Industrial Revolution pioneers like Murray, his mentor the flax magnate John Marshall, and pin king Colonel Thomas Harding  could rub off on my own work as a spinner of mobile internets. I was not alone. In the last few years Holbeck has inspired many others to create art and literature based on its multi-layered history. Granary Wharf now boasts Candle House, one of the best of the rash of new tall buildings, not to mention its own urban storyteller.

A mile down the River Aire, Clarence Dock is a different story. Cleared for redevelopment earlier in the Nineties but only recently completed, it seems there is literally nothing of the Dock’s historic fabric left above ground level, though occasional warning signs hint at something more interesting below the waterline. Compelling though it is on the inside, the Royal Armouries Museum is an alien arrival. Before it came to Leeds, it was meant to go to Sheffield where its magnificent Hall of Steel would presumably have had more resonance.

Clarence Dock is all bread and circuses, the ultimate blank canvas for the retail spectacle. I took the boys down there a couple of weeks ago for a canter round the Armouries and to watch the Dragon Boat races where teams of workmates rowed for charity in vessels emblazoned with their logos. A good time was had by all, and in a good cause, yet there was a randomness, disconnected from any sense of why the water was there, or how it played a part in the life of the city.

The history of the Dock is acknowledged – literally beneath the visitors’ feet – on dockside flagstones. These words seem to add insult to injury, like sticking plasters applied to a gaping wound of the collective memory. A paving slab that says “20 Tonne Crane” is not the same as a 20 tonne crane.

I don’t mean to knock everything that’s happening at Clarence Dock. The “ghost town” tag seems overblown. And I don’t know enough of the back-story. Maybe not a single building was fit for reuse. Maybe every crane had rusted beyond repair, even as a heritage totem pole. But it seems to me that at Clarence Dock, Leeds has squandered a huge amount of its narrative capital.

By narrative capital I mean this. When a building is first made it belongs to the builder, the architect and their paymasters. They alone can tell stories about why and how it came into being in its pristine form. But over time, the balance tips in favour of the place’s users, its neighbours and even to passers-by. Their stories become the building’s stories and the building’s stories become inspirations, symbolic of the city’s authentic character. Past achievements become our achievements to be equalled and bettered. Shared memories of past sins and humiliations can be just as valuable.

In the part of the city where I live, there is a Victorian police station. A few years ago the police sensibly moved out to a corrugated fortress with ample car parking. Local residents came together to campaign to turn the redundant building into a community centre. They lost the battle but got a half-happy ending when some new-build flats were developed nearby with a space for community arts. The new-built space is great, yet a world away from what would have been had they won the old police station. It would have been less convenient, messier, but more truly owned by  the community from day one. The old police station had accumulated narrative capital which the new arts space will take years to put by.

Just about the most shocking offence against cultural life is the burning of books. Totalitarian regimes burn books to erase traces of dissent, not just to prevent transmission but to deny the existence of inconvenient ideas. To destroy a book is to destroy a story and to destroy a story is to rob human life of a little piece of its meaning. I know that buildings are not books. For one thing they take up more space. But I do believe there’s a parallel that should give us pause for thought before destroying places high in narrative capital. It’s not the long-dead architect’s freedom of expression that’s impoverished but the story-telling and meaning-carrying capacity of the whole community.

A rich environmental fabric makes a city resilient. By all means tug at loose threads, patch it up and reuse it as has happened in Holbeck. But it seems a wanton waste for any city to cut a clean swathe as big as Clarence Dock.

The history of Leeds: What every geek should know

It was a privilege to present at this week’s GeekUp Leeds on a topic close to my heart, the amazing industrial heritage of Leeds and why it should be an inspiration to those working in the technology sectors today.

Thanks to Deb and Rob for organising another great event, and to the GeekUp participants for putting up with me.

A few people asked for more info so I’ve put together some pages with my slides, notes and lots of links.

The history of Leeds: What every geek should know – part 1 starts here

Help, our industrial heritage is falling down!

Temple Works is a one-off. Its construction as a flax mill in 1840 must have made a powerful statement about Leeds’ status as global pioneer of industry. At the time it was said to be the “largest single room in the world,” with innovative air conditioning under the floor and sheep grazing on a grass-covered roof above.

In the 1950s Yorkshire’s textile manufacture began to shrink, but the mill found a new use as the northern warehouse for mail order company Kays, a kind of of Britain’s post-war consumer culture.

Just imagine what this building has seen over half a dozen generations: the rhythms of working life for thousands of people, materials brought in and out, linking with the world’s most exotic and mundane places. I reckon Temple Works should qualify for preservation on the strength of this rich social history alone.

But in reality this sprawling single storey stone shed in an unprepossessing edge-of-city-centre location must owe its Grade I listed status to the fact that it’s the spitting image of the Temple of Horus at Edfu, Egypt. Those 19th Century industrialists knew how to make an impact! I work in a nearby building, another former mill converted to offices, and am both inspired and humbled by the scale of our predecessors’ ambitions.

Sadly the 21st Century has not been kind to Temple Works. Vacant since 2004, the building is subject to plans to convert it to a “cultural and retail facility“, but in the mean time its condition is becoming more perilous.

This week, thankfully in the early hours when the street outside was deserted, one of the works’ massive stone pillars crumbled, bringing down a section of the roof. Marshall Street, the road on which it stands, has been closed in case of further collapse. This picture shows the damage…

Temple Works damage

It is particularly cruel that Temple Works was allowed to decline at a time when Leeds was going through another building boom, with new offices, hotels and flats being thrown up at a startling pace. Yet the wake-up call of the column collapse comes just when that boom is crashing to a halt.

It’s too early to say what caused the collapse or what happens next to Temple Works. (The Yorkshire Evening Post story is here.)  But I really hope it can be the stimulus to a happier chapter in the life of a remarkable piece of our industrial heritage.

Sort it out, Leeds, or else – the Falcon God is watching.