There’s more to Leeds than you might know – let these 60 weird and wonderful facts about the city blow your mind.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve lived here all your life or you’ve just moved here, there are all sorts of cool stories about Leeds that you probably haven’t heard yet. From ground-breaking medical discoveries to rooftop-grazing sheep, famous buildings to pioneering motion pictures, let us introduce you to 60 things you probably don’t know about this brilliant city.
1. We’ve been flying for over a century
Credit: TSRL licensed for commercial reuse under Creative Commons.
The oldest flying aeroplane in Britain was made here in Leeds. Blackburn Type D was a pioneering aircraft – a one seat single engine monoplane, it was built by Robert Blackburn for Cyril Foggin in 1912, just 10 years after the famous first flight of The Wright Brothers. Incredibly, the plane is still flying over 100 years on and is kept in the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire.
2. The world’s first steam locomotive was made in Leeds
Matthew Murray is one of the pioneers of the industrial age. He helped John Marshall build the Marshall Mills complex, which is still in use today, but his biggest role came with the progression of steam trains. He built the first commercially viable steam locomotive, the Salamanca, in 1812. A rack and pinion train, it was the first to have two cylinders and ran on the Middleton Railway.
3. We gave the world Cluedo
Credit: Steven Isaacson licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.
Anthony E. Pratt’s created one of the most famous boardgames in history. He turned his love of detective novels into a crime caper called Murder – the game we now know as Cluedo. Pratt himself was a Birmingham lad, but in 1944, he took his idea to Waddington’s Games in Leeds. They saw its potential immediately, but it wasn’t released for another 5 years because production was stalled during the war.
4. The second Ryder Cup was hosted here
The Ryder Cup is the biggest event in golf, but did you know it once took place in Leeds? The second event in its history and the first to be held in Europe teed off at Moortown Golf Club in 1929. Even though it took place in April, snow and cold weather caused mayhem with the players, but it worked out okay for the Great Britain team led by George Duncan because they defeated the Americans 7-5.
5. Hippos once roamed our streets
Credit: Leeds Museums and Galleries
No, we haven’t gone crazy, hippos once walked the same streets we do now and we have the proof. In 1984, during the construction of the Armley Gyratory, the bones of an ancient hippo believed to date back around 130,000 years were discovered. It’s one of the city’s most important historical discoveries and you can see the remains at Leeds City Museum today.
6. We gave the UK the internet
By 1998, the internet was already starting to take over our lives and Leeds had a huge role to play in that because it gave birth to the UK’s first internet service provider, Freeserve. Their free internet discs became a must-have. By the time it was sold to French company Wannadoo in 2000, it was worth a hefty £1.65 billion and had accumulated nearly 2 million active customers.
7. M&S was born right here
Marks & Spencer is a British institution that began as a market stall. Back in 1884, Michael Marks opened up a penny bazaar in Leeds Kirkgate Market. 10 years later, he teamed up with Tom Spencer to grow the business, leaving the market for new premises on Boar Lane before moving to Briggate where you’ll still find the store today. The rest, as they say, is history.
8. We pioneered x-ray technology
The x-ray is one of the most important scientific progressions of the 21st century and it was made in Leeds. William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg discovered the structure of crystals using x-ray technology at the University of Leeds. This helped to pave the way for all kinds of new discoveries in the years to come, including work on the structure of DNA.
9. The UK’s last gas-lit cinema can be found in Leeds
© Copyright Leeds-List 2020 by Katie Nicole
The Hyde Park Picture House is one of a kind. The local landmark opened in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War One, and it’s still a must-visit to this day. It’s the last surviving gas-lit cinema in the UK, but that’s not the only original feature you’ll find here – from the external ticket booth to the barrel-vaulted ceilings and ornate balconies, this is a truly unique place to watch the latest blockbusters.
10. A Leeds lad was responsible for the world’s most iconic buildings
Credit: Diliff licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.
Sir Edmund Happold was born in Leeds in 1930 and he grew up to become a renowned structural engineer. His work took him across the world and his designs became some of the world’s most famous buildings. From the Pompidou Centre in Paris to the Sydney Opera House, Hyde Park Barracks and Riyadh Conference Centre, Happold’s work has stood the test of time.
11. We helped build America’s most famous buildings
Neoclassical architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe was born in Fulneck but he had a bigger impact on the USA than he did on Leeds. His most impressive work includes two immediately recognisable American buildings – the United States Capitol Building and The White House Portico, which he designed when he was a Chief Engineer in the US Navy.
12. We had a tram system (can we have it back?)
Credit: Leeds Library Information Services, Leodis.
It’s hard to believe now, but Leeds once had a mass transit system. A city-wide tramline opened in October 1891 and used single-decker horse drawn trams, until the introduction of steam and electric trams at the start of the next century. It connected the city centre with the suburbs and country villages until it closed in 1959 – boy, what we’d do for it now.
13. We designed the first county maps of England
Credit: Jheald and the British Library
Christopher Saxton was born in Tingley and became the Royal cartographer to Elizabeth I. He was given state-of-the-art surveying technology so he could draw each and every county in the country for the first time ever. The resulting maps were given their own double page spread in the Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales, which was published in 1579.
14. Leeds was beset by riots in the 19th century
The Kaiser Chiefs weren’t joking when they predicted riots because Leeds has a long history of them. The biggest ones came about as a result of the city’s rapid industrial expansion. In 1812, the Luddites protested the non-stop progress of the industrial revolution, then 30 years later, The Chartist Movement led massive riots across the city as citizens took to the streets to demand better working conditions and workers’ rights.
15. We proved we were better than Bradman
Donald Bradman is widely considered to be the best test cricketer of all time, but one of the Aussie’s most impressive records was broken by a lad from Fulneck near Pudsey. Sir Leonard Hutton was a mainstay of the Yorkshire county side and an England captain. He broke Bradman’s Ashes record of 334 by 30 runs, which was also the longest innings in first class cricket at the time.
16. Sooty and Sweep are Loiners
Harry Corbett is from rich Leeds stock. He was the nephew of fish and chip icon Harry Ramsden, but that’s not how he made his name. He devised the legendary children’s show Sooty and Sweep. It all began when he bought his son Matthew a puppet from a Blackpool stall in 1948. Four years later, the show aired for the first time and it’s now the longest running children’s programme in the UK.
17. The biggest day of the year in Leeds was dedicated to families
Leeds Children’s Day was more than just a fun day out for the family, it was one of the biggest social events on the city’s calendar – what a shame it ended back in 1963. Thousands of school children and their families descended on Roundhay Park every summer to take part in athletic displays, sports and games with prizes to be won depending on where each school finished.
18. Leeds had rooftop-grazing sheep who helped invent the lift
© Copyright Leeds-List 2020 by Ali Turner
Temple Works is a Grade-I listed former flax mill known for its incredible Ancient Egyptian design and for the fact it was the largest single room in the world when it was built in 1836. But that’s not its most interesting fact. To maintain the humidity levels within, they grew grass on the roof of the building which was grazed on by a herd of sheep. And to get them up there, they invented the first ever hydraulic lift.
19. Leeds has been home to literary giants
If you’re a bookworm, there’s a lot to thank Leeds for. It’s given the world a host of literary giants. Alan Bennett is perhaps the most famous, with ‘Talking Heads’ a cornerstone of modern British playwriting. But that’s not all. Barbara Taylor Bradford shifted over 30 million copies of ‘A Woman of Substance’, Tony Harrison created acclaimed poems like ‘V’ and Arthur Ransome penned ‘Swallows and Amazons’ right here in Leeds. Heck, even J.R.R. Tolkein lived here for a spell before he began ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
20. Charles Dickens was not a fan of Leeds
Credit: Scewing licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.
Not all literary giants loved Leeds, oh no. On one of his many tours around the country to read extracts from his latest works, Charles Dickens made another pitstop in Leeds. However, his impressions were not very good – he went on to describe the city as ‘an odious place’. Well, he couldn’t get it right every time could he?
21. Leeds has the world’s largest animal armour
Credit: Charlotte Graham
The Royal Armouries is full of incredible artefacts, but none as impressive as their 16th-century elephant armour. It was brought to Britain in 1801 by the former wife of the Governor of Madras from India and holds the title as the biggest animal armour in the world. It weighs a staggering 118 kilograms, comprises 5,840 plates and has been on display in the Leeds museum since 1996.
22. The first black FA Cup finalist played for Leeds United
Albert Johanneson was one of the most important footballers of the 20th century. The South African broke down countless barriers as one of the few black soccer players to have played in the top flight of English football. But he took it one step further in 1965, when he became the first black African FA Cup finalist in Leeds’ defeat against Liverpool.
23. Pudsey the Bear is Leeds born and bred
Pudsey the Bear is a lovable character synonymous with Children in Need, and as the name suggests, he has local origins. He was created by BBC graphic designer, Joanna Ball, who was given the task of creating a cuddly mascot for the charity appeal. She named the final result after her hometown, where her grandfather was the mayor. Pudsey’s been a national treasure ever since.
24. The first ever films were made in Leeds
Louis Le Prince was a French artist and inventor who filmed the very first motion pictures in Leeds, where he’d lived since 1866. The Roundhay Garden Scene at Oakwood Grange and the Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge were both shot in 1888 – they led the way for cinema as we know it. Although there have been similar claims from Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers, it was Le Prince who changed the game.
25. Leeds was the last flat cap manufacturer in the UK
Holbeck was home to the last sole manufacturer of the humble flat cap in the UK. JW Myers was the biggest flat cap maker in the world during the 1920s when the classic Yorkshire headgear would fly off the shelves. But by 2000, the cost of production was so high, they shut up shop and shipped manufacturing off to China.
26. A Leeds viaduct powered the industrial revolution
Copyright tj.blackwell licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.
Head down to Granary Wharf and you can’t miss the colourfully-lit archways of the North Eastern Railway Viaduct. It was a ground-breaking piece of engineering when it was built in 1869. The 1,500-yard viaduct linked the city’s two former railway stations together and provided a huge boost to the city’s industrial power.
27. Leeds played a huge role in the Civil War
Civil War broke out in England in 1642 when the Parliamentarians and Royalists reached constitutional breaking point over how the country should be governed. Leeds was caught up in this bloody tug of war too. The Royalists held the town until 1643, but a battle believed to have taken place on or near Briggate saw the city become a Parliamentarians stronghold until they won the war in 1651.
28. We had the Flat Iron Building first
New York City is famous for its Flat Iron Building, but the one in Big Apple wasn’t the first. The original was The Temperance Hotel, now known as Leeds Bridge House, which was completed in 1879. It preceded its famous big brother by 23 years. And that’s not the only connection – ours is said to have inspired the Yankee version, so there’s a little bit of Leeds in New York.
29. We were the first provincial town with a stock exchange
When you think of the stock exchange, you probably think of London, but we once had our own. Stocks have been traded in Leeds since the mid-1700s and the Leeds Stock Exchange Association was set up in 1844. It was based on Albion Street, where you’ll now find the Pinnacle building, but it closed in 1973 when London established itself as the European capital of the stock market.
30. You can thank us for the mousetrap
Having mice trouble? You don’t need to anymore because the classic spring-loaded mousetrap we still use today was created by a local ironmonger. James Henry Atkinson invented the Little Nipper and its effectiveness was such that the Procter Brothers of Garforth bought his patent in 1913 and continue to make them now.
31. We nearly killed Harry Houdini
He was the master of escape, but Leeds almost ended Harry Houdini’s life. The famed illusionist accepted a challenge so daring it put all his others to shame. He had to try and free himself from a cask of Tetley’s ale that was padlocked, but he couldn’t complete the stunt and ended up having to be rescued. Even the greatest of tricksters couldn’t con good old Yorkshire folk.
32. A Leeds lad stopped the city’s cholera epidemics
In the 19th century, there were 2,902 deaths from three major outbreaks of cholera, but local surgeon Robert Baker realised they could stop the spread of the disease by improving the squalid living conditions in the city. It took nearly 20 years to convince Leeds City Council, but in 1850, they finally built a proper sewage system. After that, there were no further outbreaks.
33. Leeds has the oldest running commercial railway in the world
Middleton Railway is the oldest continuously working public railway in the world. It originally opened in 1758 to move coal from the nearby quarries, but 252 years on, you can still take a ride on the old tracks. It’s barely changed over the years, so you can ride the same mile-long route from Moor Road to Park Halt Station, where you can get off and explore the museum.
34. We invented Jelly Tots and helped NASA in the process
Credit: Credit: Jo Marshall licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.
Stick a Jelly Tot in your mouth and you’ll be transported right back to our childhood – but did you know they were invented by a lad from Horsforth? Brian Boffey was experimenting with different ways to produce powdered jelly, instead he made the sweets we’ve adored since 1965. His discovery led him to help NASA create freeze-dried food for the Apollo space missions.
35. We gave the world historical philology
The study of language in ancient history is known as philology and it was invented by Oulton’s own Richard Bentley. He was the first person to translate classical texts by the likes of Aesop, Socrates and Euripides. His work was hugely controversial at the time, but is now considered a hugely important area of study for literary and history academics.
36. We’re responsible for a particularly unpopular Prime Minister
Herbert Henry Asquith has the unwanted honour of being one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers in recent history. The Morley-born PM was in office during the early years of the the First World War, but his lack of dynamism and action almost cost us the war. He was ousted in 1916 without prior knowledge and a new government was formed under David Lloyd George.
37. We have one of the biggest parks in Europe
© Copyright Leeds-List 2019 by Ali Turner
Roundhay Park is now one of the biggest urban parks in Europe, but it’s history goes back centuries. It was originally created by William the Conquerer. He passed the land on to the De Lacy family before it came into the possession of John of Gaunt and Henry IV. It was used as a royal hunting ground until Leeds City Council bought it in 1871. Now it’s the city’s most popular park.
38. We played a massive role Down Under
Credit: Cropbot licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.
Reverend Samuel Marsden may have been born in Farsley, but he had a bigger impact Down Under than he did in his hometown. He sailed to the southern hemisphere to become the chaplain of the settlement of Sydney in 1793. Soon after, he became the first Christian missionary to reach New Zealand and the first person to bring their exported wool to England.
39. We have a history stretching back 800 years
At the start of the 13th century, Leeds was just a small village of a few hundred people. The land was owned by Maurice Paynel, the Lord of the Manor of Leeds. He wanted to make more money, so he came up with the plans to establish Leeds as a borough and built Briggate as the local marketplace. Because of Paynel’s work, King John granted the early Leeds its first charter.
40. We make our own wines
It might not be the rich fields of Champagne or the rolling hills of Burgundy, but the Leeds countryside is home to one of the most Northern commercial vineyards in England. Leventhorpe Vineyard sits on a low-altitude, South-facing site that’s perfect for growing grapes. They used them to make the city’s very own wine, which you can pick up directly at the vineyard.
41. We have the longest-running West Indian Carnival in Europe
Credit: © Copyright Leeds-List 2020 by Ali Turner
Leeds West Indian Carnival has been running longer than any other in Europe. That’s right, even longer than the famous Notting Hill edition. It’s been going since 1967 and it’s still going strong more than 50 years later. On every bank holiday weekend, Chapeltown comes to life, full of colour, music and energy as dancers weave their way through the streets before finishing up with a party.
42. We live in a cannibal city
Leeds wasn’t always one of the biggest cities in the North. It’s grown from a small riverside village into a behemoth that’s swallowed up neighbouring towns and villages. Places like Headingley, Horsforth and Meanwood all started out as their own separate villages but have become part of the city we know today since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
43. We pioneered kidney dialysis
Leeds General Infirmary has been responsible for many game-changing achievements in healthcare and one of the biggest is kidney dialysis. Dr Frank Parsons saw the positive effect of dialysis on injured soldiers in Korea, so when he came back to Leeds, he convinced the sceptical Medical Research Council to back the treatment and set up the European Dialysis & Transplant Association.
44. Leeds had a zoo with bears in Victorian times
© Copyright Leeds-List 2020 by Ali Turner
The Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens opened in 1840. Once home to monkeys, eagles and even bears, it was one of the city’s premier attractions, but it didn’t last. Local mill workers didn’t have the time or the money to visit, and as a result, they couldn’t attract the crowds they needed to survive. Now the only thing that remains is the empty bear pit on Cardigan Lane.
45. Leeds was the original home of TV darts
In 1972, The Indoor League brought together the very best darts players from around the world – and they came together at the Leeds Irish Centre. It was the first time darts had ever been shown on TV. The venue was awarded a Leeds Civic Trust blue plaque in 2010 after a massive campaign which had celebrity support from the likes of Stephen Fry, Phil Taylor and Jeremy Paxman.
46. Karl Marx wrote for our local paper
While he wasn’t a journalist by trade, Karl Marx did lend his influential thoughts to one of the city’s long-lost newspapers. He wrote columns for the chartist paper Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, which shut in 1852. This was while he was working with Friedrich Engles on the works that saw him recognised as one of the most important philosophers of the 19th century.
47. We completed the world’s first double hand transplant
In 2013, Doncaster native Chris King lost both hands except his thumbs in a work accident. Three years later, he was the first person in the world to undergo a double hand transplant and it took place at Leeds General Infirmary. The pioneering operation has given him 90% normal range of movement, allowing him to do everything from picking up a bag of sugar to buttoning his shirt.
48. One of our mummies miraculously survived the war
Leeds was once home to three Ancient Egyptian mummies, one of which was Priest Natsef-Amun. They’d been in Leeds since 1824, but were damaged during a German bomb strike on the old Leeds Museum in the Second World War. Two of the mummies were destroyed, yet incredibly, only the inner lid of Priest Natsef-Amun’s coffin was damaged, his remains were untouched.
49. A hurricane stopped us in our tracks
© Copyright Leeds-List 2019 by Contakt Photography
In February 1962, a hurricane rolled through Yorkshire and caused untold chaos in Leeds and the surrounding areas. It was so bad that Leeds Station was closed and Otley Market was forced to shut for the first time in 30 years. The biggest cost, however, was a loss of life when 23-year-old Anita Thrush was killed by a collapsed chimney during the storm.
50. The first black circus master rests in Leeds
Credit: Chemical Engineer licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.
Pablo Fanque’s story is incredible. He was the UK’s first black circus owner and the bulk of his shows took place right here in Leeds. His legacy has lived on thanks to The Beatles who name checked him in the lyrics to ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ and on the cover of ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’. His final resting place is here in St George’s Fields Cemetery.
51. We have the tallest maypole in the UK
Credit: John Fergusson licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.
Maypoles may not play a massive role in society today, but there’s still one standing tall in Leeds. In fact, it’s the tallest maypole in the UK and it can be found in the picturesque village of Barwick-in-Elmet. It stands at a massive 86-foot and was a source of envy for rival villages – the locals of Aberford even tried to steal it once. It’s the centrepiece of their tri-annual Maypole Festival.
52. The first replica shirts were sold by Leeds United
Credit: Chris Robertshaw licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.
Leeds United are football kit pioneers. They were the first club to ever sell replica versions of the team’s shirts for fans to buy. Back in 1975, they made the decision to show off their new-look all-white kits that they had based on the famous Real Madrid. So now you’ve got Leeds to thank for spending £70 every summer.
53. One of our own was a New York gangster
Owney Madden is a name that once struck fear into the heart of anyone who heard it. This was 1900s Prohibition-era New York – the notorious Gopher Gang were one of the biggest criminal networks in the city and Madden became one of their most feared leaders. It was a long way from his poverty-stricken beginnings in the tenements of Somerset Street in Leeds city centre.
54. A Leeds lad created the world’s most famous golf courses
Alistair Mackenzie was born in Normanton but his talent for creating challenging and beautiful golf courses took him around the world. Through his career as a course architect, he created over 50 courses, including three that still sit in the top 10 in the world – Augusta National, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne. He was even inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame for his work.
55. Leeds was the original motorway city
It might cause commuters headaches now, but the A58(M) was a pioneering stretch of road when it opened in 1964. Now part of the Inner Ring Road of Leeds, it was the very first motorway to open up in an urban area. It wasn’t popular at the time because they had to demolish 365 homes and over 170 buildings in the north west of the city centre.
56. You have us to thank for fizzy drinks
Birstall-born and long-time Leeds resident Joseph Priestley is one of the most important scientists and philosophers of the 18th century. He’s been credited with the discovery of oxygen and he was responsible for the invention of carbonated water. His method of infuse water with carbon dioxide gas was used by J.J. Schweppe in the late 18th century to start his famous drinks company – the rest is history.
57. Leeds has some seriously famous names
Credit: Danny North
Keith Lemon, Mel B and the Kaiser Chiefs aren’t the only famous names to come from Leeds. Ernie Wise, one half of Morecambe and Wise, was from Bramley and Emmy Award-winning actor Peter O’Toole grew up in Hunslet. More recently, celebrity chef Marco Pierre White was raised in Alwoodley and renowned journalist Jeremy Paxman was born here. We’re a talented bunch.
58. We got off lightly during World War Two
Credit: Mtaylor848 licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.
The role Leeds played in the Second World War effort was huge. The city’s industrial strength was leveraged to help supply the nation and the army with ammunition, uniforms and aircraft. But, unlike most other large industrial cities, Leeds got off lightly when it came to German bombers. Only 197 buildings were destroyed and just 77 people died as a result of the raids.
59. We made the UK’s most expensive furniture
Credit: Daderot licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.
How much would you spend on a piece of furniture? Bet it wouldn’t be £3.8 million, but that’s exactly what one flush buyer paid for the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold in Britain. It was the Harrington Comode by Otley-born cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale. He is widely considered to be the finest carpenter of all time and remaining examples of his work often cost millions.
60. Leeds was the birthplace of cardiothoracic surgery
Marian Ionescu lived quite the life. He was a gifted cardiac surgeon who escaped the oppressive Communist regime in Romania before moving to America and then to Leeds. It was here at the General Infirmary that he pioneered cardiothoracic surgery, invented artificial heart valves and became the first person to reconstruct a heart using a single ventricle.
Cover image credit: Tim Green licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.