An opinion poll taken by Omnisis in early July reveals that 60% of those surveyed in a carefully balanced sample are now in favour of the UK rejoining the EU – a massive shift in perception now that the cruel realities of life outside the EU have hit the lives and pockets of UK citizens.
Now that reality has swept away the many lies and deception of Brexit, many leave voters who thought they were voting to save the NHS are experiencing buyer’s remorse on a massive scale.
But with both the UK government and the Labour Party still in denial about all that is happening to our country, even getting softer options such as Norway-style trade, travel, work and cultural links with our near neighbours, seems a long way off. This is the despite the overwhelming evidence of the continuing economic damage and disruption being caused by Brexit – which is only expected to get worse. Politicians remain in thrall to Britain’s hard-right, xenophobic popular press.
One Yorkshire campaigning group, Leeds for Europe, is challenging the Little Englanders and British Empire revivalists. Not only is the group making the case for rejoining the EU to politicians and communities within one of the North’s leading progressive cities, but it is changing perceptions in a quiet but forceful way by demonstrating Leeds’ success as a great trading, outward-looking city, which has always faced towards the European mainland.
Leeds past, present and future
Leeds grew as a village, town and finally a city on the highest navigable point on the River Aire. Its existence in the past, the present, but also inevitably the future, is intimately bound up with the city’s many mainland European links.
Leeds in the 21st century is a highly successful multicultural city, whose success has been driven by waves of immigrants – Celts, Romans, Anglians, Vikings, Normans, Huguenot French, Irish, and in more recent times Afro Caribbeans and people from South Asia, who helped our textile and manufacturing industries to survive and who remain critically important to maintain our care industries and the NHS.
Yet even after 1,000 years, that special Yorkshire Scandinavian influence also remains. I was interested to discover on a recent trip to Oslo that one of the main streets in that city is called Kirke Gata – Kirkgate.
Industry and trade
Leeds played a major role in the Industrial Revolution that transformed the fortunes of the North of England, after centuries of Norman occupation and exploitation and – following the defeat of our last and only truly northern monarch, Richard III – after further Tudor oppression.
That Industrial Revolution, in which Leeds played such a significant part, began in the high Pennines, as water and later steam power replaced human energy in the first mills, coal mines, forges and workshops. Leeds Bridge at the end of Briggate – another Norse name – was where trade initially took place between the wool piece producers from Halifax and the higher Pennines, and merchant traders from as far as Venice and Antwerp.
Soon the trade moved into what were known as the White and Coloured Cloth Halls. The merchants utilised the great trade arteries of the North Sea and the Rivers Humber and Ouse. The widening of the River Aire at the end of the 17th century to create the Aire-Calder Navigation would not only bring coal from South Yorkshire coalfields for growing industries, but vast quantities of timber and iron ore from Scandinavia and the Baltic States.
The opening of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal allowed both the export of wool and manufactured goods towards Liverpool and the Atlantic, and the import of raw materials from the new colonies as well as lead for water pipes and limestone for agriculture and cement from the Dales.
Leeds became a major manufacturing centre, focusing on heavy engineering which, as railways replaced canals, gave the city a further boost. By the mid-19th century, the city enjoyed fame for railway locomotives, with engineering companies such as Matthew Murray, Kitson, Hudswell Clarke and worldwide traction engine manufacturers such as John Fowler.
New settlers with new skills
The rapid growth of the city and outlying settlements during the 19th century required workers to serve these industries. Many came from Ireland and Eastern Europe, particularly Jewish refugees escaping antisemitic pogroms in Poland, Lithuania, Russia and, in later years, the Holocaust in Germany, Hungary and Austria. These people brought a huge range of skills, notably in tailoring, establishing Leeds as a national centre for ready-made clothing with firms such as Hepworth and Fifty-Shilling Tailors.
A young Lithuanian refugee named Meshe Osinsky (1859–1907) set up a ready-made tailoring business in the city which by 1934 was employing 10,000 people. For marketing purposes Osinsky changed his name to English-sounding Montague Burton. The Burton family remained great patrons of the University and the arts in Leeds for generations.
Even more famous was Michael Marks (1859–1905) who borrowed £5 to set up a stall in Leeds market, which eventually – in partnership with his accountant Thomas Spencer – became the nationally known clothing chain Marks & Spencer.
But it was not just in commerce but also the creative arts where immigrants from mainland Europe made and continue to make a huge difference. Jacob Kramer (1892–1962) from Ukraine, after coming to Leeds as a child, won a scholarship to the new Leeds Arts School and later, thanks to funds donated by the Leeds Jewish community, to the Slade School of Art in London. He became a nationally celebrated portrait painter and returned to Leeds School of Art as its principal. The school was later renamed the Jacob Kramer College and is now Leeds Arts University. Its alumni include Barbara Hepworth and Damien Hurst.
Leeds Eurowalks – celebrating history and culture
Leeds for Europe is celebrating some of these and other close commercial, family and intellectual links with our neighbours across the North Sea by creating a series of four online self-guided walking routes through the city – Leeds Eurowalks. These are not strenuous hikes, rather gentle strolls through the outskirts, suburbs and centre of the city.
Each walk discovers various aspects of the city’s architectural and cultural heritage, stressing links with mainland European people and ideas that have helped to build Leeds into a truly European city. The walks include a route between Chapel Allerton and Roundhay Park, from the Fulneck Moravian settlement in Pudsey to Headingley, from Leeds University to the Grand Theatre and from there to Leeds Market, the Royal Armouries and Tower Works.
All of these walks are downloadable free of charge at https://leedseurowalks.co.uk/
The Leeds Eurowalks will be formally launched in Millennium Square on Sunday 30 July at 11am with a public walk of around 2km (1½ miles) through the city ending at the Royal Armouries.
All are welcome and there is no charge for joining this launch event.
There will be several guests of honour on this inaugural walk, including Geoff Tranter, chair of the Dortmund Anglo-German Society. Making a rare visit to his native city of Leeds, Tranter is a well-known lecturer and teacher who has lived in Leeds’ German twin city of Dortmund for nearly 50 years. He has done much to cement close relationships between the two cities of Leeds and Dortmund and their wider regions of Yorkshire and Nordrhein-Westfalen over those years and is back in Leeds to meet family and friends and to celebrate his 80th birthday.