The Victoria Quarter, Leeds – History and Profile
The Knightsbridge of the North
The Beatles once played there, top stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Gracie Fields have appeared in it… and now the biggest names in fashion and style occupy centre stage…
The Victoria Quarter is one of the country’s most unique shopping centres, and Keith Spence looks at its fascinating background and history…
For over 100 years the Victoria Quarter – which carriers the moniker ‘Knightsbridge of the North’ – has been the centre of exclusive shopping in the city of Leeds. The transformation of Victoria County Arcade and the surrounding area is one of the most successful regenerative city centre projects ever undertaken in the UK.
This upmarket shopping district consists of three blocks between Briggate and Vicar Lane, comprising the County Arcade, Cross Arcade, Queen Victoria Street and King Edward Street.
The Victoria Quarter has a reputation for fashion and style, attracting some of the biggest names in the industry over the last 20 years. But there’s more to it than simply shopping. Breathtaking surroundings, including Brian Clarke’s world-famous stained-glass roof, has put the location into a class of its own. There’s a distinctly continental atmosphere. Cafes spill onto the arcades, there’s a pretty fountain and a fairly liberal slice of ‘La Dolce Vita’.
The centre was comprehensively refurbished in 1990. The design incorporates Britain’s largest stained glass roof covering (746.9 m2). The centre also enjoys Grade II listed building status. This puts it in the top 4% of buildings in the UK. With 75 exclusive stores and over 8 million visitors a year, the Victoria Quarter is Leeds’s must-see shopping destination.
How Did We Get Here?
Looking to transform an arcade and surrounding streets which are decidedly down-at-heel and under-performing, plans are originally drawn up to simply refurbish the arcade. These extend to include adjacent streets. The intention is to revive the entire area and create a distinct ‘quarter’ and destination.
A comprehensive programme of repair and restoration, complete with careful integration of buildings return the arcades to their original glory. To complement the refurbishment of these old buildings, a delicately modelled glazed, split-level roof over the whole of the pedestriansed Queen Victoria Street is introduced. The covered street forms a giant conservatory, ideal for pavement cafes and street entertainment. The main feature along Queen Victoria Street is the award-winning stained glass window, which, at 120 metres long, is the largest in Europe.
Historically this area was a mass of narrow yards housing slaughterhouses and butcher’s shops. The original development is designed by the theatre architect Frank Matcham and includes his Empire Palace Theatre. This is demolished in the 1960s. The theatre is opened as a music hall in 1898 with seating for 1,750 people. It is so popular that the other two music halls in Leeds, the Tivoli and the City Varieties, have to close for a period. Top stars like Vesta Tilley and Charlie Chaplin appear at the Empire and in December 1924 Gracie Fields stars in the review, Mr Tower of London.
Circus and animal acts are popular but don’t always go according to plan. In 1938 Miss Ruth Hasse, a leopard trainer, is mauled by her animals which are kept in a cage backstage.
Alterations are made in 1931 so that new talking pictures can be shown. But it still continues successfully as a theatre. Even during the 1950s, when television causes a dramatic drop in attendances, the Empire survives. The Beverley Sisters, Joan Reagan, Dickie Valentine, Tommy Trinder, Harry Secombe and Frankie Vaughan appear. In 1959 crowds of hysterical fans hammer at the stage door after Cliff Richard performs.
In 1960 Moss Empires plan to replace the Empire with a larger theatre elsewhere in the city. This is so they can put on increasingly spectacular shows but it never happens. An application for change of use to shops and offices is approved.
Despite this, the 1960-61 Christmas pantomime goes ahead to packed houses. On the last night, February 25, 1961, star of Babes in the Woods Nat Jackley doffs his dame’s wig and says: “When you say goodbye to a friend, you always take your hat off.”
The audience sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and the theatre closes in 1962 after nearly 63 years. It is replaced by the Empire Arcade, now the site of Harvey Nichols.
Another famous retailer, chic clothes store, Reiss, occupies the site of the Mecca Locarno Ballroom . In the 50s and 60s it is managed by Jimmy Savile. He persuades top names to appear, including an early incarnation of The Beatles, then just another beat band from Liverpool.
Thousands of Leeds people enjoy the best days of their lives dancing to the records in the venue. In fact, it is so popular, it is often full at lunchtime! Mecca closes in 1969 after a new venture is opened in the Merrion Centre.
Today’s Victoria Quarter houses some of the biggest names in the industry. With brands such as Louis Vuitton, Harvey Nichols, Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, Mulberry, Oliver Sweeney, Reiss, Gieves & Hawkes, Diesel and Firetrap, the VQ more than justifies the moniker of ‘The Knightsbridge of the North.’
The VQ regularly plays host to a variety of events and functions. These have included Harvey Nichols’ 10th Anniversary celebrations and a birthday bash for Bollywood’s Shilpa Shetty.
One regular fixture that’s become a firm favourite with Leeds’ shoppers is the VQ Shopping Affair. Every store opens from 6–9pm with exclusive, event-only offers and discounts. It’s a not-to-be-missed opportunity to enhance the wardrobe.
These days a visit to Leeds isn’t complete without a visit to the VQ to enjoy its wonderful architecture and continental atmosphere. Not to mention its rich and varied history.