How Leeds Changed The World

how leeds changed the word mick mccann book cover

Among the hard facts of How Leeds Changed the World, a new encyclopaedia containing the myriad achievements of the city and its people, is a little bit of gossip and rumour, some myth, some legend – maybe the odd half-truth. The point being, it’s all these things that combine to make Leeds the great modern city it is today. Compiled by Mick McCann and written in an irreverent and humorous style, the book is really (a very long!) love letter to the city, that will melt even the steeliest of Loiner hearts.

Here, Mick picks out a few of the people and achievements that appealed to him the most …

how leeds changed the world subutteo train

Middleton born William Gascoigne (1612–1644) is one of the founding fathers of British research astronomy. He invents the micrometer, telescopic sextant, and the telescopic sight. He greatly improves the newly invented telescope. His inventions make him the first person to accurately calculate the size of planets and the distances between them. He dies relatively young in the Battle of Marston Moor. Behind him he leaves ‘a whole barn full of instruments’ that he’d developed. Their intended uses and secrets die with him.

Isabella Ford (1855–1924) was a nationally renowned campaigner for labour rights and women’s suffrage. She makes the first ever speech by a woman at what became the Labour Party conference. She helps form many unions and political organisations in Leeds. As a young lass she teaches in what is the first ever night school, organised by her parents for local mill girls.

John Berkenhout (1726–1791) produces the first lexicon/dictionary of plants in the English language. He starts work on ‘Clavis Anglica linguae botanicae’: or, A Botanical Lexicon in 1760.

“The chick-lit genre starts with Morley-born Helen Fielding”

Not only is the actual first ever Lads’ Mag conceived, written, printed and launched in Leeds, but Leeds’ own James Brown conceives and first edits Loaded, London’s version of the first ever Lads’ Mag a few years later. Leeds’ EX Magazine is produced in September 1991, distributed nationally, features the staple of football, beer, sex, semi-naked women and men’s ‘issues’ dealt with in a playful, tongue-in-cheek manner. Also, the chick-lit genre starts with ‘Bridget Jones’, created by Morley’s Helen Fielding.

Aviation pioneer Robert Blackburn built Britain’s first working planes in 1908/09. In July 1914 he started Britain’s first scheduled passenger flights, going every 30-minutes between Roundhay Park and Bradford – later operating passenger flights to London and Amsterdam from Soldiers’ Field. His wife, Jessica, is one of the first female aviators. She competes in races against men and is also a friend (and, I’d argue, inspiration) to a young Amy Johnson.

Waddingtons brought Cluedo, Subbuteo and hundreds of board games to the world. But I like the tales of intrigue behind Monopoly. The starting point was a request by the WW2 British Secret Service. This led Waddingtons to perfect the process of printing on silk to manufacture light, quiet and durable silk escape maps for British airmen. The spymasters came knocking again with the result that Monopoly games sent via the Red Cross to prisoners of war contained a silk map of their immediate area. This included safe houses, along with a compass and metal file in with the playing pieces and real money simply placed below the Monopoly money. The capitalist blue-print Monopoly also helped end the Cold War… but that’s another story.

how leeds changed the world plane and ticket

“Middleton Railway saw the world’s first commercially viable steam locomotive”

It’s well known that Louis Le Prince made the world’s first films in Leeds. Yet a Leeds lad, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, tried 12 years earlier. But, as the basic idea was obviously insane, he couldn’t get funding. Upon hearing of Le Prince’s later success in Leeds he re-visited his ‘camera’ (based on mill technology) and showed that it worked. Thus becoming the second person to produce film. One of Le Prince’s mechanics, James Longley, produced the modern world’s first automated ticket dispensing machines and one of the world’s first vending machines.

The Middleton Railway saw the world’s first commercially viable steam locomotive. Salamanca (or possibly the less well known Prince Regent by the same company, on the same line), first ran in 1812 and this led to Leeds becoming a world centre for locomotive production.

According to the US Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Dr Peter Lawrenson is the father of the switched reluctance (SR) drive. It is: ‘the only radically new family of machine drives in a century.’ Its use is in a range of applications such as electric motors and pumps in planes, cars, buses, trucks and trains they markedly reduce carbon emissions.

“Leeds lad Denys Fisher brought Spirograph and Stickle Bricks to the world”

Moving to Armley from near Halifax when he is 11, David Hartley (1705–1757) changes radical thinking in the 18th/19th Centuries. Although he is largely edited out of history, he is a huge influence on later writers such as Coleridge and Shelley. Shelly’s second wife, Mary, bases the nature of Frankenstein on Hartley’s writings. He influences the theory of evolution with his major work, published over a hundred years before On the Origin of Species. I would argue that he got to psychology 50 to 100 years before the subject, as we know it today, was putting down its tentative roots.

A founder of the Leeds Medical School, Charles Turner Thackray (1795–1833) was the father of Occupational Medicine and Preventive Medicine. With other Leeds folk he is central to changing barbaric child labour laws and practices.

Percy Alfred Scholes (1877–1958) conceived and wrote the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Music. At over a million words, it took him six years to write and it is longer than the Bible. Although acknowledged as a classical music expert, his opinionated style and dry, cutting humour led people to consider the reference book a little eccentric.

With a book of such vast scope I am sure to miss some things. Here are a couple which didn’t make it into the book. In the 1960s Leeds lad Denys Fisher brought Spirograph to the world and later Stickle Bricks. Plus, a very good source told me that a clinical trial for a heart drug carried out in Leeds noted some interesting side-effects. This led to further Leeds trials resulting in the production of Viagra!

‘How Leeds Changed The World’ by Mick McCann is available from Waterstones, HMV, Leeds Tourist Information and Amazon, £9.99


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