The town of Leeds in Yorkshire, U.K. grew in importance as a centre for the wool trade. Like many towns throughout the country, Leeds expanded rapidly during the Industrial Revolution. Between 1780 and 1850, Leeds had grown in population from 25,000 to 100,000. Industry had started to diverse towards the end of the eighteenth century, aided by machines. The town’s economy expanded outside of its traditional woollen industry, including leather, chemical and engineering industries.
One of the pioneer’s of the new industry was the engineer Matthew Murray. Murray had been hired by linen manufacturer John Marshall to develop spinning machines, powered by steam engines, to make the business more efficient. Murray set up his own engineering business making textiles machines, steam engines and locomotives. This helped Leeds become a centre for locomotive manufacture even before the town had its own railway services. In 1858, an Exhibition of Local Industry was held to promote the new trades. This was also the year Queen Victoria visited to open the town hall. By the end of the century Leeds was the largest town in Yorkshire, which was recognised in being granted city status in 1893.
Charles Dickens was known to have visited Leeds at least five times during his lifetime. The first visit clearly left a bad and lasting impression as, ten years later, Dickens described the town as odious.
We have attempted to put together the movements of Dickens whilst in Leeds during his numerous visits based on material such as letters, newspaper reports and articles. There are some small gaps and we would be grateful for any information to make it into a comprehensive list.
On Wednesday, 1 December 1847 came to Leeds at the invitation of the Leeds Mechanics’ Institute to chair its annual meeting. Dickens arrived in the town with his wife, Catherine. The president of the Institution, John Hope Shaw, showed Dickens around the houses of prominent members before arriving at the Music Hall in Albion Street, where he was greeted with a large applause. Also in attendance was the engineer George Stephenson, local dignitries and members from other similar institutions from neighbouring towns. At 7pm, following a brief introduction by Shaw, Dickens made a speech to the assembled audience, which was reported to number around 1100 people.
Dickens made a brief stop-over in Leeds on Sunday, 13 September 1857, whilst travelling with his friend and fellow author Wilkie Collins. The pair had just undertaken a walking holiday in Cumberland, which had not been very successful after Collins sprained his leg during the descent of a mountain. Dickens had made arrangments for the following week to be spent in Doncaster where he could secretly get to meet Ellen Ternan. However Sunday railway timetables necessitated a stay in Leeds en-route from Lancaster to Doncaster. Dickens was clearly not impressed by his previous visit to Leeds as we can see in this passage of a letter he wrote to his sister-in-law and housekeeper, Georgina Hogarth, the day before he arrived:
… we shall have, as well as I can make out the complicated list of trains, to sleep at Leeds-which I particularly detest as an odious place-tomorrow night.
Dickens returned to Leeds as part of a national reading tour in 1858, giving just one reading in the town, held on Thursday, 28 October.
Leeds had recently played host to a visit by Queen Victoria, who opened the new town hall, and the streets were still decorated in bunting.
In 1867, Charles Dickens visited Leeds to give two nights of readings, again at the town’s Music Hall in Albion Street. He stayed three nights, stopping over at the Scarborough Arms in . came because of a letter he wrote the following year.
Dickens reading itinery during the 1867 visit was as follows:
- January, 31 (Thursday). Gives a reading of Barbox Brothers and The Boy at Mugby.
- February, 1 (Friday), Gives a reading of Doctor Marigold’s Prescriptions and also the trail scene from The Pickwick Papers.
Dickens final appearance in Leeds was for a reading on Friday, 16 April 1869. The reading was part of a national tour, billed as his farewell tour.
On this visit, Dickens was able to give his performance at a much larger venue in the town, the Leeds Mechanics’ Institute which had moved to new premises in Cookridge Street. The venue, designed by Cuthbert Broderick had opened the previous year and was reported to hold between 2,000 – 3,000 people.
Tickets for the event were eagerly snapped up when they went on sale and there were reports of people with tickets being offered “high premiums” to part with them.
Local newspaper, the Leeds Mercury reported the following day that:
Mr. Dickens retired as he had entered, amidst the loud applause of his audience, the only regret felt being that as a reader we shall probably see his face no more.
The following locations in Leeds are associated with the Victorian author Charles Dickens during his lifetime. Click on a location to get more information and to access further pages.
Background: Charles Dickens and Mechanics’ Institutes.
Mechanics’ Institutes are educational establishments, originally formed to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men. As such, they were often funded by local industrialists on the grounds that they would ultimately benefit from having more knowledgeable and skilled employees. The Mechanics’ Institutes were used as ‘libraries’ for the adult working class, and provided them with an alternative pastime to gambling and drinking in pubs. Charles Dickens was an advocate of education for working people and gave his support to a number of requests from mechanics’ institutes throughout the country to speak at events, which helped raise funds. This included institutes in Birmingham, Coventry, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield.