The Dark Arches

October 6, 2010

For me this has always been a place of mystery and enchantment, one of the few, rare sites where we can still get a sense of what this area of the city was like before the successive re-development and regeneration programmes of the last half of the 20th century, and in particular a sense of the dark, Victorian heart of the city.

This vast brick cathedral also stands at the centre of what was once the ancient manorial land of Leeds occupied by peasant tenant-farmers since the time of the Norman Conquest. Still visible on the river Aire from under the arches, is the mediaeval ‘High dam’, built in the 14th century, together with another dam further down river, to divert water to the manorial corn mill at Swinegate, by the Lord of the manor, whose fortified manor house stood on the site now occupied by the Scarborough hotel.

The arches themselves where the result of a decision to build a new railway station, following the merger of several small railway companies in the mid-nineteenth century, extending the line from the original station on Marsh lane, through the city centre to a new terminus that would straddle the river Aire and the Leeds and Liverpool canal. Work commenced in 1866 and was completed three years later, with over 18 million bricks making up the arches alone. Even today, standing under the arches one can only be awed by the vast engineering enterprise undertaken by our Victorian forebears.

The Chief constable of Leeds writing in 1892, in a report arguing for an expansion of the police force, cites the Dark arches, along with Swinegate, Whitehall road and the area behind the Queens hotel, as one of the places to be avoided because it was frequented by idlers, criminals, and loose women who would lure their customers into secluded spots among the workshops and small businesses, only for them to be joined by a male companion who would beat and rob the unfortunate and unwary customer.

That same year, the arches were the scene of one of Leeds’ largest fires, when the arches blazed for 20 hours, and it took the combined efforts of firemen from Leeds, joined by crews from York, Bradford and Derby to finally extinguish the flames. One fireman, from a private fire crew financed, as was common at the time, by an insurance company, sadly lost his life in the effort to confine the blaze, and it was reported that 100,000 grateful citizens of Leeds turned out to attend his funeral procession.

What stories do you have to tell about the arches?

1 Comment

  • Don Tate says:

    I have worked on the railways for nearly forty years. When I first started back in 1973 I was a messenger. One of my jobs was to go round and take readings from the various water/gas/electric meters. Most of these were scattered around the many alcoves and grates of the dark arches. I used go armed with pencil, book, set of keys a lamp and a sense of foreboding for some of the places down there. Locked away were some areas which I swear no-one had used since the war (quite possibly the Boer War). Damp, dark, smelly, full of rubbish and frequented by small furry things with long tails. By the time I got “promoted” to the parcels office, I got to know my way round the arches fairly well.

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