Historian Neil Ashcroft shares his research into the life of the Jewish community in the vanished Leylands district.
Now an area comprising city car parks, large stores, and a section of the inner ring road, the long gone Leylands area of Leeds is a vastly different landscape compared to how it was when inhabited by Jewish immigrants who settled there in the late nineteenth century.
After writing extensively about this period under his pseudonym Russell Croft, historic author Neil Ashcroft unveils a snapshot of how life was for those fleeing persecution from Eastern Europe through his online article titled Leeds Leylands’ Life.
Originally a solicitor based in London, Neil gained both an MA and a doctorate degree in maritime history at the University of Hull before moving to Leeds. While drawing on his extensive legal and maritime knowledge to write his own historical fiction novels, the author still dedicates his spare time to take a deep dive into any part of history which interests him.
Drawing inspiration from the book, From the Leylands to Leeds 17, co-written by two Leeds 17 ladies, the late Diane Saunders and Philippa Lester, Neil’s heavy reading and research was also fuelled from various journal accounts and newspaper articles found in the British Newspaper Archive online.
“Simply putting in the word ‘Leylands’ as a search term turns up plenty of irrelevant stuff,” explained Neil. “Putting together all the material for any research endeavour requires lots of hard work and many hours digging through the vast amount of information out there. But I can happily sit and spend the necessary length of time needed to fully investigate into a project. Having a passion for history and a sense of curiosity has always been what really drives me.”
While describing the Jewish population’s heavy involvement with the city’s tailoring industry, Neil also details some of the harsh sanitary conditions, poverty, and crime faced at the time as the Leyland’s community grew at a rapid rate from 1881 to the 1900s:
“My main principle has also been to use new primary material and never rehash what’s already been published. The 19th century newspapers are such a fertile source for this, where all the images were told in writing before photographs could be published. The picturesque language always makes these descriptions more interesting and insightful.
“It was particularly interesting to see how the local press at the time regarded the Leylands as its residents strived for self-improvement. From some publications, there’s clearly quite a lot
of prejudice against the community. Certain aspects of Jewish life were reported on in disparaging terms, whether this was regarding the active gambling houses or the noise from workers using loud machinery on a Sunday.
“But I’m also struck by how some people spoke up for the community. The Leeds Times, for example, was evidently well-disposed towards the residents and would make complaints
on their behalf for issues such as the lack of police presence to protect the people from any hostility.”
Since publishing his research, audiences can catch Neil at Leeds Library on 16th January as he delivers an in-depth lecture on Leeds Leylands’ Life. Hosted by The Thoresby Society, the talk is one of several events organised by the historic group since its beginning in 1889 to foster local interest in the city’s history and the communities which have shaped it over the centuries.
As the historic journey of Leeds’ Jewish community moves on from Leylands and into Chapeltown during the inter-war period, a future project focusing on the next chapter of Jewish life also might be on the cards for Neil: “The several successive waves of immigration certainly makes Chapeltown an interesting theme to delve into.
“It has existed as quite a well-to-do area, to then going downhill, before becoming the well- settled and multi-ethnic area we see today. The area’s rapidly moving history is something that may be worth looking into to discover more of the Jewish experience.”
Book ahead for Neil’s lecture by visiting Thoresby.org.uk
To read more on Neil’s account on Leeds Leylands’ Life, visit Russellcroft.net