It has been two years since Dr Kevin Grady ‘retired’ but, as Neil Hudson discovers, the historian is more active than ever...
Dr Kevin Grady is clearly enjoying life. We meet in the headquarters of Leeds Civic Trust, the organisation he spearheaded for almost 30 years and from which he retired in late 2016.
He is neatly turned out, overcoat and scarf and suit beneath and with his round glasses and white hair, he looks the epitome of the questing academic, but he looks trim.
“I’ve been going to the gym,” he reveals. “I go three times a week. For someone who spends a lot of time writing and reading books, one of the things I was fearful of was putting on weight but the gym sessions have become more of a social thing really.”
At 68, he’s clearly not lacking energy and that extends to his love of history. Since 2007, Dr Grady has been conducting annual ‘Leeds in Your Lunch Hour’ lectures at Holy Trinity Church. This is the 11th iteration of the series (he had one year off) and the importance of conveying his message seems more pressing than ever.
He followed in the footsteps of renowned historian Emeritus Professor Maurice Beresford (1920-2005), whose seminal work on Leeds, East End, West End: Face of Leeds During Urbanisation, 1684–1842, drew people’s attention to the city’s pre-industrial past.
“What he did was to look at how the city had changed from being a small Georgian cloth making town of about 10,000 people to the point where, by 1840s, it was up to half a million. The point was, he had been the great flag bearer for the study of Leeds.
“A couple of years after he died, it was the 800th anniversary of the creation of Briggate, the manorial borough of Leeds. I thought someone needs to be out there to promote the history of Leeds. I had a about 500 images of Leeds on slides and I thought, if I don’t start scanning them, they will be lost.
“I needed the incentive to undertake the laborious process of scanning them and that is how the lectures were born.”
For the first two years, they were basically picture shows but over the years, they have evolved to the point where they are now polished talks on different aspects of the city’s history, together with some stunning and surprising pictures. As we talk, Dr Grady shows me pictures of Hunslet before the motorways were built. It’s the topic of one of this year’s lectures and it’s a subject close to his heart.
“The lecture is Hunslet from the Middle Ages to the present day in 30 minutes. The Thoresby Society has an archive of wonderful pictures of workers cottages and some very grand merchants houses. Old Hunslet has been effectively wiped off the face of the earth.
“Until the middle of the 19th Century, it was a very proud, independent community, it was the largest industrial out-township in Leeds and was a hive of activity in terms of handicrafts, the making of cloth, pottery and so on.
“What happened to Hunslet was this comprehensive redevelopment which was part of the brave new world of planning in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“A similar thing happened to Bramley, of which we also have a lot of pictures of before it too was largely demolished - I’ve seen people cry when they see what Bramley used to be like.
“The irony is that, yes, the buildings were slums but had they been in Headingley, today you would probably pay £300,000 for one, because of the stone and the sense of history.”
It’s that sense of history, or holding onto the precious buildings from our past, which is an over-arching theme in all his work and could well be his legacy. When he became director of the Civic Trust in 1987, one of the first things to cross his desk was a demolition notice for the Wesleyan Chapel on Meadow Street, just south of Leeds Bridge (an Asda car park stands there today). It was the largest chapel of its kind and it was pulled down. “I was too late,” Dr Grady admits. “In those days, if it wasn’t listed, the council didn’t want to know.”
The same cannot be said, however, for other buildings, the most prominent being Tower Works, which is currently being developed as part of the South Bank regeneration project.
“I saw that as a building under threat and so my instinct was to get a blue plaque on it.”
At the time, the Leeds Development Corporation (LDC) had recently come into being, their brief was to regenerate but to do so by essentially clearing areas and starting again. “We got a blue plaque on it and I invited the chief executive of the LDC to unveil it, thinking they wouldn’t dare then demolish it.”
But the city has lost a significant number of awe-inspiring buildings, as images form his lectures reveal. While Halifax’s Piece Hall is celebrated today, it’s worth noting Leeds had its own, slightly smaller version, the Coloured Cloth Hall, between Infirmary Street and Quebec Street, whose yard was capable of holding 20,000 people. In Park Square, where Rivers House now stands, stood St Paul’s Church, while in the city centre, bordering Greek Street, stood the imposing East Parade Chapel - all swept away by the tide of development.
“Depending on the topic, some lectures have an underlying message. The Hunslet lecture is that this comprehensive redevelopment of the city was not good because effectively you have lost the continuity and sense of place, which people very strongly value. We went through a phase in the 1960s where comprehensive redevelopment was seen as a panacea; the notion of more gradual renewal has now become the theme.
“An important part of my role is to show people what the townscape of Leeds looked like in the former centuries.”
Dr Grady also has an eye on preserving the history he has chronicled and is considering turning his lectures into a book.
Leeds in Your Lunch House will run every Wednesday through Ferbuary at Holy Trinity Church, from 1.15pm-1.50pm. Entry is free.