Hidden Leeds: pic by Fast Egg
You might not give it a second thought as you walk along Leeds' busy streets but there is a whole world hidden under your feet.
It all started with a discussion on the BBC Leeds messageboard about wasted space in Leeds. During the discussion Rich Edwards said: "I've heard rumours and urban myths of everything from nuclear bunkers under the Civic Hall to a part-completed subway system abandoned in Victorian times..."
Other posters went on to talk about old streets buried under the Merrion Centre and rumour of a mothballed Odeon cinema in the same shopping centre.
Suddenly hidden Leeds was out in the open. It can be a world in which it is difficult to separate fact from fiction but here goes...
We can reveal that Leeds does have the abandoned subway that Rich Edwards had heard about. It was not built as part of a transport system but as a utilities conduit.
The experimental York Street Subway was built in 1903. The tunnels were designed to house sewers, water mains, gas pipes, electricity and telephone cables. There were several built in the area around Marsh Lane and the bus station for instance and some lengths of the system are still believed to survive. The tunnels were over 2 metres high and 2.4m wide.
There is no clear report of why this subway idea failed to catch on.
Sewers and water
In the 21st century we take the existence of Leeds' sewer system for granted but it was not always like this. In the early 19th century few streets were drained and even by 1870 an estimated 30,000 (non-flushing) privies were still in use. Middensteads, great piles of human dung, were still commonplace in the streets. One in Wellington Yard measured 7m by 2m and was 2m deep - and it was reported a local drunk had fallen in and drowned.
A hidden mill goit or watercourse
The Leeds Improvement Act of 1842 was the first measure to give the council power to construct sewers and other drainage works.
The importance of work in this area was underlined by outbreaks of deadly cholera in 1832 and 1847 - even though the transmission of the disease wasn't entirely understood. This was followed by the first Public Health Act in 1848.
Even then the Times called the 1848 act "a reckless invasion of property and liberty" but the size and complexity of Leeds sewers continued to grow.
Leeds was one of the first towns in Britain to have a piped water supply to houses. It came into operation in 1694 using either lead pipes or the bored trunks of elm trees.
Many becks and tributaries flow through Leeds and as the city have grown many of them have been culverted - or covered over. Some in the central area of Leeds are of substantial size. The Lady Beck culvert near the bus station is more than 6m wide.
It is true that in some parts, especially of the city centre, the street level has risen substantially. When workers were relaying sewers in Commercial Street for the Landmark Leeds project they found that the highway is a entire storey above the earlier street level. Workers were able to see the original frontages of old buildings - including a hotel with a wrought iron staircase still intact.
Much of what makes Millennium Square is hidden from view. Designed by City Architect John Thorp these features are in an undercroft connected by stairs and a lift. Six dressing rooms, toilets and showers, an artists' hospitality room (with fitted kitchen), production office and storage space.
Searching the sofa
These are just some of the unexpected features of Leeds. Another site user, known as Fast Egg, has provided the pictures used in this article. He or she says:
"Over the last year or so I’ve become interested in photographing parts of the city that are rarely seen, though personally I don’t call them hidden places. These tend to be the places under things, or between things, or behind things that people may pass every day and never know they are there.
"I was struck by how little of the city most people see, trawling the same routes everyday. Even now after driving and walking hundreds of miles around Leeds I’m still amazed to find things that I never thought could be so far off the radar of public perception.
"I suppose the nearest analogy I can find is that if Leeds were a sofa then these would be the things that have dropped down the back of the cushions!"
And the cinema does exist above Woolworths in the Merrion Centre. It isn't open to the general public and is little used although there are occasional special screenings.
Hidden Leeds is a subject we will be returning to... watch out for news of Hidden Temple Newsam soon. In the meantime we need your help - have you got information or pictures of Hidden Leeds?
Send an email to Leeds@bbc.co.uk
last updated: 06/09/07
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