ENCYCLOPEDIA 1970s. LEEDS: Motorway city of the seventies

Leeds in the 1970s

Leeds was a grimy, redbrick Victorian town when I arrived there one grey day in October 1968. Parts looked like the background to a Lowry painting. The opening sequences of Coronation Street, a soap opera about people in an industrial town near Manchester, were filmed in the more ‘authentic’ back alleys of Leeds.

Blackened edifices, Kirkgate (left). Back-to-backs, Leeds 6 (right).
Photos by Eric Miles[1].

In the previous century, the Borough of Leeds was at the centre of canal and railway networks. Much of its production of woollen cloth was exported. The magnificent town hall was built in 1858 with appropriate civic pride. The Corn Exchange emphasised the importance of trade. Yorkshire College’s Clothworker’s Court was built in 1879[2].The Borough became a city in 1893. The Victorian arcades promised an exquisite shopping experience although all I remember is the tripe shop.

There was a certain nobility in these blackened edifices but there was nothing noble about the mills[3], foundries and factories, especially on a typically gloomy, damp, Leeds morning. During the twentieth century, the textile trade was in decline, only rescued by the demands of war and the need for millions of uniforms[4]. Between the wars, Leeds gained some fine buildings including the Parkinson Building of the University, Leeds Civic Hall, and departmental stores in the city centre.

The M1 Motorway arrived in Leeds at about the same time that I did. It petered out at Holbeck when they decided not to link it to the A1 to Doncaster which would allow motorists to continue northwards past the city. Nevertheless, the Council announced that Leeds was ‘the motorway city of the seventies’[5]. Today, with vehicles seen as pariahs in cities, this may appear naïve but fifty years ago it promised a modern future for a city that was looking distinctly worn out.


Leeds United AFC. Squad 1970/71.

Leeds United FC brought attention to the city in a big way. In March 1961, Don Revie was appointed manager of Second Division Leeds United, when they were in dire financial difficulties. They won promotion to the First Division in 1963-64 and their fortunes improved.

They targeted the treble in 1969–70 and came close to achieving this, only to fail on all three fronts in a congested close season, finishing second in the league to Everton, losing the 1970 FA Cup Final to Chelsea (after a replay), and exiting the European Cup with a semi-final defeat to Celtic. Leeds United remained at the top of the game but trophies eluded them.

Nevertheless, during his 13 years in charge, Revie guided Leeds United to two Football League First Division titles, one FA Cup, one League Cup, two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups, one Football League Second Division title and one Charity Shield. The team also finished second in the Football League First Division five times, third once and fourth twice.

Culturally, Leeds was considered backward. When I went there in 1968, having spent nearly a year in ‘swinging London’, I felt as if I was stepping back in time. It was still the 1950s in Leeds. However, an event in 1970 would inscribe the name ‘Leeds’ into the annals of rock music history.


An insignificant announcement of a very significant event

Leeds University Union had organised ‘hops’ on Saturdays in the Refectory for many years. In the 1960s, it became one of the biggest and most important venues for rock bands, bands appearing included Fleetwood Mac, Moody Blues, Deep Purple, T-Rex, Joe Cocker, Led Zeppelin, Small Faces, Pink Floyd, Mott the Hoople, Ginger Baker’s Air Force; Nice, Procul Harum, and Leonard Cohen.

Much of this programme was organised by Leeds University Union’s Social Secretary, Simon Brogan, making calls to agents from the phone booths in the Students’ Union. Despite this apparent lack of organisation, The Who wanted to play there ‘because the students were so professional’. They recorded their appearance in the Refectory on Valentine’s Day 1970. It would be released as an album, in a brown paper cover, as The Who: Live at Leeds.

It should be no surprise that these two main events bringing attention to Leeds came from working-class culture, football and pop music. Leeds is very much a working-class town. Look at any map of the city during the twentieth century. Between the mills and clothing factories, swathes of back-to-back houses[6] were erected even as late as 1937 across the hills of Chapeltown, Beeston, Hunslet, Burley and Armley[7].

Yorkshire academics such as Hoggart[8] and Thompson[9] brought attention to working-class life and culture. Living conditions in Leeds have also been well-documented by academics, including recently by Harrison[10]. Less well documented is the resistance to exploitation, particularly by women workers. One such action in 1970 again brought attention to Leeds.

In the late 1960s there was a wave of industrial action across Britain. The era of post-war full employment was coming to an end. British manufacturing was under threat and needed modernisation.


Leeds clothing workers’ strike 1970.

In February 1970, clothing workers walked out and went from factory to factory until more than 20,000 were on strike, demanding a pay increase of one shilling an hour[11].  An agreement between their own union and the factory owners established a minimum rate of 6s 7d an hour for skilled men and 4s 9d an hour for skilled women. The strikers, mainly women, were no longer willing to accept such low wages and inequality. The strike did not receive the publicity of other equal pay disputes. However, it could not be ignored, and the Equal Pay Act received Royal Assent later in the year[12].

The strike was also the death knell of the clothing industry. It had been in steep decline since the 1930s when the Burton factory was the largest in the world, producing 30,000 suits a week. By the end of the 1970s, production had slumped; worn-out machinery in out-dated buildings could not compete. If the City of Leeds were to survive it needed new industries.

There was some diversification. Yorkshire Television opened its Leeds studio in 1968, the first purpose-built colour television production centre in Europe. Higher education would become a major contributor to the economy with the expansion of the University in 1968 and the establishment of Leeds Polytechnic in 1970.

Leeds at the start of the 1970s could imagine a bright future. It would not just be motorways that would connect it to London and the rest of Britain. In 1975, British Rail would introduce a new train, the HST125, the suffix denoting its then astonishing top speed in miles per hour. I recall boarding one at Leeds City Station and walking out of Kings Cross Station just two and a quarter hours later.

But could Jerusalem be builded in Leeds, among these dark satanic mills? Compared to other cities, bombing during the war had left Leeds relatively unscathed[13]. The crumbling heart of Victorian Leeds had remained intact. Areas had been cleared in the nineteenth century for the erection of classical or gothic edifices, such as the town hall and the general infirmary. New thoroughfares had opened the centre to trade and commerce. Everything was blackened with soot.

While slum clearance produced acres of rubble-strewn wilderness, new estates were being erected in Seacroft on the outskirts of the city. City planners proposed pedestrianisation and elevated walkways for the city centre. The University opened its brutalist extension in 1968. West Riding House (later Pennine House) rose to twenty stories in 1973.


Leeds University: 1960s futurism

However, there was no overall plan for the city. The new developments were piecemeal, not linked to each other or to the existing infrastructure. The new motorways divided rather than united the city. Leeds was a confusing mix of dilapidated Victorian structures and a few new buildings rising from the rubble.

An economic slump deflated the hopes of those who saw a brighter future. Leeds suffered as did the rest of Britain. Unemployment grew and investment fell. The depressed atmosphere was overlaid with fear and anxiety when a serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe, murdered 13 women across Yorkshire and Lancashire between 1975 and 1980, Leeds being the epicentre of his activity.

It would be years before confidence returned. When I visited Leeds in 2014, the old civic buildings had been cleaned up, the Victorian arcades were full of designer shops, I had lunch in a waterside bistro, the University campuses had expanded with new buildings. Leeds had become the modern city it had aspired to be.


[1] Credit to Eric Miles. Please get in touch!

[2] Designed by Alfred Waterhouse. Yorkshire College joined Victoria University in 1888. It gained its own charter in 1904 as the University of Leeds. I was a student there.

[3] There were a few exceptions. In a flight of fancy, Marshall’s Mill was built in the style of an Egyptian temple with a grassed roof where sheep grazed. Conditions were less healthy for the hundreds of workers labouring at the looms.

Marshalls Mill

[4] And after 1945, for a short period. Hundreds of thousands of troops returning to civilian life after 1945 were issued with a ‘demob’ suit made in Leeds.

[5] It was not an idle boast. The M62 trans-Pennine motorway between Hull and Manchester would connect with the M1 at Leeds which would connect to a new Inner Ring Road which was put in a cutting and so not disrupt the existing routes across the city. This stretch of the M62 is nowadays in regular gridlock, an unintended consequence of ‘the motorway city’.


Leeds – making its mark as ‘motorway city of the seventies’.

[6] I write with the experience of living in such houses in Leeds 6, as did many students then and since.

[7] Streets shared the same name modified by ‘Avenue’, ‘Terrace’, ‘Villas’, ‘Street’, ‘Grove’, ‘Road’, ‘Walk’, ‘Place’ or ‘View’. Thus, a small district would be known as ‘The Harolds’ after the common road name.

[8] Richard Hoggart wrote Uses of literacy (1957).

[9] E.P.Thompson wrote The making of the working class (1965).

[10] Joanne Harrison wrote The origin, development and decline of back-to-back houses in Leeds 1787-1937 (online 2018).

[11] Or five pence (decimal). Worth perhaps 75p today.

[12] It did not come into force until 1975.

[13] On 14 and 15 March 1941, Leeds suffered its heaviest air raid, affecting the city centre, Beeston, Bramley and Armley. Damage was widespread, including the city’s museum. Around 100 houses were destroyed, 4,600 damaged, and 65 people were killed. There were other raids later in the war, but this was by far the worst.

Derek Perry

Copyright 2021