John Wormald Appleyard, 1831-1894
Stonemason and sculptor

John Wormald Appleyard, 1831-1894One of the ‘must-see’ attractions for visitors to Leeds is Thornton’s Arcade, between Briggate and Lands Lane, with its famous ‘Ivanhoe’ automated clock on the wall at the end – people still gather to watch its colourful, life-size figures move to strike the hour. When the arcade opened in 1878 this novelty clock attracted such crowds that it had to be stopped for a couple of weeks to allow people to shop! Made by the famous Leeds firm of Potts & Sons, it featured four figures from Sir Walter Scott’s bestseller – Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Richard Lionheart and Gurth the swineherd – designed by the Leeds sculptor John Wormald Appleyard. His was never a famous name, but this and other examples of his work survive to enrich the city scene today.

He came from a family entrenched in the wool trade, like so many others. His father, Jabez Appleyard, had a business boiling size (a kind of glue), used to prepare wool for weaving, based at School Close by the Aire in Leeds, where John Wormald was born in 1831, the first of nine children. Jabez and his wife Jane (Wormald) moved shortly afterwards to Drighlington, their original family home, and then, around 1837, settled in Farsley, a village focussed on the woollen cloth trade, where several of John’s sisters found work in the mills. But John took another route: from around nine, he was apprenticed to his grandfather, Abraham Wormald, a Drighlington stonemason. So he learnt the traditional skills that were to become his life’s work, specialising in decorative stone carving.

When he was around 20 he moved back into Leeds, to Hirst Square off St James Street (under the Civic Hall now). He must have seen good prospects for work – the town was being developed and rebuilt in fine style, and the great project of the new Town Hall was about to get off the ground (literally), close to his home. It’s likely that he found work at first as a ‘journeyman’ stonemason and carver, employed by the day as part of a team. He earned enough to marry in 1853, when he was 22, his new wife Eliza Whiteley, a widow seven years his senior. There were no children.

He prospered and by the 1870s had expanded to have his own business and workshop in Cookridge Street. He clearly had an artistic bent, and branched out into design and sculpture. In 1875 when Leeds hosted a great exhibition of arts and manufacture he had several marble sculptures on show. And in 1878 he worked with William Potts the clock-maker, whose works were close by, to design the stunning clock for the new arcade being built by the entrepreneur Charles Thornton, owner of the nearby music hall (later the City Varieties), over the site of the old Talbot Inn. Thornton’s Arcade was the first of the magnificent covered arcades which were to transform Leeds into a shopping mecca.

His most productive collaboration was with the architect George Corson, the leading architect of the day, who was based next door in Cookridge Street. He was the influential founder and president of the first Leeds Architectural Association, designer of the Grand Theatre and other landmark buildings. When Corson won the competition to design the magnificent new Municipal Buildings (now the Central Library), it was John Appleyard who led the team of masons responsible for the internal stonework, notably the palatial entrance hall and grand staircase. A richly carved roundel high on the wall records his name alongside Corson’s. He must have been proud of his work here, in one of the city’s most spectacular public buildings.

He had other commissions, including the carvings on the impressive domed drinking fountain donated to Roundhay Park in 1882 by John Barran, instigator of the project to buy the Park. But much of his work remains unidentified. He lost his wife in 1889 and died himself in 1894, aged 62. They were both buried at Beckett Street cemetery. The story goes that in his studio a design was found for a commemorative window for St John’s church at Farsley where he had been brought up and his father and mother were buried. The window, an image of the crucifixion, is one of the fine windows currently under restoration at the church.

Like many craftsmen, from the medieval stone masons onwards, examples of his work rather than his name survive and are known. So he would surely have been surprised – and pleased – that an image of his named, carved roundel features on the back cover of the current Pevsner Guide to Leeds!

Eveleigh Bradford
June 2016