James Edward Bedford, FGS (1856-1925)
Chemical manufacturer, Lord Mayor

JAMES EDWARD BEDFORD, FGS (1856-1925)In this world where we are surrounded by colour, able to choose from thousands of subtle variations of shade to adorn our homes and ourselves, it’s easy to forget the innovation and vision which brought about this richness of choice. Leeds, with its great textile industry, was in the nineteenth century a natural centre for the dyeing trade and for the development of new techniques and resources in producing colour. One of the firms most closely involved was Wood & Bedford, later to become part of the giant Yorkshire Chemicals.

The firm’s history dates back to 1815, when the first James Bedford was apprenticed to a ‘chymist and druggist’ in Briggate. By the 1820s he had set up his own business, making dyes. This was a time when all dyes came from natural sources, imported from across the world - insects, bark, leaves, roots, and especially lichens, from which ‘orchil’ dyes were produced. These were the focus of his business and he cornered the market. When he died in 1842 his son, James Bedford II, took over with a partner, Edward Wood. They responded to new demands for rich and exotic colours, scouring the world for scarlets from cochineal, and rare reds and purples from logwood, grown mainly in distant Belize. They expanded to new premises, the Airedale Chemical Works, at Kirkstall, while the family home was at Woodhouse Cliff.

Then in 1856, in London, a revolutionary development: the chemist Henry Perkin discovered (by accident) the first synthetic dyestuff: ‘Mauve’. The dyeing and chemical world changed for ever. Wood & Bedford were quick to take up this new development and began to produce new synthetic colours, magenta and violet. New advances in technology followed. In 1888, when James retired, his two sons, James Edward and Charles, took over and continued to experiment and develop the company’s range. Charles studied with Henry Perkin’s son, Arthur Perkin, later Professor of Colour Chemistry at the University of Leeds (and his brother-in-law), and their continuing collaboration underpinned the company’s ongoing programme of research and development. But competition, particularly from Germany, was fierce, and in 1900 the company merged with ten other firms to form the company later known as Yorkshire Chemicals. It became a world leader in its field through much of the century, until market and economic changes forced its closure in 2005.

When James Edward took over the firm in 1888, he decided to have a new house built for himself n Headingley, near the rest of his family, on a large plot of land in the newly-developed, prestigious Shire Oak Road. He commissioned his talented architect brother Francis, partner in the distinguished firm of Kitson & Bedford, to draw up the plans. The house he built - ‘Arncliffe’ (1893) - was in Arts and Crafts style, ‘a small Tudor Manor House’, with a wood-panelled interior, set in spacious gardens with a fairy-tale summerhouse. James Edward lived there until his death in 1925. The house is still there, but sadly neglected now, its grounds a wilderness, its summerhouse a ruin.

Alongside his business, James Edward’s interests ranged widely: he was a Fellow of the Geological Society in London, where in 1891 he presented a paper on the rock of the Meanwood valley; he was President of the Thoresby (historical) Society from 1921-24, and was credited with saving the historic Swinsty Hall from demolition; he contributed to the Philosophical and Literary Society; he served as a Town Councillor. In the fateful year of 1914 he was elected Lord Mayor, and spent a year in emergency meetings and frantic preparations as the city braced itself for war. When he died in 1925 his contribution to the industrial and cultural life of the city was warmly appreciated. He left behind him a unique and valuable archive of business and family papers which has recently been donated to the West Yorkshire Archive Service.

Eveleigh Bradford
July 2011