They Lived in Headingley

Father and Son: Thomas Harding (1812-95) and T. Walter Harding (1843-1927)

As trains pull out of Leeds Station towards the west, three great factory chimneys come into view: two are based on Italian Renaissance architecture, the smaller built in 1864, was inspired by the Lamberti tower in Verona, the taller chimney is later (1899), modelled on the Giotto campanile of Florence Cathedral. All three chimneys formed part of the Tower Works founded by Thomas Harding in 1864. Thomas is less well-remembered than his son, Walter Harding who gave Leeds its art gallery and City Square, but as both father and son lived in Headingley for a large part of their lives, this month’s article focuses on Thomas’ life and in the June edition of Headingley Life, there will be a companion piece on Walter.

Born in Cambridgeshire where his father was a wool comber, in 1826 Thomas accompanied his father to Lille encouraged to settle there by the primitive state of the French textile industry. Here their careers demonstrated the adaptability of early industrial entrepreneurs, they began as wool combers, tried their hand at spinning and carpet weaving and then moved into flax, owning both a flax mill and machine shop making machinery for the flax industry. By the 1840s, Thomas was married with four children, the birth of his fourth child,

 coincided with the revolution brought on by the intrigues of Louis Napoleon. There was a rumour that the mob was going to burn the station … Indeed at the time we were in bodily fear for not knowing what would happen.

Harding’s factories were attacked during 1848 by workers who were ‘furious against machinery’, and Thomas was conscripted into the National Guard with responsibility for defending the town against ‘the mob’.

Shaken by these experiences, a few years later Harding moved back to England,  settling in Leeds which he believed to be the flax spinning capital of the world. He later recorded how this had been ‘grave mistake’, already by the early 1850s firms were closing down and the centre of production was shifting to Northern Ireland. Buying a flax mill in Great Wilson St., Thomas began manufacturing flax spinning machines for which there was little local demand and then showing the same flexibility the family had displayed in Lille, he turned to the production of steel pins, essential components in the combing of wool for the burgeoning worsted industry of Bradford.

For ten years the family lived in Brunswick Place off North St and in his memoir Thomas describes how:

Living in the heart of Leeds we were always anxious to get out in the open air. So Whitsuntide in 1859, it being a very fine day, I strayed with my family to Headingley. We strolled down Kirkstall Lane, my favourite walk. Just before we came to the North-East Railway …we sat down …and enjoying ourselves there for some time and being very pleased with the spot and the fringe of fine elms around, the thought struck me that it would be a nice place for a house.

Having purchased the land, Thomas Shaw was engaged to design the Hardings’ new home, St Ann’s Tower that still stands on the corner of Kirkstall Lane and St Ann’s Lane. One of finest Victorian villas in Headingley, it cost £4650 14s 3d and was ready by 1861.

Three years later Thomas Shaw was again employed to build the new factory on a five-acre site on Globe Road, the Tower Works; according to Walter’s reminiscences the Lamberti Tower was ‘a startling innovation in Leeds and many thought us foolish for giving such a utilitarian feature an artistic aspect’. But perhaps because of their continental experience, both father and son were committed to the arts, both were major shareholders in the Grand Theatre, and from the mid-1870s Thomas began to build up an art collection, some of which was bequeathed to the City Art Gallery after his death. A Liberal in Politics but rather exceptionally, an Anglican by faith, the Hardings worshipped at St Stephen’s in Kirkstall where he became a churchwarden and was responsible for extensions to the church in the 1870s.

During the 1890 gas workers strike, despite his age, Harding enrolled as a special constable. Blacklegs imported by the Council were marched from the Town Hall to the New Wortley gas works, led by the cavalry and followed by the Mayor, magistrates, and the police. On reaching the railway bridge over Wellington Road, the procession was pelted with missiles by strikers positioned on the bridge and Thomas was hit on the head by a stone in the ensuing riot. Fortunately his injuries were not that serious and he died peacefully five years later at St Ann’s Towers.


Colonel T. Walter Harding (1843-1927)

Walter Harding was a man of diverse interests which exceptionally for a British businessman spanned both the arts and the sciences.  He was an expert on river pollution, wrote a pamphlet advocating decimalisation and was active in the artillery volunteers. A generous supporter of the Yorkshire College (now Leeds University), for thirty years he was a director of the Grand Theatre. Later in life wrote both novels and plays, but his great passion was art and architecture.

Born in Lille, the only son of Thomas Harding (see the May edition of Headingley Life for an account of Thomas’ life) when his family returned to England in 1853, the ten-year old Walter stayed on as a boarder at the Lycee Imperiale. Four years later he travelled back to Leeds on his own, and next day began attending the Grammar School where he found that except for the study of Classics, he was far more advanced than his fellow pupils! Unusually he completed his education by studying physics and chemistry at the Polytechnic in Dresden.

In 1867 he married Annie Butler, a member of the family who owned Kirkstall Forge. For the first eleven years of their marriage, they lived on Cavendish Road but in 1878 Annie’s poor health led her parents to purchase St Ives on Wood Lane so that their daughter might ‘might enjoy the open air without being seen’. The house for which Ambrose Butler paid £3,500, had been built by George Corson in 1869, ‘overlooking the beautiful Meanwood Valley’

In 1883, Walter Harding became a Liberal councillor for Headingley but he left  the Party over Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule for Ireland. Knowing he was unlikely to be re-elected to the Council, he was ‘determined to accomplish something’. Harding felt it was deplorable that whereas places like Birmingham and Manchester and even towns such as Oldham and Wolverhampton, all had galleries, nothing had been accomplished in Leeds. When in 1887 he first proposed the building of an art gallery, he ‘could get no one to listen to me until I offered to start the fund myself, spending £1000 on pictures and getting my father to promise a similar amount’. The ingenious plan he eventually came up with was what today would be called a private/public partnership: the Queen’s Jubilee Fund would be used to finance the cost of the building, acquisitions would come from private donations and annual running costs including the salary of a curator, would be met by the Council. Harding was very much the driving force behind the building of the gallery, a man with a mission attending to even the smallest details of its interior decoration and the display of the paintings. For the next twenty years he remained the chairman of the Art Gallery Sub-committee defending the gallery’s interests against a philistine and parsimonious Council.

In 1895 Harding returned to the Council as an alderman and was Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1898-9. By this time, the Hardings were living in Abbey House in Kirkstall. The building is now the Abbey House Museum, and much of interior decoration that visitors see today, is the result of renovations carried out by Harding.

One day in 1896, when Walter Harding was holidaying in Italy, he was looking out on Lake Maggiore and reading the Leeds newspapers. Three years earlier the Corporation had bought the land in front of City Station for a public square to celebrate Leeds’ elevation to the status of a city, but to Harding’s horror he now read in the papers that the Council proposed to use the space for a series of tram stops and a set of public lavatories. In his memoir, Walter wrote that he was FURIOUS (the capital letters are in the original text) at the limited vision of the city fathers and immediately worked on a plan for the square. What inspired Harding were the piazzas that graced so many Italian towns, and more specifically he wanted the square to have ‘a bravura display’ of British sculpture, to be an open-air sculpture park that would compliment ‘his’ art gallery. Many of the statues were paid for by Harding personally, he selected both their subject matter and the sculptors. The massive equestrian statue of the Black Prince who for Harding was the symbol of  chivalry and democracy, was to be the centrepiece of the ensemble, surrounded by statues of Leeds worthies; a granite balustrade, very expensive but again chosen by Harding for its self-cleaning properties, surrounded the square topped by graceful statues of Morn and Even. The latter caused something of a furore, there were angry letters to the press describing them as ‘indecently nude’, and accusing Harding of ‘ perverting public morals’. For a number of years following the opening of City Square in 1903, Harding employed a custodian to guard to Morn and Even not only did he fear damage from his critics but apparently male passer-by’s were in the habit of striking their matches on the ladies’ bare bottoms!

In 1905, the Hardings left Leeds to live in Madingley Hall, Cambridge but he never entirely gave up his links with the city. After the First World War, he was appalled by the ineffectual efforts of the War Memorial Committee. In his view, it would be a disgrace if those who had sacrificed their lives, were not to be commemorated by a memorial in the city centre. So in December 1920, he  charge of things again and called in the services of the sculptor, Henry Fehr who had previously provided one of the statues in City Square. The result was the War Memorial that now stands in the Headrow.

Fittingly when Walter Harding died in 1927, the Yorkshire Post wrote in his obituary:

‘No man has done more for the artistic side of the city’s life’. 

Janet Douglas