James Hole, 1820-1895
Writer and activist for social reform

James HoleNext time you climb the steps to the Leeds City Museum, look up at the proud inscription above: ‘The Leeds Institute’, overlooked by the helmeted head of Athena, goddess of wisdom, crafts (and owls). This imposing building, designed by Cuthbert Brodrick of Town Hall fame, was opened in 1868 as the new, purpose-built headquarters of the Leeds Mechanics’ Institute. One of the distinguished speakers at the opening ceremony was James Hole, who over many years had devoted himself to the cause of workers’ education. He had urged a raft of reforms to improve the lives of working people, and had been a pioneer in the Leeds cooperative movement. A distinguished writer, thinker, and activist, he had won a national reputation as ‘Mr Hole of Leeds’.

In fact he came originally from Manchester, where he was born in 1820, the son of a tailor. All his education, he said, was gained through the opportunities offered by his local Mutual Improvement Society and the Manchester Mechanics Institute – no wonder these institutions were close to his heart. He came to Leeds in his early twenties to take up a post as bookkeeper with a firm of cloth exporters. In 1843 he married, and with his young wife Elizabeth, the daughter of a Blackburn schoolmaster, settled in Alfred Place, Little London. Over the following years they moved house as their family grew, settling finally with their seven children in Cliff Road, Woodhouse. He remained steadily employed, leading a conventional life, but he was inspired by the new radical thinking of the time, by ideas of cooperation and socialism which could free the working classes and empower them to improve and transform their lives and their communities. And he carried his ideas into action.

He was a founder member of the Leeds Redemption Society which aimed to set up an ideal self-governing community of workers (and did so, in Wales); and he was a leading light in the Leeds cooperative movement. Most people have heard of the Rochdale cooperative pioneers, but Leeds had its pioneers too, and he was one. From small beginnings in 1847, when workers from Benyon’s Flax Mill set up their own flour mill to provide affordable, unadulterated flour, grew the mighty Leeds Industrial Cooperative Society which 50 years later could claim to be the largest cooperative society in the world, dealing in goods ranging ‘from clog-irons and pickles to pianos and clothing’, with over 37,000 members. His significant contribution was remembered in the Jubilee celebrations.

He numbered among his friends and correspondents many of the radical thinkers of the day. He was often invited to speak on his social principles, but his voice was strongest in writing – clear, concise, backed up with statistics, practical and organised. Alongside articles for various journals, he published in 1851 ‘Lectures on Social Science and the Organisation of Labour’, setting out his social and economic theories, his belief in the achievability of progress and justice for the working classes. It was thought-provoking material.

Other causes engaged him too, particularly working class education and training – he believed passionately in education as ‘the business of a whole life’. He served for years on the Committee of the Leeds Mechanics’ Institute, and, most influentially, as Secretary (unpaid) of the Yorkshire Union of Mechanics Institutes. In 1853 he published a prize-winning work on adult education which had considerable impact and resulted in the introduction of new practical examinations. He wrote too on schooling, a political hot potato of the time: his essay published in 1860, ‘Light, More Light’, included a survey of education in Leeds and urged the vital need for a national system to provide for every child – achieved 10 years later.

The provision of decent, healthy housing was also close to his heart. In 1866 he published his prize-winning study of working class housing, advocating a range of practical measures for the improvement of the appalling slums in Leeds and elsewhere (many later put into effect), with details of model housing schemes like Saltaire. He was himself a director of a model housing association and the Leeds Permanent Building Society.

One of his lasting legacies was the village library scheme, which he proposed in 1852. Boxes of books were sent out to outlying Yorkshire villages cut off from library access. The scheme won royal support and lasted many years.

In 1867 James Hole left Leeds for London, to become Secretary to the Association of Chambers of Commerce. There he pursued further causes – the preservation of common land, and (his last book) the nationalisation of the railways. He died in 1895, remembered as an unassuming, kind and generous man. While his name is mostly forgotten, his ideas helped to bring about reform and still resonate today.

Eveleigh Bradford
June 2015