James Kitson, 1807 – 1885
Pioneering Engineer and Industrialist – A Model of Self-Help

James KitsonKitson is one of the great names in Leeds’ proud industrial history. For over a century locomotives bearing the Kitson name were exported across the world: to Australia, India, South America, powering along the new railways which fed growth and development. The man at the heart of this enterprise was James Kitson. From his birth in a Leeds tavern, he was to become a pioneering locomotive engineer, founder of a hugely successful business, and head of a family with distinguished achievements in industry, the arts, and politics.

He was born in 1807 in his father’s inn, the Brunswick Tavern, Camp Road (the site lies behind the new Leeds Arena), the eldest of six children. In his youth he helped in the tavern, slept under the bar, and acquired some education in local schools. At 14 he was apprenticed to a local dyeworks to learn the trade. But two years later his father died from drink, and he had to help his mother sort out his tangled affairs, run the business, and look after the five younger children.

In spite of this, and a bad injury at the dyeworks, he was energetic, jaunty, and determined to improve himself. He had a mechanical bent, and was fascinated by the debates over the new, emerging railway technology – what were the benefits compared with canals, and the potential risks (would people be suffocated in tunnels or injured by unimaginable speeds above 20 miles an hour)?  He joined the newly-formed Leeds Mechanics’ Institute, took classes in chemistry, mathematics and mechanics, and read up on railway and locomotive design. The world was on the brink of a transport revolution and he was determined to be part of it.

Meanwhile he ran the inn and, just before his 21st birthday, married Ann Newton, daughter of a local tradesman. Their first son was born the next year – they had eleven children in all, but only six survived the prevalent infant diseases. In 1835 James decided to pursue his ambitions. They moved to Hunslet, where new locomotive works were being established to feed the railway boom. James acquired two partners, with expertise and money. As Todd, Kitson & Laird they set up in a former cloth mill, won some orders, and began work. The great Robert Stephenson came to Leeds to see what they were up to. In 1838 their first locomotive, ‘The Lion’, rolled out through a hole knocked in the mill wall. (The ‘Lion’ still survives, lovingly preserved in the Museum of Liverpool after years on display in Lime Street Station and featuring in films, memorably as ‘the Titfield Thunderbolt’.)

More orders followed as railway mania swept the country. In 1839 James, first with David Laird and later with other partners, established the Airedale Foundry off Hunslet Road, and began large-scale manufacture of locomotives for the proliferating railway companies here and abroad. In 1854 he bought the nearby Monkbridge Ironworks, to ensure an adequate supply of quality iron, and put his two elder sons in charge. Distant now from his early trade union links, he was a tough employer, ready to break a strike among his workers. His business expanded and prospered, and James prospered with it.

He was active and popular in public life: Chairman of the first Leeds Musical Festival in 1857 (he loved music and singing), a JP, Alderman, Mayor in 1860 and 61, President of the Mechanics Institute which had helped to set him on the road to success. He had a stake in banking and railways, and belonged to all the elite Leeds societies. 

His family homes mirrored his rise in wealth and status: from Hunslet Lane to Blenheim Terrace, Blenheim Square, Hyde House in Clarendon Road. Finally in 1868, after his wife’s death, he bought Elmete Hall in Roundhay, set in 65 acres with spectacular views. The old Hall was demolished and a huge Italianate mansion built, fitted out regardless of cost (still there, converted into offices). Here he brought his second wife Elizabeth, 26 years his junior, to live in luxury, with a butler, cook, footmen, maids, and nurses for the four children who followed. When the creation of Roundhay Park was proposed adjoining his land he objected to invasion by the hoi-polloi! It was there at Elmete, far from his old tavern, that he died in 1885, aged 78.

His son James Kitson II, a distinguished engineer and Liberal MP, later Lord Airedale, took over the massive enterprise of Kitson & Co and led it to further success before it faltered and closed in the 1930s. Other children and grandchildren achieved artistic and academic distinction. The great engines built in the Kitson works took his name around the globe, and with it the reputation of Leeds as a major industrial powerhouse – sadly a distant echo now.

Eveleigh Bradford
October 2013