They Lived in Headingley

Blanche Legat Leigh ( 1870-1945)

Most households probably have a small collection of cookery books on a shelf in the kitchen and judging by the numbers of old cookery books you see at book fairs, there are some more serious collectors amongst us. But at the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of building a collection of rare recipe books was far more novel, yet this was one of the interests of Blanche Legat Leigh.

Blanche (nee Whitaker) was born in Sheffield and when she was fourteen she met her future husband, Percy Tookey Leigh at the home of family friends. An accomplished singer, she accompanied him on the piano. Four years later she went to the Royal College of Music to study singing and the piano. She came to Leeds when she married in 1898. Her husband was a Leeds- born dentist whose first surgery was at 5, Brookfield Terrace but in the year of his marriage, he inherited his grandfather’s extensive practice in Portland Crescent. The couple lived at Collina Villas, 55 Headingley Lane, a rather solemn stone villa built in 1870 that still stands at the corner of Spring Road.

Over the years Blanche collected over 1,500 cookery and household books which she presented to the University of Leeds in 1939. The oldest items in her collection were a Babylonian stone tablet dating from 2500BC and an Egyptian papyrus listing the food offerings to the god, Osiris. Her oldest European text was Platina’s ‘De Honesta Voluptate’ printed in Venice in 1487. The collection included every major work written in English (the earliest dated 1590) as well as books written in Greek, Latin, Italian, French and German.

Blanche also edited three cookery books of her own in 1905,1918 and 1929. The Souvenir Cookery Book of 1905 is based on what is now a familiar idea: a collection of recipes from notable people to raise funds for charity. The charity in this instance was the Leeds Maternity Hospital which opened in 1905. Recipes were collected from the wives of the city’s leading manufacturers giving us a glimpse into the domestic lives of local wealthy families. Chicken Tikha might be Britain’s most popular food today but even in the early 1900s, recipes of Indian origin could be found on the tables of many middle class households: as well as kedgeree for breakfast, various kinds of curries, samosas and sauces were being made in Leeds kitchens. A number of recipes were from Blanche herself and one of these she named Cream Collina*

Blanche and Percival both were active in public affairs, perhaps because they had no children of their own, they were especially concerned with the well-being of children and were involved in a number of local children’s charities. It was Percy’s interest in establishing a school dental service which motivated his entry into Politics. Between 1909-13, he was a Conservative councillor for Headingley, and then represented the Brunswick ward until he was made an alderman in 1924. In 1921, Blanche became one of three women members of the City Council, and later was to become an alderman in her own right, resigning in 1936 when her husband became Lord Mayor.

The couple’s other great passion was for the Arts. Both sang in the Leeds Choral Union, were financial backers of the Leeds Musical Festivals and revealed that one of their ways of winding down after a busy day was to sing together at home. In 1925, they were founders of the Civic Playhouse which provided free theatre for local people. Percy was an enlightened chairman of the Art Gallery Subcommittee and secured for the first time an annual grant for the purchase of works of art. He was less successful in securing municipal support for the theatre, something which didn’t happen until after the second World War. Perhaps the most intriguing of their cultural activities was their involvement in The Eyebrow Club, an experimental theatre club decorated with paintings by Jacob Kramer and opened in 1931 by Sybil Thorndike . The centre of Leeds Bohemia, the club’s four year existence was plagued by difficulties with the theatre censors and it was closed in 1935 by order of the Chief Constable.

Janet Douglas

* Cream Collina

1 tablespoon of water
1 lb of sugar
3 tablespoons of thick cream
4oz of butter
Bicarbonate of soda
Vanilla essence

Boil water, sugar and cream for 10 minutes, beating continuously. Add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda and bring to the boil again, then add a little vanilla essence and continue to cook until the mixture changes to a fudge-like consistency . Turn out into a buttered tin and mark into small squares. Leave to cool.