They Lived in Headingley

John Hope Shaw (1792-1864)

Everybody who lives in Headingley knows Shaw Lane, and many will also know Shaw House because it has been a doctor’s surgery since the 1930s. Neither name is the original: Shaw Lane was formerly Monk Bridge Road, a medieval track which linked Kirkstall Abbey with its property in Chapel Allerton, whilst Shaw House was built in the 1830s by John Atkinson, a Leeds dentist. Both were renamed after 1864 in memory of John Hope Shaw who bought Atkinson’s house in 1839 and lived there for the rest of his life.

Little is known of John Hope Shaw’s personal life. He was born in Otley, the son of a doctor and came to Leeds to practice law in 1830. Initially his home and office was in Trinity St but by 1834, his address is given as 14, Albion St. Described as ‘grave and dignified and occasionally marked by a degree of reserve amounting to coolness’, he married late in life and had no children.

In terms of his professional career, he became a lawyer of distinction, a council member of the Law Society in London. Increasing wealth enabled him like others, to move out of the crowded and dirty town and find refuge in Headingley. Suburban life however, denoted not just a physical place, but a state of mind defined by privacy, comfort, separation from work place and domestic pride. Hope Shaw extended and remodelled his home, and when in 1851, the Earl of Cardigan decided to sell the land he owned along Monk Bridge Road, he purchased the fields to the east of his house and the land opposite to create five acres of gardens. The land on the south side of the road had formerly been used for quarrying, and just before Claremont Road, we can still see the gardener’s cottage built by Hope Shaw.

The creation of the Victorian middle class didn’t just depend on occupation and wealth, what consolidated their shared identity was a sense of duty and participation in public life. Hope Shaw was active in a whole host of societies: the Philosophical and Literary Society, he was President of the Mechanics Institute, the Leeds Recreation Society, the Leeds Society for the Preservation of the Sabbath. Many of the organisations he championed, were concerned with what his obituarist called, ‘the mental and moral improvement of the working classes’. None of the above however, would have warranted a street being named after him; what made Hope Shaw so celebrated was the role in played in municipal affairs.

 Elected to the Town Council in 1844 as a Liberal, he was mayor in 1848, 1852 and 1853 – it was during his last period in office that he laid the foundation stone for the  Town Hall. His primary political achievement was to ensure that Leeds acquired a clean and plentiful supply of water. The provision of water, sewers and drainage may not seem to us very heroic but in the mid-19th century such services were dependent on private enterprise and therefore the need to make a profit. Reformers on the town council led by Hope Shaw argued that such essential public utilities ought to be provided by the corporation so that everyone, not just the wealthy, might benefit.

In the case of water, a drought in 1851 left Leeds seriously short of water and this at a time when the council had just embarked on an extensive sewerage system that was dependent on the water supply. The existing privately-owned water company was indicted for the inadequacy of the water supply and its poor quality: ‘the water – to use a conventional term is offensive to taste and smell and not sightly to look at; or rather we should say too full of sights’! Hope Shaw’s solution was that the Council should buy the water company and run it as a municipal service. His proposal met with fierce opposition: it represented an ‘unwarranted extravagance’, an unacceptable burden on the ratepayers. In meeting after meeting, report after report, Hope Shaw argued his case. At the final meeting that confirmed the Council’s acquisition of the water company at a cost of £227,417, he introduced his speech by stating that ‘the town needed water, this was his case, requiring no further justification’ and then proceeded to speak for a further two and half hours!

When he died in 1864, it was appropriate that John Hope Shaw, the apostle of municipal expansionism, was buried in Beckett Street Cemetery, one of the earliest municipal burial grounds in the country.

 Janet Douglas