Leisure & Culture in Yorkshire
The cultural life of Yorkshire is very diverse and can mean different things to many people. It is possible, however, to locate general areas of cultural activity and patterns of cultural development which have determined our views of Yorkshire life. The county’s pre-industrial culture, for example, was mainly rural and was broadly determined by the seasons of the year, religious festivals and the presence of a variety of animals and wildlife.
Deer hunting had been a popular sport in many areas of the Yorkshire Dales from the 12th century until large tracts of woodland were cut down for lead smelting in the 18th century, thus removing the natural habitat of the deer. Bull baiting prevailed until the 1820s, and Beverley was one of the popular centres in the 18th century, where the custom was for every newly-elected Mayor to present a bull to the town. An iron bull ring was permanently fixed to the ground at Harewood and at Skipton the local constable used to purchase the bull rope and charge it to his account. Cock fighting and stoning was another popular pastime and lasted much longer. At York the apprentices would gather to throw stones at cocks on Shrove Tuesday in the yard of the Minster. The Primitive Methodists intervened at Filey, which they described as ‘… a place noted for vice and wickedness of almost every description. Drunkenness, swearing, Sabbath-breaking, cock-fighting, card playing and dancing, have been the favourite diversions of this place for many years’.
Popular cultural activities often centred round Holy days or important dates in the agricultural year. The rural labourer knew little of regular holidays and there was still work of one sort or another to do on Christmas Day and Good Friday. There was, however, the annual feast or fair. In Darrington an annual parish feast was held when ‘everybody, young and old, made merry … During the feast everybody kept open house; friends and relations who had left the village came back to it, sometimes from far distances, and there was a great reunion of families’. Many of the fairs, such as the Martinmas hiring fairs in the East Riding, were the continuation of old traditions which lasted until the end of the 19th century. Plough Monday was traditionally the day when work on the land resumed after Christmas and was often taken as a holiday by farm labourers, with mummers and dancing as part of the festivities. Easter week was generally a time for sport. At Richmond football and cricket were played, while in Halifax in 1681 the local preacher complained that on Easter Sunday ‘as my hearers went from us through Halifax there were hundreds of people at Clark brig, in the church yard, on the green and all along the town of young people and others playing at Stool-ball [an early form of cricket] and other recreations, without any controll’.
Before the Reformation, however, the attitude of the Church had been different. For example, the development of religious drama in medieval England was an important stage in the formation of a pre-industrial culture. In York and in Wakefield, Mystery Cycles were performed by trade guilds, which were responsible for individual scenes in open-air performances of the story of man as told in the Bible. The plays were originally performed in church as part of the church litany. York was already renowned for its actors; the guilds were used to giving dramatic performances in public and touring players sometimes performed there. (As late as 1559 the President of the North, the Earl of Shrewsbury, was requested by the Earl of Leicester to allow his players to perform in Yorkshire, guaranteeing their ‘honesty and good nature’.) In the mid-14th century a monk, or possibly more than one, wrote a cycle of 48 plays for various guilds which presented pageants appropriate to their craft on carts towed through the streets. The Shipwrights, for example, presented ‘The Building of the Ark’; the Pinners (Nailmakers) presented Christ’s Crucifixion, and the Orfevers (Goldsmiths) enacted the bearing of gifts by the three kings from the east. In Wakefield the craft guilds joined with religious guilds to perform pageants on the feast of Corpus Christi, parading through the town until all the plays were complete. The Wakefield Mystery Plays, consisting of a cycle of 32 plays, were closely connected to the York cycle until, around 1422, an unknown playwright added material which transformed the Wakefield Cycle into a brilliant piece of dramatic comedy which, with its fearsome invocations of Heaven and Hell, must have had a tremendous impact on medieval audiences. The performance of the Mystery Plays in both Wakefield and York met a communal need and became occasions of celebration and festivity.
The Reformation disrupted many of the religious as well as secular forms of celebration, and in Wakefield and in York popular forms of drama ended in the 1570s. Other factors, such as the new calendar of .1752, which did not recognise some of the old feast days, or the enclosure of common land, which affected communal patterns of work and leisure—the enclosure of common land in Pudsey ended the practice of holding a feast day on the local moor; in Hornsea local football matches ceased after enclosure in 1809—and also the pressure to end blood sports, were each important in the evolution of Yorkshire’s cultural life.
A new phase was heralded by the Industrial Revolution. In many cases traditional village life was disrupted by rapid growth into thriving industrial towns. Strangers came to live amongst the local inhabitants; work patterns were radically altered and often mills and houses were built on open recreational spaces. Even villages which remained rural were affected by the growth of towns and cities far away, as improvements in transport and communications, and also the increasing uniformity of administrative control, broke down traditional values. The country labourer increasingly came into contact with a developing urban culture.
These developments, however, were very uneven. A correspondent to the Morning Chronicle in 1849 wrote of a mill owner in Saddleworth who ‘told mel that he had recently arranged a hunt to try the mettle of some dogs from another part of Yorkshire against the native breed. He had tried to keep the matter as quiet as he could; but it somehow leaked out, and the result was that several mills were left standing, and that more than 500 carders, slubbers, spinners and weaversiformed the field. The masters, however, are often too keen sportsmen themselves to grudge their hands an occasional holiday of the sort’.
Many traditional games became formalised in new urban settings. Football and cricket, which had always been closely linked, were gradually organised into local clubs and leagues. The same ground was often used for both sports until it was realised how much damage was being caused to the surface. Sheffield Wednesday, formed in 1867, emerged from a cricket club and the Yorkshire County Cricket Club spawned Sheffield United Football Club in 1889. Leeds United was founded in 1864. The Yorkshire County Cricket Club was founded in 1863 although occasional matches were played by a county team before then; in 1825 nearly 20,000 people watched an All England team defeat a Yorkshire county team by 28 runs in a match which lasted five days.
The growth of mass urban communities emphasised the need for open recreational space. When such provision was made, in the form of urban parkland, it was often by wealthy philanthropists who wished to see working people – use their leisure time in certain ways and considered the park to be a means of improving social behaviour. Titus Salt, who built a model village for his mill workers at Saltaire, also provided a park nearby which opened in 1850. Organised games were allowed but anyone caught swearing, throwing stones or guilty of other ‘indecorous conduct’. would be excluded. The Duke of Norfolk gave a public park to the people of Sheffield in 1847. Halifax received its People’s Park from Sir Frank Crossley in 1857. Some parks were provided by local corporations; Leeds purchased 63 acres of Woodhouse Moor in the 1850s for £3,000 and in 1872 bought Roundhay Park for £139,000.
The picturesque settings of Norman castles and Cistercian abbeys are part of the landscape of Yorkshire and the county’s cathedrals, in particular York Minster, attract tourists in their thousands. Some great houses in the county, such as the baroque Castle Howard, built by John Vanbrugb from 1700 until his death in 1726, with a later addition by Nicholas Hawksmoor, not only attract visitors, but have also featured in films and documentaries. The architectural landscape of Yorkshire has also been shaped by the Industrial Revolution, in the form of the tough grandeur of the mills and warehouses of the West Riding. A similar legacy has been left by religious nonconformity, in the shape of vast chapels (although many are now demolished) that at one time resounded with the singing of massed choirs.
Most famous of the Yorkshire choirs is the Huddersfield Choral Society, founded in 1832, known particularly for its performances of Handel’s Messiah. The choral tradition in Yorkshire developed alongside that of brass-band music and some bands, such as the Brighouse and Rastrick and the Black Dyke Mills, went on to achieve international fame. Amateur musical life was at its peak in the last 20 years of the 19th century, when in Bradford, for example, there were about fifty brass bands and choirs.
Interest in music and drama spanned both serious and popular forms and was part of a wider cultural movement fostered in part by a greater interest in self-education. Mechanics’ Institutes, aimed at the education of artisans, were first established by Dr. John Birkbeck, who was born in Settle in 1776. They quickly became established in Yorkshire, most heavily concentrated in the industrial West Riding, though over 110 were established throughout the county in the 19th century. Gradually a system of higher education began to develop and the first Yorkshire universities were granted charters. The idea of a university in Leeds was originally put forward in 1826. The Yorkshire College of Science was founded there in 1874, and 10 years later a medical school was opened. A University Charter was granted in 1904. Leeds’ claim to be the ‘Yorkshire University’ was challenged by Sheffield, where Mark Firth, a local steel master, founded a college in 1879 which was granted University status the same year as Leeds. A University College was opened in Hull in 1926 and gained its Charter in 1954. The expansion of higher education in the 1960s saw universities founded at York in 1963 and in Bradford in 1964. Polytechnics were established in Huddersfield, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull and these became universities in 1992 during another growth in Higher Education. Leeds Polytechnic became Leeds Metropolitan University, with 20,000 students enrolled.
The cultural life of Yorkshire has been enriched by many people who became famous in a wider context for their contributions to the arts and sciences. The dramatist William Congreve was born at Bardsey in 1670 and Ebenezer Elliott, the ‘Corn-Law Rhymer’, was born at Masborough in 1781. Elliot is commemorated by a statue at Sheffield, where he died in 1841. The Bronte sisters, who were born at Thornton and later moved with their father, Patrick Bronte, to Haworth, not only wrote great literature but have also—with the more recent help of film-makers and the tourist industry—highlighted particular features of the county, such as the windswept moors of the ‘Bronte Country’, one of the hallmarks of our contemporary understanding of ‘Yorkshire’.
An important contribution to 19th-century understanding of the Yorkshire countryside was made by J.M.W. Turner, considered one of the greatest of English painters, who made sketching tours of the county in 1816. His watercolours of Maiham Cove and Gordale Scar and elsewhere evoked a public appreciation of wild romantic landscape. A rather different view of Yorkshire was painted by John Atkinson Grimshaw, who was born in Leeds in 1836. He made use of photographs to obtain the accurate detail evident in his melancholic paintings of the 19th-century industrial and commercial landscape.
Yorkshire is the birthplace of the sculptor Henry Moore and the painter David Hockney, two of the world’s most famous contemporary artists. Moore was born in Castleford in 1898 and first made his international reputation in 1948, when he won the Venice Biennale sculpture prize. His work, which can be seen in museums and art galleries all over the world, is well represented in Yorkshire. Moore, who died in 1986, was awarded the coveted Order of Merit for his contribution to the world of art. In 1993 the Henry Moore Institute opened a new gallery in Leeds, exhibiting works by leading contemporary sculptors. David Hockney was born in Bradford in 1937, and first studied at Bradford College of Art. Hockney is now famous not only for his paintings but also his stage designs and photography, and he occasionally returns to Bradford from his home in California. A selection of Hockney’s work is now on permanent display in the ‘1853 Gallery’, which is part of the converted Salt’s Mill in Saltaire, Bradford.
Two of the most famous contemporary poets have Yorkshire connections. Ted Hughes, who was born at Mytbolmroyd in 1930, has been described by Edward Lucie-Smith as ‘the most explosively individual poetic talent to appear in England since the war’. A great influence on Hughes has been the millstone grit landscape of his birthplace. He became Poet Laureate in 1985. Philip Larkin, although not born in Yorkshire, spent most of his working life as Librarian at the University of Hull. Larkin’s somewhat pessimistic view of life came to characterise much of the 1950s and 1960s and influenced many younger than himself. On his death in 1986 the country lost one of its finest poets.
Many successful attempts have been made to preserve and enrich the county’s heritage including that of the Industrial Revolution—though one of Yorkshire’s finest writers, Bradford-born J.B. Priestley, was to decry the loss of many great buildings. The York Railway Museum commemorates the age of the steam train and the history of the woollen textile industry is remembered in several locations, notably in the Bradford Industrial Museum, which contains working examples of early textile machinery. Museums and art galleries abound and many old traditions have been revived, such as the York Mystery Plays which restarted in 1951.
The county’s theatrical and musical traditions have always remained strong. New theatres have been opened; the Leeds Playhouse, which dates from 1970, now occupies new enlarged premises which opened in 1989, and is known as the ‘West Yorkshire Playhouse’. Old theatres, like the Bradford Alhambra, opened in 1914 by the pantomime impresario, Francis Laidler, have been refurbished and enlarged. Hull has a lively theatrical tradition, where the New Theatre contributed a great deal during the management of Peppino Santangelo during the 1940s and 1950s. Hull also has the Spring Street Theatre and more recently the Hull Truck Theatre Company has received national recognition.
Orchestras such as the Halle’ and the B.B.C. Symphony play to audiences in Leeds and Bradford and many quartets and choirs perform all over Yorkshire. Opera North is a professional opera company based in Leeds and is justly proud of its reputation.
Other art forms have also flourished. The prestigious National Museum of Film, Photography and Television, based in Bradford, is the most popular national museum outside London. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Bretton Hall was opened in 1977, the first of its kind in the country, and the International Print Biennale in Bradford continues to attract entrants from all over the world. Much of the funding of the arts in Yorkshire is provided by the Yorkshire and Humberside Arts Association, based in Dewsbury, without which many arts organisations would cease to exist. Oriental Arts, based in Bradford, seeks to develop an interest and knowledge of Asian Arts—music, dance and poetry—throughout the region. Local and regional festivals—those held in Swaledale, Ryedale, Harrogate; the lildey Literature Festival and the York Early Music Festival are just a few of the ones held in Yorkshire—continue to prosper, drawing not only on traditional culture but often introducing new art forms to the people of Yorkshire.