Thursday, 14 January 2016

Leeds Gas Riots

This photograph was taken for Leeds Museums and Galleries and is licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA
This anonymous drawing is titled the “Leeds Gas Riots” and shows events around New Wortley Railway Bridge, Wellington Road, in July 1890.

This eruption of violence came in the wake of a bitter Gasworkers’ strike which started in June 1890. The Gas Committee of Leeds Corporation wanted to save rate-payers money by enforcing a reduction in the working hours of coke stokers during the summer months (when demand for gas was less) and a strike was inevitable.   The council tried to break the strike by bringing in expensive blackleg labour from Manchester and London, but this served to rally other trade unionists, led by Tom Maguire, to support the strikers and to physically prevent blackleg workers from entering the gasworks.  The Gas Committee called in armed Dragoons from York and riots broke out on 1st July.
Sword (about 1850) used by Leeds Police during the Gas Riots 1890
This photograph was taken by Norman Taylor for Leeds Museums and Galleries
and is licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA

Violence broke out as the imported workers were escorted by Dragoons and police from the city centre to the gas works (south of the river).  At the railway arch in Wellington Road several thousand angry workers hurled missiles (including boulders, timber, iron pipes and bottles) from the bridge and railway embankment. 

The drawing features in the 2016 exhibition “Crime and Punishment” at Abbey House Museum, and there turns out to be a direct connection to Abbey House. Among those injured was Thomas R. Harding, a magistrate and owner of Tower Works in Holbeck, whose son had just moved into Abbey House.  In his autobiography Colonel Thomas Walter Harding recalled that his first night at Abbey House coincided with the gas riots and that early next morning he was called to the scene.  He was vice-president of the Leeds Chamber of Commerce and so was appointed as mediator for the dispute.  Factory owners were beginning to put pressure on the council to restore a normal gas supply as soon as possible.  The strike was resolved in favour of the striking gas workers and the victory was regarded as Tom Maguire’s finest hour but Harding must also take some of the credit for the peaceful resolution.   His actions help explain his popularity with both employers and workers and helped his election as a city councillor for Headingley and subsequent election as Lord Mayor in 1898.
Colonel T. Walter Harding, Abbey House, Kirkstall in 1893
Photograph: Leeds Museums and Galleries, licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA

Kitty Ross, Curator of Leeds History