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A BriefHistory of Headingley

27 April 2018

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A Brief History of Headingley

A very well-known area to most people familiar with Leeds, the lively suburb of Headingley is, somewhat unknowingly to most, steeped in history. With a lot of buildings being around for hundreds of years, and some with more recent history, we take a look at the history of Headingley, and how it became the bustling, energetic little suburb we’ve all grown to love.

Delving all the way back to the 11th century and the year 1086 is where we find the first records of Headingley. These records lie within the Domesday Book, where we see Headingley listed as an 840-acre piece of land, with the slightly more confusing pronunciation of ‘Hedingelei’ or ‘Hedingeleia’. However, the finding of a stone coffin near Beckett Park in 1995, suggests that there may have been some sort of settlement even earlier than this, possibly dating back to the Roman times.

A central feature of Headingley from the Viking times was an ancient oak tree. Known as ‘Siaraches’, or the ‘Shire Oak’ this tree stood just north of St. Michaels Church, all the way until 1941. This oak tree was instrumental to Headingley and was known as the main meeting point for settling disputes and raising armies. A very significant figure in Headingley, the Shire Oak has been influential in the naming of two nearby pubs, The Original Oak and the Skyrack.

(A 'mash-up' photo of Headingley, then and now, depicting the Skyrack pub overlooking the Shire Oak).

(The remains of the Shire Oak, Headingley, overlooking St. Michaels Church. Taken in 1897).

Although now an established area, Headingley started off very small. Growing from solely the family of Ilbert de Lacy (the owner of 840-acre Headingley in 1086), to a settlement of 300 people according to the 1801 census. This growth continued from this point, and in the mid-19th century, the area of Far Headingley started to develop, with terraced houses popping up on what was previously unclaimed land.

Headingley continued to develop, and in the time of the Industrial Revolution, it became a popular area for the rich people of Leeds to escape from the polluted city air.

One piece of history that often escapes common knowledge is the introduction of Leeds’s Zoological and Botanical Gardens back in 1840. This was an attempt to create a huge tourist attraction in Headingley, where a full zoo and botanical gardens site was set up just off Cardigan Road. Many exotic animals were brought to the country to be kept on this site, in the hope of creating a buzz around the area and heighten tourism to Leeds. The most notable element of this Zoo still stands today, a now grade II listed Bear Pit. This structure used to house two bears made visible to the public through access to two turrets on either side of the bear enclosure. Unfortunately, the Zoo was not a success with the people of Leeds, who struggled to afford the cost of visiting. The Zoo closed and the land was sold to a housing developer in 1858.

The growth of the area continued from here on in, with most of Headingley becoming developed by the beginning of the 20th Century. The 1911 census showed a population of 46,000.

Fast forward 100 years and we are now focusing on the Headingley we all know and are used to… The 2011 census showed us that students make up around two-thirds of the population of Headingley. Residing in houses of multiple occupancies (HMOs), the students have made up a huge part of Headingley since the 1990s. However, recent reports are showing that this is now moving back to a more balanced area in terms of the percentage of students against locals. Bringing Headingley back up the pecking order in terms of good, high potential places to live.

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