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Over the last few days, hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans and Britons around the world have been been paying attention to an event taking place in a suburb of Leeds in Yorkshire. It’s the second Test between Sri Lanka and England, a cricket match being played at Headingley, by invitation of the Yorkshire County Cricket Club.
The village of Headingley in 1897 is the subject of a vivid and detailed photograph in the Wellcome Library. It is one of thousands of photographs of British towns and villages taken by the Victorian photographer Francis Frith (1822-1898). Copies of his photographs are still being printed today by the Francis Frith company, and can be seen on the walls of many hotels and pubs in Great Britain. The prints in the Wellcome Library are however photographic prints from the original negatives. They can be dated thanks to the numbers incribed on them (in this case 39097, which the firm dates to 1897).
In the centre is the Victorian church of St. Michael and All Angels, then recently built and today listed as a grade II* historic building: it was designed by J.L. Pearson (1817-1897). In the middle distance is a horse-drawn omnibus with an elegantly curved stairway leading to the upper deck. To the right are the premises of S. Brayshaw, Wine & Spirit Merchant — presumably a pub as well as an off-license. On the side wall is a poster for a cricket match between Leeds Cricket Club and Mirfield.
Further along Otley Road is a parade of shops, starting with Taylors’ Drug Company Ltd. described on its fascia as “The great cash chemists, known everywhere. Established to supply the public with pure drugs. Chemists, patent medicines, perfumery, homeopathic medicines &c. at lowest store prices”). The next shop is divided into two. The part on the left has a shop-sign saying “Tobacco and cigars”, but the shop also acted as a stationer: a placard advertising Stephens’ Violet Ink (familiar to readers of Victorian correspondence and ledgers) displays a big Rorschach-blot of ink, while another placard proclaims “The Waverley pen is a treasure”. A rack of newspapers hangs outside the door.
Further to the right are Coutts, Milliner and Draper, who advertise that they are agents for Thomson’s Dye Works, Perth. A woman wearing a straw hat, presumably supplied by Coutts, pretends to be window-shopping but is actually watching the photographer.
In October 2012 when Google photographed the street for Google Streetview, all the buildings shown by Frith were still there, but the three shops were all to let. In the absence of tenants, Taylor’s shop had been taken over temporarily by a charity shop supporting Martin House children’s hospice, while both parts of the Coutts shop were boarded up.
Missing today is the trunk of the ancient oak tree prominent on the other side of the road in the Francis Frith photograph. It was the Shire Oak which gave its name to the Skyrack district or ‘wapentake’, which in turn gave its name to the Skyrack public house today in the building formerly occupied by S. Brayshaw. The oak fell down in 1941. Through the trees on the far left of the photograph one can glimpse the building which is today the public house The Original Oak, also named after that tree.
The photographer’s camera enables us to relive a moment of local history over a century ago. By observing the differences and similarities between then and now, we can view the seeming banalities of the present in a new and more rewarding perspective. The ability to zoom into high-resolution scans of old photographs now allows us to see details of the historic environment that escaped the notice of even the original photographer.
Author: William Schupbach