Morley, Leeds. Like Rome, set upon seven hills – like Rome, see Morley and die. All of life spread across a settlement five miles from Leeds. One thousand years of simultaneously resisting change and grinding down resolve until unwary visitors find themselves unable to leave. First mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086, this “open ground by a moor” holds sway over its inhabitants more than many cities could ever hope. It was recorded that in 1066, the land was under the lordship of the Saxon, Dustan of Swillington – prior to this, the Vikings had dominated the Yorkshire landscape. By the end of the 11th Century, Morley was the tenancy of Illbert de Lacy, given as a gift by William the Conqueror. Estimates of its size suggest around 50-60 inhabitants, plus a church and several acres of farmland – by comparison, Leeds itself probably only had around 250 people living there. “If you can’t get it in Morley, you can’t get it anywhere,” used to be a common phrase, as much a threat as a badge of honour. Don’t you dare leave. Everything you need is here.
Following the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, in which the Scot, Robert the Bruce, triumphed over his English counterpart, King Edward II, Morley was used as wintering quarters for adventurous Scottish troops drifting south. They left little but scorched land in their wake. The Renaissance saw Morley once more as a valuable commodity, the politician Sir John Savile building his huge country house there in 1590 – fifty years later it was a battleground, the royalist the Earl of Newcastle claiming it from Parliamentarians. In 1717 it was deemed too expensive to upkeep and in 1730 it was demolished by gunpowder, though stone had already been plundered for stone by builders in the area. The remaining ruins now provide an extra obstacle on a golf course.
In 1706, Lord Dartmouth had taken up residence in the town. Dartmouth Park and several roads and areas in town still bear his name. It was easy to feel a sense of power – Scatcherd Hill, Dawson Hill, Troy Hill, Banks Hill, Daisy Hill and Hungerhill – you could always look down on your subjects. Farming the land had given way to stone quarrying; stone quarrying had expanded into coal mining. Of course it had – if there was a way of making people’s lives more dismal, Morley was keen to be involved. The main colliery suffered an explosion in 1872, killing 34 people as young as 14 through both impact injuries and gas inhalation, their routes to escape blocked by 11 dead horses. There were suspicions one of the men underground had sparked the explosion by smoking near a pocket of gas. By 1927, the last mine had ceased production.
By 1800, the population in Morley had grown to around 2000 but grew swiftly throughout the century, such that by 1900, it had increased to nearly 25,000. Local boy Titus Salt sparked the industrial revolution but the textile industry had already taken hold of the town. Crank Mills, built in 1790, was one of the first steam-powered mills in Britain (its derelict shell was ravaged by fire in 2022). Mills sprang up everywhere (44 of them at the peak), deafening mausoleums packed with overworked locals (mostly women) watched over by wealthy industrialists.
Morley wanted to make a lasting impact on the world and so it did, giving it both the material and word, “shoddy” in 1813. By combining scrap pieces of wool and other material, cheap cloth could be churned out for those on a budget – which was virtually everyone. Viscious grinding machines with thousands of fangs rotating at 700 revolutions per minute were fed scraps of cloth, from cast-offs donated by local mills to piano felt used on the instrument’s dampeners. This process was, I kid you not, called “willeying” and the contraption itself was a “shake willey” machine. As time progressed, finer cloth was used, scraps from tailors and old clothing which may have higher quality materials. Once processed, this was given the equally appalling name, “mungo”. Hats off to the warring Americans though, during the Civil War they gave not a jot where it came from, it was perfect for manufacturing army uniforms for all ranks. Ever the political beast, Morley supplied both sides with shoddy.
Mill owners became a law unto themselves, as much slave owners and barons as they were entrepreneurs. These powerful local families included Scatcherds, Dawsons, Crowthers, Asquiths and Scarths, names which are still common in the town and, for those who were particularly successful, streets names, parks and the like. The hills provided a screen from the outside world, with the factories and chimneys providing even more cover. The geography demanded depression in more ways than one – surely only this town could have a location known as Morley Hole just along the street from Morley Bottoms? Morley Hole was adjacent to the Dartmouth Feast ground, which was used for fairs even when I was growing up. In days of yore, there was rather more than Space Invaders, mud and teeth-melting candy floss:
Amongst other amusements once very popular in Morley was a game called the bear and tenter, an interesting account of which was contributed to Hone’s Table Book by Mr Scatcherd.
“A boy is made to crawl as a bear upon his hands and knees, round whose neck is tied a rope which the keeper holds at a few yards distance. The bystanders then buffet the bear, who is protected only by his keeper, who, by touching any of the assailants, becomes liberated; the other is then the bear, and the buffetted bear becomes the keeper and so on. If the ‘tenter’ is sluggish or negligent in defence of his charge, it is then that the bear growls and the blows are turned upon the guardian, wholly or partially, as the bear-baiters elect.
Like many towns, Morley’s local fair was referred to as ‘a feast’, though what difference the name makes seems irrelevant – a spectacle it certainly seems to have been though:
The Village Feast, kept in September, does not now maintain its former importance , and many of the sports and pastimes peculiar to it, a century ago, are now forgotten. Pitching the bar, throwing at cocks (a most barbarous amusement), hunting the pig, sack, smock, and wheelbarrow races, grinning and smoking matches, very largely constituted the amusements of our forefathers. As time wore on, these amusements gave place to others of less questionable character. With the decline of our village feast the wandering exhibitions, once so familiar, have become nearly extinct, and travelling giants, dwarfs, performing ponies, and wonderful pigs, are only seen on rare occasions.
Morley may have lost its wonderful pigs but local ‘characters’ never seemed to be in short supply. Those who were too unruly would be placed in stocks prior to the 19th Century – slanderous women were treated to the ducking stool (any bodies of water suitable for this have long since been filled in) or ‘the brank’, a metal bridle with an iron plate which was either sharpened or covered with spines, to be placed in the mouth of the victim so that she could not move her tongue without injury. A post on Leeds Museums and Galleries describes the usage of what is now known as ‘the Morley brank’.
“With the brank on her head, she was then conducted through the streets, led by a chain held by one of the town’s officials. In some towns she would have been chained to the pillory, whipping post or market cross.
‘She thus suffered for telling her mind to some petty tyrant in office, or speaking plainly of a wrongdoer, or for taking to task a lazy, perhaps drunken husband’, describes an article in Yorkshire Illustrated Monthly, in May 1884.
The same article points out that:
‘The use of the instrument was not sanctioned by law but was altogether illegal. To everybody, it must be a matter of deep regret that the brank should ever have been used at all’.
The brank in our collection is slightly less vicious than some of those found elsewhere. The tongue plate is rough but not spiked. It was collected by the Morley historian, Norrison Scatcherd (1780-1853) who left it to Leeds Museums & Galleries, where it has been in the collection since 1863″.
Rumoured to have frequented the Morley area was John Nevison, a notorious highwayman dubbed “Swift Nick” by King Charles II, as he rode as fast as “Old Nick” (the devil). His escapades often became entwined with those of Dick Turpin, who’s sidekick Nick reinforced his alternate moniker. Like many in his trade, he was thought by many to be Robin Hood-like in his intentions, though shooting a man dead who attempted to make a citizen’s arrest in Morley doesn’t seem that valiant. Varifying his movements, given his occupation, is all but impossible but it is known that following his alleged escape he was caught, tried and hanged in York later in the year 1684.
Morley is at the very heart of the Rhubarb Triangle, the not-so-mysterious area between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford renowned for its production of the stalks. Despite this, it failed to be included in Morley’s coat of arms in 1886, to commemorate the town’s expansion, a terrible oversight. Cannonballs (to signify the civil wars skirmishes) nestle alongside cotton plants; a shuttle and bobbin lay above a crossed shovel and pickaxe – “industry conquers all,” it declares in Latin, to the approval of a badly-drawn sheep at the top. Emblems of industry, certainly but also of misery, poor conditions and death. Your hard work will make us more powerful, what happens to you is your business.
Around the same time, work commenced on the building of a town hall, considered appropriate with the town’s population now hovering around 20,000. Built from stone quarried nearby, it is a surprisingly impressive building, superior in many eyes to that in Leeds itself. Opened in 1895 by local boy made good, MP, H. H. Asquith (later, improbably, to become Prime Minister. From Morley!) the tiled Victorian interior, stately rooms and even cobbled streets alongside have not been tarnished by modernity. Indeed, so unmoved by time are they that the disused magistrate’s courtroom and other interiors and exteriors are the go-to for film producers requiring exacting authenticity. The town hall regularly appears in the likes of Emmerdale and countless other films and documentaries. The Queen and Prince Philip popped in for tea in the 50s – in 1961, the clock tower burned down, ignited by sparks from one of the local mills which, in disrepair, had itself been set on fire. It was quickly rebuilt – it was something the town was actually proud of.
The first secondary school was built in 1906. It became a grammar school, then a bog-standard high school (where I went) and now, implausibly, one of the top academies in the country. I attended at a time when the headmaster, J.R. Carr, still wore a black cape, as did his deputy, a Welshman named Mr Walters who possessed the loudest shout I’ve ever heard from a human being. The grammar school mentality still raged inside the teachers who had straddled both eras. My sister told me that Walters once went ballistic at her friend for breathing too loudly, which certainly sounds about right. One break time, the physics teacher walked into the room at the very moment someone was smacked on the nose by a classmate. “Get out of my school!” he roared. “It’s not your fucking school,” was the response. A clash of ages, a struggle between modernity and tradition. It was always like this; it must stay like this. You’ve let your family down; you’ve let your school down; you’ve let yourself down; by Christ, you’ve let Morley down.
Infants and junior school also lived in a bygone era, though I never saw a teacher hit a child – maybe that just went on at home. Life was certainly simpler then – making dens in the park; playing a bizarre game called ‘pegs’, which seems to only have existed in Morley and consisted of throwing a tennis ball at three old wooden pegs balanced against a wall in a pi sign. If you knocked them down you then had to reassemble them before the opposing team hit you with the tennis ball. There was more to it than that but only just. Forget shoddy, I honestly believe this was the greatest invention to come out of the town. There was always death to avoid, that was a continual threat, whatever your age.
One lad I knew died on a school cross-country run – a gale blew him into the path of an oncoming dustbin lorry. Teachers always seemed to die on duty or almost the minute they entered retirement. The school motto was “to learn to serve” – like the town, it was instilled at an early age that you were to know your place. Then there were those who came to the town like the grim reaper. The shadow of Peter Sutcliffe, The Yorkshire Ripper, loomed large over my childhood. It’s difficult to convey now just how much of a threat he was – with only three TV channels, the local news broadcasts were impossible to miss and were creaking at the sides with grim facts but little information which would help, aside from, “don’t go outside after dark”. My dad wouldn’t let my mum walk the dogs after a certain time (for my his wife’s safety as opposed to the dogs, I believe). The threat was real. It was on our doorstep, indeed it was known after his capture that Sutcliffe would regularly and necessarily drive through the town, given its position between Bradford and Leeds. There were no Morley victims but we all felt we were targets.
Morley Market, an indoor festival of fruit and veg stalls, plastic toys and dark tanks full of depressed exotic fish, was established in 1880. It holds a special place in my heart as it was the only place locally, for a very long time, at which you could hire videotapes – the alternative was a long trip to a shop in Roundhay that tried to convince you that buying them was much better than renting them (at a time when they were upwards of £70 each) or a petrol station in the middle of nowhere.
If this was back in the late 70s, we didn’t see Gerry again until 1988. On ‘Crimewatch’. “Businessman, Gerald Stone” had proved the key to solving one of the UK’s most prominent manhunts at the time – the hunt for the killer of policeman, Sergeant John Speed, shot in the centre of Leeds whilst going to help a colleague investigate two men acting suspiciously. Gerry was the getaway driver for the two men after they had concluded their suspicious activities but of course, ended up with a significantly more wretched role in a more serious crime. Gerry was arrested in relation to another crime but as the heat was turned up, he grassed up the killer in return for a lighter sentence. Upon his release from prison, he took to wearing a wig as part of a disguise and new identity. My dad was appalled. Not at the crime, just at the wig – “bloody thing”.
It was on that day that Sarah Harper was abducted near to her home, just off Peel Street whilst returning from an errand to the corner shop. She was a year younger than me. Assembly at school warned us gravely of the dangers of going off with strangers in cars, which seemed quite old hat as far as the information we were fed goes, we were still reeling from the Zammo drugs storyline on ‘Grange Hill’. Her photo was everywhere – I imagine the police must have visited our house at some point, as they did everyone else’s. There were reports of a balding man and a white van. Someone at my school was the last person to see her alive. Tell anyone if you see anyone acting suspiciously; tell a parent or guardian. I could never quite picture what a guardian looked like but they didn’t sound much fun. Forces were alerted across the country and asked to check places where murdered children had been uncovered in the past. There was never a feeling that Sarah was going to be found safe and well. It felt like we were being invited to collectively grieve at a very early stage.
Days passed, then weeks. The national press was all over it, though they didn’t seem to be doing anything aside from causing upset. At one point Britain’s most famous medium, Doris Stokes, was called in to use her powers to find Sarah. Doris was, obviously, an awful person. A cuddly grandma full of lies, she released no fewer than seven volumes of her autobiography, the most famous of which, ‘Voices in my Ear’ was everywhere – the ‘Thursday Murder Club’ of its day. By 1987, she was starting to become unveiled as a fraud, reports of widespread audience plants at her packed live shows and disputes about the veracity of her memoirs. Even in the States, James Randi alerted police to the fact that her ‘help’ with a murder case was actually public knowledge. She claimed in her books to have helped police solve to murder cases in the early 80s, something denied later by the force. When offering her skills to the police in 1986, Doris, as I recall, said she could see she was somewhere very dark; it was cold, wet…but she was alive. It what a fair guess. She was right about everything apart from the last bit.
Just over a month after her disappearance, Sarah’s partially clothed body was found tied and gagged in the River Trent, some 70 miles away in Nottingham. She was most likely already unconscious by the time her body was dumped in the river, having suffered a violent sexual assault. Her cause of death was given as drowning – the pathologist described her internal injuries as “simply terrible”. The location of her discovery made it less likely that the killer was local – so there was that. It was quickly linked to the killings of two other young girls, Sarah Maxwell and Caroline Hogg – both Northerners whose bodies were found in the Midlands. Police were looking for someone who travelled the country making opportunist killings. We’d been here before, of course.
Robert Black was finally arrested on 14th July 1990. Born in Scotland he had a raft of sexual assaults against young girls to his name but no conviction of any note since 1967, well before the date police had been given as a guide for them to keep an eye on suspects from. He was caught in the act of the abduction of a six-year-old girl, his van found to be filled with lengths of rope, sticking plaster, hoods, children’s clothing, a camera and sex aids. Black described it as a one-off moment of madness. A search of his lodgings found a huge amount of child pornography. He admitted to his tendencies, at least 30 other sexual assaults and to the abduction that year and received a life sentence in August 1990. Over the next four years, detectives pieced together the evidence linking him to the three murders – Black refused to answer any questions throughout. In 1994, he was tried for the murders of Maxwell, Hogg and Harper, as well as the abduction of another girl, Teresa Thornhill and found guilty. He was later found guilty of a fourth murder, that of Jennifer Cardy. It’s likely that he was responsible for further murders, not just in the UK but across mainland Europe but he had long since stopped cooperating. He died aged 68 in 2016.
Black found himself in Morley on that night in 1986 as he was making his final delivery of the day to a firm near to Sarah’s home, however, it feels like there was a certain inevitability that he would end up there at some point. The maze of streets; the motorways to make good your escape; the people of Morley, conditioned to be part of the fabric of the world which immediately surrounded them. David Peace set his acclaimed quartet of Red Riding books partially in Morley. They see the corrupt police battling with their own failings and a roaming serial killer against a backdrop of working-class Yorkshire towns. Morley is the perfect sympathetic background – cursed and resigned.
You’d think that’d be it for Morley’s part in being the playground for serial killers but no. Donald Nappey was born in Morley in 1936, though many sources make the mistake of claiming it was Bradford, the city he lived in for the majority of his early life. The ties were strong enough that when he married in 1955, the ceremony took place in St. Paul’s Church in Morley, inevitably not far from where Robert Black abducted Sarah Harper. Having spent both his childhood and a period in the army being mercilessly bullied about his surname, he changed it to Neilson after seeing the name on an ice cream van. There was a kid at my school with Donald’s given surname – it seems inconceivable, as unusual as it is, there there wasn’t a family connection. Someone’s dad I knew went to school with Donald. People don’t usually leave Morley. Everything you need is there. If you can’t get it from Morley…
Neilson, after a couple of failed business ventures, turned to burglary, something he was inordinately good at. It is estimated that even during his early ventures in the world of crime he committed over 400 burglaries. He was everything you think of as a burglar – clad from head to foot in black and operating in the dead of night. He was referred to as ‘The Phantom’ or ‘Handy Andy’ by the police but by the 1970s, the picture had changed. A chance cache of guns and ammunition led Donald to up the stakes and he started robbing post offices. He was more than happy to exert whatever level of violence he felt necessary to get what he wanted and the speed of his attacks and his appearance led to a new nickname – ‘The Black Panther‘.
There were 18 post office raids through until 1974, all progressively more violent. The same year, he killed for the first time – Donald Skepper, a sub-postmaster from Harrogate. By November, two more had been murdered: Derek Astin in Lancashire and Sidney Grayland in the West Midlands. All three had been shot. The following year he had become the most wanted man in Britain. Donald had hatched a crackpot idea to kidnap the teenage daughter of wealthy businessman, George Whittle. He kidnapped 17-year-old Leslie in January 1975, keeping her hidden in an underground drainage pipe whilst he demanded £50,000 for her release. She was found dead seven weeks later – an accident, Neilson claimed, not something believed by the jury after he was caught during a routine police stop in December. Sentenced to life, he did indeed never see the outside world again, dying in prison in 2011.
Morley (Asquith notwithstanding) was always staunchly Labour – there must have been other candidates willing to lose their deposit at every election but there was no lingering evidence. Gardens were always planted with ‘for sale’ signs with Labour plastered on them – has anyone ever changed their voting position due to one of these? Then, in the early 2000s, there was a shift to the right – a big shift. No, bigger. The BNP (British National Party) took hold. By 2008, it had more BNP members than any other constituency, nearly 100. Election victories became commonplace; the party leader, Nick Griffin, started visiting, regularly holding meetings and rallies in the town hall. The BBC’s ‘Panorama’ programme had noticed this too and secretly filmed him, landing him in court fighting accusations of hate speech, having called Islam, “a wicked, vicious faith”. Morley’s BNP councillor, Chris Beverley, did little to quell the rhetoric, saying he, “didn’t hate Hitler” during an interview with Richard Bacon on BBC Five Live. The Guardian obtained this quote in November 2008:
Pat Denison, heading to Morrisons by the town hall to do her weekly shop, agreed: “We’re not racists round here, but it’s fair to say that Morley’s often had a very poor deal from everyone else, specially Leeds.”
As part of this political shift or perhaps to explain or apologise for it, the town declared itself “The UK’s most patriotic town” in 2005. Every year, on and around St. George’s Day, children and adults are daubed with red and white face paint; soldiers retired, active and ‘in spirit’ march in uniform and brass bands play. These parades still take place each year but the BNP’s grip on the town has faded. First Ed Balls of all people was elected – after his Portillo-esque uncrowning, the Conservatives took power, at the time of writing, they’re still there. Crackers.
Like much of Leeds city centre, in recent years, Morley has succumbed to a make-over. For a time in the early 90s, Morley implausibly became the centre of the universe for dance fans in the UK, the Orbit club night at the old variety theatre/cinema/bingo hall attracting everyone from Carl Cox to Aphex Twin. Aphex Twin! In Morley! E’s now well and truly worn off, it once again stands empty. Old mill buildings are now luxury apartments; the pubs now fight for trade against chic wine bars; the chippy battles for stomachs against bistros. There’s a Wetherspoons – ‘The Picturehouse’ on the old site of a cinema no-one remembers. There’s a statue outside the cinema of a local hero – Ernie Wise. Ernie Wise was not born in Morley; he didn’t live in Morley. It’s a terrible statue but is clearly a more famous name than the other illustrious types who hail from the town – cyclist Beryl Burton; Bridget Jones novelist Helen Fielding; telly chef Brian Turner; Liz from Corrie; porn star Quinton James. All the arts. I’ll leave the closing comments to Trip Advisor:
“Morley is a place so inconsequential and crap it has to claim a comedy star (who was neither born nor [sic] lived there) on the basis of a talent show he once won there. The statue itself is hideous and looks like it was made by a 3-year-old child who has accidentally ingested a large amount of magic mushrooms. Any other place in the UK it would be an embarrassment but when most of the shops on Queen Street are either boarded-up, vape, charity or crap takeaways, it’s seen as an attraction”.
With thanks to Kathryn Rowling for Morley gossip and presumed facts.