Hilary reading South Leeds Life
Hilary reading South Leeds Life

I’ve written in my column before about the housing crisis in Leeds – and elsewhere – which is affecting a growing number of people. The size of the housing waiting list is going up while the supply of houses has been going down. So having read in a recent edition of South Leeds Life about the new flats in Gascoigne House in Middleton which provide for people with additional needs– and how much the new residents like living there – I went the other day to have a look at Gascoigne House and at the new family council houses that have been built around it. The development is a great example of what commitment and bricks and mortar can achieve. More please!

I don’t actually know why the new building is called Gascoigne House, but I like to think it is named after the pioneering astronomer and telescope maker, William Gascoigne, who lived at New Hall in Middleton in the 17th century. The Hall and the fields that once surrounded it have long since gone, but on the site where the Hall used to stand is the parade of shops at the Belle Isle Road end of Town Street. If you go to the newsagents there, you will see to the left a Leeds Civic Trust Blue Plaque commemorating Gascoigne’s life.

Gascoigne met the Lancashire astronomer William Crabtree, in around 1640. Crabtree was much taken with the Leeds man’s inventions, and we can tell this from the memorable letter he sent to Gascoigne just after Christmas that year in which he wrote: “My friend Mr. Horrox professeth that little touch which I gave him hath ravished his mind quite from itself and left him in an Exstasie between Admiration and Amazement. I beseech you Sir, slack not your Intentions for the Perfection of your begun Wonders.” He was a clearly a big fan!

Gascogne was described in his day by the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, as an “ingenious a person as the world has bred or known”. Sadly, he died at the Battle of Marston Moor during the English Civil War at the age of just 32, but his fame and his achievements live on all these years later.


And in other news, our buses are finally to come back under local control. This will be the biggest change to the way buses are run in Leeds for 40 years. Services will now rest in the hands of local people and all money made from fares will go back into supporting them. It will take a little time for the new system to get up and running because there’s a lot of bureaucracy to go through, but the plan is that the first franchised bus services will be up and running in parts of Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield from March 2027 – and everywhere else by early 2028. I’ve long said that if control of the buses is good enough for London, then it’s good enough for Leeds. And now, we’re finally going to see it happen.


St Patrick’s Day is a very special occasion for everyone of Irish descent. I wasn’t able to attend the parade in Leeds this year, because I was in Washington DC along, it transpired, with a lot of other people who had left the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to join the festivities there.

I was fortunate enough to attend the lunch that the Speaker of Congress gives every year for the Friends of Ireland – including President Joe Biden and the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar who both addressed us – as well as a reception at the White House.

The President told us that his Irish Finnegan ancestors sailed away from Newry to the United States in 1850. It turns out that Barack Obama’s great-great grandfather, a shoemaker like President Biden’s, had sailed five weeks earlier from the same port.

The idea that they both set out from the same place for a new life having absolutely no idea that both their great-great grandsons would become President of the United States is really quite a story, is it not?

The other bit of history we learned was that when President Ronald Reagan went to Ireland in the 1980s to visit his ancestral village of Ballyporeen, he drank a pint of Guinness at the local pub. The pub kept the glass and put it on display in a special case for customers to admire in the following years. In 2004, after President Reagan had passed away, the Ronald Reagan Library discovered that the pub was being sold. So they bought it, including the pint glass, and shipped the whole lot across to the United States, where the pub was rebuilt as part of the Ronald Reagan Library in California.

I had always thought that it was only the original London Bridge that had made that journey westwards across the Atlantic Ocean, but it turns out I was wrong. And what’s more, the original pint glass made a special journey from California to Washington for the recent lunch on Capitol Hill. I was rather anxious that the Speaker might drop it, but I should not have worried.

And – finally – to bring us back home to Leeds, Irish migration was not all westwards across the Atlantic. A lot of it was also eastwards across the Irish Sea to Britain, including to Leeds which has a long-established Irish community that has contributed so much to our city. This included that particularly important example of eastward Irish migration across the Pennines when the footballing legend Johnny Giles moved from Manchester Utd to Leeds Utd in 1963 (where he went on to play 383 games for the club).
All these stories remind us of the ties of history, famine, friendship, conflict, faith and love that bind together the USA, Britain and Ireland and which run like a golden thread through so many lives. What history has brought together, let no one put asunder.

First published in the April 2024 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here https://southleedslife.com/mps-notebook-william-gascoigne-buses-and-st-patricks-day/

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