Leeds Victorian and Edwardian Shopping Arcades

No shophound worthy of the name should visit Yorkshire without stopping in Leeds' delightful markets and shopping arcades. The city's historic Arcades, which make up what is known as the Victoria Quarter, are a center for luxury shopping, fashion and small, independent, interesting retailers.

The late Victorian and Edwardian arcades off Briggate follow the footprint of narrow lanes and inn yards already visible in the earliest maps of the area. They witness the explosion of creativity and optimism of the period. Neglected by the mid 20th century, they were restored in all their glory in the 1990s and are a must-visit destination in the North.

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Thornton's Arcade

Thornton's Arcade
Ferne Arfin

Thornton's Arcade, completed between 1877 and 1878, was the first of Leeds' eight commercial arcades. Tall and narrow, it has Gothic arches and church-like lancet windows on upper stories. Look up to see dragons at the base of the blue and red iron trusses that support the glass roof like a row of ornate horseshoes.

The arcade was restored and refurbished in 1993. In keeping with its tight, narrow spaces, shops in Thornton's arcade tend to be small specialty shops, sometimes arranged over several floors. The small independents change all the time, but one standby over the years has been OK Comics . Well known to collectors, this comic book store at No. 19 is more like a comfortable reading room than a typical comics shop. 

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The Ivanhoe Clock in Thornton's Arcade

The Robin Hood Clock at Thorntons Arcade
© Ferne Arfin

Characters from Sir Walter Scott's novel strike the quarter hours in Thornton's Arcade.

The Ivanhoe Clock, at one end of the arcade, has long been one of it's main attractions. The clock mechanism was made by William Potts and Sons of Leeds, a very well known maker of public clocks and time keeping mechanisms still sought after by antique collectors.

Robin Hood, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Friar Tuck and Gurth the Swineherd, all characters in the 19th century novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, feature on the clock. Each character, in turn, marks the quarter hour by striking a large bell with his fists. The life-sized figures were sculpted by Leeds artist John Wormald Appleyard.

The other end of Thornton's Arcade features the large head of a woman with long curling hair and a dramatic hat. She is modeled after a painting of the Duchess of Devonshire by Gainsborough.

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County Arcade in Leeds Victoria Quarter

19th Century County Arcade in Leeds Victoria Quarter
Ferne Arfin

Several popular guide books have called these restored Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades among the top 20 sites in England.

The Victoria Quarter consists of several linked arcades that run between Briggate, a pedestrian area that is Leeds' central retail street, and Vicars Lane. This glamorous shopping precinct was created to replace an area of slaughterhouses and slums in the late 1890s.

The development, which included County Arcade and Cross Arcade, was designed by Frank Matcham. That may account for the arcades' extreme theatricality. Matcham was an architect more noted for his theatre building. He designed more than 200 theaters around the the UK including the London Palladium and the London Coliseum. In fact, his shopping arcade development for Leeds did include The Empire Theater. It later became the Empire Arcade and now houses the Leeds branch of fashion retailer Harvey Nichols.

In the early 1990s, these Grade II* listed arcades were restored and the Victoria Quarter created. To create an additional arcade, adjacent Queen Victoria Street was roofed beneath an enormous expanse of stained glass, the largest stained glass window in Britain, by Brian Clarke.

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High Street Retailer in a Glamorous Guise

Elaborate Decoration Above High Street Shop in Leeds' County Arcade
Ferne Arfin

Decoration in metal and faience adds glamor to a shop at the intersection of County Arcade and Cross Arcade in the Victoria Quarter.

In 1900, when the last vestiges of the old Victorian meat markets were swept away, the Leeds developers of the County and Cross Arcades sought to reflect the city's wealth and industry in the decoration of the shopping precinct. Shopping was just beginning to come into its own as a leisure activity and the arcades were meant to attract middle class shoppers from the suburbs for a fine day out in a luxurious environment.

Pink Siena marble, gilded mosaics, mahogany shopfronts with curved glass facades, sky lights, cast iron and Leeds own Burmantofts faience were all used to great effect.

Today, the elaborate decoration, which even includes topiary trees and gushing fountains, is often in marked contrast to the minimalist window decoration of the fashionable stores it frames.

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Contemporary Fashion in a Historic Frame

Fashion in a Historic Setting
Ferne Arfin

Top British and international fashion brands attract stylish shoppers to the arcades of Leeds' Victoria Quarter.

Seventy five of the world's leading luxury and fashion brands occupy the jewel-like shops and the Grade II* listed buildings of the quarter. Harvey Nichols, the famous London fashion store, chose to open its first "provincial" branch here in the mid 1990s. Others soon followed; among them:

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Fashion Details in Leeds' Victoria Quarter

Top Fashion Brands in Leeds
Ferne Arfin

The most exhuberant decoration of all Leeds retail arcades, bursts forth all over the The County Arcade in the Victoria Quarter. Theater designer Frank Matcham, used colorful, richly veined marbles, gilt mosaics, cast and wrought iron, curved and bevelled glass, and rich mahogany in his original interiors.

The restoration, in the 1990s saved as much of the original as possible - columns of Siena marble, colorful faience motifs - adding new details to complement the spirit of the past such as Brian Clarke's stained glass roof for Queen Victoria Street and Joanna Veevers mosaic floor panels.

When redevelopment began, one of the original, Victorian shop fronts was found in pristine condition. Designers used it as a pattern to recreate the ornate, Art Nouveau mahogany frames, curved shop windows and graceful gilt lettering used for all the shop signs in the arcade.

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Pomegranate Frieze in County Arcade in the Victoria Quarter Leeds

Pomegranate Frieze, County Arcade in Leeds
Ferne Arfin

Colorful architectural faience pottery is one of the characteristic decorations of the County Arcade

A frieze of pomegranates, running above shop fronts in the County Arcade, is a typical example of the colorful, high relief glazed pottery wall tiles made by Burmantofts Art Pottery, a local Leeds company. Burmantofts faience pieces and tiles are antique collectables today so it's interesting to consider their humble origins.

The pottery, Wilcock of Burmantofts, Leeds, was a maker of fire bricks and drainpipes before a manager realized that the red clay on the company's site was perfect for making art pottery and architectural faience.

Collectors of Burmantofts today appreciate it for its hard, thick glaze - similar to majolica -and its characteristic colors: olive greens, warm browns, rich yellows and oranges. Many of the pressed designs are enhanced with hand work.

For visitors interested in late Victorian art pottery and Art Nouveau design, the Victoria Quarter is a visual feast.

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Gilt Mosaic Dome in the Victoria Quarter of Leeds

mosaic ceiling Leeds
Ferne Arfin

The vaulted roof of the County Arcade, the most elaborate arcade of the Victoria Quarter, is painted cast-iron with three glass domes. Each of the domes is surrounded by gilt and enamelled mosaics suggesting Leeds' success and prosperity in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Around the central dome, allegorical figures represent Leeds' industries. On the other domes, figures represent liberty, commerce, labour and art.