Thornton’s Arcade, Leeds


The oldest arcade in Leeds, Thornton’s Arcade was opened in 1877. The Yorkshire Post newspaper at the time saw it as “Leeds catching up with the great cities of Europe.” And it’s still up there among the great arcades of the UK, with its curved glass ceiling, supported by beautiful blue ironwork and a red dragon at the base of the iron supports.

The features at either end are also a bit special: the clock that still chimes every 15 minutes, with its characters from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe; down at the Briggate end a sculptured face, which another local newspaper in 1937 claimed was based on Gainsborough’s portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire.

Yorkshire’s White Rose frames the arcade name at both ends, and there are gargoyle-like faces above the entrance at the Briggate end, with the arcade’s date of opening featuring also overhead as you walk in.

This is a popular arcade, too, with every unit (except one) occupied at the time of our visit in February 2024, and it prides itself on its tradition of catering for creative, independent businesses. Stand-out shops are the comics shop, whose owner has been in the arcade over 20 years, the whisky and cigar shop with its Native American figure standing guard out front, and the Village Welcome shop, which specialises in skateboards and other clothes for skateboard types – it also has a fascinating art gallery upstairs with arty books and a café.

Oher units are occupied by Japanese home décor, a service selling holiday homes in Yorkshire, and then a series of businesses very like what was also to be found in Queens Arcade up the road: tea shop, hair salon, men’s grooming, jewellery, tattoos, barbers, beauty, leather goods and shoes.

My pick of the arcade’s past

Charlie Thornton was the owner of a local music hall, who bought up all the properties and land near where the arcade is today so that he could be free to build what he wanted.

Potts, the Leeds clock-makers built the large clock which still appears at the end of the arcade, with its figures from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe: Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Richard the Lionheart, and a character less well-known these days, Gurth, a swineherd.

Just ahead of Christmas 1890, one reporter gave a description of the atmosphere in Thornton’s Arcade: “Thornton Arcade is crowded, and ever and anon groups stop in its centre, and at its entrance, to note the movements of the clock figures when the hour is struck. Flower sellers abound, and roses and other blooms may be purchased for one penny each, while high above the roar of the people may be heard the voices of the fruit vendors or retailers of a miscellaneous collection of articles from a penny pocket book to a crying baby.”

In 1892 the optician in the arcade got into trouble for trying to get money from customers under false pretences, as he allegedly pretended to be from a local hospital. The way the story was covered in the local press showed the nature of attitudes to the Jewish community at the time. “A Leeds Jew accused of an optical swindle,” ran the headline in the Dewsbury Chronicle. The same newspaper a week later ran with “The serious charge against a Leeds Jew,” when his religion had nothing whatsoever to do with the offence he was charged with.

Another incident in 1906 reflected the anti-semitic sentiment in the city around the turn of the century. A fight broke out in a hotel bar near the arcade (hotel no longer there), when some army veterans began singing a song, to which some other men present – apparently Jews – objected. One of the supposed Jews then stabbed an ex-serviceman in the throat severing the jugular and killing him almost instantly. He ran off through the arcade to escape. The man sought was described as of ‘dark complexion and Jewish appearance,’ with most of the witnesses to the fight speaking of Jews being the aggressors.

Hayward’s at 4-12 in the arcade was a designated air raid shelter – during shop opening hours only – once war broke out in 1939. And the shop occupants in Thornton’s Arcade grouped together to form a fire-watching group for the duration of the war, with military personnel invited in to lecture to all shop assistants on how to react if an incendiary device hit the arcade.

Sources for these stories: 1) Leeds Mercury, 10 April 1878; 2) Ripon Observer, 25 December 1890; 3) Dewsbury Chronicle, 27 August 1892; 4) Leeds Mercury, 3 July 1906; 5) Leeds Mercury, 15 November 1939.

This arcade in films or books

I’m sure there must be lots of films and books with scenes set in Thornton’s Arcade, but I have yet to see any, so, readers, help me out here…

What memories do you have of visits in years gone by?

Have you got any good stories to add on the past of this arcade?

What’s your favourite shop in the arcade today?

My favourite shop in the arcade

Tough choice because there are so many brilliant independent businesses in Thornton’s Arcade, but my pick is the Welcome Village shop. I’m not a skateboarder myself but there is such a good vibe in this place, with staff interested not only in the products they are selling now, but also the whole arcade community and its past. Loved the arty bookshop upstairs too.

Is there a website for this arcade?

No website but there are Facebook and Instagram pages for the arcade. But neither of these social media pages have been updated for a while.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *