For a place that’s existed for over a thousand years (it’s mentioned in the Domesday Book), Leeds is a little bare on legends and folktales. There’s the story about the stone lions and the Town Hall clock striking thirteen, but that’s relatively recent. What does exist, though, is the story of Skull and Stone Yard, and it would seem to be real. And even if it’s not, it’s a great story – I’ve used it, tweaked just a little, in my novel At the Dying of the Year.
The Crown and Fleece used to stand down on Kirkgate, although folk still seem uncertain exactly where, a little surprising as it was only knocked down in 1930. Some have mentioned it being down by the Parish Church, others on Crown Court, which led through from Kirkgate to the Corn Exchange (the consensus seems to be the latter, although there’s 18th century mention of a Fleece Inn in the former location).
As the story has it, the press gang visited Leeds in the middle of winter, taking men to serve the King (or possibly Queen). Two who were pressed were kept overnight in the stable of the Crown and Fleece, a building separate from the inn itself. But when the door was unlocked the next morning they were nowhere to be seen. Had they escaped? That seemed impossible? Had someone taken pity and let them out? That was more plausible.
Whatever the reason, the press gang moved on to find more men. It took a few more days to discover what had actually happened…
The hay in the loft was thrown down for the horses, the level growing lower and a smell of decay growing stronger. A few turns of the pitchfork exposed the decomposed bodies of the two recruits, gnawed at by vermin and nibbled by insects. In an attempt to keep warm on that winter’s night they’d burrowed down into the hay and suffocated.
It was a tragedy, and one the landlord commemorated. He had a special stone cut for the stable with a protruding pair of skulls, a fitting memorial for the two nameless young men who died. Because of that, it became known as Skull and Stones Yard.
When the building was pulled down, the stone vanished – only to be spotted on the exterior of a factory on Buslingthorpe Lane, close to the junction with Scott Hall Road, in 1974.
As with all good tales, there’s an air of the nebulous about it all; exactitude is the enemy of a great story. We don’t know when the incident happened or who the thoughtful landlord might have been. The Naval press gangs did roam during times of war, forcing men into the service, from 1664 until the practice end in 1815 (although some parts of the law have never been struck down, so watch out). Whether the gangs would have strayed as far inland as Leeds is a different matter. There were, however, Amy press gangs, although, only for a short time during the American Revolutionary War – the press gang could only have impressed men in Leeds from late 1179 until May 1780, when the Army Impressment Act was repealed.
But no details should ever get in the way of a good story, and this is an excellent one. There’s a smidgen of horror at the deaths, plenty of history and mystery. And then there’s the really important bit – it’s Leeds.
Chris Nickson is the author of the Richard Nottingham novels, set in Leeds in the 1730s, the most recent of which is At the Dying of the Year. Buy his books here. He’s currently working on a mystery set around the gas strike. Read the opening here.