“You need only look up to see you’re rarely alone”: on the owls of Leeds

The owl on the front of Leeds Civil Hall. Image: Getty.

Change is nothing new when it comes to cities. I lived in Leeds for four years as a student, and in that time I saw a lot of architectural innovation. The Leeds First Direct Arena went up, as did Trinity, the huge, glassy shopping haven; the University itself has been in a near-permanent state of construction for the last few years.  The centre looks very different now compared to when I first moved there in 2012.

Through all of this modernisation and change, though, the plethora of decorative owls adorning the city’s buildings remained an ever-stable constant, taking the updates in their stride.

Owls have been part of Leeds’ heritage since their addition to the city’s coat of arms back in 1626. Three owls feature on the coat of arms, two flanking a golden fleece – a nod to wool textiles, Leeds’ most prominent industry at the time – and another perched at the top. The owls were originally depicted as silver in colour, and originated from Yorkshire MP Sir John Saville’s family coat of arms. They were added to the crest when he became first Alderman of Leeds – the titular head of the city council.

The Savilles came to Leeds from Anjou, in France, when William the Conqueror gifted them a large amount of land in Yorkshire in exchange for their support at the Battle of Hastings.


After their induction into the crest, the owls became both an accepted and expected part of Leeds’ civic persona. For over 400 years, it has been a tradition to integrate an owl or two into any new major building in the city.

In 2004, local artists Antonia Stowe and Clifford Stead set about investigating the history of the city’s owls and their inclusion on the Leeds coat of arms. They spent years on it, and their discoveries led to the opening of the Leeds Owl Trail in 2009.

In fact, there are two trails to follow: the Civic Owl Trail, consists of 10 sites mainly focused around the Civic Hall, while the Grand Owl Trail, takes in 25 spread all over the city centre. But those 25 owls are by no means an exhaustive list: owls lurk in every nook and cranny of the city, from tiny graffiti doodles on street corners to pins and badges decorating warm winter coats. 

The owls range dramatically in scale and design. The largest and most prominent owls are the four, nine-foot-tall birds that sit commandingly atop columns at the front and rear of the Civic Hall. They were created by the architect John Thorp, the last person to hold the title of Civic Architect in the UK, and were installed in 2000. It’s fitting that Thorp was the one to create these gargantuan guardians; he’s often cited as being the man who shaped modern Leeds.  

An interactive map of the owls.

Looking down over the city and its residents from their fixed perches, you might expect the owls to lend an oppressive, Big Brother-esque feeling to the streets. But, I find them rather comforting in their quiet immutability and stoicism. They’re there through every season, watching from many a building top or street corner – you need only look up to see you’re rarely alone in Leeds. It’s hard to imagine anyone who couldn’t find something to enjoy in the game of owl-spotting – except, perhaps, ornithophobes.

The owls have seen me at my best (coming out of my finals, ecstatic to be finished); and at my worst (most likely the early hours of the morning the day after those finals, one too many pints down). Every time I glimpse something adorned with owls, I think of Leeds; it never fails to make me smile.

Some cities have roaring lions, some have fire-breathing dragons, but Leeds will always have its beloved feathered patrons to watch over its residents, unblinking and omniscient.  

Hannah Tomes tweets as @_hannah_tomes.

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.