Have you ever moved into a place but felt as though an earlier resident was still around? When I bought a Victorian terraced house in central Leeds back in 1994, I had no idea quite what I was taking on. More than 25 years later, I am still finding out more about the previous owners, the Howdill family, who occupied the house from 1907 to 1993.
Soon after I moved into the rather run-down property in Hanover Square – very convenient for my new lecturing job at the University of Leeds – my neighbour Freda Mathews told me that 91-year old Madge Howdill, who had recently moved to sheltered accommodation in Horsforth, wanted to meet me.
During our conversation, Madge told me stories about the Square, which before the Second World War was a genteel gated community with its own private garden and tennis court. But mostly she talked about her father, Charles Barker Howdill (1863-1941), a prize-winning architect who, in partnership with his own father, Thomas Howdill, had designed numerous Primitive Methodist chapels around the country. A highly opinionated, larger-than-life character, Charles had also travelled around Europe during the first few years of the twentieth century, taking photographs that he presented in hundreds of public slide shows with titles like ‘The Blazing Balkans’ and ‘Corsica – Isle of Unrest’. Charles had been president of Leeds Camera Club and was among the first to show colour images at the Royal Photographic Society. Shortly before moving out of the house, Madge had donated around 800 of her father’s glass slides and boxes of his travel notes to Leeds Museums and Galleries. There was talk of a small exhibition at some future date.
Intrigued, I went down to the Leeds Central Library (at the time the museum had no premises of its own) with Freda and a local historian, Janet Douglas, to look at the Howdill holdings that were then stored in a small room on an upper floor. The dusty boxes looked intriguing, but nothing was catalogued, I was extremely busy with work, and none of us had time to follow up.
So I moved onto other things…. until 23 years later, when I ran into Janet by chance at a mutual friend’s art exhibition in Harrogate in September 2017. We agreed it was high time to take another look at the Howdill archives, and exchanged contact details. A couple of weeks later, I received an e-mail from the University inviting applications from academics who wanted to do collaborative projects with Leeds Museums and Galleries. I shot off a request for a small grant to create a pop-up exhibition about Charles B. Howdill, involving a website, a slide show and a couple of banners.
We got the grant, reached out to the museum, and the wonderful staff quickly had all of Howdill’s slides scanned and catalogued the contents of his archive. Janet contacted the Howdill family in Oxfordshire, who turned out to have a remarkable cache of Howdill’s colour images – including many featuring Charles’ extremely photogenic young daughters – which they agreed to share with us. After completing all the scanning, we created a University website with a gallery of around 100 of Howdill’s best pictures. We made two accompanying pop-up banners, and immediately we had an exhibition that could be set up anywhere.
From then on, the whole Howdill project started taking off. First, we showed the exhibition on campus at Leeds. Second, Leeds Civic Trust agreed to put up a blue plaque commemorating Charles B. Howdill on his former house in Hanover Square, which was unveiled in October 2018 to great fanfare. We turned the ground floor of the house into an exhibition space for the day, and projected some of Howdill’s original slides onto the dining room walls. Janet wrote a short booklet containing a biography of Charles to mark the plaque ceremony, which we posted on the website.
The following month was the centenary of Armistice Day – another twist in the tale. Madge Howdill had told me about an old flag she had left up in the attic, which she had made and her family had paraded around Hanover Square on 11 November 1918. Madge’s flag turned out to be largest known surviving Armistice flag in Britain, and Leeds Museums and Galleries used it as the theme of a community project to commemorate the centenary. Seventeen different community groups from around Leeds made their own flags exactly the same size as Madge’s, representing their ideas of peace, which were displayed at Leeds City Museum in November 2018. On the day of the centenary, we carried the flag around the Square before walking it to the museum and presenting it to the city for posterity. The story of Madge’s flag attracted local media coverage and considerable interest. It was also the focus of an outreach event held at the University.
During 2019, the Howdill family generously donated most of Charles’ remaining slides to Leeds Museums and Galleries. Since then, Janet and I have continued our researches on the family, with help from local historian Colin Dews – an expert on the Howdill architectural practice – and Nicky Howdill, the great-granddaughter of Charles B. Howdill. Last year I found a previously unknown memoir in the University of Leeds Special Collections, written by Charles’ second son Norman, about his upbringing in Leeds and his service during the Royal Field Artillery during the Great War. Nicky has transcribed the journal and we have published it on the website. I have also transcribed Howdill’s notes from his travels to Jutland in 1911 and created an eBook from these materials, illustrated by some of his Danish slides.
Very few people today can enjoy beautiful colour photographs taken and developed in their own home more than 100 years ago, or learn so much about the previous residents of their houses. Charles B. Howdill was a remarkable man with a wide range of talents – he was also the organist of the Rehoboth Primitive Methodist Chapel for more than fifty years – and he and his family lived very full lives. Though deeply rooted in Victorian Leeds, Charles was also a genuine cosmopolitan, an internationalist with a huge appetite for knowledge and adventure, who was far ahead of his times. Charles was born exactly a hundred years before me, and has curiously become a kind of mentor and alter ego to me over the years. He finally has a well-deserved Wikipedia page.
The Howdill project illustrates how a £500 grant from the Cross Disciplinary Innovation Fund could stimulate an amazing range of activities, which have involved and inspired hundreds of people, both in and far beyond Charles’ home city of Leeds.
Our project has something for everyone – images, buildings, travel, stories, and above all human connections across time and place. Please take a look at our website to find out more – I especially recommend the galleries featuring Howdill’s fabulous photographs.
By Duncan McCargo