We must not forget The Duchess

I want to propose you a kind of social experiment. Let’s imagine you are in the centre of any British city; Leeds, Manchester or Liverpool, for example. It does not matter whether you have already been there or not. The commercial landscape around you would not differ too much since most city centres in England have been colonised by homogenous boutiques, superstores, big commercial chains and fast food multinationals.

The United Kingdom is one of the countries in the world with a great musical tradition – especially iconic northern bands like Joy Division, The Smiths and Happy Mondays – yet one wonders where that musical heritage can be seen and remembered.

The Duchess of York situated at 71 Vicar Lane, in the heart of Leeds (West Yorkshire), is a symbol that surrendered to the trend of creating standardised city centres across the country a decade ago. The venue was shut down in March 2000 and the site is now occupied by a Hugo Boss store, silencing a major music venue and turning this historic musical landmark in the north of England into a boutique.

 

2010_03_21_We must not forget The Duchess_Image_Legendary Venue The Duchess of York
Legendary venue ‘The Duchess of York’.

 

The Duchess’ rise to rock-n-roll fame began in the middle 1980s when it was a John Smith’s pub called The Robin Hood. Its then landlord, Mick Longbottom, asked promoter John Keenan if he would consider it as a live venue. The pair built a stage overnight and the pub soon became a popular port of call for up-and-coming bands.

In the late ‘80s and ‘90s The Duchess attracted many huge figures from the music industry to Leeds and hosted some of rock-n-roll’s best-known acts, including Oasis, Blur, Nirvana, The Pixies, Pulp, The Verve, Supergrass, The Charlatans and Radiohead. It was also a platform for more independent bands like Weddoes, Bad Manners, Vulgar Dolls, Inspirals, Saint Etienne, Ride, and The Mock Turtles, as well as Leeds bands The Bridewell Taxis and Chumbawamba, which performed the last gig in the venue.

2010_03_21_We must not forget The Duchess_Image_Ticket of the last gig at The Duchess
Ticket of the last gig at The Duchess. Image: Facebook group ‘I miss The Duchess of York Leeds’.

Next 26 March marks the 10th anniversary of the closure of The Duchess of York, and despite being silenced as a venue for 10 years, the virtual world has not forgotten it. Robin Dover was once the landlord of the legendary venue, his story spans from late 1989 until mid 1994 and early 1995. After its closure he built a Duchess Tribute site on MySpace with the aim of bringing her back to life, at least over the internet. He said: “The Duchess gave me some of the absolute best years of my life – 5 years – and many more memories – 18 years – I love the girl.”

Robin started the site as a precursor to a book he intends to finish writing regarding the many phenomenal stories of real life people living, working, partying and performing within the Duchess.

The Duchess was a much larger live music venue with a heavy range of traffic. We were the busiest live music venue in the north of England at one time. We were so busy at times that our beer never even had the time to settle because we had two to three live bands perform at night seven days a week. We were about music and offered sheer variety, regularity and quality of performers as well as giving people who had minimal public exposure as performers the chance to be seen and heard by a packed pub of over 500 people crammed together in one place.”

Facebook group ‘I miss The Duchess of York Leeds’ pays homage to the old Duchess as well. It was set up by Johnny Trash and Rik McRik in 2008 and it has already 784 members – including John Keenan – and 230 photos posted to revive memories of the venue. Rik said: “I am very pleased that John Keenan is in our group. Licensee, manager, promoter and all-round good egg, John was The Duchess for me. The place as we knew it would certainly not have existed without him and he’s done more for live music in Leeds than anyone I can name.”

2010_03_21_We must not forget The Duchess_Image_USA band Fugazi playing in The Duchess of York
Image: USA band Fugazi playing in ‘The Duchess of York’.

Community activist and music lover Paul Cockroft launched a bid to get a commemorative plaque for the Duchess a year ago, with a campaign group on Facebook which has already attracted 1,144 members. He originally hoped to persuade the Leeds Civic Trust heritage watchdog to mark the venue’s old home in the city centre of Leeds with one of its famous blue plaques. The Duchess would not be the first rock-related location to receive a blue plaque as the Refectory at the University of Leeds has one because it was where The Who recorded their seminal 1970 album ‘Live at Leeds’.

However, the Trust recently decided that the Duchess did not meet its criteria so Paul is now trying to raise the money he estimates a plaque would cost and contact the current owners of the Duchess site to see if they would allow a plaque to be put in place.

He said: “I saw the BBC culture show presenting plaques to venues and that helped to trigger the idea. Amanda Burns – who originally created the Facebook group – is still helping to lead the Facebook group in its quest for a blue plaque so no, I am not going it alone, as yet. We are still waiting for answers from the property owners. Famous people have promised money I believe, so cash ain’t a problem.”

The appeal for a plaque to recognise The Duchess of York for its part in the cultural story of Leeds is still ongoing. Nobody can specify in an objective way if a place is worthy of a plaque or not. However, most people would agree with having a memory from any missed and beloved place in their cities, at least they would see something different when they are going for a walk to the city centre.

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