David Wilson recounts the story of one of York’s great figures

SET a little way back from where Station Avenue intersects Station Rise, and looking proudly towards York Railway Station, stands the statue of George Leeman MP. Visitors arriving in the city cannot fail to notice it.

The statue hasn’t always stood where it is now.

It used to have pride of place in the centre of the crossroads known as Leeman Square and it was surrounded by railings.

The railings were destroyed in a road accident in July 1927 when they were hit by a bus.

In 1947, the decision was taken to move the statue to where it now stands.

York Press: Workmen moving the statue of George Leeman in about 1948. Photograph supplied by Victor DennisWorkmen moving the statue of George Leeman in about 1948. Photograph supplied by Victor Dennis

There’s something of an urban myth surrounding this memorial. The myth has it that the body of Leeman’s statute was, in fact, that of George Hudson, and when the latter fell from grace, the head of George Leeman was affixed to it.

But historian Hugh Murray firmly scotched this myth. The body shapes of the two men were quite different anyway. The statue was fashioned by local sculptor George Walker Milburn and was unveiled by the Marquis of Ripon on Monday, April 13, 1885 in the presence of civic dignitaries. It’s estimated that there were between 5,000 and 6,000 spectators surrounding the official enclosures and lining the bar walls.

Thief Lane was renamed Leeman Road at about the same time. The best-known artistic representation of Leeman is the caricature entitled A Yorkshire Solicitor that appeared in Vanity Fair on July 1, 1872, a copy of which is in the National Portrait Gallery. And there’s a meeting room named after him on the first floor of the York City Council West Offices just a few yards behind his statue.

George Leeman was born in Stonegate in August 1809, the son of a greengrocer. He was a self-made man, and one contemporary wrote that he was educated at the university of hard work. He was initially articled to Robert Henry Anderson’s law firm and, having qualified as a solicitor, established his own legal practice in 1835, later becoming a senior partner in Leeman & Wilkinson of York and Beverley.

From the outset, George Leeman was involved in public life. He became a Liberal councillor for Castlegate Ward in 1836 and for Guildhall Ward in 1839 and was an Alderman for 28 years from 1850. He was Clerk of the Peace for the East Riding of Yorkshire from 1845, and Deputy Lieutenant for the North Riding.

York Press: George Leeman's grave York Cemetery. Photo by David WilsonGeorge Leeman's grave York Cemetery. Photo by David Wilson

In 1849 he succeeded his Tory arch-rival, George Hudson, as Chairman of the York Newcastle & Berwick Railway. Leeman never spoke out publicly about the excesses of Hudson and kept out of the campaign against the Railway King until the very last moment when he could do little else but play his part in investigating Hudson’s illegal share-dealing. Leeman was eventually to become Chairman of the North-Eastern Railway from 1874 and Chairman of the Railways Association of Great Britain.

He was involved in developing iron ore mining in the 1860s, and was co-owner of the Rosedale and Ferryhill Iron Company. He was also a director of the York Herald and Chairman of the Yorkshire Banking Company.

He was elected Lord Mayor of York three times in 1850, 1860 and 1870, was twice a Liberal Member of Parliament for the city, serving from 1865 to 1868 and again from 1871 to 1880.

George Leeman vigorously represented York’s interests in the House of Commons. His experience as a councillor and Lord Mayor gave him unique insights into the needs of the city and, as an MP, he was able to bring them to the seat of national government itself.

Among the causes he championed locally were the city walls. He was vehemently opposed to the suggestion that the Walmgate Barbican be removed, and he fought hard for the restoration of the walls from Walmgate Bar through to the Red House and between Layerthorpe Bridge and Monk Bar.

Leeman was concerned about the state of the River Foss. In his day, it was polluted with sewage and the river regularly burst its banks creating health hazards for those living nearby. As Lord Mayor, he successfully persuaded the Corporation to buy the river from the Foss Navigation Company.

In Parliament he fought hard against centralisation and repeated attempts to remove key administrative responsibilities from his native city such as the York Assizes, powers to prove Wills and the administration of the police force.

Leeman was a dissenter (Congregationalist) and was active in the religious life of Lendal Chapel and later the Salem Chapel in York where he was a deacon. He was married twice and had 12 children by his first marriage. For some years, the family lived at 7 Blossom Street on the site of what is today The Punchbowl, and by 1872 they were living at The Mount.

In 1881 he was living at 3 Belmont Terrace, Scarborough, owing to ill-health, and he died there on February 25, 1882 leaving an estate valued at £39,450.19s.4d. He is buried with his mother and first wife in York Cemetery.

Two of Leeman’s three great-great-great nephews, Mark and Malcolm, still live in York and showed me photos of the city as their distinguished forebear would have known it.

George Leeman’s own words provide a fitting summary of what motivated him as a public figure: “If there is a man in whose heart burns the love of his native city, it is I.”

David Wilson is a Community Writer with The Press