Eric Smith, 85, is a man of many passions: he loves trams, languages, history –and he has been at the forefront of fighting for homosexual equality for 50 years. Eric was born in Beeston in 1937 and has lived in the same terraced house all his life. Maureen Kershaw met Eric at home to talk about the last day of Leeds trams, his interest in Europe and how it felt to grow up gay in the 1950s.
I was born in the “Township of Hunslet” (as it says on my Birth Certificate) at the Victoria Nursing Home in Coupland Street in Beeston on 13th April 1937. It was a Tuesday! My parents were married for 16 years before I came along. Mother grew up in East End Park and worked as a manageress in one of the clothing factories. Of course, she wasn’t allowed to work after she married in 1921. I remember we’d go to a certain branch of Burton’s to buy new clothes, because the man who was manager there had worked under her when she was a manageress. She said, “He daren’t do anything wrong for me!”
Trams had much
The feel of them and the things that went with them.
Dad was born in Lazenby in the Eden Valley, along the Settle & Carlisle Railway. The Railway was only about twenty years old when he was born in 1897, the same year as my mother. His father died when he was 9 years old. His sister was 6 and brother only 3 so it was very harsh for them. This was 1907. My grandmother had
to take in washing and cleaned the church to keep going. This experience made my father very supportive of the Labour Party in later years.
Dad became a city councillor for Holbeck, serving for 20 years. He was on the Welfare Services Committee at the time of the workhouses being transformed into old peoples’ homes. This was with great difficulty, as they couldn’t get rid of the stigma of the workhouse. There was one in Holbeck, at the bottom of Beeston Hill. Dad was also a railway man. he was put onto the Transport Committee where he was Deputy Chairman for 16 years.
Trams on the Beach
I have a photograph of me on the beach at Grange-Over Sands in May 1940. It was during the war, but there
was a long lull before anything started. There I am, on the beach, with a sand pie. But that’s not the interesting thing: you can see in the picture that lines were drawn on the sand and there’s a chocolate box with some folded paper sticking out of the top. It’s a tram with a current collector! That’s what I was doing on that beach, even back then. The tram lines were Beeston and Elland Road, Dews- bury Road and Middleton. The geography wouldn’t be right but at only three years old I knew where the trams went.
World War 2
Leeds was very fortunate in the war. There were only two raids: one in 1941, the other in 1942. A total of 78 people were killed in the air raids, which, compared to other places, wasn’t a lot. I remember the air raid shelters. They knew they wanted to have this war; they were determined. We put in shelter in our garden in 1938. Dad made it ornate with a rockery on top on it. I was always told that the authorities came round and showed people what they could do, rather than just cover the shelters with soil and grass.
I was schooled at the nearby Cross Flatts School. I went to the primary school when I was 5 in 1942. Most of the boys moved on to Cockburn High School but Mum and Dad were convinced that it wasn’t the best school. So one week, for three afternoons, they went first of all on a No. 3 tram to Roundhay to see what the boys looked like coming out of Roundhay High School! Then they went on a No.16 tram to Whingate to see what it looked like at West Leeds High; and then the No.1 to West Park to check on Leeds Modern School. They thought the boys looked better and happier at West Leeds than anywhere else, so I went to West Leeds!
A Love of Trams
Trams have always fascinated me. My first memory of them is being in a pram. In Leeds, you could put a pram on the front platform. I remember the feeling of being lifted from my pram and being taken through the sliding door into the saloon part of the lower deck. The older ones had a long bench at each side, for 12 people. I remember the red windows with a pattern in. A star in the middle, with a border. I discovered later that the only one that it could be was Tram 399, which I trav- lled on many times on the Beeston route – that one did have the red windows downstairs. Trams had much more atmosphere. The feel of them and the things that went with them. You changed ends – and the current collector had to be pulled over.
The city was always short of staff. It was a time of full employment, there weren’t enough people to work. We had people come from the West Indies, India and Pakistan to come and do work. People moved around with different jobs. I got the opportunity of working as a conductor on trams because in the summer, permanent staff were taking their kids on holiday, so they were short. Conductors – and sometimes even drivers. But that was my opening. The Rawnsleys’ children – who lived at No. 11 - all went to Cockburn High School. John was two years older than me and he worked as a conductor from Hunslet garage. I thought “If John Rawnsley can do it, then so can I!”
I was put on buses to start with. You didn’t have any choice. They were training up to twenty new conductors every week. Buses were run as a completely different enterprise with different rules to working on the trams. When I did work on the trams there were two things which I dreaded. One was the drunks who could come out of the pubs in Hunslet. They had a reputation like mad. Especially at The Anchor – they were notorious there. Another thing I dreaded was reversing the tram in Duncan Street because we had to pull the bow collector over as it was moving.
Even as a small boy in the 1940s, Eric was fascinated by trams.
A Love For Europe
I’ve always had strong links with Germany, France and Belgium. I went to Sheffield University in 1955, studying English, Latin and French for a general degree. We had to do a fourth subject, so I chose Biblical History and Literature. I wanted to train as a teacher, which I did in Sheffield, with teaching experience in a secondary modern school on a Sheffield housing estate. Most people who were going to teach languages went to be an assistante at a school in France. So I said to myself I should do that, for experience. I’d never set foot in France! I had been to Germany in 1951 – I went there on an exchange when I was 14, which I’d found out about by pure chance. I’m a Christian and I always say say that the Lord guided me in so many ways. I actually chose where I wanted go to in France by the trams – but I didn’t tell Mum and Dad! There were trams in Lille, Valenciennes and Brussels. In the end I chose Armentieres. I worked in a technical high school there. I was there for 9 months. I first went to Brussels on 3rd Sunday of January 1960. There’s an enormous tram network in Brussels, with 57 tram routes. I’m longing to go back!
The Last Day of the Trams
In 1959, whilst I was in Armentieres, it was coming to the end of the trams in Leeds. 1st November (All Saints Day) is a public holiday in France. I saw that I could get back to Leeds. But there were very, very limited ferries. There were people on the ferry of Indian descent – with turbans. They were shuttling between Calais and the UK because neither side would let them get off. What we’re hearing about refugees is nothing new.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to stay for the last day of the trams as I had to return to Armentieres. But my dad wrote
to me about it. It was Saturday 7th November 1959. Throughout the day, the weather was gloomy and damp. 22 trams were out in service and special souvenir tickets were issued. The last service trams left town by 16.40 and were followed by a procession of ten “Showboats”, the first and last of which were decorated with coloured lights. The decorated cars were for special guests and staff. Members of the public had to apply for tickets on the other eight; demand was very high, leaving many disappointed. From Dad’s letters:
“Saturday was a real November day – misty and slight rain ... The cars were very full that day. They tell me that the first car in the morning at 4.22am had a queue waiting for Ticket No. 1 ... I arrived at Swinegate at 5.45pm. It was a job getting to the depot, for the crowd was all round the doorway ... Everything went off without any trouble ... Fancy Mam going to Swinegate to see the last tram home!”
Eric as a young man his conductor’s uniform in the 1950s.
Growing up Gay
From an early age, I knew I was different. The idea of ever being a father had never crossed my mind. There was something at the back of my mind. There was one boy I liked. I noticed the boy chatting up these girls
and I thought “Well that’s no good is it!” This was me at 12. We used to meet up, but there was nothing sexual in it; just friendship. But then you found that you did have a sexual need and to keep the two apart is very hard. You felt, as a gay man, you were divided. Gradually, you realise that what you are is completely illegal.
In the 1950s (although I didn’t know it at the time) the Home Secretary, Mr Maxwell Fyfe, was determined to root homosexuality out of the UK. They had a real campaign. The place that men met each other was in public toilets. It was one way of being able to express a view – you would talk outside. I realised that people were being prosecuted for practically nothing. In 1967, you got partial freedom – being able to have sexual relations provided you there was no-one else in the house and you were 21- not 16 like everyone else. There was no law for female homosexuals. It was a very limited freedom.
When visiting Paris in 1970, I bought a satirical magazine that featured “Les Péde” (“The Queers”) on the front page and I sent it home to read. It told of the setting up of the Committee for Homosexual Equality in Britain. This was in my head and, when I returned, Lo and Behold, in I happened to look at the personal column of the Yorkshire Evening Post – and there it was! A Leeds and Bradford Area Group, the Committee for Homosexuality Equality: I sent in my information and got a reply. In 1971, we had our first meeting in Chapeltown. That was the first time I’d met any other gay men outside the sexual environment. The first
time I’d ever seen any lesbians! It got going slowly.
Eventually we found where we could meet. The care- takers at Swarthmore Institute at that time were gay- friendly. In fact, she was a lesbian and he was a gay man – it was a marriage of convenience. So we started meeting there. We were there for 23 years. We then found Yorkshire MESMAC, where we could meet
for free in the centre of town. I’ve been convener of the group since 1987. We’re having a celebration of 50 years of the group. The first meeting was 27th March 1971. We had to cancel in 2021 because of the virus. I’m pleased to say that the group and MESMAC are now situated right opposite where the entrance to the Tram Depot was!
Eric has lived in the same house all his life and is still spry at 85.
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Older people share their memories of significant or interesting events in the history of Leeds. In partnership with Leeds Museums and Galleries.