Ironworks report shines a new light on Leeds lamppost

Laura Ager, Creative Engagement Officer at the Hyde Park Picture House, has written a guest blog post for the Friends of the Hyde Park Picture House about her ongoing research during lockdown into the remarkable history of the iron lamppost that stands outside our building. 

Laura joined the small team of permanent staff at the cinema last summer and her work is facilitated by funding we received from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF). A big part of her job is to communicate the value of our cinema’s unique heritage to our local community and beyond. We hope that you enjoy reading this article and please contact us if you have any further information to share about the lamppost or anything related to it!

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1. The corner of Brudenell Road and Queens Road. Image source: Meenhan 2019

I have always liked to gaze out of the cinema doors at this red painted cast iron lamppost, it has been a familiar symbol in the neighbourhood for almost three decades of my life. I sometimes wonder about how many of us have arranged to meet friends beside it, or will have smiled as its familiar shape has appeared in view as we headed down Chestnut Avenue or Brudenell Road towards our favourite cinema, looking forward to the friendly greeting at the door. 

Its thick, opaque plastic globes are lit up every evening, maybe you have stopped to take a picture there as you have departed, perhaps trying to mark that moment in which we discovered something new about the world, or ourselves, through the power of the film we’d just been watching.

Since 1996 the lamppost has been protected with a Grade 2 listing (listing No 1255796) which means it is inscribed on the National Heritage List for England, these are all buildings and structures that are considered nationally important, being of ‘special architectural or historic interest’. That list is currently managed by Historic England, who offer the following information about the Hyde Park lamppost on their website:

Gas lamp post. Early C20. Cast-iron, Approx 7m high, base and column with relief decoration, ladder arms and 2 scrolled arms, vase finial between.

Historic England

Last year, in August, Peter Meehan, a specialist from the Historic Metalwork Conservation Company Ltd, visited the cinema to assess our lamppost and he wrote a report about it that contained a lot more detail. In his report he said that the lamppost likely dates from after 1904 and it was certainly manufactured at the Saracen Foundry in Glasgow. The side of the lamppost that faces the cinema doors quite clearly bears their company mark: Macfarlane & Co, Glasgow.  

As I have had a little extra time on my hands recently, during these endless months of lockdown, I thought that I’d like to find out a bit more about the history of the foundry and of this unique heritage feature, and to share my findings with our Friends. This has since become a fascinating project in its own right, because it turns out that our lamppost is part of the story of Walter Macfarlane, who was a prolific Scottish ironworks manufacturer in the 19th century. His company flourished for over one hundred years, like our cinema. 

From there we are able trace a much deeper set of connections that link our much-loved and perhaps slightly eccentric Victorian lamppost, situated on a corner in a Leeds suburb, with the combined global histories of the British Empire, urban development, technical innovation, public aesthetics, public health, and 19th Century free trade.

Structure and ornament

Walter Macfarlane built the world’s largest architectural iron foundry in Glasgow. The 6th edition of the Macfarlane & Company’s Saracen Foundry catalogue, published in around 1890, contains over 100 examples of lamp post pillars, although there is no illustration that exactly matches the lamp post in Hyde Park. 

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2. A page from the 6th Edition Saracen Foundry catalogue showing some lamp pillars. Note that the left-hand illustration has the same base as the Hyde Park lamp post.
Image source: Meenhan 2019.

Ironworks specialist Peter Meehan concluded that our lamppost likely dates from after 1890. He notes that at least two further catalogues were published by Walter Macfarlane & Company after this date, but perhaps surprisingly, very few copies of any of the Company’s original catalogues now survive. 

“The Hyde Park lamp post had a plainer design than those found in the Macfarlane catalogue’s 6th Edition (published in 1890). A search on the internet fortuitously located a page from the later catalogue illustrating three electric light pillars, one of which had a similar design.” (See image 3.)

Meehan (2019)
Image 3
3. A page from the 7th Edition catalogue showing some of the lamp pillars available in 1904.
Image source: Meenhan 2019.

We know that the cinema in Hyde Park was built and opened in 1914, and that before that there was briefly another building on the site from 1908, according to the Kellys directories held in the Leeds Local and Family History Library. I agree with Peter that the Hyde Park lamppost probably dates from after 1904, but we sadly have no details of who ordered it or when it was installed in Leeds. 

The Saracen Foundry, where it was certainly forged, took its name from its original location on Saracen Lane in Gallowgate, Glasgow, where the production of ironware bearing the name Macfarlane & Company began in November 1850. Initially, the foundry specialised in rainwater goods and sanitary wares, but out of these humble beginnings grew an incredible company who became “the world’s most prolific architectural ironfounder” (Mitchell 2007). 

They exported their trademarked goods into every part of the British Empire, becoming famous for the intricacy of their designs and the range and quality of their products.

“the Saracen Foundry is probably the most famous iron foundry in the world; no other company gained so great a reputation and international profile” 

Lucia Juarez (2017)

As the 19th century unfolded, Scotland’s role in the manufacture of architectural ironwork was exponential, and Glasgow was at the heart of the boom. The Glasgow Post Office Directory for 1891 lists over two hundred iron founders based in the city (Mitchell 2007). Between 1854 and 1866 there had been a huge growth in church building and restoration in the UK, this increased the demand for good quality ironware for renovation purposes, inside and out. Mitchell (2012) suggests that the Crimean war (1853 to 1856) also benefited the firm, who provided rainwater and sanitary fittings to military sites. 

It appears that a combination of church building, the construction of army barracks as well as the building of new, elegant mansion houses, plus increasing commissions for public and philanthropic works, created a set of demands through which extended ranges of products were developed that would be simultaneously durable and decorative. This demand accelerated innovation in the manufacture of prefabricated iron structures, for which Walter Macfarlane’s name became internationally renowned. 

“This transfer from ad-hoc building to planned, multiple production is one of the fascinating break points in the curve of architectural evolution.” 

Gilbert Herbert (1978) quoted in Mitchell (2012).

The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London is important to this story, this was the world’s first trade fair and it brought about changes in people’s tastes, with its promotion of new aesthetics, imagination, technology and most importantly, new materials. The Crystal Palace that had housed The Great Exhibition was itself a huge cast iron and plate glass structure. 

Image 4
4. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851.
Image source: Wikipedia

The Crystal Palace had also offered its visitors one of the UKs first ever major installation of purpose-built public toilets, a reminder that all of this rapid expansion of productive capacity was happening at a time when large scale sanitation projects were becoming an increasingly important issue for public health. The startling growth of urban populations, brought about by the mass industrialisation of all kinds of manufactures, combined with Victorian concerns about hygiene, encouraged architects to seek ways to maximise indoor light and space. Cast iron structures such as large window frames and balconies were light, strong and durable, compared with older materials such as wood and stone, they offered a wider span capacity and this had a dramatic effect on the type and scale of buildings that could now be produced. As Lucia Juarez (2017) has pointed out in their PhD on the Scottish cast iron industry “iron… transformed the urban environment by allowing the erection of buildings such as railway stations, factories, warehouses, exhibition buildings, museums and covered markets on a scale and at a speed not seen before.”

Victorian ironwork was often highly decorative and firms were now in competition over the flamboyant elements of their patterns and designs. The Macfarlane company may have specialised in producing sanitary products in its first decades, but as the company’s output diversified they quickly became leaders in the manufacture of public ironwork or ‘outdoor arrangements for recreation’ as one Macfarlane catalogue put it. This meant the production of things like drinking fountains, bandstands, tram shelters and street lighting. 

Some of the enormous wealth generated by the mass industrialisation of goods production in the UK went into the establishment of urban parks and municipal buildings that we can still see all around us. Wealthy philanthropists promoted ‘rational recreation’ by encouraging activities such as promenading and listening to music in parks, hoping that the working classes would find these pursuits preferable to spending time in pubs and gin palaces, as this article about bandstands suggests. 

By the time the 2nd London exhibition took place in 1861, Walter Macfarlane’s company were represented and the company now employed 120 people. One of the strengths of the company was its lithograph printed catalogues. 

 “Their 600 page catalogues of designs were marketed to customers around the world” wrote Maeve Redmond in her piece about designing a Walter Macfarlane & Company exhibit for the Scottish Design Galleries in the V&A Dundee museum “Customers were able to customise and order whatever they desired”. 

The illustrated catalogue was a powerful sales instrument that was used by many of Scotland’s foundries but the Macfarlane company also published sample books that showed its cast-iron elements in situ in different parts of the world, these offered city planners aspirational visions of a modern city and society.

Empire and influence 

That the Macfarlane company’s prefabricated ironworks can be found all over the world over 100 years after they were produced gives us a clue to how the power, influence and dominance of British imperial trade can still be traced in its material legacy. Any expanding economy has an urgent need for new markets. The expansion of the British empire and its common purpose of establishing constitutional, diplomatic, political, commercial and cultural relationships with places where new business prospects could be developed created the effect of a Victorian ‘design uniformity’ (Juarez 2017) that is especially noticeable within public spaces. 

Municipal ironworks by Macfarlane’s company can be found in Canada, Brazil, India and Australia. The Scottish Ironwork Foundation has records on its website of many examples, including a very similar lamp post to ours in Cape Town, South Africa, where it is known that the Macfarlane company had a representative agent.

Image 5
5. Lamppost base in Cape Town.
Image source:

The economic principle of free enterprise is often associated with the political economist Adam Smith, who was also from Scotland. The Wealth of Nations (1776) was his pioneering manual on economic growth, it is often taken to be a guiding principle of colonial economic strategies and policies, although some would say that this is a mid-to-late 20th century reading of his text and he was really more concerned with how nations and not private interests should manage their economies. Wealth, in his worldview, meant commonwealth, not GDP growth, and it was not subservient to the pursuit of private profit. British colonial policy in the late 19th century aimed for political and economic dominance in new regions and markets for the purposes of conducting trade, converting large areas of the globe into complementary satellite economies (Gallagher and Robinson 1953). Empire could mean both formal and informal, as was the case with Argentina, for example, where Walter Macfarlane’s ironworks and other examples originating from foundries in Glasgow are also plentiful (Juarez 2017).

Allegedly, 40 of these ornate lamp pillars were supplied by Walter Macfarlane & Company Ltd to adorn the barrages that span the Nile in Egypt, north of Cairo, where river splits into two branches, the Rosette and the Damiette, which were completed in 1861. 

Image 6
6. Illustration from Macfarlane’s working drawings, 1937
Image source:

Manufacture and decline

The Saracen Foundry had started production in 1850 with money invested by Walter Macfarlane’s father-in-law. The company grew rapidly from there and after a brief relocation to a site on Washington Street (where the foundry retained its name after its first location on Saracen Lane in Gallowgate) the company moved to a new, purpose-built 14 acre site at Possilpark in 1872. Walter Macfarlane’s nephew ‘Walter Junior’ joined the family firm in the same year. The arrival of the firm in Possil created an entirely new suburb of Glasgow in a green field site, with a rail link, new road and tram route to move people and materials to and from city’s dockyards and mainline railways. 

Image 7
7. A view of the Saracen Foundry in Possilpark
Image source: The Mitchell Library, Glasgow, via
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8. The gateway to Walter Macfarlane and Company, Glasgow
Image source:

By 1901 the Possilpark premises had increased to 24 acres and the community in Possil had grown to 10,000 residents. 

“The new Saracen site was impressive by any standards. Capital expenditure on a massive scale was involved in the design and construction of a building which was to advertise the firm’s products and reflect its growing stature in the ironfounding world…. The imposing structure was built along the lines of an Islamic mosque, reflecting the Foundry’s name of ‘Saracen’.”

Cox, 1991

This site is undoubtedly where the lamppost outside Hyde Park originated. By now the firm had manufactured entire shopfronts, glass covered shopping arcades, verandas and bridges.

“Saracen made a conscious effort to move away from traditional work practices and aimed for something higher than being one of the hundreds of jobbing foundries across Scotland” 

Mitchell 2012 p.400

One of the things that makes our lamppost so intriguing is that it would have been one of the last examples of the decorative products that the firm still supplied at the turn of the century. The price of iron was substantially affected by the outbreak of the 1st world war in 1914 and after the war, commissions for public ironworks had substantially reduced. Ornamental iron founding was affected by the rising popularity of steel and also by changes in public taste. Macfarlane’s firm moved to producing rainwater goods and enamelled baths for the domestic market and when in 1936 the company was sold to Federated Foundries, it seems that the 3rd Walter Macfarlane retained only one share in the company.

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9. Glasgow, general view, showing Saracen Foundry, Possilpark and Ashfield Housing Estate.
An oblique aerial photograph taken facing north-east. 1930.
Image source:

From 1945 to 1951 a post-war housing programme in the UK created a new demand for sanitary pipes and the Possilpark site operated as part of an alliance of iron founders, eventually making large numbers of the iconic red cast-iron telephone kiosks for the General Post Office. It is possible that the cast iron façade at the Financial Times Building in London in the 1960’s was the last large scale commission erected by the company, but I have not yet found definite proof of this. 

The Saracen Foundry was finally wound up in 1968 and little remains of the Possilpark site, it appears that the area has since suffered a huge decline and is more recently an area of the city best known for heroin use and derelict buildings. As for the Saracen Foundry’s historic structures, they are still plentiful around the UK but ironworks can have high maintenance costs and they are liable to neglect, vandalism, and even inappropriate ‘restoration’. Repair is expensive and extremely challenging.

“The most successful philosophy is to approach the project with an armoury of repair techniques, and consider each circumstance on an individual basis.” 

Mitchell 2007

The techniques available for the restoration of aging iron structures all have their drawbacks, but luckily our lamppost was made at a time when the Saracen Foundry’s ironwork products were galvanised, which means that despite being in an urban location and exposed to all aspects of weather from cold and wet to hot and humid, the lamppost has not suffered too badly. Peter Meehan has outlined a very detailed guide to restoration of our lamppost in his report, he also noted that the construction of our lamppost implies that it was never fitted as a gas light and that the two arms contain electric wires to power the bulbs. The lamppost base has a flared lower section and set within this is a hinged access door to give access to the electrical supply. The plastic globes that provide the light now are not original, but they are durable and as there is an ongoing problem in the area with vandalism it is lucky that they have endured for as long as they have. 

As we know, there is another a Grade Two listed structure on that corner which is now in need of some careful restoration, the Hyde Park Picture House itself. With the support of the National Heritage Lottery Fund, which distributes a share of the funds generated from the National Lottery to organisations around the UK, along with the other supporting partners of our renovation project, we hope to be able to protect this heritage building, along with the lamppost from Walter Macfarlane’s foundry, for at least another 100 years to come. Despite some additional planning measures required in order to satisfy the new safety protocols demanded by a COVID-19 construction environment, we feel confident that we will be able to proceed soon with our plans. We’re extremely grateful to the NLHF for their ongoing support and we are delighted that this will help us to preserve and continue to interpret the important and fascinating heritage assets we have stewardship of. 

How you can help

During lockdown we received this photograph from a customer, it was of her boyfriend and his lamppost tattoo. Apparently his group of friends all have them, a reminder of their time in Leeds together as students. This image lifted the team’s spirits considerably during lockdown and furlough.

Image 10: Adam showing his arm tattoo of the Hyde Park lamppost.
10. Dom showing his tattoo
Image source: Aischa Talerico. 

He is holding one of our prints by Adam A. Boardman, which you can purchase from our online shop for £7 (we’re not doing tattoos yet, but hey, there’s a thought…). 

All of the sales through our shop are helping us enormously to get through this present period of uncertainty.

And if you’re inspired by this article to look for other ironworks by Water Macfarlane & Company, then a good place to start is the Scottish Ironworks Foundation website. Locally, I believe that you can still see lamp pillars and railings outside Barnsley Town Hall that were manufactured at the Saracen Foundry. If you are looking for something similar to the lamppost outside the Hyde Park Picture House, these would seem to be the closest examples in the UK.

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11. Edinburgh: Lady Stair’s Close – lamp pillar 1
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12. Edinburgh: Leith – ventilation stack
Image source:

And if you have information about any historical aspect of the cinema, or if you have your own photographs, lithographs, or even tattoos of the lamppost that you’d like to share, then please do drop me a line at


Cox, I. (1991) The Ornamental Ironwork of Walter MacFarlane and Co. Scottish Art Review, XVII, pp.3-7

Herbert, G. (1978) Pioneers of Pre-Fabrication: The British Contribution in the Nineteenth Century, John Hopkins University Press

Gallagher, J. and Robinson, R. (1953) The Economic History Review New Series, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 1-15
DOI 10.2307/2591017

Juarez, L. (2017) Trading nations: architecture, informal empire, and the Scottish cast iron industry in Argentina, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh

Meehan, P. (2019) Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds MacFarlane Cast Iron Lamp Post. Report by Historic Metalwork Conservation Company Ltd.

Mitchell, D. (2007) Iron structures in public parks; conservation and restoration challenges, a paper presented at the Association of Preservation Technology Conference.

Mitchell, D. (2012) The Development of the Architectural Iron Founding Industry in Scotland, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh 

Redmond, M. (2018) Q&A with Maeve Redmond, V&A Dundee website 

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