How twin town Siegen gave Leeds outdoor chess

After the Second World War, Leeds City Council was twinned with the cities of Lille in France and Dortmund in Germany and, on local government reorganisation when Morley joined Leeds in 1974, Leeds also adopted its German twin town of Siegen

Germany was particularly keen on twinning arrangements to demonstrate that they were a civilised, democratic and caring country and wishing to extend peace and friendship.

Before the War, some of the first people in Germany who were rounded up were all opposition politicians and trade unionists. The Leader of Dortmund City Council, Gunter Samtlebe, who was a member of the German Democratic Socialist Party, was incarcerated for all of the War and beforehand in a labour camp.

In 1979, Dortmund was having a major celebration and it invited Leeds City councillors to attend. I was very lucky to be part of an all-party political group from Leeds with some Council officers, to visit Dortmund which paid for our accommodation and hospitality. We were accompanied by the orchestra from the Leeds College of Music which delighted our German hosts with a concert.

Leeds resident and Austrian-born Hubert Eichingher, who had served with the RAF as a war-time pilot, was very keen on twinning and encouraged Leeds to participate in twinning visits. When one considers that 91% of Dortmund, originally a beautiful historic city, was flattened by the RAF, one can understand his enthusiasm for twinning and Leeds City Council engaged him on an ad hoc basis to co-ordinate the visit when he accompanied us.

Whilst we were in Dortmund we visited the nearby cathedral city of Munster, York’s twin city, and which was over 80% flattened. Fortunately for Munster, the town centre streets and the cathedral have been rebuilt as near as possible to the original.

We also had a day excursion to Morley`s twin town Siegen, fifty miles south of Dortmund which had somewhat, though not entirely, escaped saturation bombing. Climbing up the hill to its castle in its main street, there was giant outdoor chess being played. Nowhere in the UK had outdoor chess and I was determined that Leeds should have it.

I got the opportunity in 1981 when I was fortunate to Chair the big Leisure Services Committee and I proposed that we have chess sets in the Victoria Gardens in front of the Central Library. I had to argue against Council officers who were convinced that the chess sets would not survive, that they would be vandalised or stolen. I asked how much a set cost and, at that time, it was £500. My response was, “Well if a big city like Leeds cannot afford it then it is coming to a pretty pass!”

I got my way and we ordered three sets which initially were played on black and white mats before chess boards were painted on the paving flags. Two of the sets had 100% use and the third set 80% use all the time, every day. The chess has been so popular that the Leeds City Council recently bought new chess pieces to replace the sets which had become worn and scuffed from their years of use.

Today we see many outdoor chess sets throughout the UK but I have always been proud that Leeds was the first British city to have them. However, my pride was dented a couple of years ago when I was still a councillor and when at a Plans Panel meeting there was a discussion on the revamping of Victoria Gardens. I innocently asked a question about the chess and was told by a Council officer, almost in a reprimand, that the giant chess is so important for Leeds citizens and for tourists! It appears that no one now remembers how giant chess arrived in Leeds.

Sadly, because of cuts in local government funding and the austerity regime, we cannot now afford the hospitality to twinned city visitors as they have always afforded to us. There are now no more council twinning arrangements apart from an annual visit to one of the twin cities by the Lord Mayor and the Oberburgermeisters’ return visits to Leeds. No doubt some people will think that a twinning visit is a mere jolly, but there is a lot one can and does learn from not only visiting our twin cities, but also discussing ideas and how they are carried out with our council counterparts.

For example, I was particularly impressed by their system of advisory road speed limits. When one is driving it can be quite irritating to find that one is suddenly stopped by traffic lights. The Dortmund advisory speed signs advise how fast one can drive without being stopped by traffic lights ahead. I believed that Leeds was going to investigate installing these which would cut down on traffic pollution by vehicles stopping and starting, reduce vehicle speeds and ensure a continuous smooth flow of traffic. I have to report that sadly we did not, for whatever reason, take up this system.

We can learn what problems our twin cities have had in the past and how they were solved. We can learn how they administer their city or town and what innovations have been introduced – giant chess being just a very small example. We can question mistakes which we made in the past. And more importantly, our visitors can learn about how we govern Leeds and hopefully learn how we do things better if, of course, we do!

Clearly it will be some while yet before any twinning arrangements can take place. But, hopefully, it will not be too long before twinning visits by councils can start again when experience gained may benefit all of our cities and towns.


This post was written by Hon Ald Elizabeth Nash

Photo: Playing chess in Victoria Gardens (Stephen Craven via Creative Commons)

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