There are many dimensions to our societies’ links between roads, urban space and death but none so explicit as this. On Kirkgate, Leeds, opposite the entrance to St Peter’s, Leeds Minster, there is a solitary memorial against the wall of Penny Pocket Park. I went to the minster recently to visit the Anglo-Saxon Leeds cross and explore its many other memorials. Afterwards, I jumped across the road to explore this memorial.
First, there is a rare instance of a memorial that is allowed to intrude onto a public pavement. War memorials usually have a clear delineation by walls within a park or graveyard. There is also a broader reluctance in our society for the place of death to become a shrine to mourning. Indeed, over recent decades, repeated attempts have been made to dislocate memorialisation away from the location of death for safety and issues of ‘taste’.
In this instance, the spot of an individual’s death has received a permanent memorial form. Whereas local councils regularly clear away temporary memorials to road accident victims – pedestrians, cyclists and passengers and drivers of various motorised vehicles – and those who are murdered or die of other causes on our streets, this one has been allowed to remain. A brief review of the context makes it apparent why.
In October 1984, 39 year-old Police Sergeant John Speed was shot in the neck at close range, a wound that proved fatal. He had been one of three unarmed police officers on the scene who had approached and questioned two men acting suspiciously as a routine enquiry. The first was shot and wounded, another was shot at but escaped unharmed. The killer hijacked a van at gunpoint and escaped and was never caught. Two year’s later, the man suspected of the crime died himself. The sawn-off shotgun he was carrying accidentally went off, shooting him in the stomach, when the vehicle was rammed by police in a chase.
Despite British police utilising guns a lot more nowadays, unarmed police patrols were the norm. In the 1980s there was no standard use of bullet-proof vests and only a wooden truncheon as standard police issue. Recent years have seen numerous instances of unarmed officers killed or maimed by firearms whilst on patrol. Then as now, the killing of an unarmed police officer on duty is a particularly insidious crime. In public imagination, it reserves a particularly grim place in the netherworld for the culprits. If the posthumous identification of the culprit was correct, many would regard the killer to have come off lightly.
From an archaeodeath perspective, the spatial location is striking for its pavement location, abutting the wall of a public park that was formerly a cemetery serving the parish of St Peter’s. Undoubtedly PS Speed received his mortal wound in very close proximity to this spot. It is unclear whether the emphatic wording of the memorial is accurate: was this the exact spot or was it selected for being memorable and manageable. With the noise of the traffic and the noise of railway trains exiting and entering Leeds Railway Station, this might not seem a sombre and reflective location. However, the memorial faces the principal entrance to Leeds Minster, and it backs onto Penny Pocket Park which is full of 19th-century memorials lain flat. In short, this is an apposite place for a public memorial to an officer who died in the line of duty coming to the aid of a colleague; its location cites a complex memorial environment on the edge of Leeds city centre.