Leeds Library, Commercial Street, is reputed to be the most haunted building in the centre of Leeds. To look at it from the outside, it appears unassuming. If you’re a Leodian, I’d bet you’ve walked past it 100 times and never even noticed it. I doubt you will again.

The purpose built Library was constructed in 1808. The architect, Thomas Johnson was said to have had ‘unconventional’ beliefs, which fed into the design of the building. Although unconfirmed, it’s believed that the design is rooted in ancient secrets regarding the structure of the Temple of Soloman – six pillars over five alcoves, which the Library displays. Whether this has anything to do with the multiple spirits the building hosts, who knows? But there are many, well documented accounts describing the five ghosts of Leeds Library. This story focuses on the most publicised and reputable account.

Late one spring evening, 1884, the 28-year-old Librarian, John Y.W. Macalister, was working in his office. Noticing the time, 10.55pm, he realised that he needed to dash to make it for the last train to Harrogate, where he resided. He picked up the lamp that illuminated his office and walked down the hall that led to the main Library. At the far end of the hallway, he saw a man.

The figure turned and walked to the main Library that lay at the end of the corridor. Thinking the figure was a thief, Macalister turned back to his office, took a revolver from the safe and cautiously made his way to the Library where he intended to challenge the intruder.

Entering the Library, Macalister saw nothing unusual. With his heart pounding, he shouted, 'show yourself', at the top of his voice. By his own admission, the shouting was more in the hope of attracting a passer-by rather than drawing out the thief.

Then, near the corner of a bookcase, he saw the figure again – this time getting a much better look, Macalister later described the face as, ‘Pallid and hairless. The orbits of the eyes were deep’. The figure then turned and walked to a small WC, which only had access from the main Library. Dashing over, thinking he’d got the intruder cornered, Macalister flung open the door of the WC and intended to greet the intruder with his revolver outstretched. However, he was met by an empty room.

Macalister checked the tiny window in the WC – locked from the inside. He checked the cupboard under the sink, knowing it was too small to conceal even a child, he checked it anyway – it was empty. There was nowhere else for the figure to hide. At this point, slowly working through what had happened in his mind, the hairs on the back of his neck and arms began to rise. Macalister then did what most of us would do – he left the building as quickly as possible.

The following morning, Macalister recounted his story to the Reverend Charlie Hargrove who was a member of the Library’s committee. Upon hearing the description of the intruder, Rev Hargrove declared, 'Why, that’s old Sternberg'. Soon after, Macalister was presented with a number of photographs of his predecessor, Vincent Thomas Sternberg who had died in the Library the previous spring – Macalister and Sternberg had never met. Unmistakably, Macalister identified the previous night’s intruder as the one-year-dead Sternberg.

A full account of the events from that spring night were written by Macalister and published in the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1958.

Macalister later became Librarian at a number of renowned London libraries. He then became War Office Surgical Advisory Committee Secretary during WWI and was knighted for public services in 1919. Many would say that he was an incredibly reliable and trustworthy witness.

So, if you ever wander into the shops below the Library on Commercial Street, take a look up to the ceiling and think of old Sternberg walking the corridors above you. Then consider he’s just one of five lost souls that still lingers in Leeds Library. 

The Library, Leeds