This month we are looking at how Leeds has changed and grown over the years from its first appearance in the Domesday Book nearly 1000 years ago to the bustling, thriving city it is today. We go on a journey through time to see how the city has developed and adapted over the centuries.

How Leeds began

Originally a Saxon village, ‘Ledes’ was named in the 1086 Domesday book, with an approximate population of 200 people under the lordship of Ilbert de Lacy. The name of the thriving manor as it was at the time, probably derives from the Celtic word ‘loidis’. Leeds was spared during the harrying of the north and this is possibly due to the fact that Ilbert de Lacy was a favourite of William the Conqueror. Its first charter was received in 1207, during a time when commerce and trade were increasing in the country and new towns were being founded across England. Leeds had previously been subinfeudated by the de Lacy family to the Paynel family. Maurice De Gant was a descendant of the Paynels and it was from him that Leeds received the charter.

The new town was laid out along a street we now know as Briggate. This street was wide enough to hold a market, with approx. 30 burgage plots on each side. The name Briggate is derived from the earliest recorded bridge in Leeds (1384) which was situated at the river crossing to the south end of the street – ‘brigg’ meaning bridge, and ‘gata’ for street. The population of 1207 was small and remained so for quite some time with the Poll Tax of 1379 showing a maximum of 300 people, while the whole parish was approximately 1000. At this time, Leeds was one of the smallest towns in Yorkshire, with Ripon and Selby among more important places in the county. Until the beginnings of the wool trade in the city, whose wool probably came from the Cistercians at nearby Kirkstall Abbey, the town was of little consequence. Leeds comprised wooden, thatched houses surrounded by strip farming fields and meadows along with a parish church, with the forest of Elmet beyond.

Tudor Period

The 15th and 16th centuries were a period of transition for Leeds. The small settlement developed into a more important cloth trading town, manufacturing woollen cloth and trading with Europe via the Humber estuary. That said, in 1536, the town was visited by John Leland – an English poet and antiquary who described Leeds as a pretty market town which was as large as Bradford but not so ‘quik’ meaning not as enterprising! Despite the growth, the Crown was the overlord, since the accession of Henry IV and the residents of Leeds were still existing in semi-feudalism.

It was during this time that the Leeds Grammar School began. In 1552 a chantry priest of St Catherine left property in the town for a learned school master who ‘should teach freely for ever such scholars, youths and children as should resort to him.’ The priest left the proviso however, that the people of Leeds should make up the master’s salary to ten pounds a year and find a suitable building. The Grammar School was consequently housed in the Calls, then in Lady Lane thanks to the beneficence of John Harrison, one of the early woollen cloth merchants of the town.

Charles I gave Leeds its first charter of incorporation in 1626. It stated that Leeds’ inhabitants were ‘well acquainted with the Art and Mystery of making woollen cloths’ and were to set up a governing body of one Alderman, nine Burgesses and twenty assistants. Popular election did not come for many years though with the Crown reserving the right to appoint to any vacancies.

Leeds grew more prosperous during the 17th century, with many merchants rebuilding their houses in stone. St Johns Church was built in 1634.

Civil War

Leeds was in the midst of action during the civil war. Sir William Savile garrisoned the town for the Royal cause in 1643 with 500 horses and 1500 footmen. He prepared well for the defence of the town by digging a 6ft trench from St John’s Church Upper Headrow down to Swinegate and the banks of the river. Sir Thomas Fairfax headed the parliamentary force which advanced on the 23rd January with nearly double the numbers of the Royal forces. The bridge at Kirkstall had been broken down so he crossed the river at Apperley Bridge and halted on Woodhouse Moor. The action began at 2pm, and by 4pm the Parliamentarian leaders were in charge of Leeds. They abandoned the town in the summer of the same year following the loss of a battle in Yorkshire but returned in April 1644 where they stayed for the rest of the civil war. Charles I was brought as a prisoner to Leeds in 1646 before heading further north to Newcastle.

Following the restoration of 1660, Leeds received another charter – this time from Charles II which allowed for local election as well as other adjustments. The arms of the town are derived from both charters.

The owls are the Saville arms from the first Alderman of Leeds Sir John Saville, the stars were on the arms of Thomas Danby the first mayor of Leeds, and the dependent sheep represents the wool trade. The population boomed during this time growing from 10000 at the end of the 17th century to 30000 at the end of the 18th. Celia Fiennes, a 17th century travel writer described Leeds as a large and wealthy town, saying ‘Leeds has many broad, well-paved and clean streets’ and that the houses were built of stone, often a substantial size.

18th Century Leeds

The cloth trading that had previously taken place on the bridge at the bottom of Briggate had expanded vastly and in 1711 the White Cloth Hall was erected when Ralph Thoresby along with others secured permission to build. Ralph Thoresby is widely considered to be the first historian of Leeds and published his “Topographical Survey of the Parish of Leeds”. He had a museum in the city and was a prolific diary writer. Unfortunately, most of his diaries have disappeared and are feared lost.

The White Cloth Hall was followed in 1758 by a coloured or mixed cloth hall near Mill Hill. This quadrangular building let 1800 trading stalls at 3 guineas per annum which rose to £24 per annum in later years. By the 1770’s 30% of the country’s woollen exports came from Leeds. The mixed cloth hall was demolished in 1899 to be replaced with the general post office.

While the cloth trade was still the lifeblood of Georgian Leeds there were many other industries thriving in the town. Along with the mundane yet necessary trades such as bakers, butchers, blacksmiths etc. there were craftsmen creating clocks, coaches, jewellery and books. In 1718 the first newspaper in Leeds began publication, 1755 saw the arrival of oil lamps in the streets and Leeds pottery began in 1770. Life was comfortable during this time for the rich and middle classes and an assembly room was built in 1777 where balls could be held. There were many poor in the town too though – in 1736 Mary Potter’s alms-houses were built and at the start of the century the Blue Coat School had been built for the poor.

Industrial Revolution and the 19th century

As with the rest of the country, Leeds grew rapidly during the 19th century. The 1801 census showed a population of 30,000 and just 50 years later this number had more than tripled. Due to the vast growth new houses were swiftly erected – slums with dreadful living conditions where cholera was rife. In 1816 the Leeds and Liverpool canal was finished, and the various railways from 1834 onwards. The Middleton Railway was the first successful commercial steam railway in the world and it transported coal from Middleton colliery into the centre of Leeds to feed the ever growing industries that were springing up.

It is at this time that many of Leeds famous landmarks were built. The Town Hall was built in 1858 when it became apparent that the court house was no longer large enough for the needs of the town. The Town Hall was intended to represent the emergence of Leeds as an important industrial centre, and needed to symbolise civic pride. The design contract was won by architect Cuthbert Brodrick who would later be responsible for another of Leeds’ great buildings the Corn Exchange. The Town Hall housed a courtroom, police station, accommodation for municipal departments and was used as a venue for concerts. It was subject to criticism during construction due to the vast cost at a time when there was great poverty in the working classes.

The Corn Exchange was finished in 1864 as a central venue in which to trade grain. It is now Grade I listed and is one of only three corn exchanges in the country to be still used as a centre for trade. Other buildings that appeared during the 19th century include the Grand Theatre, City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds General Infirmary, and Leeds Markets.

In 1888 the first ever moving pictures were taken of traffic crossing Leeds Bridge by Louis le Prince.

The textiles industry gradually became less important during this century, while mass market tailoring and the leather industry flourished. Tetley’s brewery also appeared early in the century. As well as being famous for its beer, Tetley’s would become known in 1911 for defeating Harry Houdini when he failed to escape from a padlocked barrel of ale during a challenge which took place at the Briggate Empire theatre!

Leeds was finally made a city at the end of the 19th century in 1893.

20th Century to Present Day

The early 20th century saw Leeds continue to grow, in both population and building. The Statue of the Black Prince was erected in City Square in 1903, followed by Leeds University in 1904. The first cinema appeared in 1905. This was a time of social and economic change in the city with the expansion of both academic and medical institutions.

Many a Leeds resident ask the question – why do we have a statue of the Black Prince? It was commissioned by Colonel Thomas Walter Harding, the Mayor of Leeds from 1898 – 1899 when City Square was remodelled to mark the Elevation of Leeds from town to city. Having no heroic local figure in history, and requiring an equestrian statue for the site, the Black Prince was selected, partly because there were no memorials of Edward III or his son at the time.

A name on the scroll at the base of the statue also gives us another possible reason for the choice – Van Artevelde. He was the democratic ruler of the Flemish States and influenced Edward III to encourage weavers, fullers and dyers of cloth to come over to Norfolk and West Riding. The sculptor responsible for the statue is Thomas Brock famous for the Prince Albert statue for the Albert Memorial and later the Queen Victoria Memorial. The unveiling of the statue was a grand affair with thousands of spectators, flags flying from surrounding buildings and loud cheering for Colonel Harding as he made his formal presentation.

From a time of joy for the city to the sorrow of the Second World War, buildings in Leeds were damaged, including the Town Hall. Following the war, manufacturing declined and service industries grew. In 1973 35% of the workforce were in manufacturing – down from 55% in 1951.

The 1960’s-70’s saw further development of the city with a focus on tourism and shopping. The Merrion Centre was built in 1964 and the Bond Street Centre appeared in the early 70’s, as did the Leeds Playhouse which later moved to its new building in the 80’s. Radio Leeds began broadcasting in 1968 and the early 1970’s saw the city centre become pedestrianized. In 1983 St John’s Shopping Centre was opened. The Royal Armouries arrived in 1995. The Millennium Square was a welcome addition to the city in 2000 and is now used to host many popular events in Leeds from concerts to annual attractions such as the Christkindelmarkt.

The city in recent years has been undergoing a major redevelopment with the appearance of a much anticipated arena, the brand new Trinity Leeds and current construction of Victoria Gate. The brand new developments nestle together with the fine architectural examples of earlier centuries, making the city a varied and interesting one in which to roam. From its humble beginnings, Leeds is now considered to be the dominant city of West Yorkshire, and is one of eight core cities of the country. Leeds is a lively city with more than 750,000 people living within the city boundaries. As well as being a prime shopping location, with the acolade of being named as one of the top three retail destinations to visit in the UK. Leeds is home to top international performing companies such as Northern Ballet and Opera North. Rich in culture, history and heritage, the city of Leeds will continue to flourish and adapt with the future. It is certainly a city to be proud of!


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