A History of Leeds
The Middle Ages
Leeds sprung up during the 11th Century as a Saxon village. By 1086, 200 people lived there, making it large compared to other settlements. Maurice De Gant started the new town of Leeds back in 1207. England, around this time, was experiencing rapid growth in trade and commerce, so many new areas arose in this period.
Gant added another street to the village’s west and named it Brigg Gata (known today as Briggate). He divided the land into building plots, and craftsmen erected houses on them. Also, rent was paid to the Lord for developing and using this estate. Such moves quickly turned Leeds into a flourishing and successful town.
Medieval Leeds featured blacksmiths, butchers, and countless other professions. Nothing was more popular in Leeds than wool making, though. In the town, wool was woven before being ‘fulled’ (also known as tucking or walking, and is a step in woollen clothmaking that involves the cleansing of cloth). This process involved using clay and water to thicken the wool. Sections of the wool became dried after being pounded by a hammer.
A weekly market existed in Medieval Leeds for quite some time. In fact, two annual fairs were thrown. They were more similar to markets back then than what we would call a fair today, and they were thrown once per year. Individuals from across Yorkshire would buy and sell goods at the Leeds Fair.
Farming produced an income for quite a few people in Leeds. A population of 1,000 people stood in stark contrast to the typical villages of 100-150 residents in other parts of the country. Despite being large for the time, Leeds wasn’t the biggest town, nor was it the most important place during the Middle Ages.
Leeds: The 16th And 17th Centuries
The 16th Century saw Leeds grow rapidly, thanks to its wool industry and production. Toward the end of the 16th Century, Leeds boasted a population of 3,000. It skyrocketed to 6,000 in the middle of the 17th Century. Wool production increased alongside the population, which brought more success to the town.
Leeds evolved into one of Yorkshire’s largest and most important areas after living in relative obscurity. In 1552, Leeds erected its first grammar school. Then 1626 saw the incorporation of Leeds, giving it both a mayor and corporation. It’s incorporation further increased the town’s notoriety and standing.
A writer described Leeds back in 1628. In his writing, he calls Leeds an “ancient market town”. He goes on to describe its location near to the River Eyer as well as the stone bright that leads to the town. The author also mentioned how compact the houses are on either side of the streets.
Also, they’re described as being low-built and made from timber. The unnamed writer makes mention of the handful of larger houses in the town. He even mentions the stone quarries in town, which would come into play in the 17th Century.
In the 17th Century, merchants starting building or rebuilding homes in stone. In 1634, St. John’s Church was erected to the delight of many. 1642 saw the arrival of a dark moment in Leeds’ history: civil war. The king and parliament started the civil war, and the townspeople supported the former.
During the civil war, Leeds was occupied by a royalist army until January of 1643. During that month, parliamentary soldiers captured the town and held Leeds until Summer 1643. The parliamentary forces lost a battle in Yorkshire, which forced them out of Leeds until April 1644 when they recaptured Leeds for the remainder of the war.
By the 17th Century, Leeds was prosperous and wealthy. Wool trade in the town remained the big industry, but plague struck Leeds with frequent outbreaks. That was the same for the entire area in that period, too. A large outbreak hit Leeds in 1645. In 1694, running water supply helped relieve the issue.
As the 17th Century came to a close, Leeds was still growing and growing. The town featured large, stone houses as well as broad, paved streets. A small settlement in Yorkshire had developed into something much larger and more important to the region.
Leeds: The 18th Century
Although the wool industry remained buoyant, Leeds started to see the rise of other industrial businesses. Pottery picked up steam in 1770, and brick making grew in Georgian Leeds. Booksellers, jewellers, and other craftsmen found success in Leeds during this time.
On top of that, typical trades like barbers, innkeepers, and others existed in town. In 1700, Aire and Calder, two rivers, could be navigated from Leeds to Wakefield. A Leeds to Liverpool canal began in 1794 and work was completed just over 20 years later.
Wealthy members of the middle and upper classes thrived in Leeds throughout the 18th Century. It’s important to note that a large population of poor also existed at this time. Either way, Leeds became a more genteel town throughout this period.
Blue Coat School for the poor began in 1705. A newspaper publication started in 1718, producing leaflets for the townspeople. The streets were illuminated by oil lamp starting in 1755, a rare occurrence for the time. During the 1780s, an estate was built around Park Place.
Leeds: The 19th Century
The initial census of Leeds’ population was carried out in 1801. At that point, 30,000 people lived in the area. A mere 50 years later saw the population more than triple to 101,000 residents. This growth didn’t come without problems, though.
A booming population required many new houses, and they weren’t all built to standard. As the streets became grimy, overcrowding became a major issue. Cholera broke out in 1832 and killed more than 500 people. Another outbreak struck in 1849 and claimed the lives, of 2,000 victims.
The council made the smart decision to build sewers in the 1850s in Leeds. Unfortunately, not all properties were connected to the sewers. Thus, residents still used cesspits and emptied soiled buckets by night. It took another 40-50 years for sewer-connected dwellings to become mandated by law.
Despite these problems, quality of life in Leeds continued to improve throughout the 19th Century. The poor received their first free medicine dispensary in 1824. The Corn Exchange and dispensary, which building work completed in 1863, allowed people to buy and sell grains. During this century, the slums were cleared out, too.
Horse-drawn trams became commonplace until they were swapped out for electric trams in 1894. Everything from a public library to a public park and theatre became built in Leeds in the 19th Century. All of these developments were aided by an electric supply in 1891. Leeds had developed into a full-blown city by 1893.
Leeds’ constant throughout its history, wool production, kept growing in the 1800s. Toward the century’s close, demand for textiles lessened. The wool industry adjusted to this by targeting the mass market instead of the middle and upper classes. Leather trade sprouted in Leeds at this time and found success.
On a side note, Tetley’s Brewery began in Leeds in 1822 and was quite a celebrated addition to the town.
The 20th Century For Leeds
100 years after the population hit 30,000, Leeds reached a population of 178,000 in 1901, and the population growth didn’t stop there. The completion of Leeds University and St. Anne’s RC Cathedral came in 1904 as well as the city market. A full-sized cinema was built the following year to the delight of all.
There were many Council houses built throughout the 1920s and 1930s in Leeds. Some other historic sites and buildings became constructed throughout these two decades. However, the unfortunate event of World War II struck in the 1940s. Nearly 100 people were killed and 200 buildings demolished by bombs unleashed on Leeds during war time.
At the start of the 1900s, engineering and tailoring became important industries in Leeds. A shift occurred during the century to service industries. Less than 35% of the workforce performed manufacturing jobs by 1973. On the other hand, banking and other service jobs exploded in popularity among workers.
Surprisingly enough, the city council had morphed into a big employer in Leeds. Between 1946 and 1976, they went from employing 20,000 workers to employing nearly 40,000. Such growth beat out a lot of other industries at the time.
By 1975, some surrounding areas and districts were incorporated into Leeds, which extended the size of the city. A variety of locations and essential structures was being constructed between the 1970s and the 1990s.
Even tourism started to become big in Leeds in this century. A large number of shopping centres and attractions was being opened throughout this period. For instance, The Royal Armouries Museum opened its doors in 1995 followed by The Thackray Medical Museum two years later.
Leeds: The 21st Century
By now, Leeds is nearing its 1,000th birthday and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down yet. More buildings and fashionable sights have opened in the city since the turn of the century. A 2011 census revealed that 751,500 people lived in Leeds at that time.
Going from 200 people to 751,500 has been no small feat. Leeds, throughout its history, has been a prime area for growth and success. With such a long history, it’s not surprising that the city has had to adjust and change to keep thriving.