hewers of wood drawers water

History of Leeds

The name "Leeds" derives from "Loidis", the name given to a forest covering most of the kingdom of Elmet (or an alternative name for Elmet), which existed during the 5th century into the early 7th century. (Bede states in the fourteenth chapter of his Historia ecclesiastica, in a discussion of an altar surviving from a church erected by Edwin of Northumbria, that it is located in "...regione quae vocatur Loidis", the region known as Loidis.)

Roman and Anglo-Saxon period

There is no dependable reference of any place that might be associated with Leeds, before Bede's mention in circa 730; and that was to a region rather than a village or town; thus little record of Roman nor Anglo-Saxon settlement. A paved ford across the Aire has been discovered, and is supposed to date to Roman times. Brigantine remains have been found in villages and towns in the vicinity of Leeds, and Roman remains in nearby settlements, notably at Adel, and at Alwoodley. The best evidence of this period lies in the old Shire Oak at Headingley, which is believed to have lent its name to the wapentake of Skyrack, and in the presence of many places in the outskirts of Leeds which have the termination of their names in ley: Bramley, Armley, Wortley, and Farsley deriving from the Anglo-Saxon leak, an open place in the wood.

Norman period

The first dependable historical record of Leeds (as "Ledes") is in the Domesday book of 1086. Thanks to the surveyors' custom of setting down what a place had been in the days of Edward the Confessor we know what Leeds was before the Norman Conquest as well as what it was when Domesday Book was compiled. About 1068 Leeds was evidently a purely agricultural domain, of about one thousand acres in extent; it was divided into seven manors, held by as many thanes; they possessed six ploughs; there was a priest, and a church, and a mill: its taxable value was six pounds. When the Domesday records were made, it had slightly increased in value; the seven thanes had been replaced by twenty-seven villains, four sokemen, and four bordars. The villains were what we should now call day-labourers: the soke or soc men were persons of various degrees, from small owners under a greater lord, to mere husbandmen: the bordars are considered by most specialists in Domesday terminology to have been mere drudges, hewers of wood, drawers of water. The mill, when this survey of 1085 was made, was worth four shillings. There were ten acres of meadow. And the great lord of the place was Ilbert de Lacy to whom William the Conqueror had given vast possessions stretching widely across country from Lincolnshire into Lancashire, and whose chief stronghold was then building at Pontefract, a few miles to the south-east.

That Leeds was owned by one of the chief favourites of William was fortunate; the probability is that the lands of the de Lacy ownership were all specially protected when the harrying of the North took place. While the greater part of the county was absolutely destitute of human life, and all the land northward lay blackened, Leeds in 1085 had a population of at least two hundred people.

The Leeds Guide of 1837 states that Ilbert de Lacy built a castle on Mill Hill--roughly City Square in contemporary times--which was besieged by Stephen in his march towards Scotland in 1139. In 1399, according to the Hardynge Chronicle, the captive Richard II was briefly imprisoned at Leeds, before being transported to another de Lacy property at Pontefract, where he was later executed.

The kyng then sent kyng Richard to Ledis,
there to be kepte durely in previtee;
fro thens after to Pykering went he needis,
and to Knaresbro' after led was he
but to pontefrete last where he did dee.

In 1147, Cistercian monks settled at Kirkstall, and there from about 1152 began to build Kirkstall Abbey.

First charter & ownership changes

Leeds was let - along with much other land in Yorkshire, by the de Lacy family to the Paganel family; Ralph Paganel figures largely in the Domesday entries. He was one of the principal tenants-in-chief in Yorkshire. It was from a descendant of the Paganels, described as Maurice de Gaunt, that the folk of Leeds received their first charter, in November, 1207. The preamble of the charter reads:

"I Maurice Paynall have given and granted and by this charter confirmed to my burgesses of Leeds and their heirs franchise and free burgage and their tofts and with each toft half an acre of land for tillage to hold these of me and my heirs in fief and inheritance freely quit and honourably rendering annually to me and my heirs for each toft and half an acre of land sixteen pence at Pentecost and at Martinmas."

The charter made various provisions for the appointment of a bailiff (prator) to preside over a court of justice, to collect rents and dues, and to fine recalcitrants; others stipulated for aids when the lord needed monetary help, and placed tenants under obligation to grind corn at his mill and bake in his oven.

Thus, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, Leeds had a lord who was powerful, though he was feudatory to a more powerful overlord. It had a parish church, and a few years later that parish church was rebuilt; still a few years more, a chantry of St. Mary Magdalene was founded in it. It had certain rights of self-government; it had burgesses who were freemen; it had at least one man in it at the time the charter was granted who was something of a scholar, for Ralph de Leeds, who signed it as witness, adds that he himself transcribed the charter. But the population was small in 1207: it remained scanty for a long time afterwards. At the time of the Poll Tax of 1379 it appears not to have exceeded three hundred persons at the very outside; it was certainly one of the smallest towns in Yorkshire, such places as Snaith, Ripon, Tickhill, and Selby exceeding it in importance. And by that time it had long passed out of the hands of the Paganels and the de Lacies. Maurice de Gaunt lost his rights by figuring on the wrong side at the battle of Lincoln in 1217; they passed from him to Ranulf, Earl of Chester, and through him reverted to the original owners; when the de Lacy estates became merged by marriage in the Duchy of Lancaster they passed to the royal family, and, on the accession of Henry IV, were absorbed into the possessions of the Crown.

Late Middle Ages

For some four centuries after the Norman invasion, the growth of Leeds was slow. Its site had no particular military advantages: the great strategic position of that part of Yorkshire was at Pontefract, close by. It had, at first, no commercial values--it may have been that its first beginnings in its staple trade sprang from the wool growing of the Cistercians at Kirkstall, on its borders. The township was probably concerned with little more than agriculture, and such trade as it knew was confined to those retailings which establish themselves wherever communities spring up--dealings in the necessities of life, which, reduced to a minimum, are merely food and clothing. The town itself was small--it was probably confined within a triangle formed on the lines of the present lower Briggate, Kirkgate, and the river Aire, with the parish church at one angle somewhere about, perhaps on, the site of the modern one. The streets would be narrow, unpaved, unlighted. The houses, in spite of the fact that stone is so plentiful in the district, would be of wood, as a rule, or of pot and pan work, whitewashed, and possibly, in many cases, thatched. All around the little town lay the open fields and meadows, cultivated on the principle of strip-farming. And beyond these lay the still thick woods of the old forest of Elmet.

Tudor period

The Tudor period was a time of transition for Leeds, from a relatively mean settlement to a solid cloth-trading town. In 1470, it was obscure enough to be described as being "near to Rothwell", which in the fifteenth century had the rights of a market town. By 1536, when John Leland visited it, he was able to report of it that it was a pretty market town which stood most by clothing and was as large as Bradford, though not so "quik", by which he evidently meant not so enterprising. Nevertheless, much of the old life and conditions still existed. The Crown was now over-lord, and had been so ever since the accession of Henry IV, and the folk still ground their corn at the King's mills and baked their bread at the King's oven. There was as yet no charter of incorporation, and though the people were rapidly approaching to conditions of liberty their lot was still not very appreciably different to that of their forefathers. Up to the end of the sixteenth century Leeds may be looked upon as existing in semi-feudalism.

There is no mention of education in Leeds until 1552, when one William Sheafield, who seems to have been a chantry priest of St. Catherine in Leeds, left property in the town for the establishment of a learned school-master who should teach freely for ever such scholars, youths, and children as should resort to him, with the wise proviso that the Leeds folk themselves should find a suitable building and make up the master's salary to ten pounds a year. Here is the origin of Leeds Grammar School which, first housed in the Calls, and subsequently--through the beneficence of John Harrison--in Lady Lane, had by the end of that century become an institution of vast importance.

As the sixteenth century drew to a close, and while the seventeenth was still young, the towns-folk of Leeds secured in the first instance at their own cost, in the second by a strictly limited Royal favour two important privileges--the right of electing their own vicar and of governing themselves in municipal affairs. In 1583 the town bought the advowson of the parish church from its then possessor, Oliver Darnley, for £130, and henceforth the successive vicars were chosen by a body of trustees--the most notably successful experiment in popular election which has ever been known in the National Church. In 1626, Leeds received its first charter of incorporation from Charles I. The charter, premising that Leeds in the County of York is an ancient and populous town, whose inhabitants are well acquainted with the Art and Mystery of making Woollen Cloths, sets up a governing body of one Alderman, nine Burgesses, and twenty Assistants. But the privilege for some years was a limited one: the Crown reserved to itself the rights of appointment to any of the thirty vacancies which might occur by death: popular election did not come for some time.

English Civil War & politican representation

Eighteen years after the granting of the charter of incorporation, Leeds joined with other towns in the neighbourhood in a Memorial to the King wherein he was besought to settle his differences with the rebellious Parliament. Of this no notice was taken, and in the earlier stages of the Civil War the town was garrisoned for the Royal cause under Sir William Savile. But it was a very small Leeds which he occupied for the King in January, 1643, having under him 500 horse and 1500 foot. He made elaborate preparations for the defence of the place, digging a six-foot trench from St. John's Church by Upper Headrow, Boar Lane, and Swinegate to the banks of the river; erecting breastworks at the north end of the bridge, and placing demi-culverins in a position to sweep Briggate. Against him on Monday, January 23, advanced the redoubtable Sir Thomas Fairfax, at the head of a Parliamentary force which appears to have numbered at least 3000 horse and foot. Finding the bridge at Kirkstall broken down, Fairfax crossed the Aire at Apperley Bridge, and came on to Woodhouse Moor, from where he called on Savile to surrender. Savile returned the answer which was doubtless expected, and in the teeth of a heavy snowstorm, Fairfax led his troops forward to the assault. The action began about two o'clock of the afternoon and appears to have developed on all sides of the town. It rapidly went in favour of the assailants, and by four o'clock the Parliamentarian leaders and their troops were in Briggate and Boar Lane, while Savile and others were fleeing for their lives. Fairfax took nearly 500 prisoners and immediately released them on their promising not to take up arms against the Parliament on any further occasion. Though not a very great affair, it settled the question of King or Commons so far as that part of the West Riding was concerned.

The Puritan regime followed on the first successes of the Parliamentarians, and Leeds saw two Puritan ministers placed in the parish church and the new church of St. John. But in 1644 Leeds folk had something else to think: an epidemic, so serious as to rank with the medieval visitations of plague, broke out, and resulted in the death of 1300 inhabitants. The weekly markets were discontinued, and deaths occurred with such startling rapidity that it was impossible to keep pace with them in the parish registers.

In 1646 Charles I. came to Leeds a prisoner. After his surrender to the Scottish generals at Kelham, near Newark, he was led northward to Newcastle; on his return from that city, he spent one night in the house called Red Hall, in Upper Head Row.

It seems curious that up to the middle of the seventeenth century Leeds had never been directly represented in Parliament. Many now quite insignificant places in Yorkshire had sent members to the House of Commons from a very early period--Malton, Beverley, Northallerton had returned members as far back as 1298; Otley had had two members for centuries. But it was not until 1654 that Adam Baynes was returned to sit at Westminster; he was returned again two years later with Francis Allanson as a second member. This representation came to an end at the Restoration in 1660, and Leeds had no more members of Parliament until the Reform Act of 1832. But in 1661 it received some concession from the Crown which was perhaps of more importance to it--a new Municipal Charter. There had been some readjustment of the old one in 1642, but Charles II's Charter was of a far-reaching nature. It set up a Mayor, twelve Aldermen, twenty-four Assistants or Councillors, a Town Clerk, and a Recorder; it also provided for local election to vacancies. From the Charter of Charles I and that of his son are derived the well-known arms of the town. The owls are the Savile owls famous throughout the county, where the Saviles have been legion; the mullets figured on the arms of Thomas Danby, first Mayor. The dependent sheep typifies the wool trade.

In 1715 the first history of Leeds was written by Ralph Thoresby, entitled Ducatus Leodiensis; or the Topography of the antient and populous Town and Parish of Leedes.

Leeds was mainly a merchant town, manufacturing woollen cloths and trading with Europe via the Humber estuary and the population grew from 10,000 at the end of the seventeenth century to 30,000 at the end of the eighteenth. At one point nearly half of England's total export passed through Leeds.

Woollen cloth trade

Weaving was introduced into West Yorkshire in the reign of Edward III, and Cistercians, such as at Kirkstall, were certainly engaged in sheep farming. Leland (date) records the organised trading of cloth on the bridge over the Aire, at the foot of Briggate, at specified times and under set conditions. The traded woolen cloth was predominantly of home manufacture, produced in the villages and settlements surrounding Leeds. (Bradford, by contrast, was the centre of the worsted cloth trade.) There was, however, a fulling mill at Leeds by 1400, and cloth dying may also have been an early centralised activity. Before the time of Defoe's visit to Leeds, cloth trading outstripped the capacity of the bridge, and moved instead to trestle tables in up to two rows on each side of Briggate. Defoe mentions that at this time Leeds traders went all over the country, selling cloth on credit terms; and that an export trade existed. Ralph Thoresby was involved in the establishment of the first covered cloth market, when with others he secured the permission of the 3rd Viscount Irwin, holder of Manor of Leeds, to erect the White Cloth Hall. The fact of Wetherby having erected a trading hall in 1710 was almost certainly a driver of change. The new hall opened on 22 May 1711, and lasted for 65 years before being removed to a new site in the Calls, and later at the time of the railways to the present trading hall. In 1758 a coloured or mixed cloth hall was built near Mill Hill - a quadrangular building by , with capacity for 1800 trading stalls, initially let at 3 guineas per annum, but later trading at a premium of £24 per annum. The hall was pulled down in 1899 to make way for the new General Post Office; the last White Cloth hall in 1896 to make way for the Metropole Hotel.

Industrial Revolution Expansion

The industrial revolution had resulted in the radical growth of Leeds whose population had risen to over 150,000 by 1840. The city's industrial growth was catalysed by the introduction of the Aire & Calder Navigation in 1699, Leeds and Liverpool Canal in 1816 and the railway in 1834. A line from Leeds to Selby was the first to be opened on the 22 September 1834; the first Leeds railway station was at Marsh Lane; the Wellington Station was opened in 1848; the Central in 1854, and the New Station in 1869. Little by little the town was linked up with Hull, York, Sheffield, Bradford, Dewsbury; with the Durham and Northumberland towns; with Manchester and Liverpool; and with the Midlands and London.

In 1893 Leeds had been granted city status. These industries that developed in the industrial revolution had included making machinery for spinning, machine tools, steam engines and gears as well as other industries based on textiles, chemicals and leather and pottery. Coal was extracted on a large scale and the still functioning Middleton Railway, the first successful commercial steam locomotive railway in the world, transported coal into the centre of Leeds. The track was the first rack railway and the locomotive (The Salamanca) was the first to have twin cylinders.

Various areas in Leeds developed different roles in the industrial revolution. The City Centre became a major centre of transport and commerce, Hunslet and Holbeck became major engineering centres. Armley, Bramley and Kirkstall became milling centres and areas such as Roundhay became middle class suburbs, the building of the Leeds Tramway allowing them better connections with the rest of the city.

Modern history

By the 20th Century this social and economic had started to change with the creation of the academic institutions that are known today as the University of Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan University. This period had also witnessed expansion in medical provision, particularly Leeds General Infirmary and St James's Hospital. Following World War II there has been, as in many other cities, a decline in secondary industries that thrived in the 19th Century. However this decline was reversed in the growth of new tertiary industries such as retail, call centres, offices and media. Today Leeds is known as one of eight core cities that act as a focus of their respective regions and Leeds is generally regarded as the dominant city of the ceremonial county of West Yorkshire.



  • ''Much of this article was based upon excerpts from "The Story of English Towns - Leeds", by J. S. Fletcher, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1919.

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