A Short History of Leeds

On Saturday 2nd March our guest speaker was Keith Williams Architect, Project Manager and Principal Conservation Officer in Leeds. His knowledge in the growth and development of the city proved to us his obvious affection for the city. His story really begins with the stages of growth during the Middle Ages. Although there is some evidence of Roman and later Anglo- Saxon settlement, the real growth begins with the formation of the manor of Leeds given to Ilbert de Lacy after the Conquest in 1086. The manor was granted borough status in 1207 to Maurice Paynell.
The history of early Leeds is reflected in its street names. First there is Kirkgate, the oldest street in Leeds, which led to the parish church. Under Paynell a new layout began with strips of land on either side of what became Briggate. This was the street that led to the only crossing at the time of the river Aire and where the first market place was located.
The woollen industry first began with emphasis on the setting up of fulling mills which eventually expanded into a flourishing textile industry through the 16th and 17th centuries and indeed up to the 20th century.
With the aid of maps, plans and photos, Keith revealed how Leeds’s wealth increased and that new churches were built such as St John’s in early 1600s and Holy Trinity in 1721. Housing for the working classes were at first ‘back to back’ while the wealthy merchants and industrialists inhabited first Park Square from 1794 then to Little Woodhouse and then Headingly.
Transport links improved starting with the opening of the Leeds and Liverpool canal in 1777 and a railway linking coal seams worked at Middleton was constructed leading to the centre of town and its river. Leeds first rail branch opened linking Selby for steam trains in 1835.
The 19th century saw the rapid growth in engineering as well as in the textile industries. Gotts mill on Wellington Street was the largest woollen mill in the world when opened in 1792. A flax mill in Holbeck known as Temple Works was so called because its owner, John Marshall, had its exterior created to look like a temple at Edfu in Egypt. Matthew Murray had his engineering works nearby which built steam engines.
Such was the rapid growth wealth and population in the 19th century and that the civic leaders reflecting their pride in the town saw to the building of the Town Hall, opened by Queen Victoria in 1857, followed by other public buildings such as the Corn Exchange 1860 and Mechanics Institute 1868 now the Museum. The General Infirmary on Great George St designed by the George Gilbert Scott and layout influenced by Florence Nightingale.
Then onto the 20th century and new streets, shopping arcades and department stores were created.
Keith’s fascinating talk also produced some interesting facts Leeds such as Marshall’s flax mill had sheep grazing on grass laid out on its roof; Leeds once had a company that built named after its owner Joseph Blachburn based near Roundhay park; parts for submarines were once manufactured in Leeds; the first moving pictures made on Leeds Bridge by a French man Louis le Prince in 1888 and the first shopping mall in Britain, the Merrion centre was opened in Leeds in 1960s.
Keith’s talk generated a lot of interest judging by the many questions put to him and he could have entertained us with many more interesting stories had time permitted.