The History of Leeds
What eventually became the thriving industrial and now post-industrial city of Leeds began as various small settlements in a forested area known as Loidis (from which the name Leeds derives) within the Kingdom of Elmet, though according to Bede writing in about 730 it did have a church in the previous century. The Romans would certainly have passed that way, but other than possessing a crossing of the River Aire the place had little strategic importance requiring a garrison.
Following the Norman Conquest the area was given to the de Lacy family as part of vast landholdings from Lincolnshire through Yorkshire and across into parts of Lancashire. In the Domesday Book Ilbert de Lacy was the feudal overlord of ‘Ledes’, still comprised of various settlements as it had been before the Normans arrived (at the end of the Saxon era there were seven villages), though with a mill for grinding corn.
In spite of escaping the genocidal repression of the Harrying of the North in 1069 Leeds failed to develop significantly under Norman ownership. In 1207, however, with the Peynel family in effect sub-letting the area from the de Lacys, a charter was granted to the settlement, establishing a borough with certain self-governing privileges, though still very much within manorial control. A new town layout along Briggate was established, allowing for the holding of a market of perhaps 30 stalls which was certainly operating effectively by 1258 if not sooner.
By 1379 the post Black Death population of Leeds was still perhaps only 300 persons, overshadowed by far more populous and prosperous neighbours like Ripon , still as before the Norman era composed of several separate little communities.
Leeds in the reign of Henry IV reverted to crown ownership, a status perhaps even less conducive to entrepreneurial development than its previous manorial control: the inhabitants were bound to mill their grain in the King’s mill, and bake their bread in his ovens. But an external influence may have sparked the development of a woollen industry there, namely the foundation of the Cistercian abbey at Kirkstall in 1152, the Cistercians noted for their industry and economic self-sufficiency. Kirkstall Abbey exploited its landholdings to raise sheep for wool, some of which found a market in Leeds.
Under the Tudors the near feudalism under which the town of Leeds had previously existed began to weaken. Cloth making had developed, though not hugely; in 1552 the grammar school was founded; in 1583 the inhabitants paid to obtain some further limited municipal rights, and innovatively the right to elect their own vicar. When the Stuarts came to the throne the town took another step along the road to local government, Charles I ’s 1626 charter establishing a 30 man governing body.
The Civil War unsurprisingly saw Leeds begin the conflict loyal to the crown; but in early 1643 Thomas Fairfax drove Sir William Savile and his inadequate garrison from the town – though it would change hands again twice before the war was ended. The aftermath of the conflict saw one important change for Leeds, given its first MP in 1654, a privilege revoked by Charles II in 1660. Incredibly to modern minds Leeds had no MP from that period until 1832 when the Great Reform Act changed the political landscape. No representation on the national scale was balanced by the 1661 charter which finally allowed for a locally elected (albeit by a select electorate) municipal council.
It was perhaps not by chance that soon after the establishment of a good degree of local control of its affairs Leeds experienced significant growth. The 18th century saw Leeds enter it with a population of around 10000, and leave it with triple that figure, the town becoming the great weaving centre in the North by the middle of that period. Landmarks in that evolution were the White Cloth Hall opened in 1711; and a similar home for coloured cloth trading established in 1758.
As the nature of the textile industry changed from hand-weaving to industrial production Leeds developed an infrastructure in accordance: in 1699 the Aire and Calder Navigation began a period of canal construction centred on Leeds that ended with the completion of the Leeds - Middleton Railway opened to bring coal into the centre from the Hunslet area in trucks pulled by horses; but in 1812 it was the first in the world to operate under steam-power, with a rack-and-pinion engine dragging the laden wagons. Over the next five decades as with the canal system Leeds was at the heart of various railway lines within its region.
In the 19th century Leeds diversified its industrial base, though textiles remained vital (into the mid-20th century clothing manufacture indeed was still of significance there) for some time, and as the spur to new endeavours: textile machinery; engineering companies; dyestuffs and other chemicals.
As the 19th century drew to a close Leeds in 1893 finally gained city status. This was a period when the settlement was keen to demonstrate its importance: the Corn Exchange had opened in 1863; the Grand Theatre in 1878 and the City Art Gallery 10 years later. This drive continued into the 20th century with the University granted independent status in 1904, the same year in which the cathedral was consecrated.
Through the 20th century Leeds continued to evolve and innovate, replacing many industrial concerns largely with service sector companies, with significant tertiary education provision that in 1992 added Leeds’ second university, previously the polytechnic founded in 1972. And as is fitting for the place where in 1884 Michael Marks set up his first penny bazaar, Leeds is now a major retail hub.
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