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The right place at the right time... 3,500 years of a city that kept booming

Life in Leeds 2015 Planning the future of Leeds is a top priority but to move forward often it is vital to examine the past. PETER LAZENBY tracks the history of Leeds from its earliest beginnings to today.

LEEDS'S rich history from prehistoric times involves the growth of communities and industry which developed into the city we have today.

The city is a grouping of more than 40 communities which have gradually expanded and merged, gobbling up most of the green fields which once separated them.

The known story of Leeds begins around 1,500 BC. Remains of earthwork defences and ditches have been found at Gipton, Chapel Allerton, Woodhouse Moor, Temple Newsam, Seacroft and Quarry Hill.

Leeds is thought to have been the site of a Roman settlement, Cambodunum. When the Romans left in about 400 BC Britain was broken up into a number of small kingdoms. Whatever community existed in what is now Leeds was part of the Kingdom of Elmet.

Later a king's dwelling known as Loidis was built, with the name then evolving into Ledis and finally Leeds. Steven Burt and the director of Leeds Civic Trust Kevin Grady say in their magnificent Illustrated History of Leeds say that remnants of the name Loidis also remain in the names of the villages of Ledsham and Ledston.

Leeds is very likely the site of a church built after 600 AD and the link has never been broken. Five stone crosses dating from the ninth centuries were discovered at Leeds Parish Church in 1838.

Records improve following the Norman conquest of 1066 and the compiling of the Domesday Book. When the Normans arrived in 1086 they found settlements at Knostrop, at what is now Richmond Hill, Woodhouse and Buslingthorpe. The River Aire and its tributaries the Hol and Sheepscar becks were bordered by meadows and pastures. Wood was becoming a dwindling resource, meeting as it did the need for building materials and warmth.

A single water mill powered by the River Aire ground corn produced by the inhabitants of Leeds. The mill was owned by the lord of the manor of Leeds, whose tenants had to use the mill and pay for the privilege. The population of Leeds at the time was about 200.

For centuries the lords of the manor of Leeds derived their incomes from the work of their tenants, through rents, and the obligation to farm the Lords' own fields for them, for which they were paid.

Steven Burt and Kevin Grady record that one bondman, Robert Knostrop, paid 4s 9d (about 24p) a year rent for his cottage, was required to give the lord of the manor four hens and 40 eggs at Easter, and carry out ploughing, sowing, mowing, reaping, repair of a mill dam and water mill, erect fencing, for which he received bread, herrings, corn and wages and the right to farm his rented land and keep animals.

Briggate was the first real street in Leeds, and in the 1200s it was home to combined houses and workshops used by carpenters, blacksmiths and other craftsmen. The businesses were called burgages. The craftsmen had allotments to the east of the community to grow food. They were known as tofts. From burgage men's tofts we today have Burmantofts.

Coal mining has been carried on for centuries. The remains of bell mines – holes dug down into a coal seam and enlarged into a small cavern – are still scattered around Leeds today.

As well as the lord of the manor's taxes, the church, too, claimed its share – one 10th of the workers' agricultural produce had to be given to the church.

Kirkstall Abbey was built in the 1100s. The monks created farms known as granges, so we have Allerton Grange and Moor Grange, among others. The monks created Kirkstall's forge.

By 1500 Leeds had its second busy street, Kirkgate. Cloth manufacture became one of the mainstays of the Leeds economy and remained so for four centuries.

Leeds had the vital ingredients needed for production of cloth – wool from the north's agricultural base, water power, and workers. A traveller in the 1500s, John Leland, is recorded in Burt and Grady's book as writing: "...not only is the comodytie of the watermylnes is ther nigh at hand, but also the poor folk as speyners, carders, and other necessary work-folkes for the said webbyng..."

The industry brought rapid expansion in the late 16th and early 17th century. From 1600 to 1620 Leeds's population increased from 4,000 to 5,000 or 6,000.

An indication of the different strata of society can been seen in the taxes imposed on the number of hearths in a dwelling. The poorest 40 per cent had one hearth, people living near the poverty line, in poor housing, with a low income, at continual risk of plague and bad harvests.

Another 40 per cent had two or three hearths – shopkeepers, craftsmen, clothiers. The top 20 per cent, with four or more hearths, were the wealthy.

In the 1600s the poorest relied on charity to survive, with almshouses being built.

When the English Civil War began Leeds was a booming town, but trade suffered grievously as Royalist and Parliamentarian armies fought for control of the town. Leeds emerged under Parliamentarian control.

Plague struck the town in 1645. The poor were the most vulnerable and worst-hit. Wealthier families fled.

In the 1700s the growth of the town continued. A stone bridge, so substantial that the merchants' cloth market sat upon it, linked the north and south sides of the River Aire.

Leeds was to have a number of cloth halls. One, built in 1756-57, was 127 yards long and 66 yards wide and could hold 20,000 people. It was on the site of today's City Square and was demolished in 1890.

The road system was appalling. Taxes were imposed to pay for their improvement, prompting riots in which troops were called out and on one occasion 37 people were killed.

In 1700 work began on the Aire and Calder Navigation, another milestone in the industrial expansion of Leeds. It was followed by the Leeds-Liverpool canal, built between 1780 and 1810.

In the middle of this came a transport breakthrough which heralded a new era. A waggon-way was built for horse-drawn carriages from Middleton colliery to a site near Leeds Bridge. It was the first railway, granted by Act of Parliament.

In the 1820s Leeds was one of the first towns to embrace the Industrial Revolution. Once again Leeds had the ingredients for rapid expansion. It was surrounded by coal mines to fuel steam power. It had the canal system. It had a workforce. Its merchants had the wealth for investment. And it eagerly installed the new mode of transport – the railways.

An era of unequalled industrial expansion followed. Factories and mills sprung up by the dozen. Leeds also built the railways' locomotives in engineering factories in Hunslet and Holbeck. It built the steam engines to power the factories and the textile machinery for the mills.

Deep mines were sunk, providing more fuel for more new industries which gave Leeds an industrial base whose diversity was to be one of the city's strengths. Pottery, chemicals, textiles, clothing, engineering and brick production – all these were to draw workers from the fields into the city.

Other factors included the Enclosures Acts – the taking over of common land by landowners for intensive agricultural production. For many rural poor the use of common land for keeping a few pigs or cattle made the difference between survival and starvation. The Enclosures Acts of the 1800s drove them into the city, a ready source of cheap labour for the growing factories and mills. In the 40 years from 1790 Leeds's population grew from 25,000 to 85,000.

Leeds became the fifth largest town in England. Money was pumped into grand public buildings, but for the poor, high-density housing, small back-to-backs, and tenements which were quickly to become slums sprang up. With them came squalor, disease and deprivation.

With the fast growth of industry came division between masters and workers. Trades unions were born. Leeds employers formed a "Combination to Resist Trades' Unions."

A lockout of textile workers in 1834 shut more than 30 mills and ended in victory for the employers. Undaunted the workers continued to organise.

Famine in Ireland brought an influx of new workers and a new community, many of whose descendents still live in the city today. Their community was the Bank, and it was the poorest in the city.

Textiles declined and engineering grew. The clothing industry developed, and Leeds became the world's greatest centre for mass-produced clothing.

The environment bore a great burden from industrialisation. The River Aire became little more than an open sewer, polluted by the domestic and industrial waste of Leeds, Bradford and Keighley. Pollution killed the river. Factory and house chimneys poured out smoke. Leeds is almost surrounded by hills, and the smoke settled.

In the late 1800s Jewish people fleeing persecution in Russia arrived, and Leeds's Jewish community was established.

In 1893 Leeds, the fourth largest town in Britain, was granted its city charter.

Expansion continued in the 20th century. The city's administration gradually took on responsibility for outlying communities – Roundhay, Seacroft, Shadwell, Cross Gates, Middleton, Adel, Alwoodley, Temple Newsam, Eccup and Austhorpe.

In the First World War Leeds became a centre for munitions production. Barnbow at Crossgates employed 16,000 workers.

In 1926, 40,000 Leeds workers joined the General Strike in support of the miners, who were fighting wage cuts.

The Stock Market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression hit hard and unemployment shot up to 17 per cent. In response the church of St George in the city centre converted its crypt into a refuge for men on the streets. Its work continues today.

The following 50 years saw more changes: the demolition of slums and the creation of vast council estates on the outskirts of the city, such as Middleton, Belle Isle and Seacroft. Industrial decline saw the loss of the tailoring industry and much of the engineering industry, though the latter is still a significant employer.

Through local government re-organisation in 1974 Leeds City Council became responsible for outlying towns and communities including Otley, Pudsey, Guiseley, Yeadon, Rawdon and Morley, with a total population of 700,000.

Banking and finance grew, making Leeds the financial centre of the north. The decaying Leeds waterfront, once the fulcrum of the industrial transport network, has been transformed. New complexes of expensive city centre homes are springing up.

But today – as at every stage in the development of Leeds – progress and prosperity have brought great benefits to some, but little to others, as the columns of the Yorkshire Evening Post have regularly reflected.

 
 
 

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