Celebrating 160 years of friendly service and choice at Leeds Kirkgate Market

PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
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Long before the arrival of multi-million shopping centres, the place to go for daily essentials was Leeds Kirkgate Market.

160 years after it first opened it is still at the heart of the city centre. Emma Spencer took a look around and found that if you can’t buy it here, you probably don’t need it in life.

It is one of Europe’s largest indoor markets and from fish to fruit, fabric, clothes, cakes, carpets, bread, buns, nuts, knickers, watches and washing machines it is safe to say there is something for everyone.

While many shopping centres of today’s generation are screaming neon lights and ultra modern facades, there is something very real and comforting about strolling around the mazes of stalls as traders give it their all. Cries of “four for a pound” and “last few left” echo around the market just as I remember as a child.

In that, nothing has changed. Traders here have sold their wares from stalls for family generations (this is where Marks & Spencer started from a tressle table in 1884), many knowing nothing else having started with a part time, after-school job and never leaving.

That is the case for Joanne Johnson who runs The Nut Shop with husband Nigel. It has been in business for 65 years and she started as a Saturday girl at the age of 14, went full time at 16 and bought it from the previous owner 20 years ago.

“I have never done anything else”, she says.

“I would come as a little girl, sit down there and be fascinated by all the brightly coloured stalls and could not wait to get behind the counter. It is all I ever wanted to do.

“My customers have watched me grow up from being a girl, our regular customers keep us going and have become friends and I have watched their kids grow up as well.”

For many a market trader, the face of retail is real. There are no faceless self service tills or shop assistants passively serving the 100th customer of the day. There is an ‘alright love’, a bit of banter and an unrivalled knowledge of exactly where each product has been sourced from.

That means a 3am start for Susan Leeming who runs T. E Bethel fishmongers with her son and husband. She bought the business 16 years ago after starting as a Saturday girl at the age of 13.

She told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “I enjoy my job, we get the same customers buying the same fish and we are on first name terms they have kept with us for that long.

“One of our main suppliers is in Grimsby, we know what we want.

“When I first started there was a fish market in Leeds. We would pick our fish and bring it back for our stall and that would be a 3am start.

“We go on the road to do mobile markets three times a week to diversify and those are at 4.30am.”

Chrissi Goodall also fell into her stall by accident. It was established by her mother Dorothy in 1963 and still retains the same name.

Reminiscing she said: “She started with just a little tights shop and wanted to do something quality on the market rather than sell bits and bats. It was quite unusual for women to do that at that time and she got offered the chance to buy it. In those days stalls came up rarely. I started helping her 35 years ago when she was much younger, and carried on. We have regular customers but even this week we had a lady who had never been before but acquired exactly what she wanted.”

However, the market is not just about the old school. In recent years the grade one listed building has been refurbished to the tune of £14m by Leeds City Council, with the addition of street food stalls and an event space.

Part of the reasoning was to breathe new life into the market and attract younger and new ventures to help towards securing its future viability.

Michael Pratt left his job as a carer to establish food business The Yorkshire Wrap, with a view to specifically setting up in the market.

He said: “I tried for a unit at the top of the market six months before I came but the rents were higher. They loved the concept though and asked if I would come into the food hall. We have had some good times and it works better for what I am doing.”

A market stall was also the next step for the Bluebird Bakery which opened in February having already got a shop in York and bakery in Malton.

Owner Nicky Kippax said: “It was a natural next step for us and wanted to come to a big city. We are having a great time, stall holders have been very welcoming and there is a real sense of community.”


Leeds Kirkgate Market became the largest indoor market in Europe when it opened​ in 1857. It was designed by architect Joseph Paxton who was responsible for the famous Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London.

In 1893, a competition was launched, by the recently formed Leeds City Council, to find someone who could create an elaborate entrance. It is the one we see today and a prize of £150 was awarded to Joseph and John Leeming from London amid controversy and prize fixing allegations.

During the Second World War the market fell victim to bombing raids but traded regardless. However, in 1975 a fire damaged two thirds of it.

In 1976 and 1981 new halls were opened. Dutch developers MAB (UK) Ltd proposed to expand and redevelop the market further in 1986 but they never came to fruition.

2013 saw Leeds City Council invest £12m in the future of Kirkgate Market and an ambitious plan of renovation work which is now just completed.