Leeds Bridge marks 140th anniversary

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This week Times Past casts its roving eye on an aspect of the city’s history which is perhaps often overlooked (both literally and figuratively): its bridges.

One bridge in particular has reached a significant milestone.

It is 140 years since Leeds gained what is today perhaps its most important and iconic bridge: Leeds Bridge.

Yet this bridge, opened in July 1873, was a replacement for an earlier bridge which had stood there since 1464, when William Booth, the then Archbishop of York, invited people to contribute to the building of a stone bridge, though even that replaced a previous wooden bridge built in Saxon times – the Romans apparently being satisfied with just a ford.

The original stone structure, once raised, became the centre of trading, its parapets apparently used by local cloth-makers who plied their business. The area prospered and in 1583 a stone staircase was added to the bridge, the stone being brought from Kirkstall Abbey.

When Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe undertook his famous ‘Tour of the whole island of Great Britain’, he devoted a paragraph to the old Leeds Bridge, which reads thus: “Leeds is a very large, wealthy and populous town. It stands on the North Bank of the River Aire, or rather on both sides of the river, for there is a large suburb, or part of the town, on the south side of the river and the whole is joined by a stately and prodigiously strong stone bridge, so large and so wide that formerly the cloth market was kept in neither part of the town but on the very bridge itself.”

He may have been right about the market being on the bridge but according to most other sources, he was wide of the mark in his comments about the bridge being sturdy.

In 1641, the authorities had to pay £13 6s 8d for repairs following flood damage and in 1655, Oliver Cromwell’s jurors had this to say about the old Leeds Bridge (original spellings used): “Leeds Bridge in the common highway over the River Aire is in great hazard suddenly to be in decay by meanes of a greate stoner lyinge and beinge above the said bridge, cast upon by the vyolence of several greate floods, and not only soe, but by ensuinge floods, in danger to be overthrowne, the ancyent watercourse being fild up by the said stoner, the water is in great danger to run by the sayd bridge at the south end and soe the said bridge made uselesse and the people of the nayton hindred of their passage.”

Armed with this information, the jurors petitioned Crowmwell to order the aldermen of the town to make improvements, which they did, at a cost of £40 or £50, a great sum when the wages of an average mason were around a shilling a day.

By the turn of the 18th Century, the bridge was found wanting again and a second structure had to be raised next to it, so as to allow it to accommodate more regular and heavier traffic.

By 1760, an Act of Parliament enabled a third structure to be built and for such buildings which had been built upon the original two structures to be removed, so as not to impair passage across it. The Act stated that the bridge was an important ‘riding bridge’ along the passage from London to Edinburgh and as such must be maintained.

The structure was now some 33ft in width and it stayed that way until, in 1871, the Corporation accepted a tender to rebuild it completely at a cost of £15,319 6s. At the same time, Sessions at Wakefield offered to pay £2,000 towards the costs provided they be relieved of any future burden pertaining to its repair and upkeep.

A few weeks later all the buildings surrounding the bridge had been demolished and in September 1871, Alderman John Barran, the Mayor of Leeds, laid the foundation stone of the new and present Leeds Bridge, which finally opened in 1873, the entire cost of the works having risen to £55,000.

The Town Hall and Market Square, Wetherby.

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